Do you remember learning about ancient Egypt in elementary school?
I do. I recall images of Cleopatra, mummies, hieroglyphics, and women with black bobbed hair and men dressed in kilts, all strutting. I remember pyramids that seemed too big to be real, as if aliens must have been the ones to deposit them in the middle of the desert.
And I remember an episode of Asterix and Obelix, a favorite childhood comic book of mine, where Obelix climbs onto the Sphinx, hangs on the nose and breaks it off. In response, all the vendors chip the noses off their ceramic Sphinx replicas to be sure they’d match.
Then I had the chance to see it all – the pyramids and the Sphinx after the nose job — in real life.
Saqqara, The Original Pyramid
Our guide, Maha, told us: “If you want to understand the pyramids, it’s best to begin with the original one: Saqqara.”
Dating back to 2,600 BC, Saqqara was the first pyramid built of its kind and the one from which all the other pyramids followed suit. However, Saqqara was built with steps, which later pyramid architects decided to exclude.
At the time of our visit to Saqqara in late December 2011, we virtually had the place to ourselves.
The Red Pyramid: Going Inside
Outside the neighboring village of Dahshur, not only did we also have the Red Pyramid to ourselves, but we could also actually go inside it.
Now this was cool. As in, “Wow, I feel like Indiana Jones” cool.
From an entry portal about two-thirds up the pyramid we began our descent — crouched down in a sort of crab walk, taking deep squat strides a couple hundred feet into the depths of the pyramid. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for ancient tomb raiders who didn’t have the benefit of wooden steps, handrails and head lamps.
The deeper we went, the heavier and more acrid the air became, as if it were spiked with ammonia gas. Maybe it was something natural from within the confines of those rocks, or maybe a few interlopers decided to leave their mark. Beyond the odor, the first room featured high stepped ceilings. This was the fake burial chamber to confuse thieves. We climbed another set of stairs to arrive at the real burial chamber, one that like so many others had been looted long ago.
Pyramids were no longer just a bunch of enormous blocks mysteriously stacked in mesmerizing geometric mounds. They were, in fact, hollow structures built to keep safe all that the pharaohs needed for their time in heaven.
We couldn’t walk normally for days after plumbing the depths of the Red Pyramid, but we highly recommend it, so long as you are not claustrophobic.
When just about anyone imagines Egyptian pyramids, the image of the Great Pyramids of Giza is the one that usually comes to mind. What surprised me was how close those pyramids were to the modern day city of Cairo.
The first pyramid you see upon arriving at the complex — the Great Pyramid of Khufu – is the biggest and most famous. It also happens to be the place where many of the touts — of the camel riding and cheap souvenir variety – hang out. Like the scene out of Asterix and Obelix, I imagined each of them chiseling off the noses of their Sphinx replicas.
If you grin and bear it beyond the first two pyramids and up the hill, you’ll be rewarded with an iconic overlook and another much better opportunity to ride a camel (about $10 for 15 minutes).
The Great Sphinx
If our experience was any measure, late afternoon makes for a phenomenal time to visit the Great Sphinx. We were spoiled with soft light and a sky filled with feathery clouds. In this big sky context, the Sphinx seemed smaller than I expected, almost dwarfed by the size of the pyramids. But as I spent more time with it I became rather mesmerized by the magnificence and oddness of this ancient figure standing guard.
One thing we didn’t realize is that the viewing area stops the flow of visitors into the Sphinx interior complex around 4:00 P.M., while they promptly kick everyone out at 4:30. So if you’d like to have more time to try and master your perspective photo trickery pose of kissing the Sphinx’s nose, be sure to arrive a bit earlier.
Although it’s not a pyramid, the Egyptian Museum is still worth a visit, at the very least to absorb the contents of Tutankhamen’s tomb. The stash is vast and impressive, complete with the Tutankhamen gold funeral mask that we all know so well.
But what really makes this exhibit amazing is to think that all this was the burial stash of a relatively insignificant, small-fry king who died when he was only 19. I tried to picture what burial tombs must have been like for powerful kings who lived fuller, longer lives. This just about tapped our imaginations.
Egyptian pyramids. I completed a circle, a trip traced from childhood books and fantasy to a visit in today’s reality. And yes, it was cool.
And although I feel like I understand all these icons so much better with a firsthand visit as an adult, the song “Walk Like an Egyptian” echoes in my head, and every time I consider the Sphinx, I think about what Obelix did to its nose.
What places did you study or read about as a kid that you were able to visit later on? Were they what you expected?