Giza job

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Sunday, January 21, 2007

Cairo is like a fat man eating pudding. Huge, full to bursting and still taking in more. The population is somewhere between 10 and 18 million, depending on who you ask, and grows by tens of thousands every day. About a quarter of the city has no plumbing, and hundreds of thousands of Cairenes inhabit 'cities of the dead', squatting in mausoleums of the muslim cemetaries. There is an average of two square inches of green space per inhabitant of Cairo, most of which is in a park you have to pay to enter. It is not a romantic city.

I arrived during the evening rush hour, when all the millions of cairenes seem to be on the roads. The main thoroughfares in central Cairo have up to six lanes each way. Wearing my pollution mask I was still choking from the smog. I stopped for a tea break about 5km from my campsite. (1st night under the stars since Hungary!) and had barely sat down when right in front of me a bus braked sharply and was rear-ended by a minibus. As passengers spilled out of the minibus clutching their bruised shins (minibus seats are welded to the chassi on unpadded metal frames at shin-height) I leapt to the rescue, breaking out my travel first-aid kit for the first time on the trip. Unfortunately for my 'man of the hour' aspirations, but very fortunately for my would-be patients, no-one was seriously injured. I handed out some painkillers, which made me feel useful, and went back to my tea.

The main reason I decided to stay in a campsite for my first night in Cairo, apart from making sure that the tent still worked, was that it was just down the road from the pyramids at Giza. So the next morning I went to see my second ancient wonder.

Giza is only technically distinct from Cairo. In reality it is one heaving mass of urban sprawl, right to the base of the pyramids. Combine this with the crowds of tourists, hassle of 'guides' and the fact that you've seen this particular wonder a thousand times, and you do get a less than wondrous first impression. Photos are a fair record of the experience of visiting the Pyramids. Very large, triangular, unadorned monoliths. However, I have seen no photos that do justice to the experience of being inside the pyramids. This is what really made the visit worthwhile.

You have to pay extra, and in the Great Pyramid of Cheops (ie. the biggest one) you are part of a continuous stream of tourists; there is electric lighting; any funerary stuff that wasn't robbed is now in the Antiquities museum or the Louvre; but it's still amazing. You have to shuffle down a chute, bent double and squeezed at the sides. Then the chute suddenly climbs at a 1:2 gradient, still bending you double. After maybe 40feet the chute opens up into a fissure, about 2 metres wide but maybe 15m high. You keep climbing until you're roughly in the centre of the pryramid, which is where the burial chamber is. At this point most people took out the cameras that they had had no difficulty smuggling past the curator. This was somewhat pointless, since we were inside a featureless polished granite box and they could only photograph each other. I stood in the chamber for a few minutes, mentally deleting the other people and furnishing the lair with a gold sarcophagus, blue afterlife-servant-statues and other shiny bric-a-brac I've seen in books. For the pharoah the burial chamber was the most important part of the pyramid, but for me it was the featurelessness of the entrance tunnels and chambers, the closeness of tonnes of solid rock, the steadily increasing heat as you penetrate deeper inside and the dankness of the air creating a claustrophobic sense of adventuring and excitement that I found thrilling, and which is immune to photography.

The Sphynx looks better in photos than in real life, to be honest.

Although convenient for Giza, the campsite was overpriced and useless for the rest of Cairo, so that evening I broke camp and headed for the 'Dahab hotel' in downtown Cairo. Consisting of a Dahab style camp (small, spartan but clean huts with shared facilities) on the roof of a 6 story building. People who've been to Dahab seem to gravitate here. It feels familiar. Nonetheless it was a surprise when I happened to meet Victor, the french-Canadian I met in the Syrian embassy in Istanbul, just in time to join him for dinner.

I spent the following week exploring Cairo on foot. Most of the city consists of highrise buildings and huge roads. The two exceptions to this are the Islamic and Coptic areas, which have to some extent remained the rabbit-warrens of tiny alleyways between old buildings and mosques and churches.

The highlight of my wanderings was discovering another church of St. Barbara in the Coptic quarter. This also was the first time I saw Coptic christians close up. They are a funny bunch. They schizmed with Roman Catholocism back in the day, (I think the dispute was over exactly what percentage of Christ was divine). Coptic worship tends to be highly ritualised, and they are possibly more devoted to icons and idols than Eastern Orthodox. Most of the people looking around St. Barbara's were touching every vaguely saintly-looking portrait and kissing their fingers, or leaving money on icons that were lying flat.

The Cairo smog was killing me, but I couldn't move on until my Indian visa arrived, so I made two day-trips to see the 'bonus' pyramids at Saqqara and Dahshur. These are actually far more enjoyable to visit than Giza, as they are as remote and peaceful as Giza is accessible and crowded. The 'Red Pyramid' (not red) at Dahshur was especially thrilling as the electricity failed when I went inside, and there was no-one else there. This time I really was exploring, nothing but a pencil torch with a dodgy battery connection showing me the way.

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