Monday, February 11, 2008

Praise to the King of Upper and Lower Egypt

Cairo, Egypt

I watched the sun set tonight over the Giza Pyramids from the roof of my hotel. Tonight I even took a picture of them--through the smog.( If you look carefully at the picture above, in between the minarets and highrises, you can see them
faintly. )

The waiters know me because I come every night at sunset. And every night, after their warm greeting, I gesture to the southwest, and gush. There, after the Nile, after the obtusive highrises muted by the smog, are the Giza pyramids.

They still claim their majestic place even if Cairo has made it hard to be romantic about their location that is encrouched upon by urban sprawl, poverty, and, yes, I'll say it, governmental neglect. This is the real Cairo of today, not the Cairo of Durell, Maughmam, Agatha Christie.

And yet it's grabbed my heart as I said goodnight and goodbye to this crazy, lush, blessed city tonight, the horizon hazy, puffy clouds, the pink-blue sky...and the pyramids that almost look mythical in the distance.

Two days ago, I climbed down into one of the pyramids beyond Gaza, the Red Pyramid. There's nothing inside anymore ( looters have been having a heyday for centuries, it seems ), but it was a big deal because not many pyramids are open for romping through.

Our Egyptian guide, Ghada, 40 something with dark hair, dark eyes, red nail polish and western clothing, can talk about ancient on modern Egypt for hours albeit, in my view, with a slant toward a country at a crossroads--trying to decide if it will tackle the profound problems of social, educational inequity and mindboggling pollution and urban sprawl. Even she seems ambivalent about its future.

But back to the pyramid. Ghada told my Elderhostel group ( with a range of ages from 91 to 50; fitness levels from none to very fit ) that we shouldn't try to climb into the pyramid to see the burial chamber if we had " asthma, heart problems, breathing problems, clostrophobia."

Just for the record, this pyramid wasn't as tall as the famous Giza pyramids ( ie Cheops ) However, to give you scale, all of these pyramids constructed after the Egyptians finally mastered the angle ( 55 degrees ) and the base ( the hardest rock bed available ) and the type of blocks ( granite or limestone from a specific quarry ), they were able to construct these awe-inspiring wonders.

Red pyramid, in New York terms, is about 8 to 10 stories high. To get to the entrance of the tomb, you climb about two stories up a zigzag of limestone with a sometimes railing that is sturdy at times, shakey at others.

I stood at the bottom assessing the prospect of the climb. I wanted desperately to see the inside of a pyrmaid ( what's the likelihood that I'll be back here anytime soon? ) and yet, I am terified of closed spaces that are dark, dank, and have only one entrance and exit--and more than four people sharing my space ( less chance of a fast exit.)

A fellow traveler from north of LA, Kathy, was doing the same appraisal. Kathy had told me earlier in the trip that she had wanted to come to Egypt and see the pyramids since she was a little girl--just as I had. But her reticence to climb into the Red Pyramid was due to her fear of heights. We decided we'd be ying and yang up there and give it a try.

Kathy, silver cropped hair, glasses and bright blue eyes, looked at me and said: " You know, if you get home and don't try it, you'll regret it." I didn't know her well, but I thought her insight was pretty sound.

So, we ventured up the steep steps to the entrance where an Egyptian dressed in a dusty, soiled, carmel colored caftan and turban, deep tan skin and dark eyes sat watcing our ascent.

He was a contrast to the tourist police that are everywhere in Egypt ( probably as a consequnce of the bombed bus in Luxor attributed to terrorists in the 90s that killed several tourists and put a huge dent into Egypt's tourist economy.)

I peered down to get some prospective for the next step and wait for Kathy who preferred to do the climb--her fear-- on her own schedule.

At the entrance, there was a ladder of easily 150 rungs leading down at an acute angle to what looked to me like darkness. I had been told that after the descent, there was a tunnel about two feet high that you crawled through to get to the central chamber. Kathy and I started down backwards.

"I'm not sure I'm going to go the whole way, Kathy," I said breathing deeply as I moved farther and farther from the opening, the blue sky, the Egyptian guard.

"OK," she replied, "but let's keep going."

60 seconds later, a couple of people started their ascent along the same narrow ladder, so we shifted to the side to let them go by. As I continued to get closer to the end of the ladder, I kept one eye on the daylight which was my touchstone.

The couple reached the opening above me, and disappeared. It was just the two of us in this small space now, moving deeper into the belly of the ancient burial chamber, moving silently, the fear building in me with each wrung of the ladder.

Suddenly, I heard this voice from below" Mary Catherine... Mary Catherine?

"Yes, " I replied, trying to hide me rising fear with each step.

"You know" , Kathy yelled up to me, " we're inside an honest to God pyramid? In Egypt!"

I laughed outloud. We both knew we were bonded after that--just two explorers alone in a pyramid like all the archeologists before us! It was our moment.

It didn't last long, though. We could hear four or five more people who had just exited the tomb and were ready to climb back out via our ladder.Kathy was almost at the bottom, asking them what to expect, moving aside so that they could pass. The skylight was dimmer and smaller in circumference.

I moved over to let them pass. Their bodies obstructed my view of the opening. I could hear their descriptions of the burial chamber as they clammered up. "Hated the acid smell... gets stronger... tunnel where you crawl sure was long...dark chamber at the end...nothing in the actual chamber."

I looked up once more. All I saw was the backside of people. I imagined the air being sucked out of the shaft.
"Kathy,", I called down to her. "I think I'm going to go on up now," I said trying to modulate my voice.

I went two rungs at a time, excusing myself as I passed the upward bound travelers to reach the light, hoping I didn't sound as anxious to get up there as I felt.

The guard smiled as I crawled off the ladder to the limestone entry seconds later. There were easily 30 Japanese tourists approaching the entrance and ready to descend. ( That was all I needed to be sure I had made the right decision--trying to negotiate 30 people in a tunnel crouched down and airless would have been...well,... terrifying.)

I waited for Kathy at the chamber entrance for five minutes or so. She emerged with a smile.
"I think that might be the bravest thing I've ever done," she said in a matter of fact way. And I think she was right.

We climbed back down the side of the structure, me leading telling her that going down was much easier, Kathy negotiating the steps gingerly, her husband Ralph taking pictures down below.

At the bottom, I looked up at the massive, ancient monument. I was a little disappointed at not reaching the inner chamber. But somehow Kathy's words when we were alone in the entrance shaft, filled with excitement and awe stuck with me.
Later that day, Kathy walked into the dining room at the hotel, waved and grinned: "Hey, Pyramid Lady."

It's one of those small things I treasure so much about life--the moments that are a little corny, maybe, but ...maybe not. All I know is that I'll always know that I was inside a pyramid in Egypt.

And if I need someone to vouch for me? I've got Kathy's phone number. She can verify it.

Just one Pyramid Lady to another.

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