Day 2, December 5, 2010
We spent last night at the Shepheard’s Hotel right next to the Nile River. Yes, Shepheard is spelled correctly. It is the last name of the Englishman who established the hotel in 1841. This morning we are driving to Dashur. On our way we pass drive the back roads of Cairo and see the sites tourists usually skip. Men and boys driving donkey carts and women selling vegetables line the road. A canal fed by the Nile irrigates this area. As the bloated carcass of a donkey floats down the stagnant water of the canal my appreciation of the warning against consuming Egypt’s water, fruit and vegetables reaches a new height.
Cairo is filthy. It looks like the air is laden with fog. It is really smog. A local pastor tells me that breathing the air of Cairo for one day is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes. (It is no wonder that today, 2 months later, Egyptians are trying to oust the government that allows these conditions to exist.)
In the necropolis of Dashur lies the Red Pyramid, our first stop. This was a pyramid built by Pharaoh Sneferu after another pyramid he constructed, the Bent Pyramid, had to be altered due to engineering mistakes. The angled sides of the Red Pyramid match the angles of the top portion of the Bent Pyramid. I was able to go down into the Red Pyramid. The climb down takes about 5 minutes. Inside the treasure chambers the air is stagnant and smells awful. It doesn’t matter very much though because I am inside of my first pyramid and that is really awesome!
Note: If you click on the pictures you will find that they usually contain captions which provide interesting information about what is shown.
After resurfacing to the wonderful fresh(er) air outside we head over to the Bent Pyramid. It is unknown which of these two pyramids Sneferu was buried in. The unique thing about this pyramid, beyond its bend, is that its casing is largely intact.
There is a reason the pyramids were built in the pyramid shape. The primary god of the Egyptian pantheon was Re, the sun-god. Large quantities of Egyptian artwork shows the sun’s rays extending down toward human beings on earth. The pyramids were an illustration of these descending rays. The sun’s rays descended along the angles of the pyramid and represented the arms of Re. Within pyramids the burial room must always be exactly in the center, directly below the peak so that the interred pharaoh was being embraced by the arms of Re.
The third stop of the day was at Memphis. This is where the first pharaoh of the united Egyptian kingdom set up his capital. His name was Narmer. Today, there are no remains of Memphis. This once great city was washed away long ago by the annual flooding of the Nile River. All that remains are statues. There is a gigantic statue of Ramesses II. This statue is smashed on its left side because a later pharaoh knocked it down to demonstrate that he was more powerful than Rameses II. Rameses is depicted as a young, powerful man. Egyptian statues communicate messages clearly. If you wanted to appear powerful you were depicted as young and without wrinkles. If you wanted to appear wise you were shown with wrinkles. Last, if you wanted to appear wealthy you added a tongue hanging out of your mouth. This indicated that you ate well.
Also here is the 2nd largest sphinx in the world. The only larger one is at Giza. This one dates to the 19th Dynasty and its head is either that of Ramesses II or of his son.
Our 4th stop brings us to Saqqara, the location of the first pyramid ever built. It was built for Pharaoh Djoser, by his architect, Imhotep. Prior to the construction of pyramids, pharaohs were buried in mudbrick structures called mastabas. Djoser’s stepped-pyramid is a stack of six mastabas, one on top of the other. We left Saqqara and had a brief visit with Old Cairo and some of its sights, visited a papyrus factory to see how the paper was and still is made, then spent the evening on the rooftop of the Four Seasons Hotel. That is a swanky place! After a couple hours of journaling while lounging on a couch next to the Four Seasons’ rooftop pool the group set off for the Cairo train station. Tonight we take the sleeper train from Cairo, on the north end of Egypt, all the way to Aswan, which is very near the border of Sudan in the south.