Monday, February 9, 2009


Tuesday, January 20th, Inauguration Day in the U.S., we finally met our tour guide, Matt Curran and the other 33 people on the tour. Matt, from Rhode Island, is a friend of our Spain tour guide, Joe Periera, from nearby Fall River, Massachusetts, which, incidentally was the home of the infamous Lizzie Borden. Joe had recommended Matt to us when we were in Spain over a year ago. We weren't disappointed. He is a genial young man (at least young to most of the people on the tour), who was on his 60th trip to Egypt. He is quite knowledgable of local customs and he answered all our questions.

Our fellow travelers are not the sort of people who are content to spend a vacation on the beach. They arrived eager to see and learn as much as possible, and many wrote their impressions of the sights in their notebooks and diaries. Dianne and I were the only Illinois people on the tour. On the first day, I wore my Illini sweatshirt, because if I take my picture in an exotic locale with Illinois regalia, the alumni magazine will print it.

Our tour was accompanied by a licensed Egyptologist, a middle aged lady named Mona who explained much about the Egyptian people and customs. For example, most Egyptian women dress modestly with their hair covered--even non-religious women.

After the introductory lecture, we hopped the tour bus for a short trip down the road to the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu). It's a block or two from our hotel. As one can imagine, it's quite impressive, with over 2 million granite blocks, each weighing several tons. The area of the base covers 13 acres. The blocks were cut in the quarries near Aswan, 600 miles away and floated down the Nile during flood season to install on the site. This pyramid was the tallest building in the world until the 525 foot spire of Lincoln Cathedral in England was built in 1300. That height is considered by historians to be doubtful, but in any event, it blew down in a storm in 1549. So if you don't count that, the pyramid was finally surpassed by the Eiffel Tower in Paris in the mid 19th century. It is about 455 feet high today, although it was about 481 feet high originally. The polished facing stones fell off during various earthquakes, and many were used to build mosques in Cairo. You can even climb up on the pyramid, but it's a long way to the top.

The Great Pyramid has certain features which are not present in the other pyramids in Egypt such as ascending and descending passages, and the great chamber. There are hardly any inscriptions inside the pyramid (we didn't go inside), and many speculate that the ones relating to Cheops were added by him to a pyramid that long pre-dated him.

Some theories hold that the structure was actually built by aliens, and I agree. Joseph and his people in biblical times crossed over the border from Israel during a famine, to get the good construction jobs on the pyramids. Whether they were considered illegal aliens is open to question. Modern historians believe that armies of skilled workers rather than slaves actually built the pyramids, and excavations nearby appear to support that explanation.

Seriously, though, the Great Pyramid is of superior construction, compared to the other 103 or so pyramids in Egypt, and nobody is buried in it. The so-called ventilation shafts are aligned with certain stars as they appeared almost 10,000 years ago. The North Star in early Pharaonic times was not Polaris, but rather, Thuban, in the constellation Draco, and alignment to that star is correct. The ancients had superior mathematical knowledge which was lost for thousands of years until relatively modern times. The mathematical alignments of the pyramid were remarkably accurate. So where did the ancients learn this stuff? Carbon dating does not work for dating pyramids because the stone is not organic.

Although this theory holds that the Great Pyramid pre-dated the Egyptian culture, conventional wisdom is that the first pyramids in Egypt, the Step Pyramid of Zoser, and the Bent Pyramid, were built by the great architect Imhotep in nearby Saqqara. Imhotep was an interesting historical figure; until fairly recently, we weren't sure he really existed. He was a commoner who, because of his many accomplishments, was enshrined as an Egyptian deity. He is considered the world's first named architect, as well as the first doctor, who identified and treated over 200 diseases. He was a high priest and chief minister to King Zoser, and he served under 3 other kings as well. He also found time to be a scribe and write poetry.

To the casual observer, it looked like he was learning by trial and error. One must wonder, where did he acquire his architecture experience, and who was his teacher? You could ask the same question about Bezalel in the Bible who was recommended by God to Moses to build the Tabernacle and Holy Ark when he was 13 years old. (see: Exodus 31:1-6, Sanhedrin 69b). Son, lemme see your resume. How many temples have you built? Oh, the big guy recommended you. OK. But I'm getting off the subject at hand.

There are two other large pyramids close by the Great Pyramid plus little makeshift pyramids for the queens. Archaeologists are uncovering a nearby graveyard for the workers.

On the back side of the Great Pyramid, archaeologists found a large wooden boat over 150 feet long, buried in rocks. They excavated it, restored it, and built a museum to house it. It was a solar boat (not solar powered) so the sun god could come back after traveling around the world each night.

After marveling at the magnificent solar boat, we drove up the hill to a small bazaar with many camels and their tenders. It was a great spot for a photo shoot, overlooking the 3 large pyramids, and we took a group photo. We rode camels down the hill and back up again. Camels are much bigger than horses, and you don't want to fall off. You hold on the saddle horn for dear life. It turns out to be easier to ride a camel than a horse because your legs don't have to be bent unnaturally to keep your feet in the stirrups.

On this West side of the Nile, the land is absolutely barren. This is the Sahara (which means "desert" in Arabic). Thus if you say "Sahara Desert" it's redundant. There's nothing except sand and rocks. Nothing grows here, not even desert plants. Now, I've been several times to Death Valley in California, about as hot and barren a place as one can imagine, and even there, one can find desert plants. But not here.

From there, it was a short drive, a mile or so, to the Sphinx. The Sphinx is a lion's body with the head of a man. Once again, it's not clear when it was actually built, and multiple theories abound as to what it actually represents. Some scholars believe that it was originally carved as a lion, and the Pharaoh's head was fashioned thousands of years later. A thousand years ago, the Sphinx was completely buried in the sand except for the head. The Mamlukes who ruled Egypt at the time used the Sphinx head for target practice. Religious fanatics tried to destroy it by hacking away at the head. fortunately, they didn't have the means or technology to completely destroy it. People didn't have the same reverence for history until modern times.

Today, the Sphinx is located on the edge of town, across from a KFC and Pizza Hut, about 200 yards away. A rundown hotel called the Sphinx House is next door to the fast food restaurants. The Hard Rock Cafe is down the street. In the U.S., they protest a new WalMart a mile away from Gettysburg Battlefield--in Egypt the authorities and people don't have the same qualms.

Walking around the Sphinx, and every other tourist attraction, you're accosted by street vendors selling doodads. Even little kids are peddling bookmarks and stuff. You can't ignore these people, as they get in your face. Despite all that, street crime is very low in Egypt. That may be due to heavy security to protect the tourist industry.

The Egyptian government really stepped up the security after a 1997 terrorist attack near Luxor where 58 foreign (mostly German) tourists and 4 Egyptians were murdered by Islamic extremists, presumably in an attempt to de-stablize the pro-Western government of President Mubarak. Now, one sees tourist police, antiquities police and assorted security of all types as well as metal detectors. The police carry automatic weapons. Even our tour bus requires an armed guard. I was told that security is a government program that puts a lot of people to work. The Egyptian government can't make it on its own economically, and the U.S. pays substantial foreign aid which subsidizes many of these programs.

Americans are well liked in Egypt. Ordinary Egyptians, learning that we are Americans, exclaim, "Ah-med-ee-cahn, Barack Obama!" President Obama is very popular in Egypt, at least for now.

We finished our tour for the day and obamulated up to the hotel lounge to watch the Inauguration on CNN with others on our tour who were fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. For example, we met Barbara and Toby from Long Island on the tour, two Jewish grandmothers who were the political odd couple. Traveling together and sharing a room, Toby is a liberal Democrat who showed tears of emotion watching the Inauguration, and Barbara, a conservative Republican. We spent a lot of quality time with these wonderful ladies on the trip, discussing the issues of the day. Fortunately, we were all on the same page to experience as much as possible and political differences were set aside.

Next: Walkin' in Memphis, looking for the King, and we even found him!
Also: Don't mess with Mohammed Ali!



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