Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Day 4 – The Pyramids of Giza

Smile and the world will smile with you! I should have not wasted good worry on money matters, because the first bank ATM I visited was happy to disgorge large amounts of pounds unto my waiting hands. Feeling flushed I went in search of breakfast, which I found in a small but popular eatery on a back street. With signs and pointing I managed to order an egg sandwich, but I had to forego a cup of morning coffee. On reflection, I believe what the friendly people in the eatery were trying to tell me is that I had to go around the corner to get coffee, so I am going to try again tomorrow.

I had asked at the Scout Center and was told a taxi to the pyramids should be only about 20 pounds, but the one man that accosted me first quoted 300 pounds for the day, or 70 pounds for just the one-way trip. Something told me I was being taken, so I just jumped on a bus and let lady fortune guide my steps. But she had some help, because the friendly manager at the Scout Center had lent me his personal map of Cairo, and you know me: give me a map and I will easily get to the end of the world.

I made the mistake of wearing shorts, which shouted to the world I was not an Egyptian. Otherwise I got many compliments on my graying beard, which everyone thought made me look like an Egyptian. In any case, a man in shorts looking at a map seems to awaken all the kind feelings that Egyptians have toward visitors. I was looking at the map and had just found that Cairo has a metro (oh happiness :) when this friendly gentleman riding the bus asked me if I needed any help. “Yes, please, could you tell me when we reach the metro station?” “Gladly, I am going there myself.” Score!

My good angel guided me to the metro, insisted on buying my ticket, got me off at the right station, flagged down the correct minibus, paid for the ride, and finally told me where to get off and in which direction to walk to get to the pyramids. Pretty neat, isn’t it?

As I walked the three blocks between the place where the minibus had left me and the pyramid I could see in the distance I realized, with a start, that the pyramids are on a meseta or plateau. In fact, the great pyramid is dangerously close to the edge of the plateau. Ah, but the sedimentary rocks that underlay the pyramid are pretty tough. The sequence includes interbedded sandstones and shales (the materials in which the Sphinx is carved), all capped by the most beautiful nummulitic limestone (Nummulites sp. was an Eocene foraminifer that could grow to the size of a quarter, so the fossils are quite spectacular). The limestone has excellent compressive strength but can be easily carved with stone tools, which is why it made a wonderful foundation material. Did you know that the base of the great pyramid is about 14 acres (7 hectares) in surface area, and that throughout this large area the elevation barely changes by more than two inches?

The visit to the pyramids was a cultural experience. The Giza Plateau is some sort of city park for the inhabitants of Cairo, who come here for family picnics, for the kids to ride horses and camels, and for couples to hide from prying eyes between the mastaba tombs. Tourists are and added bonus, rather than the raison d’etre of the recreation area. So I was able to engage on serious people watching at the same time I dodged camels and runaway horses. Of course I also stared in awe at the magnificent monuments, but I was not going to go into a narrow tomb passage with several hundred Cairenes!

I did go into the Khufu boat museum, since it is a rather unique artifact. Khufu is the king who built the great pyramid, but added considerably to his stature when in the 50’s archaeologists discovered an enormous boat in a “trench” excavated parallel to the side of the pyramid. The boat had been dismantled, stored in the trench, and covered by giant block of limestone that kept it safe for nearly 4,000 years. The wood, cedar of Lebanon, was in very good shape, so archaeologists were able to restore it and put it together. It is about 60 m long, is held together by a complex network of ropes and notes, and is in every respect a royal barge. The preferred explanation is that it was the funerary barge of King Khufu, in which he made the trip to the west bank (an euphemism for dying and being transported to the west bank of the Nile for burial).

All good things must come to an end, and after walking like a dog for several hours I finally got hungry. I had seen a seafood restaurant on my way in, and decided to treat myself to a nice meal of fish. And what a wonderful dining experience it was. First of all, I had three waiters hovering over me. Just so we understood each other, they made quite clear that I was going to have a wonderful meal, and that I would be so satisfied with it that I would be eager to leave them a big tip. Yes, it was yummy, with appetizers of pickled vegetables, grilled veggies, hummus and tabouli. And let’s not forget the cold, cold beer (beer and wine being hard to find in a Muslim country). Then came the main dishes of rice, grilled fish, and fried calamari. Knowing I was Mexican my gracious hosts found some chili peppers, which I was forced to at least try not to hurt their feelings. For dessert I had bananas and sliced guavas, which I was not able to finish because I was seriously satiated. Ah, but the drinks man had to come and serve me some tea with mint leaves, pouring it graciously from up high. A fine dining experience, and I was indeed glad to hand tips all around, but it makes dining out kind of expensive. I am sure I will have many more opportunities of talking about the love of Egyptians for tips, or baksheesh :)

On the way back to my luxurious Scout Center I stopped in several bazaars, looked at beautiful papyri, and coveted many archeological reproductions. But I was good and bought nothing. I will acquire a piece, I am certain, but I am going to bide my time to make sure I get the best of the best.

My unerring instinct also put me on the road to perdition. Yes, even in a Muslim country you can find the odd street where liquor runs like water, with the accompanying relaxation of moral codes. Nothing new under the sun.

No comments: