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  • Writer's picturevsigston

Cairo: Calling Doctor Jones (Saqqara and Dashour pyramids)

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

We reluctantly woke to an early alarm on our first full day in Cairo. We were not going to be in the capital for very long and had lots we wanted to see so we managed to drag ourselves out of bed, down to breakfast and were ready to meet Reem, our guide, bright and early.

We had spent a long time debating whether to get a guide or not. The explorer in me wanted to go it alone but the historian in me wanted to make sure we didn't miss anything and to ensure we could make the most of the precious few days we would be there. In the end we found Reem (through recommendations of friends) and looking back now I am so pleased we did. She, and the company she works with, organised everything from transport to entry tickets to coffee breaks and lunches and was flexible enough to change plans to allow for tired kids and unusually chilly weather. I honestly don't believe we would have seen half as much if we'd relied on our own map reading/public transport hunting skills and the information she was able to give us about all the places we saw was invaluable. Guides in Cairo have to be qualified Egyptologists and I honestly recommend considering having one on visits here, even if just for half a day to your most favourite spot. You can book by the hour or day and good ones will help you plan the perfect itinerary.

So we bundled into our minbus and set off through the streets of Cairo to start our day at the "Bent Pyramid", or Dashour to give it it's official name. This huge monument is about 40km south of the city and was built under the rule of King Sneferu in about 2,600 BCE. It's believed to be the first attempt at a smooth sided pyramid. As you can tell from the name and the glaringly obvious kink in the side of the structure this was not an entirely successful build but gave important lessons to architects of the time and allowed Egyptians to keep improving their tombs over the years.

It was cold as we arrived, our guide and driver most upset with the wind chill and both apologising for the lack of sun. We explained that we are British and that 12°C is not especially cold to us but it certainly was strange to not see the blazing blue sky and feel the searing heat we'd been expecting from photos and videos we'd seen over the years.

Regardless of the weather the pyramid was extraordinary up close and it was great to have Reem on hand to explain the history of the building and the surrounding landscape.

Making our way around the side of the huge structure we saw wooden scaffolding and steps leading up one side and realised we were about to enter our first pyramid.

If, like me, you grew up watching Indiana Jones and documentaries about ancient Egyptians you may be able to understand how thrilled I was to be here. I felt like an archaeologist about to discover some incredible hidden treasures and took a moment to quietly thank all the brave and often stubborn explorers who had come before us and had made us being here a possibility.

The tunnels and steps inside the pyramid were crazy! Really cramped and dusty, I have never been one to feel claustrophobic but you can't help but feel a little panic as you descend deeper and deeper into the stone building. Kris had started the climb down with us but at the first low passage he stopped and declared he couldn't go any further. He is the tallest and biggest of our family and was feeling really tight for space. We told him to head back out and we'd catch up later but to my surprise I realised that after a short pause he did in fact follow us. He later said he had wanted to push himself past his discomfort and he certainly did that.

As we shuffled up and down more wooden steps, crawling through tiny passages just big enough to allow my 5ft6 (ish) frame to crawl without scraping the skin from my back, I silently hoped that our new Egyptian friend who had taken over from Reem to lead us through the maze of corridors knew what they were doing. Of course they did, and after about 20 minutes of scrambling, getting a little stuck and wishing I'd eaten a little less at breakfast we found ourselves at the innermost chamber of the pyramid.

The stones rose high above us as we marvelled at the engineering and building skills that had gone into this structure. These monuments would be amazing if made today, let alone 4,000 years ago! We were amused to see some bats had made this inner sanctum their home and our guide explained how they used little bolt holes to come in and out at feeding times. He also showed us a wonderfully clever vent system in the walls, ancient air conditioning that keeps the room cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

As we made our way back out I couldn't help but wonder if we'd peaked! Surely this was the most impressive thing you could experience here in the desert?! I was glad to be proven wrong time and time again over the next days and weeks.

From the Bent pyramid we got back in the car and made our way North about 15 KM to a place called Saqqara where we found the "Step Pyramid" or Pyramid of Pharoah Djoser. Smaller than it's brother at Dashour it is one of oldest complete stone buildings known in history. Built in about 2,670 BCE this place is perhaps most famous for the huge temple complex surrounding it. Even today they are finding more and more tombs and treasures and as you walk around the site the excitement of what might be right under your feet is palpable! I couldn't possibly list all the things we saw here, but I'll give a few highlights that I hope will give you a flavour.

To start we saw perhaps the oldest example of graffiti ever found! As our guide remarked when graffiti is done in modern times we cry that it's criminal and damaging but found here, from 3,500 years ago, we marvel at it! Although the exact message has been lost over time, written in a script long forgotten we know it states the persons name who wrote it, proof that the only thing ever written by vandals is "Bob Woz 'Ere"

We also saw our first example of hieroglyphics inside the pyramid. In extraordinarily complete condition with original colours shining through they really take your breath away. A worker who was showing us around was trying to point out something on the walls that we were struggling to see. Suddenly he turned down the lights and shone his torch at the walls and we could see a whole other layer of design. As well as the etched, coloured hieroglyphs, carved deeper into the wall is a secondary message, only viewable from a certain angle and in certain light. We took photos but I don't think any photo or description can really describe accurately what we saw - I hope you get to see it in person one day.

The court of columns in the temple ruins is the last thing I'll mention here. The Ancient Egyptians were all about grandeur and ceremony and rows of huge stone, elaborately carved columns are found all over the country. Here they are carved to resemble bundles of reeds and walking in among the 20 or so pairs was really humbling.

Please know that this is just a flavour of Dashour and Saqqara, they are much less famous and less visited than the Giza complex in the city but I believe incredibly worth taking time to see. Take a guide and give yourselves plenty of time to take it all in.

By now we were cold and the thought of heading to more outside spaces was not very enticing so we agreed to change our schedule and after lunch we headed for the Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square. It's official name is The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities but even it's website calls it The Egyptian Museum so we'll stick with that. For all the treasures inside the building itself is quite remarkable, built in the early 1900's and for decades the biggest museum of it's kind it is a little run down and in need of some TLC now. Later in 2022 it will be undoubtedly be overshadowed by it's new, modern rival "The Grand Egyptian Museum" being built in Giza. Still that didn't detract from our visit.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for visiting this place is to see the treasures of King Tutankhamun's tomb. At the time we visited this museum was the best place to see some of the 5,000 pieces of jewellery, pottery, statues and other paraphernalia found in the tomb in the 1920's. There is no denying that the sheer volume of objects found was extraordinary and, weeks later, when we visited the tomb itself in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, I was struck by the emotion that must have been felt at the time.

Other highlights from the museum for me were the sphinx, statue head and other information about Queen Hatshepsut, who would become a firm favourite of mine over our time in Egypt. She was an extraordinary woman, taking over leadership of the country at a time when women were seen as not capable of such roles and absolutely smashing preconceived ideas of female frailty.

Plus I was blown away by the treasures from the tomb of Yuya and Tuya, including a 20 metre long, perfectly preserved papyrus. It's written in hieroglyphs and describes "The book of the dead": information, spells, rituals and and instructions for people who need to navigate the afterlife. I could have spent hours looking at this collection alone.

I can't put into a blog post everything we saw in that first day. We climbed pyramids, found hidden messages in temples, drove through the busy streets of Cairo, ate the first of many (many) falafel sandwiches, roamed a museum built over 100 years ago filled with treasures from further back than my mind will allow me to comprehend and ended back at our hotel, legs aching, brains swimming and super excited for what the next day would bring.

We resorted to room service that night, keen to get to bed early, which we did. Nothing could have kept us awake and we all slept soundly looking forward to our next Egyptian adventures.

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