Thursday 1 October 2020

Chapter 4 - Giza, Tuesday 21 February, 1990

As I write, I sit at the heart of Khufu's pyramid.  What an experience.  Tens of thousands of tons of stone above me.  The huge slabs are so perfectly dressed - not even the tiniest gap in the smooth black granite.  No hieroglyphs anywhere, a very noble, austere place.  As we sit and stand in here, we are very trusting of the ancient engineers - I wouldn't trust anything of our time after 400 years, let alone 4,000.

A crazy passage here: very long, narrow and steep - quite claustrophobic if you think about it too much.  And getting out is going to be a problem with the hordes now pouring in - there's only room for one to pass at a time.  In many ways the sloping gallery - after the narrow passage - is the most impressive part, because you get a better idea of the scale of the achievement.  It is very high, quite narrow, and on each side you can see the diagonally placed slabs of stone, like a cross-section of the pyramid.  Turning back, you look down a 100-foot slope of 45 degrees, down into the narrow passage which suddenly looks very long - it is - and very steep - which it also is.  You feel crazy to be doing this.  You want to be outside - now; but can't.

We arose early, trying to get here before the crowds did.  Which we managed, arriving here about 8 am, to find it deserted, a glorious clear blue sky overhead.  The pyramids cast huge, dark, cold shadows across the ground.  Magic to walk out of them, the sun, the great god Re, suddenly peeking over the jagged edge of the pyramid.  As always, my dumb heart leaps unfailingly at this meeting of the old memory.

There is a light mist over Cairo, which seems a million miles away.  Wonderful approach to the pyramids - through dull, dull, dull streets, past blocks of flats, dusty shops, and then suddenly these great textured mounds ahead of you, appearing from nowhere as if they have just sprung from the earth.  Close up they seem such an affirmation, an aspiration.  The pyramidal form is simply perfect, in aesthetic terms: it offers both enormous height, plus a simultaneous sense of massiveness - perhaps a new word like 'massivity' is needed for such a unique experience - that no other shape can.

My party seemed genuinely impressed - partly by the numbers involved, the scale of the undertaking , the vision, the dedication - and partly just by the sheer physical impact of it all.  Janet very moved, which is good.  Unfortunately, the inevitable reaction when confronted by something this glorious seems to be to get out the camera and snap it.  But this is crazy: of all things, surely the pyramids are the least able to be captured on a piece of film?  Close up and the camera fails to seize  anything of the majesty - you just get old rocks; sufficiently far away and they look like big sandcastles.  You simply have to be there.

But what is this urge to take pictures?  It can't be to remind yourself how things looked - professional pictures are far better for that if you need such crutches for the memory - though I'd be inclined to say that if you don't remember something without such help then it was hardly worth seeing it.  But the invariable preamble before showing holiday snaps is 'Of course, this doesn't really show what it looked like' - so why bother?  I fear that the main reason people take photos - especially of themselves - is to prove that they were there.  'Look!' these pictures seem to say, 'we were there, here is proof - we did something once!'  On the other hand, I can see why you might want to take photos of those dear to you, as memorials to what was, on that day, that moment you caught them with that smile, in the funny hat, sitting on a camel.  I sometimes wish that my parents had taken more photographs before they died, before I had had time, been old enough, to take all the photographs I wanted, to be able to keep, to remember.

A miracle - we have the chamber to ourselves.  As the other groups descend, the place booms menacingly.  I remember the first time I came here, I literally had it to myself.  Once the noise of the others had died away, it was utterly silent.  I suddenly felt very alone, oppressed by the weight of masonry, even more by the weight of history, of being so insignificant compared to all this, this which had endured and will endure.  My head began to swim - perhaps partly through lack of oxygen - it was very warm in here, the stored body heat of thousands I suppose.  I felt, well, very frightened.  I can't really explain it.  It was as if I had been abandoned at the heart of the biggest tomb in history.  I felt like a lonely 'ka', lost without my body, wanting to go on living, but trapped here for eternity.  I was getting more and more scared, until I had literally to flee from the chamber.

So for once I'm quite glad to have my tour with me.  Actually, I feel the same way about the Egyptian Museum.  Towards the end of the day, just before closing, when the tinny electric bell rings away like some cheapskate last trump, the halls are almost empty.  Then it is just you - and 100,000 ancient artefacts.  There too I start to feel obscurely frightened.  I don't really believe in ghosts and all that sort of stuff - I think - but in the museum it is not hard to imagine thousands of mummies rising up at night, joining in primitive dances and rituals, to picture  Anubis, the jackal-headed god, Thoth, the ibis-headed god, and Sekhmet, the goddess with head of a lioness, all coming forth to reclaim their own.  Ugh.

Outside now in the fresh air, resting after our exertions.  I didn't take them down to the bottom chamber - it's a hell of a long way, and I fear that a couple of my party might not have made it - and I certainly couldn't carry them.  I can still remember the feel of the deep, hot pain in my legs from the last time I staggered down there.  It was like some fiendish torture, step after trembling step on the wooden slats running across the floor of the passage.  The view was amazing, like something out of an adventure film, just down, down, down into the bowels of the earth, lit by a bulb every so often.  Whenever I'm inside the pyramids, I keeping thinking about what happens if the lights go out - which they did once when I was there.  Luckily I was near to one of the entrances - the original upper one - through which light streamed, thank God.  But in the distance I could hear the startled screams and cries of those who were making the long ascent to the main tomb, frightening enough for many at the best of times, but now in the pitch-dark, with the prospect of being trapped in there....

But it's worth going all the way down to the bottom chamber - if you can put up with the smell of ammonia.  Down there - some considerable way into the rock base of the pyramid - it all feels much more primitive than all the efficiently engineering above.  Everything is so much more exposed, the raw sense of rock.

I am sitting now waiting for everyone to finish their bloody camel rides.  Quite why they do it, I don't know - five minutes on some flea-bitten old thing.  And then they'll want me to take some photos of them.  It's rather ironic that it's always me, the person without a camera, who ends up taking the most pictures for everyone else.  When I was telling them about the passages within Khafre's tomb, there was no desperate clamour to rush over and explore them.  In fact, everyone's pegs are noticeably weak and wobbly.  

Yes, they all wanted pictures.  

Inside the solar boat museum.  I can't quite make up my mind about this place.  From the outside it's a real blot on the landscape - horrible concrete, like some big melon or great blister on the side of the Great Pyramid.  But the boat itself is so magnificent, and so, well, actual, that it seems churlish to moan.  Shuffling along in the curious over-slippers they make you wear inside - when they also take away everyone's cameras - hooray! -  you can really see this majestic 100 foot long craft soaring down the Nile.  Imagine a flotilla of them.

The ancient Egyptians' idea of the sun god sailing his boat across the sky by day, and then descending by night beneath the earth in the west, sailing his other boat there underground and re-appearing in the east again is rather beautiful, I find.  A great but ineffably peaceful god - not a jealous one who judged and damned.  And this boat would have been worthy of Re.

At the cafe by the son et lumière.  We gave Menkaure's pyramid a miss because the rest of them are tiring in the sun.  A pity, because despite its much smaller size it is rather atmospheric with its well-preserved mortuary temple ruins.  Also you see the desert stretching away before you - down to Saqqarah.  We'll do Khafre's temple and the Sphinx after lunch.  A stunning view here, of course, the temple, the half-obscured Sphinx - covered in scaffolding - the shimmering sight of the pyramids in the distance.  An interesting optical effect: the surface of the pyramids looks textured, almost like a cloth.  

One thing that strikes me now, watching all the tourists milling around - and has struck me every time I've been to Egypt - is how many old people come here to see the sights, far more than I've ever seen elsewhere - not that I've been to that many other places, but the impression I get is that Venice or Athens or Barcelona are not filled with wrinklies in this way.  Why here?  It can't just be the climate, because the problems caused by  heat and sun and unfamiliar diet - the Pharaoh's Revenge - would surely outweigh the benefits.  Perhaps they just 'do' everywhere else when they're younger, and finally end up here.

But I can't help feeling that it's deeper than that, that it's intimately bound up with the ancient Egyptians' preoccupation with passing on to the next world, the mummies and the tombs and all that.  As I said in my notes, although we have an unfairly biased view of their interests - it's mostly tombs and graves that have survived and been excavated, few towns etc. - the Egyptians do seem to have been very concerned about survival, about passing through death.  Perhaps this is just a reflection of the sophistication of their civilisation: once you've sorted out all the boring stuff like where your food and clothes are going to come from, and once you have supreme rulers, generals, nobles and priests with time on their hands - and minds - you start thinking about the 'bigger' questions like 'what does it all mean?', 'what's the point of all this effort?', 'what happens after death?', 'will any part of me live on - either here on earth, or somewhere else?'.

In some ways they seem to have thought longer and harder about death than we do.  With all our wonderful technology and achievements we try not to worry too much about such things.  If you are old I suppose this is understandable: you don't want to waste valuable moments worrying and fretting.  And for those of us who are younger, well, we just regard death as something that happens to other people.  Which is ridiculous of course.  If I think about death, which I do sometimes, especially here, it's when I think about my parents, and how little I knew them, and how little they knew me.  I wonder whether we'll ever meet again, 'somewhere', where we can get to know each other properly, to say all the things we never had a chance to, or to unsay some of them we shouldn't have said.  I suppose that this is the extent of my religion, my belief in God, this hope that there is something more.  Yet again I feel inadequate compared to the ancient Egyptians and all their thought-out systems and answers.  Perhaps all their Res and Atums and Amuns, their charms and spells, are not so ridiculous after all.

Come to think of it, it was just near here that I came very near to killing myself.  God, what stupidity.  It was the first time that I'd come to Egypt.  I wanted excitement, I suppose - though it's not normally something I go out of my way to get - and it's certainly not something I'd go out hunting for today, but perhaps I'm getting old, perhaps turning 30 really is the beginning of the end....

Say it was something about the situation: the mighty pyramids, the great banks of clouds wheeling over them, the god Re punching holes in the sky and pouring forth his pyramids of light over the sands.  Well, anyway, I found myself irresistibly drawn to hiring one of the horses that were on offer between the pyramids.  Definitely not a camel: I could see that these were ridiculous animals, and that only tourists rode them here.  But the horses....  There seemed something true and noble about these fiery Arab steeds, with there sullen dark-browed masters, disdainful of the hirer even as they took his money.

So I said to this Arab - a young and haughty man - that I wanted to go for an hour's ride around the pyramids.  "You want walk?" he asked with a curl of his lip.  "No," I said, impelled by God knows what madness.  "A real ride."  "You want good ride, yes?  Gallop?"  He pronounced the last word like a challenge, smiling contemptuously.  "Most certainly," I said, "a gallop round the pyramids."  I would show him, I thought.

But as he offered me a horse - it looked very big close up, and its eyes were starting out of its head - I began to have misgivings - serious misgivings - horrible squirming misgivings in my bowels.  What the hell was I doing?  I suddenly thought.  I had never been on a horse in my life, and here I was asking for a gallop round the pyramids.

Getting on proved a nightmare - the horse kept moving away when I had one foot in the stirrup - leaving me doing the splits rather inelegantly and painfully.  I had half a mind to be sensible and give up.  Unfortunately, three of them helped me up - one holding the horse, one the stirrup and one pushing my backside.  It felt a long way down to the ground - and what was I supposed to do with the reins.  I was soon told: if I pushed them towards the horse's neck, the faster he would go.  And how did I stop?  I asked - and was told that the horse would know when to stop.

I was not encouraged when my guide raced off over the dunes, leaving me alone with the horse.  I moved the reins forward, and nothing happened.  The guide came back, gave my horse a swift thwack with his whip - and we were off.

And how.  By the time I gathered my wits together we were flying over the sands, down a steep dune and then out onto the level.  It felt as if we were going at about 100 mph.  Or rather it felt as if the horse were going that fast: sick down to the bottom of my boots, I realised that I was simply perched precariously on top of this beast - it would only take the slightest jog, the slightest swerve, for me to lose my balance and come off.  I grabbed hold tightly to the reins, but this only made the horse throw its head violently back and to the side, and made staying on even harder.  I relaxed my grip.

I was trying to work out the best way to fall off when I was acutely conscious of something else: I was wearing my usual trainers, which I find the most comfortable for travelling, and the tongues of them on both feet had contrived to get caught up with the stirrups, so I couldn't get my feet out.  I realised this meant two things: (a) if - when - I fell off, my feet would remain stuck in the stirrups so (b) I would be dragged behind this galloping monster, and my brains dashed out on the rocks and stones.  Quite calmly I realised something else: I was going to die.  I remember saying to myself, out loud, and with perfect equanimity "I'm going to die, I'm going to die."  Since it was inevitable, there was point worrying about it.  Instead, I looked around me - I thought I might as well enjoy the view since it would be the last thing I ever saw - watched the slowly wheeling pyramids, the clouds of sand kicked up behind my guide who was now far ahead of me.  

And then, wonder of wonders, my horse slowed down, and then stopped by the side of the guide's.  "Good gallop, yes?" he asked with a wicked grin on his face.  I gibbered something back to him, wondering whether this was what heaven or hell was like - since I had to be dead by now.  I soon found out it was hell.  For somehow this man had brought me into the backstreets of Giza - where had the pyramids gone?  Dirty children kicked cans around a dusty plot of wasteland.  As we passed, women looked up briefly from their washing or from suckling their babies.  Old men stared at us with a timeless, impudent stare.

But it was a hell that smelt like heaven, an overpowering melange of choking perfumes.  And then I felt myself dismounting, my legs trembling, buckling beneath me as I staggered up some cracked steps into a shop.  It was a perfume shop, run by a 'friend' of the guide, who 'only' wanted me to look to have a cup of tea, to sample some of the wonderful perfumes his 'friend' sold.  I was still limp like a rag, unable to concentrate, unable to argue.

I accepted the tea with shaking hands, the cup rattling embarrassingly against the saucer.  I smelt perfume after perfume, all improbable puces and scarlets and cyans, all sickeningly sweet, all soon quite indistinguishable.  The perfume merchant asked if I were married; unable to lie, I said 'yes'.  He pressed a perfume on me, 'for your good lady wife'.  My eyes met those of the guide who sat behind his 'friend'.  His eyes seemed to dare me not to buy.  I had confused visions of being led at an even greater gallop across even stonier and more uneven deserts.  I bought the perfume, paid the outrageous price, allowed myself to be pushed back on to my horse, and was led at a mercifully sedate pace back to the other horses. 

I slid off, clutching the bloody bottle of perfume - which I threw away as soon as I got to the hotel, unable to face telling Janet about all this shameful episode when I got back home.  To this day strong scents produce a Pavlovian reaction of blind, nauseous fear in me - I remember once - to my shame - insisting that Janet take a shower after dousing herself with perfume, probably in my honour.

Poor Janet.  As I slunk away, I could almost translate the guttural conversation punctuated by coarse laughs behind me.  Typical stupid westerner - can't even ride a horse, and was gulled by the perfume seller - didn't even haggle - these contemptible tourists.  Followed by the inevitable spitting.  And the worst was, he was absolutely right.

Nor did my punishment end there.  The next day, I felt as if somebody had beaten me repeatedly between the legs with a truncheon or something - I was frightened that I'd done some permanent damage, it was all so sore.  Come to think of it, I suppose I still don't know whether I have or not.

So, then I thought that I would die, and I was - God be praised - wrong.  But now, I have - or had until writing all this stuff - no thoughts of death.  And a maniac might come up to me and stab me; I might suffer a fatal heart attack; be involved in a car crash on the way back - quite likely given the way they drive here; I might contract food poisoning this evening and die in agony.  So many possible deaths lie ahead of me, all of them cutting off my life before I have had a chance to do all the things I want to do, to see all those places, to write those books.  It would all be so unfair.  And what would poor Janet do?  She would be distraught.  And it's all a mystery, all out there, waiting for me.  There, I'm really quite depressed now.

But the others have finished lunch and everything, so, off to the Sphinx, for the inevitable photographs, scaffolding and all.  Pity it can't answer this particular riddle of mine while I'm there....

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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