Friday, February 2, 2007

The Giza Plateau and the Egyptian Antiquities Museum



I was awoken at around 5am by the sound of call to prayer blasting from a neighborhood mosque. Call to prayer was soon followed by the incessant sound of drivers honking their car horns. Then Lei's alarm clock went off. With all this noise, sleep was impossible so I crawled out of bed and got ready for the day. Lei and I headed downstairs for breakfast - had the usual fare and then met up with the group to begin our second full day in Cairo.

Destinations for the day - the Great Pyramids and Sphynx at the Plateau Giza and the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. I was thrilled to be seeing the pyramids and Sphynx for real as up until now, they had always just been images that I saw either in magazines or on TV. I couldn't wait to get going!!

Daniel and Hoda led us out of the hotel and down the street towards the subway station. It was another crisp cool day - beautiful blue sky, no clouds.

The subway station, with its ticketing system and layout of winding and intersecting corridors, reminded me of the Paris metro. The station was clean as were the trains.

Muslim culture dictates that women and men ride in separate cars. Generally, the first two trains are reserved for women and men ride in the remaining ones. Coming from the US, where both sexes ride in the same train car, having to be separated was definitely a cultural difference that was difficult to understand (why does the need exist?) but yet out of respect, none of us women felt compelled to defy Muslim convention and ride with the men. Lei and I joined the rest of the women in the group and rode in the first car.

We soon arrived at the Giza train station and caught a combi (one of my favorite forms of transportation) for the short ride to the Giza Plateau - site of the Great Pyramids and the Sphynx.




I had, for some reason, expected that the site of the pyramids would be located in a remote spot, far away from the city. So it was a surprise to see the top of the Great Pyramid (built by King Cheops) looming into view as we drove along a neighborhood street in Giza.



We got out of the combi and took a short walk to the entry point.



Daniel bought our tickets.



...and we continued along a path towards the Great Pyramid. All of Cairo and every tourist in town must have been out visiting the Giza Plateau that day. Despite the enormity of its spread, the Plateau was packed with people and there were mobs in every queue we had to line up in. Camels and their drivers were roaming the grounds - at the ready to take your money even for a photo! Sadly as well, the site is devoid (at least we could never spot any) trash cans so there is litter everywhere. But I was here to see the pyramids and the Sphynx so I was determined to not let anything spoil my day - crowds, camels and trash be damned!



Once we arrived on the pyramid grounds, Hoda briefed us on the history of the Pyramids.

The Great Pyramid is the oldest and largest of the Giza Pyramids and is the pyramid of the IV Dynasty pharoah Khufu - better known as Cheops - who is thought to have reigned between 2589 and 2566 BC. Called the "Glorious Place of Khufu" by the ancient Egyptians, the pyramid originally stood 140m high and measured 230m along its base but the removal of casing stones has reduced these dimensions by 3m. The pyramid is estimated to weigh 6 million tons and contain over 2.3 million blocks whose average weight is 2.5 tons though some weigh nearly 15 tons! It's absolutely mind boggling to think about how such an enormous structure could have been built by humans more than 5000 years ago!!





After Hoda's introduction, we were left to roam the grounds for a short while. Lei and I wandered to get a closer look at the Queens' Pyramids. Far smaller in scale and less architectural (they almost look like mounds of rock), two of the pyramids belonged to Khufu's principal wife and sister and I can't remember who the 3rd pyramid belonged to.




At the agreed upon time, we met back with group at the Solar Boat Museum which Lei and I did not pay to visit. The Museum houses a 43m long boat that was excavated from one of the 5 boat pits sunk around the Great Pyramid. From there, we walked to the Second Pyramid which was built by Khafre, son of Khufu. As you can see in the picture below, some of the casing stones are still evident of the top of the Second Pyramid - gives you an idea of what the Great Pyramid would have looked like had it not lost its casing.



We had to purchase a separate ticket to go inside the pyramid.



To descend into the pyramid, we walked down a narrow shaft that was so low that even I had to bow my head! Because there is no ventilation in the shaft, the air was hot, humid and stale. At the end of the approximately 50m shaft was an empty room that was supposedly Khafre's burial chamber -it would have been where his sarcophagus and other funery items would have been placed. We spent a few seconds looking at the chamber and then repeated our steps to exit the Pyramid.

From the Second Pyramid, we walked down a causeway.



....and then it came into view. The Sphynx!! Though much smaller in size than I had imagined it to be, it was nonetheless a very impressive monument! Me in front of the Sphynx. I couldn't believe my eyes - it took a few seconds for the reality to sink in and then I couldn't stop snapping the photos. There's still debate among archeologists and historians as to the age of the Sphynx, who built it and what its purpose was. I'm sure that someday, someone will come up with an answer that will end all the debates but I was simply going to enjoy the awe inspiring view.






It was a mob scene walking to get a closer view of the Sphynx....



....but the effort was worth it!



We soaked in the view, snapped more photos and when our time was up, we retraced our steps to meet up with the group. As I left the Great Pyramids and Sphynx behind me, I thought to myself just how lucky I was to have seen this amazing set of legendary monuments!

By now it was lunchtime and we were taking a short walk into the town of Giza. A suburb of Cairo, Giza seems to have inherited the character of Cairo -noisy, dusty, dirty, congested with people, vehicles and animals, chaotic and inexplicably, utterly fascinating.



As with so many tourist hotspots around the world, fast food joints are available but we were in search of local fare.



Daniel led us to a restaurant where khoshary - a mixture of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, and a meaty tomato sauce - is the specialty. Similar to the basta meat that Lei and I had for dinner the previous night, khoshary is simple food that was tasty and filling.



With our stomachs filled, we piled into a minivan for a short ride back to Cairo to visit the famous Egyptian Antiquities Museum. From inside the van, I snapped a few photos of our ride back to town.






A short ride later, we arrived at the museum.



By now I was also starting to feel feverish - my forehead was hot and I was starting to ache all over. Not a good sign. I was determined to see the museum so I checked in my camera at the guard's desk as did everyone else (no cameras allowed inside) and entered the museum.

The first sight inside was breathtaking - giant carved stone statues of pharoahs and gods. It was a sign of what was to come. Hoda led us on a tour of the museum, taking us through room after room filled with ancient statues, carvings, jewellry, furniture, funery items (e.g., sarcophagus, coffins) etc. Hieroglyphs and cartouches were to be seen adorning on the surface of object after object. Many items were either made of solid gold or adorned with gold leaf. It was all so fantastical! By the time we reached the end of the tour with Hoda, my flu symptoms had gotten to me and I opted to skip going to see the mummies that were in the museum's collection. Instead, I sat on a chair in the hallway to "rest" my eyes and wait for Lei.

With vague walking instructions from Daniel, Lei and I attempted to walk back to the hotel. We went through the death defying experince of crossing the busy streets (6 to 8 lanes with no traffic lights, no pedestrian crosswalks) and roundabout that gird the museum. After several attempts to locate the street we needed to be on, we finally admitted we were lost. We spotted a Hilton Hotel and headed there in hopes that someone could point us in the right direction. Realizing that it would only cost us 5 EG (about 90 US cents) to take a taxi from the Hilton back to our hotel, I convinced Lei to give up on walking and cab it instead....which is what we did. The concierge at the Hilton kindly flagged down a cab for us and told where the driver to go.

Back at the hotel, all I wanted to do was lay down and sleep. Unfortunately, we had already checked out of our rooms so no bed for me....I slumped into a chair in the lobby and slept until we had to leave to catch the overnight train to Aswan.



Lei, who was feeling fine, headed out in search of an Internet cafe and came back a couple hours later with dinner and bottled water. Despite the short nap, I still wasn't feeling well but what a memorable day it had been. I won't soon forget it!!

Here are Lei's memories of Day 2.