Sunday, January 16, 2011

First day of explorations

This is a day that is difficult to adequately describe everything we saw. We saw and touched many things we have seen portrayed in books since we were children. Pictures from the first day...

Prepare to be wowed, .said Dalia, when she and our driver picked us up and started driving. It is misty, and a bit smoggy, so the visibility isn't perfect. We are driving north along the Nile toward the bridge to Giza when suddenly Jim exclaims, “the pyramids!”

Looming above the near by apartment buildings, like apparitions in the mist, towering over the six story or so apartments are the iconic pyramids that have drawn tourists to Egypt for well over two millennium.

Dalia explains we are on the east bank, which is officially Cairo. Once you cross the Nile to the west bank, you are in Giza. Nothing really prepares you for the sheer mass of the Great Pyramid. It has lost a bit of its height to the centuries, as its facing of fine white Cairo limestone was lost. Dalia says you can go inside but there is little to see and she will show us much better tombs. Still like every other tourist, we must actually ascend at least to the entrance, and have our “We were here” pictures taken.

We do walk around the entire structure, marveling at how little damage it has sustained over the centuries. The Great Pyramid was, like all pyramids, built during the Old Kingdom. It was the final resting place of King Khufu . Next to it is the pyramid of Khafre, once about 50 feet shorter that the earlier one but now, since it retains its while limestone top, it is just 10 feet shorter.

The third pyramid was erected by Menkaure, Khafre’s son, and his monument is the smallest of the three Giza pyramids, but it appears to be a similar height because it is built on a elevation of land. All three of the large pyramids on the Giza plateau were once capped, with tops of gold or electrum, natural or artificial alloy of gold with at least 20 percent silver. Imagine the view from the eastern bank when those tops caught the rays of the morning sun!

The pyramids were not, as is often thought, built by slaves. They were built by Egyptian citizens who probably took great pride in their work. The skilled craftsmen probably worked year round, but the bulk of the labor would have been ordinary people. During the annual flood of the Nile, (called the inundation) it was not possible to work in the fields. Instead many of those people would turn their time to pyramid construction, and would receive staples for their efforts.

We also descend into one of the Queen's pyramids. All of these are very rough on the exterior, with the outside casing long gone. You have to crouch to walk down the narrow corridor, 50 feet to the burial chamber. The one we enter is thought to have been built by Khufu for his mother (and wife of Sneferu), Hetepheres. Although her sarcophagus was sealed and the canopic jars were intact, Hetepheres' mummy was missing. The tomb also contained a number of funerary items, include chairs and a bed, which are on display in th Cairo Museum

And of course there is the enigmatic Sphinx whose face may depict Khufu, Khafre or another of the Old Kingdom kings.

It is carved from a natural limestone outcropping and has been the subject of much wild fantasy, but there are no secret chambers inside. It once had the classic false beard of the pharaoh. Pieces of that beard are in the Cairo Museum and the British Museum. It is located in a natural depression which has resulted in its being buried in sand, both in antiquity and in modern times.
In the 1830s, it was depicted in several drawings by the famous artist, David Roberts.

There is known to be a temple associated with these kings, but it has not been excavated, and now cannot be, because it lies beneath the Giza KFC and Pizza Hut

Before we leave Giza, we visit the Kufu Solar Boat museum, with an original 125-foot boat found in a deep pit beside the pyramid, buried conveniently so that the king could sail across the sky for all eternity. the boat when it was found had been completely dissembled and it took years for archaeologists to figure out how it went together - a huge jigsaw puzzle made of 4,800 year old cedar of Lebanon!

We travel south from Giza, to see the Mit Rahina Museum near the site of ancient Memphis. The small museum and park includes a number of statues found underwater in wet area where the Nile once flowed. Although Memphis was the capital of Lower Egypt in early times, these sculpture pieces are from the New Kingdom, especially Rameses II of the 18th dynasty.

We stop for a nice lunch at an outdoor restaurant, and are greeted by traditional musicians. Dalia helps us order. There is a great assortment of mezes - small dishes - including hummous, baba ganoush, egyptian beans, tomatoes and cucumbers, chick peas, served with egyptian whole wheat pita bread. Then a big serving of nicely spiced grilled chicken. We pack up the leftovers in our insulated bag.

On to the Imhotep Museum at nearby Saqqara that gives a glimpse into the evolution of the pyramid, including the early so-called Step Pyramid, built by King Djoser. It is currently being restored with limestone to protect it. Imhotep was the designer of this innovative pyramid and has been called the first known genius in history. His innovations in medicine were the foundation for Egypt's exceptional reputation in that field in the ancient world. 1500 years later he is actually deified and people made pilgrimages to shrines in his name, seeking cures. He is thought to be the origin of the Greek symbol for medicine, Aesculapias.

Looking south, we can see a number of other pyramids. Several in Dahshur, are mud brick structures that are pretty much just big heaps, though a number of importat finds have been made in excavations there. We can also clearly see the bent pyramid and red pyramid, which are developmental steps between the step pyramid of Djoser and later pyramids. The red pyramid is the first "true pyramid", built after two other attempts, the Maidum and bent pyramid, by Djoser's son Sneferu.

The famous Step Pyramid and in the foreground, the Pyramid of Teti, one the earliest with inscriptions inside.

.The whole area - seven square miles - is filed with tombs and is notable for the first pyramid texts in Pepi's 5th dynasty pyramid. We also enter the tomb of King Teti working our way down into the burial chamber, with the first iteration of the Book of the Dead in stone.

Above is the burial chamber and below, some of the Book of the Dead

The book of the dead in all of its forms-in tomb inscriptions, later painted inside coffin lids, or on papyri placed with mummies-was a sort of cheat sheet, with all of the spells one needed to deal with the challenges of getting from this life to the next.

We then enter the tomb of one of King Teti's guardians, Ka Gmni.

Anyone except the kings and queens would have scenes of daily life painted in their tomb walls, and these scenes provide some of the best glances into early Egyptian life. There are portrayals of family time, fishing, feasting.These tomb paintings are all the more impressive in that they retain much of the bright colors the artists originally applied.

Finally it is time to return to our hotel, and it is hard to absorb all we have seen. After dark, we take a walk, stop for a beer in the same restaurant where we ate last night - have Stella this time, which we find we much prefer, then return to our room where we eat leftover chicken from lunch wrapped in Egyptian bread that we had bought on the street. (It's no different from home - servings are far too large for one meal. We have some extra bread and make chicken rolls which we put in our small insulated lunch bag along with a couple of bottles of water.) Still jet lagged, with full bellies but it is hard to sleep!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I can't imagine the feelings you experienced as you were THERE in front of the pyramids! I had that feeling watching Old Faithful erupted-just a feeling of awe, so I'm sure your feelings were even more multiplied standing there in Egypt! Thanks for sharing the photos!