All the silent stones in the desert.
 
All of the silent stones in the desert called us from afar.  Ever since we stumbled upon this peculiar thing called possibilities our daily conversations have been strewn with geographical place names that ring of allurement and then much, much more. Indeed, name dropping is surely easy and undoubtedly fun when you’re hungry and it’s not yet dinner time (which in France can be mightily late).  From around December or so, one of us started saying, “Egypt,” and the other, too, began to say, “Egypt,” as in:  “Where should we go on the next break?”  “Egypt!  Egypt?”  We did waver momentarily after our winter trip but then thought, well, never mind, we’ll be broke but we’ve got the memories.
 
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DAYS  Day 1    Day 2B  Day 2C  Day 3  Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8
 
 
 
Classroom in the sand, Part 1:  Saqqara.
 
GIZA & SAQQARA – 18 February 2009.  In the early morning hours before leaving for Egypt, we finally concluded that it would be best to arrange for a guided tour of the pyramids.  Otherwise, we might just find ourselves walking around staring at piles of stones – awe-inspiring stones to be sure – that we had not the knowledge to begin to comprehend and then scratching our heads in bewilderment as we try to find a way to get from one site to the next distant site.  We found rave reviews of Debbie Senters’ Casual Cairo Detours on Tripadvisor and thought, “Good enough,” and sent her a last-minute email.  It was a shot in the dark but one that timely found its target and led to a bout of back-and-forth texting hours later while we waited for our flight at CDG.  The deal was finalized once we got to the Mena House and voilà we were set to go on a guided tour of the pyramids.  (Cost of tour: 150€ for 8 hours plus entrance fees of L.E. 150 per person, lunch, and tips.)  Things are wonderful when they work out exactly as you want them to.
 

  Despite not paying a premium for a Pyramid-view room, we still caught sight of the giants in the hallway everyday.

 

 

  Breakfast buffet at the Mena House before our excursion:  This is exactly how Nez likes to start her traveling days.

 

 
This morning, Nez got her wish of breakfast – Nez loves hotel breakfasts when we travel – at the Mena House, although the breakfast buffet (120 L.E.) did not offer the delicious waffles she had read about in some online reviews.  (Maybe it was the Cairo Marriott, our next hotel, that served them.)  Riot could do without hotel breakfast but was convinced, on this occasion, that it would be wise for today’s all-day adventure and was also sternly reminded by Debbie, the owner of Casual Cairo Detours, on the phone last night:  “You will be waiting at 8 o’clock in the lobby and you will have eaten breakfast.”

At 8 o’clock sharp, we stood waiting for our guide in the crowded lobby just like everyone else who was just in the breakfast room.  Some of them decidedly came dressed for what lay ahead, such as one French couple in sharp, complementary safari outfits, while a few others seemed to have just fallen out of bed or surely had not read the cultural sensitivity chapter in their guide book.  The atmosphere felt like the end of a school day at a rather swanky private school and unfortunately, we played the part of the poor kids who were the last to be picked up.  In fact, our guide, Mostafa was there all along.  It was just that neither party thought the other was who they should be.  But never mind, we said our greetings and walked outside where our driver for the day was already waiting.  Mostafa introduced him:  “This is Mr. Ali.”  And to start the journey off with a bit of humor, he added, “Ali Baba.”  We all laughed, probably for entirely different reasons.
 

  One minute all we saw was urban sprawl, the next, large stretches of farm land and date palms appeared before our eyes.

 

 

  Everyday life continued in the numerous villages that dotted the paved roads and dirt lanes leading to all of the pyramids.

 

 
Mostafa gave us our itinerary and the reasoning behind it.  We would start out not at the most obvious sight – the Pyramids of Giza, of outsized fame and ridiculous proximity – but at the oldest pyramids in Saqqara first, then work our way to Dahshur before finally returning to Giza.  “That sounds good,” we both said.  Then, we settled in patiently as our car sat in the morning traffic of Cairo.  Mostafa did his best to fill in the down time with useful and interesting history and facts – both the pyramids’ and his.  With him, we discovered some shared geographical experiences:  He had also lived in both France and the U.S.  (“How’s the obelisk in Paris?” he asked, referring to the three-thousand-year-old stone needle in the middle of the Place de la Concorde.  “It’s still there,” we responded.)  Outside, the congestion grew.  Inside, Mostafa looked up with hopeful eyes at a rising overhead highway of concrete and steel and declared that it was expected to deliver a thankful population from this everyday gridlock.  As with most construction sites where the work never seems to be done at the pace you think it should, we glanced at a random heavy-equipment operator smoking in his cab and another worker of unknown responsibility squatting idly on a sand dune and reminded ourselves that just over there in the desert were many large piles of stones that also took a long, long time to build but they were eventually built nevertheless.  Then, we sat back and enjoyed the view of this modern-day capital.
Saqqara: Everyday scenes from the distant past.
 
Outside the sprawling city, we came upon stretches of farm land and Mostafa called out the names of the various crops:  garlic, mangoes, cauliflower, etc.  Before Riot could remark about the abundance of coconut groves in the desert, Mostafa saved him from embarrassment:  “Those are date palms. They don’t have coconuts.”  Travel and learn. After driving alongside a canal for a while, we suddenly made a right turn and at the end of that narrow road awaited Saqqara.  (The guide book states that this site, which it designates North Saqqara, is 32 km from Cairo by road.)  We disembarked in a large and largely empty parking lot.  Beyond the stretch of concrete and asphalt was a blanket of dark yellow dessert sand and gravel sitting peacefully under a weak, hazy blue sky.  The uniformity of this shade stretched to the horizon in all directions except to the east where it suddenly met patches of green plants and brown earth.  From the look of things, it should be hot and dry.  But it wasn’t.  Rather, it was a nice, cool morning that made wearing a thin sweater comfortable.  Besides the occasional directionless wafts of male voices, the only consistent sound was the crushing gravels beneath our feet.  The air smelled of nothing.

We purchased our tickets, skipped the Imhotep Museum, and drove some more to the nearby low-lying tombs, or mastabas.  On the way, we passed the Step Pyramid of King Zoser (built in the 27th century B.C.), the first of a long line of experiments with large-scale stone construction for the afterlife.  We also did not visit it nor come very close but from where we were there was no mistaking the relentless power of nature (something that is hard to grasp in the photographs in books).  After all, these massive stone structures sat in the middle of the desert and millennia of wind and sand had clearly left their marks.  This point was further reinforced by the current state of the Pyramid of King Teti, which resembled, on the outside, nothing more than a rocky sand dune.
 

  “Feel free to ask me to take your picture,” said our guide, Mostafa.  We responded, “How about in front of the Step Pyramid of King Zoser and this sorry looking – uh, is it a pyramid – Pyramid of Userkaf?”  [Photo - Mostafa]

 

 

  Nez and our guide extraordinaire, Mostafa, standing in the middle of the necropolis of Saqqara, its most famous attraction reposing in the far distant.

 

 
We bypassed the entrance to that pyramid and various other buildings into which tour guides led their docile charge.  We even spotted the safari couple from the hotel and a few other familiar faces.  While they all went elsewhere, we put our trust in our knowledgeable guide and followed him to the mastaba of Kagemni.  Out of the corner of our eyes, we saw tour group after tour group descending into Teti’s Pyramid with a slight tinge of envy.  And here we were, standing in front of a plain, one-story structure off to the side of the main street, with just a small door flanked by only two columns of carvings and hieroglyphs and a little sign that read:  “TOMB OF KA-GMNI, c. 2340 B.C.”  All right, we thought, let’s go in and see what Mostafa had in store for us on the inside.

“Before we go in,” Mostafa’s professorial voice halted us in our tracks, “I want to show you how they built the pyramids.”  He scratched lines and shapes in the sand and explained a well-accepted theory of how the Ancient Egyptians built their pyramids, touching on topics of mud-brick ramps, lubricated sleds, etc.  To be thorough and to reinforce his point, he brought up and quickly dismissed other quack construction theories of aliens and superhuman races and the like.  We did not disagree.  To believe that something as magnificent as the pyramids had been built by man only makes being human all the more exciting.
 

  With our obligatory, but emminently useful, first lesson on pyramid building over, we posed for a photo before entering the tomb of Kagemni.  [Photo - Mostafa]

 

 
 
 
 
  The left wall relief of the entrance to the tomb of Kagemni, Vizier of King Teti.
 
  The right wall relief.  Incidentally, Kagemni was also a son-in-law of the king.
 
 
“You need real evidence,” our guide said passionately as he pointed to an orderly layer of blackened rubbles beneath a mound of sand and gravel.  There, coming short of our knees, were remnants of a ramp of mud bricks that was probably used to build the adjacent Teti’s Pyramid and had for some unknown reason not been removed afterward.  Nez brushed her hand against its rough, almost coral-like surface and Mostafa immediately warned against inadvertently damaging thousand-year-old artifacts.  We were both surprised but instantly understood.  While the next knickknack vendor or set of tourists might not think twice about, or even notice, stepping on this nondescript patch of masonry in a site of acres and acres of similar things, it was important to Mostafa that he imparted upon those with whom he came in contact both the incredible history and value that each and every rock might tell and the equally important care needed to preserve them for future generations.  We were very much impressed.

After the lesson, we finally entered the tomb of the Vizier of King Teti.  Mostafa pointed out a cartouche on the wall consisting of a reed leaf and two half circles with the flat sides facing down, called mouths hieroglyphic-speak.  “Each mouth stands for tee,” he explained.  “The reed leaf stands for ee.”  Turning to his impromptu classroom, he asked:  “What does it say?”  We could not contain ourselves in simultaneously uttering:  “Teti!”  Now, this was fun and interactive.  Mostafa described the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the subsequent deciphering of this lost language.  Riot had always wondered (maybe he did not pay enough attention when this subject was taught in junior high) how it was possible to figure out the pronunciation of these hieroglyphs.  “Excellent question,” replied Mostafa.  He proceeded to explain how it was done with the help of transliteration and corresponding sounds without missing a beat.
 

  Mostafa gave us an elementary lesson in hieroglyphics.  Inside this cartouche, one can see a reed and two mouths.  The former makes an E sound while the latter a T sound.  Put them together and one gets TEE TEE, or King Teti, Kagemni’s boss.

 

 

  In the background, the first attempt at pyramid building.  In the foreground, a subsequent attempt that did not fare as well through the passage of time.

 

 
In eschewing (for now) a long, angled shaft leading into the inside of a pyramid, we were treated to a collection of large and wonderful wall reliefs of Kagemni himself, his family, and glimpses of his mortal life.  It was the everyday scenes that were the most powerful:  a man giving the signal to his cohorts to spring the trap on unsuspecting geese, cows being milked, force-feeding of geese (“foie gras,” Mostafa quipped), men on canoes wearing papyrus life vests, and so on.  Room after room was filled with graphic stories of this important man’s life, his various official positions, and his laudatory accomplishments.  Save for the obviously different style and a healthy disregard for scale and perspective (e.g., Kagemni was always two to three times larger than anyone else in the same scene), standing only inches away from these walls, we felt as if someone was in these rock chambers just yesterday to add the finishing touches.  Indeed, some of the color pigments still remained after the thousands of years.  That’s a sobering thought.

So, where are our pictures of these amazing walls?  Only in our memories.  The rules prohibited taking photos on the interior and Mostafa made sure we understood.  It is easy to imagine another kind of guide turning a blind eye – like so many tourist police do in allowing visitors to climb up the pyramids for a picture in exchange for a little baksheesh – but not ours.  We truly appreciated his principle.  Besides, these wonders absolutely need to be taken in in situ in order for the kind of appreciation they and their viewers both deserve.
 

  No one we came across in Egypt gave us the same total number of pyramids, which ranged from the 90s to over 100.  Here, in the far-off haze of the Saqqara site, we spotted three of them.

 

 
While we were inside the tomb, only one other group came in with its guide and left after a quick and silent look.  In one of the last chambers, Mostafa stopped suddenly before a depiction of men pulling a sled on which sat large square blocks of stones.  “What do you see?” he asked us.  We studied the detailed work and there, in between the upturned, front tip of the wooden sled and the back feet of the dragging laborers, was a small man holding a titled jar.  Edged in stone, a liquid of some sort had been spilling out of that jar right, onto the very spot where the sled met the ground, for an eternity.  We gave him the answer he was waiting for.  “Real evidence,” he repeated and smiled triumphantly.

Two hundred new tombs were just discovered recently in the far-off edge of the site.  While we imagined what they had in store (even if the tomb robbers might have made off with all of the moveable goods) Mostafa rattled off another fact:  Only about 30% of what was buried underneath the sand had been discovered to date.  Wow.
 
  PARISDISE.COM RECOMMENDS.  

If you’re looking for a personal guide to explore Egypt, we cannot think of a better recommendation than Mostafa and his driving partner, Mr. Ali.  Aside from working with Debbie Senters, Mostafa also has his own growing agency called, Egypt Culture Tours.  Go to www.egyptculturetours.com for more information.  Please be sure to tell him we sent you.
 
DAYS  Day 1    Day 2B  Day 2C  Day 3  Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8
 
Go to Dine | Cairo  Go to Sleep | Cairo
 
 
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