Once I arrived in Cairo, one of the first things that I wanted to do was head out to Giza to see the pyramids. Originally I figured I’d just go take the local bus out here, but after checking out my guidebook I decided that I’d get more out of it by hooking up with a tour company. I was a little leery about doing this, but in retrospect it turned out to be a great decision with only a couple of downsides.
We started out at the necropolis of Saqqara where we saw what is generally considered to be the first example of a “modern” Egyptian pyramid. Up till the 3rd dynasty, kings had been buried in underground tombs covered by simple earthen mounds. It was King Zoser and his head architect Imhotep who finally evolved the design into something grander. The pyramid here is called the “step-pyramid” because the building technology had not yet progressed to the point of smooth sides. We spent about an hour at the site wandering around just absorbing the atmosphere and getting my first experience with the temple touts that seem to surround every monument in all of Egypt. These guys are a constant annoyance that you have to get used to quickly, or else they’ll drive you insane. They are the guys who want to be your friend, and then just want to show you their humble art, carpet, or perfume shop. If they don’t have a shop, they’re looking for baksheesh for doing just about anything, including pointing out the extremely obvious like “Look, beautiful pyramid!”. I even had one guy ask for extra baksheesh for his camel after I took a picture of it!
Anyway, once we finished at Saqqara we were taken to a carpet factory. Here we watched 14 and 15 year old kids make carpets, and then we were supposed to feel sorry for them and purchase fairly inferior quality carpets at extraordinarily inflated prices. Surprisingly for me, a couple of people on our tour actually ended up purchasing some carpets. I guess thats why its worth dragging us tourists around!
Next we headed to the ancient capital city of Memphis. There isn’t much left here to indicate that it was the head of the ancient Egyptian culture, but there is a fairly impressive outdoor museum complex. The highlights include lots of impressively large and intact statues of Ramses II (that guy was a real narcissist!), and a famous alabaster sphinx. I spent most of the time wandering around looking for good photo opportunities. The lighting wasn’t great, but I got a few shots that will be desktop background worthy, even if they won’t ever get framed for my wall.
Finally, after a stop at a papyrus shop (more tourist trap garbage!), we got to head out to the plateau of Giza for the main attraction that brings just about everyone here…the pyramids! The first thing you notice about the site is how close it is to the city. Its quite a shock to be driving along a city street, and suddenly see the great pyramid sticking up in the background between two apartment complexes. I think the most egregious example of how much sprawl has affected the pyramids is the fact that instead of the Sphinx staring stoically out into the desert sands as its done for thousands of years, it now stares straight into the brightly lit sign of a KFC. I wonder which will last longer……
The first thing one notices when approaching the pyramids is just how BIG they really are. I mean, these things just dwarf everything around them. Tourists aren’t allowed to climb to the top of them anymore, but I did climb up a couple of steps, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Each one is about two and a half feet high, just awkward enough to make it tough to climb up or down. It takes about 30 minutes to wander around each pyramid, especially if you’re gazing up in amazement as I tend to do. It turns out that the best view is really from a little bit farther out. Up close everything is just too in your face to properly appreciate it. After wandering around the pyramids themselves, I headed over to the sphinx to check it out. After the grandiose size of the pyramids, it was almost disappointing. It’s big, but somehow I’d expected it to be much bigger. Still, it’s one of those things that everyone needs to go check out at least once in their lives.