Beyond the cacophony of urban chaos, Egypt’s capital and its ancient wonders are timeless, writes SOUGATA GANGOPADHYAY
At first glance Cairo appears as a city where development has not kept pace with time. But its ancient wonders are still resplendent with their magnificence and glory. After all, Egypt is the cradle of one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
First however, we had to survive our overnight stay in the shoddy budget hotel near the city centre, a sprawling urban jungle with its third world characteristics. Taxis, always booked after haggling, are usually driven by talkative drivers, who often act as unofficial guides while driving.
In Cairo all road leads to the pyramids of Giza, the timeless monuments that have survived the ravages of five millennia, standing in silent affirmation of the pharaohs’ belief in the everlasting Ka or Divine Spirit. Our driver drove past city traffic and dusty suburb roads where horse — and camel-drawn carts were still visible. My general presumption was that we had to drive miles into the desert to see the pyramids. Actually, they are just beyond the city limits.
Reaching near the base of the pyramids I held my breath. It was a moment that I had waited for since my childhood. There I stood on the Plateau of Giza, where the likes of Caesar, Napoleon and many other greats had stood and felt totally humbled by the sight of these ageless monuments. Facing me was the Sphinx, a 66-feet high colossus with the face of a pharaoh and the body of a lion.
We were soon approached by camel drivers, who offers rides around the pyramids and Sphinx, while providing their guidance for free. To our right was the Great Pyramid – the highest and the oldest – built by King Khufu (Cheops, to the Egyptian) around 2550 BC. The Pyramid of Khefren – Cheops’ son – is located directly behind the Sphinx. Menkaqra’s Pyramid, the smallest of the three, is located southwest of Khefren’s tomb. From a distance, these man-made mountains seemed so vulnerable to the elements. It was only when I stood at the base of the Cheops that I realised just how mind boggling their dimensions really were. The Great Pyramid alone is made up of 25 lakh blocks of stone. The smallest of these weighs one ton. It took 30 years to complete.
The evening son-et-lumiere at the Giza pyramid continues to be an unforgettable experience. Seated under the starry sky, I saw the Sphinx come alive and its slightly smiling face acquired a surreal quality. The ancient Egyptians believed in an eternal and prosperous life after death. It was a belief that prompted elaborate burial rites and tombs filled to the brim with the deceased’s worldly acquisitions.
However, despite elaborate security measures, all the Giza pyramids were broken into and ransacked at various times by marauding visitors. Some pyramids had crumbling surfaces and gave the impression of their vulnerability of modern times and global warming. Built around 2500 BC, it suffered at the hands of elements and was defaced by vandals. However, I was slightly reassured when we came to know that extensive restoration work was in progress with international help. Indeed, the Sphinx, symbolic protector of the pharaohs and the Egyptian people, had already received the restorative protection.
The following day, I decided to spend some time at the National Museum. The section containing King Tutankhamen’s treasures was simply out of this world. One can only wonder what the tombs of the great pharaohs might have contained if that of a mere Tutankhamen’s was so richly endowed. It was full of objects ornamented with gold, and smallest of the four golden boxes, which encased King Tut’s body alone weighs 110 kg!
The Nile was to be a constant companion during my sojourn – evoking emotions which few rivers have ever done. As I looked from the balcony of my high-end hotel (where we shifted after our bad experience in a budget one) the city of Cairo looked beautiful. In front, ships and barges were plying up and down the Nile River. Across the river the domes and minarets of mosques and new high-rises were silhouetted against the dusk skyline. The Nile continues to be Egypt’s only lifeline; just like it has been for the past 5,000 years.
Today, the capital of this predominantly Muslim country has a number of grand mosques, of which a few are must-visits. I concluded my trip to Cairo by travelling to the famous Khanel-Khalil market, a bazaar in true oriental style. The small narrow streets were so alive and teeming with people that I really had to push and jostle my way through. The shops sold everything from gold jewellery, and leather items to small inexpensive memorabilia. Next morning I left for Luxor and Aswan. But that is another story for another day…