Saturday, March 11, 2023

The Wonders of Egypt and Jordan - Day 1: Cairo, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Egyptian Museum

February 10, 2023

Cairo, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Egyptian Museum

Egypt! It had called to me with its ancient voice for years, and at last, our long-awaited trip (postponed from 2020 due to the Covid shut-down) had arrived. And, wow, what a first day! Rob and I woke up early for a great breakfast in the beautiful Cairo Four Seasons Nile Plaza Hotel where our room looked down on downtown Cairo and the Nile River.

First view of the city upon our arrival at 1 a.m.

Views from our balcony

The Pyramids of Giza

At 8 a.m. sharp, we met our guide Irene and driver Ahmed and headed across this city of 25 million people to our first stop, the Giza Necropolis, site of the three major Pyramids of Giza.

I had always imagined these as standing alone in the middle of a vast desert, but they are just outside of the city. Irene regretted the fact that former presidents of Egypt had allowed the city expansion to reach so close to these monuments, but any further building is now prohibited.

The outskirts of Cairo reach right to the gates of the Pyramids.

Beyond the pyramids, there IS a vast desert - one of the most barren landscapes I have ever seen with not a single blade of grass as far as we could see. The three main pyramids are the burial sites of three pharaohs of the "Old Kingdom," which lasted from about 2,7000 to 2,200 B.C. There are other buildings around the pyramids, as this was once the site of Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt.
Ancient buildings of Memphis

Irene provided information about the size of the stones used to build the pyramids, how long it took, the methods used to build them...but I was so awestruck gazing at the massive structures that most of the information has gone out of my head.

We could see two openings in the face of the Great Pyramid of Khufu (aka Cheops), completed in 2600 BCE, which lead to the interior chambers where the king's mummified body once lay, along with all the treasures intended to accompany him to the afterlife. We were able to walk along a stairway leading up to the entrance of the lower chamber, but we did not pay the extra cost to go into the chamber where Khufu's sarcophagus still sits. The sarcophagus was wider than the entrance to the room, so the pyramid must have been built around this chamber!

The entrance to the tomb of Khufu

Behind the Great Pyramid stands the Pyramid of Khafre, completed in 2570 BCE. It is almost as large and is still topped with part of the smooth limestone cap that once covered all of the pyramids. Khafre's face lives on, as his is the face of the Sphinx who guards the complex. And in front of the Sphinx is a ruin that marks the spot where a dock once stood on the banks of the Nile. It was quite recently discovered that this channel of the river once flowed here, and many of the stones that built the pyramids were brought here from many miles away on barges.

The Pyramid of Khafre, with its limestone facade still capping the monument.

The Sphinx bears the face of Pharaoh Khafre

The Nile River once flowed through the bridge below the pyramids.

This old photograph shows the Nile when it still flowed here.
The last great pyramid is that of Menkaure, finished in 2510 BCE. It is smaller than the other two, but beside it stand the best preserved of the smaller pyramids, the burial chambers of (probably) the wives and daughters of the pharaohs. There was a large gash on the side of the pyramid, the result of a lengthy search for the door into the burial chamber.

The Pyramid of Pharaoh Menkaure shows a scar from attempts to find the entrance.

The Pyramid of Menkaure with the smaller tombs of his wives and daughters

Irene told us that there are about one hundred pyramids in Egypt, but they were so vulnerable to grave-robbers that the pharaohs of the later kingdoms chose to be buried in hidden gravesites in what is now known as "The Valley of the Kings," which we will visit later in this trip.

After exploring the grounds of the Necropolis, Rob and I enjoyed a horse-drawn carriage ride across the desert for better views of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We chose not to ride a camel but enjoyed visiting a few of the ungainly creatures who were resting or munching on piles of fresh grass.

Exploring the world hand-in-hand with Rob is one of my favorite things.

Apparently these silly photos are part of the experience!

Our guide, Irene, with some of the many camels around the site.

Rob is never happier than when he can pet an animal!

Now, after all my gushing, I'm adding a "reality check." The site WAS impressive, but it was also crowded with thousands of visitors, which does diminish the thrill a bit. But, as we ourselves were part of the problem, I can hardly complain. We also had our first experience with what I came to call "Walking the Gauntlet." The entrance to every tourist site is filled with vendors selling every Egyptian souvenir imaginable. Statues of the gods, scarves, enameled jewelry, plates, paintings. The vendors are assertive and relentless. My sweet husband loves to talk to people on our travels, and he is also tall and easy to pick out of a crowd, and that made him a target. The scenario usually went like this throughout our entire trip. A man would greet us heartily, "Come look at this! I have the best items!" Rob would say hello, and in attempting to be pleasant, say something like, "Maybe. I'll think about it. See you later!" So on our way back, the vendor would invariably recognize him and say, "Hello! You said you'd think! What do you want to buy!" It was all good fun, and I felt sympathy for the people just trying to make a living. but by the end of our trip, it got a little wearing.

Rob gets targeted.

The Ancient Art of Making Papyrus

After a fabulous Egyptian lunch at a restaurant on the banks of the Nile, we headed back into the city for more adventures. We stopped in the papyrus gallery of the Merit Center Bazar which makes its own papyrus paper using ancient traditional methods and then paints the parchment. Many of the paintings were copies of actual designs found on the walls and other artifacts from the tombs of the pharaohs, with lots of reference to the Egyptian gods and mythology. Other paintings were more "touristy," with images of King Tut, the buildings, etc. They were beautifully done, so Rob and I purchased two of them, shown in the photos below, to bring home.

Papyrus no longer grows wild in Egypt, but it is still farmed.

The stalks are thinly sliced.

The slices are rolled flat.

They are soaked in water to become more flexible.

Then they are woven into a mat...

...which is pressed between mats to soak up any moisture and flatten the papyrus sheet.  (This was done between heavy rocks in ancient times.)

A more colorful copy of a 4,600 year old tomb painting - one of the earliest paintings in Egypt

A copy of the design on the golden throne of King Tut

The Egyptian Museum

The rest of the afternoon was spent in The Egyptian Museum. This museum in the heart of Cairo is soon being replaced by a huge new and modern museum that will stand near the great pyramids. But this original museum is fabulous. I found myself incredibly grateful that the early Egyptians believed that "you CAN take it with you." Their tomb chambers were filled with everything you could imagine taking with you for your eternal life - jewelry, furniture, dried food, boats, animals, images of servants and the gods. Because these dry desert chambers were embedded deep into the pyramids or in hidden caves in the Valley of the Kings, many of the artifacts are perfectly preserved, and the artwork retains its vivid color.

Irene led us through the museum, which is laid out based on the three Kingdoms of ancient Egypt, the Old, Middle, and New. Many of the statues of the pharaohs, other important people, and the gods were immense, towering high over us. Here are some of the most notable treasures of the museum.

This statue of Djoser, a pharaoh from the Old Kingdom,
 is the oldest known life-size statue in Egypt.
Djoser built the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, the first pyramid.

Statuette of Khufu (aka Cheops), the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Ironically, the builder of the largest pyramid has only this tiny statue.

          The two images above are of Khafre, builder of the middle pyramid in the 
Giza Necropolis.  The falcon behind his head is Horus, indicating that Khafre is also a god.

Here is Pharaoh Menkaure, builder of the third pyramid of Giza.
He wears the tall white crown of upper Egypt, and he is flanked by
Hathor, the great Sky Goddess on the left and the Cow Goddess Bat on the right.

This sycamore statue of Ka-aper Sheik el Balad of the Old Kingdom gave the archaeologists who discovered it quite a fright.  Look at the realistic glass eyes.

Ka-aper was a scribe and priest.

This is another scribe of the Old Kingdom. Scribes were near the top of the social pyramid. 
This unidentified scribe is in a traditional position in Egyptian art -
sitting cross-legged with a papyrus scroll on his knees.

Seneb and his family.  Seneb was a dwarf, but highly respected
as the Funerary Priest of Khufu

Statues of Rahotep and his wife Nofret. 
Prince Rahotep was a High Priest of Ra and is believed to be the brother of Khufu.

This is Menhotep II.
He reunited Upper and Lower Egypt which began the Middle Kingdom.

The head of Hatshepsut, a powerful female pharaoh.
We will meet her again on this journey.

This is the colossal statue of Amenhotep III, his wife Tiye, and their daughters
Dating from the New Kingdom, it is the largest dyad ever carved.

The two photos above are of Amenhotep IV, who took the name Akhenaten.
He was the first pharaoh to promote the worship of one god.
His strange shape is due to a genetic disorder called Marfan's syndrome,
but he insisted on realistic images of himself.

Akhenatun is also the father of King Tutankhamen, and on the second floor of the museum we found its best-known treasure, items from the burial chamber of young King Tut. I was disappointed to learn that no photos were allowed in the room that held his coffin and death mask, but most of you have seen photos of this well-known face. Happily, many of the treasures from the chamber are displayed in the gallery, including his solid gold throne.

King Tut's solid gold throne

The jackal god, Anubis, guards the tomb against grave robbers.
In Tut's case, it worked!

This golden casket held the canopic jars shown below.

Each of these alabaster canopic jars held the organs of King Tut,
removed during the process of mummification.  All organs were removed except the heart.

Another chair from King Tut's tomb.  

This chair was the first known folding chair.

A statue of the young king

And another image of Tut with some of his possessions.

A special exhibit included the actual mummies of a royal couple, Yuya and his wife, Thuya, who were found in the Valley of the Kings in 1904 and were buried in the same chamber, which was unusual. Yuya was a powerful nobleman during the New Kingdom, and his wife was "the royal mother of the great wife of the king." As was true with King Tut and other pharaohs, each of them was buried in the smallest of three nested coffins, all of which were enclosed in a large stone sarcophagus. These were laid out along the hall of the museum, along with the mummies of the couple.

The final rooms included dozens of coffins and mummies of a variety of animals, from domestic animals like cows and dogs to the "sacred" animals like crocodiles, huge fish, and turtles.

The museum was filled with other treasures and I could have wandered there for hours. But it had been a very full day, and we were happy to return to our hotel for a much-needed nap, a light dinner, and a good night of sleep!

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