topics: fatta (food), Seven Wonders of the World, building Pyramids, history, Pharaohs, ancient religion, antiquities, daily life; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: November 21, 1997

Breakfast: The usual hotel breakfast — two pieces of bread, butter, jam, and tea. It's just enough to hold us until lunchtime.

Lunch: After a few hours hiking around the pyramids, we paused for lunch in the shadow of the Sphinx (see our Person of the Day). Sitting on enormous stone blocks in the Temple of the Sphinx, we pulled bread, cheese, and vegetables out of our bags and started making sandwiches. The Sphinx, inscrutable as ever, did not seem to mind, but the passing hordes of tourists eyed our food hungrily. One young Egyptian schoolgirl even asked andrEa for a taste of her avocado, but failed to correctly answer andrEa's riddle.

Dinner: Once back in Cairo, we hunted out a restaurant that had been recommended to us and had an honest-to-goodness sit-down meal. Everyone started with soup and salad. The meat-eating men moved on to moza (roast lamb on rice) and fatta (see our Food of the Day), while the women stuck with plates of rice and vegetables.

Food of the Day: Fatta (with rice)

Fatta is a dish of sticky rice mixed with bread that as been soaked and fried in garlic. In case this isn't enough garlic, some extra cloves are added to the top of the mixture. We ate the whole plate and then wondered why our after-dinner taxi driver kept making faces when we spoke to him.

Word of the Day: Haram and ahram — "pyramid(s)"

Haram means pyramid in Egyptian Arabic. The plural is ahram — perhaps a more useful word today since there are three large pyramids in Giza.

Monster of the Day: The Sphinx click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

A sphinx is a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head of a human. Its most famous portrayal is the huge statue located just in front of the Great Pyramids at Giza. Though dwarfed by the pyramids, the Sphinx at Giza is still pretty big. click to view a photograph Its body is 172 feet (52.4 meters) in length, while the height to the top of the head is 66 feet (20 meters). That's taller than ten Anthonys!

As was (and is) common with the closely interrelated civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Greeks borrowed the idea of a sphinx from the Egyptians, and it is the Greek legend of the sphinx with which we are most familiar. In that legend, the sphinx asked every passer-by a riddle and devoured everyone who failed to answer it correctly. After many travelers were eaten, Oedipus answered the riddle correctly and killed the sphinx. (Any student reading this dispatch who can tell us what riddle Oedipus answered, or who can send us a riddle that we can't answer, gets a souvenir from ancient Egypt).

The Egyptians, however, did not seem to have the same sort of legends about the sphinx. Indeed, no one really knows what the sphinx represented to them. Some Egyptologists think that the sphinx represented the sky-god Horus, but there is certainly evidence to indicate that the head of the sphinx portrayed the reigning pharaoh. If this is the case, then the face staring out eastward towards the Nile River is that of Pharaoh Khafre, whose pyramid lies directly behind the great statue. click to view a photograph

The mystery of the Sphinx at Giza extends to the strange circumstances surrounding the loss of both its beard and its nose. No one seems to know when or why these pieces of the Sphinx fell off. click to view a photograph The most common story is that occupying Ottoman (or French, depending on who tells the story) soldiers used the sphinx for target practice and essentially shot the nose off its face. Or it could just have fallen off because of the passage of time. The issue now is whether the monument should be restored to its former glory. Of course the question of a face-lift is hard to answer given that the British snapped up the nose and are keeping it in the British Museum even though the Egyptians have long demanded its return.

The insoluble mystery of its origin or purpose, the ongoing controversies over its face, and the ugly scaffolding erected in front notwithstanding, we have no hesitation in proclaiming the sphinx our Monster of the Day.

Place of the Day: Great Pyramid of Khufu World Heritage Site

Just on the southeastern edge of the sprawling city of Cairo, not more than a few hundred meters from the modern buildings of the suburb of Giza, lie three huge pyramids. The tallest and oldest of these pyramids is called the Great Pyramid, or Khufu's (also known as Cheops') pyramid — another site listed as a World Heritage Site World Heritage Site by UNESCO. click to view a photograph Built nearly 46 centuries ago to house the tomb of the Pharaoh Khufu, this structure originally stood 147 meters high (481 feet) with each side of its base measuring 230 meters (756 feet — that's two and one half American football fields). Its base covers 5 hectares (13 acres)!

The Great Pyramid once had a smooth limestone covering, but that and the very top of the pyramid (which was probably coated in platinum) have long since fallen away. Still, after over 4500 years it's only lost nine meters (35 feet) in height. Now, it looks as if a very, very large person (yes, even bigger than Anthony) has carefully piled up lots and lots of blocks. click to view a photograph A lot of blocks. click to view a photograph Experts estimate that the Great Pyramid contains well over two million limestone blocks, each weighing between two and fifteen tons apiece. A quick calculation in our heads (two and a half million blocks weighing about three tons apiece) left us with the mind-numbing estimate that the pyramid weighs at least fifteen billion pounds! We would say that this weight equals approximately 100 million Ethans click to view a photograph but we're not sure that this would make the numbers any easier to comprehend (or that Ethan has lost that much weight). Then add that it took an army of 100,000 slaves — working without the aid of any animals — 20 years (actually they only worked during the three- or four-month flood season every year) to complete the pyramid, and you come up with a bunch of numbers that are nearly overwhelming.

Of course, nothing is as staggering as the pyramid itself. In fact, like the Pharos of Alexandria, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (Bodrum), the Artemision near Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the pyramids are one of the ancient Greek "Seven Wonders of the World" (loyal readers, please do not make the common mistake of confusing our places of the day with the "Seven Wonders of the World" — we're afraid the Greeks still have the copyright on that one). Just as countless other visitors over the last four millennia have, we looked up at it in wonderment. We asked the standard questions: Who built it? How did they build it? Why did they build it? For some of the answers to these questions, see below.

Group Dispatch, November 21

picture of Padraic

We awoke, eager with anticipation. The big day had arrived. Anthony was finally going to change his socks! Oh, and today we were heading out of Cairo to see the fabled pyramids of Giza.

But before we talk about the pyramids, it's probably a good idea to talk a little more about ancient Egypt (or skip this and go straight to the visit).

We've dealt at length in our dispatches with the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean such as the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Arabs, and the Byzantines. Though these civilizations might seem old to us, really they are all fairly recent when compared to the civilization we will be talking about for the next couple of weeks — the ancient Egyptians.

Egyptian history began some 5000 years ago with the development of a written alphabet (it's hard to have history without some sort of written records). Most of the monuments we will visit are over 4000 years old! Again, we're talking about numbers that are hard to comprehend — the sort of numbers that are used to describe geological changes rather than the activities of humans. To put it in some perspective, we are closer to the events that occurred during the lifetime of Christ than the people living at that time were to the period of Egyptian pyramid-building.

Around the third millenium (3000) BC, a great ruler named Menes first unified the two existing parts of Egypt, Upper Egypt (which, just to confuse us, refers to the southern part of the Nile River Valley), and Lower Egypt (which of course refers to the northern part of the Nile). With Menes as their pharaoh, or king, the Egyptians enjoyed their first period of stable and orderly government. The civilization was already quite advanced, as demonstrated by the complex irrigation projects along the Nile as well as the elaborate burial chambers called mastabas. However, the Egyptian civilization reached the height of its wealth, creativity, and power during the five hundred years commonly called the Old Kingdom, which lasted from roughly 2700 to 2200 BC. Characterized by peace, prosperity, and the splendor of the pharaoh's court, this period also saw the building of most of the 70 or so pyramids, the biggest of which, the Great Pyramids at Giza, were constructed during 27th and 26th centuries BC.

In one sense, the pyramids represented a high water mark for the Egyptians. Only a civilization skilled at mathematics, engineering, and architecture (see the Tech Fact of the Day) could have designed such buildings. Only an enormously wealthy and powerful government that was capable of commanding and organizing a huge labor force could have carried out the construction. Simply building the causeway by which the huge stone blocks were dragged up the ridge to Giza took tens of thousands of laborers many years to complete (see our Place of the Day).

Although the Egyptians' engineering skills remained, the political and economic might of the pharaohs gradually ebbed in the following centuries. The pharaohs no longer had the resources or the political might to build such expensive tombs. Indeed, Old Kingdom Egypt's decline can be gauged by the decreasing size of the subsequent pyramids. By 2200 BC, Egypt fell into anarchy. (The vitality of Egyptian civilization was subsequently renewed during the Middle and New Kingdoms.)

Meanwhile, back at the BikeAbout front . . .

Deciding that it would be better not to try our luck in the crazy Cairo traffic on bicycles, we hopped on a minibus to take us the four kilometers out to the southeastern suburb of Giza. Actually, Cairo is so big that we never seemed to leave the urban center throughout the entire ride. We only realized that we had arrived in Giza because we could see the pyramids between the high rise buildings lining the road.

As we walked from the minibus station, the height of the modern buildings shrank and the pyramids seemed to loom higher. It was not until we rounded the corner and began our trek up the ridge click to view a photograph click to view a photograph towards Cheops' pyramid that the real size of these structures began to sink in. click to view a photograph

Normally you would have to pay £20 (about $6) a person to get onto the grounds of the pyramid, but thanks to the hard work and patience of Anthony and Corinne we were able to hand the guards a free pass from the Egyptian Office of Antiquities. Our thanks to the Egyptian government for granting us free admission to Egypt's cultural treasures.

After walking around the pyramid, we decided to venture inside to visit the burial chamber of Pharaoh Khufu. Placed in the dead center of the pyramid, the chamber is accessible only by a narrow passageway that slopes up steeply from the entrance on the eastern side. It once held the mummified body of Khufu and a huge trove of treasures.

Which brings us to why these monuments were built in the first place. A pyramid is essentially a giant tomb built to house the dead body of a pharaoh. The Egyptians were very religious — although their religion was very different from the modern western religions to which we are accustomed — and believed strongly in a life after death. They thought that after you died you simply passed on to a new stage of life. For this reason, the tombs of the pharaohs contained all the things that they would need — food, drink, clothing, weapons, and, of course, most of their worldly possessions. In the case of the pharaohs, this included lots and lots of treasure. But to ensure that the pharaohs' spirits would survive in the afterlife, their bodies had to be preserved as well. Hence mummies, and a long line of bad horror films.

Pharaohs also tried to build tombs large enough and secure enough to ensure that neither their bodies, their spirits, nor their possessions would be disturbed. Hence mastabas, and then later, pyramids. Unfortunately, it would seem that most of the pharaohs were not able to enjoy a peaceful afterlife. Even before archaeologists and tourists began tramping through their burial chambers, thieves looted every (known) royal tomb in Egypt, with the exception of King Tut's.

But the pyramids were more than just big tombs to protect (or fail to protect) the corpses of the pharaohs. Pyramid comprised only parts of much larger complexes, which contained burial sites for members of the pharaohs' families and staff, and places of worship for the pharaohs' subjects. In ancient Egyptian civilization, a pharaoh was considered a son of a god, and the sole recipient of that god's life force. Since the rest of the people could only get this life force through a pharaoh, both in life and in death, the pharaoh was worshipped as a god. Finally, the sheer size and majesty of the pyramids served as hard-to-miss reminders of the power of the gods, and, in particular, of the gods on earth, the pharaohs.

We had all this in mind as we climbed the narrow passageway to Khufu's tomb. Khufu's treasures had long since been robbed. Now the tomb is completely empty (and more than a little stuffy). Still, it was nice to have a look at the engineering of the pyramids from the inside. We marveled at how precisely the huge stone blocks fit together — the fine craftsmanship reassured us somewhat considering how many millions of pounds of stones lie balanced over our heads.

Once back outside, we maneuvered around the huge blocks of limestone scattered around the grounds click to view a photograph and headed over to examine the second great pyramid, that of Khafre, Khufu's son. Khafre was too respectful a son to make his pyramid as large as that of his father's, but he did have it built on slightly higher ground, making it seem at least as high. Since the original limestone casing is still clinging to the top of this second pyramid click to view a photograph we got a better idea of how the pyramids must once have looked.

We then made our way toward the other famous landmark in Giza: the mysterious Sphinx click to view a photograph click to view a photograph (see the Monster of the Day). We lunched at the foot of this mythical beast, watched the passing crowds, and gazed upon something even more fantastic and surreal than the Sphinx.

No, you would never have guessed it; we watched people . . . bowling. Some nutty people from a pro bowlers' association (we think) had taken great pains to set up two regulation lanes in the broad basin just down the hill from the Sphinx! As if this weren't strange enough, a military brass band sat in the pavilion constructed around the lanes and added their own vigorous, if slightly off-key, accompaniment to the sound of falling pins. We're afraid that someone is angling to get bowling declared one of the great wonders of the modern world.

Actually, bowling isn't that much of a stretch at the Giza pyramids. The whole site has the feel of a chaotic, anything-goes, open-air bazaar. Every few minutes, someone stepped forward offering us the fabulous opportunity to buy something — papyrus, tiny pyramids, T-shirts, postcards, short cloth whips, little wooden canes, water. Whatever a tourist could desire. False ticket collectors for the different sites lurked in the quieter spots, and no one seemed to think us physically capable of walking. We were offered camel rides, donkey rides, pony rides, and carriage rides. click to view a photograph One man was even willing to carry Corinne on his shoulders if she would pay. Perhaps we should have brought our bikes after all.

The thousands of Egyptian school children visiting the pyramids added to the chaos. Grouped in packs (often called classrooms) of between 50 and 75 children supervised by only one or two teachers, they seemed to swarm over everything. Some played soccer, many scrambled over rocks and up the side of the pyramids, and one group seemed to be playing the Egyptian version of blind man's bluff. click to view a photograph

While the teachers ran here and there trying to stop their students from climbing to the top of the pyramids or teasing the camels, many of the children seized the opportunity to run up to us and shout out a greeting. click to view a photograph Since Egyptian students have to take English as a second language, most know some basics, but few of these children could have been over ten years old, so their English language skills were very basic. They said "Hello, hello, hello." If we replied, they would then ask, "What is your name?" The more advanced students knew a third line: "How are you?" After they made it through these lines, they repeated them. And, of course, the children were never satisfied to hear our answer to someone else. If a group of fifteen kids stood around us, we would have to answer the question fifteen times.

Not only didn't they mind being photographed by us, many wanted to have their picture taken with us. They handed their cameras to friends, jumped into the middle of our group, and smiled. We managed to take our own picture on one occasion. click to view a photograph

By the time we had walked around the entire site and told hundreds of schoolchildren our names, the sun was already setting. click to view a photograph Sitting on huge limestone chunks click to view a photograph that had fallen off the side of Khafre's pyramid, we took pictures of the setting sun behind Menkure's pyramid, the third and smallest of the Giza pyramids. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Meanwhile, one of the camel handlers finally convinced andrEa to take a camel ride — or rather the other way around. andrEa talked the camel handler into giving her a ride on his favorite camel (named Columbus) in exchange for andrEa sending him a picture of the camel. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph We fear the camel, who had to carry both the handler and andrEa, got the worse of that deal.

Finally, just as the last light faded from behind Menkure's pyramid, click to view a photograph click to view a photograph the monument guards began asking everyone to leave the site. Even the bowlers had to leave. Only those willing to pay £30 for the sound and light show could stay. Having no free pass to that extravaganza, we reluctantly left, heading back to the bright lights of Cairo, sad that our day at one of the great wonders of the world was over. Besides, we had hoped to see more bowling.

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