Hawking—Us vs. Them?


It wore me out. At Egypt’s popular tourist sites, I got besieged by hawkers selling their wares. They couldn’t be avoided. I steeled myself for the inevitable barrage.

Haggling in Egypt (image from middleeasteye.net)

The routine would invariably be the same. Some guy (it was almost always men) would approach you. He’d hold up something and immediately quote a price, say, one U.S. dollar. That seemed like the going price for many things. It’s an amount that I could easily afford, no?

I’d say no.

He would continue, “Only $1.”

“No, thank you.”

“$1.”

“No, don’t want it.”

“Only $1,” he’d press on.

“No.”

This could go on longer, depending on how the tout sizes you up. The thing is, he follows you as you try to make your way toward a temple (or wherever). Eventually, if you’re resolute with eyes forward, he’ll drop back and bother someone else. If you so much as look at whatever he’s selling, the hawker will see an opening. He will be very good at reading your face. The pressure increases and tactics change. If you stop to handle the object, you’re as good as sunk. The starting asking price will be high. If you’ve dealt with haggling before, you know the drill. In an occupation where competition is high, the most aggressive will reap greater rewards.

If you do buy, you must be careful. I bought a booklet on Abu Simbel. I noticed later that the booklet had some water damage. Because I was still in the area, I managed to get it replaced when I found the seller. I wasn’t so lucky when I bought a T-shirt elsewhere that turned out too small, even though the seller told me at the time of sale that it was the right size. The moral: check your merchandise immediately after purchase.

On the one hand, it’s easy to understand the seller’s situation. Life is very hard in Egypt; the poverty rate is high and getting higher. Selling something, however small, is significant. An amount that seems trivial to me might make a big difference to the seller.

On the other hand, the high pressure made me less amenable to do any shopping, let alone buy anything. I don’t have much use for most souvenirs anyway. That’s just me. Rather than dwell on the nature of the transaction, I could have switched mental gears with the attitude instead to help people, like one member of our tour did (I’ll call him L), who purchased the entire collection of knickknacks from a boy at a Theban temple. The boy gave L a heartfelt hug. L had no need for his purchases, it was obvious to me. It was an act of generosity. I witnessed L’s largesse on other occasions.

Hawking is a way of life in Egypt. I don’t especially enjoy it, but some tourists think it’s fun.

Baksheesh, the Conundrum of Tipping


It’s a pervasive part of daily life in Egypt. Baksheesh, or tipping. Tipping is expected for any service or favor performed, no matter how small, for tourists and locals alike. It’s almost as common as a handshake. Westerners are generally amazed at how extensive it is.

Tips mean a great deal to the average Egyptian whose income in 2015 was 28 percent likely to be below the poverty line, 32.5% in 2018. To add insult to injury, Egypt had an annual inflation rate of 10% or more for years, peaking at 28% in 1989, which increased the ranks of the poor. In 2016, when the IMF made it a pre-condition for getting a bailout of $12 billion, the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound was floated and promptly lost half its value, which was disastrous for an economy that depends on imports. Traditional subsidies on food, fuel and utilities were also cut. Poverty is getting worse, not better. COVID-19 will surely exacerbate the problem.

With a situation this bleak, is it any wonder that anyone would rub two fingers and thumb together or ask for baksheesh outright? It wasn’t begging. Some service was performed, even in the line of duty, such as a security guard walking with us on pyramid grounds. This also happened with an airport luggage handler, alabaster shop employee, attendant at a temple entrance, the list goes on. Even when our tour guide collected a lump sum from each of us and took care of tipping on our behalf, the requests for tip were still made. 

Before the trip, my wife and I collected as many $1 bills as possible, taking the advice of travelers who on the internet said Egyptians would be ‘happy’ to accept foreign cash as eagerly as their own. Well, maybe. I found out more than once that Egyptian banks don’t do locals any favors by refusing to exchange $1 bills for pounds or piastres. One family in Abusir asked if someone on our tour could swap five ones for a five dollar bill for this reason.

To me as an American, an Egyptian pound (£E), which might be given to a toilet attendant, is equal to about $.06, or 6 cents. Most tips are in the £E 5-10 range (32-63 cents). So it seems appropriate that I, as an American (for instance), be generous to those far less fortunate.

And I was willing—sort of. Why the hesitation?

It was a headache getting my hands on small bills. The problem was this. When I made an ATM cash withdrawal, it would be for a few thousand pounds (equivalent to a few hundred U.S. dollars), which would primarily be dispensed in £E 100 notes. Since £E 100 is a large amount in Egypt, it brings up the problem of making change. (Rather than repeating how hard this is, I refer you to a similar post here.) Even when exchanging at the hotel bank, I got back a fifty, two twenties and a ten. In this respect, the infrastructure doesn’t support tourists and indirectly the people who rely on baksheesh. Egypt is not alone in this. I found the same problem in Morocco and I suspect it’s true in many other places of the world.

For the average Egyptian, everyday business is conducted in transactions much less than £E 100. There is a scarcity of small bills in Egypt, or maybe it’s more that tourists like me can’t get our hands on them. I imagine that locals hang on to them dearly so they can function in the informal cash economy.

I don’t know what the solution is for anyone who wants to travel to Egypt. Not everyone will have a tour guide like ours to help ease the frustration. Am I discouraging travelers from visiting Egypt? Definitely not. Baksheesh is a cultural phenomenon that should be acknowledged and accepted. Egypt is a wonderful place. Sadly a visit, for now, will have to wait until the pandemic subsides, insha’allah.

(Note: image above from treasuryvault.com)

The Splendid Temple of Hathor (Dendera)


Calling a woman a cow nowadays is asking for trouble, but the Egyptians of yore depicted Hathor as a cow, a woman with cow’s horns or woman with cow’s ears. She was one of Egypt’s most important deities, a primordial goddess, daughter of Ra and Nut, goddess of joy, female love, sex, destruction and rebirth, just some of her many aspects. She was so venerated that a cult developed around her in Dendera where a temple complex was dedicated to her. Construction of the temple began in the Ptolemaic period (Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra) and ended with additions made by Roman emperor Tiberius.

Hathor with cow ears and Hathor with cow horns and the solar disc

The Temple of Hathor was the most beautiful I visited in Egypt. It’s considered one of the best preserved. The still vivid paints can thank the desert sands that largely covered the temple for millennia and the result of meticulous restoration. The temple also impressed me with gorgeous wall carvings and the Great Hypostyle Hall.

Aside from its beauty, the temple has other remarkable features.

Capital H

The temple’s dedication to Hathor is obvious just by looking up. Her image as a female goddess with cow’s ears appears throughout the temple, most conspicuously as capitals on its 24 columns (see above). Her face is on all four sides, gazing out at the cardinal points of the universe. I wondered who defaced all 96 of her faces.

Zodiacs

The temple has two distinctive zodiacs, one of which may be the oldest in the world. It’s known as the Dendera Zodiac. Visitors casually walking through the temple will never find it. Our tour group was led up a stairwell to the temple roof. No one else was up there except guards. On the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to Osiris is the zodiac, the only one shaped like a circle in Egyptian art. I couldn’t make out details at first because it was covered in black soot from centuries of burning wood underneath. With some effort, the figures of the constellations gradually became more visible. The planisphere corresponds to the modern zodiac although some constellations have Egyptian forms.

Zodiac

The Dendera Zodiac isn’t without controversy. In 1820, the original was removed and taken away to France where it is now displayed in the Louvre. The one in Dendera is a plaster replica. While the zodiac’s removal may have been legal and sanctioned by Egyptian authorities at the time, there is a bigger moral issue of its return, just as the bust of Nefertiti that rests in the Neues Museum (Berlin).

Dendera Zodiac in the Louvre (image from http://bosabosareview.blogspot.com/p/egyptian-art.html)

The other zodiac, in the common rectangular form, appears on the ceiling of the main hall. I had to squint to see the figures because the architrave on which they’re carved is over 50ft (15m) above the floor.

Show Me Your True Colors

The colors in the main hall are gorgeous, as if they defied the ravages of time. There’s a reason. Like the Dendera Zodiac now, the ceiling and walls used to be covered in soot from centuries of burning fires inside. But after meticulous cleaning efforts, much of the original vibrancy of the colors has been beautifully restored.

So why hasn’t the Dendera Zodiac been restored? My guess is because it’s a replica, waiting for its replacement with the real one that France needs to return.

Shedding Light on a Mystery

Depending on one’s inclinations, the biggest attraction might be the so-called Dendera light bulbs. These are controversial panels in which figures appear to be holding giant ‘light bulbs,’ complete with ‘filaments’ (snake forms) and ‘cords.’ So, these guys had electricity? Hold on. Archaeologists counter that the ‘bulbs’ represent the creation of the universe emerging from lotus flowers, which are symbols of death and rebirth, the ‘cords’ are their stems and the snake, another symbol of rebirth. These depictions are found in two places, in the main temple area and in an underground crypt. They don’t appear anywhere else in Egyptian art.

Dendera ‘light bulbs’ in the main hall
Dendera ‘light bulbs’ in an underground crypt (distortion due to panorama camera mode)

Rite of Passage

Many women touch it in the hopes of becoming pregnant. Near the Dendera light bulbs is a relief of a snake that symbolizes fertility and procreation. The figure is well worn from countless touches over the years, not necessarily only by ladies who want children.

The snake as symbol of fertility and procreation

Precision

I recently read a book by Christopher Dunn. Highly experienced in engineering and precision machining, he makes some intriguing revelations about Hathor’s temple. After analyzing carefully calibrated photographs, he concluded that the builders manufactured the Hathor column capitals which today can only be made with advanced machining tools. The capitals include not only Hathor’s head but two cornices and sistrum, a rattling musical instrument associated with her. What amazed him are the complex three-dimensional transitions from one kind of surface to another.

Column capital includes Hathor’s faces, sistrum and two cornices

Dunn also discovered that the columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall (including projections of some critical points on the capitals) are lined up or perpendicular to each other. He took a digital image of four columns with camera on tripod aimed straight up, making sure that the center of the image coincided with the geometric center of the columns in order to avoid angular distortion. Reference lines were rendered using computer-aided design (CAD) software on a computer. These lines were drawn along cornice edges and through certain intersections of Hathor’s head and cornice. Each capital indicates that there is precise alignment with respect to the others.

This is a quality a visitor will never see. One would think that something less than perfect would hardly be noticeable; the overall effect of the temple would still be incredible. So I wondered, why the exacting standards? Do other Egyptian temples show this kind of care and building prowess? I wouldn’t at all be surprised.

To walk through the Temple of Hathor is an exquisite experience. Its beautiful architecture and carvings, celestial allusions—and colors—affected me like no other temple. That the builder applied an esoteric craft in its design and construction makes the temple all the more wondrous.

The Valley Temple and Osireion: Echoes of a Bygone World Culture?


Seeing is believing.

I gawked at the Valley Temple of Khafre in Giza and the Osireion in Abydos. Though they are in Egypt, they reminded me of monuments I saw in Peru, halfway round the world. Cyclopean blocks of unadorned stone were cut and tightly fitted to one another. Their colossal sizes hint at an accomplished civilization that knew how to manipulate gargantuan stones in ways that defy explanation.

Here’s where the prevailing thinking seems unbelievable, if not ridiculous. Stones of gigantic size were said to have been quarried, dragged or ferried over great distances, lifted into place and fitted with precision by sheer muscle, hammer, pounding stone and copper chisel. In places like Peru, where mountains and valleys present insurmountable obstacles, this explanation severely strains credibility. Was there instead a method of transportation and masonry that we haven’t yet discovered or identified? In our scientific and rational age, we tend to think of historical engineering achievements relative to a progressive timeline, from the use of simple tools (Neolithic Age) to today’s advanced industrial technology. Surely, the ancients didn’t have the wherewithal to use anything but unlimited human labor, rope and crude tools to build their magnificent edifices, did they?

And yet, we can’t prove, let alone reproduce, how some of the greatest ancient monuments of the world were built.

The Valley Temple and Osireion are such enigmas. They don’t look anything like other Egyptian temples that are colonnaded and embellished with beautiful art and hieroglyphs. Rather they have the starkness and aura of great age.

Valley Temple of Khafre

The Valley Temple sits a stone’s throw away from the Sphinx. We nearly didn’t have time to see it after a full day of taking in the Sphinx, Great Pyramid and Solar Boat Museum. With the second pyramid and the Great Sphinx, it forms a complex whose construction is attributed to King Khafre (4th dynasty). The sole evidence given to Khafre’s connection is the famous statue of him, now at the Cairo Museum, that was found buried in the Valley Temple. (That the statue was beautifully carved from diorite, a very hard igneous rock with a Mohs scale of around 7, is wondrous in itself.)

Statue of Khafre, Cairo Egyptian Museum

This is hardly proof, as some point out, only that the statue was found there. A New Kingdom stone slab called the Inventory Stela (factually disputed by some), found in Giza and dating to the 26th dynasty (roughly 2,000 years after Khafre), claims the Sphinx and Valley Temple were built before Khufu, Khafre’s father. If true, the temple’s construction could conceivably be pushed back to pre-dynastic times, or at least the Early Dynastic Period.

Inner courtyard, Valley Temple of Khafre

Whatever the uncertainty regarding dates, the physical facts are quite amazing. There are two layers of stone construction, granite and limestone. Limestone was laid first. Hundreds of them in the form of megalithic blocks form a surrounding wall. Some weigh 200 tons and some were lifted as much as 40ft up the temple’s eastern side. Evidence suggests they suffered long-term damage from former, heavy pre-dynastic rains, much like the weathering around the Sphinx and its enclosure. The limestone had been extremely eroded before granite casing stones were attached to the softer rock. Incredibly, they were cut (or manipulated?) to conform to the underlying limestones’ erosional patterns, all their peaks and troughs, to become the temple’s inner and outer walls. How was this renovation, or restoration, ever done? Again, hammer and copper chisel aren’t the answer. The technique is quite similar to shaping casing stones over the Great Pyramid’s irregular limestone core blocks.

Note the limestone layer at the top and granite walls below.

In addition to the retaining walls, there are two rows of gigantic, parallel granite posts that are topped with equally gigantic lintels.

The workmanship on the granite walls is exquisite, fitting tightly together with seams scarcely able to admit a needle point.

Aswan red granite casing stones

Other incredible features of some stones are their irregular shapes. Some are trapezoidal, others have notches, yet others curve around corners at right angles.

Note notching on second large granite block from the bottom and corner block above it. An upper stone is a parallelogram.
A closer look

What could possibly be the reason for fashioning stones with odd dimensions? Some suggest it was for earthquake-proofing. It surely wasn’t for simplicity.

The Osireion

When the Temple of Seti I in Abydos was being planned in New Kingdom times, the builders discovered a sunken monument buried in sand, now called the Osireion. How long it had been there was anybody’s guess. In 1902, it was discovered 50ft below ground by Egyptologists Margaret Murray and William Flinders Petrie. From the looks of it, the monument wasn’t built during the time of Seti, whose temple is in a classically Egyptian style. The temple’s design also has a unique, unorthodox L-shape that suggests Seti considered the Osireion sacred enough to avoid building his temple over it. Another fact: the Osireion is constructed of granite, the temple of limestone and sandstone.

It’s striking that the Osireion has a stylistic similarity to Khafre’s Valley Temple, not only because of the megalithic stonework but its design of two parallel rows of pillars flanking a central hall. It also is the monument that at its base may sit in greenish water depending on the Nile water table (also see below). There is physical evidence that the floor of the Valley Temple likewise saw water. Today, the Osireion looks like an open-air structure. Incredibly it used to be roofed over by two rows of thick stone slabs, before they collapsed or were destroyed by a natural catastrophe.

For some reason, visitors aren’t allowed to get close to the Osireion. This could hopefully change in the future. Our tour group had to be content with gazing at it from an overlook. It’s roped off for now, unfortunate for those of us who want a closer look.

As far as is known, these two structures are the only ones in Egypt built in this massive post-and-lintel style.

Peru Connection?

Both monuments reminded me of stonework I saw in Peru, if not in the details. While the Egyptians favored horizontal lines, Peruvian courses of equally large stone were often laid non-linearly yet with the same, exacting fit tolerances. Echoes of a common stone-working technology seem to reverberate across the ocean.

Pisac, Peru
Ollantaytambo, Peru
Sacsayhuaman, Cusco (Peru)

And, for good measure:

Megalithic blocks, Japan (screen capture from YouTube)

What the Nub is Going On?

The image below shows casing stones at the entrance to Menkaure’s pyramid in Giza, the smallest of the three. (Unfortunately, our tour group didn’t have the opportunity to visit it.) The stones have different characteristics than the casing stones used on the other two Giza pyramids, namely, their surfaces are not flat and knob-like appendages (nubs) protrude along the bottoms of many.

Pyramid of Menkaure (image from Pinterest)

One wall of the Osireion shows the same kind of nubs.

The stones on the rear wall have nub protrusions (image from hiveminer.com)

What’s intriguing is that this same stone feature is found abundantly in Peru.

Machu Picchu (Peru)
Ollantaytambo (Peru)
Stonework, including the famous 12-sided stone, Cusco (Peru)

No one has been able to figure out what those nubs were used for. They randomly appear along the bottom edges of some (not all) stones, which means they weren’t used for lifting or any other utilitarian purpose. It’s safe to say they weren’t decorative and it would shock me if the masons went to the trouble of purposely carving them that way. Could they be the by-product of an undiscovered process?

What’s intriguing is that nubs like these also appear on stone in India, China, Japan, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere, including Micronesia. Likewise, ancient megalithic construction, analogous to the Valley Temple and Osireion, shows up across the globe, the most humongous being in Lebanon.

Stone nubs, Bulgaria (screen capture from YouTube)

Am I missing something, or are there hints of a global phenomenon, a worldwide architectural legacy? A common, megalithic stone-shaping (and transportation) technology was being practiced, or handed down, all over the world that has been lost to us long ago. Our current global, cross-pollinating culture was not the first in human history, it seems.

Because rocks don’t lend themselves to carbon-dating, we don’t know for sure when the Valley Temple and Osireion were built. They look (and likely are) contemporaneous. But from plentiful circumstantial evidence (from the fields of geology, astronomy, geometry, written and oral history, lichenometry, masonry), the ancients had a level of sophisticated knowledge and technologies for which we give them little credit and which we cannot satisfactorily explain.

Temple of Karnak (Luxor)


The grounds of the Temple of Karnak in Luxor are so big that it can easily surround the great cathedrals of Europe: Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, Milan and more. Started in the Middle Kingdom and added to over a period of 2,000 years into Ptolemaic times by thirty pharaohs, it is a complex conglomeration of smaller temples, hypostyles, courts, chapel, pylons, storerooms and living quarters. It even contains a lake.

With this kind of cornucopia, it isn’t surprising that it’s the most visited site in Egypt second only to the Giza pyramids. In its day, it would’ve looked splendid, judging by its colossal scale and whispers of color that still remain. Now, the patina of old age hints at an ancient civilization long gone.

At 50,000 sq ft/4,650 sq m, the Hypostyle Hall is the largest religious building in the world. The largest of its 134 columns is 79ft/24m high with diameters of 10ft/3m, dwarfing mere humans who walk among them. It isn’t an experience easily forgotten.

Hypostyle Hall

Do Me a Fava, Pass Me the Falafel—and More


I ignored it in Egypt for the first few days, not so much that I don’t like falafel (I do), but I can get it in Seattle where I live. How many ways can it be made, I figured.

That’s before I knew there was a distinctive Egyptian version. How is it different? Instead of chick peas, it’s made from fava beans. They take on a nice shade of green from any number of herbs that can be mixed in the batter, like parsley, cilantro, leek, dill.

The first sample I had was just down the street from the hotel where I was staying in Giza, a restaurant called Felfela, where our tour guide Waleed ordered a plateful. He told us the restaurant is known for its ta’ameya, which is what the falafel is called.

The best I’ve ever had without question. Why? Favas don’t absorb as much oil as chick peas do, according to Waleed, which makes them extra crispy on the outside. Because they’re not as mealy as garbanzos, the texture inside is a tad chewier. In addition, the falafels tend to be flatter than the spherical shape made throughout the Middle East and Levant.

Egyptian falafel (image from falafelinlove.wordpress.com)

On our third day on tour, while visiting the pyramids of Saqqara, we stopped in the town of Dashur where Waleed got everyone a falafel sandwich from a local stand. It was lightly dressed (if at all) and packed with fresh vegetables, falafel and roasted eggplant. Simple but delicious.

Falafel sandwich in Dashur

The Egyptian diet also includes ful medames (mudammas) which my Giza hotel served every morning. Their version of these beans was more smashed than usual, looking more like Mexican refried beans. Condiments on the side included minced red onion, lemon, salt, ground cumin and ground chiles. I had them every morning until I noticed their effects later in the day. Still, if there weren’t friends around me, I wouldn’t have worried so much about their after-effects.

Ful medames

I like vegetables with meals. Egypt didn’t disappoint. Every lunch and dinner included many salads and vegetable side dishes that I’m not entirely sure were Egyptian. But many were. Vegetarians need not worry in Egypt.

Eggplant dishes are bountiful in Egypt. Every meal at hotels and on the Nile river cruisers served them in one form or another. The most abundant is baba ghanoush, smashed roasted and charred eggplant mixed with spices.

Baba ghanoush

A dish similar to dolmas is called mahshi, eggplant or zucchini stuffed with rice, herbs and spices.

Mahshi

We loaded onto the bus after visiting the Cairo Museum all morning, ready for lunch. “Americans love McDonald’s, Egyptians love koshary,” Waleed told the group, as he distributed takeaway containers from a renowned place specializing in it (Abou Tarek in Cairo). Koshary is a savory, filling carb-loaded dish: rice, lentils, chick peas, fried onions, spaghetti-like noodles cooked in two ways, topped with a chunky tomato sauce.

Koshary

A few places served kofta, a dish popular throughout the Levant, minced meat (beef, lamb, chicken) with spices, formed into cigar shapes around skewers and grilled.

Beef kofta (center) with other grilled meats

While in Egypt, I knew I had to try pigeon, which as a delicacy is not nearly as popular here in the U.S. The flesh is reminiscent of dark chicken meat and is fattier like duck. The squab is typically stuffed with rice (or freekeh).

Pigeon stuffed with rice (hamam mahshi)

Egyptian pita, called eish (aish) baladi, was served at almost every meal.

Eish baladi

No account of my culinary foraging in Egypt would be complete without mentioning Turkish coffee flavored with cardamom. It’s a beverage to be savored by itself (or dessert). Powdery fine ground coffee, sugar (optional) and water are heated in a small pot (cezve) and poured unfiltered into demitasse cups. You take a small sip at a time and leave the coffee sludge at the bottom. The cardamom gives it an exotic taste, which I much prefer to cinnamon (which I find too ‘sweet’). Sometimes ground ginger and nutmeg are added. At home, I’ve adapted it to my electric coffee machine.

Packaged Turkish coffee grounds and boiling pot (cezve)

Recently, the Seattle area’s only Egyptian restaurant opened. My wife and I have yet to try it. But no matter how good, the food won’t be as unforgettable as when we ate it at communal tables, in Egypt, with our newly made touring friends with whom we shared this culinary adventure.

A Tribute: Wonderment on the Giza Plateau


It was a bizarre juxtaposition.

Outside my hotel window was the Pyramid of Khafre. In between was the hotel swimming pool, highway, trailers and a swath of the Sahara Desert. Khafre was only a mile away, as the crow flies. What might’ve been a beeline millennia ago is now an obstacle course to reach what ancient Egyptians left for posterity on the Giza Plateau. In the thousands of years since, over 20 million people in metro Cairo, along with traffic gridlock, choking air pollution and urban sprawl, have encroached on the monuments.

View from my hotel room, Le Meridien Pyramids

I’ve wanted to go to Egypt for a long time. I wondered if I ever would.

Then my wife and I were here. If that sounds sudden, it was. Only in November, the chance came up to go on a tour, organized by Travel the Unknown. Having enough reward miles for airfare made the decision easier. The holidays of November, December and January kept my wife and me busy and little time to think about pyramids, temples and the Nile. We only had the rest of January to get ready, physically and mentally. In early February, we’d be off and running. Never before have we made a decision to go far away so quickly. It would be our second trip to Africa in two years.

Our plane landed in Cairo Airport at almost midnight. We were so grateful the local tour company (Lady Egypt) representative whisked us through the airport and got us to the Giza hotel in an hour, much faster than if we’d arrived in midday during Cairo’s legendary traffic jams.

We would have almost a full day to recover from the jet lag before meeting the rest of the tour group and our hosts.

On the tour’s first official day, we had two unique experiences, which I’ll never forget. They were privately allotted times at the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. You read that right, our group was the only one at these sites. These visits had to be done ‘off hours,’ the Sphinx before dawn, Khufu’s pyramid after official closing time (5pm). But what special opportunities they were!

The Great Sphinx

Hopping on the tour bus at 4am, we got to the Sphinx while still dark outside. We needed warm jackets to keep out the chill in the air. In front of the Sphinx’s paws, we listened to commentaries by the tour’s special guest (writer and researcher Andrew Collins) and Waleed Kamouna, our tour’s incomparable guide, and to walk around the monument thanks to mobile flashlights. It thrilled me that not many get this close to the Sphinx.

We would wait two hours before the sun would rise to light up the Sphinx’s head. If the face is supposed to be Khafre’s, curiously it doesn’t look much like the one on his statue in the Cairo Museum.

Khafre’s face?
Presumed statue of Khafre in the Cairo Museum

Some suggest that the head of the Sphinx was re-carved from the head of a lion. It’s been pointed out that the head seems proportionally smaller than the rest of the body. Archaeology dates the Sphinx to the time of Khafre (c. 2575–2465 BCE) who is associated with the closest pyramid. Could it be more ancient? The weathering patterns on the enclosure wall and Sphinx implied to some researchers that heavy rainfall, which Egypt hasn’t experienced since 3000 BC before desertifying, dates the monument’s construction to well before then because of the extent of erosion. Around 10,500 BC, it would have pointed directly west to the constellation Leo, insinuating some kind of celestial time connection. Can the Sphinx possibly be that old? (Due to an astronomical phenomenon known as precession, the house of Leo would not be due west of the Sphinx for another 26,000 years from 10,500 BC. Many ancient societies kept track of precessional cycles.)

The Sphinx and its enclosure were likely eroded by heavy rainfall. But when?

Judging from the image above, you’d think the Sphinx had very little sign of civilization around it. If only that were the case. By turning around to face west, you’d see the edge of Giza City. Cell phone towers poke up above the horizon. It was a regretful and dismaying sight. So was the litter. New construction is going on to this day, but city officials have established a buffer zone on the Giza plateau on which it’s forbidden to build.

Giza City on the horizon west of the Sphinx

After the Sphinx, we were treated to a grand view of all three pyramids from an observation point. The air was thick with haze and pollution and the parking lot was full of hawkers who typically beset tourists at all popular sites.

The Great Pyramid (Pyramid of Khufu)

The Great Pyramid has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. What started out as a youngster’s obsession with things ancient became a curiosity about the incredible feat of technology, craftsmanship and genius that it took to build it. It’s rightfully one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the only one left standing. So it was a great privilege for me to be here.

To finally see the pyramid up close was humbling. What an immense structure! It looks like a series of stacked and tapering stone rows, 210 courses in all, comprising 2.3 million stones at an average weight of 2.5 tons each, a tremendous feat of architectural engineering that may last for thousands more years.

The surface used to be encased in Tura limestone, which are long gone, removed over time for Cairo building projects. Though the Giza limestone core blocks have a rough appearance, incredibly the casing stones were cut on the underside as inverted surfaces to match the contours of underlying core blocks and on the outward side as flat diagonal surfaces. The Khafre pyramid still has its casing stones at its top relatively intact. Unlike today, these stones gave the pyramid a smooth look. It’s said that the brilliant gleam (Tura limestone is white) could be seen from miles away.

The Bent Pyramid at Dashur shows what casing stones would have looked like on the Great Pyramid

Seeing the outside of the pyramid was incredible enough. More special still, our tour group had the inside of the Great Pyramid (Pyramid of Khufu) all to itself. Imagine, just the twelve of us.

We arrived after public hours, security guards everywhere. There was a bit of ceremony when Andrew Collins was given the key to open the gate. From the entrance, we made our way down the Descending Passage, stooped over awkwardly to wiggle down a tunnel only 3.5ft (1m) high. Despite the Giza plateau’s arid climate, the breaths and sweat of earlier visitors made the passageway dank. We eventually reached the entrance to the Grand Gallery.

Grand Gallery

Compared to the Descending Passage, the Grand Gallery soars, roughly 28ft overhead. Looking up, I stared in amazement at the high ceiling that narrows (corbels) like inverted steps. Why were these gigantic rows of granite, some weighing 50 tons, finished so smoothly and elegantly if merely to relieve the massive weight above? Modern additions make climbing easier along its 150ft length. With bannisters and ridges on the wood floorboards, I felt like a kid ready to bound up stairs. (At my age, bounding no longer describes my movements.) If it weren’t for artificial lighting, we would have been in total darkness, making me wonder how the ancients found their way with no visible soots marks on the walls or ceiling.

Grand Gallery

King’s Chamber

Though not nearly as brutal as in summertime, the humidity was still high when we entered the King’s Chamber, even with a ventilation system. The room is stark and undecorated, brooding. The walls and floor consist of massive, squarely cut granite blocks.

King’s Chamber

The room contains nothing more than a stone ‘sarcophagus’ along one end. Since no remains or lid were ever found, coffer is probably a better word. One corner is heavily damaged. In the dim artificial lighting, it was hard to tell that it and the entire room is made of Aswan red granite, different from the limestone used almost everywhere else.

Coffer in the King’s Chamber

Shining a smart phone light into the interior, I was amazed to see flat, machined-like surfaces and straight, sharp corners. Other visitors have reported seeing saw marks and drill holes. I cursed that I didn’t bring along a proper flashlight (and carpenter’s square?).

Straight corners

Queen’s Chamber

The other chambers were less dramatic. The smaller Queen’s Chamber features a vaulted ceiling and a corbelled niche. The floor is roughly surfaced. The room doesn’t have the cavernous, foreboding feel of the King’s Chamber. There are also two small rectangular portals on the north and south walls that lead to upwardly slanting ducts. These have been labeled ‘air shafts,’ thought originally to relieve chamber air pressure but in fact dead-end before reaching the outside. Why do two similar shafts in the King’s Chamber exit the pyramid? For the sophisticated engineering and work it took to incorporate such narrow shafts in the pyramid’s design, one can’t help but wonder what possible purpose they served. They’re said to “point” to certain stars (Beta of Ursa Minor, Sirius, Thuban, Orion’s belt) on particular astronomical dates important to ancient Egyptians and therefore symbolically represent the king’s afterlife journey to the stars.

Queen’s Chamber

Subterranean Chamber

The strangest room of all was the Subterranean Chamber, bigger than the King’s Chamber. To get there, I had to go down backwards over 340ft (a continuation of the Descending Passage), longer than an American football field’s length. It’s mind-boggling that it was excavated out of the limestone bedrock approximately 100ft below ground.

Most of the chamber’s space is taken up by a back section divided by two strange fin-like rock structures. There is a pit in the floor near the entrance and a gated shaft on the south wall that extends for about 50ft before dead-ending.

Subterranean Chamber

This room is anomalous because it’s rough hewn unlike the pyramid’s other masterful features, giving the impression that it was left unfinished. This is hard to believe in light of the obvious fact that the entire pyramid was built according to some grand plan.

Thoughts

My long-time wish to see the Giza Plateau’s marvels was fulfilled. It happened at the beginning of our trip, which made me wonder if the rest of the tour would be anticlimactic. (It wasn’t.)

Many of us ask why the Great Pyramid was built. As pyramid-building goes, it is far and away the crowning achievement of the Egyptians, unlike any built before or since. There are several esoteric theories regarding its purpose, prompted by the pyramid’s measurements that appear to encode the earth’s dimensions in scale and the solar year, and the arrangement of the three pyramids on the plateau that apparently places importance on the constellations Orion and (as Andrew Collins argues) Cygnus. Some have even ascribed a more utilitarian purpose, a gigantic civil engineering project, such as a gigantic water pump or energy source, requiring the Nile to power it.

Its construction wasn’t the mere stacking of blocks either because of the three chambers, passageways and shafts, not to mention other complexities I didn’t mention, the very existence of which appear to go against the burial chamber theory. Scientists have also discovered another large, possibly inaccessible “void” above the King’s Chamber using a cosmic radiation measurement technique known as muography.

What the pyramid’s purpose was, we may never know. It could very well be a combination of a symbolic pharaonic pathway to the Duat, an ingenious representation of the Earth in code, a wondrous machine or something else entirely. Regardless, it’s the crowning achievement of the brilliant architect and genius Imhotep who designed it.

For me to be here on the Giza Plateau was not only a chance to see and be in awe of some of the world’s oldest monuments but again to question what we think we know about ancient civilizations. It happened for me in Peru and now, in Egypt.