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The Great Pyramids and Ibn Tulun Mosque, Egypt: Day 16

David and Lily with Sphinx and pyramid.

Giza is the Cairo suburb on the west bank of the Nile that extends to the desert and lends its name to the Great Pyramids at its edge. With creative positioning you can photograph all three pyramids and make them appear isolated in the desert, but really there is a Taco Bell a few hundred yards away from the largest one. Today, we decided to forgo the tour guide and car for public taxis and guide books. The guides tend to lecture and the kids prefer we roam freely.

I negotiate a fare (50LE ~$4.50) and we cruise out in a beat-up diesel Fiat with the windows wide open. The driver drops us off on the backside of the Pyramid complex and I realize the area has completely changed since my visit here the previous year. It now has a 10-foot fence and security cameras surrounding the area. We buy the tickets and inside I notice many fewer hawkers. When I was here last, the paths were lined with sellers of every silly, cheap, Egyptian souvenir the Chinese make. Now it’s nearly empty. It’s also clean. Dusty, of course, but clean compared to the debris field that it was before. Much better!

OMG, we're at the Pyramids!

I had promised the girls some horse rides. The price starts at $30 and goes up to $40 then $50 once we begin trotting away. I demand they return us if the handler isn’t going to honor the deal. After more guilt (“I have two small children too, sir”) and patronizing lines like, “Smile, sir! Why you look so angry?” we trot off with an agreed price of $40. He continues to haggle for another five minutes, but he knows we have a deal and eventually leaves us with the guides, two of which are kids Emma’s age. Lily is on her own horse for the first time and she is mighty pleased with herself. It’s about 20 minutes up to the middle Pyramid (Cheferen) and we hop off (pay a little more baksheesh to the guides) and walk around to the entrance where we will buy a ticket and plunge deep below the earth into the ancient tomb.

Girls on their horses with Cairo in the background

Kids on horses at Giza with Cairo in the background

We head toward the Sphinx, the oldest monumental sculpture on the planet. It’s easy to underestimate the duration of the Egyptian civilization unless you pay close attention to the dates. The pyramids, Sphinx and other sites near Cairo are freaking old, almost 5,000 years. And we notice a huge difference between the old kingdom of this area and the new kingdom in Luxor. The masonry is rougher and less precise. There are no (or few) hieroglyphics carved into the stone and there is no evidence of painting that has survived. It’s certainly in worse physical condition. But the scale — oh my god the scale! — is massive. Looking up the side of the pyramids is an event that inspires — even more so when you remember that same exact view has been seen by so many great historical figures including Alexander the Great, Herodotus and Napoleon.

Lily with pyramid

Lily with pyramid

But the ticket stand that was here the year before is no longer there! It’s been relocated as part of the Pyramid-area clean up of 2008. NOOOOOOOOOOO! We are told to return to where we entered and get the supplementary tickets we need. For a minute, we consider not bothering because it’s a mile round-trip on a steep hill in 110 degrees F. But I’m too stubborn to have gotten all the way to the Great Pyramids to not make the descent.

A Kalish (carriage) takes the family down the hill.

A Kalish (carriage) takes the family down the hill.

We walk a third of the way down and hire a carriage ride for the rest of the way. Phew! Oddly, the driver pulls off the paved road and takes us on a stomach-clenching, teeth-jarring ride down the steep desert rocks to the side. Halfway, he stops. “Out, please! I can’t go on.” Some rule prevents him from going any further — a detail he forgot to mention when he took my money. I can see there is no point in arguing. Piling out, we trudge to the bottom and ask around for the ticket booth. A helpful woman tells us, unbelievably, that we came down the wrong side of the incline. The ticket booth is not where we are, it’s on the other side of the big hill! Back up we go. This time there is no callesh (carriage). I piggy-back the girls up the half-mile incline fending off hawkers. What they have lost in numbers, they have gained in ferocity. More than once I lose my cool and yell, “LA SHOKRAN!” (No, thank you). I’m nearing my patience limit and our water has run out.

The family walks back up the hill.

The family walks back up the hill.

Back at the top, I leave the girls and head down the other side solo to find the mythical ticket booth. For a moment, I regret not hiring a guide and then… score! The booth appears in the distance. Thirty minutes later, we head down the shaft of the middle Pyramid. Lily is excited because the initial 200-foot passageway is exactly her height so she can stand. In addition to being low, it slopes down at a 45 degree angle, which makes it insanely uncomfortable for adults. At least there are no other tourists. It’s about 110 degrees F, very humid and with low oxygen levels. But it’s amazing. The walls are solid stone. They carved many of the rooms, including the burial chamber, straight down into the bedrock below the desert sand. The whole effect is much more muscular and primitive than the New Kingdom tombs in Luxor. It’s dramatic, but not exactly beautiful.

[Note from the wife: It was a long day, so I understand why David forgot one detail, but this one really stood out to me. Giovanni Belzoni, a 19th-century Italian explorer who was the first European to penetrate inside this pyramid, wrote his name, in 5-foot letters, across the inside of the burial chamber! What a douche.]

Lunch of Coke and ice cream

Lunch = Coke and ice cream

We’re about 90 minutes off our schedule so we decide to skip lunch. We grab some cokes for us and ice cream for the kids, and a lot of water. I find a cab and head to the Ibn Tulun area, a destination not very popular with tourists, but one I’ve picked out from my research. Amazingly, our cab is a Soviet Lada! And our driver takes every back alley in Giza. More than once I cover my eyes and brace myself for impact. They don’t drive very fast in Cairo; only because there is always a car right in front of them. But they drive frighteningly close to pedestrians, street carts, police officers and, of course, other cars.

A Soviet Lada in Cairo traffic

A Soviet Lada in Cairo traffic

Street signs, lane dividers and traffic lights are, apparently, just decorations. They honk their horns non-stop. One of our drivers had to hold two wires together to make his horn sound. He would deftly pinch them together under the steering wheel every 10 seconds, keeping a free hand on the wheel. Most of the cars in Cairo are old and run diesel or leaded, which is one of the main contributing factors to Cairo’s severe pollution problem.

Long pants and headscarf at the Ibn Tulun Mosque

Long pants and headscarf at the Ibn Tulun Mosque

Ibn Tulun is a small complex of Mosques and buildings in south Cairo. It sits at the end of a strip of famous mosques that begin with the city citadel. From up above, you can see a mile-long row of Minarets. Ibn Tulun Mosque is probably the most famous Mosque in Cairo because it’s the oldest and the largest. After putting on our long pants and headscarves we start in the smaller attached mosque, Sarghatmish. The inside is attractive and there is a room with fantastic acoustics. One of the mosque attendants sings for us (for a tip of course). Up the minaret, we get nice views of Cairo and the sizable Ibn Tulun Mosque next door.

Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo

Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo

Attached to Ibn Tulun Mosque is a 16th-century house that has been preserved as a museum. It’s oddly called the Gayer-Anderson Museum, but don’t let the English name put you off. It’s a hidden gem of Cairo sightseeing. Very few, if any, of Cairo’s domestic architecture from that long ago are still intact. The ability to explore a real home excites the girls, especially when they find a secret door that leads to an observation nook above the central hall. Lily was struck that the men’s areas and women’s areas were separated — she asks a lot of questions trying to rationalize why that would make sense. The Persian and North African furniture is not in perfect shape, but it does the job of transporting you to a different place and time. You won’t regret going a little out of your way to catch this if you are in Cairo.

Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo

Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo

Finally, we head to the Ibn Tulun Mosque and it’s geometric beauty, best appreciated from the tall minaret. But first we wander downstairs after donning shoe coverings and making a healthy donation to Allah. Ibn Tulun was built in the 800’s AD as a Sunni mosque but in the style of a Shi’ite mosque from Samarra, Iraq. It looks different than any mosque we’ve seen. It’s got a huge central a square courtyard with a covered hall on each side, resembling ancient Greek or Roman architecture with rows of columns. It’s the first use of the pointed arch known, predating the European gothic arch by 200 years. We savor the quiet after the honking and bustle of the streets. From above, in the minaret, the pattern of the square and the repetitive pointed arches are beautiful. I was afraid that the girls would not enjoy the mosques, but they really do, particularly the minarets.

Lily and David atop a minaret

We’ve gone longer and harder today than any other day — 7 hours — and we skipped lunch! The family is getting tougher for sure, but we are also showing signs of wear and tear. Patience is a little low, nerves are rattled, and emotions are beginning to show. Work has been stressful too, particularly for Trish. But we have an easy weekend on the Red Sea coming up to recover a little. Cairo’s biggest night is Thursday, the start of their weekend, and the hotel fills with young socialites. Ha ha. We’re off to bed.

[Photos by Trisha Creekmore]

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