Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

March 25, 2005 Excursions: The Pyramids.

My mother decided to take advantage of my stay in Cairo and come visit the place herself. She loves to travel, though she’s not much into sight-seeing. But still, she figured she had to see the pyramids. The world’s oldest tourist destination – she couldn’t come all the way to Egypt and not get out there.

So Friday afternoon we headed out to Giza – my mother, me, my colleague Dixie, and our friendly driver Abdullah, bouncing down the roads in Abdullah’s big taxi. The pyramids are in the

western suburbs of Cairo, past middle class neighborhoods of cement apartment buildings and lower class neighborhoods of ramshackle brick buildings between bright green fields. One hundred years ago you could approach the pyramids by boat, poled across the fields when the Nile was in flood. But since the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s the land is dry, and now it’s flooded with people and pavement instead of fields and water. It’s a dry dusty ride, not very far, but we were dipping into our water bottles before we even got there.

The area around the pyramids is fenced off – of course. The biggest tourist site in the country, its entry fees probably bring in half the budget of the Ministry of Antiquities. But it wasn’t really too crowded when we were there. Half a dozen or so big tour buses, perhaps a dozen minivans, and some groups of Egyptian school children, but no lines, and Abdullah had no trouble parking his taxi once we got onto the grounds and into the parking lot.

And there they are, large as life! Last time I visited them, twenty years ago, we went into the great pyramid, but now they restrict admissions to 300 people a day, half in the morning and half in the early afternoon. So we walked around instead, gazing up at the rough texture of the stone blocks against the very blue sky, watching birds circling along the facades and landing half way up on perches we could hardly see.

Maybe I’m jaded, but somehow they didn’t fill me with awe. Not like seeing the Grand Canyon, which is almost as familiar and almost as much photographed as the pyramids. Perhaps I’ve read too much and seen too many Discovery Channel documentaries about how they might have been built, so I’ve already been duly impressed with the incredibly precise alignment of the stones, and the engineering genius it must have taken to construct them before even the invention of the wheel, much less the crane.

In a way I was more intrigued with a small tomb next to the great pyramid, which was open to wander in and out of. It wasn’t beautiful, and most of the stone reliefs had long since been worn and chopped out, but the few that remained sparkled with energy. Especially a threesome of hippos, two adults and a youngster, the adults with their huge mouths wide open, showing their startlingly big teeth. I saw hippos like that in South Africa, I know what they are like in real life. Seeing the animals chiseled into this wall 4000 years ago, and knowing they are just the same today, wallowing in their reeds and ponds and

displaying their gaping mouths and their enormous teeth, made the creatures on the wall come alive.

And I’m always intrigued with camels. There are a lot of them among the pyramids, some carrying police surveying the plateau, more of them led by their owners, who lure tourists onto the animals' backs for photo ops and rides along the ridge overlooking the plateau. I’m couldn’t quite say why I’m so fascinated by them. They’re strange creatures, with big fuzzy lips and soft padding feet and long eyelashes. They’re a bit like the 4000-year-old hippopotamus, visitors from a desert world that seems hardly related to Cairo in the 21st century. The commercial camels are decorated gaily, with bright fabrics, heavy woven saddlebags, and elaborate patterns cut into the short hairs on their tales.

I like the sphinx better than the pyramids. She’s old and worn, but I like the idea that no one knows who built her or what she represented to them. The pyramids are grandiose monuments to individuals who wanted history to forever regard them as grand, important, and powerful. They probably weren’t very nice people, though. I imagine they took themselves much too seriously, and they must have been horribly conceited to recruit so many thousands of people just to ensure that they would be remembered four thousand years later. But whoever built the sphinx didn’t even tell us who they were. They didn’t leave themselves, they left a mysterious creature

guarding her desert lair. Was she a friend to them, protecting them from some other horror? Or was she herself a frightful creature who had to be placated by creating her image in stone at the edge of the desert? Whoever she was, it’s she we live with, not the people who left her there. Which seems much more interesting than the mammoth tombs of self-aggrandizing pharaohs.

The pyramid complex is always full of people, and they are interesting too. There are, I think, at least as many Arabs as there are westerners, and a fair number of Egyptians among them. As we arrived a group of teenaged boys was going through the ticket booth. Abdullah told us they were Egyptians, but not from Cairo. The Ministry of Youth organizes lots of school trips from around the country, perhaps that's who they were. Inside the complex, groups of young people had picnics perched on the rocks. A middle-aged couple hired a carriage and rode around the sprawling area while their driver pointed out the sights. Arab youths were sprinting to the top of one of the queens’ pyramids, small battered structures in the shadows of their much bigger relatives. I wanted to climb it

too, but I was sure Dixie and my mother wouldn’t want to wait for me, nor would they want to join me. As my mother and I neared the sphinx, a baby crawling in our direction caught our attention, and we stopped to watch him. He was there with his parents and a group of their friends. They waved us over, and beamed as we took photos of the lot of them. It reminded me that these places are the heritage of the modern Egyptians, not of the broader world that recognizes them as readily as we recognize our own flags.

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