April 9, 2022. 86°F/30°C
Port Said, on the Mediterranean, is our access point to Cairo and the pyramids. It is also one end point of the Suez Canal, which makes it a busy place. We arrived yesterday afternoon , the only cruise ship docking as opposed to simply passing through. In a way, we’re just passing through as well, since we didn’t really explore Port Said.
There are two things top of my list here: the pyramids at the Giza Plateau, and the Sphinx. We’ve chosen a 13-1/2 hour optional excursion called “Egypt’s Historic Highlights” that will cover those things and much more.
But first we needed to make the 3-1/2 hour drive to and just beyond Cairo to reach them.
It was another high security process. We were on Bus #3, leaving the port in a police-escorted convoy, although we split off part way along the journey since we were the only bus headed to Memphis. We lost our police escort, but kept our on-board armed security guard.
The drive was along highways and the new ring-road (beltway) around the city, which was created to alleviate traffic jams.
Cairo was occupied by British troops from 1882 until 1956 (the year I was born!), although the British had already been there with the Ottomans in 1801, displacing the French. I guess that long occupation explains my early impressions of Cairo, through a distinctly British-tinted lens of movies, television shows, and Agatha Christie novels.
Modern day Cairo is not that. It is an interesting, and sometimes jarring, juxtaposition of ancient, old, and new; the site of 4600 year old pyramids, but also 7th century Coptic churches, 9th century mosques, early 20th century farming methods and decidedly 21st century shopping malls.
One of the interesting sights on our drive were dozens of apartment buildings that looked as though they’d been cut in half. We could see staircases and painted interior walls in some cases. Our guide explained that these buildings were built on government and farm land, without permits, around the time of the Arab uprising in 2011. When the highway recently needed expanding, these buildings were expropriated, but only the portion needed to accommodate the new highway lanes. Since the buildings are almost modular in design, “stacks” of apartments could simply be shaved off!
Cairo is building a number of very modern, very green “satellite cities” to help alleviate crowding in the city core.
After driving through part of Cairo and along one of the Nile irrigation canals, we reached the ancient city of Memphis, the historic capital of Egypt for 8 consecutive dynasties. It is now an open-air museum which most famously houses the huge statue (colossus) of Ramses II. Like the rest of Memphis, it was toppled during severe earthquakes. Due to the loss of its lower legs and feet (portions of which, along with the tip of its crown, are in museums in Cairo and London), it is displayed prone. You can get a sense of its sheer size (almost 30 metres long with the missing feet and top of crown) by the size of the people beside it. The statue is identifiable by its carved cartouche on the belt.
The Memphis sphinx is the second largest sphinx in Egypt, at about 80 tons if carved calcite, but no identifying cartouche remains on it to tell us whose face it is (i.r. Who it honours). Speculation based on its age is that it could be Hatshepsut, Amenhotep II or Amenhotep III.
Several large panels of the Memphis temple walls were also on display, deeply carved with hieroglyphics and cartouches.
We also viewed the statue of what appears from the features to be a Nubian, perhaps a priest. Although sometimes identified as Rameses II, our guide pointed out that its face was significantly different from that on the Rameses II colossus, and it bears no royal cartouche.
Several other items have been recovered at the Memphis site, including huge bases on which statues would have stood, and large statue fragments.
From Memphis we travelled to Sakkara, the oldest necropolis in Egypt. The site was used as a burial ground for almost 3000 years, beginning around 4700 years ago. It is still an active archeological site.
Sakkara is home to the 4,700-year-old Step Pyramid (built 27th century BC), Egypt’s oldest surviving pyramid; about 200 years older than the more-famous Pyramids at Giza. Our guide (an Egyptologist) explained that the 6 visible levels of the step pyramid represent the 6 days it took to create the world. The flat tip represents the 7th day, of rest. The soul of the king entombed in a chamber below the ground must rise through all the levels to reach the afterlife; literally a “Stairway to Heaven”. I couldn’t confirm the 7 days, but was able to find a synopsis of the ancient Egyptian creation story from their Book of the Dead Egyptian civilization – Myths – Creation myth
We also toured the Funerary Complex of Djoser, the 3rd Dynasty Pharoah. The complex (below) is a temple separate from his pyramid tomb.
At the Tomb of Kagemni we learned that the exteriors of tombs were decorated in bas relief (carved INTO the stone), which is less susceptible to erosion, but interiors are done in high relief for more realistic detail.
The level of detail on things like the feathers on birds is amazing, as is the fact that pigments have survived for 4600 years. (What’s the warranty on modern-day interior house paint?)
Below is an ornately decorated doorway and lintel, in front of which is a trough into which offerings could be placed. These were not for the dead (ancient Egyptians were smart enough to know that souls don’t eat regular food), but were signs of respect that would be distributed to the needy (hopefully) by the priest, in much the same way as churches, mosques and temples currently act as distributors of charity.
We were able to enter the Pyramid of Teti (6th Dynasty), a smooth-sided pyramid opened by Gaston Maspero in 1882. Above ground the pyramid has deteriorated into a small hill, but inside it is impressively well preserved. Accessing the burial chamber involved crouching down and navigating several narrow low corridors cut out of stone, interrupted by small chambers in which we could stand upright. It was not possible to take photos “walking” up or down in those spaces,since 100% of our attention had to be on the slope of the floor and not hitting our heads, especially in the longer passages which were fairly dark.
Our group stopped for yet another wonderful buffet lunch, this time at the locally owned Sakkara Palm Hotel and Resort. I could get used to all the yummy vegetable salads and grilled lamb kofta!
It was on to one of my bucket list items, the Great Pyramids of Giza. They were definitely impressive, but in hindsight I’d recommend visiting Sakkara if you had to choose just one ancient site.
Our last stop, before a brief shopping option, was at the Great Sphinx of Giza, about 4500 years old and measuring 73 metres/240 ft long and 66 20 metres/66 ft high. Because we’re in Ramadan, the site was closing early. At 3:30 the afternoon calls to prayer began from all the surrounding mosques, supplemented by all of the site’s staff blowing police whistles to “encourage” tourists to leave promptly. We did.
Dusk fell as we were returning back to the ship, and our guides, drivers, and security guard broke their fast with water and a meal pre-packaged at our lunch stop. Apparently Viking sent dinners to the other buses at their evening convoy meeting point; another caring and classy touch.
We reached Port Said after dark, with the city brightly lit by coloured lights for Ramadan. We’d had a police escort from the last highway checkpoint, but it grew as we neared the port, topping out at 4 motorcycles, 2 police cars, and one police truck ahead of us (I don’t know who was behind our small convoy of buses 1,2 and 3), all of them with lights flashing and sirens blaring. We were definitely not arriving incognito!
I leaned forward to say to the assistant guide seated with the security officer in front of us that it felt like there must be a rock star on our bus to garner all this attention. He replied, “You’re all rock stars. There hadn’t been a beautiful cruise ship in this port for 11 years and we’re all happy you’re here.” Wow.
About the title of this post. Guides in various cities have addressed our excursion groups in many ways: Vikings, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends (Croatia), honoured guests (Saudi Arabia), “guys” (Jordan), and today “habibi”, which translates as my love/my dear/my darling/my beloved, or, as our guide told me with a wink, “honeybun – you can use it on your husband”. Our group was “habibi” all day, which I found incredibly charming.