November 6 – 17
Mid Saturday afternoon we checked out of the Marriott and took a taxi to the AraCan Pyramids Hotel, on the outskirts of Cairo in Giza, our lodging for the night, the first of our scheduled Egypt Adventure tour with Intrepid Travel out of Canada, which would last eight days and include two overnights on a train and one on a felucca, the traditional Nile wooden boat.
We would soon discover that the quality of lodging in Egypt, particularly at this tour’s price point of about $50 a night, while serviceable, was not highly desirable. Given that the Marriott had rooms for $100 a night, one can stay in Egypt at reasonable rates. Our experience in Mexico would outclass the Egyptian hotels though and we’ll comment on those when we get to those posts.
We gathered in the lobby and met our guide for the trip, Mahmoud Ossama who would prove to be one of the best we’ve encountered in our short history of taking guided tours. He had us sit in a circle and our group of 12 introduce themselves, starting with husband and wife Michael and Sunny, two mother and daughter teams of Carmel and Alice (from London) and Paula and Katie from Kansas, two Italians Marco and Roberto who also live in London, Kim and Marty, and Joanna and I.
During the course of our time together we would come to know and enjoy each other’s company, enriching the experience immeasurably. After checking into our rooms, we loaded into a small bus, whose size we would come to know quite well in the coming week and took off for downtown Cairo and its large bazaar (permanently enclosed marketplace) and souq (marketplace or commercial quarter), the Khan el-Khalili. Our second exposure to nighttime traffic, it felt like living inside of a crazy video game, cars and pedestrians careening seemingly out of control and yet, not colliding with each other.
When we got near the market we slowed to a crawl as the driver inched his way through throngs of pedestrians walking past block after block of stalls (small storefronts one shop wide) displaying fabrics and carpets. When we stopped near a large plaza, the brightly lit minaret of the Al-Hussein Mosque (originally built in 1154 and considered to be one of the holiest Islamic sites in Egypt, named after Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain ibn Ali) it’s centerpiece, we disembarked and plunged into the madness of the market.
Like falling down the rabbit hole, it was all we could do to keep an eye on Mahmoud and not get separated from the group. Established in the 14th and 15th century, today’s stall after stall offers an endless array of merchandise, from basic household goods to items that appeared to be pulled from the local dump, to the types of things (pyramids, camels, mummies, etc.) a tourist might be interested in.
In a narrow warren, we stopped at a tea house for a beverage, many opting for mint tea and others strong Egyptian coffee. It was here that we would get our first real exposure to what Mahmoud would refer to as the vultures, local’s intent on getting you to buy whatever it was they were selling, be it souvenirs, clothing, or some vaguely defined service, say directions somewhere or a shoe shine you didn’t need. We would be plagued by this our entire time in the country, this incessant badgering to buy or to donate.
After the tea we wandered a bit more through the market and eventually settled down for dinner at an Egyptian pancake house, where we each consumed a baked concoction that contained either chicken or beef, accompanied by a soft drink or more mint tea. It was good basic food, nothing life changing, but filling and relatively inexpensive in the bargain.
We returned to the hotel through streets that seemed just busy as when we drove earlier and crashed out for the night. The next day would be a busy one and set the tone for the rest of the trip, early departures and a full set of activities. Our first stop would be close by, at that site that people throughout the world associate with Egypt, the Giza pyramid complex, also called the Giza Necropolis.
The site includes the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, along with their associated pyramid complexes and the Great Sphinx of Giza. All were built during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. The site also includes several cemeteries and the remains of a workers’ village.
Unfortunately for us, it was foggy and overcast that day; the sky would only partially clear by the time we left the site hours later. The big kahuna here is The Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or the Pyramid of Cheops) as it is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the complex and the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the only one to remain largely intact.
Based on a mark in an interior chamber naming the work gang and a reference to the Fourth Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Khufu, some Egyptologists believe that the pyramid was built as a tomb over a 10- to 20-year period concluding around 2560 BC. Initially standing at 481 feet, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years until Lincoln Cathedral was finished in 1311 AD.
Originally, covered by limestone casing stones that formed a smooth outer surface; what is seen today is the underlying core structure. Most accepted construction hypotheses are based on the idea that it was built by moving huge stones from a quarry and dragging and lifting them into place.
There are three known chambers inside the Great Pyramid. The lowest is cut into the bedrock upon which the pyramid was built and was unfinished. The Queen’s Chamber and King’s Chamber are higher up within the pyramid structure and for the additional sum of 400 EGP ($26) we climbed up a steep and narrow two-way passage, at times having to bend over double to reach the King’s last resting place.
It’s empty of course and one needs to use the imagination to picture what it might have been like with the pharaoh inside it, this picture brought to life by our later visits to museums and Mahmoud’s colorful descriptions of the burial habits of Egyptian royalty. We dreaded the thought of descending that passage, particularly having to move out of the way for those ascending but caught a break finding that for that brief moment, we had it to ourselves and the descent went quickly.
Outside, we regrouped and listened to a narrative about the other two pyramids Khafre’s (the second tallest and second largest of the Pyramids of Giza and the tomb of the Fourth-Dynasty pharaoh Khafre (Chefren), who ruled from c. 2558 to 2532 BC.) and Menkaure’s (the smallest of the three main Pyramids of Giza). It is thought to have been built to serve as the tomb of the fourth dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Menkaure. We then walked up a slight hill to prepare for our next adventure, our promised camel ride. More on that in the next post.
AraCan Pyramids Hotel: https://www.aracanpyramidshotel.com/
Intrepid Travel: https://www.intrepidtravel.com/us
Egypt Adventure: https://www.intrepidtravel.com/us/egypt/egypt-adventure-125298
Pyramids of Giza: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pyramids-of-Giza