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.
Holga PhotosBW Photos
See Egypt in a different light:  It’s a whole new perspective on film. 
Be sure to check out the Holga and 35mm photos of our trip!
DAYS  Day 1  Day 2A    Day 2C  Day 3  Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8
Classroom in the sand, Part 2:  Dahshur.
DAHSHUR – 18 February 2009.  Next up was Dahshur and its two notables:  the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid, both credited to the pharaoh Snofru, father of Cheops – yes, that Cheops.  We admired the former irregular pyramid from afar through the hazy air while listening to Mostafa’s description and then drove to the foot of the latter.  There were only a few touring vans in the flat sand lot out front and none from our hotel.  We had gotten off the beaten track.  Because of a new regulation against giving tours within the pyramid, Mostafa sent us along after another lesson along with an advice:  “If you feel like you need to come back out, just turn around.  There’s enough room for two-way traffic.”

  The pharaoh Snofru was credited with building not one but two pyramids (and possibly even a third).  The Bent Pyramid here was one of them.



  Snofru’s other afterlife structure, nowadays dubbed the Red Pyramid.  It rises some 340 feet from the desert floor, and it is just desert all around.


Dahshur:  Into the belly
of the stone beast.
Come back out halfway?  Never.  Not us, anyway.  We left the cameras in the car with him and Mr. Ali, as the sign once more warned:  “No Photo.”  This pyramid was considered to be the first true pyramid and it was the third largest, after the Pyramids of Cheops (or Khufu) and Chephren (or Khafre) in Giza.  Walking the distance between our car and the beginning of the steps we felt like children who had just been dropped off for summer camp by their parents with an ominous farewell, “Enjoy.”  Up close, the pyramid was colossal but the creeping desert sand had encroached upward to almost a quarter of its height.  We scaled the steep staircase cut right into the exterior stones right up to the high entrance on the north face.  There, a withered man sat under an umbrella by the opening – perhaps four feet by three feet – to a steep, deep tunnel.  (Actually, the angle is around 27°.)  It brought to mind images of a mine for very small miners.  Through his untoothy grin, the gatekeeper asked of us, “Where are you from?”  “America,” we said in unison.  “America very good, Obama,” he responded joyfully.  We wondered what he used to say before last November.  He waved us in.  We stooped to a crouch, grabbed for the smooth wooden handrail on the right wall, and felt our feet meeting the first horizontal metal slats built into the wooden planks on the floor of the tunnel.
  Discussing the typical components of an Old Kingdom funerary complex:  Our knowledgeable guide, Mostafa, had Nez’s rapt attention.
  Riot swore he was also paying attention as he clicked away with his Holga, whose technology barely postdated the pyramids.
The descent was steep but not so much so that you would actually slide forward if you did not hold on to the handrails; the metal slats on the ground and your soon-to-be-aching thighs were adequate to make the trip safe.  As we began, approaching us from the other side was an older Japanese couple with labored breathing and soaked heads of hair.  Though neither showed any sign of being in mortal danger.  The wife in the front passed us with an encouraging smile; the husband followed close behind with an announcement, “Have a good time.”  We pressed to the side to let them pass before continuing.  The first 50 or so steps of the journey was pretty much done on auto-pilot and it should have been wisely left that way.  Feel for a metal slats with one foot, lock in that foot, and then feel for the next with the other foot all the while holding on to the side handrail.  Nothing to it, really.  Riot followed closely behind Nez and saw nothing but darkness in front of him.  He occassionally glanced back to see an ever-closing square hole in the far distance.  Looking upward at the granite or sandstone inches away from his face, he started getting a feeling of being trapped in a very small enclosed space.  Bad idea, he thought as he felt his breathing quickened and heart beat pulsated through his sweat-soaked t-shirt.  His grip on the wooden handrail became unusually slippery.  This was no time and place for a panic attack.

“If you feel like you need to come back out, turn around.  There’s enough room for two-way traffic.”  Mostafa’s voice echoed in Riot’s consciousness.  He took another look back and the hole of light was the size of a coin.  He calmly asked Nez, “Are you OK?”  “Yes,” she responded in a perfectly normal voice that reassured Riot and gave him resolve to continue.  All seemed fine again.  Just then, Nez let out a loud shriek, but not quite a scream, and seized in her track.  “What?!”  Riot asked.  “What is it?”  Nez said she thought she saw a rat, or something moving.  Perfect.  Claustrophobia, a rat, a tiny hole as our only escape, and how many millions of tons of stones were above us?  But we did not panic.  “It’s only a shadow,” Nez quickly determined.  It was probably Riot’s very own shadow created by the occasional light fixture laid along the floor of the passageway (some of which did not work resulting in long stretches of pitch darkness).  We recomposed ourselves and pushed forward, reaching the end in no time with a huge sigh of relief.

  One has to get up close to a pyramid to appreciate its monumental size:  We had to stay this far away to capture the entire Red Pyramid.



  The first true pyramid:  A view of the Red Pyramid, named for the hue of its exposed surfaces, from the northeastern corner. 


A strong odor of ammonia hit us as soon as we emerged into a large space where we could finally stand up and still not take up a fraction of its height.  We quickly got used to the smell but its presence never entirely went away.  The rectangular interior chamber was hot and humid and plain, but it was absolutely amazing.  And though it was an enclosed space, our voices did not echo off the walls as we would have expected; perhaps because we were speaking in a reverential hush and awe the entire time.  Admiring the walls made of massive blocks of granite inevitably caused us to ask, “How did they make them so smooth and fit them together so well?”  (And, of course, “How did they bring them all the way here?”  During this morning’s session, we saw evidence of how they might have done so.)  The triangular ceiling was a succession of large blocks coming ever closer until the final stones met at the top, something professionally known as a corbel-vaulted ceiling.  We kept having to remind ourselves that beyond those final stones were thousands and thousands more stones before reaching the outside air.  Aside from possible graffitis on some of the surfaces we did not see any writing or drawing.

Passing through a short tunnel about four feet high in a crouch, we entered another similarly constructed chamber with the same humidity, heat, and smell.  At the end of this chamber was a wooden staircase that wound up 47 steps to yet another rectangular chamber, this time set perpendicular to the previous two.  Its floor was not smooth like the others but there was also nothing there.  Even deprived of everything and anything that might have been kept here once, these inner sanctums of this burial structure did not fail to awe.  On the one hand, it was really just a pile of silent stones in the desert but on the other, have you ever seen any kind of pile of stones like this before?  We hadn’t.  Add to this the fact that we had the Red Pyramid all to ourselves until just when we were set to leave made it a priceless experience.  (We would not descend inside of Cheops but we were quite OK with doing so at the Red Pyramid.).

  Nary a soul ventures out here to see the third largest pyramid in Egypt.  In the foreground, a lone policeman on duty.  In the background, halfway up the side of the pyramid, is the entrance.



  The Red Pyramid would not have received such a moniker had all of its original, smooth, light-color casing stones (like those at the bottom of this photo) not been stripped over time.


When we turned to leave, we caught a Frenchman standing off in the corner of the first chamber taking a snapshot with his small camera.  We shook our heads in disbelief; Mostafa would have too.  The 150 steps (covering a distance of roughly 200 feet) up to the outside world were a breeze.  Just keep your head down and keep pushing forward.  There was no sighting of suspicious shadows or silly thoughts of being buried alive on this return trip.  We gave the same gatekeeper a small baksheesh and bade him and the Red Pyramid farewell.  As we descended the remaining 136 steps to the desert floor, we overheard a conversation behind us.

“Where are you from?” asked a familiar voice.

“France,” came the reply.  “Zidane,” it added.

The gatekeeper laughed haltingly but apparently did not recognize the name of one of the best soccer players in the world, the pride of a nation, and one of North African descent no less.

The tourist felt like he had to try again so he did.  “Sarkozy.”

There was the same awkward laughter and then, finally:  “Welcome to Egypt.”

We thought to ourselves, what a wonderful feeling being from America in this new era, and then returned to the car to tell Mostafa and Mr. Ali how much we had enjoyed our little excursion.


  The Bent Pyramid and two of its countless visitors:  For when our memories of this trek to the desert begin to go hazy just like the desert sky.  [Photo - Mostafa]



  A quick snapshot before the sparsely-visited Red Pyramid that had taken us deep into its belly.  [Photo - Mostafa]


A stimulating lunch.  With two excellent sights under our belt and just a bit wilted from all the expended energy, we were happy to break for lunch.  We were given two options: a simple Egyptian meal of kushari for about L.E. 5-10 a person or a more elaborate kofta meal for around L.E. 60 each.  We were torn and vacillated between the choices until finally deciding on the latter (see Review).  It was a good and sumptuous meal and we insisted on Mostafa and Mr. Ali joining us at our table.  They were excellent dining companions and the most thoughtful hosts, even taking turns to go pray so that we were never left alone.  At one point the conversation somehow took a turn toward a subject the guide book carefully recommended tourists to steer clear of for the sake of travel harmony, and then some.  But the conversation was good and so we and Mostafa proceeded anyway and an interesting, stimulating, and respectful conversation on the Middle East ensued.  It’s one thing to think how people with different views on an issue might think, it’s altogether another to meet those people in flesh and blood and hear their views.  Neither of us has a strong view on the matter, other than subscribing to the only seemingly workable solution, on this most complicated problem.  We also know that we approach the subject as perpetual outsiders who are handicapped by not having to live every day in these very conflicted lands.

  Will play for baksheesh:  A traditional Egyptian band fired up as we entered the restaurant.  In fact, Nez was probably more excited about the dancing than the food itself.  (Apologies for the wrong-speed setting.)  [Photo - Mostafa]



  A quick tour of the bread oven where the bread lady baked for curious tourists’ cameras and hungry stomachs.



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 for more information.  Please be sure to tell him we sent you.
DAYS  Day 1  Day 2A    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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