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 2B    Day 3  Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8
Classroom in the sand, Part 3:  Giza.
GIZA – 18 February 2009.  The road back to Giza was a similar gridlock to what we had left this morning.  But our car pushed forward; Mr. Ali nudged for position whenever he saw an opening while at the same time expertly warded off the constant intrusion of other vehicles, all fighting for a piece of the asphalt.  At the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza, we bought our tickets and passed through a large entry hall beaming with metal detectors, scanners, empty queue lines, and turnstiles.  While there was a ten- or twenty-fold increase in the number of visitors here from where we just came from, we shuddered to think of the high tourist season when this entire room would be filled to the brim.  Beyond, we climbed a gentle uphill path to the waiting Cheops.  Being with a guide had another distinct advantage, it was like a sure amulet against the onslaught of offers of postcards and souvenirs, camel or horse rides, and even guided tours of the useless variety.  We stopped in front of the Great Pyramid on a mound of exposed bedrock (which provided an excellent foundation for the massive structure) to hear Mostafa’s explanation of the typical site layout of an Old Kingdom’s funerary complex:  riverside valley temple, causeway, funerary temple, and pyramid.  Looking up at the crowded entrance to the pyramid, we recalled the recent pleasant experience of having the Red Pyramid pretty much all to ourselves.

  That’s us on the exposed bedrock that had kept the Great Pyramid of Cheops standing for over 40 centuries.  The little dots in the background are the remaining visitors after the tour buses had departed for the day.  [Photo - Mostafa]



  They dug the smaller entrance to the lower right to gain access to the interior of the Great Pyramid of Giza before they found the original entrance above.


Giza:  To be a witness
to a new discovery.
Mr. Ali then drove us past the Pyramid of Chephren, with its distinct, still-intact casing stones at the top, to the third and smallest of the three, the Pyramid of Mycerinus.  We pulled into the parking lot where a small group of men gathered beside a shallow ditch. In it sat an upright statue that, to our untutored eyes, appeared to be neither ancient nor very remarkable.  As soon as the car came into a halt, Mostafa uncharacteristically rushed out without giving us a quick spiel as he had been doing all day.  Riot grabbed his camera and exited the car to a sudden loud cry of, “No camera! No pictures!”  He was startled but Mostafa swooped in to explain.  As it turned out, this was a brand new discovery – within the hour – and the men from the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities (“SCA”) obviously did not want anyone to be near it let alone to take some snapshots.  Riot put the camera back in the car while another man sitting in a nearby car yelled something out to Mostafa in Arabic interspersed with the English word, “water.”  This caused the latter to run back to our car and quickly ask Mr. Ali for the half-empty bottle of water.  Turning to us, Mostafa said in between hurried breaths, “He said he would let us take a look if we gave him some water.”  We had only began to take in this excitement and the additional humorous sight of our otherwise calm and composed guide rushing to and fro.  We were too embarrassed to confide in him our deepest thought at the time – which was, “What’s the big deal?” – so we shared it among ourselves through the looks in our eyes.

  The Pyramid of Chephren:  In our humble opinion, this is the best one out of the three at Giza.  And this very corner (northwest) is the best place to sit and contemplate these structures, Cheops to the left, Chephren right ahead, and Mycerinus to the right.



  The smallest of the three giants:  The Pyramid of Mycerinus is also the furthest away from the main entrances and thus, the majority of the crowd.


Having obtained the rare admission to a fresh archeological dig with the bargain price of a half-consumed bottle of water, we cautiously approached the object that was obviously delighting everyone, including Mr. Ali who had actually left the car to stand at the edge of the hole with a wide grin on his face.  Mostafa conversed with the apparent head of the crew, a large man in a mid-length black leather jacket, and provided us with a simultaneous translation.  We caught English words like, “Old Kingdom” and “red sandstone,” so we later asked whether those were the standard terminologies of the trade.  “No,” Mostafa explained, “he [the head of the crew] just wanted to show you that he also spoke English.”  About the unfinished red sandstone statue of a sitting man, Mostafa informed us that it was just found by workers renovating the perimeter fence of the pyramid.  It bore no inscription so it could be Mycerinus himself or an official.  It was discovered lying on its side under just 40 cm of dirt.  Think about it.  A mere sixteen inches of dirt separated this statue from the light of day for over four thousand years.  “You’re probably the 20th person to see it after forty centuries,” Mostafa later said.  All of us left while the crew awaited the arrival of Dr. Zahi Hawass; this was indeed big.  Someone told us to keep an eye for this development on the National Geographic or Discovery Channel.  Though we would have loved to stay to meet the man with the pyramid-size personality who heads the SCA, we realized that we were probably near the end of our welcome.  Back in the car, Mostafa and his partner giddily continued to discuss what we had all stumbled upon; Mr. Ali was clearly happy to see Mostafa so excited.  Perhaps all of this excitement precipitated the next half-spoken but fully understood statement:  “When we pull out …”  Riot nodded and set his camera to the highest shutter speed and raised it slightly above the door frame as the car pulled away.

  Egyptologists hovered around their latest discovery at the foot of Mycerinus’ Pyramid.    A covert snapshot of the red sandstone statue recently unearthed after lying a mere 16 inches below the surface for over four thousand years.  (Reuters photo here.)


Mr. Ali brought the car to a bluff in the desert that promised the best view of all three of the pyramids.  Apparently, it was a very well-known spot and vendors of all stripes and a herd of camels awaited the visiting tourists.  It was indeed an amazing vantage point where the city and most traces of modernity disappeared from sight and the pyramids sat alone in a vast stretch of the flat desert.  This was surely the same view of these stone structures that met the eyes of passerby for millennia.  We sat on a modern stone fence and stared at the pyramids in hypnosis and barely noticed the silliness of others who were more entertained by posing for photos of themselves pinching the tops of the pyramids with their fingers or balancing the same in their hands.  “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” asked Mostafa after a long silence.  “I could sit here for hours,” he added.  Without taking our eyes off of the prize, we nodded our heads in silent agreement.

  On a bluff some distance from the three pyramids, we sat on a stone fence and gazed and gazed and gazed.  We could have sat there for the remainder of our trip.



  Even the camels, who toiled daily in the shadows of these structures sometimes could not help but be amazed themselves.



  Yes, we took a photo in front of the Pyramids of Giza just like everyone else.  We could not help ourselves and Mostafa was always so eager to help out.  [Photo - Mostafa]


Roll our eyes and shake our heads at the other tourists as we might, we could not escape the immutable fact that we, too, were tourists ourselves in this land.  That being the case, we decided to say yes to a brief camel ride and photo op.  The animal rose in a clumsy series of movements to its formidable height and took us on a choppy ride into the desert, or about 50 feet away from the crowd.  Our bedouin guide, sporting a black baseball cap, assured us that he was additionally “a good photographer” as he led the camel to a predetermined spot and took a few outstanding shots.  Before this trip, Riot had had visions of playing Lawrence of Arabia and going on an overnight camel safari in the Western Desert.  Nez was not too receptive of the idea.  All the same, because this brief experience would do just fine, for now.  We paid the owner L.E. 20 for the privilege and tipped the camel guide L.E. 5 for his trouble and expertise.

  “Let me know if you want to do a camel ride,” said Mostafa.  Why not, we thought.  It turned out to be pretty fun.  [Photo - Mostafa]



  Far enough from everyone else, we posed along with our camel – who did his signature jig – for our guide/photographer.  [Photo - Unknown Bedouin]


The last official item on our itinerary was a visit to the valley temple complex of Chephren and its neighbor, the famous Great Sphinx of Giza .  Once more, we encountered a large crowd upon arrival, a throng of tourists vying for that de rigueur snapshot with the giant figure with a lion’s body and a human head.  We passed a tour bus unloading a group of visitors in shorts and tank tops who probably came on a day-trip from the beach resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh.  The locals stared, quite a few with undisguised contempt.  “You see what I mean?” said Mostafa at the sight.  Earlier during lunch, we had asked him what bothered Egyptians the most about tourists to their country.  He responded that the biggest thing had to be the lack of respect tourists showed to the local people and culture, especially their convention of dress.  As told, the offenders unfortunately numbered largely from the ranks of the recent waves of Eastern European visitors.  Our guide book similarly noted:  “Be aware, too, of the importance of dress . . . Many tourists ignore these conventions, unaware of how it demeans them in the eyes of the Egyptians.”
  Granite walls and alabaster floors, Nez and Mostafa walking down a path leading away from the causeway.
  Through this dooway, the causeway connects the valley temple with the funerary temple and the Pyramid of Chephren.
We entered the remains of the valley temple, walking past massive granite walls, and peered through a small gate at the distant Pyramid of Chephren.  On this very walkway and through that same gate, the embalmed body of the Pharaoh was brought to his eternal resting place.  We then made our way through a flock of visitors for our very own snapshots with the flattened profile of the Sphinx, which on this day seemed to be a favorite resting place for birds.  Seeing the facial deformity of the statue reminded Riot of an overheard conversation at the Institut de Monde Arabe last week, where he and a classroom of American high schoolers were visiting the current exhibition entitled, “Bonaparte et l’Éygpte.”   One know-it-all kid asserted aloud to his classmates that Napoleon had the Sphinx’s nose shot off, which got an expected reaction from another student:  “What a dumb ass. He probably did that to compensate for his size.”  Everyone giggled in the hushed museum but was the first kid right?  Mostafa seemed to think differently:  It would be hard to believe that Napoleon would do such a thing at the same time as ordering his legion of archaeologists to carefully document the ruins of Ancient Egypt during his military campaign there.

  The famous Great Sphinx of Giza, the largest monolith statue in the world, sitting before the Pyramid of Chephren, to whom many archaeologists attributed its creation.



  This photo was timed just right to appear as though no one else was in the area clamoring to take his or her own shots.  It was a mad house.  The top of the Pyramid of Cheops could be seen in the background.  [Photo - Mostafa]


Walking away from the Sphinx and the valley temple complex of Chephren toward the exit where the edge of the Nile once sat in ancient time, Mostafa seemed preoccupied by a thought.  He brought up the amazing turn of events at Mycerinus once more and pleaded with us:  “Please be sure to get all the information correct when you write about it.”  We made sure to take detailed notes to follow through on our promise to him.  There was still a little disbelief in Nez at how we had simply happened upon such a discovery – us, two ordinary people, in the same place at the same time as the unearthing of a piece of history.  Though admittedly, neither of us really thought that anyone would go to all that trouble to stage such an elaborate event for our sake.  We were, after all, just two out of the millions of people who came to Giza each year.  But in the end, we were two very lucky people.  No proof was needed but it was all over the news.

  What ever happened to the Sphinx’s nose?  Theories abound but no one knows for sure.  What did our guide think?  Erosion.  That’s plausible enough.


Tea with Mr. Ali.  Instead of meeting our waiting car at the gate, we were told by Mostafa that Mr. Ali had instead invited us to have tea with him to make up for the aborted morning tea session at Saqqara when the vendor was no where to be found.  On a side street, we came upon a sidewalk table where Mr. Ali was already reposed with his shisha pipe.  He pointed us to the chairs he had saved for us and the attendant quickly brought out another shisha for Riot.  We were served the promised mint tea, which was quite a delightful and very simple combination.  It was nice to finally relax after an activity-packed day.  We settled into our chairs and took turns at the pipe and at coughing out puffs of smoke to a chorus of encouraging laughter from Mr. Ali and Mostafa.  Nearby, groups of men were engrossed in their games of backgammon and on the narrow street, cars and horse-drawn carriages fought for primacy.  The air was filled with the sweet scent of fertilizer or the stuff that it was made of, or possibly both.  From between the high-rise buildings, the now-familiar call to prayer rang out to the faithfuls.

  Mr. Ali, the quiet, but no less essential, element of the day’s equation:  He invited us to have tea at the end of our tour to get a glimpse of real, modern-day Egypt.



  Hanging out with the locals:  Nez, Mostafa, and Mr. Ali doing what is done in the late afternoon in Cairo.


Mostafa asked if we would mind him leaving us momentarily in the able charge of Mr. Ali while he went to pray.  We said, of course we did not mind.  Though pretty much a silent partner to Mostafa all day long, Mr. Ali was never a distant figure to us and even his expressionless face was always welcoming.  He began speaking to us in a halting, monosyllabic English, all the while hugging the hose to his barrel chest with both his arms.  We talked about his decades of driving every type of vehicle known to man and of his teenage children and the same challenges parents of teenagers across the world faced.  Earlier at Saqqara, Riot had told Mostafa that he was a writer (at which Nez rolled her eyes) which Mostafa then recounted to an interested Mr. Ali.  Now, the subject of conversation returned to writing and Riot dropped the name of the author and book he was reading on this trip:  Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk.  “I know Naguib Mahfouz,” said Mr. Ali.  “I used to see him every week at the coffee shop.”  And so, on a little, unknown stretch of sidewalk in crowded Giza, we sat soaking in the Egyptian café culture while chatting with a local man about his family and parenting, a man who drove for a living and who knew the late Nobel Laureate (click here for his 1988 Nobel Lecture).  This was the real essence of traveling.

  Let me have a go at it:  Nez’s philosophy of traveling includes experiencing everything at least once, like smoking from a shisha and then promptly coughing.



  While the tourists tried out the shisha pipe at this table, the locals busied themselves with ongoing games of backgammon in the background.  [Photo - Mostafa]


When Mostafa returned, Mr. Ali spoke to him in Arabic.  Mostafa translated:  “Mr. Ali said that you should move to Cairo to write.”  We both laughed in appreciation of someone who understood the inseparable ingredient of location to the art of writing.  (Many would beg to differ but Riot will just stick to this as one of the reasons for moving to Paris.)  Mr. Ali also offered to send Riot ideas for stories.  How do you say, “Bring it on,” in Arabic?  Soon, it was Mr. Ali’s turn to take leave to go pray at the neighborhood mosque.

  A shisha of one’s own:  Mr. Ali saw to it that Riot got his pipe as soon as we met up with him for sidewalk tea.


How every tour guide ought to be.  Later that night, back at the Mena House and over a lackluster dinner at the Khan Al-Khalili Restaurant (see Review), we reminisced on an extraordinary day.  We both agreed that the one undeniable ingredient that made it all possible was the excellent guide that we found in Mostafa and his sidekick, Mr. Ali.  Mostafa was not there just to take us to points A, B, and C and to give us a boilerplate description of each or even to babysit us for the set number of hours we had agreed upon.  No, he went much beyond that.  More than just having a pleasant time, it was important to Mostafa that we learned.  He wanted to increase our awareness of Egypt’s intertwined ancient and modern history and culture.  He got down on the ground to draw explanatory diagrams in the sand.  He fed our curiosity with patience knowledge and stimulated our gray matter with questions.  Not once did we feel he was pushing additional tours or some purchases upon us for kickbacks on the side and he was always around to ensure that we got the best prices on anything that we bought.  He constantly reminded us:  “Be sure to use me for anything you need, recommendations on where to go, what to eat, anything. I’m all yours today.”  Today was as close as we ever got to the real Egyptian culture and was hands down the best experience on this Egypt trip.  Sure, our legs would be sore for days to come (it must have been the pyramid climbing motion), but this day spent with Mostafa and Mr. Ali would surely outlast that discomfort and many things else in our collective memories.

  A good guide can make or break a trip:  Here, our outstanding guide, Mostafa of Egypt Culture Tours, engaged Nez in yet another lesson in the sand.  This is the man everyone should call on when visiting Egypt.



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 2B    Day 3  Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8
Go to Dine | Cairo  Go to Sleep | Cairo

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