Visiting the sights near Cairo, we criss-crossed centuries even more than we traversed the local geography. Yet, as ancient as the Egyptian civilization is, its legacy can be found in our own today.
The tour took us first to the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square, a few short blocks from our hotel. There are collected some of the finest examples of the ancient culture’s sculptures and artifacts, though they are crowded together with little contemporary museum curation and context-setting, so that it’s hard to keep straight what relates to what. This situation will be remedied with the opening of the huge new Grand Egyptian Museum, expected next year.
Gradually over the course of the tour, when we saw other monuments, the treasures from that first day began to fit into place. My favorite room in the museum was the one containing likenesses of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Husband of Nefertiti, he was such an interesting character (and subject of a Philip Glass opera). His elongated features and sensuous lips are markedly different from the typical square-faced, mildly benevolent expression of most pharaonic depictions.
The oldest monuments near Cairo that we saw were at Sakkara and Memphis, the Old Kingdom capital of Egypt. Sakkara is an ancient burial ground for Memphis—Egypt’s capital 4500 years ago. (The Tennessee city was given the same name because it too, is on a great river.)
The area includes a beautiful temple and the famous “step pyramid,” the world’s oldest major stone edifice, built during the Third Dynasty for the pharaoh Djoser. It was the Egyptians’ first foray into this pyramid shape, something they later perfected with different building methods. The step pyramid’s architect was Imhotep, and there’s an archaeological museum there dedicated to him.
In Memphis are the beautifully detailed remains, if you can call them that, of a massive limestone statue of Ramses II, who ruled 3300 years ago, in the 19th Dynasty. Standing, it would be over 30 feet tall. He may be old, but he’s still impressive! (His statues inspired Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”: “ʻLook on my works, ye Mighty and despair.’”)
Highlight of any Egypt trip is a visit to the pyramids of Giza, a Cairo suburb. You can be gazing at the pyramids, turn around, and there’s a city. They are the perfection of the pyramid form, used as tombs by the Old Kingdom Pharaohs. The largest is that of Khufu (Cheops), the second largest is that of his son Khafre, and the third largest that of Khafre’s son, Menkaure. Smaller pyramids for wives are nearby.
From a distance, the pyramids look smooth, like the pyramid on the back of the US $1 bill. But up close, their profile is jagged because of the stepwise layers of stone. Each of these stones is enormous, weighing several tons.
Theories still conflict about how the pyramids were constructed, but our guide emphasized that they were not built by slaves. Evidence has been found that during the limited construction season, workers came from all over Egypt to fulfill their one-time obligation to their ruler and were advised to consider it a privilege. I hope they did.
It’s Khafre’s pyramid that has the unfinished-looking top. We learned that all the pyramids at one time had an exterior limestone layer that did make the surface smooth. Alas, thieves looted the limestone for other construction, and that bit at the top is all that’s left. Amazing as they are, they must have been even more so in those days. You can go inside Khufu’s pyramid, but it’s a very confined passageway and you have to crouch down to get through it. I declined. The taller men who went came back with skinned scalps. Treasures from inside are all in the museum or looted long ago.
We were told that one of the huge limestone blocks used in creating Khafre’s pyramid turned out to have flaws, so he directed his architect to make a statue out of it. From that block the Sphinx was carved, an animal with the body of a lion and head of a human–an Egyptian mythological invention. Repeatedly over the millennia, the Sphinx has been covered in sand, including when Napoleon Bonaparte came to Egypt in 1798, an encounter memorialized in a famous painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme that, amusingly, cuts the grand Napoleon down to size.
Photos: (Akhenaten) José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, creative commons license; all others, Vicki Weisfeld