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Quest for Ancient Egypt in the Midst of a Modern Day World

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Yeah! I'm going to see the Pyramids
Cairo bustled under the hazy morning smog, as thousands—no—millions of people flooded the streets on their way to work. Lost in it all, I set off to visit Abu Sir, a set of pyramids from the fifth dynasty just south of the big ones at Giza, and just outside the massive city of Cairo.

First, I took the Metro UNDER the Nile. Then, in my bumbling Arabic, I asked a man selling beans on the street where I could find the bus to Abu Sir. He called two young boys to lead me, and from there I was passed along—person to person, minibus to minibus—through the crazy maze of Cairo's streets. Despite everyone's need to get to work, they all had the time to take me to that next street corner or bus, and even to invite me for tea!

Abu Sir Pyramids

Here at the edge of the desert, between Giza and Saqarra, the pharaohs of the fifth dynasty (around 2490—2330 B.C.) built their necropolis. There were, at one time, fourteen pyramids here, but now only 3 remain: Sahu Ra, Neferirkare and Nyuserre. From Abu Sir, the pyramids of Saqarra can be seen in the distance. The guidebook claims that, "From Sahu Ra's pyramid, on a clear day, you can see as many as 10 pyramids stretching out before you on the horizon." I don't know, because I haven't seen a day yet when it wasn't smoggy!

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The pyramids of Abu Sir
The Great Pyramids at Giza were built at the height of the Old Kingdom's organizational and architectural progress. During the fifth dynasty which followed, the power of the individual pharaohs was spread out among the officials and nobles in the increasingly complex bureaucracies. For the first time, the ministers and officials were no longer princes, or even part of the royal family. These offices themselves gradually became hereditary, leading to other lines of rulers.

Egyptologists think this diffusion of power is perhaps why the Abu Sir pyramids were not built as large as those at Giza. The pharaohs were no longer absolute monarchs with limitless power. Therefore they weren't able to keep so much labor and resources just for worshiping themselves! Still, the pyramids were between 40 and 70 meters tall (between 131 and 230 feet]), which is a lot bigger than your average tombstone! Abu Sir is a nicer place to spend eternity, anyway. Unlike the pyramids of Giza, which stare down at apartments and traffic jams, the sprawl of Cairo won't reach Abu Sir for another 10 or 15 years at least!

Finally, the huge Giza Pyramids, visible over the bustling city center, were fading behind me. I arrived in Abu Sir accompanied by Sami, a musician just coming home from working all night at a country club for tourists in Giza. Abu Sir is a small village in the Nile River valley about 12 kilometers south of Cairo. On one side, green fields lined with trees welcomed me: a relief after the dreary concrete jungle of Cairo. Down the center of the village, a waterway led to the Nile. Past the houses and apartments on the other side, three pyramids rose up from the desert beyond!

We wound through the dirt streets, between brick and concrete houses. Children followed me, calling "Hello! Hello!" and an occasional "What's your name?" Women in long gowns and scarves carried water on their heads, and kids led donkeys and camels around carrying huge loads. Yet in the distance, through the smog, Cairo's high rises were still visible on one side, and the pyramids on the other. There I was, stuck in some unknown time between 4,000—year—old pharaohs and a fast-paced modern urban center.

We passed through a door and into a simple inner courtyard, and removed our dusty shoes before entering Sami's living room. He excused himself to change out of his Western clothes into a more comfortable galabiyya, the long robe that men wear. His wife entered, dressed in a modest black dress and scarf, carrying a huge round tray with fresh pita bread, ta'amiyya (what I know as falafel), fuul (beans), spicy scrambled eggs, soft white cheese and grapes, which she set on the floor in front of me, smiling shyly. "Eat. It is like your home!" Sami said, as his wife re-entered with a small gas stove, the makings for tea and a shisha, or water pipe.

Click image for larger view is teatime in Abu Sir
His wife welcomed me in Arabic, and we were introduced. Then she faded into the background and began making coal to burn the tobacco in the shisha by burning a dry corn cob on the gas stove. Once the shisha was going, Sami started puffing away, and his wife started making tea. To me, it felt very strange to have this woman waiting on us. Sami sensed my unease. "Here, women and men different. Women here," he motioned his hand near the floor, "and men here," he motioned up by his head. Then he started pantomiming "women's work" for me. "Woman do washin', eatin', children in home. Men workin' get money. When man come home, woman washin', eatin', taking care of man."

"I'd make a horrible Egyptian wife!" I told him. "If my husband came home and said 'I want some tea,' I'd say, 'Well you know where the kitchen is!'"

Meanwhile Sami's wife, who doesn't understand English, smiled cheerfully and served me a cup of the traditional strong, sweet tea. She seems happy enough, and Sami seems to be a very nice man. I just need to remind myself that this is a culture I don't know or understand, and it's not my place to judge. Before I left, she gave me a scarf for my head, tied it on with a smile and made me promise to return.

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Sami stops to check out the view
Sami wanted to join me on my journey to the pyramids, so we rented two horses and were off, galloping through the desert! Wow! I felt like Lawrence of Arabia, flying through the sand toward the pyramids. The horses were fairly well trained and responsive, but the saddle is different than the typical American western saddle, and took some getting used to. The biggest problem for me, though, was my choice of footwear! Cowboys did not wear sandals for a reason! "Ouch! I'm going to feel that tomorrow!" I thought, as my feet slipped and my bare ankles rubbed against the stirrups.

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Lawrence of Arabia eat your heart out!
The pain was quickly forgotten as we reined in at the pyramid of Sahu Ra. Several men in galabiyyas welcomed us and Sami introduced me to one of these caretakers who was to show me around the ruins of the mortuary temple of King Sahu Ra. This guy's English made Sami sound like he's from Oxford! He dragged me quickly through the piles of stones and carvings, pointing at this or that, and either saying something completely incoherent or stating the obvious. "Hieroglyphs. Look! Bird! Here snake! Take picture here!"

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My guide tells the stories of the hieroglyphs
Brilliant. I'd been warned about these guys but had trusted Sami, and didn't know how to get out of it now. There is a tradition of tipping here in Egypt, called baksheesh. Basically, anyone who does anything for you, whether you asked for it or needed it, can expect a small tip-or, at tourist sites, a big tip! In some bathrooms, for example, a woman will open the door for you, hand you toilet paper, point you into a stall and then, when you emerge, she'll turn on the faucet, hand you soap, hand you a towel and then expect baksheesh. As if any of that were necessary!

Here at the mortuary temple of the Pharaoh Sahu Ra, I wanted to stay and just leisurely admire the amazing carvings and hieroglyphs on the stones of the fallen temple. This is where funeral rites for the pharaoh and the worship of him after his death had occurred. It was right alongside the crumbling pyramid, which you are no longer able to enter. Unfortunately this guy was leading me around like a fool, so I also wanted to hurry it up so he wouldn't expect too much baksheesh.

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The local school bus of Abu Sir
Back at the guardians' house, I gave him 3 Egyptian pounds (a little less than $1), and sat down for—what else?—tea and shisha. The men all sat around smoking out of the water—pipe and chatting. The baksheesh—master complained repeatedly about how little I gave him, but no one else seemed to hear or care. Finally I pointed out to him that his English was so bad that I didn't learn anything—which someone translated to him—and he dropped the subject and drank his tea quietly. Geez! Is this what Sami meant when he said the men go work for money, while the women stay home to cook and clean?

We visited the other two pyramids and the Sun Temple of Abu Ghorab with its huge alabaster altar. The best part of the trip for me, though, was getting to ride a horse and be out of the city. I am still amazed by the incredible view of pyramid—spotted desert ending in green oasis, with the skyline of Cairo far off in the distance.

I succeeded in hitting rush hour AGAIN on my way home. I guess I was lucky, though, because I got to watch the sunset over the Giza pyramids as I sat on a bus in a traffic jam! Wait! Wasn't I just galloping on a horse in the desert?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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Kevin - Longing for My Purple Rose of Cairo
Making A Difference - The Parthenon
Making A Difference - Just Do It

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