Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Pyramids and Sphinx

by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries.

It is December 2007. We have flown to Egypt for the second time to research The Scribes from Alexandria, my antepenultimate Roman Mystery. My husband (and map-maker) Richard and I arrived late last night – 10.30pm London time and 12.30am Cairo time – and it was 4.00am before lights out.

Le Meridien Pyramids Hotel in Giza, Egypt
We are staying at the Le Meridien Pyramids Hotel in Giza, so this morning I pull back the drapes, not sure what I will see. Pyramids! Two of them. Medium sized, flat against the hazy, cloud-speckled dawn sky. A busy road and some pylons in the foreground, and the back of the hotel. This is the view they never show you!

Roman Mystery #15
The morning is mild and even a little cool sitting out by the pool to have breakfast. We have a nice select group of fellow travellers on this academic guided tour. There are only nine of us in all, plus not one but two expert guides. Rawya is our Egyptian guide and Joclyn our British guide. Both are women, both extremely knowledgable and articulate.

At a few minutes past 10.00 we set off along the manic road to a roundabout then back up past the Mena Auberoi Hotel, which is older and four starred, probably nicer than this rather soulless modern one. Not that I'm complaining.

A few minutes later we are at the pyramids. They say you have to be standing in front of them to get the full impact, but I didn't feel any particular sense of awe. They are big and familiar and as you might expect there are Egyptian men and children ready to beg you to buy postcards, gifts, burnooses, camel rides, etc.

Our guides advise us to ignore these entrepreneurs, especially the ones offering a short camel ride.

Twelve FUN FACTS I learned at Giza:

pyramid at Giza
I. A pyramid is essentially a big fat obelisk.

II. The pyramids would have been covered with smooth slabs of white limestone in ancient times, making them even more impressive. This is what Flavia and her friends would have seen when they visit in the first century AD. There would have been graffiti all over them, too. Greek and Latin, of course.

III. A massive cedar river boat belonging to Cheops was found buried on the south side of the Great Pyramid. It has a special display room near the spot where it was found. It is amazing.

IV. The lovely triangular felucca sail didn't come in until 300 AD! Until then, all boats were square-rigged.

V. There are smaller more conventional tombs by the pyramids. These are called mastabas and are usually for friends and family of Mr Pharaoh.

VI. The ka is the double of a person. The ba is the spirit. According to Egyptian tradition, both are created with the body but are immortal. When the body dies, these two live on and wait to be reunited to the body on the Day of Resurrection.

VII. In the depiction of figures on walls, etc. there are three symbols to show children: a lock of hair over one ear, no clothes, a finger at the mouth. Children are shown aged about twenty but small. Twenty to thirty is the ideal age for to come back on the Day of Resurrection. (Nobody knows the date of this momentous event.)

VIII. Egyptian granite comes from one place: Aswan. It is composed of crystals of pink, grey and black. You get pink, grey or black granite depending on the proportion of those three colours of crystal in a piece of granite.

IX. The Nile was closer to the Sphinx (and to the pyramids) in ancient times. A short canal brought water to the Sphinx for easy boat access and to provide water for the priests and temples.

X. The Sphinx was up to its neck in sand until the 19th century.
(Though it may have been cleared at times before that.)

Caroline on camel
XI. The Sphinx is slowly melting, worn away by constant sand in the wind. In a hundred years or less the head will probably fall off! Also pigeons are now nesting on its face. Recent bird-flu scares forced Egyptians to destroy the columbaria on their houses and so the pigeons must find new homes! Their guano does not help matters.

XII. The Ptolemaic Greeks were the first to do restoration work on the Sphinx, probably around 200 BC.

P.S. Contrary to what I had heard, camels are fun to ride!

P.S. If you liked this you might enjoy my blogs about Upside Down Egypt and A Day in Old Cairo.

[I was researching Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. It is now available in paperbackKindle and as an abridged audiobook, and is perfect for primary schools studying Egypt in Key Stage 2.]

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