Egyptian Pyramids Overrated?

September 30, 2012

Photo set on Flickr

“You will be disappointed,” my colleague warned me just before my trip, “the pyramids are nothing but a pile of stones.”

He was referring to the Pyramids of Giza, the only Egyptian Pyramids in most people’s mind. But for those who are willing to spend a little extra time, there are actually many more pyramids within day trip distance from Cairo than Giza. I had slotted an entire day for three necropolises – Dahshur, Saqqara and Giza. That’s the only way I could see enough in order to come up with my own opinion on Egyptian Pyramids.

Dahshur

Bent Pyramid, Dahshur

On my smartphone’s browser was the Wikipedia entry of our first stop Dahshur. The first sentence read, “Located 40 km south of Cairo, the Dahshur Necropolis consists of several pyramids, the two most well-known being the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid, built between 2613-2589 BC.”

Like many others, all my travel planning relies almost entirely on the internet, only marginally supplemented by word of mouth and borrowed guide books. The unnerving yet exhilarating thing about traveling independently is the associated element of uncertainty. Which, for better or worse, has been greatly reduced thanks to my tendency to google on everything from weather to transport schedule.

Gratefully my ability to admire remains untainted regardless the amount of information in hand. Word and picture, at the end, cannot compensate for the multiple dimensions in reality. Spotting the pyramids at the far end of the sea of sand, no more than the size of my thumb, was equally thrilling as arriving at the base of the 101m (~30 floor) Bent Pyramid, the slightly older of the two.

I savored the illusion of exclusiveness and discovery. Those who have visited in the past have become mere statistics; today there were just the two of us (plus our driver inside the car) in the proximity of this 4,000 year-old monument.

Immediately apparent was the shape that gave the pyramid its name. The lower part of the pyramid inclines at 54°, but the upper portion measures at just 43°. Halfway through the construction, the original inclination was causing structural instability. The shallower top section is believed to be an emergency response to avert a probable collapse like its predecessor – the nearby Maidum Pyramid.

Red Pyramid, Dahshur

Obviously climbing the pyramids is strictly forbidden, but there is an alternative to satisfy my urge for some exercise. The Red Pyramid, so named because of its red sandstone, has its burial chambers opened to anyone willing to descend a 3ft tall and 61m long passage.

With only 200 steps, this tunnel should be a non-issue for most, but the slightly challenging part is keeping your back bent the whole way to fit under the 3ft ceiling, meaning additional pressure for the thighs and knees. My wife paid for her lack of exercise when we got to the bottom, saying she could hardly lift up her legs. Her reward was being inside two barren chambers that used to house a pharaoh’s mummy and treasures, which are more interesting than it sounds, given again we are talking about a 4,000 year-old structure here.

Before her vow of never going inside another pyramid could materialize, we would need to conquer the same ammonia-filled passage, only uphill this time.

Saqqara

Pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara

Nowhere else is the importance of water more apparent than in the desert. Using the word lush would be an overstatement, but at least along the Nile there are some greenery in the form of date palms and corn field.

Speaking of date palm, here is another new fact I have learned on this trip – Egypt is the largest producer of date fruit in the world. We bought a handful of fresh brown and black dates from a roadside peddler; the astringent taste and firm texture was a little similar to raw plum absent the juice.

Just a few dozen meters from the Nile, however, the landscape turns into a sea of sand. It is this hostile setting many Egyptians called home, including the residents of Saqqara, a village close to the Pyramid of Djoser, built in the 2700s and the oldest in Egypt. Life is without a doubt tough in this neighborhood. Initially I expected tourism to be the biggest source of income for the village, and I was quickly proven wrong as most of the local commute was towards the riverbank.

Compared to our last stop, Saqqara was blessed with relatively well-paved road and a parking lot, along with a steady flow of visitors. A more unwelcome sign was the sighting of a handful of touts eagerly awaiting their targets. Only 10 km south, Dahshur felt like a world away.

But my enthusiasm would not be so easily dampened. After witnessing the grandeur of the Dahshur Pyramids, I couldn’t wait to see the Pyramid of Djoser, which is unique in two important ways; it is a step pyramid and the first monument in Egypt to be constructed out of stone, a material that’s far more labour intensive than the preceding technique of using mud-brick.

Standing in front of the Pyramid of Djoser, I experienced a brief déjà vu moment. I struggled to trace back to the root of my improbable sensation – before this day I had never seen an Egyptian pyramid.

Wait… pyramid doesn’t exist only in Egypt. Almost all ancient civilizations were fascinated with the construction of sky-reaching monuments. Personally I have seen some of these creations, like Chichen Itza in Mexico and … that’s right, Djoser reminded me of the step pyramid in Koh Ker, built more than 3,000 years later and located 8,000 km away in Cambodia. It indeed is a round world after all.

More anomalous is the smooth-sided Pyramid of Teti, which looks like a sand dune from the outside. A tout stood next to the entrance, eager to show us the burial chamber. My wife, still (and for the next few days) suffering from sore feet, unexpectedly broke her short-lived vow of never going inside a pyramid again. Never before had she displayed such fervor on anything travel-related. She was not kidding when she said she loves Egyptian art.

The ceiling of the chamber was populated by carving of stars, symbolizing heaven. That aside, the only thing that occupied our attention in the bare room was our tout’s indiscernible mix of Arabic sprinkled with a few words in English. Fortunately for my wife, only two short flights of stairs stood between us and daylight.

Tired of royalty tomb? Adjacent to the Pyramid of Teti is the Mastaba of Ti, an Old Kingdom tomb of a high noble. And unlike the pyramids’ burial chambers, this tomb is full of well preserved and colourful reliefs that depict the way of life during the Old Kingdom era.

How does a site prove its worth? By holding its own even when following a heavyweight. While Dahshur was unbelievably fun, Saqqara was not far behind.

Giza

Giza Pyramids

Here came the big one. Looming over the city of Giza, the presence of the Great Pyramids was inescapable and almost defied logic – how can these 4000-year-old (all completed in the 2500s BC) structures continue to dominate a city’s skyline in the 21st century? To put into perspective, the Pyramid of Khufu, the tallest of the three pyramids in Giza (Khafre and Menkaure being the others), reaches 138 metres (~45 floors).

The Great Pyramids’ fame was matched by a gigantic parking lot. Unlike our previous stops, the complex was teeming with tourists, most of them day-trippers from Alexandria on cruise vacation. The army of stationed touts clearly were energized by this influx of foreigners; anyone approaching the monuments were met with aggressive hustling. It was truly regrettable. We had our mandatory close-up looks at the pyramids and also the Sphinx, then we headed toward the desert where we could at least have a moment of quietness without interruption to take in the iconic view. A view, which I must stress, that didn’t disappoint even though it was “just a pile of stones”.

Of the three pyramid complexes, by far I enjoyed Dahshur the most, followed by Saqqara and Giza last. All these are amazing structures, but driving across the desert to the base of the Bent Pyramid without another soul in sight will be the image I remember most about this day.

To anyone who has only visited Giza and then says Egyptian pyramids are overrated, my reply would be, “Have you been to Dahshur?”

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