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.