As I was led to a corner interrogation room at Cairo airport surrounded by a bunch of hefty police officers, my first thought was that since Papa, Ma and Meha are devotees of Lord Ganesha, I would be saved. I also cursed myself for not going to temples frequently enough. The under-waist belt, which had been chosen after extensive research of best solutions to keep credit cards and money secure, was the culprit. Sweating profusely I tried to convince the police that there was no hidden bomb. My cute looks got me off the hook and out we were – what an adventurous start to the world trip – a fully avoidable type.
Before that, we had bidden farewell to folks in Chennai, enjoyed some interesting signage at Mumbai airport, endured a crazily-long immigration queue at Mumbai and wasted one hour in searching for the pre-departure lounge to relax.
While INR 20,000 looks like a hefty fee for a credit card, Citibank Prestige card is a beast for this kind of world-trip application, with privilege of 2 priority passes (free lounge access around the world!), Taj vouchers, a multitude of airmiles and what not. Anyway, at 1 am Mika and I fought in the lounge about whether the orange juice should be drunk straight off the 1-litre carton or a glass. As we boarded Egypt Air 969 to Cairo and I looked at the tiny 737-80o, my first thought was how will it fly 6 hours and prayed it should not run out of fuel mid-air !
A smooth flight later, we landed in Cairo safely and the reality that we were ACTUALLY on the road for a year, sank in.After the airport police adventure, as the taxi approached the pyramids, we felt in familiar territory in the midst of squalor of Giza village.
Even after reading Lonely Planet Egypt countless times, nothing prepared us for the breathtaking view that awaited us at breakfast from the rooftop of the lovely Pyramids View Inn (ranked #1 on TripAdvisor). We had complete “paisa vasool” for 2 nights, shamelessly staring at the Pyramids all the time. Arre bhai, we are Indians !
Quickly refreshed, we crossed the road and encountered the Sphinx first. He is supposed to be guarding the great pyramids. The Greeks named it thus as it resembled their mythical monster (man with haunches of a lion) who set riddles and killed the ones unable to answer. Bad at riddles, I tried to run away but Mika forced me to take the customary tourist poses.
A little primer: Egyptian kingdoms are divided into 3 phases. Old, Middle & New. The Giza pyramids fall into first lot – the enthu of the Pharaohs too was at its highest to allow such megalomania. The two main Pyramids are of Khufu and Khafre. While Khufu built the bigger one at 146m (in 2570 BC),
I personally liked his son Khafre’s pyramid (136 m) better. First, it is perfectly aligned with the Sphinx. Second, the white limestone sandstone covering at the top gives it a really cooler look. Third, Meha likes it too!
The tombs of Khafre and Khufu had been raided long back and their mummies never found. “India”. “Amitabh Bacchan is inside the tomb”. “Hey Maharaja”. The unbelievably never-ending persistence of the horse/camel/souveneir vendors is mind-boggling. We were also offered their wares in Indian Rupees! All this is harmless but can get on your nerved after 2 hours in scorching heat. Before they turned Mika into a mummy, we headed back to the hotel for a well-deserved nap.
At 7 pm, we are ready for the free light and sound show that you can watch from the hotel’s roof top. Paisa vassol (value for money) of the highest order! A lovely Kushari meal later, we snored with the eerie feeling that Khufu and Khafre’s spirits are just outside our hotel window.
Over our morning walk through the Giza village the next morning, we learnt where to head to if the Pyramids vendor assault makes you mad.
We saw some more authentic Giza morning scenes (some pretty and some not) that you won’t get to see if staying in downtown Cairo. It taught us that Taj Mahal or Pyramids – apathetic politicians are the same world over with regards to (non)maintenance of surroundings of their country’s prized monuments!
After a lovely breakfast, and 1000 pictures later, we took one more snap and bid the Pharaohs a “bhaav-bheeni vidai” (heartfelt good bye) – notice the purple flowers in the foreground against the pale and weathered ancient monuments. Also notice sadness in Meha’s and Mika’s eyes.
At 7:30 am (8th April 2016), we headed off to Saqqara, Dahshur & Memphis – containing pyramids older than those at Giza. There are a total of 118 pyramids in and around Cairo! Our affable drive Abdullah tells us that Saqqara has 2 million date palm trees and a multitude of carpet schools
While the Giza pyramids get all the tourist glory, the other ones are mind-boggling nevertheless, and can be covered as a day trip. First up was Saqqara. It contains 11 major pyramids of the Old Kingdom Pharaohs.
As we entered Imhotep museum, we were greeted by these lovely Blue-cheeked Beeeaters.
The rock star of Saqqara is the Step Pyramid – commissioned by Pharaoh Zoser and architected by Imhotep (also considered world’s first physician). You enter through a hypostyle hall which has 40 pillars resembling a bundle of palm or papyrus stems.
This is followed by Great South Court featuring a bunch of cobras representing goddess Wadjet, who spat fire and represented destruction.
Then comes the step pyramid itself.
Saqqara also has Mastaba of Ti. Mastaba = Bench in Arabic. It was the benched stone structure directly above the actual tomb. Mika was thrilled to enter the tomb everywhere. Meha and I were scared and claustrophobic – kids now a days are fearless.
The last stop at Saqqara was Pyramid of Teti. Teti was a 6th dynasty pharaoh (2340 BC) and his tomb is one of the best preserved from inside. Again Mika enjoyed entering the tombs and posing for pictures ! The paranoid me kept thinking what if we get stuck underground here and escape strategies ….
Abdullah then whisked us to Dahshur, 10 Kms south of Saqqara. Khufu’s dad Pharaoh Sneferu built Egypt’s first TRUE pyramid here called the Red Pyramid and also the Bent pyramid. After Giza, these 2 are the biggest pyramids. Entering the Red pyramid was an adventure in itself – 125 steep stone steps followed by god knows how many more ups and downs, after which you reach three different 15 meter high burial chambers, each being an independent structure itself. Don’t forget to take your torch inside !
Bent pyramid is cooler looking than Red – because of its strange shape. They started ambitiously giving it a 54 degree angle but decided, “boss, ye to nahi hoga” (gosh, this is going no where) , and turned the incline to 43 degrees to finish it off. Phew ! Ho gaya khatam!!
Ok, take a deep breath and revise with me. The first pyramids EVER built were Step pyramids (2650 BC). THEN came the Bent Pyramid (2600 BC – a trial to build the real ones). THEN the Red Pyramid (same time frame as Bent – around 2600 BC – they figured out how to build a TRUE pyramid by now) . Then the REAL DEAL – the Great Pyramids at Giza (2560 BC) . Chalo ab paise nikaalo !
It is 1230 pm under scorching sun. We bid good bye to the best-mannered Abdullah who epitomized the best of Egypt tourism – carefree, humorous and understated grace.
Time to head off to Egyptian Museum where Tutankhamun’s Gold mask awaits us. The museum is off Tahrir Square, which in 40 degree summer heat, shows no signs of revolution.
We meander through this amazing treasure cove of over 10,000 objects, including the special Tutankhamun galleries (alas no pictures allowed of his famed mask but boy it was ultra-special!).
Unable to take a pictures of Tutankhamun’s mask, I got increasingly desperate and looked around to find his underwear which resembled the Indian “langoti” and looked sufficiently interesting to deserve a click.
The piece de resistance of the museum was the special mummy gallery which has an additional ticket. This gallery was worth the price – going back in time 3000 years and looking at those embalmed bodies, some with the curly hair befitting rock stars like Alice Cooper, was surreal. This time desperation truly got the better of me and when the attendant looked the other way, I clicked a REAL MUMMY ! Yahoo !!
It is 4:30 pm. Dark clouds are gathering perhaps symbolizing the state of our sore feet. Meha insists on a coffee in the museum’s cafe after which we head back to Giza again. Bye Bye Cairo. See you Luxor , starting with Egyptian Railways train adventure tomorrow.
Thanks for reading our blog and we will be back soon with our Luxor adventures.
Meha, Manish & Mika