It’s a little after 8 am. The sun isn’t blazing yet. Miles and miles of golden sand lie in front of us. With a few camels, a dozen or so guides and lots of fellow tourists for company, we stand mesmerised as six centuries of history stares down at us in the middle of the world’s longest desert. Suddenly there’s a tap on my shoulder and a voice crackles, “Hello, how is Amitabh Bachchan? Do you want this shirt?” Shaken out of my dreamy state, I look back bewildered. There is a bearded man, draped from head to toe in white, trying to sell me what looks like kurtas. “Amitabh Bachchan?” I ask, incredulous. “Err, I assume he is fine.” Our man doesn’t blink. “So Amitabh Bachchan, you take shirt, I take you inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. I know good man, he take you in and bring you out,” he smiles back. Welcome to Cairo in the 21st century — untouched by the passage of time and yet, very ‘in-with-it’ in so many other ways.
Of course, our man was joking. No longer do travellers get lost in the maze inside the pyramids and die. In fact today you can buy a ticket to go inside the Great Pyramid, walk up the shoulder of the Sphinx and even pose in front of the golden caskets of the boy — king Tutankhamen. The Jasmine revolution and the continued political unrest in Egypt today sadly means Cairo is not on the top of the list when one plans a trip abroad. But we headed out to this wonderful city on the banks of the Nile a year before the strife began. And were extremely lucky therefore to have an amazing 10 days travelling across Giza and Cairo before embarking on an unforgettable five-day cruise on the Nile, from Luxor to Aswan.
To get back to our story, we took up ‘Sam’ (that he said was his name) on his offer. A blue Pathan, err Egyptian suit exchanged hands for 30 Egyptian Pounds and soon we were on our way (after buying a ticket for a nominal price) inside the Great pyramid. Now honestly, this journey to the underground tomb is not one for the faint hearted. The entrance is very narrow, steep and most people may feel the lack of oxygen in the beginning. I think someone pushed me from behind (tourists are an impatient lot), so before I knew it, I had managed to run down (crouching all the way) the passage to the underground central hall where once, several thousand years ago, lay the mummified figure of King Khufu, one of the greatest Kings of ancient Egypt.
Back outside, lungs filled with 21st century air again, we did the usual touristy thing — climbing a few blocks up the pyramid, clicking photographs and posing in front of the three pyramids. ‘Sam’ resurfaced at this point to reveal some amazing statistics: The Great Pyramid took 20 years to build. Now given the number of stones and their average weight, building this in 20 years meant the ancient Egyptians knew way by which approximately 800 tonnes of stone was installed every day! Similarly, since the Great Pyramid consists of an estimated 2.3 million blocks, completing the building in 20 years would have involved moving an average of 12 blocks into place every hour, day and night!
We paused, we thought about it. It boggled the mind. By Osiris! They knew magic! One piece of advice here. Don’t stay ‘boggled’ for too long in Egypt. Why? Because there are so many sites that will indeed make you speechless, that staying in a spell too long after seeing one of the wonders might mean you never come out of it on tour.
We didn’t have to wait long to put this theory to test. Right round the corner stood the imposing figure of the Great Sphinx, complete with its broken nose and giant cats paws. If you have read Asterix, you would know that Obelix tried climbing the Sphinx and broke its nose. But here, if you have to listen to the story of the Sphinx and the birth of the Pyramids, I suggest you come back late in the evening to see what must rank as one of the most gripping 3D light-and-sound shows you will ever see.
If you are lucky to get a room in a hotel close to Giza like us, the pyramids will appear on the horizon every dawn, as if by magic or like a mirage through a haze. But stay on a few days. There is a lot more to Cairo. The step pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara is the world’s oldest pyramid, built nearly 5000 years ago. As we walked around the lonely pyramid on the other side of town, we felt a shiver or two down our spine. “The Mummy” and the “Mummy Returns” played on our minds!
But we were not done with the Pharaohs yet. Bang in the middle of the city lies the magnificent National Museum where, the star among all treasures is the three-layered tomb of King Tutankhamun — three tombs of differing sizes, one fitted into another but with one thing in common: all the three giant boxes are made of pure gold. Most of King Tut’s jewels have been stolen over the years. But just to given you an idea, even what remains, will fetch enough if sold, to feed a large Indian village for 10 years.
Sam, our man, stayed loyal to us through these many visits and many more questions. He even took us to the city’s main market where our pride as the world’s best bargainers was severely dented. But we learnt fast. By the end of the trip every time someone quoted 200 pounds for a papyrus or a bed cover, we quoted 20! Eventually we would settle for maybe 50 or 60, while accepting a request of an additional “something Indian please” thrown in (it varied from an Indian ball point pen, a newspaper photo of Aishwarya Rai and even my floppy hat on the last day).
But out best buy? Three large papyrus scrolls, bought from the government approved central shop where 21st century Hyrogliphic experts drew stories, names and events for us. Today they hang proudly on the wall at home, sharing space with a picture of the Great Wall sewn on Chinese silk, a wooden replica of the Coliseum and other works of art.
Of course, our trip to Egypt didn’t end at Cairo. The five-day Nile cruise was an experience we wouldn’t be forgetting in a hurry. But we shall keep that for another day. But one thing’s for sure: By Osiris, they really knew magic!