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.

Ch6 Pt5 Pyramids and Ramses 11.

It is curious how quickly time passes. During my four months on the outskirts of Cairo, I succeeded in visiting only two spots of real interest. The chief reason for this was, of course, the fact that more often than not I was broke. I drew only a pound a week. And that doesn’t take one very far in a place where things were as expensive for Europeans as we found them in Cairo. The other reason was “the exigencies of the service”. In the army overseas you cannot always leave camp when you want. Also, when the political situation is a bit dicey, you cannot always go where you want. Other places are always “out of bounds” to private soldiers, their rarefied atmosphere being reserved exclusively for commissioned officers.  

However, we decided one day to visit the Pyramids and travelled into Cairo. In Fouad Street, we waited for the necessary tram. An Arab tout came along and told us that the bridge over the Nile had fallen down and we would therefore do better to take a taxi, which he would procure for us. We chose to treat this statement as a slight exaggeration, and sure enough, in a few minutes our tram came swaying towards us. It was full to overflowing with Arabs clinging to its sides like obstinate flies. Somehow or other we managed to find ourselves places on the running board, and the vehicle set off again at a hair-raising pace, screeching and swaying to such an extent that I was really afraid that it would turn turtle. We crossed the wide expanse of the Nile, spanned by a magnificent modern bridge. When the city was illuminated at night, the breathtaking sweep of the river at this point reminded me of the curve of the Thames between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars, where I had visited so often as a boy. On the other side of the Nile we continued to the outskirts of Cairo, and changed trams. In this new transport, we succeeded in finding ourselves places on the wooden seats, and it was then a swaying, hilarious journey through the gimcrack, jerry-built outer suburbs. We careered down a hill at full tilt, roared underneath a huge modern cement bridge, then climbed a slope and flew straight as an arrow to the tram terminus. Here we got out, rather white-faced and with small globules of sweat pearling our foreheads.

On the left, Khufu’s Great Pyramid of Giza reared itself into the sky. We approached it by a curving road, passing a restaurant, which looked as if it was falling to pieces and from which a radio blared forth most inappropriately the latest American jive number to hit the record charts. Then we found ourselves at the foot of this fantastic Pyramid, of which each stone was at least half the height of a man. We abandoned our original intention of climbing the Pyramid – it would have been a considerable task, and would have had time for nothing else. Instead we clambered up a few stones and entered the interior. 

We followed a curving passage, scaled a narrow wooden staircase, and gazed with wonder at the immense slope constructed of huge blocks of stone by which the sarcophagus had been raised into the heart of the Pyramid. We came at last to the large, empty “King’s Chamber” where the mortal remains of King Khufu or Cheops had once rested. On the walls were typically Egyptian representations of the various activities of the king and hieroglyphic writing describing his activities and triumphs. We then descended to the somewhat smaller “Queen’s Chamber”. The heat was considerable inside the pyramid, and the enormous blocks of stone on all sides, much larger than those outside, took on a menacing aspect. Supposing it all collapsed? We should be squashed like mud crabs under the heel of a giant.

This Great Pyramid, the largest of all the pyramids was truly an amazing construction. The height of the pyramid was 481 feet, and the base covered an area of 13 acres. It is said that if it were possible to put St. Peter’s Church in Rome inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, it would occupy only half the ground area. There is apparently a core of local stone within the Pyramid which it is not possible to see, but it has been estimated that the core of local stone and the original outer facing of limestone, (this latter facing now long since gone), were composed of 2,300,000 separate blocks weighing from 2½ to 15 tons each. In the face of such statistics, and having been inside this carefully built edifice which stands up to any test of modern engineering principles, the mind boggles. These tombs were built between approximately 2900 and 2750 B.C. The methods of construction must have been without the benefit of machinery such as we use today. The labour, toil, cruelty and heartbreak involved in building these monuments almost defy imagination.

From the “Queen’s Chamber” we followed a winding, sandy tunnel, and suddenly found ourselves standing in the open air, blinking in the sunlight. It was good to leave behind that tremendously impressive but claustrophobic interior. We jumped from stone to stone until we reached the flat desert sand. We circled the pyramid, marvelling at the fact that almost all of those more than two million stones, all of them large, some positively huge, had had to be cut and brought here from many miles away. A hundred thousand slaves, our guide had told us, had worked for twenty years to raise this edifice, this folly, this wonder of the world. Like a subliminal picture flashed on a screen, I saw in a split second my eight months of misery as a forced labourer in Germany, and compared that with the incredibly harsh life of a slave in Ancient Egypt working for twenty years in much harsher conditions to build this mausoleum for a Pharaoh’s corpse.

To our right another pyramid lifted itself against the blue, cloudless sky. Then it was a succession of pyramids, extending into the yellow, burning desert.

We followed the sandy path separating the two pyramids in our immediate vicinity. These huge monuments towering beside us were pitiful tokens of man’s endless search for some sort of immortality. Yet the suffering of the unwilling builders remains. Perhaps the pyramids are monuments not so much to those mighty Pharaohs of old, as to their workmen, without whose labour these wonders of the world would never have existed.

Eventually, on our left, in a sandy hollow, we sighted the Great Sphinx. The view of the back was disappointing – a mass of badly carved stone. And we saw as we came nearer that the paws had been restored with large and inappropriate bricks. But as we looked at the face of the Sphinx we understood why it had become famous.

For the blind eyes, the strong nose – strong despite the erosion of centuries and the vandalism of Napoleon’s troops nearly a hundred and fifty years before – and the thick lips, curved in an enigmatic, disdainful, merciless smile, expressed a supreme pride and an utter cruelty. The ghosts of a far-off race, at once civilised and savage, defied the passage of time, and still haunted the dry, yellow desert. One sensed a presence hostile to every being who came to profane these sacred places.

We gazed for the last time at the face of the Sphinx, then retraced our steps, reached the highway, and walked silently down to the tram stop. The coaches jerked into motion. Suddenly, the spell that had been cast over us was broken. Native vendors climbed in en route with baskets of oranges and peanuts. We sang boisterously, to the considerable amusement of our Egyptian fellow-passengers, who had no difficulty in understanding certain gestures and onomatopoeic sounds that accompanied our rather ribald repertoire. Even the child beggars, who climbed aboard, displaying their defects and amputations for baksheesh, could not dampen our spirits. Thus it was a gay, pitching, swaying journey into Cairo, illuminated now with neon signs, and very beautiful in the twilight.

A few days before my departure from Cairo, I decided, finding myself in the YMCA canteen in Soliman Pasha Street with two pounds in my pocket and time on my hands, to undertake an excursion. This was a tour to Memphis, capital of Ancient Egypt, and to Saqqara, which had once served the town as a cemetery. I allowed myself to be relieved of forty five precious piastres, and the following Sunday morning, when the tour was to take place, presented myself at the canteen.

When all the party was assembled, we were ushered through the back door into an alley, where we piled into waiting taxis. In ours there were eight people. Two passengers were squashed in the front seat with the driver. (This was a dirty, unshaven, cross-eyed man with a small circular woollen cap on his head). There were two more people on the folding seats behind him, and three others crushed into the bench seat at the back. However, nobody minded. We were looking forward to an interesting trip to Memphis and Saqqara. The director of the trip was a stout, smiling Arab, who spoke English extremely well, and always had a joke on his lips. He was the prototype, in fact, of a whole generation of post-war tourist guides whom we were to know when the world had recovered from the ravages of war, and we all entered better times. Our guide was dressed in a blue, excellently tailored galabieh, which set him aside from others. He went to considerable length to explain to us with obvious pride that this was the “national dress”. He was employed by the YMCA, and warned us not to give any tips – he would pay for everything. This was a real turn-up for the books, and we received the news with delight.

On leaving, we crossed the Nile, and passed the Zoological Gardens. Incidentally, the latter were so clean that one was driven to wonder whether the government cared more about the welfare of the caged animals than that of the beggars who swarmed the streets. We followed dusty tracks alongside sluggish canals, passed irrigation wheels whose design had not changed in five thousand years. We also made several stops for inspection by Egyptian police in white trousers and jackets, with white topees crowning their dark heads.                       

The track became more primitive. We lurched through dusty, dirty villages where Arab shops, devoid of windows, opened directly and blindly upon narrow streets. At every yard we were bounced and jostled as the car wheels slithered over potholes. In these villages, I thought, a European would not walk alone at night. 

We came to Memphis, which consisted of a few clumps of palm trees on the edge of the desert. Five thousand years ago, Memphis was the greatest city in Egypt, and the Pharaohs ruled from here. Now it is nothing, an insignificant village twenty miles up the River Nile from Cairo. As the taxis discharged their occupants, we were at once surrounded by Arabs, who either tried to sell us photographs or pieces of ancient “money” covered in verdegris and “guaranteed genuine.” Failing that, they simply held out their hands for baksheesh.

First we were shown an immense statue of the king Rameses II lying horizontally on the ground because the legs had been broken. After passing this enormous statue, carved from a single block of stone, our guide led us to a small alabaster sphinx, with the King’s head, the ceremonial false beard, and a lion’s body to represent the strength and power of the king. The sphinx had been discovered lying on its side in the Nile, where it must have remained for many years, even centuries, for the flowing waters had completely spoilt the side against which they had washed. A few goats were grazing on the poor, dry grass in the hollow around the impassive sphinx.

Then we were led to a few stones from which time had erased every inscription. They were all that was left of a great temple that had stood here centuries ago. All the other remains had been stolen by Arabs to build houses, for stones were scarce in this vicinity and had to be brought from several miles away.

The mighty king, Rameses II, back in Egypt after a military campaign to extend the boundaries of his empire, and on his way to Luxor, had had two statues made of himself, each one of which weighed eighty tons and stood upright four thousand odd years ago at the entrance to the temple. Thus spoke our Arab guide, standing legs astride, arms akimbo, his cane held lightly in a brown hand. The blue galabieh which enveloped his stout body moved in the wind, outlining his legs and belly. The tassle dangled from the red fez perched on his closely cropped head. But we listened entranced to his guttural voice speaking an obviously alien language, for he was recreating for us the time when people on this very spot, went about their business in an historic and famous city under the rule of a mighty king of civilised, barbaric Ancient Egypt. We stood on a spot where ghosts of the past were present.

The second statue of the king was lying beneath the protection of a roof of corrugated iron. The legs of this statue were also broken off, but it was the better example of the two. We clambered on to a small platform erected around it, the better to examine the carving. As on all these statues, everything had been simplified. There had been no attempt to show every muscle on the torso or the limbs. Yet the impression given was one of great strength, life and immediacy. The face was so carefully modelled that it seemed to have an almost photographic exactness. What tremendous labour to carve such a statue from a single block of stone. And what tremendous labour to move it down the Nile on rafts and then transfer it across land to Memphis.