Wednesday, August 8, 2007

I'm building you a pyramid...

While the city of Cairo didn't exist during the time of the Pharaohs, Memphis (about 20 km south) was once the capital of ancient Egypt. Because of this, there are many pyramids and other ruins from the Old Kingdom nearby.

We began our pilgrimage by first heading south to see the older pyramids at Saqqara and Dahshur, which provide a nice chronicle of the architectural advancements that led to the perfection of this ambitious design. The Step Pyramid at Saqqara is the earliest stone monument in existence and represents the first experimentation with the pyramidal structure. It's surrounded by a complex of funerary buildings and is within view of several other pyramids that now just look like mounds of rubble.

One of the buildings at Saqqara exhibits some of the oldest known graffiti, dating back to the the time of Ramses II in 13th century BC. This was the first of many signatures and drawings tacked on to the Egyptian works - from Roman soldiers to the early Christians to the first western tourists, it seemed that no one could resist leaving their mark (or trying to damage) these enduring structures.

We also visited the Tomb of Mereruka, the highest official during the reign of Teti. Whereas the Pharaohs' tombs primarily depicted the great accomplishments of their lifetime or images of them joining the gods in afterlife, the decorations in this tomb were focused on everyday activities such as men fishing and dancing, women combing their hair and playing instruments, and children playing games. Although the myraid of pyramids and tombs built by the Egyptians suggest a preoccupation with death, it's clear from this art that they actually relished living and simply spared no expense to ensure that their enjoyment carried on in the afterlife.

At Dahshur we visited several other pyramids, the most impressive being the Red Pyramid, the oldest true pyramid in the world. We descended down its steep and suffocating passage to the inner chambers where we could get a look at the construction from the inside. It was bare, but stunning nonetheless to see the huge limestone blocks stacked on top of one another with a precision we expect would be difficult to replicate today. The other pyramids here reflect earlier attempts at perfecting the design, including the Bent Pyramid, which starts at one angle and finishes near the top at another, and the crumbling Black Pyramid.

On the way back from Saqqara, we stopped in Memphis. Little remains of this once powerful city, but there is a small open-air museum. The most impressive piece is a gargantuan statue of Ramses II, one of many ostentatious remnants left by this Pharaoh.

A few days after this "warm up" circuit, we made our way to Giza to visit the biggest and most famous site in Egypt, if not the entire world. Not surprisingly, we got hassled along the way and so were not in the best moods when we arrived (I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say we ended up getting dropped off at a camel stable about a mile from the actual entrance after appealing to someone for help with logistics...). But, upon seeing the Sphinx with the Great Pyramid of Khufu framing it in the background, all of our anger was suffused with a sense of awe and wonderment. I've heard some people say the pyramids are smaller in person than they had expected, but staring up at their pointed tops piercing the cloudless sky, I would beg to differ. The pyramids are massive, and even if it is cliche, you can't help but mutter to yourself "How the heck did they build those things?"

After conducting a requisite photo shoot (some travellers we had met a week earlier warned us to wear presentable clothes since we would likely be showing these photos to others for the rest of our lives...), Gil and I decided to maximizing our expenditures on admission fees by dividing and conquering. Gil descended into the inner chambers of the Pyramid of Khafre, the second largest pyramid. They were similar to those at Dahshur, but larger and more complex. Meanwhile, I went to the Solar Barque museum, which houses 1 of 5 wooden boats that was buried with Khufu so that he would have transportation in the afterlife. The boat, which was reconstructed from over 150,000 pieces of wood, was gigantic and seemed incredibly advanced given that it is the oldest boat in existence.

I guess there is not much else to say, except "wow".


Anonymous said...

WOW!!! Seems so surreal! You both look great and your experiences sound awesome and memorable...even if not all pleasant. - MOMw

Sarah said...

wow is right!!!
it has been so much fun reading your adventures!!
miss you guys!