Not even the relentless touts could spoil a picture perfect day at the Pyramids of Giza
13.11.2007 - 13.11.2007
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We woke up leisurely on Tuesday morning and went to the ornate dining room (see directly above) for breakfast. I was wary of eating anything that wasn't sealed so confined myself to yoghurt and copius cups of coffee and tea. Callan had no such compunction and tucked into the Continental and traditional fare with abandon. The other tourists in the dining room also seemed to have little apprehension about eating their fill so I felt I was being overcautious. I decided to use Callan as a guinea pig. If she didn't get a bug, I'd know the food was good to go. If she did, well, it would be coffee and croissants for me and immodium for the missus.
Shortly before 8am we met Said outside the hotel lobby (see directly below). The day had dawned beautifully clear and blue with a fresh but very light breeze which made me realise how lucky we were because it could just as easily have been hazy. (In fact, as the week went on, it became progressively hazier and warmer, so that on the last day it looked like a blanket of fog had settled over Cairo. Whether this was smog or just natural weather is difficult to say but there is no doubt smog does linger over the city like a bad hangover).
The drive to Giza was mercifully short - we arrived within minutes and arranged to meet Said again outside the hotel at 8am the next morning. He dropped us off at the bottom of the winding, steep hill which leads to the Giza plateau, warning us about the touts and advising us to be careful of getting ripped off by the black-and-white taxis on our way back to the hotel. He said a trip to the hotel that evening should cost between E£10-15 (we ended up paying double that, even after haggling).
We walked up the hill as quickly as we could and soon the Great Pyramid was standing majestically in front of us. So much has been written about the Khufu pyramid that there is no point going into detail about its history, save to say that it is the largest and oldest of the pyramids in the Giza funerary complex and was built by the 4th-dynasty king Khufu, who ruled about 2589 BC. My first impression of it was it wasn’t as big as I’d expected but maybe my expectations had been unrealistic.
The entrance was jam-packed with tour groups being disgorged from an intimidating (and deceptively fast moving) line of tour buses. It was about 8.30am (the site opens at 8am) and already there seemed to be far too many people milling around (see directly below). There are two entrances to the plateau: one is just in front of the Sphinx and the other, near the Great Pyramid, is the side we arrived at. Once we’d bought our tickets and gone through the metal detectors, we walked onto the area holding the last of the world’s seven wonders.
The Giza plateau consists of three pyramids: the Great (or Khufu) Pyramid; the Pyramid of Khafre (which is recognisable by the limestone casing seen on its summit) and the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure, the last pyramid built on the plateau. Although the Great Pyramid is the largest of the three, the Pyramid of Khafre (also known as Khephren) is built on higher ground so it appears to be the biggest. Why was the last pyramid the smallest? This represented either a decline in the king's power or a change in priorities, for instance size no longer meant strength or power.
The pyramids are not the only structures of importance at Giza. Apart from the Sphinx there are several tiny pyramids, known as Queens' Pyramids, and tombs, temples and causeways too. These were the burial locations of the king's families and members of the royal court.
I was raring to go and in my haste left Callan struggling to keep up. As I walked, the touts moved in. Their modus operandi was nearly always the same and during the next four days in Cairo we became accustomed to dealing with it. If the tout was on foot they walk up to you and ask cheerily, ‘Hey, where you from?’, followed by ‘What’s your name?’. Then, ‘Do you want to look at these gifts?’ On that first morning I simply ignored them but was soon to discover acknowledgment of the tout’s greeting, along with a polite but firm refusal of any ‘gifts’ soon deters the salesmen while maintaining a civil atmosphere.
Callan, however, was lagging behind and when I looked back I noticed touts, some of whom were calling her ‘beautiful’, were besieging her. Western women on their own are, sadly, particularly vulnerable to sales harassment and I immediately felt bad that I’d hurried away on my own mission with just the most cursory glance backwards to make sure she was okay. I immediately went back and the touts melted away.
From then on, as we walked around the Great Pyramid (see directly below) we stuck together. But the touts, of course, have their own way of trying to soften up couples. ‘Is this your wife?’ they ask mischievously. ‘You are a very lucky man!’ It’s difficult to get annoyed by that – at least not until the 2,500th time. By far the most forward tout was a youngster selling scarves. He started putting one around my neck. ‘A gift!’ he said. I backed away quickly – I’d read about these guys on the Net. The scarf isn’t anybody’s gift, just another tacky sales strategy.
So far we’d dealt with the walking touts but now we were about to meet the more serious ones: the camel and horse riders. Their pitch is based on taking you to a series of hills above the plateau from where you can see the pyramids in panorama. It costs about E£30 and I would have done it but Callan is not a fan of horse or camel riding and I didn’t want to leave her to fend for herself while I went gallivanting into the desert.
The camel drivers have an unnerving habit of approaching you atop their animals, which can be intimidating. ‘Hey, where you from?’ ‘What’s your name?’ … you get the idea. Lugging around my very visible camera didn’t make life easy – it was a dead giveaway I was some sort of photographer, even if I was only an amateur, and would thus be most interested in seeing 'great shots', as the touts put it.
It can’t be said the Egyptian government has been sitting on its hands with regard to this harassment of tourists. The tourist police (see directly above) are by a mile the most ubiquitous uniformed presence I’ve seen in any city anywhere. Many speak English and because they are all over they’re not difficult to find if you’re in a pickle. Dressed almost entirely in black they police the touts but can themselves be quite pesky in terms of negotiating a quick tip.
We had our first experience with one soon after arriving. We were walking towards the Sphinx when we stopped to take a closer look at a small temple (see directly below) attached to the Great Pyramid. A horde of schoolchildren suddenly came running up the road, directly towards us. Just before they got to us, a policeman on a camel charged in, shouting at them to back off and was instantly obeyed - an entire group of school kids came to an immediate halt, then turned tail. We thanked the policeman, who didn't miss a beat by inviting us to take a photo of himself on his camel in front of a pyramid.
‘Where you from?’
‘England,’ said Callan.
‘Oh,’ he grinned. ‘Manchester United!’ Then: ‘Are you David Beckham?’ And motioning towards Callan: ‘Is she Victoria?’
We had a good laugh – and tipped the policeman, who surreptitiously scanned the horizon before accepting the money. We carried on down the hill towards the Sphinx (see directly below), which also wasn’t as large as I’d expected but was quite impressive nonetheless. In front of it were the remains of a temple. ‘Let’s have a look inside,’ Callan suggested. I wasn’t keen because it didn't look too exciting but went anyway.
This turned out to be Khafre's Valley Temple which held the king's body prior to burial. It was connected via a causeway to the Pyramid of Khafre, instantly recognisable owing to the limestone casing on its summit (see directly below). We walked through the ruins of the temple and found ourselves right next to the Sphinx, almost at eye level with it. Around us, though, were several touts, this time children. The ringleader on this occasion seemed a nasty piece of work, taunting the Asian tourists who weren't accepting his offers of a 'gift'.
Shortly after we arrived, however, the tourist police responsible for the temple chased all of them away and before we knew it we were sitting on the causeway, under the pleasant sun, in splendid isolation. The Sphinx may not have been as monumental as I expected but it is deeply impressive nonetheless - it is the earliest known monumental sculpture of ancient Egypt, dated around 2500BC - standing 20m high with prominent paws, a long body and an enigmatic expression that has puzzled historians for centuries. Its nose has been blown off, the most obvious flaw, but this has been well documented as having happened before the 15th century. Oddly, Arabs know the Sphinx as Abu al-Hol, which means the 'father of terror'.
Sitting there, taking this all in was, in retrospect, the best moment of our holiday, and I tried to record as much of it as I could in my diary:
Directly in front of me is the Sphinx, to its left where its back is, rises the Pyramid of Khafre. The sounds are of a tractor chugging up the hill towards the plateau; a group of Asian tourists have arrived on our right and are chattering away. Excavations lay all around us. To our right lies the urban sprawl - the Sphinx Guest House with satellite dishes on top. I can also see the First Egyptian Papyrus Museum. In front of us a stray dog picks among the ruins and a tour bus drives slowly towards the Sphinx extrance. Two men are directly below us, in the fenced off area around the Sphinx's feet, working on some sort of restoration but it's not clear exactly what.
It didn't take long for tourists to start filing in at the rate of a human tsunami so we headed back towards the Great Pyramid in order to visit the pod-shaped Solar Boat Museum (see directly below), which is located on the south side of the pyramid, and which houses a full-size Egyptian boat discovered in pieces in 1954, lying in a pit beside the pyramid. The boat may have been buried for the sun-god or for the pharaoh's journey across the heavens.
My main reason for wanting to visit, though, was that the museum has a toilet and by this time, after several cups of coffee at breakfast, I was bursting. Entrance is E£40 each, almost as expensive as the Giza plateau itself but the cool interior and toilets made it well worth the cost. Although it wasn't hot outside we had had our fill of the sun for a while. The museum has an entrance metal detector and we were required to remove our shoes and wear protective footwear (see directly below) supplied by the museum.
The toilet system in the museum works in the same way as Continental Europe, with toilet personnel, usually an elderly woman, manning the area and taking a small tip for keeping it clean. The correct tip, we were told, is E£1 (£.10), which is perfectly reasonable - but when we got there and saw the queue for the toilet we realised the scale of the enterprise. If the 'toilet lady' is getting E£1 for each person using the service, she is making a tidy profit. And why not? The charge is a drop in the ocean to most tourists but probably provides her family with some essential creature comforts.
We explored the museum, which contains a replica of the boat as well as the real thing itself (see directly below), before sitting down in the museum shop where we met Romany N Shaheed, the friendly but not overfamiliar shopkeeper, who told us he was the photographer responsible for some of the postcards of the pyramids in the shop. We bought a few souvenirs for friends and family before I asked Romany's advice on how best to photograph the pyramids. He advised us to take a horse or camel (which, he said, would cost no more than about E£30) and he could arrange a camel for me.
I debated this with Callan (she was not keen on riding either a camel or a horse, mainly owing to her fear of heights). On the other hand I didn't want to go it alone as that would mean leaving her alone to fend for herself. Romany, however, said he didn't mind Callan sitting at the museum bookshop while I was away. He gave us two postcards showing the internal workings of the pyramids and when we tried to give him E£5, he refused it - which made him seem even more trustworthy.
In the event, we went for another walkabout and I started to realise one of the summits from which all the pyramids can be seen was not so far away after all. At one point, I was lured into a photo opp with a rider and his camel named 'Charlie Brown' (see directly below). Before I knew it, I was snapping away as the rider and 'Charlie Brown' grinned widely. After a few shots, I asked Callan, who had our money, to give the tout E£5. She tried to dig a note out of her pocket but instead of a E£5 it was E£20. 'I'll have that,' said Charlie Brown's owner, almost snatching it out of Callan's hands, 'that's my good luck!'
'It's our good luck too,' Callan said testily, holding the E£20 back. The rider was visibly miffed as we continued searching for E£5. 'American dollars,' he demanded. 'I want American dollars! Egyptian pounds are worthless.'
'We've changed our cash into Egyptian pounds, so it's that or nothing,' I said, regretting having gotten us into this haggling situation. ''Let's make it E£10 and call it quits.' Callan continued trying to dig out a note smaller than E£20 but, Murphy's law, out came another twenty instead.
'Twenty, make it twenty!' the tout demanded, noting we were getting flustered and just wanted to get rid of him. Finally, Callan found the most elusive ten pound note in the whole of North Africa and he was on his way, looking as grumpy as hell, but with the grubby note firmly clenched in his chubby fingers. I just couldn't fathom his annoyance - OK, so E£10 wasn't enough to turn him into Cairo's first Rockefeller, but he'd hardly done much to earn it.
We carried on walking, met a few more riders offering photos and a ride to the top of the distant hills but marched on, ignoring them. I felt bad about dragging Callan with me but thought if we just kept going that little bit further we might reach a spot that would give us a decent view over the plateau. We walked around the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure, with its jagged outer layer, and, looking back, suddenly realised the pyramids were lining up quite nicely behind us. We traipsed over a small plain, then up a small hill where we sat on a strategically placed rock and surveyed the great spectacle in front of us (see sequence directly below).
Since we had walked most of the way to the highest viewpoint, the touts suddenly left us alone. We received one more offer but this was easily rebuffed. Shortly after we sat down, we were approached by a robed man on a donkey who looked like he had been time-shuttled straight out of the Old Testament. 'Would you like a nice cold Coke to drink?,' he asked, pointing at the white bag which seemed to be weighing down his tiny donkey. We declined, telling him we'd brought our own drinks, so he moved on to the next tourist.
Over the next hour we amused ourselves observing the remarkable sales technique of this man, who we called 'Moses' because of his resemblance to the Bible character. What he did was take his long-suffering donkey onto a high hill to the left of us which overlooked the plateau and the pyramids beyond. There he waited, out of sight, until the camel riders came riding into view with their tourists. Timing it to perfection, 'Moses' would mount his donkey and move at the pace of a runaway express train towards them. Once there, he was all backslapping bonhomie, shaking their hands, offering to take photos of them - and selling them a can or two of Coke. Then he left them to continue on their way while he moved, once again with deceptive speed, back to his spot on the hill, waiting for the next batch of tourists (see sequence directly below).
This strategy could never have worked unless 'Moses' was in collusion with the camel riders and over time they had clearly moulded it into a fine art. 'Moses' reminded me of a spider which spins its web, then waits, out of sight on the edge, until a fly (in this case a tourist) is tangled in the strands. Once the fly has been dispatched by the fast-moving spider, it hurries nimbly back to the edge of its web and waits for the next fly. Then again, much the same could be said for any salesman in any part of the world, it was just a real experience to witness it out there in the desert.
He did seem a bit cruel towards his donkey, at one point tapping the braying wretch repeatedly on its neck for no apparent reason but at least he is contributing to Cairo's booming tourist industry. While sitting and watching the world go by on that hill we also witnessed a furious argument (see directly below) between a camel rider and a guy on foot. The dispute was being closely watched by a tourist policeman and eventually seemed to end on settled terms.
At 3pm, Callan and I headed back towards the pyramids and made for the exit. In what seemed like an instant, the large complex had nearly emptied of tourists as if everyone had suddenly been sucked out in a vortex. Still, the relentless touts tried their luck. On our way back, one was particularly annoying. He tried to persuade us to climb a smaller pyramid in order to get a good viewpoint of the others.
Not so long ago climbing the pyramids was as much of a tourist-must as going inside them but since the 1980s this has been strictly forbidden owing to the damage to the pyramids. There were also a few deaths when tourists took a tumble. 'No climbing' warning signs abound (see directly below) and a small fence acts as a boundary between the pyramids and tourists but this tout, lurking behind small mounds on the plateau, had clearly had success with some tourists or he wouldn't have been quite so persistent. He simply would not take 'no' for an answer and started following us at one point, even changing his tack to get a response: `I take photo of you with your camera'. Annoying they may be but not a soul alive would question the touts' perseverance.
We got to the Solar Boat Museum to use the toilet, said goodbye to Romany and rushed for the exit as it was nearly 4pm - closing time. As we left I noticed a distressed looking donkey tethered to a rock on the plateau. It kept shaking its head miserably, pulling at the rock, but to no avail. There was no owner in sight. (see directly below). Although it seems the animals weren't particularly well treated we didn't see any deliberate acts of cruelty until our last morning in Cairo (of which more later). At the exit, the animals were heading home, down the same steep, winding hill that we had climbed up in the morning (see second image below). Most of them were on their way to the stable complex at the bottom of the hill. This is where most of the camels, horses and donkeys used on the plateau are kept overnight (see third image below).
We had no luck finding a black-and-white taxi at the entrance because they would not accept Egyptian pounds so we walked to the bottom of the hill where we found a driver who managed to get us back to the Oasis in a few minutes (the journey was E£30 - E£40 with a tip - although Said said it should be no more than E£15).
We had a great dinner at the Safari Bar next to the swimming pool (see directly below). Callan had a cocktail and a Fajita roll; I had a Saqqara beer and a chicken sandwich, and we both had French onion soup and cappuccinos. It cost us E£155.23, which, at about £16, is very reasonable. Then we went to sleep, exhausted and hoping for a slightly less harried Wednesday.