“Higher!” he says, for what feels like the 87th time. Can’t you jump any higher?” I’m trying. Really, I am, but I’m in the sand and it’s hot and I’ve been running around Cairo for days and I’m tired. I’m finally at the Great Pyramids in Giza, and my guide is trying to snap the perfect photo of me jumping over the pyramids, but apparently my jump-in-the-sand skills didn’t follow me into middle age.
Mohamed, the taxi driver I met yesterday who took me to his brother’s wedding last night, has been carting me around town all day for a fraction of what I’d pay on an organized tour, and he’s taking me to places I’d never get to without his guidance. Plus I get fantastic conversation with a local.
“Tell me about the Arab Spring,” I ask. In 2010 I closely followed the news of millions of Egyptians demonstrating in Cairo’s Tahir Square, demanding democratic elections. The protests led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power. Months later, Egyptians voted Mohamad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party into power as the first democratically elected president in the country’s history. Three years later though, new protests erupted, Morsi was forced out by a military coup d’etat and the Muslim Brotherhood was banned. The current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was voted into office in 2014 with a whopping 97% of the vote. I walked across Tahir Square yesterday on my way to the National Museum, and I’m curious to hear Mohamed’s thoughts on how things turned out, especially since my country supported Morsi and the Brotherhood and our media presented the coup as a bad thing for Egyptian democracy.
We’re about an hour out of Cairo, driving through small towns toward Dahshur, where I’ll get to go inside of a pyramid. It’s Friday, the start of the Muslim weekend, so traffic is light today. Mohamed tells me it’s the best day to do this tour because there won’t be many people around. Life is simple out here in the countryside, and I see more donkey carts than cars. We sit at a stop sign and an oxen cart driven by a 5-year-old passes on my right.
Mohamed, who was a lawyer before he chose to be a taxi driver and tour guide, tells me he voted for Sisi and is happy with how he is running the country. “The Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists,” he tells me. “They won the election by paying uneducated peasants to vote for them. Everyone thought they were so great until they got into power and started changing the constitution to make Egypt a more religious country without democracy.” I will hear similar opinions from several other Egyptians I interact with in my time here, but I have to remind myself that the people I interact with are educated. Possibly the less-educated farmer population is unhappy with the current situation. It is a good reminder, however, not to blindly believe what I hear on the news at home – this is a good example of how messages are spun to support a position that might not reflect the full picture of reality.
The road to Dahshur is unmarked, and I can’t imagine how even the most intrepid tourist could find it without the guidance of someone like Mohamed. We arrive to an empty parking lot and climb about 150 stone steps in the morning heat to the entrance of the Red Pyramid. An old man clad in a traditional galabeya greets us and points to what looks like a glorified laundry chute and I realize that’s what I’ll be using to climb down into the pyramid. I take my camera bag off my back, fold myself in half, and begin the descent. 139 hunched-over, sweaty, claustrophobic steps later I’m standing in the guts of an ancient pyramid. There are two vacant rooms and a separate tomb room up a few dozen steps. It smells like bat shit. I don’t know what I expected from tomb raiding but this was not it. What I mean is, the idea of climbing into a pyramid is much cooler than actually being inside one. That said, I am glad I did it and recommend that everyone try it. When else will you get that experience? Just be ready to kiss your fresh-showered feeling goodbye for the day.
Next we’ll go to the Bent Pyramid, Mohamed tells me. “Yalla!” I say. Let’s go! I ask why it is bent, and Mohamed laughs, says “practice,” and launches into a history lesson about Dahshur. Around 2600 BC, Egypt’s pyramids were built in the step form. Pharaoh Snefru attempted to build the first smooth-sided pyramid in Maidum, but it failed. Next, he sent his architect to try in Dahshur. They began building the Bent Pyramid at a 54 degree incline but halfway up they had to adjust the angle. This is what gives the pyramid its bent appearance. The Red Pyramid was the third attempt, and as they say, “third time’s the charm.” It was the first smooth-sided pyramid ever built, and it awes me that it still stands thousands of years later. What a testament to human ingenuity and persistence.
After a few minutes of amusing banter with Ali and Goma, the military guards at the Bent Pyramid (“We love America! California ladies are so beautiful!”), we head off to the complex at Sakkara.
Sakkara is a sprawling complex of tombs, temples, and a museum dedicated to Imhotep, Egypt’s most famous ancient architect of pyramids. The landscape is dominated by the 60m high Step Pyramid, which is closed to visitors because it is unstable. My favorite, though, is the Funerary of King Djoser (Zoser), especially the Hall of Columns. I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story.
Finally we head to Giza, to the climax of the day: the famed Great Pyramids. On the way Mohamed tells me about the vendors at Giza. “They are vultures!” he warns me. He offers me options for seeing the pyramids. I can walk, he tells me, but it is more than 10km. I could take a horse or donkey, or I could ride a camel. After my experience with a donkey in Jordan I opt for the camel. Mohamed has deliberately waited until late afternoon to show me Giza, because all the other tourists go in the morning. Well done, Mohamed, because between the time of day and westerners’ unfounded fear of traveling to the Middle East, I practically have the place to myself. And without a guide to protect me, I would be devoured by the unfortunate vendors struggling to make a living in a poor tourism economy.
The complex at Giza consists of six pyramids – three large and six small, and the Sphinx. The Great Pyramid, built by King Snefru’s son Khufu, is the only ancient wonder of the world still standing. Perhaps this is because it is made out of more than 2 million limestone blocks, each weighing up to 15 tons. Being a history geek, I am fascinated to learn that contrary to Hollywood, it was not built by slaves, but instead by massive guilds of well-fed, privileged skilled laborers. You can read about that here at Harvard Magazine.
As if these miraculously enormous pyramids aren’t enough, they’re capped off by the Great Sphinx. Great mystery surrounds who built the Sphinx and why, but to me it appears to stand sentinel, like a giant guard dog, over the ancient tombs of pharaohs in Giza.
Touring pyramids is a tiring business, and we neither have time nor energy to visit the ancient capital of Memphis today. I am on deadline to get to Vietnam to meet up with my daughter, so I’ll have to save that, Alexandria and Luxor for a future visit.
I tend to be a do-it-yourself traveler, but in Egypt I opted for a guide and it was the smartest decision ever, especially since I lucked into Mohamed. Between taking me to his brother’s wedding to the feast his wife cooked for me, I got an affordable and authentic Egyptian cultural experience.
Read more about Egypt’s pyramids here: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/pyramids/
Get in touch with Mohamed for tours of Cairo, Luxor, Alexandria, and even the Red Sea. He’s on WhatsApp. Make sure to tell him I sent you. +20 122 4640079.