I've now been living in Cairo for exactly one week, and our group's current lodgings feel exceedingly luxurious after living on the road in Morocco. In the past, St. Olaf groups have stayed at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, located just off of Tahrir Square.
in light of recent events, however, we have been moved to the dorms of the American University in Cairo in Zamalek, an island neighborhood in the Nile. Island living has been treating us well, but one of my favorite days thus far was spent on the mainland, visiting one of the most iconic historical sites in the world. Yep, you guessed it; the Giza Pyramids.
We caught our first glimpse of the triangular outlines through the haze of Cairo pollution and the skeletons of abandoned and unfinished urban housing. Soon we were off the bus, trailing behind our guide and into the belly of the Great Pyramid. Amazingly, we entered without waiting in a long queue; yet another tangible result of the recent Arab Spring. Inside the pyramid we encountered a dark, cramped passage, slanting upwards into the center of the structure. After crawling along the stone cavities, and climbing up various ladders we found ourselves in the main burial chamber. Everything has been removed from the tomb and is now on display in museums throughout the world, but it was still mind-boggling to be within such a historic space. Although I would say that it seems like a pretty stuffy way to spend eternity.
We exited the tomb, posed for a few group shots with the immense structure, and moved on to see the second pyramid, the boat pits surrounding the graves, the museum housing a reconstruction of one of these vessels, and the ever-iconic Sphinx.
Reflecting on the whole experience, I was struck by two aspects of our tour in particular. First of all, the sheer size of the pyramids is overwhelming -- each stone matched or exceeded my own height. It was impossible to see the entirety of the Great Pyramid in one glance without stepping back into the urban sprawl of Cairo that has crept further out into the desert.
Secondly, despite the presence of the pyramid looming over the hordes of tourists, we found ourselves the main attraction several times throughout the day. Children would turn their back on the relics of their Egyptian ancestors to snap a picture of us squinting through the sunlight at our tour guide. A gaggle of schoolgirls gawked at our light hair and travel worn clothes and rushed towards us asking for our names, our nationalities. A group of young women in head scarves grabbed my arm and wrenched me into a picture. I began to feel like an animal in a zoo, and couldn't believe the fuss that was being made over us, and the apparent disinterest in the pyramids clearly meant to hold center stage.
While the incident was certainly hilarious and slightly confusing, it was not totally incomprehensible. I myself felt extremely overwhelmed at the significance of being at THE Pyramids. How many times have I seen these images in movies, read about them in books, learned about this civilization in history classes, held a dollar bill and gazed upon the cropped triangular shape? Their presence was enormous, both literally and figuratively, and it was difficult to access an appropriate reaction (remember my experience at Troy?). In fact, perhaps it was easier for these young Egyptians to focus on the strange and relatively insignificant foreigners than to process the timelessness and magnitude of the Giza Pyramids. Maybe next time I'll start snapping photos back at them.