Breakfast was served to us in our room to get us started for a long day of sightseeing. We had been served freshly squeezed orange juice as a welcome drink yesterday and were very happy to see it again for breakfast. I never would have guessed that Egypt could give Florida a very good run for its money in the orange juice wars!
Amir, our guide and Mena, our driver, picked us up at 7 in Giza for a day trip to see the pyramids right across from our hotel as well as those in Memphis and Sakkara. Amir said he had studied Egyptology for four years in university in order to be a licensed tour guide.
Egyptian history started five thousand years ago prior to pyramids and the country was divided into Upper Egypt which was located in the southern part and Lower Egypt located in the northern part. The lotus flower was the symbol of Upper Egypt and symbolized the love between the king and his wife. Its essence oil was always an important gift. Famous perfumes like Chanel and Givenchy always come from lotus flowers, Amir said.
Our first stop was at Memphis, the ancient Egyptian city that served not just as an important city but also as the capital of ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom. Memphis was known as the Beautiful Port because it was so important to traders. It was the home of many pharaohs, including King Tutankhamun, and it remained an essential city throughout history, until its demise around the time of the rise of Christianity after the first century AD. Many pharaohs and other powerful people chose the desert bluffs here as their burial place.
Only a few ruins remain of the great city. One of them was a statue of Ramses II who built the best temple in Egypt. Located in southern Egypt, it was moved, block by block, in 1960 by UNESCO because of the building of the Aswan Dam. Ramses II was one busy man: he had 70 wives and 100 plus children! Many kings tried to unify the two kingdoms; when they did, they wore the double red and white crown. The statue once measured 40 feet in length but it was damaged so the lower legs and feet were missing from it.
In ancient Egyptian history, a cartouche was an oval or oblong-shaped piece that enclosed a group of hieroglyphs, typically representing the name and title of a monarch. Here, in Ramses II's belt, was the king’s name inscribed in his cartouche.
The statue of Ramses II showed him wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt and a false or fake beard that only kings were allowed to wear.
The left leg was forward from the other which represented his moving into the afterlife, some say; others say, that it was indicative of a military march or that the leg was in balance with his heart as the heart is also on the left side. So much of ancient Egyptian history is open to interpretation, Amir said.
We left Memphis at 8:45 to go onto Sakkhara which is best known for the Step Pyramid, the oldest known of Egypt's 97 pyramids. It was built for King Djoser of the 3rd Dynasty by the architect and genius Imhotep, who designed it and its surrounding complex to be as grand as it was unique and revolutionary. Imhotep was the first to build stone tombs in honor of the king's majesty.
We noticed lots of weaving being done near Memphis.
I asked Amir about his country’s flag: the black symbolized the time up until 1952 when the country was occupied by one country or another for thousands of years; the red represented the blood shed during the war with Israel from 1967 and 1973; the white signified peacetime.
We passed a number of carpet schools on both sides of the road en route to Sakkara. Very near Sakkara, we came across a tourist police checkpoint. Amir said the police keep tabs on foreigners as they move from one area to another; whenever we passed through a checkpoint, the license plate number was always written down by hand in a big book. Also included was the time we left Checkpoint A and the time we reached Checkpoint B. Not really sure what happened to all that recording of data, mind you, and Amir didn't appear to know either.
There was a long road up to Sakkara. The parking lot there would normally be absolutely full of cars, vans and tour buses so Amir would have to call the driver when he was done with the tour to ask him where he had parked. There was certainly no issue with that now because of the drastically lower number of tourists since the revolution in 2011.
Sakkara name came from god’s Btah Sokkar name. The mausoleum was chosen to be built on the west bank of the Nile River. Beginning in the 2nd dynasty, the thought of afterlife was of supreme importance. That was why gold, silver and food for the afterlife were always buried with the kings. Since the body was also kept for the afterlife, it was critical that it be kept in very good condition.
Previously, kings’ bodies were put underground but wind and animals uncovered the remains. King Zosar wanted something better for himself. He wanted to build an entire city for his afterlife. The steps helped the spirits climb to the afterlife. The entrance was built on the north side because the kings believed the North Star would be their guide to the afterlife.
The high season for tourists is normally October through December because those are the cooler months. Amir said that there are over 16,000 guides in Egypt – I wonder how many of them work regularly with the few tourists now visiting their country.
Sakkara was known as the step pyramid. The government wanted it to be restored but the initial company that was chosen did inferior work so another company is now trying to fix the problems caused by the first one. The restoration was only supposed to take two years but Amir joked that he hopes it will open before he dies!
A wall originally surrounded the pyramid which had 14 false doors.
Sample of the Coptic language:
In the large square, the king sang and celebrated after killing some animals to show how powerful he was to his people.
Workers’ tombs are now being excavated:
As we walked the descending corridor hutched over, I was wondering who had walked here before us - could it have been Julius Caesar with Cleopatra? Napoleon? Agatha Christie?
Seeing our first hieroglyphics inside a tomb was a wonderful experience. To know that each symbol was a letter and that the panel of stone we faced could be read like the words in a book was amazing. Amir had studied the hieroglyphics enough to be able to decipher a number of the symbols for us so that it truly came alive for us and a story was told.
We saw many more depictions of afterlife here: fishing, life scenes, crocodile, hippopotamus and even a belly dancer!
We had a very brief tour by Ahmed, one of the salespeople. Anyone wanting to learn could study and work there, he stated. The workers are paid by the piece daily because the work takes so long to complete. The carpet pattern was of the night sky and stars - it was exactly like what we had just seen in the tomb.
The woman was working with 100 percent pure silk in just blue and a yellowish gold so the pattern was the simplest. It would take from one to six months to finish just one square meter because there were 464 knots in a square meter. We watched the woman work for a minute or two and her fingers were lightning fast. Ahmed asked her to slow down so we could see her tie just one or two knots and he said how hard it was for her to do that. She works five hours a day, six days a week.
He next showed us a wool carpet being made. It is normally completed in one to two months because there are about 200 knots in a square meter.
I asked what age the children can start ‘learning’ or perhaps, more accurately, working, and Ahmed said they start as young as ten so they can help support their families. Ahmed said many families have looms at their homes so they can work there rather than coming to the school. Seeing first hand these very young workers made me wonder who had made the beautiful Turkish, Indian and Afghani rugs we have. Ignorance had been bliss until we were faced with the reality of how young those workers had probably been too.
Ahmed next showed us woven carpets. Those are a lost art and are not made from any pattern but rather from using his imagination.
We went to the showroom next. We have been in a number of carpet showrooms before but this was the biggest. They had a beautiful selection of both silk and wool rugs but we weren’t in the market for one. I am glad we stopped there but didn't come away with a great understanding of what schooling actually transpired there.
Amir asked if we wanted to stop at a papyrus shop next so we said, sure, as that would be a first for us. Hassan, the store employee, mentioned that papyrus was considered a holy plant and that, if we touched it, we would receive good luck. It’s grown around the Nile because it needs water and a certain temperature in which to grow.
Hassan showed us a couple of famous scenes commonly found on temple walls. One was called a Tree of Life. The painting he showed us was different in that rather than there being just the tree, it showed the father as a bird with his arms or wings outstretched as the protector and the woman, another bird, always wearing a crown and looking toward the future perched on another branch. The children or smaller birds were on the right side of the tree. No photos of the art in the gallery were allowed unfortunately but we did buy a lovely piece that we look forward to framing and hanging up once we get home.
I managed to climb the north face right up to the entrance door, but didn't enter it.