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Memphis, Saqqara, Giza, and The Call

My sister awoke to the call to prayer and was concerned that we had overslept. I checked my clock and confirmed that we were good on time. We got up and ready and headed to the hotel's breakfast. They had rolls and jam, which I ate, as well as some sort of beans, cheese, and fruit, which I didn't. Having been to countries where the water is not ok to drink before, I was aware of the rules that we couldn't eat anything that wasn't cooked or that we didn't peel. However, somebody at work had told me that in Egypt, some of the fruit sellers inject their fruit with water to make them seem plumper. Of course, that water was tap water and not ok for drinking. While that was going to limit me further than planned, I was still planning on getting nourishment besides the snack I had brought. Our guide, Mustafa, met us in the lobby. As he was a subcontractor, he didn't have our train tickets, but was sure the Hosein would bring them by at some point. So, we were off to Memphis. The way there was similar to the way to the pyramids last night. We passed the canal whose walls were made of garbage, although this portion of the canal actually seemed to have some dirt to it. As I thought about it, that's not a bad idea for garbage. Instead of having one large pile that does nothing, make 2 long piles covered in dirt that hold the water in. Except for any leaching, and animal problems, that might actually be a decent idea. Anyway, we also passed a ton of people riding animals and some donkey-drawn carts. It was neat to know that people were still living the way that they had been for who knows how long and hadn't completely given in to modern technology, even it if was just because they couldn't afford it. There are several smaller statues and parts of statues at Memphis, as Memphis was the old capital. However, the big sight was a statue of Ramses 2. At one point, it was believed ot the the tallest free-standing statue in Egypt (maybe even the world?). However, since it was not supported by anything, it fell over and then suffered water damage. There was an entire building dedicated to what was left of this very large statue, which really was most of it. I was about as tall as his palm was wide. We learned about him and his history as well as useful facts about Egyptian statues in general. for example, if the beard of the statue is curled up, the statue was made post mortem. On the other hand, if the beard of the statue is straight down, the statue was made while the person depicted was alive. Another one of the important statues is the alabaster sphinx. We learned that at first, the Egyptian antiquities were being hauled off to other countries as they were found, and then being hauled off to the Egyptian museum in Cairo. However, at some point they realized that Cairo was going to fill up fast, so they decided to leave the items at their original location and make a "museum" per city, which I think is a great idea as it gets people out of the one area, and also gives some connection between the items. As we headed to our next sight, Saqqara, our guide explained cartouches to us. He told us that each letter had a symbol with a meaning, and then explained our names. For example, A is represented by an eagle, which means that I'm strong; R is represented by a mouth which means I talk a lot, which of course I got teased about, except that my sister had the same cartouche in her name. We arrived at Saqqara, and the security out front made the guide say what hotel we were from and what country we were from. We passed through mental detectors. I had been noticing all over the various hotels and tourist sights that everywhere had metal detectors and special tourist police. Apparently, 80% of the economy of the country is based on tourism. If something bad happens to tourists, like what happened years ago, and they stop coming, everybody ends up out of a job. So, they try very hard to make sure that the tourists stay (or at least feel) safe and have a special force of tourist police. However, I felt that a lot of the security is a sham. For example, at our hotel, we set off the metal detector every time, and they still let us in without checking our bags- probably because we look like tourists. Of course, we could be anybody. In some places in the middle of the road, or at the tourist sites, they were taking info like our country and hotel. What they thought they were going to do with that info, I have no idea. Also, I found out later that our guides generally told people that we were English, and later Canadian because US citizens are required to have special security as they have an increased risk of being a target. The rule seemed to be that we were supposed to have our own tourist police escort, a safety measure that was bypassed by simply saying we weren't from the US. Back to Saqqara- Saqqara was the first area where the ancient Egyptians built pyramids. The entrance to the area was a hall made of smooth stones and large pillars. The stones had been polished with eggs and glue and stuck together with a mortar of sand and glue. The columns were lined up on the north and south sides (to represent the unification of upper ad lower Egypt) and had space in between for statues of the gods of each. The statues weren't there though. After we passed through the entranceway, we entered a large field area near the pyramids. Every 30 years, the king of Egypt would use this field to prove that the gods wanted him to still rule. He did this by chasing own a bull. Some of the kings ruled into their 90s, so they had to do this in old age. In order to assist the king, the priests would pick the bull out a few days before the ceremony. They would feed the bull wine only. What the audience ended up seeing was that the king was such a powerful god that he could make a bull falter like he was drunk and tired. Then, the king would get to continue ruling. Nearby was the step pyramid. The kings used to build a large building, called a mastaba where they were buried. One king, however, decided to be buried lower than the mastaba and then build the mastaba up. Our guide asked us how we thought they lowered the heavy coffin to the bottom. Of course, being the engineer that I am, I started coming up with all sorts of different ways it could be done. I actually got very close to the reality- they dug 3 shafts down into the ground and then filled the middle one with sand. They put the king's coffin on the middle one and then started digging out the other 2. As they dug out the sand, the coffin was lowered to the bottom. I found this very interesting, but even after he explained it, my mind was still churning, trying to figure out if there would have been a better way, another way. In addition to the step pyramid, there were also the bent, scratched, and sandy pyramids. The bent pyramid is the other famous one. The builder started the pyramid with the walls at one angle, but then had to change mid-build to decrease the angle so that the pyramid would be shorter and more sturdy. I think the coolest part about all 4 pyramids together is seeing how the technology evolved. They changed materials, changed styles, and made interesting discoveries in engineering, all in a few generations. Of course, despite all of this, all of the tombs were raided over the years. Even false doors wouldn't stop people as everybody knew about them since everybody helped build them. Most of the pyramids even had guards for a long time after the deceased was buried, but that didn't fully prevent one person from sneaking in once to steal one item (and repeat). So, when we were done viewing the pyramid structures from the outside, we were done at the site. Our next stop was one of the tons of "carpet schools" located nearby. First off, they showed off the kids they had their making carpets. The kids work for free under the guise of "art class." Supposedly they teach the kids math, languages, and everything else as well. Also, learning to make carpets can be considered schooling in the sense of "job training" as when the kids get good at it, they can grow up to earn a living making carpets. I'm not sure how I feel about that and how much I buy their story, but if the kids really are getting a decent education and only have to work at the carpets a little in order to cover the cost of their education, and even that is going to lead to them having a job as an adult, then I'm not sure it's such a bad thing. Of course, there are a ton of "carpet schools" in the area and they all probably are run differently, so even if one is ok, that's not to say the all are. We only went to the one where I'm sure our guide gets kickbacks for tourists he brings in. The other issue I have with the term "school" is not related to the child labor, it's that the place is more of a store, but we knew that ahead of time. Our tour guide handed us over to the "carpet school guide," who I'm not sure if we were supposed to tip for our tour of the school, but we didn't since it would have felt weird to tip a salesman for trying to sell you stuff. Basically, he whisked us by several looms. At each one were people creating carpets of increasing levels of difficulty and price. The ones knotted (half hitches) with yarn were made by the young kids and were nice. The ones knotted with silk were finer, with more strands per cm, and took an older kid to make. The ones woven in silk without a pattern took an expert to make. Great. So after a very short explanation, he brought us to their "gallery" which was, of course, just their store and let us know that he could give as a great discount. Even though we knew it was going to be like this, I'm glad we went because we really did learn a little about carpet making. Our next stop at a papyrus center was very similar. We passed several other papyrus centers on the way to the one our guide wanted us to go into, so again, there are a ton in the area, and they're all probably a little different. At the National Papyrus Center, a lady showed us how to make papyrus, which was actually very cool. Right in front of us, she sliced open the plant, started squashing the sugars out of the cuts, and soaking the cuts in water. She explained to us that how they change the water affects the color of the end result and then showed us how they weave the paper and press it. She explained how to check to see if any papyrus paper was actually made of banana leaves (which is quite common in cheap souvenir areas as the paper becomes cheaper if it isn't real). The paintings that they were selling were a little larger and more expensive that what I was looking for, or else I might have actually bought something, but I didn't. I did tip this lady as she spent quite a bit of time demonstrating for us, let us take her picture, and we didn't buy anything. Again, I'm not sure if I was supposed to, but I think that I was since the whole society is all about tipping for everything. At some point during all of this, we got The Call. The guy running the tour company called to tell us he couldn't get sleeper train tickets from Cairo. We basically told him that he either gets the train tickets somehow and we stick to the original deal, or we would find our own way there and get a tour with a different tour company. He had offered to get us plane tickets and cover the difference in price himself, which I was ok with, but my sister kept pushing home the point that she didn't trust him, didn't think he could follow through on that, and was basically done with him unless he got us the train tickets. He said he would send somebody to the other train station and make some calls and get back to us by the time we were done with our tour. So, with that damper on the day, we continued our tour and moved on to what was supposed to be the piece de resistance of the day- the great pyramids of Giza, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world and honorary wonder of the modern world. What is there to explain about the pyramids? They speak for themselves to a certain extent. Our guide basically just explained their demise: when the Turkish were in charge of the area, they removed the outer casing and started to disassemble the pyramids, stone by stone and used the stone to build other buildings. So, somewhere in Cairo there are people living or working or praying in buildings made from pyramid stone. There is a small area at the bottom of one pyramid where the casing has been restored so that we can see what the pyramids would have looked like originally. We climbed the pyramids and took our pictures. Then, we moved over to the sphinx. Originally, the area around the pyramids was a quarry. There was one chunk of stone that they couldn't move though. So, they carved it into a statue- the sphinx. The sphinx was actually pretty intact for a long time, until French forces decided to use its nose as a target for practice. They basically shot away part of the sphinx's face. When we were done with the sphinx, the tour operator still didn't have any answers. We had the driver take us to the Marriott hotel instead of our own. The theory was that they had secure (albeit VERY pricey) internet as well as other tour operators so that if our original tour operator didn't follow through, we would be able to fix our plans. As we hung around there, I spent some of the time people watching. I noticed that while I did see a few ladies in full burkas up to their eyes, mostly the ladies just wore head scarves, often accompanied by regular, tight clothing. We also sat around and talked to the tour guide, as he had the phone that the operator was going to call us from. Part of what make an authentic travel experience for me is talking to locals and getting their take on the world. I learned quite a bit from Mustafa that I found really interesting. Some of it was simply factual- at one point the Egyptian government gave people food and supplies to have children so there was a baby boom. Now, those children were young adults and there weren't enough jobs. Some of it was opinion- he was telling us about which kinds of tourists he preferred giving tours to and why. Of all the things we discussed, the one I found most interesting was his concept of levels of "bad." Lying was wrong, but people do it. Drinking alcohol or smoking was a little mistake, but it happens from time to time. Sleeping with a woman not your wife was a mistake, and you just don't do it. Escalating even further to the big mistake level, you have sins like killing, or changing religions. In the end, it turned out that our original tour company wasn't able to come through, so we agreed on a time and place to meet them so they could give back our money. At that point, we went over to the Misr travel agency in the Marriott and spoke with Amir. He was extremely helpful. He helped us book a dinner cruise for that evening. He also explained our options for Luxor. The train station was closed for the day, but he told us he would send somebody over first thing in the morning to see if there were tickets left for the sleeper train. We would check in with him tomorrow, and if he wasn't able to get tickets either, we would work out something with flights. Our dinner cruise was on the Nile Crystal. We even got window seats. The boat left shore, and the fun began. The food was not particularly Egyptian or particularly great; it was pretty much tourist food- pasta with red or white sauce, rice, potatoes, coleslaw. After only eating snacks from my bag since breakfast though, the food was much better than it otherwise would have been. I did have some pickled vegetables and some bread that seemed at least somewhat authentic. The entertainment changed throughout the evening. I think that they had a couple of floors and the entertainers would rotate through the seating areas. The bellydancer was first to perform in our area. Unlike other bellydancers I've seen, this one wasn't wearing all the bangles that make belly dancing fun. She was just wearing a bra and a skirt that didn't have much coverage, to the point where everybody could see her boyshort underwear through the clear side panel. Despite this skimpiness, one of the ladies who was there with her husband and kids was very into the dancer and was clapping and cheering her on, which I found extremely amusing as she was in a headscarf herself. The other exciting entertainment was the whirling dervish. I have no idea how this guy wasn't completely nauseous. He comes out spinning in a circle so fast that his skirts fly out and are close to perpendicular to the ground. The whole show is him moving them up and down, all the while spinning in a circle, round and round. This is not a short show. He must have been spinning for 5-10 minutes, minimum. Thy also had singers, but they weren't that impressive. After the dinner cruise, we got a cab back to the hotel. The cab driver was the first who played his music instead of turning off the radio or playing us what he thought we wanted (aka pop music). I actually really enjoyed listening to what he liked. We got to listen for a long time though as he kept getting lost. We circled the hotel at least a half dozen times, but he kept missing the turn, maybe because it was a one-way street or something. He kept stopping to ask people how to get there, and they kept answering him, and he kept missing it. Eventually, he ended up asking some fast food delivery guys, and they got us back. We went to bed after a long, but educational day.

Ramses 2

Ramses 2


Alabaster sphinx

Alabaster sphinx


inscriptions

inscriptions


stepped pyramid

stepped pyramid


Saqqara columns

Saqqara columns


hammering papyrus

hammering papyrus


Giza pyramid

Giza pyramid


Sphinx

Sphinx


Whirling Dervish

Whirling Dervish

Posted by spsadventures 16:00 Archived in Egypt

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