Monday, September 29, 2008

Dahshur, Memphis, and Saqqara

We had a very busy weekend. On Friday, we joined our friend Lauren, along with her husband and parents, for a tour to Dahshur, Memphis, and Saqqara. On Saturday, we took a CSA tour to the Saint Makarious monastery and to Anaphora Retreat Center. Friday was physically exhausting; Saturday was long (it was a 12-hour tour) but incredibly relaxing. In this post, I’ll tell you about Friday; in the next one, I’ll write about Saturday. For now, be assured that this post is pretty long; if you're in a hurry, save it for another time. If you'd like to see 27 of the pictures from this trip, click here. A few are embedded in the post, but most are only available on Picasa.
Friday’s trip began at 9am, when Jeff and I went downstairs to meet Lauren; her husband, Zack; her parents, Mark and Leslie; and our guide, Radwa. The tour was supposed to last until 4pm, with lunch included. One of the first things Radwa told us was that some of the sites were closing early because of Ramadan, so lunch would need to wait until the end, and it’s available but not included. (I think there was a miscommunication due to language; to Americans, “included” means included in the price; apparently to the owner of this tour company, “included” means that it’s in the schedule.) Anyway, I quickly regretted the decision not to carry snacks and bottles of water, and Jeff and I both quickly appreciated that Lauren had brought extras of both.
As the trip progressed, I learned that our guide has definite opinions about the structures we were seeing. Her opinions do not necessarily match the opinions of most experts, so please forgive me if I get confused about the historical facts. Just take the historical information with a grain of salt.

We drove out of Maadi and up the Nile Corniche to the Ring Road (similar to the Beltway around Washington, DC). After crossing the Nile, we took an exit for the Saqqara Road. On the way, we passed through some of what I believe is Giza, a suburb of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. We passed by some farmland and through some small villages. Then we turned off of the Saqqara Road and found ourselves in the desert. We could look one direction and see lush vegetation, with the Nile and Cairo in the distance, or we could look in the other three directions and see sand. The contrast was amazing.

Our first stop was Dahshur, where we saw the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid. Both pyramids were built under the reign of Snefru. According to Radwa, the Bent Pyramid is the oldest structure that was built with the intention of it being a true pyramid, but there was a mistake made in its construction. The lower part of the pyramid angles in at 55 degrees. However, after construction began, it was realized that this angle was going to cause problems; either parts of the rooms and tunnels inside began to fall, or it was realized that it would be too difficult to complete the top of it. So the angle was changed mid-construction to a more manageable 43 degrees. This change gives the Bent Pyramid the unusual shape that resulted in its name. Radwa insisted that Snefru was buried in the Bent Pyramid (although online information indicated that most experts believe Snefru was buried in the Red Pyramid) because of certain characteristics of the pyramid: it has two entrances (to confuse grave robbers), the remains of both a mortuary temple and a valley temple, and a subsidiary pyramid, all of which she said is characteristic of pharoahs’ burial places. The online information I saw didn’t indicate what arguments favored the idea that Snefru was buried inside the Red Pyramid instead. We couldn’t go inside the Bent Pyramid, which was closed for restoration, but we took lots of pictures from outside.

After we walked around the Bent Pyramid, snapping pictures all the while, we drove back up the road about a kilometer to the Red Pyramid, which Radwa said was the first true pyramid. (Online sources say that the first pyramid was the Step Pyramid, which we saw later, but it didn’t have the smooth triangular shape; hence, not a “true” pyramid to Radwa.) Radwa discouraged us from going inside the Red Pyramid, since it was physically demanding and it was empty inside, but there was no deterring us. We were going in with or without her. We had no problem with her waiting outside, since it was physically demanding and her Muslim religion dictated that she have no food or water all day since it’s still Ramadan. However, she finally decided to come with us.

So we climbed the not-as-easy-as-they-looked stairs up to the entrance, waved at Leslie (who had decided to wait in the van), and began our descent. You had to duck to get into the entrance, and you couldn’t stand up all the way down. I don’t have pictures, because photography wasn’t allowed inside, but I found a website here that has pictures. We climbed down a passageway that was around 206 feet long, angled at 27 degrees. The original floor was smooth, but beams had been installed every few feet to act like stairs, although they reminded me more of ladder rungs. Jeff went down sideways, bent over and side-stepping down. Zack went backward, like he was descending a sloped ladder. I went down sideways until my muscles protested too much, then turned forward, grasped both handrails, and walked down for a while, before turning to the other side. I don’t know how Lauren, Mark, or Radwa went down. None of us could stand upright; we were bent over the whole time. Once we were down, the rooms were tall and we could stand, but the short passageways between rooms required us to bend over again. Most of what we saw are visible on the pictures. What you can’t tell from the pictures is that there was a strong odor—it smelled like a hair salon when everyone is getting perms. Someone later said it was ammonia. Anyway, we looked around inside, then started the long climb back up. The ascent was easier than the descent; we all just faced forward and climbed the sloped ladder, although we had to stop and rest a few times. Once we were back out, all of us felt like our legs were made of jell-o. I couldn’t walk down the external stairs without stopping at each landing to rest; my legs wanted to collapse. While Lauren took a breather, Radwa expressed concern over how she was doing, and Mark said that she was doing really well for someone who was 7 months pregnant. The look on Radwa’s face was priceless—she hadn’t realized Lauren was pregnant, and pregnant women are not allowed into the pyramids. Lauren was watched very closely by a chagrined Radwa after that.

We all gratefully retreated to the air-conditioned van after the expedition into the Red Pyramid. It was time to move on to Memphis, and boy, were were ready to sit down! On the way, Radwa told us a little about the history of Memphis. Apparently Egypt used to be divided into two kingdoms: the Upper Kingdom (southern, nearer the source of the Nile) and the Lower Kingdom (northern, nearer the delta and the Mediterranean). When the two kingdoms finally were united, Memphis was their first capital. There used to be a temple to Hatur (also known as Hathor) and another to Ptah. There really isn’t a whole lot left there now. There were several small statues, three large ones, and one colossal statue of Ramses II. Unfortunately, we forgot our camera in the van for this one, and we haven’t yet gotten the pictures from Lauren’s camera, so you can go to this website to see some pictures.

After Memphis, we went to Saqqara. At Saqqara, we first visited the Step Pyramid and the structures immediately around it. According to the internet, the Step Pyramid is the oldest pyramid. According to Radwa, the Step Pyramid really shouldn’t be called a pyramid at all, although it was an early step toward the construction of true pyramids. Although its general shape is pyramidal, it actually is a series of mastabas (rectangular burial chambers), built for the Pharoah Djoser (also known as Horus). We arrived outside the Step Pyramid and took a few pictures, then entered the site through a limestone structure. This site is believed to be the first place that limestone was used to create buildings. After passing through this entry, we found ourselves in a huge open court. On one side was the pyramid itself. Two sides were walled, and the fourth side had the remains of an ancient temple. We walked around to the other side of the temple to the Hepset Court, from which the king used to walk up to the temple roof to present an offering and request the god’s blessing to reign for another thirty years. Then we went back out to the open court and up some stairs to the wall, where we could clearly see the Bent and Red Pyramids in the distance. There also were some structures just outside the wall, but we didn’t really have time to walk among them.

When we left the Step Pyramid site, we drove just a little ways within the same complex to the tomb of . . . I don’t remember the name; by that time I was too tired to keep taking notes. And I don’t have pictures, as they weren’t allowed in the tomb or in the pyramid near it. Cameras were to be left in the vehicle, so I don’t even have pictures of the outside, and since I don’t remember the name of this area, I haven’t been able to find pictures online. Anyway, we went into this tomb. There were at least four rooms that we saw. All of the surfaces were covered with pictures. Radwa explained some of the scenes to us. One showed a worker who had done his best but who had collapsed from the effort; he was being nursed. Another showed a worker being beaten because he had not done his best. We also saw a statue of the man who was buried there.
Then we went next door to the pyramid. I don’t remember whose pyramid it was. It was much smaller than the other pyramids we had seen, so the climb in wasn’t as long or as steep as it was at the Red Pyramid. The smell also was better. The inside of this pyramid was amazing. After we came out of the entry tunnel, we were in a small room with hieroglyphs all over the walls. Off of this room were two other rooms, one on each side. We went into the room to the right, ducking through a low door. The walls of this room also were covered with hieroglyphs. The ceiling was covered with carvings of stars, representing the night sky. There was a big stone sarcophagus in the room as well. I really wish I had been able to get pictures; this place was truly amazing. We didn’t go into the other room because the site was about to close. We were rushed back up the ladder/stairs pretty quickly. We were all huffing and puffing when we made it to the top, but it wasn’t anything like what we experienced climbing out of the Red Pyramid.

Then we went back to the van and headed home. It was around 3pm when we got home, and we hadn’t eaten lunch. Thanks to Lauren, we had been able to drink water, but there had been no time for lunch. Of course, it also was hot enough that even after I got home, I didn’t want any food for the first 15 or 20 minutes, until I had cooled off. My legs were wobbly for the rest of the night, due to the climb in and out of the Red Pyramid. Truth be told, they were sore all day yesterday, especially later in the day after the naproxen sodium wore off, and they’re still pretty sore. So for all of you who may visit Egypt, heed this advice: If you intend to go inside any of the large pyramids, also plan very restful activities for the two days following that particular expedition!

Oh, and just to show you the awesome contrast that is Egypt near the Nile: Here's a picture of the view toward Cairo from Saqqara.

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