Thursday, April 22, 2010

Giza Part 2

From the Solar Boat Museum, we drove to the Panorama. This spot isn't much in and of itself - it's a crowded patch of dirt, a foot- and tire-flattened, balady-dog-infested promontory that stands off to the side of the Pyramids. What it does have going for it is a peerless view of the three Pyramids (and the very top of the Sphinx's head, but that's less important). Here, let me show you:

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Pretty cool, huh?

So we hung out there for a while, and let the sand bite our ankles and our eyes. Then we hopped back in the car and drove down to see the Sphinx. Let me tell you - one of the big advantages to having a curator as your personal tour guide is being able to park anywhere. The guards with their (probably non-functional, but I wouldn't want to test it) machine guns just wave and smile at you.

We threaded our way through the tourists and down into the temple. In one of the first courtyards was a pit, where one of the most famous statues in the Museum of Antiquities was found. Lisy had me pull out a five-pound note so that she could show me which one she meant. The floors in the temple were worn slick, like almost everything in Egypt seems to be, by millions of tourist feet. Hey, Mom and Dad, remember our trip to Spain? And how I wore those blue flip-flops with hard plastic bottoms, and I kept slipping and falling on my ass? Yeah, that's what it was like with me at the Sphinx. As we wound through the temple passageways, I had to shuffle my feet and adjust my weight so that my shoes didn't slide out from under me, all while avoiding other tourists and various kitsch-hawkers. The path slowly rose up toward an outcropping, which stands on the Sphinx's right side, up near its paw. This viewing platform took the lack of safety regulations to a new level. It stood nearly two stories high, and its top was natural bedrock - cracked and pitted and worn, and not a railing in sight. Lisy's hand hovered near my purse strap, ready to yank me back on to solid ground, because at this point I have to say that I wasn't paying much attention to where I was going. It was yet another overwhelming moment: standing before this giant monument, so iconic of the culture that I've loved since I was a child, shaped by the hands of workmen who lived longer ago than I can comprehend. The Sphinx really is magnificent, just as a work of art. The face is smooth and majestic, with the beatifically immobile features of the Old Kingdom perfectly embodied. Lisy finds it hilarious that if you follow the Sphinx's gaze, it stares directly into a Pizza Hut. And that, my friends, tells you just about everything you need to know about Egypt.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Pyramids at Giza

Heading to the Pyramids required a bit of preparation. Lisy, as the wife of a curator, is supposed to get in for free. At most other sites, she gets a reduced-price ticket as an Egyptian resident and the wife of an Egyptian. But of course, nothing is ever simple, and all of this is complicated by the fact that Lisy's about as white as they come. Since Wahied was guiding a group and couldn't come with us, he called ahead to pull a few strings. At the gate to the pyramid area, we asked for a particular guard by name, whose influence alone turned out to be not enough to let us through. He, however, was able to call Wahied's friend Mahmoud, a curator at the site, who I would learn that day is remarkably talented at opening doors.

With Mahmoud in our car, we pulled through the gate without a problem. He was tall and handsome, the kind of Jonesian figure that lends academia a little romance. We shook hands politely when Lisy introduced us. He pretended to be surprised that she even remembered his name. He apologized for his broken English, which was perfectly intelligible, and directed Lisy to a parking spot between the tourist buses.

There was no question where we would go first, and I trailed after Lisy and Mahmoud, trying not to lose my flip-flops in the sand. The Great Pyramid loomed overhead, crawling like an anthill with tourists speaking a Babel of languages. Mahmoud apologized for being tired; you see, he lives in Tanta, a Delta town three hours away from Cairo by car, and he drives in every day. Incredulous, Lisy asked why he would do that to himself. He loves his work, he explained, as he led us up the worn steps carved into the blocks of the Pyramid.

Uh, yeah. I guess I understand that.

After squeezing past about five gazillion other people on the narrow, guard-rail-less path, we came to a hole in the Pyramid's face. More than anything, it looked like the entrance to a cave. After the stinging brightness of the sands outside, it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the low glow of incandescent bulbs. The tunnel ahead was rough and twisting, hacked into the stone, and smelled cool and humid. Mahmoud led us the few meters to the end of the tunnel, and told us that he would wait for us here at the bottom. Forging onward, Lisy and I climbed a stone staircase. At the top were two iron rods, bent and hammered into the stone, serving as a short ladder to the hole which broke into the Pharaonic entryway.

This passage fits exactly every stereotype that has ever flitted through your head about exploring pyramids. Approximately three feet high, it led upward at an alarming slope. On the floor was a wooden plank, with steel bars at regular intervals providing footholds. (PROTIP: Don't wear flip-flops for this part. Trust me.) On either side were wooden banisters, for clinging - because that's really the only word for what you'll be doing to them. Every surface was worn smooth by millions of visitors. And thus, hunched over and fearing for our skeletal integrity, we began the trudge.

Just about the time you've gotten your heart rate up and settled into a nice cling-step-cling-step rhythm, the passageway opens up into an antechamber (called the Grand Gallery). The high ceilings step inward to create a crude vault, and a passageway to the Queen's Chamber diverges horizontally at this point. The wooden plank/steel crossbar arrangement splits around this passageway, and then continues up the Grand Gallery at the same unrelenting angle. I counted this as my cardio workout for the day. (Look, let's see you do it, alright? [Shut up, Dad.]) Contrary to what you may be thinking, being able to stand upright really doesn't make the climb any easier.

Finally, we reached the top, at which point we had to scuttle under a pair of massive stone blocks to enter the burial chamber. It was here that I learned the Great Truth concerning pyramids, which is universal and unbending: they all, every last one, smell of pee.

Ammonia haze aside, the gravitas of this moment is something I have difficulty conveying. The Great Pyramid, although certainly not the most interesting or elaborate Egyptian remnant, is nevertheless the best-known icon of my particular passion. To be standing in the burial chamber that I'd read about, seen pictures of, and even entered a virtual computer-game simulation of was a milestone. Add to that the sensation of being surrounded by thousands of tons of crushing stone, and you've got yourself a pretty dramatic moment. I whipped out my flashlight, as the chamber was actually quite dark, and investigated the monolithic sarcophagus on the far side of the room. Nothing in the chamber is carved or decorated; it's all plain surfaces of rough, dark stone. It's easy to see why the Pyramids engender such a sense of mystery. Still, with nothing much to see in a warm, stuffy room, we didn't stay terribly long. Out we scuttled, to do the entire process in reverse (it's harder that way!).

When we emerged, rubbery-legged and squinting in the sunlight, Mahmoud led us around the side of the Great Pyramid to the Solar Boat Museum. Built over the pit where the boat was found, the Museum is a top-heavy geometric structure nestled up against the Pyramid's base. Inside, we had to slip linen booties over our shoes to minimize the potential damage from sand and dust tracked in. We shup-shup-shupped through the first floor, examining models of the solar boat, which was found complete and disassembled in a massive rectangular pit. Several of the original limestone blocks still lay over the top of the pit, which took up half of the museum's ground floor. Nearby stood a case containing a tangled pile of the boat's original ropes, several of the knots still intact. The boat was most likely placed there by Khufu's son, approximately 4500 years ago.

We climbed to the second floor, which consists entirely of a viewing gallery for the boat itself, meticulously reassembled and conserved. It hangs above the ground-floor exhibits, lashed together with ropes, its oars propped in position. The four-thousand-year-old wood is in remarkable condition. The stern of the boat curves up and then drops in a graceful arc, the end carved like a lotus blossom. A small, roofed shelter with interior walls rises at the back end of the boat, supported by elegantly shaped poles. The whole structure is an impressive piece of craftsmanship, and a tangible connection to the pharaonic past. It is also a testament to the work of conservators and historians that it could be reconstructed so reliably and kept in such good condition. I spent most of my time at the Solar Boat Museum with my eyes wide and my mouth hanging open.

--Whelp, that's just the first half of the Giza trip, but it's a pretty long post. Soon to follow: Tombs! The Sphinx! More boring descriptions!