October 1, 2019
The iconic Giza Pyramid Complex was just a side trip in our saunter to the Holy Land; still, I was stoked about how the experience would roll. The reality, though, was that our tour itinerary merely sandwiched the world’s oldest man-made (or alien-made?) structures between two tourist traps. Our rushed visit fell way short of doing the only extant Wonder of the Ancient World any justice by being lumped with shopping stops disguised as cultural immersion. It reminded me why I always preferred DIY trips.
We crossed the Nile from our hotel in Cairo to neighboring Giza. The tour bus delivered us to a two-story house called Mody Khattab Essences and Aromatherapy. I walked in slow-mo through dim and narrow hallways trying to avoid knocking off shelves of fragile glass decanters. My pocket money was not enough to pay for any broken crystal and spilled liquid in this 300-year-old home-based perfumery, which, as a cottage industry, went back thousands of years. Ancient Egypt pioneered the use of aromatic herbs in religious rituals and daily life. For 3,000 years, the fragrance of these ointments had wafted through the desert.
The ancient heritage was now a sketchy stop in modern tourism. An array of scents was passed around as we listened to an hour-long lecture and poked our noses, literally and otherwise, into samplers of floral perfumes (lotus, jasmine, papyrus) and medicinal spice scents (black cumin for diabetes, frankincense for memory loss, myrrh for pain). For the brand conscious, special blends mimicked designer fragrances (Tutankhamun for CK, Five Secret for Chanel N°5, Arabian Night for YSL). Awkwardly aware that we had been shuffled into a function room so unabashedly for a sales pitch, we still felt compelled to reward the TED Talks-worthy spiel delivery of the personable lecturer with actual sales. My loaded fellow tourists rose to the occasion while I disappeared into a dark corner, sniffing the samplers.
The final cha-ching released us to the day’s main event. From the bus, I first glimpsed the pyramids’ pointed tops poking out of rows of apartment buildings. How fascinating that they were located, not out in the remote desert, but in the suburb. I wondered how it felt for some Giza residents to have this global cultural heritage in their backyard. But the more significant question was how these ancient monuments had held up to urban encroachment, modern pollution, and the onslaught of treasure hunting and tourism. Our guide secured the admission tickets for us as the tour bus made its way to the parking area right at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Amidst several smaller structures built on the desert sand of Giza Plateau, three pyramids stood out, all named after the pharaohs that built them: Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. Each was a component of a royal cemetery complex that expanded over succeeding generations. Perhaps other structures were built around them; they were the only extant ones that time and the elements had not claimed. Even in antiquity, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the plateau’s largest, was listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by the Greeks.
As a DIY tourist, I had no problem with getting simply dropped off a heritage site without a guide. Being part of a tour group, though, I felt more entitled. If only I had the luxury of a similar lecture they subjected me to at the perfumery, I would’ve had a deeper appreciation of the Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops in Greek), also called the Great Pyramid of Giza. Left to my own devices, I clambered up the massive stone blocks comprising the base of the pyramid. Thanks to Google, I learned that there were two million or so that made up the pyramid and each weighed at least two and a half tons.
Beyond that, I could not justify leaving my shoe prints on the age-old slabs as generations of humanity had done. I spotted an opening halfway up, but given just half an hour at the site, a proper descent into its chambers and passageways was out of the question. Instead of looking in, I looked out to the urban sprawl of Giza. The pyramids felt very much a part of the skyline broken only by some strategically situated camels for photo ops.
We were back in the bus in no time to get whisked to a causeway that offered a panoramic view of all three major pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza. Unlike the pyramids whose building blocks had been quarried elsewhere, the colossal Sphinx was clearly carved from the plateau’s bedrock. Google belatedly schooled me of its history as a depiction of Pharaoh Khafre’s face on the body of a reclining lion. I had no luxury of time to ponder anything on site. This roadside stop lasted no more than ten minutes partly ambushed by persistent touts offering to take silly photos. I figured I would waste less time blaspheming a historical landmark with photo effects poses than brushing the paparazzi off.
Just off the backside of the Great Sphinx stood the Pyramid of Khafre, built by Khufu’s second son. Though the father’s pyramid towered over all the rest, the son’s appeared larger and taller, having been built on higher elevation. It also sported a distinctive apex partially overlaid with the original limestone casing. Those on all other pyramids had been lost to time.
The smallest of the three was the Pyramid of Menkaure, the son of Khafre and grandson of Khufu. The Pyramids of Giza actually comprised a family plot, perhaps the oldest still in existence at 4,500 years old predating even the time of Moses by over a millennium. These pyramids also held the record as the world’s tallest buildings for much of that time. Another record, it seemed, was the duration of our visit. And just like that, it was done.
The tour still had a sales quota to hit at Golden Eagle Papyrus, yet another shopping stop that started innocently enough with a lecture. This time it included a ten-minute demonstration on the process of making papyrus scrolls. A lush papyrus stalk, presumably harvested from the Nile, stood at a corner as the “before” exhibit.
Some of the hand-painted papyrus artworks for sale looked quite exquisite and, perhaps, authentic. A glow-in-the-dark Madonna and Child was the show-stopper. But the aggressive salesmanship was off-putting and the staff were not forthcoming with the prices. One told me off for taking photos. In the end, I succumbed to the rip-off with eyes wide open, but I chose the smallest and cheapest item just so I had a papyrus souvenir.
That was how the cookie crumbled in the Egyptian desert. Our tour group left Cairo that afternoon with many photos of the Pyramids of Giza but not as many memories. How criminal it was to travel halfway round the world for a half-an-hour glimpse of the pyramids, more so for my sister who missed it altogether. She stayed in bed that morning, nursing a nasty migraine attack. The experience left much to be desired and called for another visit – a more measured and meaningful one.
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