Sunday, March 01, 2009


I've had visitors this winter, as I do most winters, and we've had some unseasonably warm clear days to explore the Cairo area. Of course, one of the required visits is to the Giza plateau and on one of my visits there I took a series of photos as we walked around the Great Pyramid so that I could share the experience. The imagination soars with the mention of the Pyramids of Giza and most people who haven't visited Egypt visualise three lonely silhouettes in the desert against a blue sky, a view of them that must be achieved from a distance. The reality of the pyramids is quite different, a reality that some people find disappointing but one that I find never fails to engage me.

To approach the Giza plateau, one drives up an asphalt road from Pyramids Road dodging young men who run out into the road to try to convince the drivers of incoming cars that the ONLY way to see the pyramids is by following them to an area below the plateau where visitors will be mounted on camels, horses, or carriages (sometimes at great expense if the touts are lucky) in the stables opposite the Mena House Hotel and transported up the hill. Their claims are utter rubbish and it is quite possible, and in my mind preferable, to drive up to the entrance, buy tickets for the visitors and the car and then drive on in. There is a parking lot that overlooks the camel stables opposite the Mena House which provides a good spot from which to foray out to explore the pyramids.

As we walk across the stone to the Great Pyramid on a Friday morning, the sheer size of the pyramid never fails to strike. From a distance tiny figures gather along the eastern face of Khufu's pyramid facing the Nile Valley, crawling part way up the we approach it becomes clear that these are people who are climbing the staircase that has been cut into the enormous stones so that they might enter the tiny cramped passage that leads up to the chamber in the center with the enormous sarcophagus. The impressive weight of the stones, the size of each one, the effort that must have been expended to pile all of them up, is stupifying...but still the passages are extremely uncomfortable and visits inside pyramids are highly overrated in my mind.

As we make our way along the face, we pass Egyptian families out for a day in the open air. Fathers photograph offspring with mobile phone cameras while mothers sit comfortably on the lowest layer of stones dispensing sandwiches and chips. The children are all over the place. Most families in Cairo live in apartments, so to be out in this much space with virtually nothing breakable at hand induces a state of exhilaration in the younger set that is only matched perhaps by watching a set of goat kids bouncing madly around ricocheting off each other and any other object in their immediate vicinity.

As we round the southern side of the pyramid we find ourselves in the area where iron railings protect some of the more active albeit less observant of the young visitors from pitching headlong into the pits that once held the solar boats, beautiful graceful craft made of Lebanese cedar and held together with palm fiber rope. The best preserved of these is in the Solar Boat Museum on the western side of the pyramid, an odd rather banana-shaped structure that provides a climate controlled environment to preserve the reconstructed boat.

The new regulations restrict the camel and horse men who offer the services of their sometimes rather dubious mounts to the south side of the Great Pyramid, the area around the parking lot by the middle pyramid, and the panoramic view point out in the desert where it is still possible to photograph the pyramids in their lonely majesty. After glancing around quickly to determine that a collision with one of the plateau's four footed denizens was not imminent, we had to look up and admire the view of the stones reaching up into the sky. We are so physically lazy in our lives now that it seems quite impossible that these massive boulders should have been moved simply by muscle power, but in those days there were four months during the summer when most of the population of Egypt was available for labour such as this while they waited for the Nile flood to recede. Four months is a long time to go fishing and it makes the concept of the masses of labourers much more understandable.

Rounding the southwest corner of the pyramid we could see the middle pyramid with its limestone sheath still intact at the tip and the oddly shaped Solar Boat Museum next to our pyramid. The middle pyramid always looks larger than the Great Pyramid but this apparently is because it is built on a higher platform of rock. Just before the museum a pair of female visitors were debating with some camel handlers for a ride. As we wandered past we were regaled with squeals and laughter as they experienced the seesaw action of a camel rising to its feet and starting off.

As we headed back towards the parking lot along the north face of the pyramid, we were reminded of the winter winds that we had avoided on the west face. Other visitors were coming towards us with pauses for photographs as they wandered along. At Giza, photographing photographers is inevitable. Some young men tried to look tough and strong while surreptitiously zipping up jackets against the chill of the wind whenever the sun crept behind a cloud, and later we assisted a pair of newlyweds from the Delta with a photo on a mobile phone against the background of the middle pyramid of Khafre.

As we approached our starting point on the east face of Khufu's pyramid, we noticed that the crowds were getting thicker as more and more visitors arrived. Some of them were visiting the nobles' tombs at the northeastern corner while others were making their ways in carriages, on foot, on horseback or camelback towards the smaller pyramids or the panoramic view point out in the desert.

Once back on the eastern face of the pyramid we wandered over to admire the view over the valley. My friend had last been in Cairo in 1971 and remembered how the area before the Giza plateau had been green fields. Now it is so built up as to be unrecognisable to early visitors, but the pollution had been blown away by the winds and we had a clear view of the Citadel across the valley. When we turned to the pyramid again and saw it as a backdrop to the cars in the parking lot, we were definitely brought back to reality and present day.
copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani