Ch6 Pt6 Saqqara, Apis, and the Step pyramid.

We could not idle at Memphis for very long. Five minutes to take snaps, said our guide. The circle of fellahin, which he had hitherto kept at a respectful distance by spitting out occasional venomous injunctions in Arabic, now closed about us. Packets of snapshots? Ten piastres each. Do you want this piece of old money? Very valuable. I will sell it to you for five piastres. Baksheesh, effendi?

“Yallah! Ana muskid, enta arif? Ana mafish feloos.” Fluent Arabic in their ears, no doubt, but the limit of our vocabulary in that language. The translation? – Buzz off. I’m a poor man, understand? I have no money.” It makes no difference to our fellahin friends. They press around us until we finally take refuge in the waiting taxis.

We were going to Saqqara, a mile or two distant. It was the “boneyard” of Memphis, our guide informed us, and it took a while for me to grasp the fact that he meant “cemetery”. Evidently the United States troops who had found their way to Cairo during the war had been giving our dragoman lessons in American English. Our heavily laden taxis shot off in a cloud of dust, quickly reached the desert, and began to climb a short, steep slope at the top of which was a crudely printed notice nailed to a pole read: “Step Pyramid”.

We pulled up outside a barrack-like hut, built seemingly without any previously formulated design, and now in the process of falling apart. Only the fortuitous juxtaposition of its beams and stones kept it upright. This unlikely residence had sheltered Mariette Pasha against the sandy winds of the desert and against the heat of the Egyptian sun. This illustrious Frenchman, in the middle of the nineteen century, had discovered many tombs in the neighbourhood, and had taken away much baksheesh at the end of his sojourn. Our guide gave as much emphasis to Mariette Pasha as he did to the ruins themselves. He was obviously proud of the fact that in those days the Egyptians gave baksheesh away instead of asking for it.

A great pyramid dominated Mariette Pasha’s house, (now, oh shameful degradation, a sort of canteen where one purchased ginger beer and lemon pop!) This was the “Step Pyramid”, the sides not having a regular slope like the newer edifices at Giza, but being built up step-fashion. It is built up in six steps, or stages, unequal in height. The total height is 204 feet, with the base measuring 411 feet by 358 feet. According to our guide this Step Pyramid dates from 3000 B.C. and is the oldest pyramid in Egypt. It is completely solid – not with passages running through it like the others – for the Egyptians had not yet perfected the art of pyramid building, and the burial chamber had been excavated under the monument. Unfortunately it had been declared dangerous, and visitors were forbidden to enter it.

We turned towards the desert, and followed our guide between the dunes of sand. Through the shimmering heat haze which rose from the yellow, burning desert, the Pyramids of Giza extended in the distance in a long, straight line. It was very hot. I was sweating freely. My rough khaki shirt became soaked with perspiration and I regretted not having put on shorts.        

Where were we going? Our guide had omitted to tell us. A few of our number gave way to importunate Arabs who were following us with little donkeys, and paid several piastres to straddle these animals. No sooner had they done so, however, than we came upon a huge underground tomb, from which the sand has been cleared away on one side, enabling a ramp to be driven downwards. These excavations were the work of our guide’s hero, Mariette Pasha, and led to the tomb of Ti, a builder and powerful statesman in the time of Rameses II.           

We entered the tomb, bending ourselves double in order to pass through a low passage, and came into the room where Ti had found his last resting place. The walls were covered with drawings and carvings of ancient Egyptian life. These were done in the standard manner, the head always being shown in profile, with no attempt made to give the illusion of perspective. In one panel, slaves – men and women – were working at their everyday tasks for their master Ti. On another, they were bringing offerings to him, to his wife and to his son. On the wall, a door had been represented – a false door – in order that Ti’s spirit might leave the chamber when it desired. And in a small neighbouring room the people who had buried Ti had placed a statuette of their lord for every day of the year, wherein his spirit could abide whenever it wanted. At the time of our visit, only one of these effigies was left, the others having been removed to museums.

Near Ti’s chamber were the chambers of his wife and son, whose walls – it was not possible to go inside them – were also covered with drawings representing work and sacrifices, and with rows of hieroglyphic writing. There was also the representation of a false door, allowing the spirit to leave and re-enter at will.

We ascended the cement slope leading to the open, and soon the dazzling sand was again under our feet. The dragoman strode along in front, his blue galabieh swelling like a wind-filled sail, and we followed him obediently.

Shortly we came upon another concrete path leading, like the entrance to the tomb of Ti, into the bowels of the earth. This was the tomb of the sacred bulls of Memphis, and at the bottom of the slope we waited for a while until our eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness, and an Arab, who acted as watchman, had lit several oil lamps. All these tombs had been electrically lit before the war, the guide explained. Even the pyramids were wired for it. However, war in the desert and the close proximity of Rommel’s troops had brought an end to it, and although peace had come, the current had not yet been restored.

Lifting our oil lamp above our heads, we see that we are in a great, high passage. In fact, with so little illumination, it is not possible to distinguish the roof. The ground beneath our feet is sandy, and we shuffle along in almost total silence. The walls of this tunnel are pitted at intervals with huge recesses, each one of which contains an immense granite sarcophagus. Each sarcophagus once held the mummified carcass of an Apis bull, which in a bygone age the inhabitants of Memphis had worshipped. A small golden statue of the dead animal into which its spirit could retire was also placed in the sarcophagus.

The sides of the sarcophagi were covered in hieroglyphics praising the fine qualities of the defunct sacred bulls, and there was also in each case a representation of a door so that the spirit could leave and re-enter at will. The ancient Egyptians worshipped only one bull at a time, its sarcophagus being prepared for it during the duration of its life, which lasted on an average, about twenty five years. If the bull died before its sarcophagus was appropriately inscribed, the inscription nevertheless ceased, and its coffin took its place unfinished with the others already in the tomb. Thus, the tunnel and its cavities were not constructed all at once, but piecemeal, as and when needed. It is calculated that the ancient Egyptians took five hundred years to dig this tomb out of the solid rock, lengthening it a little to accommodate each sacred bull as it died. One stands amazed at the enormous trouble taken to bury an animal. Yet even today human beings pay special allegiance to certain animals. One thinks of the American eagle, the British lion, the Russian bear, the Australian emu and kangaroo, and the goat – the mascot of a crack English Guards regiment and given the honorary rank of corporal. The more it changes, the more it is the same thing, and we are not really so far removed from the citizens of Memphis, those mysterious people who lived more than four millennia before Christ.

Then, of course, one asks oneself what link there is between this virile race and the tattered inhabitants of modern day Egypt. What part did our guide’s ancestors play in building these fantastic tombs? These questions can only be pure speculation. Some encyclopaedias show mummies and pictures suggesting a people with almost European features. We shall never really know.

At the end of the main tunnel there was a short opening big enough to admit a man’s body which robbers had made in their search for fresh booty. But they had been out of luck, for the tunnel ends here. It is a tunnel which, after five hundred years of toil, finishes nowhere. Like the rest of us, these people had been playing with pebbles on the beach while waiting for eternity.

We retrace our steps, and at the entrance our guide stopped us to explain one more point.  

“The slope which leads to the surface was constructed by Mariette Pasha,” he explains. “But this is not the real entrance. The original entrance to this tomb was a huge hole made up there, high above us in the roof, where the floor of the desert lies. So the questions is, how did the ancient Egyptians get those huge tremendously heavy granite coffins all the way down here to this underground catacomb? They did it by completely filling up this part of the tunnel with sand – right to the very top. They then manhandled the sarcophagus from the desert above on to the sand, which filled up the hole, after which they commenced to shovel the sand out. When the sarcophagus had at length descended to the tunnel floor, where we are standing, they put wooden rollers under it and pushed it away to its niche”.

We return to Mariette Pasha’s house, drink a bottle of fizzy lemonade, known in these parts as “gazoosa”, and pack ourselves once more into our taxis. Then the bouncing, dusty journey back to Cairo begins. On the way we pass Arab men and women working patiently by the sides of irrigation canals, which bring water to the desert. The trees which grow alongside these canals are heavy with red blossoms and give shade to the people who scratch a living from this sandy soil where fields of corn grew before the desert was unleashed, and where once the kings of ancient Egypt reigned.

Despite the squalor of the poor, benighted fellahin, pleasure predominates when I think back on my stay in Egypt. I had always wanted to travel abroad, and this was my first protracted stay in a foreign country. It was also the end of an era of British colonialism, which made it doubly interesting.

The day was coming when I should have to leave Egypt. Therefore I tried in the diary I kept at the time to pass things in review.  I recorded a general impression of the fabulous city of Cairo and the way things were with me – a young and impressionable fellow coming to the end of a protracted stint of enforced military service. 

I always liked Maadi, that pretty, mostly European settlement on the banks of the Nile, just outside Cairo. The streets of Maadi were planted with trees whose branches were laden with red, sweetly smelling blossoms. One day, when I return, I shall identify the species. Today, I can no longer remember clearly exactly how they looked. But Maadi always seemed to be bathed in sunlight. The people of Maadi were upper middle class, conscious of their intellectual and social superiority, and therefore had little to do with the rough soldiery to whom we belonged. For a few weeks I used to visit a school teacher called Phillippa……..and her other name escapes me…….who was also entertaining a captain from the “Signals” camp. Needless to say, we never visited Phil on the same night. There was nothing between us. Phil was merely being kind to an English soldier who was far away from home. She was approaching forty, unmarried, although not unattractive, and had adopted a daughter, who was away somewhere at college.

I was grateful to Phil for her kindness, but there was always a constraint between us. She had a certain arrogant self-assurance that I inwardly resented. It was possibly because, coming from the east end of London as I did, and being conditioned to the English class system, I suffered from a fairly large inferiority complex. I knew some French people in Maadi, before whom, pleasant as they were, I felt the same constraints.

The fellah and the effendi………

As I grew older I would develop my own secret intellectual arrogance for those who thought that they knew everything, although in reality they had never left school. And the real wisdom, of course, is the realisation that it all behoves any man to look down on another, for we are all mortal, and during our short stay on earth we all have something to contribute to the Common Weal.

2 thoughts on “Ch6 Pt6 Saqqara, Apis, and the Step pyramid.”

  1. From Lynda
    What can I learn from this post? I gained a detailed physical insight in to Egypt in 1946, and how even the “rough soldiery” wanted to experience the history and culture around them.
    But I think this is how Jim is dealing with his trauma. He has not forgotten “Rommel’s troops” or British colonialism”, nor his POW experience. But his words immerse me with him in the heat, the yellow desert, the antiquity. He continues to weave all his senses into a past-covering blanket, seeing his current world with intensity.


  2. From Trish
    It was interesting reading Jim’s personal story about the pyramids. I am in awe of any one that can go into an enclosed environment and maintain their sanity. Being buried inside a pyramid, even if you are not alive, is certainly eternally brave.
    With the sands of time (excuse the pun), the importance of the step pyramid of 3000 BC has lost its value – raped of its historical value, virginity and given by the fellahin as baksheesh to foreigners in their personal war for daily survival. By the 1940s it was just an attachment to a site for selling ginger beer and lemon pop. What did these historical monuments mean to the people of Egypt? Probably the same that we had in Australia, when tearing down early settler buildings. The value is obvious only when they are gone – that is the quandary!
    This chapter to me is all about survival in its many forms: Jim as a POW, the Pyramids, the Fellahin, the English in Maadi, Jim’s diaries. The last paragraph is insightful to how Jim survives the history in his life: “it all behoves any man to look down on another, for we are all mortal and during our short stay on earth we all have something to contribute to the Common Weal.”


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