Wednesday 6th December 2017 was a great day in the life of the Sampson family.
What this picture of us at the pyramids doesn’t show is how it took me a week to work up enough strength to get there, and another week afterwards recovering from the walk round. That’s a full week of bed rest conserving energy as much as possible in advance, followed by a week paying a heavy price in intense fluey musculoskeletal and hypersensory pain.
Nobody would guess to look at me. People we met along the way will not believe that in 2018 the majority of my time I was horizontal, resting up for that one hour every few days I could be in the world.
If you are beginning to feel reluctant to read any more of this poor-me illness stuff, I empathise. I don’t want to write it either. It’s boring and draining and relentless. Living through it was hard enough; going over it all again, a year later, is twice as traumatic. I hate dwelling on it.
I’d rather focus on the positive; that’s always been my natural defence, my way of coping. It is how I’ve got through all the years to now. But I owe it to everyone living with a chronic illness who’s too sick to express their reality to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I’m going to try and leaven the narrative with the joy I felt at seeing what I could of the places we travelled through this last year, but I’m not going to pretend. So prepare yourselves for a rough ride.
At the time I wrote: “With Ruby in the truck there is an immediate upturn (of the family spirit volume button): more music, more laughing, more games, more sarcasm, more playing with the cat, more cuddling, more giggling, more delight. God how I’ve missed her, her female energy. How she calls out her Dad’s bullshit!! She is an Earth Goddess of Note.”
My daughter is the best fun of anybody I know. That dirty laugh of hers… Full bodied, throwing her head back. Her headbanging version of Tim Vine’s Pen-Behind-The-Ear meets the Sense8 theme tune was a highlight. She is – and always has been, even as a toddler – the living embodiment of couldn’t-give-a-f*ckness. It took me 30 years to evolve as far as she was already at 4. I can’t wait to see her in her prime.
I remember she and Dad having hysterics watching Monte sliding stiff-legged down the wooden ramp when the slatted side got accidentally overturned. But generally Sampson was grumpy because he wasn’t getting enough sleep due to dog-tending. Things were hard enough without him squandering the joy we could wring out of difficult days with his constant whingeing. Ruby began to get irritated on my behalf. God it was so wonderful to have an ally against his… – it feels disloyal to say, but there’s no other word for it – selfishness.
I wrote: “I don’t want to be Forced to Compete on Tiredness. I always win, and thus always lose. He chose his, I didn’t.”
We left the MCV garage at 11pm, which in Cairo is like driving in Cape Town at 4pm: busy, but still moving, just. We drove as near as we could get to Giza and parked in the shadow of a flyover.
It was so cold, Lucky the cat snuck into my sleeping bag at dawn. Sampson was up weeing Monte twice in the night before slamming out the door at 5am to walk him for 3 hours. At 6am an irate stall holder was banging on the side of the truck because Big Reg had unwittingly stolen his space. The pollution was choking. I cooked supper first thing because I knew I wouldn’t be up to it later. Sampson came in feeling sorry for himself and fed himself first; I couldn’t bear seeing it through Ruby’s eyes.
Sampson fell asleep on my bed because his back was sore so I sat upright at the table for an hour too long with the kids, sewing holes in Zola’s jeans. As a result I was way too tired to go out to the evening sound and light show at the pyramids, which we’d decided yesterday was the only time of day Big Reg could get there. Sampson wasted more of my energy arguing that we could take a taxi, but an hour’s journey there and back would drain the energy I needed to walk round. So we made a plan.
At midnight, we drove to the five star Mena House Hotel, which is situated on the private road up to the pyramids, with no entry to normal traffic. We managed to blag our way in with the flimsy excuse of having an appointment about waste oil collection. It was gobsmacking to get up at 7am and see the pyramids so ridiculously huge over carpark. It was like the aliens had landed. When we gave our details in at reception, the Food and Beverage manager said he’d phone us later, which gave us the perfect excuse to pop up to the pyramids while we were waiting.
With such a huge population and such high unemployment, Egypt, like Nigeria, is a nation of hustlers. As damnably persistent as their mossies and flies.
The touts on the way up the road were invasive enough for Ruby’s brusque rebuffs to verge on rude. A man calling himself ‘Sabel the Bedouin’ who was especially friendly decided Zola was Sudanese. Zola was also greeted as “blood” by others who thought he looked “Nubian like me”. I’ve said before our son looks like an Egyptian prince 🙂
I was so glad we weren’t tempted to hire one of the ricketty horse carriages, as they were ridden round the bumpy grounds at lethal speeds. I was a bit shocked at how little development had gone into the area around one of the top tourist sites in the world, especially in comparison with Athens, though a guide did tell us a new museum was opening soon. The ugly steel fence was functional but hardly in keeping with the graceful style of the ancient Egyptians. At least food stalls were banned from inside so there was zero plastic waste. The only women workers I saw were litter pickers. All the harum-scarum camel-drivers, horse-whippers and trinket-sellers were blokes.
Tourist ticket prices wouldn’t subsidise much maintenance – at only E£120 (R100) per adult and E£60 (R50) for kids, entrance was cheap even for us shoestring budget travellers. It was only E£10 for locals. While I applaud the Egyptian authorities for keeping access affordable for all (unlike e.g. Table Mountain or Robben Island) surely humanity’s grandest monument deserves more preservation funds?
I was also surprised at the perfunctory security check. It was only a week since the Sinai bombing but there was no x-raying of bags, only a metal detector gate. Although there were busloads of Cairene school kids, we saw no more than 10 other foreigners the whole day. Very sad for Egypt’s tourist economy; wonderful for my energy economy.
We declined the offer of a pushy guide and rather went round slowly at my pace, with lots of rest stops, using Wikipedia.
The Great Pyramid was built for the fourth dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu over a 10 to 20 year period concluding around 2560 BC. At 146.5 metres (481 feet), it was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years. Originally, it was covered by limestone casing stones that formed a smooth outer surface; what is seen today is the underlying core structure.
Khufu’s vizier, Hemiunu (also called Hemon) may have been the architect. It is thought that the Great Pyramid was originally 280 Egyptian Royal cubits tall (146.5 metres), but with erosion and absence of its pyramidion, its present height is 138.8 metres. Each base side was 440 cubits, 230.4 metres long. The mass of the pyramid is estimated at 5.9 million tonnes. The volume, including an internal hillock, is roughly 2,500,000 cubic metres .
Based on these estimates, building the pyramid in 20 years would involve installing approximately 800 tonnes of stone every day. Additionally, since it consists of an estimated 2.3 million blocks, completing the building in 20 years would involve moving an average of more than 12 of the blocks into place each hour, day and night.
Sorry, what? The Big Green Truck is 10 tonnes, so that’s like hoisting 80 trucks’ worth up there every day? In 2500 BCE? And the colonisers still insist it was they who brought advanced civilisation to Africa??
The accuracy of the pyramid’s workmanship is such that the four sides of the base have an average error of only 58 millimetres in length.
The cute school kids were on an end-of-year day-out, begging for selfies with us and shouted at by teachers for imposing. We walked quickly away to escape bullying camel touts.
“We can conclude that although the ancient Egyptians could not precisely define the value of π, in practice they used it”.
The largest granite stones in the pyramid, found in the ‘King’s’ chamber, weigh 25 to 80 tonnes and were transported from Aswan, more than 800 km away.
The basalt blocks show “clear evidence” of having been cut with some kind of saw with an estimated cutting blade of 15 feet (4.6 m) in length, capable of cutting at a rate of 1.5 inches (38 mm) per minute. John Romer suggests that this “super saw” may have had copper teeth and weighed up to 300 pounds (140 kg). He theorizes that such a saw could have been attached to a wooden trestle and possibly used in conjunction with vegetable oil, cutting sand, emery or pounded quartz to cut the blocks, which would have required the labour of at least a dozen men to operate it.
We were all a bit ecstatic. Ruby couldn’t stop beaming. Even her VZ shades getting pickpocketed didn’t dampen her mood. Infamously inexpressive Zola was enthused enough to take loads of photos on his phone. It seemed almost miraculous to be here, together.
Sources cite either 118 or 138 as the number of identified Egyptian pyramids.
The Pyramid of Khafre is the second-tallest and second-largest of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramids of Giza and the tomb of the fourth dynasty pharaoh Khafre, son of Khufu, who ruled from c. 2558 to 2532 BC.
The pyramid has a base length of 215.5m and rises up to a height of 136.4 m. It is made of limestone blocks weighing more than 2 tons each. The slope of the pyramid rises at a 53° 13′ angle, steeper than its neighbor, the Pyramid of Khufu, which has an angle of 51°50’24”. The pyramid sits on bedrock 10 m (33 ft) higher than Khufu’s pyramid, which makes it appear to be taller.
The ancient Egyptian name of the pyramid was Wer(en)-Khafre which means “Khafre is Great”.
The shape of Egyptian pyramids is thought to represent the primordial mound from which the Egyptians believed the earth was created. The shape of a pyramid is thought to be representative of the descending rays of the sun, and most pyramids were faced with polished, highly reflective white limestone, in order to give them a brilliant appearance when viewed from a distance. Pyramids were often also named in ways that referred to solar luminescence.
The Egyptians believed the dark area of the night sky around which the stars appear to revolve was the physical gateway into the heavens. One of the narrow shafts that extend from the main burial chamber through the entire body of the Great Pyramid points directly towards the center of this part of the sky. This suggests the pyramid may have been designed to serve as a means to magically launch the deceased pharaoh’s soul directly into the abode of the gods.
There was a brisk chill wind blowing off the desert, so the skies were remarkably clear. But as we munched our snacks, the cosy sunshine became overcast, with a sudden looming dark blue rain cloud.
The Pyramid of Menkaure is the smallest of the three main pyramids of Giza. It is thought to have been built for the fourth dynasty Pharaoh Menkaure, son of Khafre, grandson of Khufu. The pyramid’s date of construction is unknown, because Menkaure’s reign has not been accurately defined, but it was probably completed in the 26th century BC.
In 1837, English army officer Richard William Howard Vyse, discovered in the upper antechamber the remains of a wooden anthropoid coffin inscribed with Menkaure’s name and containing human bones. This is now considered to be a substitute coffin from the Saite period… Deeper into the pyramid, Vyse came upon a basalt sarcophagus, described as beautiful and rich in detail with a bold projecting corniche, which contained the bones of a young woman.
Unfortunately, this sarcophagus now lies at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, having sunk on October 13, 1838, with the ship Beatrice, as she made her way between Malta and Great Britain. It was one of only a handful of Old Kingdom sarcophagi to survive into the modern period. The lid from the anthropoid coffin mentioned above was successfully transported to England and may be seen today at the British Museum.
“Unfortunately”? Classic British understatement for “catastrophically and unforgivably”. Likewise “successfully transported to England” means “looted from Africa”.
Menkaure’s pyramid was called Netjer-er-Menkaure which means “Menkaure is Divine”.
At the end of the twelfth century al-Malek al-Aziz Othman ben Yusuf, Saladin‘s son and heir, attempted to demolish the pyramids, starting with Menkaure’s. The workmen whom Al-Aziz had recruited to demolish the pyramid stayed at their job for eight months, but found it almost as expensive to destroy as to build. They could only remove one or two stones each day. Some used wedges and levers to move the stones, while others used ropes to pull them down. When a stone fell, it would bury itself in the sand, requiring extraordinary efforts to free it. Wedges were used to split the stones into several pieces, and a cart was used to carry it to the foot of the escarpment, where it was left. Due to such conditions, they could only damage the pyramid by leaving a large vertical gash in its north face.
The temperature plummeted as we hurried down to the Sphinx. My legs had had enough by now and I knew I was on borrowed time. We didn’t get up close but it was just perfect.
It is impossible to identify what name the creators called their statue, as the Great Sphinx does not appear in any known inscription of the Old Kingdom and there are no inscriptions anywhere describing its construction or its original purpose. In the New Kingdom, the Sphinx was revered as the solar deity Hor-em-akhet (Horus of the Horizon), and the pharaoh Thutmose IV specifically referred to it as such in his “Dream Stele“.
Residues of red pigment are visible on areas of the Sphinx’s face. Traces of yellow and blue pigment have been found elsewhere on the Sphinx, leading Mark Lehner to suggest that the monument “was once decked out in gaudy comic book colors”.
The Sphinx was probably the focus of solar worship in the Early Dynastic Period, before the Giza Plateau became a necropolis in the Old Kingdom…The lion has long been a symbol associated with the sun in ancient Near Eastern civilizations. Images depicting the Egyptian king in the form of a lion smiting his enemies date as far back as the Early Dynastic Period.
A typical description of the Sphinx by tourists and leisure travelers throughout the 19th and 20th century was made by John Lawson Stoddard:
“It is the antiquity of the Sphinx which thrills us as we look upon it… The face and head have been mutilated… The mouth, the beauty of whose lips was once admired, is now expressionless. Yet grand in its loneliness, – veiled in the mystery of unnamed ages, – the relic of Egyptian antiquity stands solemn and silent in the presence of the awful desert – symbol of eternity. Here it disputes with Time the empire of the past; forever gazing on and on into a future which will still be distant when we, like all who have preceded us and looked upon its face, have lived our little lives and disappeared.”
Ruby bought a tiny statue of the cat goddess Bastet as a memento and was given a bonus purse for her fluent Arabic greeting.
Turner and Bateson suggest that the status of the cat in ancient Egypt was roughly equivalent to that of the cow in modern India.
We just got home in time. By 3.30pm it was already dark, gloomy and cold. Winter was catching us up.
On waking the next day, I couldn’t understand why my arms hurt even more than my legs. I’d walked further than I had in weeks, so why did I have such terrible PEM (post exertional malaise) in my elbow joints and wrists? Then remembered I’d taken about 150 pics yesterday…
That evening, Sampson met with Mr Hany Aziz, the Rooms Division Manager of the Marriott Mena House, officially one of ‘The Most Famous Hotels in the World’ and amongst Time magazine’s World’s 100 Greatest Places 2018. Mena House has been hosting visitors to the pyramids since 1886 – from Kings, Queens and Presidents to Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Frank Sinatra and Charlie Chaplin. Mr Aziz was extremely proud of the hotel’s history and full of fascinating stories.
He started working there 30 years ago after studying in India, and was present throughout the glorious Oberoi era. From the celebrities he had welcomed, Mr Aziz singled out Barbara Bush, whom he loved because she brought her grandchildren, and Brooke Shields, whom he loathed because she was so snooty. It’s probably useful that his name Hany means ‘one who lives in happiness and tranquility’ or ‘chilled’ in Arabic – very similar to the meaning of Zola in isiXhosa.
He showed us a cabinet of photos including one of Kai-Shek, Churchill and Roosevelt in the garden in 1943, and another of Beghin, Carter and Sadat holding peace talks in 1979. Mr Aziz gave us a personal tour of old ‘Palace’ section of hotel, which was officially closed – new owners Marriott were about to carry out an extensive refurbishment.
Huda Sha’arawi was Egypt’s first female lawyer and a force to be reckoned with. In 1919 she organised a women’s demonstration against British rule and led street protests during the Egyptian Revolution; in 1923, following the death of her husband, she famously cast off her veil in public and inspired a generation to do the same; she founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, which pressurised the government to make primary education compulsory for girls as well as boys and enabled female access to university. Married at 13 to a man 40 years her senior, she successfully fought for the legal age to be raised to 16. This video celebrates her extraordinary achievements.
Mr Aziz gave me a copy of The Mena House Treasury from which I learned such gems as that John Travolta inaugurated Egypt’s first disco ‘The Saddle’ there in 1972. But his greatest gift came about by complete fluke: Mr Aziz insisted on taking a family photo of us on the freezing balcony of the Montgomery suite at the very moment the end-of-year corporate event outside had scheduled for their stupendous fireworks display:
Apparently it costs $7500 to light up the pyramids for a wedding or a fancy event, so it doesn’t happen every day – how lucky were we to gatecrash?
I was so shattered that night, even their booming DJ set didn’t keep me awake.