November 6 – 17
At the start of the tour, Mahmoud collected 515 EGP ($34) from each of us to handle the tips downstream as he referred to it, that is those he would dole out to busboys, drivers, and anyone else providing a service. This concept would be tested when we got involved with the camels and their handlers and for the rest of the journey.
Cresting the hill adjacent to the Pyramid complex, we caught site of the camel staging area, where a host of the Dromedary variety we’d be climbing aboard were arrayed. These are big animals, towering above humans; a Bactrian camel, the other type of this mammal, can grow to a shoulder height of 6 feet and a body length of 10 feet and normally weigh 1,320 to 2,200 lbs. when they are fully grown.
Camels are herbivores and their thick lips allow them to eat things that most other animals can’t, such as thorny plants. Infamously known for their ability to go long periods without water, they can drink 30 gallons of it in just 13 minutes. When there is little to eat or drink, the camel’s hump fat releases water and nutrients so that they can survive for up to six months without food or water.
I approached my camel and with some effort managed to hoist myself up and on with just one minor injury, a small wound on my shin where I hit the hardened surface of the saddle. More discomfort would follow as I tried to find a stable position, the saddle uncomfortably wide to cover the broad back I now found myself perched atop. My handler kept insisting that I lean back, difficult to do with that rigid saddle I’d busted my leg against now poking me in the back.
To further make the ride pleasant, my animal had a pronounced limp in a hind leg, making his gait so pronounced that each lurching step threatened to toss me that long six fee to the ground. This was coupled with the handler’s constant exhortations to lean back, to relax, to hold tight and then, to ask if I wanted a picture taken. This would lead later lead to shakedown for a tip I referred to earlier.
After what seemed like an eternity we returned to the camel parking lot and after giving the handler what he expressed as being an entirely inadequate tip for the services he had provided, none of which I had asked for, we confirmed with Mahmoud that he had handled the tips. Oh, those crafty vultures! Walking to the van to continue on, I tried to guess which parts of my body would speak up later (it would be my arms from holding the saddle so tightly and the lower body from having spread my legs wide enough to accommodate the saddle).
We drove around the Pyramid complex to the other side for our second stop of the day at the likely second most recognizable symbol of Egypt, the Great Sphinx of Giza. A limestone statue of a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a Huma (a mythical bird who legend says is never to alight on the ground, and instead to live its entire life flying invisibly high above the earth), the face of the Sphinx is generally believed to represent the pharaoh Khafre.
Cut from the bedrock, its original shape has been restored with layers of blocks and measures 240 ft long from paw to tail, 66 ft high from the base to the top of the head and 62 ft wide at its rear haunches. It is the oldest known monumental sculpture in Egypt and is commonly believed to have been built by ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom during the reign of the pharaoh Khafre (c. 2558–2532 BC).
Really, what more is there to say about this thing that hasn’t already been said or represented in pictures and movies, this tangible link to an ancient world we think we understand but barely comprehend? The statue sits next to the funerary complex surrounding the Second Pyramid, which is traditionally connected with Khafre. This is where the Pharaoh’s body would be prepared prior to being placed in his pyramid, with a causeway linking the two sites.
Along with hordes of other folks we took our place in a strategic spot to get a picture or two, then sat back to watch others taking selfies and wandering the grounds. Regrouping, we climbed back in the bus and headed towards central Cairo, stopping for what would be the first of a number of lunches that would include falafel, that is a pita pocket filled with 3-4 small balls of falafel and maybe some sauce. Incredibly cheap, a falafel and drink apiece for Joanna and I ran 70 EGP ($4). And they would get even less expensive once we left Cairo.
Our final stop for the day was The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, home to an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities, with over 120,000 items in its collection. Built in 1901 to a design by the French architect Marcel Dourgnon, the edifice is one of the largest museums in the region, but due to be superseded by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza in 2020.
There are two main floors in the museum, the ground floor and the first floor. On the ground floor there is an extensive collection of papyrus and coins used in the Ancient world. The coins are made of many different metals, including gold, silver, and bronze and are not only Egyptian, but also Greek, Roman, and Islamic. This has helped historians research the history of Ancient Egyptian trade. Also, on the ground floor are artifacts from the New Kingdom, the time period between 1550 and 1069 BC.
On the first floor there are artifacts from the final two dynasties of Egypt, including items from the tombs of the Pharaohs Thutmosis III, Thutmosis IV, Amenophis II, Hatshepsut, and the courtier Maiherpri, as well as many artifacts from the Valley of the Kings, in particular the material from the intact tombs of Tutankhamun and Psusennes I. Two special rooms contain a number of mummies of kings and other royal family members of the New Kingdom.
There was a lot to see and after 30 minutes or so with Mahmoud providing narrative, we were cut loose to spend another hour or more viewing what appealed most to us. We spent time at the display of the multi-sized boxes that fit inside each other to contain Tutankhamun’s (Tut) coffin and a few of the grave goods that would have been placed inside the chamber with him.
The ancient Egyptians had an elaborate set of funerary practices that they believed were necessary to ensure their immortality after death in the afterlife. These rituals and protocols included mummifying the body, casting magic spells, and burial with specific grave goods. As there were many different gods to prepare for, they believed that each god would separately judge the deceased before he could enter the afterlife.
For a Pharaoh, his mummy was placed inside the pyramid along with an enormous amount of food, drink, furniture, clothes, and jewelry which were to be used in the afterlife. The pyramid was sealed so that no one would ever enter it again. However, the king’s soul could move through the burial chamber as it wished. Tut’s tomb, discovered in 1922, was one of the few that had not been vandalized in the ensuing centuries.
After a quick pass through the mummy room (there was an extra 35 EGP $2.50 charge for this) we made our way to the room devoted to Tut and more objects from his tomb including his famous Golden Mask. Bearing the likeness of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife, it is 1.8 ft tall, weighs over 22 lb. and is decorated with semi-precious stones. An ancient spell from the Book of the Dead is inscribed in hieroglyphs on the mask’s shoulders. The mask had to be restored in 2015 after its 5.5 lb. plaited beard fell off and was hastily glued back on by museum workers.
By this time, we had run out of gas, a combination of a few days of travel and hectic schedule and getting attuned to spending time being tourists. Later the physical toll of riding the camel and climbing up that narrow passageway in the Great Pyramid would catch up to me in the form of various aches that would begin to go away as we became accustomed to being tourists again. We were off and running and the next few days would be just as full as this one.
Great Sphinx of Giza: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Great-Sphinx
The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/egypt/cairo/attractions/egyptian-museum/a/poi-sig/1021384/355225
Mask of Tutankhamun: https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/the-mask-of-tutankhamun/