January 07, 2010 GMT

The main experience in visiting the Giza pyramids has nothing to do with the pyramids themselves.

But firstly, many many years ago, I attended a lecture given by a chartered Mechanical Engineer at the Institution of Electrical Engineers in London. The speaker was a serious amateur Egyptologist and his lecture had been published in magazines of the time and carried by BBC radio. He gave an irreverent but comprehensive debunking of all the romantic folklore written about the construction of these things.

A brief synopsis of the lecture was that life in the Nile area at the time of the Pharoes was very good and peaceful, a rich happy healthy society with an abundance of food, materials, knowledge, motivation, and love for its rulers. So the immediate response to a suggestion and desire to build massive pyramids over the tombs of those rulers was to enthusiastically assemble huge armies of willing workers and engineers. They built massive but simple ramps and levers enabling the masons' stone blocks to be lifted to great heights without a huge amount of sweat or muscle power. This was followed by a considerable number of failed and collapsed attempts over a very long time before success was achieved. Success that by virtue of the simple geometry and construction has indeed lasted thousands of years.
The lecturer's angle was that these pyramids were not great feats of human success, but actually fairly mediocre attempts at something pretty simple, albeit on a large scale, with many basic failures along the way.

So I was interested to see the reality.
And, well, yes, when it comes to neat straight and level brick and stone work, those ancient builders didn't appear to be in the top league. With the flat stone cladding long since disappeared (except for sections on a couple of the pyramids), the stonework revealed does seem a bit of a jumble, not many straight lines or vertical joints.

That's not to distract from the magnificence and grandeur of the artifacts that these constructions once housed, including the wonderful 'Sun Boat' now on display in an unfortunately awful building right up against the Great Pyramid of Cheops, completely destroying any semblance of a 'view' on that side of the pyramid.
And anyone expecting to see the view of the Sphinx that used to appear in illustrations of maybe sixty years ago will be seriously disappointed, as it's surrounded by a concrete structure onto which tourists are funnelled and squeezed, completely detracting from the monument itself. The whole thing being supplemented by banks of seating, gantries, and light installations for the nightly son et lumiere show.

But what do you actually experience when you arrive?
An army of hustlers that do their best, under the noses of the 'Tourist and Antiquities Police', to block the road leading to the entrance and persuade independent visitors that vehicles aren't permitted, you must park 'here' or 'there', and you must travel by 'donkey', 'camel' or 'cart' as it's 'ten kilometres to go all the way round'.
Once inside, the police argue and shout amongst themselves as they can't agree about where you can park your bike, so you ignore them and park next to a few local motorbikes by the ticket windows. Some of these bikes, you later find out, belong to the policemen.

At the ticket windows another army of hustlers are fighting to jump the queues where they insist that all the visitors sitting on their camels/in their carts are students and must therefore pay half price, "so hand over a wad of tickets pretty damn quick/I can't wait in this queue all day/no I don't have their student cards/there's something attached to the back of my hand that may help........"

Well, I'm wearing a motorbike jacket with padded elbows, and a helmet, so I get my ticket against the flow of backhanding hustlers but I canít say the same for the other ordinary visitors behind me.
Beyond the ticket inspectors, x-ray machines and metal-detectors - more hustlers call out noisily demanding to see my ticket. Don't know what for, but it looks like another attempt to force hapless visitors to buy a camel ticket/cart ticket to get around the site or a bogus ticket for the inside of a pyramid.
And whatever you do, don't get out a camera if you're in a group of flashily-dressed visitors (like many of the numerous Russian visitors). Yet more hustlers will demand your camera, demand you follow them to the best viewpoint, lead you by the hand, demand you pose while they take your photo, and demand a Pharoe's ransom for return of the camera. I watched as the police umm'ed and arrh'ed about intervening in a couple of disputes, waiting for the discrete baksheesh to appear from the hustler. A completely different attitude to the calm helpfulness of the tourist police in the mayhem of Nuweiba port.

Maybe it would have been better, after all, if all of the pyramids had collapsed........

As some of them didn't collapse, I'll offer my pet observation on beliefs in the after-life held at the time of their construction.
Those Pharoes were convinced that after death they would go on some great journey, so they filled their tombs with all the things necessary to make the voyage safe and comfortable.
I'd like to know exactly how those beliefs came about, how those thoughts and ideas of travel after death came to enter the minds and spirits of the people living in those times. What unknown forms of travel might they have conceived of? Did they have ideas of travel by wondrous means that could only exist in their imaginations? What were they? How futuristic?

Because, the simple fact is, that after their deaths, those bodies did indeed travel by fantastical means. To research laboratories and museums in faraway places, all over a world unknown to those people when they were alive.
Did the modern discoveries of those mummified bodies and subsequent transport to exhibitions in the world's capital cities lead directly, by some sort of pre-ordination, to the beliefs they held thousands of years earlier?
Did they see themselves as early time-capsules, buried to be discovered millenia later by descendants that they imagined might have advanced in ways that they could not concieve of, but at least had a conception that incredible advances in mankind's knowledge were a definite likelihood?
Is it possible, or even certain maybe, for everyone's different beliefs in the after-life to come true, as was the case with these Pharoes? By some means that the believer can never imagine or conceive of?

So many questions - so much time to think about them when you're riding a motorbike to Cape Town!

On New Years Day I opened my 2010 Old Moores Almanac - no answers there. Nor on the road south. The answers can only be found in one place - your own head.

Happy New Year.

Some token photos

The Great Pyramid, Greater Cairo beyond

While I took this photo, a hustler on a camel demanded I sit on his camel for a better picture. "I know, I take lots of photos." I didn't let go of my camera.

There are nicer places to see nicer pyramids, at Saqqara and Dahshur. Easily reached on the road southwest from Cairo, directly from our campsite, that went through a few unspoilt Nile Valley agricultural villages as a bonus.
Far fewer visitors and hustlers at these places.

Stepped Pyramid at Saqqara
No concrete constructions here to corral the tourists.

Bent Pyramid at Dahshur

Here, there's no car park as such, as there are hardly any cars and no coaches. So just ride your bike around the periphery, stop where you like. But mind the sections of deep soft sand, not easy to spot.

It's definitely the pyramid that's bent, not the bike.

Red Pyramid at Dahshur

This one is free to go inside, and it's quite an adventure. Climb the crooked stone steps up to the entrance hole about a quarter of the way up the pyramid's side. Then a long descent, bent double, down a 4-foot high tunnel to two huge 40-foot high chambers, the air being four thousand years old and at about 50 deg C.
High up the wall of the second chamber is a tiny opening to a third, 50-foot high chamber, reached by climbing a tall rickety wooden staircase.
Then the long climb down the rickety staircase followed by the much longer climb (bent double) up the 4-foot high tunnel back to the air outside, and the crooked stone steps all the way down to ground level again.
That was yesterday - today my thigh muscles are not keen on helping me to get in and out of my tent.......

Posted by Ken Thomas at January 07, 2010 05:12 PM GMT

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