A Travellerspoint blog

Evolution of a Revolution

Visiting Saqqara, Memphis, and Dashur

sunny 85 °F

A year ago, every TV news station saturated the airways with coverage of the Egyptian revolution. It took almost everybody by surprise. People wanted to know what was the root of all this unrest in Egypt? What were the people so passionate about that they risked torture and death from the police. What would Egypt’s future mean for the rest of the world? Unfortunately, I didn't find out these answers. I was too busy watching ESPN and a plethora of mind-numbing reality shows to pay attention to the news coverage.

Our plan for the day would be to travel to three different locations around Cairo—Saqqara, Memphis, and Dashur. As we rode in the van, I had a lengthy conversation with Sam about one of his most passionate topics--Egyptian politics. Like many other young people in Cairo, he had participated in the protests in Tahir Square. He explained that there are multiple reasons why the populace has been discontent. Some people yearned for more democratic representation rather than Mubarak’s oppressive regime. Others were dissatisfied with the country’s economic situation. High unemployment, low salaries, and rising costs were burdens that many Egyptians faced.

But for many young people, the revolution was simply a fight for a better Egypt and for a better future. Because of the internet and free access of information, people could see the prosperity of other countries. "I just came back from London. Why can't our traffic be that orderly? Why can't our buildings be as nice and clean? Egypt used to be the greatest power in the world!" Sam proclaimed. As we drove around the city, we could see the problems that he was talking about.

Although piles of trash line the canals in Giza, most of the other areas around Cairo are actually pretty clean.

WTF! Somebody threw out a perfectly good horse!

"Look at this sh*t here!" he exclaimed, pointing to an ugly, dilapidated building right off the highway. "Egypt has only 7% useable land, and they are wasting it with that!" In addition to that slum, it is also hard to miss the glaring eyesores of unfinished buildings with naked rebars pointing to the sky. One understandable reason for this is family expansion. Whenever an offspring marries and starts a family, they just build an additional floor onto the unfinished building.

However, there are less familial reasons for these construction abominations. One such possibility is tax evasion. Supposedly, completed buildings are taxed while unfinished buildings are not. In a country with economic woes, every little bit counts. Furthermore, it may simply be just a matter of money. Buildings sometimes remain unfinished because the owners have run out of capital to complete it. In most developed countries, these eyesores would be unacceptable. Building codes would prevent people from inhabiting these potentially dangerous structures. Contractors would be deterred by stiff fines. In Egypt, the government just turns a blind eye...for the right price.

You won't find Cairo on any lists of the most beautiful skylines in the world.

As we entered the countryside, our van was stuck for 15 minutes on a two lane road. Several cars going the opposite direction decided to use our side as a left turn lane. As our driver screamed at a police car parked nearby to do something, the officer simply rolled up his window and ignored him.

Like many developing countries, traffic laws seem nonexistant in Egypt. With two million cars squeezed into a limited space, automotive congestion is a big problem in Cairo. Cars drive three abreast in two lane roads which are already limited by vendors illegally selling fruits, vegetables, and fish on the sides. Trucks make right hand turns from the left lane daring other smaller vehicles to stop them. And there is the fleet of cheap white vans that serve as private shuttles for the populace. These inconsiderate drivers simply stop in the middle of the busy roads loading and unloading passengers. All the while, everybody behind them has to come to a standstill. Egypt should be a traffic cop’s paradise. However, there seems to be either no traffic laws or enforcement of them.

Several parked white vans block the entrance onto the freeway

Why are the authorities so apathetic? Sam explained that Egypt has had a culture of corruption under Mubarak’s government. Favoritism, not meritocracy, had been the pathway to success. In the government, people often advanced based on who they were friends with or who their fathers were. This has got to be demoralizing for the average person who may have no opportunity for promotion regardless of how well they perrform.

Another problem is the rampant bribery and extortion that have sullied the Egyptian government. Most government employees like policemen are underpaid. Despite their low salaries, it is not infrequent to see some officials becoming wealthy by taking bribes. In the army, some lieutenants live better than their generals. The corruption has gotten so pervasive that it has almost become expected. Sam said that an investigative TV show had actually filmed a policeman nonchalantly going from car to car in busy traffic demanding money from drivers. This culture must be demoralizing for those officials who are actually honest. What’s the point of issuing citations if the perpetrators can simply bribe their way out of a penalty.

Many believe that purging the government of the old regime is the first step in breaking this culture of corruption. Unfortuanately, like many other Tahir Square protesters, Sam has experienced the disenchantment that has followed a year later. “We got rid of Mubarak,” he said. “Now some of his top deputies and generals are back running for office. I’m sure there are going to be some votes for sale.”

He laments that the country has not made substantial political advances in the last twelve months. He is angry that the military has not yet relinquished control and is failing the country. He says that the revolution was led by the optimistic, young people of Egypt. Now it has been hijacked by politicians who are out to further their own agendas.

The sight of soldiers toting automatic weapons actually made me feel much safer.

One concern we both share is the role of religion in Egypt’s future. I reminded him that the Iranian revolution also started as a broad coalition of protestors against a corrupt dictatorship. However, it was soon transformed into an Islamic fundamentalist movement. Now Iran has a dangerous authoritarian government flirting with nuclear power. It seems like Egypt is showing signs of heading in the same direction. The news has reported that the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood has gained 47% of the parliament seats. But more alarmingly, the ultra-fundamentalist Salafi Al-Nour Party which advocates strict Islamic law has garnered 25%. Sam remains optimistic that the young people of Egypt won’t let this ultra-fundamentalist attitude take over his country. He proclaimed, “There would be a second revolution if that happened.” Hopefully, for Egypt’s sake it won’t come down to that. After all, look how well the Iranian people fared in the 2009 protests.

Our first stop was 30 minutes south of Giza at Saqqara to see the Step Pyramid of Zoser, a pharaoh of the Third Dynasty. Prior to his reign, rulers were buried in mastabas, two-tiered rectangular mausoleums. However, King Zoser desired a more unique building for his afterlife. The man who would make it happen was Imhotep (not the bad guy from The Mummy movies). Imhotep was considered a genius in his time. He served as the pharaoh’s chancellor and has been accredited as being the first physician known to history. Later generations of Egyptians would worship him as a god, an honor never repeated on non-royalty. His most important and lasting achievement was designing the Step Pyramid. The structure was built in six phases. Starting with an oversized mastabas, he kept enlarging the base and adding more levels. Eventually, a ziggurat with distinct levels was formed.

The Step Pyramid under renovation.

Currently, the Step Pyramid is being restored. With your hands alone, you can easily scrape the mortar off, thus loosening the stones. It's surprising that Zoser's structure has held up this well for so many millennia. In contrast, the ruins of crumbled pyramids of later pharaohs lay nearby. Currently, scaffolding covers the Step Pyramid as workers have been replacing some of the eroded mortar to secure some loosened stones.

Unlike the massive blocks of the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Step Pyramid was built with smaller bricks and mortar composed of sand.

In front of the pyramid is a large funerary complex containing the courtyard for the Heb-Sed festival that was held every 10-30 years. Some believe that the Egyptians borrowed this ritual from African tribes. To avoid having an elderly and physically weak chieftain, these tribals would kill their leaders when they turned 30 years old. Since the Egyptians were not too keen on snuffing out their divine leaders, they devised a ritual where the pharaoh had to show his prowess by chasing a bull around and cutting off its tail. Even the female pharaoh Hatshepsut and Pepys II, who ruled for 90 years (longest ever in human history) took part in this ceremony. However, nobody ever said how old and frail the bull had to be.

Sam took us right outside the temple walls to some recently excavated tombs of the nobles. We were told to watch our step because what we thought may be firm ground may instead be loose sand covering a pit. When they were not being excavating, the tombs were filled in with sand again to preserve them from the elements.

Current areas being excavated. On the right is the Pyramid of Unas, a pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty. This tomb is notable for being the first to have artwork and mortuary inscriptions on the walls known as pyramid text.

Elaborate hieroglyphs above the tomb door of one of Zoser's generals.

Sam poses in front of a tomb that he had helped excavate years ago.

The next stop was the city of Memphis. We had expected that there would be limited sights to see, but it was just plain sad. The ancient capital of Egypt is now filled with poor people and dirty buildings. Ironically, some people would say that of my hometown of Memphis too. A porous fence surrounds some rolling hills where ruins of the city once stood. However, locals can just go in at night, dig up some old artifacts, and sell anything with hieroglyphs on the black market. There seems to be no security. Sadly, Memphis ranks low in priority when it comes to excavation and protection. Temples and tombs were made of stones so they have survived fairly intact from the ravages of time. Memphis was an administrative capital where people worked and lived. Therefore, the buildings were mainly erected using mud bricks. These have a significantly less chance of survival over several millennia. The hope of finding anything meaningful in Memphis is small, thus the ruins have been neglected. The only things to see in the tiny museum are the large supine statue of Ramses II, the alabaster sphinx, and a couple of pillar pieces and statues. Not really worth the time.

Some of the few artifacts on display at the Memphis Museum. Unexcavated fields lay nearby.

The twin of this massive statue of Ramses II is the only artifact that has been transported to the site of the new Egyptian Museum in Giza.

The alabaster sphinx is much, much smaller than the Sphinx at Giza.

Next we headed to Dashur where most large tourist buses skip. It's too bad because some historic pyramids are located there. Khufu's father Sneferu built three pyramids during his reign. The first in Meidum collapsed. The second was built at a 52 degree angle, but near the top it was changed to a 48 degree angle giving it the name of the Bent Pyramid. Unfortunately, it is considered structurally unsound and closed to the general public. His final tomb, the Red Pyramid, is named because the building stones have a high iron content. It's really the first true pyramid in history. It's total size is second only to Khufu's pyramid (it's shorter than Khafre's because a shallower angle was used).

A lone camel guards the Bent Pyramid.

Unlike Giza, this place was completely deserted. There were no vendors and only one other tourist. Although photography is not allowed inside, we had read on the Internet that it is possible for the right price (not surprising). Since there are no paintings that could be ruined by flash photography nor are there any mummies (the sarcophagus was empty) that would be disrespected, I personally felt no harm would be done by taking pictures inside. After we climbed up to the entrance, the guard greeted us and immediately pointed to a stack of Egyptian currency in his hand--the universal sign for a bribe. So much for being discrete. We gave him LE 10 and took the steep climb downward into the burial chamber. In an adjacent room, a set of contemporary wooden stairs led above to a small chamber where the canoptic jars would have been stored. The air inside the tomb was hot and stale reeking of the body odor of hundreds of sweaty tourists. We stayed only briefly because the air was too hard to breathe. Despite it being a cool day outside, we were both dripping with sweat when we emerged from the pyramid. Back in our car, Sam explained that the odors accumulate in the tomb walls. Every few years, they are thoroughly washed to get the stink out. Cleaning was scheduled for last year, but it was not done because of the revolution.

The Red Pyramid actually looks tan.

It's a steep climb down to the tomb. The climb back up was a lot worse.

Like most other early pyramids, no decorations adorn the walls.

They need to think about hiring a new cleaning crew.

After finishing our sightseeing for the day, we asked to stop at a legitimate papyrus store. Most of the cheap 'papyrus' sold on the streets are actually made of low quality banana leaves. Inside the shop, we were given a demonstration on how this paper is made. Thin strips are cut from the stalk of a papyrus plant. They are then flattened with a hammer making them pliable enough to crush in your hand without breaking. The strips are then soaked in water for a few days. The longer it is soaked, the browner the paper will become. The strips are then arranged in a cross-wised woven pattern. The papyrus is then placed in a vise for six days. When it comes out, it is ready to be painted. Unlike some other papers, the colors don't fade.

We ended up buying two large papyri. One shows the judgement scene for the deceased pharaoh. His heart is weighed against a feather. If it is heavier, meaning he has sinned, the pharaoh is devoured by the crocodile-headed god Amut thus depriving him of the Afterlife. The other artwork shows the romantic scenes of courtship between a pharaoh and his wife. At first each wears their own sandals. Once they become a couple, they share the same pair. In the final scene, both are barefoot meaning that they are going to get it on.

Afterwards, we went to a store to have keychains engraved with our kids' names in hieroglyphic cartouches. I also got a silver ring with my name on it in hieroglyphs. I don't really know how accurate it is, but nobody else is gonna know. The wife was also eyeing a beautiful gold necklace adorned with Egyptian turquoise. This semi-precious stone mined in the Sinai peninsula is considered the best in the world. The piece was a whopping $4000--more than many diamond bracelets! La shukren!

Sam was very patient with us while we took a long time to shop. I told him that in Delhi, the guides received 3% of the profits from the tourists stores. I asked him what his cut would be. Surprisingly, he told me that he gets nothing at all. He even added that he could lose his Egyptology license by getting these kickbacks. He told us that he wouldn't want to do it anyway because he would feel 'indebted' to certain vendors or restaurants. In this way, he can continue to recommend the establishments that take care of his clients best. I thought his integrity was very refreshing as I jotted down notes with a Viagra pen. (Before you get up in arms, please note that pharmaceutical companies don't give any of those things away anymore. That ship sailed long before I ever arrived. Sigh.).

As we arrived back at our hotel, our van had to dodge an army of tourist hustlers loitering just beyond the grounds. As the security gate closed behind us, those aggressive touts reminded me of horror-movie zombies. They stood there behind an impassable fence salivating at their potential victims. Instead of wanting our brains, they simply wanted our wallets. "People like that weren't part of the revolution," Sam emphasized as he pointed to those tourist hustlers.

Dinner was at the hotel's Khan el-Khalili restaurant.

(Left) Okra tagine. (Right) Steaming pile of dog poop? Nope. It's kofta and keema.

After dinner, I really got to thinking about Tahir Square, the Egyptian Revolution, and the passion their young generation has for democracy. All of this made me contemplate how much we as Americans take our freedom for granted. I have been inspired to be more political and to keep updated with our coming elections. I have felt compelled to turn on CNN and watch hours and hours of politics. I am going to change and be passionate about actively campaigning for my political beliefs...On second thought, these will have to wait until another day. Arab Idol is coming on tonight.

Posted by evilnoah 17:52 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt cairo pyramid saqqara dashur

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