Friday, April 24, 2009

A Trip to the Pyramids at Giza

Last weekend, Jeff and I finally took our first trip to see the Great Pyramid, a couple of other pyramids, the Sphinx, and the Solar Boat Museum over in Giza. I know, I know, what took us so long? We've been here almost a year! But we finally did it.

The morning started at 8:30 a.m., when we met our CLO-organized group at the Maadi House. There were two vans' worth of people, including our CLO representative, Gloria, and our SEEgypt tour guide, Samir. We were remarkably on time--we left Maadi House at 8:37! (I know, it's weird that I know that, but it's become a game with me to check and see just how on-time versus late we are whenever I'm in a large group.)

For our first stop, we literally pulled over to the side of the road. Samir wanted us to see the pyramids as close as possible to how the ancient Egyptians would have seen them, and the best view for that was on the side of the Ring Road. Luckily, traffic isn't very heavy on a Friday morning, so we were safe.

From this vantage, we could clearly see the pyramids in the background, with fertile farmland in the foreground. Samir explained that most ancient Egyptians would have had the pyramids looming over them every day as they worked in their fields. The pyramids needed to be close to the fields, because people had to be able to get to them for burials and other ceremonies, but they couldn't be in the actual floodplain. The people revered their Pharoahs, but they didn't want their bodies floating around during the Nile's annual flood! So the pyramids--burial structures for the dead Pharoahs who were believed to have gone on to join the sun god--were built in the desert just outside the fertile floodplain. They towered over the farmers, a constant reminder of the Pharoah's divinity and power.

After we loaded back into our vans, we went to the actual site of the pyramids. Admission to the site is free for diplomats, but those without diplomatic identification cards ("dip cards") had to pay LE50, I believe. Several people also purchased tickets to enter the Great Pyramid itself. Non-diplomatic ID holders had to pay LE100; with the dip card, it was LE50. Jeff and I decided to skip going in this time. We both remembered the physical price we paid to see the inside of the Red Pyramid, and since this pyramid also is empty, we decided to save it for another day.

We spent some time walking around the Great Pyramid while some of the others went in. We took tons of pictures and video, as Jeff enjoyed playing with our new video camera. We said "La, shokran" ("No, thank you") more times than I can count, and even then, we found ourselves being led to the side of the pyramid where the camel owners we offering pictures and rides for a fee. Jeff was feeling generous, so we each took a picture with a camel.

After everyone had come out of the pyramid, we walked around it to the Solar Boat Museum. On the way, we passed a trench in the ground. Samir told us that there were five such trenches around the pyramid, and the two smallest had been found with boats in them. The assumption, therefore, is that there originally were five solar boats, the three largest of which were removed by thieves.

Once in the Solar Boat Museum (which has separate entry fees for people without dip cards), Samir told us a little about the believed reason for the boats. Ancient Egyptians believed that their Pharoahs were divine and that they would join the sun god after death. They also believed that there was a sea above the sky--makes sense if you look at the color and think about the water that sometimes "leaks" through--and that the sun god made his daily journey across the sky in a boat. Therefore, the dead Pharoah would need boats in order for himself and his stuff to join the sun god. The ancient Egyptians were accomplished boat-builders, so they simply made boats and buried them near the burial pyramid for Pharoah's use.

Inside the museum, we saw the recovered and assembled solar boat (named in honor of its function of carrying Pharoah to the sun god). I say that it was assembled because it was found in pieces. Apparently, the ancient Egyptians not only knew how to make boats, but to make them in such a way that they could be stored and transported over land in pieces, then assembled when they were needed. The boat was buried in pieces so that it could be assembled when it was needed by Pharoah in the afterlife. An interesting piece of trivia: when the boat was found, the archaeologists were hesitant to manipulate the pieces to figure out how they fit together, for fear of damaging the ancient wood, so they made miniature models of each piece and used those to figure out the puzzle.

There were a couple of other fascinating things about this boat, in addition to its being found in pieces and being assembled without an instruction manual. There is not a single nail in this boat! Modern metals weren't in use yet, so this entire boat is constructed without it. It's made of wood--cedar believed to be from Lebanon--and rope. The boat literally is tied together! When it was assembled, it was realized that it was not water-tight. How could this be, considering that the ancient Egyptians were very good at building this type of boat? It turns out that the first time the boat hits the water, the wood expands and the rope contracts. So if it's exposed to water in a controlled way, it becomes water-tight without sinking. Fascinating, isn't it?

The other interesting thing about this boat is the oars. They're skinnier than most oars, and they're pointed instead of rounded at the ends. That design is extremely inefficient for paddling through water. However, the ancient Egyptians believed that the heavenly sea was different from earthly seas. I'm not sure what differences in the water they expected that would make these oars efficient for paddling, but Samir told us that they expected vicious sea creatures to attack the boats before they reached the sun god. That's why the oars have pointed tips, so that they can be used to spear the sea creatures.

After we left the museum, we drove by the other two pyramids on the way to an observation point. From there, you could see all three pyramids easily: the Great Pyramid (built for Cheops) and the two smaller ones (built for the son and grandson of Cheops). There was a large overlook, where we took tons of pictures.

Then we followed Gloria to a side area where the camels and their owners were. There's a camel owner that she knows who doesn't charge a set fee for pictures. He knows that he ends up with more money because people like Gloria, who bring groups there often, always go to him. He gets business from several people, who each pay him LE5 or LE10 for a picture of themselves on his camel, and he ends up making more in less time than the other camel owners who spend all their time trying to cajole other tourists to give them LE50 or more for a picture.

Jeff and I had our picture taken on the camel, and it was a strange experience! We got on the camel while he was sitting--no problem so far. Jeff sat behind me while I sat in the front of the saddle. Then it was time for the camel to get up. That's where the problems began. No one had ever told me that seated camels get up onto their back legs first. We were sitting there, just fine, when the camel owner suddenly told me to hold on and lean back. Then the camel stood on his back legs while remaining on his front knees. I almost flipped over the front of the camel! Then, when he did stand all the way up, I felt like I was sliding off the right side of the camel. Jeff insists that we weren't crooked and we weren't sliding, but I'm not so sure I trust his assessment on that one. After a friend took pictures for us, the camel sat back down so we could get off. I again almost flipped off the front of the camel. Meanwhile, the owner is telling me to relax and hold on--all while trying to contain his laughter. I was never so glad to get off an animal in my life! I have decided that I am not interested in a camel-back tour of the pyramids; I'd be willing to ride a horse, but not a camel.

After we were all pictured-out at the observation area, we got back in the vans to go see the Sphinx. Samir told us that the Sphinx was carved out of a single piece of rock. The rock originally was much larger than it is now--huge blocks of it were carved out and used in the pyramids. When the pyramids were completed, there still was a huge slab of rock right in front of the pyramids. This was not acceptable! The ancient Egyptians decided to carve the Sphinx rather than carve out and haul away the remainder of the rock.

The Sphinx depicts Pharoah's head on the body of a lion. Samir asked us what we thought the symbolism meant. Of course, most of us said that the lion represented strength, so the Sphinx is a symbol of Pharoah's strength. We were wrong. As Samir told us several times, you can't understand ancient Egyptian symbology without having at least a basic knowledge of their religion. If they had wanted to symbolize Pharoah's strength, they would have done it by depicting him with a bull's tail, as bulls symbolized strength to them moreso than a lion did. The lion represents divinity, because lions guarded the sun god. By putting Pharoah's head on a lion's body, they were representing Pharoah's connection with the sun god.

One of the most common questions asked about the Sphinx is: What happened to the nose? It obviously isn't there anymore. Most guidebooks say that the nose was shot off by Napoleon's soldiers, who used it as target practice in 1798. Samir disagrees with this belief. He cites Napoleon's respect for antiquities, saying that it wouldn't have been allowed. Also, guns in that time were not particularly accurate, so there would be damage on the rest of the face had anyone back then been shooting at the nose. Finally, he cites a picture that was drawn decades before Napoleon's arrival. This picture shows the Sphinx with no nose. So, then, what did happen to the nose? Samir believes that the Sphinx was damaged intentionally by either Muslim or Christian zealots who wanted to deface the symbol of the older religion to show that it was false. (Online information tends to blame a Muslim sect, but few Egyptian Muslims would concede the point without incontrovertible proof.) As evidence for this theory, he points to apparent chisel marks just above and to the right of the nose. What do you think?

The Sphinx was our last stop for the day. After that, we headed back to Maadi. We were back at the Maadi House by 1pm. Not a bad way to spend a pleasant, breezy morning.


  1. What wonderful adventures you are experiencing. Thanks for the great detail. Looking forward to seeing you soon! Love, M&M

  2. I laughed in my tea when I read about you NOT wanting to go in the pyramid. Oh what a, WEEK!...that was!

    p.s. Did I ever tell you that I figured out how to upload pics so that you can put them anywhere on the page, instead of Left, Center, or Right?

  3. I would definitely bet on it being Christians who defaced the sphinx only because if you travel through all of the temples down between Aswan and Luxor you will see that during one period of time the Christians hid in the temples to escape persecution by the romans and they went through every one of them and defaced the gods on the walls.

    Not that Muslims wouldn't do it, zealous and all that, but the Christians have a solid history of it. You should definitely check out those temples, they're awesome.


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