** This is Part 1 of a 3-part series on our trip to Egypt.
Modern Egypt: anxious people, tense atmosphere, abandoned tourist sites. The economy is tourist based, and since the Arab spring there are no tourists. (Or since the ‘Arab Winter’, as one of our tour guides calls it.) Downtown is congested with young hunchbacks, and women sag on the street with bloated tomato legs. Once we stumbled (literally) over a mother and five kids, one of whom held the baby. The woman stirred something in a cauldron, the children put it in bowls, the baby dipped his fingers in it, and pedestrians bought it for a few cents.
But in the colossal temples, the menace of ancient Egypt starts to chill your blood. Those Egyptians were brilliant astronomers, mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, and that Egypt stinks of power, majesty, and at least the illusion of sorcery.
Our trip consisted of some time spent in Cairo, Giza (where the pyramids are), and Luxor. Probably the most famous draw to Egypt are the pyramids, so after one day wandering around downtown Egypt, we took a cab to Giza. In the area there are the famous Giza pyramids and the Sphinx, as well as the Memphis museum, the necropolis of Saqqara, and the Daphur pyramid. Here’s a brief overview:
You have the city all to yourself. Congratulations.
The so-called Memphis museum consists of two rows of very ancient statues, gathering dust in a rectangle outside. If you pay 3 cents you even get a guided tour.
Guide #1, pointing at a statue: This, very old statue. Very old. From 5000 BC.
We: But it says here on the placard that it was made in 1200 BC.
Guide #1: (Leaning over to read the placard). Yes. Around that time period.
Guide #2, pointing at another statue: “Bad woman!”
We: “Who is this?”
Guide #2, scratching head: “One second.” (Goes to box office to consult with the ticket master.)
On the upside, they did let us climb all over the statues. So that was nice.
An elderly security guard with the longest gun you have ever seen will accompany you inside, because apparently the pyramid is barren of anyone except robbers, you, and your gun-clad soldier.
We were led by a friendly fat figure with an enormous yellow turban and dusty jalabi, two wives (very expensive, he says) and too many children (which was why he needed an especially generous tip). Between our jumbled collection of languages (he kept calling us Mademoiselle…apparently there are more French tourists than American) and some especially demonstrative gestures on his part (one finger slashing across his throat as he grins ecstatically, for example, or a very fervent rocking of the hips.)
Saccara was the most beautiful of the four Giza sites. Some of the tombs still had faded paint on them and the hieroglyphics had exquisite detail, depicting a detailed circle of life. Many of the hyeroglyphics show crocodiles eating cows, or Egyptians killing crocodiles, or pharaohs killing foreigners, or pharaohs killing Egyptians, or pharaohs on their way to the Underworld. The finger-slashing gesture got extensive use.
(]You’re not really supposed to photograph the walls, but the tour guide will let you as long as noone else is looking. Hey, when in Egypt, do as the Egyptians do…)
Giza Pyramids & Sphinx
We never made it in these pyramids… the guide forgot to mention that they close at 4…(seriously. wtf??)
We did get a very, very distant look at the Sphinx. And lots of kitschy pictures of us supposedly jumping over pyramids or walking like Egyptians or whatever else the guide had us doing.
Luxor’s attractions were much more beautiful. The modern city of Luxor is built on the ruins of ancient Thebes, and contains within it the Karnak and Luxor Temples. The Karnak Temple is colossal, full of enormous columns and huge walls, full of hieroglphics. Karnak is exactly the small as Luxor except smaller and less impressive. Our guide calls it “baby Karnak” and I think you can skip it. You don’t need to meet the whole family.
The Valley of the Kings is a huge underground necropolis, a valley of mausoleums. The tombs are elephantine and haunting, the insides reek of mystery (and stale air), and the colored paint on the tombs is remarkably well-maintained. As beautiful as Luxor is, things start becoming repetitive. The pyramids get repetitive, the temples get repetitive, the hyeroglyphics get repetitive, repetitive, repetitive…soon you’ll be templed out. Soon enough you’ll find yourself strolling through enormous temples without even looking at them. Anyway the hyreoglyphics are eventually all the same: some god welcoming some paroah to the next world, or killing his enemies for him, or castrating them for him, as the case may be. One of the temples exhibits a drawing of a pile of castrated penises.
The temples and pyramids were great, but Cairo was almost as interesting.
To read the next segment of ‘The Egypt Files’: