Thursday, September 27, 2007

19. September - Cairo - Pyramids & Sphynx

We are met at the airport in the middle of the night by Ramy Romany (that’s with a rolling rrrrRa’mi rrrRo’manee) - the “fixer” and our new best friend in Egypt. He knows everyone and every angle & alley for negotiating people & suspicious camera equipment through the notoriously complex Customs and customs of the city. With thanks to Ramy’s talent and his driver & friend Mais (“ Migh-ees’ ”) we make it to our hotel & check in at about 4am with a promise to meet them in the lobby for our first days’ shoot at a luxurious noon. As it was, our inner clocks are all askew and we are starving, and so have breakfast in our room at about 4:30/5 - just in time to hear the first of five daily calls to prayer be broadcast citywide on a varying network of speakers.

The call to prayer is a sound that falls in the hauntingly beautiful category. Some words are sung through quite clearly, if you understand Arabic, and others blend in an off-note buzz like the droning of bees in one enormous heat-filled mosque hive. A rough translation reveals it’s straight and to the point: Allah (God) is great. There is no God but Allah. etc in rephrase & repetition. An end phrase reminds, “Let’s go work.” The 4:30 am prayer, we’re later told, includes an additional phrase that says, in effect, “prayer is better than sleep.” Perhaps we should have heeded more closely, as Maddie woke us up with the announcement that it was, astoundingly 5 minutes before 12! Before doing anything else, I run, like a kid on Christmas morning, directly to our balcony to see the Great Pyramid straight ahead in all its glory in the noonday sun. Stunning. Surreal, actually.

We scrambled to meet Ramy and Mais for the brief journey to the base of the pyramids where Ramy managed to secure permission to bring a camera inside. What appears in many pictures to be a small hole at the base of the Great Pyramid is, in fact, at about a second-story level and quite a large entryway. Inside, the stone is remarkably cool although the air is warm, and the tunnel is steep with treads nailed onto boards, gangplank-style, and a narrow guage meant for one-way traffic that is self-manipulated by visitors’ courtesy or lack thereof. Not for the claustrophobic, the tunnel narrows to a dimly-lit crawlspace height before and after the “Great Hall.” The Hall is an amazing feat of engineering that puts a several-story cathedral ceiling of enormous stone block above two long ramps running parallel to either side of an increasingly tall gap. The ramps were designed for carriers to lift the sarcophogus of King Cheops(?), suspended in the center gap, up to its final resting place - an enormous rectangular room with apx. 20ft. ceilings. Here, also, would have been stored Cheops’ worldly wealth, securing his comfort in the next life. The room was found empty - pre-looted many years ago. Down and back out is much easier going! The entrance/exit is at about the third block up, or 25 feet, to give you an idea of scale.

Then, on to the Sphynx! Conveniently located past the camels-for-hire and mini-bazaar just around the corner, she(?) holds her head majestically, despite thousands of years of dermabrasion, in a stance protective of the pyramids. There are actually a total of six pyramids at Giza in varying sizes and condition - the smallest now little more than an ancient pile of rubble.

To give us an alternative pyramid perspective, Ramy and Mais then take us on a roundabout tour through town to the desert, where one can better imagine turning back the centuries. Along the way, we pass little markets & street vendors, truckfulls of wooden crated veggies, boys & ladies with enormous quantities of pita bread balanced on their heads.... Maddie is the Ambassador of Smiles - she pokes her head out the window of the car, smiling and waving at everyone and getting huge grins in return. Apparently, it’s also considered rude not to return a wave. Part of her charm, we’re told, is the fair skin and blond(ish) hair. Women passing Finn in the street reach out, giggling, to sample his light hair. He is also often grabbed at as means of friendly contact - but no less disconcertingly to him!

We blaze out into the desert, four-wheeling up a sand dune to view the pyramids from the northwest to the tune of of midday prayer. It’s an amazing spectacle. The kids find all sorts of fabulous rocks in the sand that look like agate or marble with smooth outer surfaces and beautiful circular patterns of color on the inside of broken ones.

On the way back in to the city, we again pass through the dump that is the demarcation line between town and desert. Dumping seems to be fairly freestyle - the canals are also lined with garbage, and there are many city blocks that seem to have become dumping areas by virtue of their lack of buildings. The dump we drive through at the edge of town has an entire horse carcass in among the trash.

Horses and donkeys are very much a part of transportation here. We stop in a little alleyway at the edge of town for Bailey to grab some local shots, and Maddie is offered a donkey ride. The neighborhood kids are all smiles & laughter - possibly finding Maddie’s clear lack of donkey experience entertaining. The littlest girl among them, perhaps 4, is able to ask in English “What is your name” and also, shyly, “Baksheesh?” - requesting compensation for the donkey ride, or perhaps, just their hospitality. I am, unfortunately, ill-prepared to respond - carrying nothing but a camera.

For a late lunch, we stop at a cafe overlooking the Pyramids & Sphynx. The restaurants are all fairly empty during the month-long Ramadan religious holiday which requires fasting during daylight hours. The longer days of a summer Ramadan bring a greater fasting challenge - it is a lunar holiday falling in the 9th month of the lunar Islamic calendar, so it eventually falls in all the seasons. Reduced to its essence, Ramadan is a time of self-examination, purging of sins, and a reminder of devotion to Islamic faith. It also commemorates the event of the angel Gabriel presenting the prophet Muhammed with golden tablets that contained the essence of the Koran. One should give up “minor sinning,” smoking, food, alcohol, and even water (except held in the mouth, then spit out) during the day. Sick, elderly and children under about 10 or 12 are not required to fast for Ramadan. Nor is fasting recommended for travel-weary American kids, so Maddie & Finn ate chicken sandwiches at the cafe while Bailey and I attempt a one-day fast - an impure one due to the fact that hydration was a necessity. That, and the fact that we are clearly infidels! The faithful may eat after sundown, but no alcohol, (so, again, we stray) and I’m not sure about the smoking and sinning, but the city comes alive at night.

Back at our hotel, we have our own little dinner party at an Indian restaurant to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. The best Indian food we’ve ever had, and under the pyramids in Cairo! Maddie arranged for a lovely chocolate cake and candle and then insisted she and Finn make themselves scarce in our room so we could have some Adult Alone Time at the lounge.