Egypt is, of course, one of the world’s great tourist destination. As the location for the last remaining ancient wonder of the world, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and a host of other archeological gems, Egypt will always be a ‘must see’ for any world traveler. Indeed, when I received the invite to speak at an event here in June 2009, I knew I couldn’t turn it down. I would be getting a chance to see the Pyramids and the death mask of King Tut! What I didn’t realize is that I’d also have the chance to see a society on the verge of a major revolution, and witness one of the last years of an Egypt under the control of Hosni Mubarak.
On my free day, I immediately arranged for a taxi to take me to the Pyramid complex of Giza, the location for the most famous pyramids in Egypt. Tourism here is a bit of a shell game, as the taxi drivers are in cahoots with the camel guides, which are in turn in cahoots with the guards, etc., etc. I figured that out very quickly, but played along on this trip.
Normally I like to explore on my own, without a guide dragging me along, but the guide route was the only way I was going to be to ride a camel into the complex, so I ended up hitching a ride with a Libyan camel driver and his ‘assistant,’ a small boy who’s job appeared to be to swat the camel with a stick occasionally.
Incidentally, there are two routes into the Necropolis complex. The first is the ‘main gate,’ where you buy tickets and pass through the visitor center to get in. The second route is through the ‘village’, for lack of a better term. The village is where the ‘unofficial’ tour guides start their trip from. My taxi driver didn’t even bother telling me about the Main Gate, he took me immediately to the village, which I found later was no accident. He shared in my ‘camel fee.’
In any case, I don’t harbor any ill will. In places like this, that’s part of the deal. It can get annoying at times, of course, as your camel driver will want to take you to the papyrus store, to a fragrance store, and so on and so on, as he’ll get a cut of the proceeds. In any case, if you are polite but firm, you can avoid most of this. The glory of the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx made this simply a minor nuisance for me.
As I noted in the map above, your camel driver will take you to a spot in the desert that allows for all of the pyramids to be in view at the same time. If you are visiting by yourself, you could also trudge your way over there and do the same thing. You’ll know it when you get there, it’s on a slight ridge and there are always people ‘selling’ beverages. When I mean selling, I mean popping the top off of a bottle of coke while walking up to you and handing it to you, only later asking for money. It doesn’t matter if you don’t drink coke, as in my case. In any case, you get used to this kind of thing quickly.
Riding a camel around the Necropolis complex is quite interesting and a unique experience. It’s very similar to riding a horse, the camel responds in pretty much the same way, though it does make some strange sounds. The pyramids are impressive enough today, but I can just imagine how unbelievable they were when they still had their limestone covering intact, which you can see crumbled at the bottom of the pyramids, and of which the middle pyramid still has some of on the top. When built, all of the pyramids had this smooth polished limestone covering. All I could think about is that I’m sure at least one of the workers slid down the pyramids on a papyrus sled.
If you buy the right type of ticket from the main gate, you can enter into either one of the pyramids. Just a note, this is NOT for anyone who is claustrophobic, as this is the entrance, and that tunnel continues for several hundred meters without allowing you to stand up the entire way. It can be quite intimidating, and it is extremely hot and humid in there. To make things even more interesting, a German woman happened to be laying down taking a nap inside the sarcophagus in the middle of the Pyramid when I arrived. It can be a bit jarring to see someone in there when you are expecting a Mummy to jump out at you.
Oh, and word to the wise? Get there early in the day, as it starts to get very hot very quickly. Rather than drink down the proffered coke, I actually happily drank the Nile water that the guides carried around. Probably not the smartest thing to do, but I’ve been training myself for this type of thing, as evident from my trip across India that I would later take.
A note about security at the Pyramids…the government does have security forces stationed around the complex whose main job is to yell at people who try to climb the pyramids and also to chase after the illegal camel guides.
Which was probably the funniest part of the trip, watching how my guide expertly tried to avoid the security forces, taking me on a path in circles, through the tombs, and on a gallop a few times. He did end up getting caught once, and you could tell he had to pay his bribe to get out. It was all part of the game.
Incidentally, life as a camel in Egypt is not good. As I crested a sand dune on the ride back from the pyramids, I noted one of the camels that gave one too many fat tourists a ride…not a pretty sight.
The hotel I stayed at was known as the Ramses Hilton, and it occupied a very critical location at the edge of Tahrir Square, the same square that would become the epicenter for the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt that would see an end to the Mubarak regime. I walked across the square just once, on a journey to the Egyptian Museum to see King Tut’s death mask and other antiquities. The museum itself is worth the price of admission, and is jammed packed with ancient treasures. Almost too jammed packed, as they have way too many items on display, and will really need to move to a newer and bigger building, which I’m told they will do soon.
I unfortunately did not think much of Tahrir Square at the time and didn’t take any pictures of it. In retrospect, I wish I had brought my camera through that bustling crowd in the middle of Cairo, as it would later be the epicenter of that Egyptian Revolution that continues to this day.
I did take a few pictures of the City from the Hilton, with the ancient and beautiful Nile river cutting through it. From the window of the hotel, you could hear the constant chatter of the city, including a constant drone of car horns. They use them here as echolocation devices to let people know where their car is in comparison to the other cars. Traffic is insane in Cairo, and the only way to effectively cross a street is to walk in a straight line right through traffic without changing direction or speed, the cars will simply navigate around you. Since the Egyptian Museum was right across the street from the Hilton, I didn’t bother taking a cab and instead decided to cross the road. I was sweating by the time I got across, it was most certainly intimidating. In retrospect, when I look back, I’m more comfortable with that type of traffic now after having visited places like India and Vietnam, but at the time it was my first experience with that type of ‘Frogger’ traffic game.
One thing I did do later in my day off was visit the Coptic neighborhood of Old Cairo, the location of many of the sizable Coptic Christian community in Cairo and location of the famous Hanging Church. You needed to pass through a metal detector to get into the neighborhood itself as even then there were tensions in the community (though I will note that the metal detector was off when I strolled through.)
I caught a glimpse of a Coptic mass through the cracks in a church door, and the smell of incense wafted out together with chanting in an ancient tongue. Copts form one of the oldest Christian communities, and are an important minority community in Egypt today.
Old Cairo is also the location of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, a very old restored synagogue that was previously used by Egypt’s Jewish population. Next to the Synagogue is a small well that marks the location that Moses was believed to have washed up on the banks of the river Nile in his papyrus boat.
On my final day in Egypt, I hired a car to take me to the Port City of Alexandria, also a very interesting city and Egypt’s second largest.
The famous ancient Alexandria Library has been rebuilt, though this time of concrete and steel. It is an interesting structure to visit, and it’s interesting to see this ancient marvel be rebuilt.
Alexandria is also the home of the Montaza Palace, an opulent structure built in the 19th century that was renovated by Sadat and used as a home for Hosni Mubarak at the time I took this picture. Needless to say, he’s not using the palace now…
My only regret in Egypt was that I didn’t take my camera everywhere with me. I visited other interesting spots such as the Cairo Castle, Tahrir Square, the Bazaar, and other spots of great interest to me, especially now. I attribute this to some of my early naiveté about traveling and my nervousness in carrying around a rather large camera. I’ve since been much more comfortable taking my camera around and capturing the life of a place, and intend to go back to Egypt sometime soon to recapture the spirit of that place and to see the changes that the people of Egypt have made since they threw off their dictator in what’s become known as the Arab Spring. I also intend on visiting Luxor and some of the other famous areas of Egypt, to help me get a grasp on this ancient and highly fascinating civilization.