Our Alexandria day had ended well, with relaxing visits to the Roman amphitheater and Alexandrina Bibliotheca. The former had been more intact than the later and the new modern library had stood on the site of the ancient one. The dazzling white amphitheater had been interesting and although, not impressive in scale, it had been extremely well preserved. The superb 13 terraced marble monument had been discovered by accident, while laying the foundation stone of some apartment building and during olden times, it had been used as a pleasure park. Alexandrina Bibliotheca, on the other hand, had been an exquisite modern structure which had been an excellent replacement of its older counterpart. Though, beating one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, had been a very tough job, the modern library of Alexandria had beautifully succeeded in matching up to it.
Opened for public in 2002, the stunning modern building had overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and the angled disc design had made it look like a rising sun. It had been jaw droppingly beautiful and the huge sunlit interiors had held thousands of years of knowledge, artifacts and other valuable exhibits. Many statues had adorned the complex and it had been one whirlwind hub of beauty, intangible heritage and wealth of knowledge. I don’t have much recollection of the library visit and in my memory, it is a fast moving motion picture of tinkling water, sunshine bouncing off granite walls, murmur of different languages and balmy Mediterranean breeze. The sea breeze, which had greeted its visitors with a rushed embrace had been most refreshing and I had sat down on the sunny steps of the library to enjoy the salt air in my hair.
Our Alexandria visit had not continued after that and we had given the El Montaza Palace, Pompey’s Pillar and other attractions amiss. After a brief tea and falafel break at the cornice, we had returned to Cairo soon and for the first time, had experienced the nightmarish traffic of the capital city. Driving had seemed to be a source of venting out there and being a driver had literally looked like a reckless profession. When not caught in traffic snarl, cars, buses and other vehicles had rammed past at breakneck speed and pedestrians had weaved in and out of them like daredevils. It had been a hazy late twilight, by the time Cairo city limits had glittered like an endless sea of lights and a slice of waxy moon had peeped through the clouds of pollution. Traffic had moved in their own rhythm and football, Arabic music and conversations had poured out from every corner. Inspite of being a city girl, I find large metropolises to be very exhausting and most of the time, it is the sheer crush of humanity which drives me mad. Cairo too, with its concentration spots of high energy, emotions, action and clawing disparity had made me dizzy and I had been quite relieved to get away from the mayhem.
Thankfully, our Mena House Hotel had been located in a quiet suburb and after Cairo’s dizzying madness, it had felt like another planet. Lush gated communities smelling of flowers, money and fancy cars had lined its streets and luxurious resorts had been quiet oases among them. That night, a dim hazy silhouette of the pyramid had lulled us to sleep and the next morning we had woken up early to visit the grandest man made structure on earth. Needless to say, it had been the most anticipated attraction of our Egypt tour and we had come back with mixed feelings. Interestingly, despite its travel career hallmark status, my Pyramid of Cheops visit is yet another hazy blob in my memory and all I remember are aggressive touts, Bedouins offering camel rides and pesky local children harassing the visitors.
One of the 7 wonders of the ancient world and the only one to be left standing, Pyramid of Cheops is also known as the Pyramid of Khufu or Giza. Built around 2570 BC, the Pyramid of Giza had been commissioned by Pharaoh Khufu or Cheops and it had been the tallest man made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years. Originally standing at a height of 146 meters, years of wind erosion had reduced it by 9 meters and much of its exterior Tura limestone casing had come off. It had still remained breathtakingly impressive and despite the chaos that had surrounded it, the Pyramid of Khufu had never once failed to deliver awe struck moments. Located in the middle of the sandy Giza plateau, in the outskirts of Cairo, Pyramid of Cheops had been accessible either by the popular Pyramid road or the Nazlet as Samaan, also known as the Sphinx village.
We had reached there via the Pyramid Road and much to our surprise, had found it to be already crowded with tourists, despite the early morning hour. There had been way too many people, something which we, owing to our unawareness, had not envisioned about the Pyramid and thick flies had buzzed on masses of camel poop. It had been a bit smelly, noisy and chaotic, yet the majestic aura of the pyramid had overpowered them all. Our first impression of the pyramid had been one of disbelief and its somber appearance had taken our breaths away. No amount of photos, documentaries and information can ever possibly prepare oneself for the magnitude of the pyramid’s grandeur and the effect of its simple symmetry had been powerful. It had stood in front of us, like a giant perfect triangle, which had been most becoming in its pure, unadorned elemental structure. Strangely, it had been the same simplicity of symmetry which had fiercely held impenetrable secrets inside its bosom and the Pyramid of Cheops had been a timeless favourite of archaeological studies, speculations and treasure hunters.
Constructed by a large number of highly organized skilled labour, the great Pyramid had been an astounding mathematical positioning of approximately 2.3 million granite blocks and the entire project had taken 10 to 20 years for completion. Many mysteries had surrounded the structure and the most stupefying ones had involved its blocked internal passageways. The interior of the pyramid, in sharp contrast to its magnum opus sized exterior, had been quite plain and its 3 burial chambers had been dedicated to the king himself. Khufu’s red sarcophagus had been found in the topmost chamber and it had been placed right in the center of the pyramid. Many mystery shafts had crisscrossed the depths of the structure and most of them had been found to be sealed or blocked.
Upon penetration, these shafts had lead to more blocked passageways and a few had revealed secret chambers which had in turn opened to mysterious sealed off pathways or remnants of already looted treasures. Thus the pyramid had been like a puzzle with its unsolved maze like interiors spinning archaeologists and explorers into frenzy and upon entering it, we had understood why. As a part of our pyramid exploration, we had climbed inside the fantastic triangle and it had been a tough, uphill task. Because of the permanent sealing of the official gate, visitors had entered it through a hole, hacked on the north face by a 9th century AD treasure hunter and crouching passageways had lead us to the heart of the pyramid inside the Pharaoh’s burial chamber.
Despite being seemingly “the most thrilling thing to do”, being in the center of the pyramid had been extremely overwhelming and we had been unsure if the experience been worth battling the lack of adequate oxygen and narrow steep shafts of the climb. Most disturbing had been the thought of the tremendous amount of stones which had been skillfully piled on top of us and being mildly claustrophobic, we had clambered out of it as fast as possible. The fresh air and the open skies had never seemed more sweeter and we had rested at one empty corner at the base of the pyramid to get our bearings back. The respite had calmed us down and we had enjoyed the view of Khufu’s necropolis from there. While not as vast or elaborate as the Valley of Kings, the Pyramid of Giza complex had contained several other pyramids, celebratory boat pits, mortuary temple for embalming of the bodies, causeway, temple and smattering of smaller flat topped tombs of insignificant royal family members and significant courtiers. The trio of pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure had been the unrivaled centerpiece of the complex and beyond the royal boundary wall, ruins of an artisan’s village had been found.
The corner location of our resting spot had made us come face to face with the Sphinx and we had watched its sharp angular silhouette blaze gold against the morning sky. It had sat gazing at a distance with its back towards us and the legendary monument had been more impressive in reality than in pictures. Supposedly carved out of a single outcrop of soft limestone, the Sphinx, according to Egyptologists, had been sheathed in a casing of harder stone and the half lion half man’s body had rendered it a guardian deity’s status. It had been believed that the idea of shaping the limestone outcrop into a Sphinx had originated from Pharaoh Khufu himself and thousands of years later the future Tuthmosis IV had cleared it from the engulfing sand with the hope of getting a kingdom. He had dreamed of the prophecy in his sleep and a stele found between the Sphinx’s paws had confirmed of it coming true. Like most of Egyptian mysteries, the Sphinx too had been surrounded by myths and legends and the Greeks had been credited to giving it the unusual name.
They had named the monument after the legendary creature of Thebes, which had the horrible habit of putting riddles to passers by and killing those who had given wrong answers. Arabs had called it by Abu al-Hol and many myths had revolved around the mutilation of its nose and ears. The most popular one had been that of Napoleon’s troops, along with several others using it for target practice and many of its parts including the beard, had ended up in museums across the world. I had loved the Sphinx, its serious “Take no nonsense” expression, which had been dignified and seductively naughty at the same time. It had seemed to me, as if the silent Sphinx which had fiercely withheld its secrets from the world throughout centuries, had thoroughly enjoyed perplexing historians and the shadow of “Monalisa” smile on its expressive face had been enigmatic. Its stony eyes had a naughty glitter and from its commanding height, the legendary creature had sneered at us, foolish mortals.
We had left Giza, Cairo and Egypt soon and my last memory of the legendary country had been that of the Sphinx. It’s stare had been etched in my mind forever and the stony guardian deity had resounded the lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandius” in my head.
“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Shelley’s famous poem had summed up the enigma called Egypt in a most apt way and it is true, that no other civilization can ever invoke such mystery. Charismatic, puzzling and unfathomable, Misr had been truly unforgettable.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE