25 February 2008

Journey into the Desert

Our first morning in Cairo began bright and early. We had arranged for a car and driver to take us wherever we needed to go for the day and had requested the "Desert Tour." This is both an easy and affordable option. For the three of us for an 8 hour day, the cost was 370 Egyptian pounds (around 70 CHF). Plus the cost of admittance to the various attractions, of course.

We likely could have gotten it cheaper had we haggled, but I have to admit to a reluctance to haggle when traveling in impoverished countries. After all, how much would it have saved us? 10-15 CHF? The money has a far greater impact on the lives of the people in that country that it has on us living in Switzerland.

Toba has worked as a driver in Cairo for many years. Although we arrived in the morning with a list of places we wished to see, he suggested that we put ourselves in his hands and he would show us the best the desert around Cairo had to offer. We decided to let him do just that, so I tucked my list away and we settled in for the day.

We first went to where Memphis had been. Founded around 3100 BC, Memphis was originally the capital of Egypt and retained some importance throughout all of Ancient Egyptian times through the Roman and Greek times until it was sacked in the 7th century AD. As such, it has the distinction of being the longest continuously inhabited city in the world, even though it hasn't been inhabited since the 7th century.

Most of Memphis was long ago covered by the sands of the desert, but there are some small remnants that remain. Although it is difficult to conceptualize how the city might once have looked, I was thrilled simply to be standing there.

There is a small open-air museum with a few statues and other artifacts in a small garden area. Much of what they have dates back to Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great, who was a Pharoah during the 18th Dynasty. I will say this, the man certainly felt that one could not have too many images of himself about the palace and temple. Here he is as a column:

And as a sphinx done in alabaster:

And the highlight of the museum, which is the only covered item, an enormous collossus: After the museum we headed for Sakkara, one necropolis among many for ancient Memphis, and one way to give you an idea of how large Memphis must have been at one time. Sakkara is one of the largest necropolis in Egypt and the location of 17 pyramids, plus multiple tombs dating from the 1st Dynasty all the way through to the Persian times. We began at the Imhotep Museum (no photos allowed - as with all Eygptian museums, pyramids and tombs), opened recently in April of 2006. It is a small museum dedicated to the work of Imhotep, an architect who designed the first pyramid. We really enjoyed our trip to the museum. (And a note to other traveler's: it has one of the nicest restrooms we encountered in our trip. Use it, because you are unlikely to find another as nice anywhere else during your day in the desert!) But the highlight of Sakkara is the Step Pyramid, designed by the aforementioned Imhotep and the first pyramid in Ancient Egypt.

From a distance you can also see the Bent Pyramid (on the left) and the Red Pyramid (on the right) in nearby Dahshur, another of the Memphis necropoli. The Bent Pyramid is essentially an experiment in pyramid building. The architects attempted to make the tallest, steepest pyramid yet. However, partway up it began to collapse so they changed the angle, thus causing its bent shape. Their next attempt was the Red Pyramid, the first of the pyramids that we associate with Egypt. These two pyramids date back to the 4th Dynasty.
While in Sakkara we also went to a few other pyramids (in the picture above are the Abu Ghurab pyramids, which we did not see up close). Notably the Teti Pyramid, which still allows tourists inside. Because Toba, our driver, grew up in the Bedouin community at the oasis next to Sakkara's entrance and his brother is on the Tourist Police force, he knows all of the various officers. Therefore he was able to take us further into Sakkara than most people go. There was one tomb we went into that had nobody else there. That was really cool! Trust me when I say you want to enter pyramids & tombs with as few people as possible. Especially if you are tall and/or claustophobic. I happen to be blessed with both attributes. When we went into Teti's pyramid, we had to bend at the waist due to the low ceiling and walk down an extremely steep slope with iron rails to sorta prevent you from slipping. But I cannot imagine entering one of the Giza Pyramids, with the steady stream of people going down and coming up at the same time.

And everywhere you go you see the camels and the camel drivers. Although they are technically illegal, they are a fixture and many people imagine the romance of a camel ride through the desert. Although given the smell of them, even from a distance, I cannot imagine it is that romantic. Plus, there are horror stories of settling on a price and taken far into the desert, only to be told you must pay a much higher price or they are leaving you there. It's a popular scam and the reason the Egyptian government has attempted to abolish the camel rides.

After leaving Sakkara, we stopped in the oasis just outside the entrance at a Carpet School. Everywhere you go, you see carpet schools. Which is really just another way of saying "carpet store." (Just as the many Papyrus Museums are really papyrus tourist shops!) The one we went to belonged to Toba's family. Bet you saw that one coming! However, we did enjoy our trip. Before we went I mentioned that I have used a loom before and have made woven carpets. Very simple ones, of course. But I was encouraged to sit beside a young boy who was hand-weaving the carpets with amazing speed so he could teach me how to do it.
That was quite a lot of fun, although getting back up again with people standing around and watching while your husband takes pictures of you and laughs was not so easy! And, of course, we did not leave the "school" empty handed. The hand-woven rugs were beautiful.

We ended our day at the Pyramids of Giza.

At the recommendation of our driver, we ended there because most people start their day there. The end of the day is not quite so jammed with tourists. And locals hawking their wares. And "experts" who try to convince you that you must use their pyramid touring service. And criminals picking your pockets.

Although there are still a number of people there, even 30 minutes before closing. We didn't even attempt to go into these pyramids. Although a limited number of tickets are sold per day to enter the pyramids themselves, it is still jam packed. Plus there actually isn't anything to see. Because these are the three biggest pyramids, they were never hidden by the sands. Which meant people always knew where they were. Which further meant that they were stripped of any noteworthy items centuries ago. The interior rooms are just a shell. Even the paintings on the wall were removed using chisels. Plus, because they are the best known and the closest to Cairo, they also have the largest mobs of people. For pyramid viewing, we found Sakkara to be much more worthwhile. But we still wanted to see them. And the famous Sphinx, of course!

I also had to laugh at the parking lot, with camels sitting in spaces next to the cars:

One further note about hiring a driver: I cannot recommend this option enough, especially if you wish to go to Sakkara which I highly recommend. Getting to Sakkara via public transportation is difficult, takes a long time, can be of questionable safety and greatly limits what you will be able to see given the distances you would need to walk within Sakkara alone. The other major advantage to having a driver is the Insider Knowledge. Yes, we were taken to the shops of family and friends. That is only to be expected. But we were also taken to see amazing things we would not have even known about had we not been with a local.


tqe / Adam said...

Wow... that looks like quite the awesome day.

I think I am going to move Cairo onto my list of places I should go soon, rather than the longer-term list.

Expat Traveler said...

looks like a great experience and lots of great pics!

SwissGuy said...

I so like the desert.

However, I also like to journey into the dessert...