The Pyramids. Are there are more recognizable symbols in the world? When I started planning this little escapade, Egypt and the Pyramids of Giza were at the top of my list of must-sees. I'd seen them so many times in movies, and TV; read about the ancient Egyptian civilizations in school I simply had to visit them, though I was fairly certain I'd created an image in my head far too grand for them to live up to. I actually ended up seeing them three different times while in Egypt - twice on my own, and once with a tour group. Two of the visits were during the day, and pretty much identical. My first experience though, was at night, which was something pretty amazing. I'm really glad I spent as much time there as I did. Below, I'll try to recap the events of the night-time visit and then summarize the daytime treks. I hope you enjoy it...
The First Visit:
During my second night in Cairo, I worked with the hostel to arrange to see the famous Sound and Light show in Giza. To do this, I ended up hiring a taxi to take me all the way out to Giza, wait for me during the hour-long show, and then take me back to the hostel. This ended up costing me about 80 Egyptian Pounds, or roughly $14. A pretty good deal in my estimation.
My driver, Fariq, was a younger guy - probably about 25 - a little heavy set, with a small moustache, jeans and a grey button-up shirt. He was pretty friendly and introduced himself right away. We headed to his cab - a typical POS black and white 20 year-old Egyptian Peugeot - where I literally wedged myself into the passenger seat. Unfortunately for my femurs and vertebrae, the seat didn't go back at all, and didn't recline, forcing my knees into the dashboard with enough pressure to leave dents in the cracked vinyl. A seatbelt was pretty much worthless in this position, as I was pretty sure I would suffer some irreparable damage to my legs if we got in the slightest accident. Fortunately for all my bones, this wasn't tested.
After 15 minutes of ridiculous downtown traffic, we finally got crossed the Nile, and got on the highway. It was about 7:30, and the sun was setting. The pollution of the city was even more apparent now, a thick brown haze as far as the eye can see. Fariq was indeed a talkative guy, going on and on in half-intelligible English. I made as much polite conversation as I could stand without being rude. He was upset about his upcoming marriage, about his apartment and about paying bills (at one point in the ride he took a call from what turned out to be the electric company asking him for some money).
At one point, we rounded a large bend, and headed down a long stretch of uninterrupted highway - in the distance, above the residential buildings on either side of the road and through the smoggy haze of the late evening stood the silhouettes of the pyramids. They were absolutely gorgeous. And even from two or three kilometers away, they looked huge.
I could do little more than stare out the window. The sight was mesmerizing. I was actually looking at the pyramids! We reached our exit and drove up a side road toward the visitor's center where the show would take place. I was surprised/disappointed about the condition of the surrounding area. Either side of the road was dotted with small, dirty little shops selling food, drinks and cheap souvenirs. I'd expected something different, though I'm not sure what. A little more control and organization perhaps. The road was packed with traffic: Donkeys, camels, horses and people in white robes were walking in all directions, while small cars and flat-bed trucks pushed through. However, towering over the palm trees along the road - the peaks of the pyramids stood tall, and seemed oblivious to all the noise and chaos below.
Fariq parked the car near a KFC/Pizza Hut combo (I know - I haven't seen any Taco Bells for a while) and pointed me to the entrance of the Sound and Light show. I wondered what he was going to do, when, seemingly reading my thoughts, he told me he was going to find a place to go pray, as he missed the 7:30 call. Cool man.
I bought my ticket and was directed to "the best seats", which were actually pretty good until I found out they required a two drink minimum. Of course. Anyway, even this didn't detract from the pyramids. I couldn't take my eyes off them. All three were directly in front of me, with the great sphinx lying peacefully in front of the group. Soon, the seats to my right and left filled up with other suckers who found out after they sat down about the little caveat. Most stayed, and interestingly enough, the seat to my left was filled by a likeable British guy who happened to be on vacation from his job in Iraq, where he's apparently helping set up the new government.
The Sound and Light show is exactly what you think it is. A set of projectors, lasers and floodlights around the base of the pyramids illuminate the monuments in concert with a dramatic narration by proper British voices.
It was actually pretty interesting. I learned the names of the pyramid's owners (Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus, who were father, son and grandson), about the angle of the pyramids (52 degrees), and a host of other information regarding the history, technical aspects, estimated labor effort, etc.
However, every so often during the show I couldn't help but look for Roger Moore running around in the desert somewhere nearby, as he did in "The Spy Who Loved Me" (yes, you Bond geeks know what I'm talking about).
The trip back to the hostel was amusing - I found Fariq in the cab, and as soon as we started off, he said he needed to run over to a friend's house to pay him back 50 Egyptian Pounds for something. Ummm... ok. So, away we went, down the backstreets and alleys of the very shady, dilapidated areas of Giza I noticed on the way in. We dodged a few chickens, more than a few donkeys, and pulled into a little alleyway where Fariq hopped out and ran into a nearby building. Awesome. I'm sitting in the middle of some back alley of Giza in a cab with no driver at 10:00 at night.
Fortunately he showed up pretty quickly, and we were on our way again. Somewhere in the journey Fariq apparently decided I was a trustworthy confidant. He started telling me about a passenger he had a few days ago which apparently gave him a lot of trouble. For whatever reason, she (yes, she) began yelling and screaming at him during the ride to the point he had to pull over and stop the car. He then told me he slapped her in the face "to shut her up". Ok then. "She's wasn't normal!" he kept saying over and over. Whatever man. Just get me back home.
The ride got more interesting about five minutes later. With the lights of downtown in full view from the busy highway we were on, we pulled over to the side of a bridge to pick up a friend of his, who apparently called him earlier and just happened to be walking along the side of the road. Wow. I was a bit nervous, as I really don't like having other people in cabs I don't know, but thankfully the guy was cool and we made it back to the hostel with no problems.
The Second Visit:
The next morning at 8:00, I again worked through the hostel to arrange a daytime visit to Giza. I ended up tagging along with a Canadian couple who had already arranged to hire a taxi for the entire day. They seemed happy to have another body to share the cost with, which only ended up costing us about 50 Egyptian Pounds per person (about $10). And, as luck would have it, my friend Fariq was our driver - great. A full day of uncomfortable driving and painful conversation. The Canucks were cool though, and helped take some of Fariq burden from me.
Seeing the pyramids during the day is a completely different experience. Instead of looming silhouettes, the horizon is cut by three gold triangles, literally gleaming in the sun. Once you've paid your fees to get into the complex and passed through the metal detectors, you drive to a central parking lot between the first and second pyramids. Fleets of tour buses were already anchored there, with more arriving by the minute. We found a place and got some instructions from Fariq. He warned us about the Camel drivers and the postcard guys. I didn't pay much attention, as he was really annoying me at this point. However, about 30 seconds later I knew what he was talking about.
Sure enough, an old guy in full Bedouin costume comes rolling up to us on a camel, offering to take us around the pyramids for a great price. Apparently schooled in persistence, he kept bargaining even when roundly rejected by all three of us. We had to resort to ignoring him until he finally gave up. Then came two guys selling post cards. Again, they were persistent to the point of aggravation. This happened about once every five minutes for the entire time we were around the pyramids. It was unbelievable. It's hard to believe people can make a living doing this. Later, walking through Cairo, I saw a t-shirt shop with a shirt saying "I'm just here for the pyramids, leave me alone." I should have bought one.
However, even with this annoyance, the pyramids still seemed other-worldly. I walked around the perimeter of the Great Pyramid, taking tons of pictures. I wondered how they did it. How they got all the stones to this place, how they arranged them, who supervised, how many people died making them, etc. It was staggering. Once you stand in their shadows and actually touch the stone of their foundations, life is just a little different.
I walked slowly over to the second pyramid, associated with King Chephren. It still has a bit of the smooth limestone covering at its top. Apparently all three were covered with this, and were even covered with a smooth wax, which made them gleam in the sunlight. I could only imagine what this place looked like 3000 years ago.
Before long, it was time to go, which was disappointing, but probably necessary - I could have spent all day out there, even in spite of the increasing heat.
We next headed to the sphinx, which stood a few hundred meters in front of the second pyramid. A large temple sits in front of the actual monument, which serves as a bottleneck for the thousands of tourists trying to get in to see it. Once you're in, however, the view is pretty amazing. The scale of the sphinx is amazing.
It's face is beautiful, in spite of it's missing nose (which now resides in the British Museum in case you were wondering), and seems to be watching everything with eternal patience. I learned in the Sound and Light show that Sphinx is actually a wrong term - The Egyptians never used that term in their culture. It was named this many years after its creation by Herodotus, thinking it was a representation of a Greek god. Unfortunately for the Egyptians, the name stuck.
Our little taxi trip then proceeded to a few other sights in Giza - First to the pyramid of Imhotep, a six-stepped pyramid which pre-dates even those in Giza. Some of you movie geeks may remember the name Imhotep from the recent "Mummy" movies. Contrary to those stories, Imhotep was actually an engineer, who had a lot to do with the creation of the first pyramids, and was later revered with near god-status. His pyramid is impressive, but when compared to the three in Giza, it's easy to see why it's not in many people's photo albums.
We also made a quick trip to Memphis (see Dahlbeck, Memphis was on the itinerary) to see the museum containing a huge statue of Ramses II, along with an outdoor exhibit featuring artifacts from his dynasty.
It was a great day - and well worth the $10 cab ride.
The Third visit:
My third venture to Giza was part of the organized GAP tour I started on the 17th of May. It was virtually the same as doing it by myself, though having a guide to explain some of the details was pretty nice. Plus, this time I got to skip a couple of the obligatory photo ops, as I'd already covered them. I also knew how to deal with the camel jockeys and postcard hawkers.
We first went to a spot to the south of the pyramids offering a view of all three in a line. It was actually pretty beautiful, though of course the spot was covered with other tourists, and the corresponding pushy salesmen and camel riders.
We then visited the pyramids, where I went off on my own, exploring areas I hadn't already covered. I actually walked all the way out past the third pyramid, which offered a few really nice views.
It may sound like hyperbole, but I mean it sincerely - seeing the pyramids is a life-changing experience. The trip to Antarctica is the only thing more impactful for me in the trip so far. I can't recommend it more. If you get a chance to get over here, do it. You'll be thankful for it later.