The Pyramids- 21 Hours In Cairo
I’ve said it before: life is suuuuuper unpredictable. For example: you can get a shakedown by the Israeli TSA, and then not three hours later find yourself running- literally running- on a horse around the Pyramids of Giza. This is my favorite story from the whole trip.
Backup a few days: I had decided to cut Cairo from my itinerary for money/time reasons. ‘The pyramids will be there for a while’ I said. My ticket to Tunis ended up including a 21-hour layover in Cairo afterall, but still I wasn’t optimistic. Those pyramids must be really far out in the desert, I thought. Doubtful I can get there and back, by myself, in just a few hours of daylight.
Then I got an email from a couchsurfing host:
HI GRANT, I’M HASAN. I CAN HOST YOU FOR THAT ONE NIGHT AND SHOW YOU AROUND. I’LL MEET YOU AT THE AIRPORT WITH A SIGN WITH YOUR NAME ON IT; I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO THAT :D
That’s great! Because honestly I was afraid if I tried to navigate Cairo on my own I’d get swallowed up and never heard from again. I told him I was excited, but also disappointed I couldn’t get to the pyramids on this trip.
He emailed me back saying:
PYRAMIDS SOUND GOOD. GIZA AND CAIRO ARE ATTACHED. WE CALL IT GREATER CAIRO. DON’T WORRY, WE CAN GET IT ALL DONE IN ONE DAY. SEE YOU!
Sure enough I got off the escalator and there was this guy- thick black fro, thick black glasses, lippy smile like Squints from The Sandlot- holding a sign just for me. Both of us lived out a small fantasy in that moment.
Look at the face that guy on the left is making! HAHAHAHAHA!
Hasan and I clicked immediately. He grew up in Virginia (“DC suburb full of white people with too much money and no idea what to do with it”) but moved to his parents’ homeland at 13. Now he studies medicine, but has nearly convinced himself he’s ready to quit and try to be a writer. We talked about all this as we drove under the 20,000 underpasses Cairo seems to possess on our way to the pyramids.
In 2010 Egyptians revolted, and it effectively killed tourism. A lot of men have taken to standing in the busy streets approaching the pyramids, scouring for work opportunities. When they saw me in the passenger seat of Hasan’s car they ran- not exaggerating- ran to flag me down. They clutched onto the glass and yelled through the driver’s side window, their feet dragging along beneath them.
"What are they yelling?" I asked after a particularly forward man jumped on the hood of Hasan’s car. He had his hands put together in a point over his head.
"They’re asking if you want to go to the pyramids and need a guide."
"Even though they see that I’m in the car with an Egyptian? They don’t assume you’re my guide."
"They just see that you’re a tourist. Look, you can see the pyramids up ahead." Indeed you could. The dulled points of those mystical things poked up over the palm trees and construction sites of Cairo’s skyline, and I realized Las Vegas got it right.
As we drew closer, and the flag downs got more intense, we thought we would try if I ducked down into the floorboards and Hasan pretended to be alone. Thusly situatied I didn’t really see too much of the entryway to the Pyramids of Giza parking lot. But I can tell you those pyramids are not in the middle of nowhere. The city of Greater Cairo goes right up to the gates.
"It’s Hollywood that makes you think they’re far out. Transformers shows them riding across this huge desert on a camel." They could have taken the bus.
My student ticket cost 2 US dollars, and another 11 for entrance into the Great Pyramid itself (100 Egyptian Pounds). For Hasan it cost about 40 cents. We got into an argument with a random guy by the x-rays who claimed my student ID was not valid. He was technically correct, but Hasan- who was handling the whole altercation in Arabic- handed the guy 3 coins and that grudgingly shut him up.
"I’m not even sure he works here. But he looked bribable." So that’s how we got into the pyramids.
The pyramids are big. Not mindblowingly big, like the Grand Canyon. Not even surprisingly big, like the Eiffel Tower. Just really big. The smallest stones are half my height. Way to go slaves (for the record, Jews did not build the pyramids. They had been out of Egypt for 400 years by the time they broke ground on these babies).
The entrance hole (hehe) and visitors- Great Pyramid
The pressure of diminishing tourism has made it kind of hard to enjoy visiting Giza, unfortunately. Everywhere we went men ran along beside us- I should say on top of us- offering tours, photos, books, head massages, anything they could think of. If this trip has taught me how to studiously ignore pushy hawkers, the entryway at the Pyramids of Giza was my PhD defense hearing.
Entering the Great Pyramid involves walking down a narrow hall and then climbing a steep, diagonal passageway maybe 100 meters long and three feet high. There’s a wooden plank with nailed slats for footholds, and you’re doubled over the whole time. I don’t know if this is part of the original schematics or not. This dumps you out onto a landing which is just the bottom of another longer, steeper, infinitely more awesome chamber. This place is legit. It’s very obviously the original passageway built in the pyramid. In this room you can really sense the solidity of the structure you’re inside of. Sure there’s some chambers and passageways, but 90% of this pyramid is solid rock, and on this spot you can feel it all around you.
Not to mention the total mindfuck of the passage itself. The space takes its shape from geometrical stairsteps that trickle down to form an inverse slant. Taken individually they’re tiny overlaps hanging in the stone. Taken as a whole, though, you’re standing at the bottom of a sickening, upside-down chamber diminishing toward a minuscule door hundreds of feet above your head. It’s a very surreal, unearthly place, very much belonging to the mind of some bird-god genius.
Cameras aren’t allowed inside, so photo courtesy of archiseek.com
At the top I bent low to walk through the tiny square passageway. Halfway, through, however, it opened up. Suddenly there was a tall rectangular reprise, 4 X 4 X 20, with big grooves running up all 4 sides. Another opening at the top looked like a shelf or maybe another passage. I wondered what this strange little chamber was for. Anyway, it was a good back stretch before ducking down once again to keep going into the tomb.
The tomb up there is a small, smooth, solid-feeling room that looks exactly like that level on Goldeneye. There’s a vacant sarcophogus at one end. The chamber obviously used to be filled with gold and awesome stuff which robbers and the British stole. Now it’s simply an empty, albeit awesome little room, with one 3X3 square portal in the lonely corner through which to crawl in and out. You get the message that this room wasn’t meant for people to come and go.
Passing again through that tall antechamber on the way out I realized what it was for- the grooves once directed a large moveable stone. A mechanism somewhere else activated the raising and lowering of the stone, and the shelf above is where it rested while the portal was open. I was standing inside an Ancient Egyptian lock! And that’s about the coolest thing I’ve ever done.
A few minutes later Hasan and I emerged into the sun. Walking down the pathway toward the second pyramid Hasan said something funny to me. He said “So how well can you ride a horse?” Ummm about as well as I can fly a space ship?
Suddenly he called out to his friend Glondrash, who appeared beside us with two saddled horses and a whip in his hand. "My friend! Are you happy?"
I’ve never ridden a horse that I can remember, but I’m not afraid of them anymore, and it seemed a pretty adventurous thing to do, so I said “You bet!” I put my foot in the thing…the stirrup, and threw my leg over like I probably learned from watching Hey Dude, and all of a sudden I was on a goddam horse. In Egypt.
My horse’s name was Gamil, which is a very beautiful Arabic word for ‘beautiful’. Gamil. "This really is the best way to see the pyramids and Sphynx" Hasan called to me from his own horse. "On camel it takes forever! On horses we can run and it takes five minutes." Run? "Oh but try to lean forward and bounce with the horse. Otherwise your balls will explode." Do what now?
This is Gamil running away in the middle of my photo with Glondrash.
Learn by doing! Glondrash whistled and yelled “YIPYIPYIPYIPYP” and Gamil bolted off across the sand! I was a little bit scared. Only in the “I’ve-never-ridden-a-horse-before-and-this-one’s-running-REALLY-fast-” kind of way. Maybe you’re familiar. After while we started cantering or whatever the middle speed horses have is called (horses only have three speeds), and Glondrash tried to teach me some history.
Giza has 9 pyramids all together- 3 big, 3 medium, and 3 small. They were built for the king and his wives and their children. Honestly I was only half listening. Who cares what kind of stone each was built of? It’s cool they line up with the stars and stuff, but tourism and lifelong Hollywood legend has kind of destroyed the historical lure. Nowadays the big draw of visiting the pyramids is to visit the pyramids. Plus I really didn’t want my balls to explode.
There’s three more somewhere, I promise.
The Sphynx sits right behind the pyramids, I learned. I don’t know why I thought all these things were far away from each other. She’s cordoned off to a 30 foot radius, but you can climb onto an old stone side building to take pictures. Souvenir sales aren’t regulated there, either. 7-year-olds lay out their statuettes and postcards right on top of ancient Egyptian ruins. There’s such a din it’s hard to get into a respectful, historical state of mind. Plus there’s no signs to tell you what you’re looking at, so I guess that’s what Google’s for.
TIL The Sphynx has a tail
It’s not a really relaxing place, the Pyramids. There’s so much going on around you, you kind of have to concentrate if you wanna be awe-inspired. But I was willing to put forth the mental effort from atop my regal horse, and the random wonderfulness of life caught up to me, and I really was blown away.
Trotting back up the paved road toward the Great Pyramid, Hasan and I waved right into the window of a Japanese tour bus. “You feel better than everyone else when you’re on a horse” he said. And you know what? You really do.