Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Day 3- Cairo & Saqqara

Day 3 - Cairo: Sakkara, Darshur and Memphis

Travel is all about new things, and today, we experienced several "first time experiences" including:

1. Committing a food faux pas and offending the person making your food
2. Witnessing an accident on the crowded streets of Cairo
3. Being robbed (more on that later...), no worries mom, this is an exaggeration
The day started out okay with a quick breakfast in the hotel. It was a decent spread and was going well until I asked for my omlette. The chef asked what I wanted in it, and I remarked ham and cheese. Oops, muslims do not eat pork and think of pig as vile animals. With an extremely disgusted look on his face, the chef said that, "He did not work with pig!". I quickly, and apologetically asked for beef (which looked like ham???). Iam sure I got an extra special secret sauce when I wasn't looking!

The day took a turn for the worse after breakfast though. We had arranged through the hotel for a car and driver to take us to Sakkara to explore the oldest pyramids. However, at our designated pickup time, they were "unaware" of our plans. After some discussion, they were obviously not going to fulfill their end of the bargain, so we asked for our money back to make our own arrangements. We ended up catching a black & white cab for the day to take us to the sights and wait for us at each site.

The ride to Sakkara started with us winding our way through the the streets of Cairo. The city does not have the sheer volume of traffic of Beijing or the incredible sights (9 million scooters) of Ho Chi Minh City, but driving in Cairo certainly is interesting in its own right. This is where we saw the first accident. Although not quite as vicious as the cyclist hitching a ride on our Tuk Tuk in Siam Riep, we did see a scooter take out a cyclist. Somehow, the cyclist was not pissed off at the scooter driver, rather he was angry with our taxi driver. There is much to learn about the driving rules of Cairo.

The drive to Sakkara was very interesting. It was nice to leave the bustle of the city and get into the country side. Even more cool was our first site of the 3 pyramids at Giza, which was just visible (through the smog) in the backdrop of the city.

Sakkara is home to the Step Pyramid of Egypt. One of the most interesting experiences driving into Sakkara is that when you leave the highway/road with the river beside you and the lush vegetation areas, all of a sudden you are in the desert. There is literally a line that divides green from sand. Upon our arrival, we headed to the museum at the site to learn about the complex. Sakkara is essentially the burial grounds for the old Pharaohs from Memphis. The significance of the step pyramid is that it was constructed around 2650 BC by Imhotep - the first architect of a Pharaoh to build a Pyramid stone structure as a burial area. Hence, the steps - the craftsmen were getting used to building the structure, and found that building square stone mastaba stages could rise the traditional mastaba out towards the sun. All other pyramids in Egypt took the learnings from the Step Pyramid of Zoser to create the large structures. Walking around this huge site was absolutely stunning - the pyramids alsways in the back drop, with the various causeways and structures around for the other burial artififacts. Pebbled around the pyramids was also these league-deep holes that used to house the wooden boats for the Pharaohs ka (soul) to leave after death. On another note, one of the more interesting cultural items is the many wanna-be "guides" that wander around looking to rent you a camel for a score of money or to tell you two sentances about the site and then expect a tip (and a hefty one at that!). We have learned from some of our mistakes and made it (almost) without one of these tag-alongs accosting us.
The Step Pyramid of Zoser
The highlight of Saqqara was definately being able to descend into the Pyramid of Titi (Vince loves the name). The pyramid itself was built in the step-style, but years of the desert and robbery of its stone have left it no more than a mound of stone rubble. However, the interior is intact. You descend down a narrow ramp into the bowels of the pyramid - not for the claustophobic (ahem, me). Once down, the walls are amazingly protected due to the dry air. Pyramid Text and hieroglyphics are carved throughout the chambers, including stars on the ceiling. The massive stone sarcophogus of Titi (or Teti depending on the book) is still in one of the chambers. Vince wouldn't take my bet to get in the stone coffin for a photo...even with my encouraging remarks that "I bet some Titi is still in there waiting for you..."...

After Saqqara we went to another small pyramid area called Dashur. Dashur is home to only three pyramids - the Black Pyramid (collapsed pile of stone), the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid (for the red hue of the stone). The Bent Pyramid was closed, so we could only take pictures from afar. The story behind the bent pyramid is that the Pharaoh Sneferu wanted a smooth sided pyramid, so they used the same angle (54 degrees) as the step pyramid. About halfway up the 105 m height, the stress on the steepness of the pyramid started to show, and the top of the pyramid had to be reduced to 43 degrees.
The Bent Pyramid

The Red Pyramid is titled as the "World's Oldest True Pyramid" - meaning smooth sides. It is built to the same height as the Bent Pyramid (105 m), making the two pyramids the third largest in the world, after the two at Giza. We were able to descend into the pyramid - 63 meters!!! It was a very uncomfortable descent - hot, tight quarters and with the over whelming smell of urine or some sort of ammonia. After descending 63 meters, my thighs had cramped up (oww!!), but the chambers were immense! High, vaulted ceilings and three chambers, one where they theorize Snefuri was laid to rest.

The Red Pyramid was also where Vince got "robbed"... To set the stage, my definition of being robbed is as follows: The undesired giving of money to an individual carrying an AK-47 assault rifle. A "Tourism & Antiquities Police Officer" approached us at the base of the Red Pyramid and offered to our picture. Wise to these appraoches, we kindly said "No thank you" and took pictures ourselves. The persistent little bugger then came right up to use and asked for a "tip" for his services. As Sherrill says, "In Canada, when a man with a gun askes for money, you are taught that you are being robbed and to hand it over". My first thought was to hand over the change that was given to us explicitly for tipping, but the gun was rather large and there were so few people around, we might not be discovered until they began excavations again. Needless to say I parted with more money than I wanted, but at least he left us alone after that. Sherrill has begun to worry less about pick pockets since the Egyptians are very smooth at getting money from us.

In front of the Red Pyramid - note the entrance to the right and the "Robber" to the left

Inside the Red Pyramid - Safe from the Robber, Not from the Urine Smell

Our final stop was in Memphis, an unassuming little town that used to be the capital of Egypt during the Pharaoh days. Now, there is little left with the exception of a small over-priced museum that houses a stone carving of Ramses, and some other artificats. Vince got to pose next to a Sphinx, so he was a happy camper, even though he had gone without a lunch break...

Memphis Museum Has Found a New Sphinx

We made our way back to Cairo and the constant honking for some much needed showers and water. It was a hot, but very rewarding day, and we were both happy.

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