A Day in Ancient Egypt
Updated: Oct 7, 2018
Some of my earliest academic memories are from history classes in early elementary (primary) school, when we would learn about ancient cultures. Egypt and Greece especially fascinated me, even more so due to the romantic ideals through which these histories are presented to small children. To this day, when I think of Ancient Greece or Egypt the first image that pops into my head is a starry sky overlooking what were then new, grand temples and pyramids. Both Athens and Cairo had always been very high on my "must see" list, and within a year I was able to go to both. While both more than lived up to my expectations, Cairo holds a really special place for me. No other place I have seen still leaves me pinching myself to make sure it was real. I saw the pyramids. I mean,my god, what?
I traveled to Cairo solo, and after a lot of research I decided that it would be best to do a day tour of the ancient sites rather than try and barter with taxi drivers. I bopped over to Viator, my go-to tour website, and compared day trips. At first I was a bit concerned; so many options were absurdly cheap. Like, we're talking full days with multiple sites that were less than $30. You would think that this is because Egypt's cost of living is low, but then there were similar day trips that were nearly $100 which made me worry the cheap ones were a scam. But I was also a monetarily challenged grad student at the time, so while my brain had the caution lights blaring, my bank account overruled and I chose the cheapest tour I found. Needless to say, I did not need to worry.
My flight landed late in the night. The car for the tour was there at 8am, which meant I only got about four hours of sleep. But let me assure you, I was AWAKE. I was GOING TO THE PYRAMIDS.
I got down to the sidewalk right as the car pulled up and a skinny woman in a hijab hopped out. She asked if I was Laura, I said yes, she shook my hand, and off we went. Though we didn't actually get very far, as I needed to stop at an ATM and get money. I hadn't even paid the hostel for my room yet because I hadn't gotten the bills for it yet. They drove me to a nearby ATM vestibule, I popped in...and immediately froze. My lack of sleep was ignored for the excitement over the Sphinx, but the research I had done into how much money to take out was not in my brain in that moment. So I took out the equivalent of $60 and hoped for the best. I then got back in the car with the tour guide, Fatima, and our driver who didn't speak English but who had a warm laugh (and whose name I don't remember and I feel awful about it because he was wonderful). They had turned the radio station to something that played American music from the crooner era. Fatima turned around from the front and said, "Americans always request this station!" I told her that I wouldn't mind listening to Egyptian music, as I was in Egypt after all, but she just smiled, turned back to the front, and then her and the driver sang along to the songs better than I could.
We drove through the Cairo traffic listening to this entirely un-Cairo music. I kind of zoned out and just watched the world go by. And then I looked up back towards the front of the car...and through the windshield, there they were. The pyramids. I was momentarily stunned while trying to play it cool. Soon we turned so that we were driving parallel to them, and I stopped trying to be cool and just started snapping photos through the window.
There is a parking area towards the entrance that we pulled into, and Fatima and I got out. As I squinted into the sun (lack of sleep had resulted in my leaving my hat - that I had bought specifically for this trip - in the hostel) - she took pity on me and handed me her sombrero sized hat. "Oh no, it's my own fault I don't have my hat, you need yours." "Don't be silly, I am Egyptian, I am used to this." was the back and forth for about a minute before she physically placed the hat on my head.
She told me about the history of the pyramids while we walked towards the Great Pyramid. I do not take many tours when I travel, but considering the history nerd in me, I probably should. The level of detail that is given on tours doesn't always stick with me for long periods afterwards, but it does accentuate the experience and understanding of what I'm seeing in the moment.
We were soon at the base, and it was amazing to see the jutted blocks of stone stacked upon one another. While popular lore says that slaves built the pyramids, in reality it was mostly farmers who were hired during the flood season, as the water prevented them from working in their fields, as well as men from poor families who could make good money as a mason.
The pyramids are monstrously huge, and seeing the jumble of stacked stones really honed in the point that they were made by humans. They're so big, in fact, that the first and largest pyramid was the tallest building in the world until England's Lincoln Cathedral was built in 1311.
The second pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre, still has a small portion of the smooth limestone casing that originally covered the pyramids (you can see this on the tip). As the casing is entirely gone elsewhere, and the Sahara is harsh in general, the pyramids have shrunk by about 30 feet (9 m) from their original height.
We drove past the second pyramid and parked near the third, the Pyramid of Menkaure If you're wondering why there is a gaping hole in it, it's because Saladin's son ordered the destruction of the pyramids. And then realized how big they actually are, so that's all the did.
Before we had arrived, Fatima had told me that I could go inside the pyramids if I wanted to. After inquiring about the price, I decided to just go into the smallest one, which was Menkaure's. It was $3 versus $17 for the main pyramid. Again, I was a financially-strapped grad student at the time, and I figured the experiences would be similar.
I paid the man at the ticket office, and left Fatima to chat with a nearby vendor. I walked up the stairs and then ducked into the entrance. There was a bizarre "staircase" going down (I had expected to go up, so that was a slight surprise) into the pyramid. It was a flat board but with short stubby boards laid out in order to mime stairs. It made for an awkward climb down, though was useful on the way back up.
As I made my way down, I realized that there was another person in the small space with me. We struck up a conversation. He was a flamboyant, black Canadian man who lived in Kuwait. We continued together, and squealed with equal amounts of joy when we encountered the tomb room.
As we made our way back up the weird staircase, he asked if I wanted to go to the Sphinx together. I said that I was on a tour but that he could probably join, but he immediately said in a sneering voice, "oh, you're on a tour? Never mind. Have a good day" and then walked away without waiting for a response! Yeah bro, I wasn't in the mood as a solo female traveler in Egypt to try and coordinate visiting everything without help. Eesh, and to think I'd been excited to add him as a travel buddy.
I found Fatima and the driver, and she informed me that the tour offers a surprise for its guests - a free camel ride! She led me over to an area that had many, many camels and their bored owners (the first photo at the top of the blog is from this spot). She found Mohammed, a kid that looked about 20, and introduced us. And then he introduced me to the camel, who he'd named Mickey Mouse. Ah, traveling in non-Western countries that cater to Westerners.
I had ridden a camel once before, in Senegal. I remembered the awkwardness that is getting on a camel. Or more, the awkwardness when a camel stands up. I was wearing a skirt that day, so they had to find me a blanket to throw over my waist. Once I was covered up, Mohammed made a noise to Mickey and up we went. And I held on for dear life as the hump swayed while it rose into the air (I don't know exactly how tall this specific camel was, but the average male is 7 ft (2.2 m) at the hump, so my eyes were seeing 9 ft (2.7 m) off the ground.
As we walked around, Mohammed and I chatted. He was an absolute delight, cheesy but in a really sweet way. The above photo is him saying, "oh look, he is kissing me! We really love each other."
Once we reached the turnaround point, he told me that it was now "time for a photo shoot." I handed down my iPhone, and was promptly directed to make every pose imaginable. I am rarely one for a picture of myself at all on vacation (or ever), and I am never ever one to pose for pictures. I held my ground for a few pictures, just smiling at the camera, but after enough harassment I finally broke down and did what both he and Fatima called "Chinese girl poses". We then made our way back to the rest of the camels, Mickey lay down and I held on for dear life as I swayed again, and I gave Mohammed 100 Egyptian pounds ($5), which what Fatima said was a good amount for a tip.
Fatima and I rejoined the driver and we headed to the Sphinx. There was a large parking lot there as well, and we had to walk by a long line of vendors in order to reach the actual site. As we walked by them, they each looked up at me with hopeful eyes. I felt really bad, as tourism to the area has declined significantly in recent years - from 14.7 million right before the 2011 revolution to 5.4 million in 2016. But I'm just not a trinkets person, I have no use for the wares the stalls were peddling.
The Sphinx itself was a lot smaller than I expected it to be. Especially considering that we had just come from the pyramids, I was a bit struck with just how close to the ground the head was. Of course, that did not take away from the magnitude of finally seeing THE SPHINX. As this was a smaller area than the pyramids, it felt as though there were more tourists here, even though there were still only maybe ten people milling about. Again, I cannot overemphasize how few people go to Cairo these days. On the one hand, I basically had the pyramids to myself which...I mean, wow. On the other hand, Egypt needs the money and humanity needs to see these sites so...
Next up was another experience that had not been on the online itinerary: the Egypt Papyrus Museum. This small "museum" was more of a shop (I'm sure Fatima got a commission when her guests bought something), but I didn't mind the slight swindling because the workers taught me the history of papyrus in Ancient Egypt, and showed me the various steps in the process of making the paper. I did end up buying two small commissioned pieces, one for my mom and stepdad, and another for my dad (the one pictured - the hieroglyphs on the left spell out "father", while the symbol on the right is an ankh, which basically symbolizes life. I figured that was a fair symbol to choose for the man who helped give me that!). I hardly ever buy things on my travels, especially when I feel like I've been set up, but they didn't cost much (was about $35 total for the two pieces) and my parents would think they were special.
We then drove south for about half an hour, in order to get to the oldest pyramid in Egypt: the Pyramid of Djoser (more colloquially known as the Step Pyramid). It was built by the visier Imohtep, one of the most famous figures from Ancient Egypt, for his pharoh, Djoser. This pyramid is about a century older than the ones at Giza, and is thought to be the oldest large-scale stone structure.
The entrance of this pyramid is through a "forest" of nearly 5,000 year old columns, which were cool to walk through - very "Prince of Egypt". Once Fatima and I emerged, she sat in the shade while I walked around the structure. I was literally the only tourist here, and only saw a couple of camel owners and the men who were working on the pyramid's restoration.
As we headed out and onwards to our next destination, I enjoyed the giant palm tree forest we drove by. The Sahara is the most desolate place I have ever seen, so it was a bit startling to suddenly go from vast expanse of sand and rock to palm trees as far as the eye could see. It was also exciting because I have always nursed quite the soft spot in my heart for palm trees. As we drove through them, we passed many hotels and mansions that all looked as though their heydays were behind them.
Our final stop was nearby at Memphis, the capital of Ancient Egypt. Today, however, it's just another tourist-free (though the vendors still hold out hope - look at all of those carts!) destination.
The main attraction is the giant (absolutely giant) statue of Ramses II. This is housed in a two-story building, so you can see it up close or from above. Other sites include a small sphinx and a few more Ramses statues.
Memphis was a bit interesting, not so much for what was there but because of what wasn't. This was the capital of one of history's most important civilizations and yet there is hardly anything here anymore. There were many signs throughout the place, with USAID (the US's development aid agency) logos on them. I worked in development aid for a few years yet I had no idea that we used funds to protect cultural heritage. I am very happy we do!
Finally, it was time for lunch. I was in charge of what we ate, and I requested anywhere with kushari, a dish I had heard about from other friends who had visited Egypt. Fatima smiled and said that that was the most requested food from her guests, and that she knew of a great little place to go.
We pulled into a small restaurant on the outskirts of Cairo. I went upstairs to find a table while Fatima ordered for me. When she and the driver joined me at the table, I went to the bathroom. When I was done I tried to open the door...and it definitely did not open. I tried to get the lock to unlock in every way I could, but finally I had to awkwardly call through the door, "Fatima? FATIMA??" "Yes Laura?" "Ummm help?" Two of the male employees came upstairs and told me the trick to opening the door, which was very simple. I absolutely deserved the laughter that greeted me when I came out.
The kushari was ready soon afterwards. I had no idea what the dish actually was, I simply wanted it because everyone raved about it. Neither Fatima or the driver had ordered anything, which made me feel slightly awkward. I asked them if they wanted to get themselves a couple of empty bowls in order to share my dish (it was much too much food for just one person), but they both declined, saying that they had food waiting for them at home.
With that, I set about to examining the dish. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I somehow didn't take a picture of it, but it was lentils, macaroni, rice, tomatoes, chickpeas, onions, and had about 20 spices on top of it. The table had a container of spicy liquid for flavoring, so I threw some onto my plate and began to eat. However, it because apparent very quickly that whatever that spice was in the bottle I had just upended over my food was much too spicy for my midwestern palette. This resulted in more laughter and another plate ordered (Fatima took home the spicy one). Her and I spent the rest of the meal talking about her family, while the driver chatted with the men who worked in the kitchen. I was unable to eat even half of the plate, and I took the rest back to the hostel with me.
And then it was time to go back to the hostel. As we drove through the afternoon traffic, Fatima pointed out various embassies and other fancy buildings. The Saudi one has a helicopter pad apparently, both of them were very impressed with that. As I got back to my hostel, I emptied my wallet and gave them all I had. Unfortunately, as I had not taken much money out that morning and had unexpectedly spent some of it on the pyramid entrance, camel ride, and papyrus gifts, I was only able to give them $15 tip to split. I did and still do feel terrible about that. I cannot overemphasize how great Fatima was all day, with her friendliness, her knowledge, and her hat! And even though the driver and I did not have a common language, we smiled and laughed together the entire day. He even opened the door for me every time the car stopped. I gave them a 5-star rating on Viator, and did my best to write a review that would ensure future clients who would be smarter about taking money out of the ATM, but I wasn't able to give them the tip they absolutely deserved. And I had no money for dinner, so it was a good thing I had leftover kuchari!