By and large, I’m a visual learner–I need to see it to understand it. I’m not the kind of gal who’s skilled at just “imagining” something. While books, photos, and movies are helpful, traveling and seeing things with my own eyes is, for me, the best way to comprehend a culture’s history and contemporary realities. As this is my first trip to Egypt, I’m eager to ditch my preconceptions shaped by recent media and years of watching documentaries on this country and see it for myself. My first glimpses begin with a trip back in time to Ancient Egypt.
On our first full day in Egypt, we embarked on a mini-bus trip from Cairo out to the ancient desert town of Saqqara. Our skilled driver, Mohammed, weaved through what should have been three lanes of traffic (had there been painted lanes), dodging taxis, public and private buses, 1970s Fiats and new model KIAs, engine-buzzing crotch-rocket motorbikes, and brave pedestrians who maneuvered however and wherever they pleased. In these post-Revolution times–moving from an oppressive dictatorship to a shaky and highly flawed democracy, they all know that rules no longer apply. And even if they did apply, the freedom to break the rules is all too tempting.
As far as the eye could see, both sides of the highway offered no other view than unfinished tenements that stood like soldiers at attention, occasionally decorated with a rainbow of clothes being hung out to dry and always accessorized with at least a half-dozen dirty white TV satellite dishes. Our guide explained that over the last fifteen to twenty years, fertile fields had been disappearing exponentially from distant villages all the way to the suburbs around Cairo. Farmlands that used to extend to the horizon were sold under the government’s nose to developers who disregarded building codes–packing in as many multi-storied buildings as possible. And since an unfinished building cannot be taxed, virtually all the buildings we saw were inhabited yet remained incomplete, bathed in years of dust–Cinderellas awaiting a fairy godmother. It made me wonder whether this was progress on pause or progress defeated.
Heading further southwest through villages along canals of the Nile, the noise and population congestion of the capital gave way to once-common arable spaces, polka dotted with red-brick residences, donkey carts transporting alfalfa, and hijab-cloaked women with anything from jugs of water to bags of lentil balanced expertly atop their piously covered heads. Seeing how things are now in this area allowed me to understand how they used to be just two decades ago much closer to Cairo.
In Saqqara, a blast of heat and ancient sands greeted us as the mini-bus door opened. It was already ten o’clock, yet we were the only visitors around. Fear and bad press has kept away many travelers, and tourism is down about 80% from two years ago. It’s a shame for travelers who delay their trips here until it’s “safe” (it is safe, provided you keep your wits about you), and it’s damaging to millions of average Egyptian citizens who rely directly or indirectly on the tourism economy and who desperately need the financial stability. For us and for the rare few who are choosing now to take advantage of favorable prices, smaller crowds, and a chance to witness history in the making, it’s a brilliant time to visit Egypt. Being here, after weathering all the concerns from loved ones back home before we left, we feel almost smug.
Saqqara is known for the oldest Egyptian pyramid, dating back to about 2800 B.C, the third dynasty. It’s a step pyramid, similar in shape to what you might see in the Yucatan in Mexico, and was built as the final resting place for the Pharaoh Zoser. Although it’s covered today by scaffolding and has long lost its limestone casing, it nonetheless stands majestic and proud that it has withstood millennia of desert climate and sandblast erosion.
While we weren’t allowed into the Pyramid of Zoser because of current maintenance, we did get to peek inside two nearby tombs of noblemen. Even though tombs and pyramids are essentially associated with death and mummies, it was surprising to me to see how the reverence of life permeated every aspect of these burial places. Painted carvings depicted daily activities of the noblemen such as hunting, fishing, music, banquets, and even manicures and pedicures. Hieroglyphics included blessings or “magical spells” that would grant the dead person an abundance of animals, food, riches, and all things good in the after life.
Heading north along the West Bank of the Nile, we jumped ahead 300 years to the pyramids at Giza, which belong to the 4th dynasty. In ancient times, people generally lived on the East Bank of the Nile and buried their dead on the West Bank, symbolic of the rising and setting of the sun…and of life itself. That’s why from Giza down to Valley of the Kings in Luxor, all the pyramids and tombs are on the same side of the Nile: the West. The three great pyramids of Giza belong–in order of lineage and size–to the Pharaoh Cheops, his son Kephren, and the grandson Mycerinus. Because the middle pyramid still has remnants of its limestone casing on the tip, one can really envision the former grandeur and how for generations, these pyramids–gleaming white under the late-day light of a setting sun–were beacons of glory for the pharaohs upon whom the Sun of Life had permanently set.
These ancient structures struck me to the core. Like so many others, coming to Egypt has been on my Bucket List, even long before there were such things as Bucket Lists. With each of the over two million blocks of the Great Pyramid of Cheops weighing several tons, there is something about these edifices that can in one moment make you feel diminutive and humbled, and in the next, substantial and an integral part of a storied legacy of civilization and humankind.
While ancient sites were about death, the fear of the afterlife, and revering the past, the gaggle of hustlers around these towering monuments to the past can be annoying. But I found them strangely uplifting–real people, focused on finding the joy in life today…in the here and now. Like any clever entrepreneur, these merchants and camel drivers seized every opportunity to trade on the history of Egypt coupled with the hokey-ness of wide-eyed tourists…me included. So, despite the fear of breaking our collarbones, Rick and I hopped on “Bob Marley” for an obligatory camel ride, complete with the obligatory camel-at-the-pyramids photo-op. If ever you’re going to ride a camel, there’s no place to do it like Ancient Egypt.
The span of Egyptian history covers five thousand years. For someone like me who comes from an American culture whose history dates back only a few centuries, Egypt is jarring, awe-inspiring, and, at times, confusing. Gaining an appreciation for its past lays the foundation for me to learn more about its unsettled present and its path toward an uncertain yet promising future. And I’m ready for what lies ahead on this trip.
Stay tuned for more stories in this continuing series on Egypt.