Survive the chaotic roads of Cairo to explore Egypt’s ancient architecture. WORDS: Eric Nathan
“In Cairo a red traffic light means ‘go’ and a green one means ‘go faster,'” quips Hanie, our local Egyptologist, as our bus slows suddenly to yield to yet another colour-blind driver who unflinchingly passes through a red light. Our driver is navigating a seething mass of pedestrians and high-speed vehicles, and Hanie’s comment does nothing to calm our nerves. We try to divert our minds by thinking about our destination, the Pyramids of Giza. Unlike its intended occupants, we are hoping to experience them alive.
Should we make it, the Pyramids are to be the first stop in a country that is quite literally a treasure-trove of ancient architectural wonders. Few places on earth can boast such an extraordinary collection of historic temples and edifices – visually exquisite monuments that have survived for thousands of years and could quite conceivably continue to exist for thousands of years to come. The Egyptian tourist board don’t have it so bad.
I first set eyes upon the Pyramids in the pages of a school textbook. Here, we learned, is where hundreds of thousands of slaves worked for decades to excavate and shift 200-tonne blocks of stone hundreds of kilometres down the Nile before shaping, carving and stacking them up as homage to their king. Other books like Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints Of The Gods have compellingly pointed out the astronomically significant and mathematically flawless positioning of the Pyramids. This has encouraged ongoing conjecture about possible reasons for their creation and the methods of construction employed – including the possibility of alien assistance and knowledge of sonic levitation techniques.
The Great Pyramid of Cheops contains 2.3 million individual blocks of stone weighing between 2.5 and 16 tonnes.” Hanie tells us as we collectively gape upwards. To date, no one has been able to irrefutably explain their construction. Nevertheless, seeing the real thing in front of you is rather humbling and that sense of awe is bound to remain with you, irrespective of your interest in archaeology, engineering or aliens.
From a viewing plaza overlooking the Pyramids I gaze out over the sprawling metropolis that is Cairo, the biggest city in Africa. Satellite dishes dot many of the far more recent, but nonetheless crumbling, rooftops. Prostrated in the same heavenly direction, the dishes resemble a congregation of devout mechanical zealots. It’s a bewildering sight to observe, the juxtaposition of 21st century technology mounted on poorly-constructed shacks created by the very people whose ancestors built the millennia-old Pyramids that stand nearby.
A few days later and several hundred kilometres further up the Nile River, we find ourselves at another of Egypt’s architectural marvels. Completely covered by desert sands for centuries, the temple of Abu Simbel was rediscovered in 1813 and in the 1960s – about 3200 years after Abu Simbel was first carved out of a mountainside – a plan was hatched to relocate the entire temple to higher ground to prevent it being flooded by the rising waters of the newly created Lake Nasser. Over a period of four years and at cost of US$40 million, the Unesco rescue fund painstakingly cut the temple into blocks and then pieced it back togetherwithin an artificially created mountain.
Attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, it was clearly worth the effort. The façade alone stands 30m-high and although its four statues of Ramses II were carved to watch over boats sailing into the pharaoh’s land, they remain decidedly unnerving. The stare of those football-sized eyes seems to follow me like a stone-carved Mona Lisa. And so, like a mischievous schoolboy, I decide to try and escape their gaze by entering the temple … where my own eyes promptly expand to the size of footballs.
To try and expound the interior is futile. Suffice to say that in addition to the astoundingly artistic carvings is an inner chamber, the Sacred Sanctuary, which is illuminated twice a year by the rays of the rising Sun: on February 22 (Ramses’ birthday) and on October 22 (his coronation). The original alignment was amazingly accurate, but when the temple was relocated, the engineers faltered in their calculations and the phenomenon now occurs one day later.
After a fortnight of temples and mausoleums, including Kom Ombo, Edfu, Luxor and Phillae, I conclude that anyone failing to be impressed should have their sentient status revoked. It’s simply not possible to be unmoved by the sight of wall-to-wall hieroglyphic carvings of the most intricate and artistic kind – especially when they’ve been added to columns built from stone blocks weighing several tonnes and laid out so perfectly that present day architects and engineers struggle to mimic them.
Returning to my hotel one evening all ‘templed out’, I go to take a shower – and the bathroom door handle comes off in my hand. I place it carefully on the crooked shelf. Thousands of years after Egypt’s temples were so perfectly constructed I cannot help but wonder if our definition of progress is quite accurate.”