Picnic with the PyramidsT. SHER SINGH
Thursday, July 5, 2012
There was a time when a trip to the great pyramids of Giza required a full day: getting out of Cairo would in itself involve a lengthy ordeal. Giza then was clearly another town, requiring a drive and a camel-ride through the desert.
Today, the sprawl of Cairo has reached far beyond the pyramids. It took us no more than an hour from central Cairo to negotiate the roads since we had left after the morning’s traffic mess had somewhat dissipated.
Cairo is not an attractive city. We were already numbed by block after block of ugly buildings, when we went over a hill and suddenly a huge pyramid appeared behind the apartment buildings.
It was a bizarre sight, not unlike a rising harvest moon, enlarged by refraction.
Abdel Sattar, our driver, laughed at our gasps. The pyramid towering before us, he pointed out, was still a few kilometres away.
We lost sight of it after that, as we drove into the town of Nazlat-al-Samman. Abdel told us that’s where his home was. When he slowed down at a traffic light - stopping dead for a red light is not a local custom - a young man seemed to appear out of thin air, yanked the passenger door open and slumped into the seat. He nodded at Abdel and turned around and said: “Hello, I’m your guide.“
We were skeptical of this uninvited apparition. He told us he had horses available for riding across the desert to the pyramids. My daughter, an ardent rider, said Yes, Yes!
We paid Abdel the cab fare and continued afoot with Hassan, our self-appointed guide, who then took us to the stables.
My daughter chose the horses while I worked on bolstering my courage to get on a horse. I also negotiated a price. We settled for half of the fee to be paid in advance, the rest after we returned.
Off we went then, in a convoy, with Hassan in the lead, and the three of us, each on a horse, behind him. We crossed the road and entered a village. A caper of kids followed us for a while, soon to be replaced by an entourage of dogs. They too whimpered away as we climbed a hillock and found ourselves in a vast cemetery. The village had disappeared from sight. The sea of the desert began amongst the graves and spread out into the endless beyond.
In the distance stood the pyramids, in their full majesty. The landscape was undulating, which explained why the Sphinx was nowhere in sight: just the tops of the only remaining Wonders of the World in existence today, barely visible in the white haze.
We rode parallel to the pyramids towards the open sands, skirting by a wide berth and leaving behind the pyramid of Cheops, then of Chephren.
We had a million questions, of course. Hassan seemed to try hard but managed to answer none. We were the only tourists in sight. That bothered me. Where are the crowds, I asked Hassan, Oh, he explained, this is a special entrance to the pyramids, a new way to view them - only a few use it.
That was true. This was indeed a fresh way of looking at the pyramids. We continued to be the only souls in sight. The city was nowhere to be seen. We were well into the open expanse of the desert, with the three giant pyramids dominating the horizon, a number of smaller cones and mounds scattered around.
The cliffs behind us disappeared too, as did the graveyard. I nudged my horse closer to Hassan’s and asked him to start heading us to the pyramids. He did not reply. I asked him again. Naa-ah, he said, this is good; too close is not good.
It didn’t sound right. I turned my horse around and started towards the pyramid of Mycerinus, which was already a kilometre or so behind us now.
Hassan galloped towards me and blocked my way. Pay first, then I try to go there, he said. How much, I asked. He demanded an amount far more than we owed him. He repeated: pay now, or I take the horses back!
He looked nervous. It was mighty odd, considering we had clearly agreed on the terms. What if we paid him and he left us there anyway?
For a moment, we were terrified. This is the very scenario guide books had warned us about. We had let our guard down. What would he do if we refused?
We huddled, the three of us on our respective horses, the best we could. And decided we had to call his bluff. Plus, it seemed not a bad idea to let him go with the horses, and walk back towards the pyramids and past them, one by one, and spend the day exploring. Our knapsacks had enough food and water, and the peaks of the pyramids would guide us like a compass.
In unison, we got off our horses and handed Hassan the reins. He sat there, dumfounded. Spluttered a bit. We walked away. He yelled. He gesticulated wildly. He complained miserably. We didn’t look back, praying he wouldn’t do anything foolish.
It was the last we saw of him.
We went over a sandhill and suddenly, we were alone.
We slumped down onto the sand, had a drink and assessed our situation. It didn’t look bad - as long as Hassan did not come back to harass us. In fact, we relished the idea of being on foot, alone, with no time restrictions. We were dressed for the sun, had good hiking boots on, and a day’s worth of supplies. It wasn’t an overly warm day, being the end of December.
So, we got up and trudged along. Slowly … it took us well over an hour to get to it - we approached the pyramid Mycerinus. We climbed one of the three small ones in its vicinity - the Queen’s pyramids.
As we gambolled around taking photos, we thought we heard sounds: human voices. Jumbled, unintelligible.
We cautiously walked around to the other side of the giant Mycerinus, and came across eight Bedouin haunched around a fire, their pompom bedecked camels parked in an arc, a few feet away.
They were as startled … and curious … as we were.
We stepped closer, and greeted them in Arabic. It broke the ice. They had something boiling in a small pot sitting on the fire. Would you like to have “chaa” - tea? We nodded. They shifted positions, sliding towards each other, and made room for us around the fire.
We undid our knapsacks and pulled out fruit and snacks, and passed them around. A wonderful picnic was had by all.
One of them pointed to my turban and raised his eyebrows: “Muslim?” No, I said, “Sikh!” He nodded in understanding. Then, I added: “C-A-N-A-D-A,” and made motions to indicate a faraway place. One of them broke into a toothless smile. “Ka-naaa-da Dry?” he asked. I nodded vigorously. Everybody clapped.
“Be-dou?” I queried of one of them. He nodded. And added: “Nagama!” (Which, I discovered later, was the name of a tribe of Bedouin who frequented the area.” He also explained Hassan’s odd behaviour: he was obviously not a trained or registered guide, getting caught poaching around the pyramids would’ve meant trouble. He had merely planned to get as much money as he could from us by terrorizing us, then dumping us, and fleeing.
We bade the Bedouin goodbye. We waved back at them again as we disappeared behind Mycerinus, and swished and sloshed on the sand towards Chephren.
Where we found the crowds and discovered the phenomenal solar boat museum which houses the actual boat of the pharoah, reconstructed from more than a thousand disintegrated but remarkably preserved pieces found by archaeologists only a few decades earlier.
And, of course, the Sphinx.
Seven hours after we began the horse ride, we finally slumped into chairs perched outside the café behind the Great Enigma, and watched it slowly turn into a silhouette in the magnificence of the setting sun.
Conversation about this article
1: Sonu Singh (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), July 05, 2012, 9:34 AM.
As always, a great read, Sher Singh ji.
2: Irvinderpal Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), July 05, 2012, 9:18 PM.
I believe I see Gehna on horseback. Love to both daughter and dad. Well, it's a different kind of study and practice to be there ...