Our driver, Hamza, would always open the doors of the old Toyota for us whenever we stopped at a new location. I don’t think it was so much a statement of politeness for hefty day-fee we were paying, but more because there was no handle left on the inside of one of the doors, and the other seemed to be perpetually child-locked. That said, he did pull over on the side of the road at one point, dove into the field of wheat and pulled out a couple of handfuls, bringing it back to the car for our inspection. The words “Hamza go?” were uttered a few times, and despite our polite refusals in Arabic, he continued on his merry way.
Hamza was with us for the day to help us around the oldest of all the pyramids in the world. Our hotel concierge had helped us to find him, knowing that it was near impossible to get out to these lesser known pyramids without the aid of a private driver navigating the roads, traffic, tourist police and payoffs for God knows what else. Life was easier with a local in the front seat and he did his best to get us to exactly where we wanted to, once we had established that, no, we did not want to visit the souvenir shop of his friend in Cairo. He had only a fair working knowledge of English, and would point out what he could en route, but it was a relatively quiet day between us all, with a little more excitement when I busted out my phrasebook to declare that we would not need him the next day. I had to reassure him that it was not because he was a bad driver, but because I was exhausted after our six hour journey across the plains. That made him happier.
Despite Andrew reading about the crowds gathering at the pyramids of Saqqara and Dahshur, I figured we would have an easy trip in terms of tourist volume. I mean, Tutankahmun’s halls were supposed to be near impossible to get into before the revolution, and now, there was a sparse smattering of people walking the halls. There were no queues to buy tickets, store cameras or enter special exhibits. The revolution was a great step for the population of Egypt, but it has hit the tourism industry hard and the citizens are struggling as a result. The lack of tourists, particularly those less intrepid and more willing to partake in kitschy camel rides and bargaining over genuine-copy scarab necklaces, put more pressure on us as we ran the gauntlet to the Step Pyramid. But the reality is, nothing can take away from the utter grandeur of something so old and so relevant to the culture of Egypt.
The Step Pyramid of Saqqara, based on Andrew’s research, is the first, original pyramid-shaped building in the world. Now, it’s being held up by hundreds of pieces of scaffolding as it struggles under it’s own weight, but that’s not bad seeing it’s been weathering the effects of the harsh desert landscape for so many thousands of years. Even as the wind whipped my scarf around my face and blew my hat away for many a short sprint, it was hard to believe that it had survived so many sandstorms, harsh summers and tourists. I could only imagine how difficult it would have been to try and build the unique frontier of ancient construction, let alone consider the elements on top of all that. It seems truly impossible. Nevertheless, it still stands tall, right by an intricate maze of tombs and smaller, lesser pyramids, with the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid of Dahshur visible off in the distance, our next stop for the day.
Driving through Dahshur is a reminder of the fact that Egypt has seen an upward trend of conservatism of late. I found myself hunched in the backseat with my scarf quickly thrown over my hair rather than loosely draped around my neck. The tight streets through the town left locals staring in through the windows, and I remembered just how strange I am in this place. I desperately wanted to capture the narrow alleyways of Dahshur between the roughly hewn tenements lining the streets, but felt far too conspicuous for my own good.
White. Uncovered. Giant camera. Alien.
Just put the camera away for now, woman.
I discovered, after our day away from Cairo, that I quite like wandering around pyramids. It’s not even really to take photos of them, because most of the time I’ve been there I’ve had the wrong lens on to try and capture it in full. My favourite pastime so far, has been to simply plant my butt in the dirt nearby and watch. Watch as the wind pushes sand around and as donkeys stand and stare. Watch as the tourist police guide Andrew around the walls in an attempt to earn baksheesh*. Watch and sit and wonder at how it all looked as it came together, and think about the lives earned and lost in that whole process. I’ve never been one for history, but to sit outside these deeply ancient structures is to truly ponder the ways of a bygone era, where there was work available for all and everybody had a purpose. A world where innovation was not in making technology products thinner and lights, but in developing completely new ideas and ways of thinking, living and creating. The true problem solvers are not those simply well-schooled in DeBono’s thinking, but those who were forced to create out of necessity. Those who saw that there must be a better way to do things and were not afraid to create change.
All that from sitting on my butt.
Time well spent, I say.
Once I did get off my rear, all the while thankful I was wearing sand-coloured pants, Andrew and I climbed down into the depths of the Red Pyramid, the first of the pyramids built in the manner that we are familiar with now. It was a steep climb down with rungs hammered across a long, steel ramp where you spent the whole journey trying to work out the best and most efficient way of navigating it. I tell you what – I don’t think there is one. And, as I stifled the heavy ammonia smells from the deep, dark interior of the incredibly precise structure, I realised that what I saw from the outside, just sitting on my butt out there, was nothing compared to what was held within. No warning of claustrophobia or urine smells are going to keep me out of the Great Pyramid. These things are incredible.