Wednesday, May 09, 2012

we don’t need another hero

This cruise has started to sound like stories from back issues of Boy’s Life

Hannibal.  El Cid.  Alexander the Great.

Dredging up those memories has made some of our stops more interesting to me than they ordinarily would have been.  That boy seems to still be alive in a recesses of my soul.

I cannot say the same thing for Giza. 

Ancient Egypt holds some interest for me.  After all, much of western civilization has its roots in the Nile.

But there are no boy heroes here.  Boy kings aplenty.  But even the renowned Ramses II is mainly a cipher.  Best known for his role as Simon Legree in Exodus.

Nor would this visit be a search for political institutions.  That would be futile.  Right now, Egypt has none.  There is a military council that continues as Mubarak-lite until either the Muslim Brotherhood (or the More Muslim than Thou Brotherhood) takes its place.

Right now, Cairo is a shambles.  One year of no garbage collection has turned even main streets into nascent archaeological sites.  A writer more cynical than your correspondent might say garbage has turned into an apt metaphor for the wilted Arab Spring.

With no heroes to search out and politics being on the “don’t make me cry” list, I decided to fall back on the cliché of tourist staples.  I would go see the pyramids at Giza and the sphinx.

Because Giza is two and a half hours away from Alexandria, I decided to take one of the bus tours offered by the ship.  After all, there had been demonstrations in Cairo the prior two days. 

The type of interference that can play havoc with a tourist’s schedule.  The ship will wait for passengers on a bus tour.  Free-lancers are left at the pier if they are late.

Our guide was very good.  Her English was functional, but her historical knowledge was almost encyclopedic.  Unfortunately, a large portion of my fellow passengers had no interest in the historical context of the monuments we were about to visit.

Some of them were far too busy kvetching at one another.  I heard more ethnic slurs directed face to face than I have heard in my life.  Two women nearly squared off with no regard to Queensbury rules.

Finally, the guide just gave up and let the delinquents sulk or sleep or ask about how much time there would be for shopping.
But all of that changed when we drove into the center of Giza.  The city itself is a rather nondescript suburb if Cairo.  Cairo is on the east bank of the Nile and Giza is on the west.  For the ancient Egyptians the west with its setting sun represented death.

And that is why the pyramids -- the tombs of the mummified Pharaohs -- loom above the buildings of the modern city. 

The three major pyramids of Giza are what most of us think of when we hear the word.  They are immense.  It is hard to believe that it took Egyptians to pile millions of blocks of limestone, with geometric exactitude.  And to build each all in just over two decades.

Each pyramid is the pointy mausoleum for a single pharaoh -- just like on the Camels pack.  When this complex was completed, it looked far different than it does now. 

The pyramids were faced with limestone or marble, and the area between the pyramids were on a white platform.  The reflection of the sun off of the stone would have been enough to perpetuate the myth that the sun god Ra was truly present amongst the dead pharaohs.

I could not help comparing the much older pyramids to the Mayan pyramids and those in the Mexican highlands.  Mexico has done a far better job of reconstructing their sites -- even if several of the Mexican reconstructions have been -- well, imaginative.

But both sets of pyramids served the same purpose.  To use physical space to describe the immensity of deity (with the ironic result of placing physical limitations on that power).

I was impressed with the size.  I walked around the entire perimeter of the pyramid of Chepren -- and barely made it back to the bus on time. 

But the very size left me still wondering who these people were.  And I was not going to ferret out much more about them.  There was no time for museums on this trip. 

The tour was entitled “Pyramids, Sphinx, and Tombs.”  And after less than a total of an hour at the site, we were on our way to check off item #2 on this photograph opportunity  tour.

The Sphinx -- with its body of a lion and head of a man -- has long been the object of speculation concerning its origin.  The UFO-Atlantis crowd has had a field day with it.

I don’t know enough to toss my rooster into that pit.  I do know, though, that it is a rather remarkable piece of art.  Smaller than I anticipated.  165 feet long.  73 feet high.  But carved from a single piece of limestone. 

Some Egyptologists believe there is a sphinx for each of the Giza pyramids.  The others simply have not yet been discovered.

And we almost did not have this one.  It was buried by the sand (as were the pyramids) after Egypt’s decline.  After the Arab Muslims conquered Egypt, the sands shifted, exposing a portion of the face.

Thinking it was a pagan idol -- a graven image -- they started to remove the face.  The damage they did was exacerbated by Napoleon’s artillery when the French used it for target practice.

After about a half hour, we were off again.  This time to a recently discovered statue of King Ramses.  The statue was found on its side.  But it is so heavy, the archaeologists decided to leave it recumbent.  Like a Buddha in the early stages of rigor mortis.

The surrounding complex is filled with additional statuary discovered in the neighborhood.

And I do not use “in the neighborhood”  as a cliché.  This Middle Kingdom site is buried beneath a housing development.  The government has built new housing for the residents, but the current residents are reluctant to leave. 

For good reason.  They have apparently found a good trade as free lance Indiana Joneses.  Finding a major piece can be more lucrative than striking oil.  And there is a worldwide black market for the goods.

Rather than being tempted by potential good deals (and a visit to the local hoosegow), we headed off to the  tombs portion of our tour – the ancient cemetery at Sakkara.  Most of the tombs were built in the shape of rectangular homes -- a place for the souls of the not-so-exalted deceased to reside on their journey to the afterlife.

The most impressive aspect of the tombs (or mastabas) are the carved walls.  It is from the stone carvings on the walls Egyptologists have obtained much of what they know of ancient Egyptian life.

The carvings are amazing.  I was assured they are original.  If that is true, they are over 4000 years old.  But they look as if they were carved in a little shop in Beijing last year.  Unfortunately, all photography was prohibited.  But there was no restriction on touching.  Go figure.

As interesting as the carvings were, I was even more pleased to discover the tombs are in the midst of a series of other pyramids.  (There are over 100.  After all, there were plenty of dead pharaohs to mummify and venerate.)  I recognized most of them from my high school and university art appreciation and history courses. 

There was the step pyramid of Zoser (even though archaeologists now know it was never intended as a pyramid, only as a rectangular tomb).

And one of my favorites.  The bent pyramid.  A living example of how we can learn from our mistakes.

There were plenty of pearls on this trip.  But it convinced me that I am going to skip the bus trip to the Valley of the Kings.  It is too much time on a bus for too little time on site.

I will leave that for a Nile river cruise.  Sometime in the future.

Maybe, by then, I will have chosen an Egyptian hero.


Irene said...

So far I am really enjoying this 30 day cruise to Dubai.  Thank you for sharing your photos and stories.  I am now going to go look up more information about the bent pyramid.

Kim G said...

These organized tours can be very disappointing. F and I were in Oaxaca City  a few weeks ago and decided to do the Hotel's Monte Alban/other things tour. Unfortunately, we were only at Monte Alban for maybe an hour and a half, and I barely saw it. I could have easily spent all day there, but 'twas not to be. We were the last to rejoin  the tour as the rest I think had had their fill rather quickly.

But thanks for the photos and updates. I've always wanted to visit Egypt, though I think I'd be more inclined to do it in January.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where as a youth we had a properly-aligned, paper pyramid under the bed so as to benefit from "pyramid power."

Ronda Grimsley said...

The intro with Boys Life - like that :)

Andean said...

I so enjoyed all the history, photographs, and laughs-- and on your vacation!
Thank you for the the experience and time you gave. 
And a lot it takes...

Mcotton said...

 I enjoyed the pictures and the history that goes along with them.

John Calypso said...

Years ago I wanted to visit Egypt - however I had a fresh stamp in my passport from being in Israel  thus was not allowed to enter Egypt. I was young and thought how ridiculous - now I am old and I still think that.

Cool photos hombre.

Steve Cotton said...

 It is my pleasure.  I am helping enrich the cruise line through its internet.

Steve Cotton said...

 They serve only one purpose: to tantalize.  The problem is -- some of these places I will most likely never see again.  At least, I get to have a taste.

Steve Cotton said...

 I rather did myself, as well.

Steve Cotton said...

 There is still more coming.  Especially, Petra.

Steve Cotton said...

This blog may be an answer to the question you have asked me for years.  "How did you like your trip?"

Steve Cotton said...

 For the moment, that stamp would not be an impediment.  We will see if that is true net year.

Andean said...

I know, but just making sure you got to read the message -- 'cause the pirates and all...

Steve Cotton said...

 I have written the posts.  They are scheduled to appear.  Whether or not I am here to hit the button.  Just in case.