Egypt - Round The World Tour 2003 Day 78
Thursday 29th May
With the new addition of a very fast fan in our room, I enjoyed a much better night last night compared to the night before. Sandy was unhappy about the noise but at least we both got a better night’s rest. Even with the fast flowing air across my body, however, I still managed to rack up another few mosquito bites.
Our guide and driver for the day arrived on time to pick us up and would turn out to be an Archaeologist and not an Egyptologist as I first thought. He was a pleasant enough fellow and we discussed the plan of attack for the day before setting off. We knew that it was going to be a very long day if we tried to take in all three of the pyramid sites (Saqqara, Memphis & Dashur) just South of Cairo, so we decided upon doing just the most interesting two of the sites and instead of the third, we would come back to Cairo to spend an hour or so at the Citadel.
Although Memphis and Saqqara were interesting sites, none of the pyramids that we saw today were anywhere near as impressive as those on the Giza plateau the other day. At Memphis, there was an outdoor museum with some interesting statues whilst Saqqara boasted the earliest known pyramid in all of Egypt. Our guide was very articulate in explaining the history of the pharaonic era and the various kings and deities and such. We tried to remain interested as much as we could during the day but the combination of the intense heat together with the steadily increasing winds that were starting to blow up a real sandstorm, were causing us to be very lethargic and it was difficult to concentrate. I can now fully understand why most of the various staff members and security guards at the site entrances are all so very slow and sluggish to move about. At first, I thought they were simply disinterested in their work but after having spent just a couple of hours going through what they have to do many hours each day, it certainly has put things into a different light.
In addition to visiting the pyramid sites, our guide offered us the opportunity to do several things, including a visit to a carpet factory, which we were uninterested in, as well as a visit to a government controlled papyrus outlet where, although it was fixed pricing, it would be a guarantee of genuine papyrus. Just about every tourist attraction and street corner in Cairo boasts numerous touts all selling fake papyrus that they would swear on their mother’s graves in the real thing. After the bulk of our tour was over with, we headed back to Giza to visit the papyrus outlet.
We spent the better part of an hour and a half in the papyrus outlet and were given a personal demonstration of how the plant grows, is cultivated and eventually manufactured into paper. Apparently, the top end of the plant has long, thin, stamens which, when looked at from above, resembles the rays of the sun and thus related directly to Ra, the sun god. The long stem of the plant has a triangular cross-section that relates directly to the shape of the pyramids. For these reasons, the plant plays an important role in Egyptian history and this is largely why papyrus paper is so relevant to Egyptian society – and the flocking tourists. We learned everything you might ever want to know about papyrus but were too afraid to ask and were subsequently invited to peruse their substantial collection of Egyptian artwork on papyrus paper. Some of the artwork on display there was quite stunning and if ever there were an authentic Egyptian souvenir, this would truly be it. Accordingly, we purchased twelve pieces in all ranging from the very small to the very large and spent somewhere in the neighbourhood of $175. I’m sure we would have paid substantially more for these same items if purchased anywhere else in the world.
After having our recent purchases double packed in two layers of stiff, cardboard tubing, we stopped briefly at an Egyptian fast food stall just a little farther up the road. We ordered some shawama wraps and a hamburger at this counterpart to the British chip shop and it was delicious.
Our final stop on the day’s tour was the citadel in the older quarter of the city. Parts of this Egyptian heritage site are built from the outer layer of alabaster stone that was removed from the Giza pyramids hundreds of years ago. The very tip of the largest of the Giza pyramids still has the smooth, outer layer of this alabaster stone intact, which is probably the most recognizable feature of these most famous pyramids. Just across the way from the Citadel complex, we could see where the stones that were used to build the Giza pyramids were originally quarried. Even today, you can still see the marks in the rock face where the slabs of stone were carved and removed from.
Our guide answered all our questions that we put to him and we had a very interesting discussion about Islam and the five pillars of faith – appropriate as we were in the Mohammed Ali mosque at the time (that’s the monarch figure and not the boxer).
Our departure from the Citadel marked the end of what was, in the end, a very good, guided tour of some of Egypt’s most important archaeological sites and we tipped our guide accordingly.
Back at the hostel, Mustafa had our train tickets ready and waiting for us for tomorrow’s excursion down into Upper Egypt – so called because of its elevation, which is apparently also why the Nile flows from South the North. We will be departing late in the evening and so this should give us plenty of time to take in the Cairo museum.
After freshening up a bit, our American friend from yesterday arrived at the hostel and we all got ready to go on the dinner cruise up and down the Nile that we had arranged yesterday. One of the hostel staff members accompanied us the entire evening and arranged our taxi rides and so on.
The cruise itself was not that impressive as we could not see too far into the distance through the still hazy atmosphere due to the sand being whipped about be the high winds. The food was OK and the entertainment took the form of a mediocre belly dancer and a rather impressive, spinning, male dancer that did some amazing things with his cloak.
The ship photographer was all over the place and was taking photos of every table, requested or otherwise. During the evening, he would come around and hand out the cardboard-frames photos to the respective tables with the assumption that we would buy them. Mustafa had already forewarned us about this and we politely refrained from bowing to the sales pressure and declined – much to the disdain of the photographer. The photos were really not that great anyway.
After two hours on the Nile, the boat arrived back at the dock and we hailed a taxi back to the hostel. We got out part way through the trip to stop off at the Internet café for a while before bidding a final farewell to our American friend and heading back to our room for the evening. It will be interesting to read his column covering his visit to Egypt in a couple of months when it is due to be published.