The Land of Ozymandias — Pt. II: Warming up for the Pyramids (Jan. 15th)


I have been unhealthily obsessed with pyramids since I was a kid. Back in the day, I constructed Lego pyramids, drew pyramids on sheets intended for homework, forced my parents to buy me books about the Egyptians because I loved their three-dimensional triangular masterpieces, and so on. Whereas some of my other fascinations about Egypt kind of dropped off the map, I think a spark of this one stayed alive for the full decade-and-a-half it took me to get to the real deal. Because when I got to the ancient necropolis of Saqqara, BAM, my heart started pitter-pattering and I could feel my love surge back to life. 

What impresses me about this reaction was that Saqqara wasn’t even that great, objectively speaking: it’s under heavy restoration and much of the site has been filled in with piles of Egyptian rubbish and sand. The site is most known for the step pyramid of Djoser, which was the first large-scale attempt at making an architecturally-viable pyramid that succeeded. Along with the main pyramid, there are smaller pyramids and a medley of tombs that have provided archeologists with their most comprehensive data about life in the Old Kingdom of Egypt (~2,500-2,000 BCE). However, with the restoration of the main pyramid occurring, and most of the northern site blocked off to tourists, it’s not a totally must-see place. That would be the adjacent pyramid site of Dahshur, which I’ll sing the praises of later.

Getting to Saqqara is straightforward if you have your own wheels. I rented out a cab from Cairo for the day for 225 Egyptian pounds with a man who resembled the black sergeant in Tropic Thunder, and we got on quite well due to his good English. We got to the site after an hour’s drive from central Cairo, and upon arrival it seemed quite deserted based on how big the parking lots were designed. The museum of Saqqara has some great artifacts and information about life in the Old Kingdom, and its best piece is a hair-raising stone relief of starving people with ribcages poking through their emaciated frames. The picture is theorized to depict a massive famine that effected Egypt near the end of the Old Kingdom. After an hour at the museum, we headed up to the actual site, where I spent the better part of the mid-day wandering around. The step pyramid looks like it is being eaten by a wooden fungus, which is actually just the restoration scaffolding that surrounds the pyramid on three of its sides. I had to dodge a handful of coercive guides who wanted to show me around in return for baksheesh to get to the technically blocked-off northern part of the site. Although the whole area is filled with tombs, you wouldn’t be able to tell much because of the insane trash-filled land that the renovators and local people have turned it into. Piles of plastic bags, burnt bones, and beer cans aren’t very evocative of the pharaohs!

The workers did nothing to stop my walkabout, but one lone galabaya-wearing man at the far entrance of the site tried to follow me and scare me away from the northern area. I basically played a nice game of cat-and-mouse with this fellow, hiding behind dunes while he struggled to keep up, until he had finally had enough and retreated to the shade of his entrance booth. Once free from pursuit, I marched all the way west round the site to the eclectic set of minor tombs for officials located south of the main pyramid. A few of the tombs were simply enormous chasms built by late-era Persian generals who wanted to create a failsafe way to guard their treasures in the afterlife. But, like 99% of the tombs discovered in Egypt, these were nevertheless looted as well. Piety for the dead is quickly forgotten when one act of profanity can land a man riches beyond his wildest imagination!

I took a peek inside a few mastaba (mud structure) tombs, including one of a court minister whose body was mysteriously tossed out in antiquity and replaced with that of Princess Idut, a daughter of King Teti who died around 2,330 BC. Inside there were some curious reliefs of a hippo giving birth and a farmer pulling a calf out of the Nile to save it from hungry crocodiles. Besides this tomb and a few open mastabas, there wasn’t much else to examine at the southern site. Most my energy was spent trying to dodge baksheesh demands from roving Egyptians, which was partially accomplished through hiding in the small pyramid of King Unas for fifteen minutes. Thanks for the hospitality, Mr. U!

So that was my time at Saqqara—it was okay for a visit, but I’d recommend visiting it only once the restoration has been wrapped up and the site has been cleaned.

By the time I left Saqqara, it was too late in the afternoon for Dahshur but too early to head back to Cairo. I couldn’t just go home that early so I toured the nearby tomb and pyramid site of Teti with the unrequested assistance of a pink-faced Egyptian peasant. This guy, like his carbon-copy counterparts that swarm almost every tourist-visited historical place in the country, couldn’t speaky the Eengleesh for crud and tried to direct my attention to delicate frescoes with barely-surviving paint by touching them! You want to scream when you see a grubby finger land on 4,000 year-old wall painting—and to think he’s just doing what nearly every other self-styled guide in these places does. What can a tourist do but cringe? On a brighter note, I got to go inside the pyramid of Teti and actually enjoyed it. The beige-colored hieroglyphics on the inside are in great shape and the carved stars on the roof of the tomb chamber are a treat to see in person. However, the roof seems to be caving in and I wouldn’t like to be the hapless tourist stuck inside when the first part comes down like a piano.

I finished my day by taking an off-the-beaten-track detour to the pyramid complex of Abu Sir. Abu Sir is little more than three misshapen pyramids skirted by a destroyed sun temple’s rubble, but as I am Pyramid Crazy, that was not a problem for me and my obsession. The place is visited by virtually nobody and was ostensibly closed when we arrived, so I had to bribe some local peasants about 40 Egyptian pounds to let me into the complex. Upon access, I received another unasked-for mediocre-quality tour, which consisted mostly of a skinny, sharp-faced peasant man reiterating the word SA-HU-RA—the name of one of the pharaohs buried there—in my face again and again. It went like this:

Me: **I point to the pyramid** Malik? (King?)
Ahmed Ahmedson: Sahura!
Me: Sahura?
Ahmed Ahmedson: LA! (No!), SA-HUU-RA
Me: SA-HUU-RA
Ahmed Ahmedson: La, la, SA-HUU-RAEAEAH
Me SA-HUU-RAEAEAH
Ahmed Ahmedson: La!! **Unintelligible Arabic muttering**

The guy also did not want to linger around the area, but I got to get some nice photos of myself and the pyramids before leaving. On the way out, he asked me if I had any wives and started making pelvic thrust motions. So, I enthusiastically joined in and under that brown skin of his I’m sure he turned a bright pink because one of his friends walked up to us right then and saw me. My embarrassed but giggling guide wanted me to stop but I continued, with a few Borat ‘VAIR NAICE’s thrown in to spice it up. And I jumped in my taxi, gave him the lowest acceptable tip I could shave off from my wallet, and sped off back to Cairo for an evening shooting the breeze with Nick.

NEXT POST: Dahshur and the Real Pyramids. Thanks for reading along so far!

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