Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Geometrical Wonders

If one were to play word association 99% of the time "Egypt" would be followed by "pyramids". For many people the pyramids are Egypt. The iconic monuments to eternal life loom large, not just physically, but, as the only World Wonder left standing, in the minds of every tourist they are the sine qua non of a visit to the country. And so, being unable to escape the forces of expectation and tradition, off I went still accompanied by Chris (who I suspect to be somewhat of a masochist as he hasn't fled my company at the first available opportunity, not that I'm complaining though as he is fun to be around). We took a public bus and when we reached the terminus I thought we had been duped as we were still, seemingly, in the centre of town. But then I saw it: off to the side, about a kilometre distant and intermittently looming through the foggy haze - the Great Pyramid of Cheops. I had romantic images of the Gizan pyramids being half-lost in the desert, but the crushing reality of urban sprawl soon put paid to them. Ah well, at least due to their position on an elevated plateau they escape the worst of the dense smog that perennially blankets Cairo.

With our tickets in hand (my fake student card bought in Bangkok almost two years ago still paying dividends) we prepared ourselves mentally for the throngs of tourists and pushy touts. Luckily the latter left us alone because of our scruffy, hirsute appearance and the abundance of easier prey. I thought I would be pretty blase about seeing the pyramids, having seen a great many old and crumbling monuments on my trip, but reflecting upon their age, size and the precision of the masonry (when looking at the burial chambers and what is left of the outer limestone cladding, which has been progressively looted over the centuries, it's work that modern-day masons would be proud of) I was just left speechless. For those of you who have been following my travels closely here is a comparative list: the Pyramids are 4000 years older than Machu Picchu and Hampi, 3700 years older than Angkor Wat, 2700 years older than Palmyra, 2300 years older than the Terracotta Army, and 2000 years older than Persepolis. The only place I've been to that rivals the Pyramids in seniority is Moenjodaro, and frankly it hasn't aged half as gracefully as the Pyramids.

The three pyramids at Giza are far from being the only ones out there. Stretching over 30km south along the west bank of the Nile all the way down to the ancient capital of Memphis (of which there is sadly very little remaining) is a vast, almost unbroken, necropolis that contains hundreds of low mastabas, underground tombs and pyramids, the greatest concentration of which are at Dahshur and Saqqara. These are arguably more interesting than the Great Pyramids because they show the evolution in pyramid design and some tombs are ornately decorated with hieroglyphs and colourful paintings of daily life in ancient Egypt (whereas the insides of the Great Pyramids are unimaginatively bare). At the pyramids at Saqqara, along with the oldest stone structure in the world, one can also find the oldest piece of tourist graffiti, dating to around 1200B.C. But really, there is nothing I can say that could enhance, or make a dent in, the idée fixe that the pyramids have become. So I will just leave you with a few words of wisdom given to me by a wizened trinket seller hawking plastic kitsch at inflated prices in the shadow of the Great Pyramid, who described the pyramids as "very big; very old."


Ex-Shammickite said...

I agree: "Very big, very old" just about sums it up. Did you go inside Cheops to the King's Chamber? Supposedly built to receive the body of the Pharaoh, but no evidence has been found to prove the existence of a burial of the King or of anyone else in the sarcophagus. My partner (my blog refers to him as "The Space Cadet") has a web site dedicated to his alternate theories about the Giza site.
I was gobsmacked at the abundance of ancient sites, statues, buildings, etc in Egypt. They are everywhere, more than the Egyptian Department of Antiquities know what to do with, I think. We cruised the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. All along the Nile were statues, burial sites, ruined buildings, I was truly amazed.

Inihtar said...

I've heard from people who've seen the pyramids that no matter how blase and predictable you expect them to be, they always leave you speechless.

I think what you're doing is awesome. . . I'll live vicariously through your blog till I can experience the world for myself:)