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Egypt's well-trodden attractions can still stun the traveler

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As I contemplated my first trip to the Pyramids, I could see myself, if not exactly astride my faithful camel, at least getting my initial glimpse of the great monuments as the sun set, bathing them in a soft pink light.

But reality presented a different picture. I had imagined the elegant repose of the disfigured sphinx, but not the chaotic traffic of Cairo, or the sheer noise of a Mideastern bazaar.

And I found that Giza, where the Pyramids are located, is not a lush oasis at all, but a suburb of Cairo. The broad boulevard leading out to the Pyramids is lined with hotels, nightclubs, and even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. The Pyramids are surrounded by tour buses disgorging tourists and by Egyptians offering to sell one the country's very last, priceless, plastic scarab.

Under such conditions, it's hard for even the imposing Pyramids to live up to expectations. The tourist must arm himself with an appreciation for ancient history and forget the scarab hawkers, tour buses, and even Moses' souvenir shack down the hill.

The ascent into the Great Pyramid of Cheops pits tourist against tourist in the seemingly endless sauna generously called a tunnel. Less than four feet wide and four feet high, the passageway tests the mettle of even the most intrepid traveler.

The passage eventually opens, and at the end is an empty chamber - empty, that is, except for Cheops's vacant sarcophagus and dozens of milling tourists. This, too, could seem a disappointment.

Yet, here again, pause to consider the labor that went into constructing the chamber's stone walls and ceiling, the grand procession that must have accompanied the departed pharaoh to his final resting place, the thieves who robbed him centuries later. Realize that all this occurred thousands of years ago, and all those milling tourists can seem miles and ages away.

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