September 23rd-26th, 2000:
Our brave party was made up of Henry and Kathleen, Henry's father (also Henry) and Kathleen's mother (Roberta). Jet lagged and with a late plane having ruined our plans for seeing Cairo by night, we were happy to find the Falafel Restaurant. Close to our hotel with friendly service, good food and cheap prices, it soon became our dining room away from home.
We decided to visit sights starting with the oldest first.
We'd seen Dojer's Step Pyramid in our high school history books. It was the first monumental structure ever built of stone, dating back 4,600 years. A statue of Dojer still looks out through peep holes at the 'Eternal Stars,' those circumpolar stars that never dip below the horizon.
But true honors for immortality probably belong to Dojer's architect -- Imhotep. A thousand years after his pyramid was built, when the Cult of Dojer was long usurped by other pharaohs, people worshipped Imhotep as a god. And in our twentieth century, his is the name we hear often given to the animated mummy of horror films.
What we never knew before our visit was that the Step Pyramid was only the center of Dojer's mortuary temple complex. About forty acres around his pyramid is enclosed by this giant, massive wall, and accompanied by fake buildings and small temples. Then outside Dojer's complex are dozens of other temples, pyramids and tombs.
Not far from Dojer's Step pyramid lies the tomb of Akhti-Hotep and Ptah-Hotep.
They were father and son who were judges during the 5th Dynasty (2,465-2,323 BC) and who had the revolutionary idea of designing their own tomb. They filled it with sumptuous relief carvings of their vassals bringing them sacrifices. These decorations in fine detail inspired later pharaohs to incorporate drawings into their own funerary temples and tombs.
Soon after Dojer came Sneferu, the greatest stone mover of all time. He built three great pyramids while he and his architects worked out how to actually succeed in building one.
We tried to get these guards to pad us over to the Bent Pyramid on their camel, but they'd only go as far as letting us take our picture on her back.
We had to content ourselves with looking out at it. Its sides are bent because they realized it was going to collapse and changed the angle to make it weigh less on top.
Anyone who insists on believing the pyramids were made by alien technology or godlike powers should visit this spot at Dasher. What remains of the white limestone casing from the Red Pyramid lies around in heaps on the ground. Here you can see clearly the irregular, hand made chisel marks and the graffiti of work gangs describing when and how well they placed each stone.
The cab ride to and from the outlying sights gave us an opportunity to see life repeating its time worn cycles.
A date farmer and his wife harvest their fruit by hand. He climbs the tree and drops fruit into the hanging woven cone.
Dawn the next day saw us walking through the Great Pyramid complex in a surreal mist.
After all those specials on The Great Sphinx, we expected something bigger. Perhaps it could have seemed larger in a different setting, but we found ourselves actually looking around for a moment as if we'd see the real sphinx towering over this small thing we found.
When visiting the pyramids, we recommend arriving early to be one of 150 people they let in during the morning. (Another 150 can go in the afternoon, but by then it's hot.) We expected the pyramids to be cool on the inside, but they're not. It's difficult work, walking crouched over, climbing, being pushed and all the while breathing hot stuffy air.
But the cavernous interiors are worth it. Like spelunking without mud.
Finally we arrived at the enigmatic burial chamber of the Great Khufu himself.
Built before the age of decorated tombs, this place spoke with its quietness. We felt we could actually sense those countless tons of stone pressing down above us.
Outside, we measured the scale of this monumental mound of blocks with our own bodies.
A surprise was in store for us. Discovered only in 1954, this magnificent Solar Barque is 95% original. Made of Lebanon cedars, it may have carried the pharaoh's body to the pyramid (the Nile flooded to the foot of his mortuary temple in those days) but was almost certain to have been intended for him to use in his new afterlife occupation of accompanying the sun god Ra on his daily rounds. They needed two boats: one for the day journey and one for the night journey.
The second boat was in a second pit and was ruined by workers who used that convenient hole in the ground for dumping excess concrete.
To help preserve the one remaining boat, they make you take off your shoes and wear dust free booties.
We figured if we were going to come all this way we needed to go on a camel ride. We found that cameras and camels don't mix as well as we'd hoped.
But camels or horses are the only way to get that famous vantage on the pyramids.
After touring the desert, we took a stroll through the slums that cling to the feet of the pyramids.
Many tourists tip the camel drivers with quarters. We suppose they don't realize that quarters are not exchangeable for local currency outside America, and therefore are worthless, even on the black market.
This camel driver asked us how much his twelve quarters were worth. When we told him three dollars, he became very excited. But we didn't have ones, so he ran off and came back with two more dollars to make an even five.
Cairo is a unique city in many ways. One of the most interesting is that in its slums, its people produce a fifth of all food consumed in the city. Rural people have migrated to Cairo bringing their animals and seeds and set up micro farms in their back alleys and rooftops.
The streets of Cairo are a different reality dominated by the activities of men. By day men congregate at coffee shops to socialize over a sheesha -- the national water pipe. By night they cruise the streets and all male shopping malls looking for shoes and clothes while women stay home and watch TV. (We over-generalize of course -- liberated women and venues for their socialization do exist. But no where else in the world have we seen such a concentration of men's shoe stores and absence of women's fashion outlets.)
In Old Cairo, the old streets are ten feet and more below the level of current streets.
We walked around the sunken avenues and met this man who claimed to be one of the last 40 Jews of Cairo. He plopped a hospitable yamaka on Henry and posed for pictures and baksheesh. When we found the old synagogue, they told us the Jewish community in Cairo was several hundred strong, but this man was not one of them.
The Coptic church is actually the world's oldest surviving organized Christian church. Few westerners seem to realize there is a Coptic Pope who has nothing to do with Rome.
Page || Meet
Kathleen & H. Woods || Purchase
Kathleen's Fine Art Photography || H. Woods' Reading Room
Our Favorite Links ||