We use the word too often, but the Great Pyramids of Giza have earned the right to be called “epic”. While Cairo has so much to offer, there is no thing you must do while in town, other than visit the three huge pyramids and their six accompanying smaller pyramids situated just on the edge of the city. Their mind-boggling massiveness and the mystery behind their method of construction sets the tone for everything and everyone in Egypt.
Built by Pharaoh Khufu around 2,500 B.C.E. and his succeeding son and grandson pharaohs, all of Egypt was enlisted to build what were essentially fashion devices for the ultra-wealthy, a goal not far from modern Egypt’s plan to build a New Cairo for the elite. To control his people, Cheops and successive pharaohs built a complex security state – very much like the checkpoints populated today with machine guns and cigarettes found at most road crossings between Alexandria and Aswan.
The Great Pyramids are awe-inspiring when you get close, and the way Egyptian people manage to get through their daily grind is just as inspiring. Viewing the pyramids, you wonder how it was possible to create such massive edifices using only levers, sledges and simple pulleys. The 40-ton blocks found on the pyramids and their temples defy understanding, as each one was clearly fitted to their location without mortar, leaving only millimeters between them. In comparison, modern Egyptians manage to slip themselves through dizzying traffic patterns and employ improvisational life skills that thrive on chaos.
Both the people and pyramids of Egypt can overwhelm you.
Everything in and around Cairo is covered with dust, a mixture of sand and pollution that covers a car within a day and flares up asthma in a few hot summer hours.
That’s the way things have always been, according to Cairenes we met. So, they shrug their shoulders and move on, inhabiting unfinished apartment buildings that stopped in mid-construction, because, why not? Driving on half-paved roads, because the government just seemed to forget about getting to the blacktop part, and grumbling about the checkpoints everywhere even though that seems to be the main way Egyptian presidents manage to keep things from unraveling.
But I’m missing the most important thing about Cairenes – they are insanely friendly and helpful. Today, multiple average citizens tried to help me find my way, an elderly madrassa teacher invited me to his house for tea, and a machine gun-toting police officer traded funny faces with my ten-year old son as we waited to be cleared through a checkpoint. Middle Easterners tend to not smile when you meet them on the street, but they’ll welcome you into their lives after only a few sentences.
I’d read about this dichotomy in guidebooks, but as an American who smiles on the street and walls the world off from my heart, I was still caught off-guard when I actually encountered Egyptian friendliness. When we arrived at the stables of for our camel tour of the pyramid, the guide immediately invited us to make ourselves at home, and scurried away to make sweetened mint tea, one of my new favorite things about Egypt.
It took him two asks before I realized the answer to an offer of food or drink in Egypt is always “yes”, and then you need to finish what was offered or risk making your host feel bad. Sure, I was paying the guide a handsome fee for his services, but people are people, and when someone offers you tea, it’s because they’re being social. “Be social back, you silly American,” I needed to remind myself.
Tourism, and the services surrounding it, fund a serious portion of Egypt’s economy. Our guides in Cairo and Gaza repeatedly talked about life “before the revolution” and “after the revolution” of 2011, when Egyptians street protests backed by the army overthrew president-for-life Hosni Mubarek in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi. During the coup, Egypt’s security state collapsed, so police checkpoints went unmanned, prisons were thrown open and travel agents cancelled Egyptian tours.
The stability foreign tourists crave did not return quickly, since the revolution went unfulfilled after Morsi was himself overthrown a year or so later by the Army in favor of General Abdel FattahEl-Sisi, who now rules as President. Things did not really quiet down in Egypt until 2014, and tourism has barely bounced back to what it used to be like.
Our guides bemoan the much smaller crowds, and an ex-pat German businessman we met today described hours-long waits for choice pyramid and Sphinx photo locations in 2008. Our Great Pyramid visit was largely free of tourists, and there were no real lines to get pictures of anything. It would seem that, if there’s ever a time to visit Egyptian antiquities, it would be now, before the rest of the world gets comfortable with the Middle East again.
We’ve kept a breakneck pace since leaving Chicago less than two days ago. Twenty-four hours of flying, a short nap at my sister’s house in Cairo, and then ignoring jetlag for a 7:30 a.m. meet up with our guide. Then we hit Giza, Saqqara, a late lunch at and tour of a small farm community, and then off again to the train station for an overnight sleeper train to Luxor, where we get off our train before 6:00 a.m. to be met by a new guide, for a tour of the Valley of Kings, including King Tut’s tomb.
There’s so much to see in just six short days. Let’s hope we don’t die of exhaustion in the process.