April 14, 2008
Last Words on Egypt:
More than a week hence I’m moved again to add some more about my time in Egypt. A lot of the blog thus far has been light-hearted. But there’s more. You can’t travel to a place such as this, steeped in history, and dripping with a culture so much richer than yours, and not be moved. Not to somehow be awakened by the very difference in front of you.
The plane descends into the desert. It shutters a bit then settles down, leveling. A look out the left-hand windows unveils something out of a 1950s movie reel. The pyramids sit atop the Giza Plain motionless; the shadows cast long against the plain ground that surrounds them. They are stunning and powerful and full of a hope that only comes with things this ancient. Things time has worn but not broken down. Only here are there things of this age. Millenia pass these things and they barely notice. These were
here when Ghandi walked for change in India, when Saladin pushed back the infidels, when Jesus walked the sea of Galilee. These were here before man understood that he could take advantage of buoyancy and float things atop the water. These things, these stone and sand monuments built to honor the life of one man each, manage to honor an entire people. Their fortitude and permanence, their gratitude and grace. I am humbled by what they are and what they represent.
Overwhelmingly the pyramids, the land, and all other things here are brown. All hues of it. The color dominates all surfaces. The fertile ribbon of the Nile proves a small respite. Everywhere the apartment buildings, businesses, condominiums, bridges, and fortifications, even the simple clothes on the backs of the people seem hewn from the same stone as the pyramids themselves. On many buildings the mechanical equipment that in American we imagine as galvanized steel, here is painted and crusted to match the desert. It all blends in.
This blending in is perhaps the cause of one of the greatest misconceptions of this place. The site where this monument, and in fact the Sphinx, is located is surrounded by the city of Giza. Less than 100 yards from the foot of the Sphinx is the edge of town with a Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken overlooking the gate. All of my previous perceptions of Egypt through books and media put the pyramids in the middle of some vast ocean of sand that may take hours to get to. It just isn’t so. The desert does stretch out in one direction, but in all others the town is clearly in view. Due partly to the height of the Giza Plain where the pyramids were built, and the ecru color of everything in view, the city disappears into the background noise of the desert. It is a powerful and fascinating effect. If you look closely at the above photo, (Click on it to enlarge,) between the two great pyramids on the left and smaller one to the right you can clearly see the city looming in the distance with tour bus making its way down the access road.
Turning the other way, looking back towards the pyramids from the Sphinx, you can see the effect clearly. As you look up to the pyramids the background disappears into the wash of the desert making it appear the monuments exist by themselves alone.
Further countering the illusion on closer inspection is the fetid swamp at the base of the Sphinx. Apparently the water table is very shallow in these parts and they have difficulty with ground flooding. That may explain the extremely high humidity inside the pyramid we ventured into.
All this made me appreciate the anachronistic Cairo that follows the Nile. Here, it is bright lights and neon, loud music, honking horns, and color everywhere. I had some fun with the camera aiming at the funny little party boats that ply the river late at night. These were termed by my hosts as “boats for the poor people.” On each little vessel you could hear the loud music bellowing across the river, neon lights flashing, men and women dancing and cavorting on the decks. I truly wished to be on those boats and not on the fancy dinner cruise where I’d been escorted.
On another note, for my bicycling friends out there wondering why I don’t have any pictures of myself on a fixed gear bike pounding the streets of Cairo…. in the words of Tony Soprano “fahgedaboutit!” It would take someone with more skill, youth and testosterone than me to venture onto these streets on a bike. In my eight days here, I counted only seven bicycles total! Here’s one I managed to snag a photo of out the car window.
Every bike I saw was like this. A working bike, designed to carry large loads. No frivolous frilly rides with pink tires here. Seriously, you’d be taking your life in your hands to ride these streets. Imagine New York city with ten times the traffic and no apparent use for the lane markings on the road.
A typical road had three lanes clearly demarked with paint, but six or seven lanes of traffic squeezed into them, turning here and there, ipso-facto, no rhyme or reason, very few traffic lights or other controls. In fact I asked my host why they even bothered to paint the lane markings. He said, quite plain-faced, “to make work for the people.” Something now I completely understand to be true.
So that will do it for me and Egypt….at least until next time. I know now that I have a place here and that I will be welcome. These are some of the most kind, generous, and genuine people I have ever met anywhere. If they will have me, I promise to return.