The Tale of a Tourist
Egypt is the land of romance. For most tourists, the name alone is like a magic incantation which unlocks a thousand brilliant images. Say it, and you immediately think of mighty pyramids, the unwavering millennial gaze of the Sphinx, the huge royal tombs burrowing deep into the hills in the Valley of the Kings, the endless sands; you think of the Pharaohs - Cheops, Ramses, Tutankhamun; of the great figures like Alexander the Great who conquered the world, and of Cleopatra who conquered the world's hearts; you think of the bustle of the Arab world, the smell of spices and incense, the rough and mysterious babel of tongues, the gawky camels, the shivering palm trees. And through all these images, now in the foreground, now in the background, running like a connecting thread, is the mighty Nile, whose annual inundation of the surrounding fields not only made possible the enduring achievements of Egyptian civilisation, but also, through them, those of Western civilisation too. In a very deep sense, we are all children of the Nile.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Egypt is that all these romantic images are true. Nothing disappoints: the pyramids really are breathtaking, the backstreets really are filled with the fragrance of spices and incense, and there really are camels and palm trees, and stately feluccas gliding down the Nile. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that this world, so different from our own, lies ready and waiting such a short journey away, easily accessible to the western tourist.
We may come with a thousand images of Egypt prepared, but we must still make an enormous leap of imagination to grasp the tremendous reality which lies behind them. Imagine: a civilisation which began recording its history and wonders five thousand years ago; one which reached its astonishing peak three thousand five years ago - nearly twice as long as the entire Christian era - and one whose empire endured for over two and a half thousand years. The more we get to know about this extraordinary people, the more we feel that our own modern achievements pale into insignificance.
That we do know so much about them can be attributed to two facts: that Egyptians invented writing - probably for the first time in the history of mankind - and that their texts were either inscribed on durable stone, or else on papyrus, which survived for thousands of years buried in the sands because of Egypt's extremely dry climate - an archaeologist's dream. As a result, we have the Ancient Egyptians' own words and thoughts almost from the beginning of the country's existence. The religious texts for the passage from this world to the next, the epic poems describing the mighty battles of empire, the tender love lyrics and the fascinating travellers' tales all provide us with an insight into an ancient people unmatched for any comparable civilisation. As we journey through their land, and admire their monuments, we can therefore also hear their voices, almost as if the mummies in the tombs had sat up and acted as our guides.
Egypt began with the Nile, and is today still the Nile, the towns and villages spread along its length like pearls on a string. In pre-historical times, before the first pharaohs, it is likely that the climate of Egypt was less harsh than it is now. As a result, there were countless small villages in the middle of what is now desert, but which then supported flocks and basic cultivation. At some point temperatures rose, the desert began to encroach on the villages, wells dried up and people were forced to move towards the one enduring source of irrigation: the River Nile.
Two things then happened. First, this concentration of people along the fertile banks of the Nile meant that there were soon squabbles over the limited resources available. This led to villages rising up against villages, alliances being forged, battles being fought. Soon the chains of separate tribes were welded into larger units. The second major event was that people learnt how to predict and control the Nile's changes. They understood its regular rising and falling, and were able to husband the riches of the annual inundation of mud washed down with the Nile waters and use them throughout the year. Both of these developments - the consolidation of villages into groups that could defend themselves and their land, and the organisation of irrigation schemes - led to the emergence of something new, a larger collection of people working together in a formalised and controlled way for their greater mutual good. These groupings were the precursors of what we now call a nation.
Just before the time of the first historical records that have come down to us, there were two such consolidated groups in Egypt: that of Lower Egypt, basically the fertile lands of the Nile delta in the north, and that of Upper Egypt, the banks of the Nile upstream of this. Sometime around 3000 BC, a great battle was fought between these two for supremacy over the whole of the Nile. We do not know where it was fought, or by how many men; we are ignorant of the speeches the kings made to their troops, and of the heroes who strode forth on both sides; we do not know how many died in what was probably mankind's greatest battle so far. But we do know one thing: Upper Egypt won.
On that day, when the Land of the Sedge was conquered by and combined with the Land of the Bee, a nation was born, perhaps the first true nation in the history of the world. It is the beginning of the great Romance of Egypt.
Cairo, bloody Cairo. God, I hate it. This is not the Egypt I know and love - not Egypt at all, in fact. A battle at the airport, as usual - taxi touts everywhere, almost rugby-tackling me to the ground. Since there are only six of us this time on the tour - it was touch and go whether Higgs would cancel the whole thing because of the other couple dropping out - thank goodness his mark-up on these 'special' tours is a big one - and pity I don't see much of it in my paltry fee as guide. This time I decided to take two taxis - but official ones - rather than hire a coach as I usually do. At least Janet is useful for this, holding the old biddies' hands. I end up with Stavros or whatever his name is, and the plain Jane. The gods are with us: we seem to have all our luggage.
The ride from the airport past military installations, huge hotels, the statue of Ramses II. Greetings, Ram. Nearer Cairo the place seems to be all roads. And the driving: London always looks bad enough, but this.... Nobody obeys traffic lights, everyone wheels everywhere, as if it's all some mad gleeful game. Near the station, people join in, running amongst the cars, almost daring them to knock them down. The station is new, gleaming in the floodlights. We pass several metro stations, their big red M's jumping out from the Arabic spaghetti. Apart from the inevitable Japanese trademarks, English is little in evidence.
Safe at last, inside the good old Cosmopolitan Hotel. I've had my run-ins with this lot, but it's got a great location at the heart of Cairo, ten minutes' walk from the Egyptian Museum and the Nile - and, more importantly, it has got some atmosphere.
I remember the first time I walked in here. With its gleaming white pseudo-classical architecture - all right, not exactly quintessentially Egyptian - filigree ironwork, its big pot-plants, creaking old lift and quaint-shaped rooms with their dark wardrobes and ancient French telephones, it felt like somewhere. Unlike the Hiltons and Sheratons and whatever which all feel like Hiltonville and Sheratonville - i.e. Nowhereville, a kind of displaced eternal touristland. When I travel somewhere, I like to feel I am there. It's bad enough with planes: you get in this metal tube, sit there for three or four hours, then get out again, and you're supposed to feel as if you're in a different country, different world. But your body has no sense of distance, of achievement. It is as if you are still at home, but watching the world's best travelogue.
After giving everyone time for a wash and brush up, as they say, we go out to dinner. One of the other advantages of the Cosmo is that it is very near to Felfela - still about the best restaurant in the place, good, cheap food, plenty of local colour.
As soon as you enter past whatever that oven thing is out front, the smell of incense hits you, along with the sight of the strangely woody interior, and the companionable hum of people. All the senses pleasantly assaulted. The polished tree trunk sections for tables, the terrapins in their tanks, the cats stalking everywhere like ancient Egyptian spirits come back to haunt their land. A faint middle eastern musical whine in the background. Teams of white wrapped waiters zoom around the place creating quite a draught, while managers in dinner jackets look on benignly. The place is full to bursting with British as well as Frogs, Eyeties, Krauts and other euro-touros, the ubiquitous Japs, plus a few locals. There are three sections, all long and narrow: the first has raised levels - and the terrapins plus baby crocodiles. Next there's the bar, then a larger section. On the ceiling interesting wicker work, plus variously ornate lamps. Wood and stone everywhere.
The nice thing about this place is that in addition to its wonderful fuul, taamia and such-like, they also have boring stuff like steaks and hamburgers, so none of my charges need complain about having to eat all this foreign food. More fool them - or should that be fuul? - if they don't. Especially if they pass up the ambrosial delight of Felfela's famous Om Ali: pastry baked with nuts, raisins and milk. One other reason why I like this place: it's so cheap, which means that I can pocket the difference from the allowance and still keep everyone happy.
After dinner, back to the hotel where everyone else decides to call it a day, Janet too. So I go out to the Nile on my own - which, in all honesty, I rather prefer. One of the problems of travelling with a group - never mind leading one - is that you cannot lose yourself so easily in your surroundings. You always have this bubble - and babble - of people around you.
The streets are full of people taking their evening stroll, admiring and being admired. Amazing mix of people. Some strikingly attractive women in western outfits, small, dark and shapely, with fine eyes. But looking at the middle-aged women, it is clear that something horrible happens in-between: they seem to follow the Mediterranean model, turning fat and overblown in old age. The men vary from blackest Nubians(?) to high-yaller types. Unlike the women, or perhaps in some kind of cosmic compensation - that Egyptian love of Maat, or balance - the men seem to become attenuated, thinning out to nothing, as they get older, a kind of do-it-yourself mummification while you are still alive.
Tahrir Square bustling madly, lit up like Piccadilly Circus. Then along to the Nile. As ever, a lump comes to my throat when I see this river. The Nile. The Nile, the Nile. Amazing. How can we ever really grasp the reality of places that we visit, places like Egypt which are so rich, so freighted with incident, with our imagining of them, with the romances we build around them? Do we ever really see these places as they are, or only through a haze of fantasy, hopes and desires? I almost want to pinch myself, to make myself feel that I am really here, that I am standing by the Nile, the same Nile that carried a hundred pharaohs, that carried a million blocks of stone for the pyramids, along which so much history has passed. But I cannot. All I can see for the moment is a great river - the largest in the world flowing south to north did I read somewhere? - slightly wider than the Thames in the centre of London, the great incongruous slabs of the hotels rearing up along its banks, with a few battered feluccas tied up nearby for tourists, the huge roaring bustle of dusty Cairo all around it and, not so far away, brooding on the horizon, the hidden but enduring majesty of the pyramids. Ah!, soon.
Well, John, it must be a bit funny to see your long-lost words in cold print, as you have just done. It's as if they have come back from the dead to haunt you, like in some 'Revenge of the Mummy' movie. But at least you know how your travel diary disappeared. I took it, and have finally sent it back to you along with this book you are now reading. I'm sorry it has taken so long. You must have given up hope of ever seeing it again.
But you don't yet know what happened to me, how and why I disappeared, and why now I seem to have popped up into your life again, at least in these words. Perhaps you will after you have read this, perhaps you won't. I'm not trying to lead you up the garden path. I don't know myself where I'm going, where these words are taking me. Whether in the end they will provide any sort of explanation, assuming anything like what happened to me can be explained. Of course, you can cheat, and read the last pages as if this were some twopenny 'whodunnit', to find out who did it. But this isn't really a whodunnit, more of a whatdunnit or a whywasitdun. Well, a bit of a whodunnit. Anyway, I hope that you will follow me as I write this.
It seems a bit unfair that you can skip to the end, but I can't. I don't know how this book ends, because I am writing it. In fact, I don't even know how your diary ends. Except of course that there I could cheat, if I wanted to. But I don't. Because what I want to do is to reclaim our time together in Egypt, to go back and tell my side of things, almost to get a second chance to say all the things I wanted to say, but didn't, to have 'two bites at the cherry.' That is why I don't want to know what you have written at the end. It would be unreal, writing about the present with knowledge of the future.
So what I will do is to write about each day as it happens, or rather as you saw it. In a sense, of course, I am not repeating the past doing this, because I never really knew what you were thinking, I only saw what you did, and heard what you said. So in a way this will be the first time I really see what you actually thought during those two weeks. The first time in my life, really, that I actually know the real you.
My first impulse was to answer your comments as they occurred, but I have decided that would be unfair on you. Even more unfair than just printing your words, as I have done. Because I know that you will hate this, because you were always so concerned about getting things right and polished. But in another sense I have been fair, because I have altered nothing except a few names, as you will notice. This is not to 'protect the innocent', it is not that simple, I wish it were. It's just to preserve the privacy of some of those involved. But otherwise I am just 'telling it as it is.' Luckily your handwriting is so neat that I had no difficulty reading everything, except the bits you must have written in taxis. I hope I've got all the foreign words and names right.
There's not much to say about that first day in Egypt. It's strange, you know, but when you're in a group, with someone leading you, you can go into a sort of automatic pilot. You just run along behind, like a dutiful child. The train down to Gatwick, the bustle of the airport, the flight, the taxi-ride from the airport to the hotel, the whole thing of being somewhere else didn't really hit me. I couldn't take it in. It's hard to describe, but you know how sometimes you just sit, and stare, and your stare goes blank and unfocussed so that you can see things and yet you don't really see them?, well, that's how it felt for me.
I do remember the hotel, or rather the feel of it. It felt like a film set. I expected famous actors and actresses to appear at any moment, and start acting out 'Death on the Nile' or something. But it was nice. The receptionist was friendly, though over-worked what with all these tourists turning up and demanding their rooms, and others wanting information and taxis and reservations, and in three or four languages at once too. And our room was nice too. An odd shape, all corners and walls. A good, solid bed, clean but slightly worn linen, and our own balcony looking out over the road.
The meal in that place where we ate all the time was enjoyable, though I was a bit worried about the knock-on effect on my diet - you know how hard I had been making an effort for this holiday. Lots of people rushing around, lots of diners, some of them Egyptians so far as I could tell, which is always a good sign, or so they say. The cats were nice. And the men in dinner jackets standing around like bouncers at a night-club. I was a bit unsure about the food to begin with, I'd heard so much about the 'Pharaoh's Revenge', but it was good, and well worth 'giving it a go.' But what with all this bustle, and the noise, and the long journey, and having to get up so early, and being delayed at Gatwick, well, all in all, it was a pretty hectic day for me, even if you were used to such things. So I decided to get some shut-eye leaving you free to take a constitutional.
While you were out, something very odd happened. I had just finished brushing my teeth, which I found quite awkward using the bottle of mineral water rather than the tap-water, as you told me to do, when I heard something. I stepped back into the bedroom, trying not to leave wet footprints on the carpet because the shower water had not drained away very well, and I heard this sound again. It was a voice, and it said "Help!" But it was a very muffled cry, as if a long way off, or perhaps smothered. I stood very still by the bed. "Help!" the voice said again, this time behind me. You could have knocked me down with a feather. It seemed to be coming from the wardrobe.
I was really frightened. Typically, I wished that you had been there to sort things out. Pathetic, I know, but I did not have the foggiest idea what to do. Should I open the wardrobe, ring reception, go and get the police? The voice said again "Please, please help me, I know you are there". It was a woman's voice, and it sounded so pained and helpless I just had to do something.
"Who's there? I said.
"Please, I beg of you, help me. I will not harm you. Please let me out of here," the voice said, as piteously as ever. I decided to open the wardrobe, but just in case, I emptied out a vase of dried flowers on the chest of drawers, and hoped I could use it for protection if 'push came to shove.'
Gingerly I opened the wardrobe door. Although the room was quite dark because I only had the bathroom and the bedside lights on, I could see quite clearly inside. I couldn't believe my eyes. Inside was a woman, dressed in a brilliantly gleaming gold dress patterned with blue and green. Her hands and feet were tied with some kind of white bandage. Her eyes were flooded with tears.
I touched her arm, and felt her trembling. "Please," she said ever so softly. I tried to undo the knots which bound her, but they were too stiff.
"Hurry!" she said suddenly.
"I can't undo the knots," I said.
"They are coming, we must hurry. Quick, in the bottom drawer of the chest behind you you will find a small casket. In it is a knife, be careful, it is very sharp. Hurry, I beg of you."
I looked in the drawer, and sure enough, there was a tiny casket, made of gold and covered in beautifully inlaid Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was quite heavy. I opened it up, and inside was a scroll tied up with a ribbon, a piece of amber, a polished black piece of stone, some loose sand, and the knife. The knife had a white bone handle, engraved with more hieroglyphs, and the blade was patterned with strange cross-like shapes.
"Quickly, please, they will find me," the woman said with a pained expression. As I carefully began to cut away at the bandages around her hands, I saw how beautiful and regal she looked. She had straight black hair to the level of her chin. When she moved her head quickly to the side, it swung round like a soft, gleaming helmet. Her eyebrows were thick and black, and there was kohl on her eyelids.
I managed to free her hands and gave her the knife to cut the bandages around her ankles. I was about to ask her what terrible thing had happened that she had been bound in this way, and who was after her, but she said:
"No, there is no time. I am deeply grateful to you for the service you have rendered me. If circumstances were otherwise, I would know how to reward you more fittingly. But now all I can give you are words. Please give me the casket." I did so, and she took the amber, rubbed it over the black stone, then undid the scroll, muttered something to herself and then said:
"Know, then, that there will be one who will come to you, someone mighty, and, yes, dark, who will lead you to another place, where you will be given something, lose something, and be changed. I can say no more. They are here."
Suddenly I heard footsteps in the corridor outside. Someone was at the door. I rose involuntarily, and took a pace towards it. There was a knock. I heard something behind me, turned, and saw the wardrobe had been shut. The woman had vanished.
"Janet!" I heard a voice say outside the door. I froze, confused, unable to understand what was happening. My heart knocked against my ribs. "Look, I'm really sorry, but I forgot to take the key with me." It was you, John. I opened the door for you, staring at you as if you were a stranger. "Janet? Is something wrong? I'm really sorry that I disturbed you, it's just that I forgot to take the key, you see? Has something happened?"
"No, nothing's happened," I said. "Nothing." And we went to bed.
But you probably don't remember any of this.
The Egypt of romance is not to be found in Cairo. As the visiting tourist soon realises, Cairo is a huge, sprawling modern metropolis of endless blocks of flats, dust, cars, noise and energy. However, before fleeing to the Pyramids - standing on the very fringe of Cairo, like majestic ancient sandcastles before an engulfing sea of ugly concrete - or even further afield to the Elysian peace and beauty of Luxor, the tourist should spend at least one day in the capital itself. For Cairo has at its heart a treasure store greater than that amassed by any pharaoh.
That treasure house is the Egyptian Museum. Within its rather unprepossessing walls is contained the greatest collection of Egyptian artefacts in the world. More than 100,000 of them: spending only one minute on each of them, it would still take more than sixty days of non-stop sightseeing to cover the entire holdings. Clearly, then, even the keenest tourist must necessarily be extremely selective.
Fortunately, this crown of Egypt's national treasures does have its jewel which provides, in a microcosm, a cross-section of the rest of the collection: the finds from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Moreover, because of the happy circumstances of their discovery, the condition of these treasures is second to none.
The story of the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb is well-known. Backed by the Earl of Caernarfon, the American archaeologist Howard Carter found, after years of fruitless searches, the missing tomb of the young king Tutankhamun who died when he was only 19. Even more exciting than simply finding the chambers was the fact that the tomb was undisturbed: it had not been opened since the day the mummified pharaoh was sent on his journey to the Land of the Dead three thousand years before. It was as if a time capsule from the height of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation had been discovered. When the tomb was finally fully revealed, it was so crammed with treasures for the king to use in the next life that it took fully ten years to remove everything and catalogue it.
The treasures of Tutankhamun reveal the Egyptian empire at its height; other exhibits elsewhere in the museum show the artistic achievements building up to that climax, and leading away from it. If the tourist has the time - and energy - after admiring the wonders of Tutankhamun on the first floor to see more of the incredible wealth of this museum, there are several other important items which can be easily accommodated on the way out.
Passing down the stairs at the back of the Museum leads into the main atrium. Looking like some fabulous lumber-room of the gods, this displays some of the larger finds. For example there is the imposing double statue of Amenhotep III and his queen, Tiy - surely the quintessence of imperial power and nobility. Just behind it is the famous 'Israel' stela. The stelae were inscribed stones used as official proclamations, or boundaries. They were the equivalent to our noticeboards outside the village hall. 'Hear ye, hear ye' they seem to say. What is remarkable about this unremarkable-looking piece of incised stone is a tiny patch down on the right-hand side. After listing various nations and tribes he had conquered, the pharaoh Amenhotep III mentions another unruly lot he subjugated, a minor group called the Israelites. It is the first mention of them in history - a tiny footnote at the time, and with no hint of their later worldwide influence.
Finally, if at all possible, the visitor should seek out another insignificant-looking piece of black stone, at the centre of the front of the atrium. There can be found a small, thin triangular object, with bas-reliefs on both sides, called the Narmer Palette.
Its survival is something of a miracle, for its shows no less than the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by the first pharaoh of all, King Narmer. We know his name because next to him is the sign for a fish (nar) and a chisel (mer). It is therefore not only a historic depiction of the creation of Egypt as the southerners from the banks of the Nile swept down and conquered the northern dwellers among the lands of the Nile delta, but it also stands as one of the first examples of hieroglyphs, the use of pictures to represent the sounds of words rather than the individual objects they depict. It is hard to think of a relic more charged with significance in the history of mankind.
Finally, on the way out, visitors from England may recognise on the wall opposite the entrance a plaster copy of the famous Rosetta stone. The original is now in the British Museum, and is notable for its threefold inscription: once in the priestly hieroglyphs - 'hieroglyph' means 'sacred writing' - once in a form called Demotic, a kind of workaday derivative, and once in ancient Greek, the language of the latest wave of conquerors when the inscription was carved in 200 BC. By comparing the three versions scholars were able to decipher the mysterious hieroglyphs which had tantalised the world for centuries. Their decoding unlocked the hundreds of thousands of Ancient Egyptian inscriptions which have come down to us, and with them, the tongues of those who wrote them, and who speak to us to this day.
Breakfast - continental, even down to the 'La vache qui rit' cheese. Hot strong coffee. Unfortunately the decor rather spoils things - bright and antiseptic. The waiters seem particularly surly this year, lounging around the bar, almost daring anyone to disturb them by asking for breakfast.
I let my lot sleep in this morning - some very long days coming up ahead. I rose quite early to write up my journal. I forgot to note exactly what I'm doing with these thoughts and reflections. It seemed to me that the time is ripe for me finally to write 'Egyptian Romance' - God knows I've been thinking about it and planning it long enough. I have therefore polished up the background texts I give my charges the night before the next round of sightseeing, and will stick them at the head of each day's notes which by contrast will try to capture something of the intangible feel of the places we visit. Then when I get back I can use these two sources as the basis for this definitive travel book on Egypt - not that it will be just a travel book. Because if I don't write it this year, I feel that I'll never manage it.
Bit worried by Janet last night. I came back after my walk along the Nile and found her in what looked like a state of shock. She took ages to open the door, and then when she did, just stood there. Very odd. I hope she hasn't caught something already. The others seem OK. No complaints about rooms, food, tiredness etc. yet - which is unusual.
To the Cairo Tower by taxis. I find that it is always useful to get a sense of a place by rising above it, so I usually bring people here first. The notice about the tower being entirely built by Egyptians fails to provoke the usual chuckle. At the top the café looks as dingy as ever - everything seems so dusty, so even up here Cairo's combination of sun and dust is murder for contact lens wearers. But there is one compensation: turning away from the great brown-grey sprawl that creeps up the hills to the distant, hazy mosques and minarets, facing west - the most 'Egyptian' direction - you can see them: the first sight of the pyramids. They hover like alien spaceships through the smoggy blur. They are magnificent, even from here - especially from here, perhaps, because they are already so improbable, just their presence so near to this huge conurbation.
On to the Egyptian Museum, our main event of the day. I love this place - despite the hordes of ruthlessly methodical Kraut tourists which always seem to infect its halls. It is such an immense treasure house - you could just look and look and look and still discover more. I suppose in that respect it is a bit like Egypt: there are still thousands - millions perhaps? - of artefacts to be discovered, all patiently sleeping in the sand for some lucky archaeologist to wake them up like fairy princesses. It is strange, we tend to think of such discoveries as coming into existence only when they are unearthed. But, of course, things can only be found if they have first been lost.
I suppose this makes today's sprint through the collection all the more frustrating for me. It is like taking a child through a sweet shop and refusing to buy anything. So, as usual we go straight to the Tut stuff. Not that I don't find this still amazing - I love all the photos showing the original discovery, the unsealing of the tomb, the way the treasures were almost literally stuffed into the tiny rooms allotted to this rather unimportant young pharaoh.
I also can't help thinking about the true story of the discovery. How Carter and Caernarfon ostensibly waited until the Egyptian authorities, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all could come and watch the final unsealing, when in fact Carter had already sneaked in through a small hole and nicked some of the pieces beforehand. Typical. I suppose, when you come to think about it, it's what all foreign archaeologists have done when they carry all their stuff back home, but then somehow it's 'official'. Like all the treasures in the British Museum - most of it war booty, nabbed by the British when they were carving out empires in various parts of the world. Rather funny when you compare the origins of the collections with today's rather stuffy and self-righteous attitude to them as 'national treasures'. Yes? Which nation?
So, here we are, up with the boy-king himself. Rather theatrical introduction, with two black and gold statues either side of the main entrance to 'his' halls. I see his royal cartouche for the first time this trip - greetings Tut! - but not the last. Cartouches always make me think of the Rosetta Stone in the BM - more war booty, pinched from Napoleon's lot after they had looted stuff on their Egyptian campaign. And then someone - who was it? Must look it up sometime - made the inspired guess that the collection of hieroglyphs in the little ovals, the cartouches, were royal names - and looked for some royalty in the parallel Greek text, which was readily comprehensible. And sure enough, who did he find but Cleopatra, and Ptolemy.
How that man must have felt when that inspiration came to him, when with shaking hands he rushed to his manuscripts and with mounting excitement compared the different names and signs and so worked out the letters for each hieroglyph, and then he realised that he had done it, he had cracked open the secret writing of the Pharaohs, that his name would live for ever. Pity there aren't any more discoveries like that waiting to be made by some of us.
Some wonderful scimitars showing ostriches along with the Tutankhamun cartouche. Horrible mummies of babies - foetuses even. A coffin with a lock of hair from the queen's grandmother. Everything - even the knobbly flails - has his cartouche on it, his name, proclaiming 'this is mine'. A model of a granary - with real, three thousand year old grains in it - elsewhere in the museum I remember seeing desiccated figs, raisins etc. I wonder what the past tastes like....
The serried ranks of models of the king - hundreds of them, all with his name on them. They are like amplifiers of the soul, I suppose, helping him to make it through to the next life. That glorious throne, the masterpiece moulding of the king and queen, its gold shining even today with a preternatural brightness - what man made this? Was he pleased with his work? Perhaps it was just a job - no grand notions of the Promethean artist here. Bee and sedge on the sides. A caseful of throwsticks, looking amazingly like boomerangs - which is what they are in most respects. The craftsmanship of the alabaster - especially the lamp. What patience to have carved it, what immense skill. Three thousand years ago - what have we achieved since?
A case with the trumpets. Nothing special to look at, but for me they will always be the instruments that sounded Egypt's clarion call to me. I can still remember watching this archaeology programme on television about Ancient Egypt. I must have been about 11 or 12. There was the usual corny shot of the sun rising behind the dark mass of a pyramid - clichéd but effective. And then - an experience I will never forget - they played these two trumpets - the very same ones found in Tut's tomb, placed there 3000 years ago. I heard the sound of an ancient empire, as if a gramophone record from the period had been found. Dusty, plaintive, infinitely moving. I think I silently swore then to recapture that moment somehow.
Then when I visited the British Museum as a boy and wandered among the deserted Egyptian galleries upstairs - before they were spoilt by modernisation - I felt that call again, as if all the hieroglyphics on the walls were messages for me. I had this sense of recognition. And the more I went there, the more I began to feel that this was what the inside of tombs looked like: an empty room, glass cabinets filled with ancient statues and jewellery, and faded, enigmatic labels, thousands of years old....
So perhaps my return to this amazing land was inevitable, a return to that pivotal moment in my childhood, and a desire to see the real glass cases.... But whether in all my rich experiences here I have ever succeeded in equalling that timeless first encounter is another matter. Perhaps we are only given such moments once; perhaps they only come to the innocent child.
At the end of the hall, round the corner, the stunning effect of seeing the main shrines one after another. Putting one inside another must have been tricky. But now, separated, they stand like huge glorious jewel cases. An interesting effect: looking at the outer tomb, the first tomb can be seen reflected in the glass in just such a way that it appears to be inside it - as it was found. Is this intentional on the part of the authorities, or just the gods looking after their own...? We still have not seen the king himself downstairs, but my groups are worn out, so we'd better get some lunch. Out to the café.
Where I sit now. Food pretty awful, but the café quite an unusual design - up some stairs - and with a nice view out over the gardens in front of the museum. The sun really pouring down now. Glad I'm not in it - it has always struck me as a deep perversity of my genes that I am both (a) very auburn and (b) addicted to Egypt, one of the sunniest and hottest places one could reasonably go to. These two facets of me do not mix: I can never get a decent suntan - I sometimes hope that my freckles will coalesce into something resembling one - passing from white to lobster pink and then peeling very painfully. I clearly have very little Egyptian blood in me.
Reading through my trusty Blue Guide - undoubtedly the most thorough and detailed book about Egypt, but one that could be bettered in terms of catching the mystery and spirit of the place, as I hope that mine will do - I notice some of the marginal scribblings on the pages devoted to the Egyptian Museum. Unfortunately - and inexplicably - until this year I didn't keep a journal as I am now doing - I thought I could remember everything I needed, what with my notes and the guide books. Stupid really - all those wonderful initial experiences, now just fragile memories, being worn away by the years.
Things just don't endure if you don't get them written down - the Egyptians certainly knew that, desperately recording their autobiographies in tombs so that their identities would survive the passage from life to death - after all, what's the point of eternal life if you are no longer you? And the profusion of hieroglyphs everywhere - every surface seems to be covered in them here, a nation afflicted by logorrhoea or the urge to graffiti, or like kids who have discovered how to talk and never stop.
Anyway, some things that I won't be seeing today thanks to my charges but which I need to write up more thoroughly sometime. Going through the rooms. Room 47: the amazing Menkhaure triad - so perfect and yet barely out of the mists of time - about 2700 BC (??). The more you look at the crown, the more ridiculous it looks - why this very odd shape? - But then the idea of putting something on your head to prove you're king is pretty odd in the first place. While the rest of the sculpture is totally modern - by which I mean perfectly crafted, not 'primitive' - the crown is the giveaway: it says 'yes, we have all the skills that you have, but we also know things you will never even suspect, ancient things before words.'
Room 42 - a roomful of seated and standing statues, all 4-5000 years old. The square-bearded Khafre in glorious diorite. Also an amazing picture of the Giza Pyramids, taken from a plane directly overhead, turning them into weird abstract geometrical shapes. Room 7 - a small, insignificant relief of a couple receiving offerings; for no apparent reason, every face has been mutilated. Why? Room 8: scenes of dancing and music - if only we knew what it sounded like - but not even the instruments survive to be played here.
Room 3 - Akhenaten. Weird to be surrounded by his artefacts. His face - long and thin - a serious young man. Clearly a portrait, not a mere idealisation. When he proclaimed his new faith, of the one god, of the ending of old beliefs, he must have been terrifying in his passionate evangelism. A fleshy nose. A small relief of Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti - with faint grid lines on it - for copying?
Room 10: a curious, pondering figure of Ramses II, shielded by a wing of the falcon god Horus, a great lock of his hair to his right. Green schist sculpture of Tiveni?? - as a pregnant hippo. Room 35 - proto-semitic inscriptions: the smell of electricity leaping across cultures, the mystery of writing being passed on, so that a people could write its own history, a history that would one day become the Old Testament....
Thence to the central hall, which we shall go and see in a minute. And there I shall at least revisit what for me is the most beautiful object in the whole museum: the Narmer Palette. If I could steal just one thing....
Of course, even with the Blue Guide as a dependable leader, there are problems. For example, how do you look at the object and read the description in the book? Especially when there are 100,000 objects to look at, and thousands described? It's a nightmare - and one made worse by the fact that I carry not one but three guides: the Blue Guide for its in-depth factual stuff, the Travelaid Guide to Egypt, which is one of the trade's better-kept secrets, offering solid factual information with a nice line in atmosphere - this Michael von Haag is obviously an interesting bloke, and with a deep love of Egypt - and finally I also have the Lonely Planet guide which is rather too superficial and throwaway for my liking as far as the sites and history are concerned, but which is brilliant for its practical information - restaurants, cafes, hotels, travel etc. A nicely balanced trinity, but murder to carry around, and even worse trying to use them all at once.
Actually, it's interesting to note who brings which guides. I suppose it's like anything you have - clothes, cars, houses, partners - what you choose says something about who you are. Over the years of leading groups here I've developed my own classifications. Thus you have the famous Baedeker's - there are now two varieties of this. The old version in its characteristic red binding: this tends to be used by self-conscious traditionalists - probably wearing half-moon glasses and waistcoats - after all, what's the point of using a guide that's fifty years out of date? There is also the new, updated version - which tellingly is a joint venture with the AA of all people. This is your Volvo kind of guidebook, solidly middle class, very safe, rather boring.
Then of course there are the Fodor guides. Although these are American mainstream, I have a bit of a soft spot for them - perhaps because of the founder's cosmopolitan background, or - perhaps because of a good editor somewhere - they seem to have a bit of spirit, a bit of humour, and they're quite well-written for the most part. Fodor users therefore may have a bit of spark in them, provided they are not rich Americans who take the guide book too seriously. Anything else is just a bit odd, and suggests that the person who bought them either didn't take the job of buying a guide seriously - and it is a serious matter because it will help shape your view of the place - or that they took pot-luck, and neither is very satisfactory.
For the record, the elderly couple have the AA-Baedeker, the Greek - what's his name? Alexander - has Fodor - which is interesting, perhaps there is hope there - and Plain Jane - I think she's actually a doctor, which could be useful - has a Blue Guide - which is really annoying: I hate it when people start arguing facts with me. A Blue Guide is like a precision weapon, and should only be placed in the hands of experts. Perhaps she's some kind of Blue Stocking - perhaps she's not even a real doctor, but some snotty PhD. God, no.
So, back to duty. We go straight through the main atrium and up the stairs to finish off Tut by visiting the treasury at the back of the museum. A queue, as usual. But it is worth it. The gold mask of Tutankhamun - well, words fail me. It is so stunningly beautiful - almost too beautiful to believe. In fact, at times it looks like some perfect robotic head from some hideously advanced civilisation on a different planet. Perhaps that is what the Egyptians were: at times it seems hard to believe that they achieved so much so long ago. The women in my party naturally drool over the jewels and brooches and ornaments here. And they are truly fine. And the inner coffin: solid gold, weighing 100 kg; I drool over that. What the grave-robbers missed this time, the gods be praised.
You could stay in that room forever, trapped by beauty like a fly on a spider's web. A happy death. But we are tourists, we have our duty to do. Down to the atrium once more, standing behind the massive double colossus of King Amenhotep and Queen Tiy, with three of their daughters, like pygmies huddling around the knees of giants. We stop to look at the Israel stela, one of history's better jokes. A great long boring proclamation about how wonderful the pharaoh Amenhotep III was, how he had crushed sundry rebellious tribes, one of them being this Israelite lot - pretty insignificant at the time. But who knows how things will pan out? How the mighty fall, and how the mammals move in to replace dinosaurs. It is noticeable on the stela how a certain spot has been rubbed - countless guides pointing out the word for Israelite - at least, so I guess. Of course, if somebody got it wrong to begin with, we could all be gawping at a word meaning foot-soldier or something. But it is curious this urge to be in touch - as literally as possible - with history, to enjoy that frisson of hindsight, of knowing something that the original writer could never have known. Playing God I suppose.
Through the atrium to my favourite, the Narmer Palette. So small, so fragile - thin stone - a miracle of survival. And a masterpiece: the image of the king wearing the so-called White Crown of Upper Egypt smiting one of the sedge-dwellers, the northerners in the Nile delta - shown by the clump of papyrus. The king's attendant behind him with his sandals. On the other side, the king now wearing the Red Crown of his newly-acquired Lower Nile kingdom - a crown that would be combined with the White Crown to give the characteristic and deeply implausible-looking double crown of Egypt worn by all Pharaohs henceforth - inspects with his retinue - including his sandal-bearer - the dead bodies from the war. At the bottom, below two fantastically lion-like beasts with long intertwined necks - creating a circular grinding depression, probably used for some sacred ritual - the king is depicted as a bull smashing into a fortified city, and trampling on another enemy. Magnificent stuff, magnificently done. To think that however stylised, this represents something that happened, something moreover that changed the course of history. Something that was done by a man, Narmer, whose name and achievement of that day have come down to us to speak as directly as this. I could stay here for hours, but my own retinue is getting restless.
Along to Groppi's by taxi. Personally I would have walked, but it's not my money, and people are beginning to look a bit frayed. I don't know why I bother bringing them here, other than the fact that it's one of the 'sights' of Cairo, and the fact that much of tourism is actually about eating - I've noticed that every museum or monument leads inevitably to a café or a restaurant. I suppose that and the hotels are what drive the tourism industry - which is hardly trivial these days. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that it is now Britain's biggest single industry bar none. So that is what we've come to: something for the newly rich nations to gawp at, just as we did when we were powerful, and the world's top tourists - they always seem to go together.
But this business about 'doing the sights' - the phrase itself suggests that we're vaguely unhappy with it. So why have we come here, to the world-famous Groppi's? Now it is world-famous simply because of all the tourists who come here, which means that it's in all the guide books, which means that all the tourists come.... It's certainly not for the food or the atmosphere. I have in front of me a cake which looks as if someone has gobbed all over it. There is a terrible draught and it's disgustingly smoky here. I also had a run-in with the waiter when we dared to move tables - trying to get away from an even bigger draught by the door. The waiter affects not to know what I want and threatens to bring me more cake. Roll on this evening.
Which it now is, by one of these convenient compressions travel journals offer - they let you miss out all the boring bits of your trip, and concentrate on the interesting ones. That's something I've never really understood about diaries: what do you write about if you're not doing anything interesting? - and let's face it, most of don't, most of the time. That's what holidays are for: they are the interesting bits we save up for and look forward to, to keep us going during the rest of our grey existence. That's why we have to believe in all the lies advertising feeds us about hols: that we will undergo unique experiences, see amazing sights, meet interesting people. In fact all we mostly do is to see people like ourselves doing what we're doing, but with a different backdrop. No, that's not fair, or I wouldn't be here. Egypt is different - it's still not too touristy, or rather where there are tourists it is still quite easy to get away from them.
So, after Groppi's - and another argument with the waiter over the bill - back to the hotel, which is only a short walk away. I leave Janet and the others to have a shower or sleep or whatever before dinner - Felfela's again, boring but good and gastronomically safe - and decide to have a quick peek in the bookshop just across the way from Groppi's. No intention to buy of course, just looking. Quite small, but a good selection of books on Egypt.
I am very weak, and I buy Gardiner's great and definitive Egyptian Grammar. It was very cheap - only about £11, seems to be some low-cost reprint. The trouble is the weight - it's a real tome. I expect Janet will nag me about wasting money on it. But I couldn't resist possessing it - hitherto I've always borrowed a copy from the library - special request, of course. But owning something is different. I feel that I am halfway there to understanding hieroglyphs already - before I have even begun learning them, just by virtue of letting my fingers caress the pages, hugging this book to myself. Silly, isn't it?
Silly, perhaps, but rather touching too. And I didn't nag you about the book, did I? I don't know where you get this idea that I resented you spending money on yourself: on the contrary it was always you who was so obsessed with money and saving. I've offered many times to go back to work, but you've always taken it as some grave insult: you and your male pride, I suppose. And as for saving, well, since we agreed that it was too soon to think of a family, I don't see why we couldn't have spent some of it on ourselves occasionally. Except, of course, for your eternal book. But I won't say anymore of that for now. I want to describe the things that happened to me that day.
I awoke feeling rather strange. Perhaps it was the travel, something I ate, perhaps what that woman had said. Anyway, you didn't comment, though I am pleased to find now that you did at least notice something had happened the night before.
I am afraid I can't share your enthusiasm for the Egyptian Museum. It was big and dark inside, and it seemed obsessed with death. The idea of having dead people, dead babies, in cases for us to 'gawp at' as you put it, is horrible. And yes, many of the items from Tutankhamun's tombs were beautiful, and the story of its discovery is certainly extraordinary, but I liked your extra piece of information about Carter's theft. I suppose that's what I feel about all archaeologists, not that I've ever met any, so it's a bit unfair. But it seems to me that they have this unhealthy obsession with the past, with digging around in graves, finding bodies. I don't know, perhaps I'm being ridiculous. But I found the museum oppressive and depressing. It was also so big, that I found everything swimming before my eyes and mind: you can have too much of a good thing, you know.
Anyway, it was a relief to sit down in the café, to sit and watch the people milling around outside. Not doing anything in particular, just being themselves, doing ordinary things. I think that you are being rather hard on tourists. After all, you were leading a group of them, and I seem to recall that your book is designed for tourists. Or are your readers going to be different? But surely that's the problem with being a tourist: you can't be different, just being a tourist of whatever kind puts this barrier between you and what you come to visit. And just being there, being a tourist is bound to change what you're looking at, if only because the people who live there will act differently simply because you are there. The only way to really see a place is to be a part of it, in which case it is home, not somewhere you travel to for that extra bit of exotic excitement. So perhaps the secret is finding whatever it is you are looking for at home? Anyway, that was why I decided to stay in the café rather than follow you around again. I'd seen enough of death and mummies for one day.
I don't know how long I'd been sitting there, not thinking about anything in particular, just letting my mind relax, staring out at the lovely gardens below, watching all the people come and go, the young people with their backpacks sitting by the fountains, when I became aware of someone standing beside me. I looked up and saw him: tall, dark, strikingly handsome, mid-thirties, immaculately dressed in a light blazer, white shirt and striped tie, the creases of his cream-coloured trousers crisp, his shoes perfectly polished.
"Forgive me for intruding on your reverie, madam, but would you mind possibly if I sat here?" He gestured at the vacant seat at my table with his free hand. In the other he held a folded newspaper.
"N-no, of, uh, course not," I said, but with an action that was born almost reflexively of my Englishness, my eyes quickly scanned the room to check that there were indeed no seats elsewhere. I tried to cover my gaucheness with a simpering smile. 'God! he must think I'm a typical stupid tourist' I thought to myself with annoyance. But he simply bowed very slightly, with a tilt of the head, gracefully turning both movements into a prelude to the act of sitting down. He put the newspaper on to the table in front of him.
"How are you enjoying our country and its relics?" he asked with a naturalness that comes from perfect manners and perfect self-assurance, neither inquisitive nor perfunctory.
"I'm afraid that I've seen so little of it yet. We, the group I came with, that is, only arrived last night."
"Yes, the Egyptian Museum is a good place to start", he said, almost as if answering a question he himself had posed. "Today our great country is sadly reduced; it is a salutary experience to enter this memorial to our glorious past. And yet that past is not wholly dead, and there will come a day....", he concluded, narrowing his eyes as he looked out through the windows into the distance, again as if speaking to himself.
This time it was me who broke the silence between us:
"You speak such perfect English."
"You are too kind. I am only too conscious that I am rather out of practice, particularly as regards the more modern idioms. They do change so fast, I find."
"Did you learn here, or....?"
"No, in England actually."
"Oh, really?" I said, continuing to curse myself for the inane answers I was making. Why couldn't I say something witty? And why did I want to so much...?
"Yes. As a matter of fact, I went to school in England."
"Whereabouts?" He turned and looked at me. He could see that I was genuinely interested, and, satisfied apparently, sat back in his chair. He was in profile to me as he gazed out to the gardens, his hands joined together lightly at the fingertips, tapping them slightly, and lifting them occasionally to touch his lips.
"I went to Eton and then to Oxford," he said simply.
"I see. You seem to have learnt a fine English reticence along with your excellent English accent. And that's not a criticism."
For the first time, he smiled at my words.
"Indeed, from an English lady, it is perhaps even a compliment?"
"Perhaps it is," I said, smiling back. "Why did you study in England, I mean, were there particular reasons?" I felt that I was floundering again, crossing some unspoken boundary.
"My father," he hesitated slightly, choosing his words carefully, "was a traditionalist, but he was also far-sighted. He knew that the future lay not with our language, nor with theirs, but with English. He wanted me to become fluent in it, to be able to deal with those who wielded the power in the world today, for they invariably speak English, if not as a mother tongue. I went to Oxford, but I'm sorry, I must be boring you."
"No, please," I said, "I'm interested." And I was. But I also felt obscurely guilty. "Please go on, Mr...?"
"Call me Omar, please. In this one respect I fear I must ask your forbearance if I do not follow proper English form."
"Certainly, Omar. And please call me Janet."
"Janet, yes..." he said in rather curious manner, as if I had simply confirmed something he suspected or even knew. "I went to Oxford, then, to study at the school of the great Professor Gardiner, the world's greatest authority on the ancient language."
"So you can read all the hieroglyphics?"
"No, no, far from it. Only a small part of them, alas. Unfortunately much remains to be done in understanding some of the deeper texts that have come down to us."
"Is this what you do then, Omar, for a living, a teacher, professor, I mean?"
"I hope that I both teach and profess. But, forgive me, I am playing with words. No, this is purely a hobby now. Mostly I am a rather boring businessman."
"What sort of business? Or am I intruding?" I asked.
"No, Janet, please do not even think that. No, but it is hard to describe. I buy and sell many things, sometimes selling before I have bought. I suppose it is simplest to say that ultimately the commodity in which I traffic is power, as all men do." He smiled slightly at the thought.
"That sounds rather sinister, " I said, meaning it as a joke. But a shadow passed across his face.
"Sinister? Please, do not say such things."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean...."
"No, forgive me, dear Janet, that was a stupid thing for me to say. Of course not, of course. But in this country, words have a weight to them, and the floors will catch them...."
There was a slight pause as we both seemed to think over some of things that had been said. Again, it was me who spoke first.
"Talking of words, what exactly did you mean when you said 'the future lay not with our language, nor with theirs?'? Have I misunderstood something?"
"Ah, no, Janet, so you have understood well. No, I will tell you because, frankly, I trust you. As a businessman I often have to judge people on little, to decide on a moment whether I will work with or against them. And I can tell you, in all honesty, that I have no hesitation in trusting you, no hesitation at all." And yet he did hesitate then, but only to turn to me one of his powerful, magnetic smiles that I would come to know so well.
"Well, then, it is true, I have said 'our language' and 'their language.' You must know that although an Egyptian to the blood and bone, I am not, and never will be, an Arab. No, I," he paused again slightly, to emphasise the point, "I am a Copt."
"I am afraid that like many Britons, my knowledge of geography or whatever, is not very good."
"No, Janet, you are right, I am wrong. But it is good that few know the Copts now, at least. Well then, the name 'copt' is nothing less than the word 'Egypt' itself, worn down through the centuries as various barbarian tongues have mangled and murdered it. The Copts are the original, pure historical Egyptians. Our tongue, Coptic, is nothing less than the latest offshoot of the mighty stem of Ancient Egyptian." He stopped, his face shining with a quiet, fierce pride in his people.
"You mean that your language, Coptic, is a descendant from something spoken, what, five thousand years ago?"
"Well, Janet, if I were playing the pedant, I would point out that all languages must be derived from something spoken five thousand years ago, otherwise they would not have evolved. But yes, you are of course absolutely right: Coptic is the lineal and direct descendant, as a king today is the descendant from his ancient forebears who give him the power and right to wield it. Coptic has the longest continuous history, written history, known and transmitted history, of any language in the world."
"Do people still speak it, then?"
"Coptic is the living tongue of the Coptic church, a branch of your own Christian church, which helped keep alive the Coptic tongue when the Arabs stormed across the sands and invaded our lands. Even today, you can go to Coptic churches, here in Cairo, or out in the wadis, and hear our tongue publicly proclaimed, though with a slightly strange accent, I must say."
"Omar, you speak as if there were others of you who speak this language, as well as the priests."
"Yes, you have heard my words. And I would not say these things to many. But there are isolated villages, deep within the heart of Mother Egypt, where no tongue but Coptic is spoken, a Coptic spoken with a pure and clear accent that is a joy to hear. And moreover, there are those of us, some quite powerful, I do not say myself, who have remained true to our glorious ancestors, here in Cairo, no villagers us. We have not submitted to this alien culture, with their alien tongue and their alien god."
"So you're a Christian then, a follower of the Coptic Church?"
Omar smiled again.
"Not exactly, my Janet. You must understand that in this country it is wise to seem sometimes what you are not. I do not follow the official Coptic rites, but neither do I believe in Mohammed's god - except when it is expedient to do so. But I am shocking you with all this apparent cynical dissimulation. Janet, do not judge me too harshly. I have begun to reveal things to you which I hope will soon fall into place. Please trust me as I trust you."
"I do, Omar, I do." But why? "Yet I am confused, because you speak as if we were certain to meet again, and as if you have more to tell me."
"Oh yes, my Janet, we will assuredly meet again, and very soon. And I do indeed have much to tell you, much that is vitally important, and that will change your life, and the lives of millions." I was about to question him further when his face changed, and reached over for his newspaper. "But look, here comes your party. I can say no more. But rest assured, we will meet again. May the gods walk with you."
And with that he abruptly unfolded his newspaper and engrossed himself in its Arabic curlicues. At almost the same moment, I saw you and the others returning from your second tour of the museum. As you approached I noticed Omar had now risen and was walking towards you, then past you down the stairs. As he reached the stairs he seemed to turn and smile at me for a moment, before passing on down to the gardens outside.
"Who was that?" you asked.
"Who?" I asked in return.
"The man at your table?"
"Oh, just somebody who was sitting there." True, but hardly totally true. I hardly dare guess how you are taking this news now. Then, it would simply have been impossible. Fortunately you lost interest in pursuing the matter further, and we all trooped off to that café you had been talking about.
I must confess that when I got there, I looked around, half expecting to see Omar. Once I had confirmed that he was not, I withdrew into myself again. You were arguing with the waiter about something, I vaguely recall. The rest of our group were reading your notes and their guidebooks, busily mugging up on our trip the next day. Almost despite myself, I found myself thinking about the things Omar had said, the things he had implied. And I realised how he had started calling me 'his' Janet, and even his 'dear' Janet. Perhaps I was just naive, and he was just trying to pick up a lonely western female. I had heard stories about that sort of thing, but never imagined it would happen to me. After all, I had a wedding ring on. And yet it seemed a very odd way to go about it. I looked forward to our trip to the pyramids the next day with extra interest: would anything happen, I wondered?
For most tourists, pyramids mean Giza, the spot on the outskirts of Cairo where timeless desert meets restless modern city. But though the greatest, the Giza pyramids were not the first. That honour belongs to Saqqarah, some 10 miles south of the city on the West bank of the Nile. To understand more fully the achievement of those later wonders, and to enjoy experiences unique to the place, a visit to Saqqarah is indispensable. For at Saqqarah is laid out for those who have eyes to see the extraordinary story of the pyramids, their birth and their ramifications.
Around the time of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by King Narmer the use of stone for building was restricted to the characteristic low, flat-topped tombs now known as mastabas - so named from the Arabic word for the benches which they resemble. Some three hundred years later, about 2700 BC, something miraculous happened. While the funerary mastaba for the pharaoh Zozer was being built, someone had an inspired idea: to stack smaller such mastabas on top of the first, to produce a pyramid-like shape, albeit in steps, six of them. We will never know what prompted this leap of imagination, but it seems highly probable that we do know the name of the man who one day came up with this innovative masterstroke.
He was Imhotep, Zozer's Grand Vizier, High Priest, Chief Judge, Architect and Supervisor of Building Works - perhaps the first Renaissance man in history. Later generations were certainly impressed, and he was soon revered as a god. What is important for us is that he is one of the first people other than a king or a queen to emerge from the past's obscurity with not only a name, but also an achievement and a life. More so perhaps than the king he served, he has through his works attained immortality.
Once the conceptual breakthrough of the pyramid form had been made, others soon followed. But as might be expected in this land of the extraordinary, some unusual events punctuated this progress. The next pyramid to be built was at Meidum, some 50 miles south of Cairo. It too was a stepped pyramid to begin with, though a true pyramidal casing was later added. Today it is just a heap of rubble, for mistakes were made in the design - clearly no Imhotep was to hand - and at some point during the building the mis-directed weight of thousands of tons of rock proved too much, and the whole thing collapsed, leaving only the core we see today.
This in itself might only be of passing interest, were it not for the fact that its occurrence allows us to make an astonishing deduction about the way pyramids must have been built. Another pyramid begun around the same time about 10 miles south of Saqqarah is known as the Bent Pyramid, because it is just that: two-thirds of the way up the angle of the four faces changes dramatically to a less steep one. The explanation seems to be that this was the point attained when the disaster at Meidum occurred. As a result, the builders lost confidence in their plans, and flattened out the pyramid design for safety's sake.
If this interpretation is true - and it seems very likely - then it is clear that more than one pyramid was worked on at once. Indeed, this is in accord with other facts which suggest that the pharaoh concerned - king Sneferu - was responsible for other pyramids too. But if a pyramid was intended as a final resting place for the king, and for him alone, why did he need more than one?
The answer seems to have to do with the logistics of building such colossal structures. The organisation involved in constructing pyramids - still the largest such projects in history, unsurpassed even in our own day - was immense and without precedent. As well as full-time teams of thousands of skilled specialists such as quarriers, stone-masons, surveyors and so on, there would probably have been seasonal forces of tens of thousands of men, perhaps even a hundred thousand men, who would have carried out the mind-boggling task of moving hundreds of thousands of blocks of stone without the aid of wheels or pulleys, using huge earth ramps which first had to be built. The task of housing and feeding such numbers required an organisational skill never before seen - because never before needed.
Having set this immense machine in motion, King Sneferu seems to have taken the eminently sensible decision to use these unparalleled forces to work on more than pyramid at once, each specialist group moving on as each successive stage was completed. After all, later pharaohs would require just such tombs; when and by whom they were built was unimportant.
Whether Sneferu or his advisers thought exactly along these lines is an interesting question, but the alternative is even more intriguing. It could be that having set up the organisation to build his own pyramid, he or his advisers realised that the focus of that single task had created something unique, and uniquely important. It had created a powerful apparatus for getting things done, with the workforce drawn from the whole kingdom of Egypt, Upper and Lower. It demonstrably unified the country in a common goal. Moreover, to work, the new forms of that apparatus called for a hierarchy of overseers - with the pharaoh at the very top of what turned out aptly enough to be an organisational pyramid. In other words, the invention of the pyramids not only brought about a revolution in building technology, it also changed fundamentally the society which built them. With the pyramids, the Egyptians invented large-scale architecture and, more importantly, the concept of the organised state.
Whatever the explanation for Sneferu's actions, the outcome was the same: the construction of the pyramids became the main catalyst in the creation of the unified Egyptian nation led by the pharaoh in a dual capacity as both god and as head of the associated apparatus of state. That this power became independent of the pyramids is shown by the fact that the building phase ended almost as abruptly as it began, a mere 350 years later.
The site of Saqqarah is therefore of unique importance in understanding the rise of the Egyptian Empire. It also offers the tourist many other treasures. As well as Zozer's stepped pyramid, there is the Pyramid of Unas - one of the last built during this golden age - which contains on its interior walls the first mortuary texts dealing with the passage of the soul from this world to the next. Also of note are the fine mastabas of officials nearby, dating from the same era, and the extraordinary underground Serapeum from the Ptolemaic period, late in construction but with ancient and sometimes disturbing roots in pre-history.
A list of links to all my non-tech writings: Essays Glanglish Travel writings Moody's Black Notebook Travels Walks with Lorenzetti A Par...