Your Hand in My Hand

Pyramids Shmyramids
Sunday 20
th February 2022

Despite having been disturbed by barking dogs in the alleyway in the middle of the night we got up this morning reasonably refreshed after a  good night's sleep. It was another early start though. Hany asked us to be at breakfast at 6:30am ready for a quick getaway.

It was served up on the 10th floor with a wonderful view of the sun rising over a misty Cairo and the Nile at the point where it splits around the island of Gezira.

Hany was already there, as were the other seven members of our group who we hadn't met. We didn't properly introduce ourselves just a general "hello everybody".

Our attention was drawn to the buffet and I went straight for the ful medames, a traditional Egyptian breakfast of cooked fava beans, flavoured with cumin. The "ful" or sometimes spelt "foul" which was closer to Julie's thoughts on the dish, was served warm with a few accompaniments, such as extra cumin, cayenne pepper, halved lemons for juicing, and hard boiled eggs. 

I had attempted to make this at home before coming over but the dish was over cooked and was more of a warm bean puree. It was exciting to see how it was meant to be served.

They also had some really nice flatbread and slow roasted tomatoes which Julie also tried as well as plenty of bread rolls and cream cheese. 

After breakfast we met one of our group on our way back to our room. She was called Marilyn and came from a town called Rhinebeck between New York and Boston. "I can trace my family back to Wales" she said when she knew where we were from. With a surname like Morris there had to be a connection there somewhere.

Packed and ready to leave we took our bag to room 302, a day room organised to store all our luggage for the day. Here we met Kari and Mohamed, another couple from our group. "Hi, I'm Kari, as in the car" she said. She was very chirpy for so early in the morning!

We all gathered in the lobby and left the hotel before 8am. We did this to escape the traffic. Despite technically already being in Giza, we still had a half hour drive to the pyramids. If we had waited another 30 minutes and the same journey would have taken us an hour.  

We got onto the ring road and headed out of the city. "This all used to be farmland" said Hany.

He explained how the city had expanded, especially recently. After the Arab Spring and the revolution in 2011 developers took advantage of a void of any government control and built unchecked. Now some of those built without permission are being pulled down, partly or wholly demolished. There were many examples where the colourful internal walls of homes were now the external wall.  

Hany also drew our attention to unfinished properties. "They do this because they don't have to start paying tax" he said, although I couldn't tell the difference between an unfinished or partially demolished property.

Before too long we came to the massive structure of the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), a highly anticipated purpose built museum to house all the spectacular ancient artifacts from Egypt's antiquity. It's opening has been delayed and postponed and delayed yet again, the latest being blamed on the pandemic. It's now scheduled to be unveiled in November 2022.

"Well, that's a reason to return to Cairo someday." I said.

The GEM was just over a mile away from the pyramids and we all got quite excited at our first glimpse of them in the morning haze.

We pulled up at a check point where the police waved us through after a cursory glance.

Egypt has had its troubles in the past with terror attacks targetting tourists. As recently as December 2018 a bomb planted on a tour bus killed four Vietnamese tourists at the pyramids. Whilst these incidents were rare the country's reputation as a safe place to visit has suffered badly. So it was reassuring to see a police presence. 

The bus parked up and we all walked over towards the ticket booth. Whilst we waited for Hany to return with our entrance tickets we got talking to Teresa and her son Anthony, they were from a town on Long Island, not far from New York. He was in his late teens early twenties. 

After going through an airport style security gate where our bags were scanned and we walked through a metal detector, our tickets were checked and we were offically inside the Giza Plateau World Heritage Site.

We followed Hany up towards the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the undisputed wonder of the world, the only surviving structure from the ancient Seven Wonders.

He was very knowledgable and gave us a crash-course on the pyramids before giving us an hour free time to walk around or even go inside if we liked.

The three pyamids at Giza were built by three generations of Pharaohs during the 26th century BC by the kings of the fourth dynasty of ancient Egypt. The first and largest was built by Khufu, followed by Khafre (the son) and Menkaure (the grandson).

It's is generally accepted the Great Pyramid was constructed in just under twenty years but Hany suggested it could have been built in just over ten years.

He explained that it is written in ancient texts that it was built over 31 seasons . The calendar followed the cycles of the Nile, Akhet - the flood season, Peret - the growing season and Shemet - the harvest season. Although another interpretation could be 31 years because those who worked on the construction were not slaves but loyal subjects who would have been busy during the growing and harvesting season and at a bit of a loose end during the floods. Hany spoke with considerable excitement as if this was his own hypothesis. 

Over two million blocks of limestone was used in its construction, all quarried from immediately to the South of the pyramids or the finer limestone stone for the casing stones from Tura, a mining town a few miles to the East, and transported on a barge along a canal dug out from the Nile.

The Nile flowed a lot nearer 4,500 years ago, especially during the flood season.

Each block weighed over a tonne and experts believe that they dragged them up and along wooden ramps, wrapped around and built on the layer below. Originally the Great Pyramid stood at 480 feet tall and would have been clad in a smooth white limestone shell.

Once Hany had finished with the incredible history lesson we all went our own way. The first thing we did was to head straight for the pyramid to touch it, feel it, laying our hands on the rocks.

We could see people queuing to get inside the burial chambers but we decided against it. Choosing instead to walk around the pyramid.

Along the way we played one-liner bingo. Hany had prepared us for all the different humourous one-liners the hawkers use to get you to engage in conversation. "Once you start to talk to them, they won't leave you alone."  he warned "they will hypnotise you into buying their inferior quality souvenir at triple the price."

"Hey, you look Egyptian, you could be my brother. Where are you from?" was the first one we heard. We even got bonus points for a new one "Hey, I like your hat. Where's your horse?" 

We continued along the base of the pyramid, taking photographs whilst fending off hawkers with a polite "no thank you", faking deafness or answering them back in Welsh which confused them.

One approach that Hany didn't mention was the one where they offer their advice for the best place to take a photograph. "This corner is the perfect place for your pyramid photo" he said.  I don't know how they expected to earn an income from this, unless they would insist on a reward if you took their advice, or offer to take your photo then demand some comission. 

Having reached the first corner, and taken my photogrpah before anyone told me too, we saw our first camels. They were munching on some grass for breakfast. I turned to Julie and her answer was still "No. I'm not getting on one!"

Despite the saddle making them look like they had two humps all the camels of the sahara are the one-humped dromedary type.  In fact after looking at an image of the two-humped central Asian bactrian camel it was difficult to imagine how a saddle would fit . 

Beyond the camels we could see the district of Nazlat Al Batran in the near distance. It made us realise how the city had encroached all the way literally to the base of the Giza plateau.

We walked along the Eastern side and were then drawn away from the pyramid over a wooden causeway towards three smaller pyramids where Khufu's mother, Queen Hetepheres, his wife Queen Meritites and either another wife (or possibly his daughter) Queen Henutsen were entombed .

I spent most of this time trying to clean my camera lens. It had this permanent mark on all the photos I took. I just couldn't get it clean and using Julie's cashmere scarf just made it worse!  It was stressing me out until I gave up and used my iPhone.

We returned to cirumnavigating the Great Pyramid. When we reached the second corner we saw the Pyramid of Khafre, with its cone of smooth limestone still intact. If anything it looked more impressive than the Great Pyramid. Its slope was a bit steeper and an optical illusion, (because it was built on higher ground), made it look even taller when in fact it was 40 feet shorter. 

Whilst I was trying to get a decent wide-angle photo of the entire pyramid of Khufu I was being bothered by this guy asking to see my ticket. He had a lanyard around his neck which made him look quite official. I ignored him and he eventually left us alone. I really don't know what his angle was?

Anyway, this unnerved Julie a little and instead of continuing our walk around the pyramid we retraced our steps back to where we started.

In no time we had reached the opposite corner where we could see the sun rising above the pyramid's summit. This reminded me that not only was the construction of these man-made moutains miraculous but they were also perfectly aligned with the cardinal points of North, South, East and West. To think they were built 4500 years ago! How on earth did they acheive it?

The Pyramid of Khafre came into view once again, looking even more striking from this angle. Hany had asked us not to walk over towards it as we were going to have a closer look later, and in any case we would never make it there and back and have meaningful time to look around it within an hour.

We still had another 10 minutes before we were due back at the minibus so we crossed the road and went to have a closer look at the funerary temple of the Western cemetary. Here were the tombs of lesser royals and high ranking officials such as viziers, prophets and high priests. It covers a large area but we didn't explore beyond a small courtyard, before it was time to return. 

When we arrived back we noticed the name of the minibus travel company was Santa Claus Travel. It even had an image of good old St.Nicholas and his sleigh on the side of the bus. Most peculiar! 

With everyone back on board we drove South beyond the Khufu's pyramid towards the pyramid of Khafre standing tall in the centre of the necropolis. The smaller pyramid of  Menkaure stood offset further to the South.

Some have suggested that the positioning of the pyramids represent the stars of the Orion constellation but that to me seemed a little too far fetched to suggest it was planned from the outset to have three generations build their tombs in a precise layout.

It's almost like suggesting they were built by aliens.

Then again the three pyramids, by sheer coincidence or not, match quite precisely the stars of Orion.

We conitnued past Khafre where we could see how it had been cut into the plateau to create the base level.  Then in the distance we saw the pyramid of  Menkaure with a large gash in its Northern face.  It was the result of an attempt in the 12th century to quarry the pyramids. They began with the small one but found it too difficult and gave up. 

The road continued past both pyramids. We were on our way to the camels.

There were a few market stalls selling souvenirs set up near to the place from where the camel rides set off.  As we got off the minibus Hany reminded us that there was no need to tip the camel handlers as he will be doing that on behalf of the whole group. 

We had earlier given him £30 each to cover all the tipping for the whole trip. Tipping is very much part of the Egyptian culture. Doing it collectively like this  meant that all the hotel porters, minibus drivers, train porters we came across as a group were taken care of by our guide.

Hany asked those who didn't want to ride a camel to wait over by a low wall just beyond the souvenir stalls.

Julie wasn' the only deserter. Doris (although at first I thought she was called Loris!) also opted out of the camel ride. We hadn't properly met Doris and her partner yet. She was from Germany and Sydney was from Mumbai although had lived and worked in Germany for many years.

The rest of us walked through a herd of sitting camels towards those waiting for us.  Their gangly legs were curious things, the way they folded in on themselves. The hind legs hinged the opposite way to the front. They looked very comfortable sat down, legs tucked beneath them.

I got on my camel with ease. Left foot in the stirrup then swing the right leg over a surprisingly wide body.

Then came the critical moment, the transition from sitting camel to standing camel. Julie and I had watched plenty of hilarious failed attempts on You Tube. Apparently the way not to do it was to just sit there like you were on your armchair at home. 

In a slightly jerky movement the camel lifts itself from the back first, throwing you forward, before readdressing the balance with the front legs. The knack was to lean back whilst holding on to the saddle's horn for dear life.

Thankfully it all went according to plan.

With everyone mounted safely they tied us all together into groups of three camels and began to lead us down quite a steep path. This part was actually more challenging than the camel getting to its feet.

Once we got off the slope it was a comfortable ride across the sand towards the pyramids. It didn't take long to get into the rythm of riding, moving with the motion, not to disimilar riding a donkey on Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The only difference was the backdrop of the undisputed wonder of the ancient world.

After no more than five minutes we stopped for a photo opportunity. I handed my phone over to the camel handler to take a photo of me astride Camila the Camel. As cheesy as it was, I really liked the end result. I thought it really captured my inner Lawrence.


However he should have quit whilst he was ahead because he then forced me into performing some  embarassing tourist poses of "pinching the pyramid" and a bizzare "holding up a rock" pose which I was less impressed with. 

Once everyone had the souvenir photos taken we made our way back.

The transition from standing camel to sitting camel seemed a lot smoother. As I got off the camel handler rubbed his fingers together using the hand-signal for money. "Go and see Hany Mustafa, he'll sort you out" I said to which he huffed in resignation.

We all made our way over to where Julie and Doris were waiting for us. I spent the first few minutes walking like John Wayne as they say, feeling properly bow legged. I should have done my research because the proper way to ride a camel is sat further up on the saddle with your right leg wrapped around the horn and hooked in place by your left.

Julie was surprised by how quick we had been. "Well, how was it?" she asked. "Apparently I'm a natural" I joked, refering back to the one and only time I had horse riding lessons!

Hany took this opportunity to take a group photo. From left to right next to Julie and I was Marilyn, then Doris, with Rebecca kneeling at the front, then came Teresa and her son Anthony, then Sydney, next to Michelle, and on the end Mohammed and Kari. 

We returned to the Santa Claus minibus and drove back towards the pyramids, before turning right towards the pyramid of Menkaure.  We had 15 minutes for a quick look.

As with most pyramids and royal tombs in ancient Egypt they were built during the lifetime of the Pharaoh and it's believed that Menkaure died before the completion of his.

The unfinished granite casing seemed to point towards them stopping mid construction.  What they left behind was an insight to how the casing stones may have been built, irregular sized stones were first placed with a rough cut edge, before being cut perfectly smooth.  

Despite this interesting feature, it was the magnificence of the pyramid of Khafre that was holding our attention. We spent most of our time gazing at its awesomeness.  Once again we had to make do with admiring it from afar.

We were briefly distracted by a few camels on the horizon where we had stood earlier but we soon returned our gaze towards Khafre.

A quick glance at our watch (or fitbit - I don't wear a watch) and it was time to return to the minibus. We all seemed to arrive at the same time. It was nice to see that everyone was quite respectful of Hany's requests.

After a quick head count we were all aboard and we drove back towards where we began, but then turned right, on a road that took us downhill towards the edge of the city where we were to find the Great Sphinx.

We got off the bus and walked through a tourist market selling the usual souvenirs. I had been here before, over 40 years ago. I remember buying two small "brass" statues , the famous head of Nefertiti and a figure of a woman dancing.

Seeing the pyramids at the age of 13 was such an amazing experience and one that filled me with a sense of adventure that has stayed with me ever since. 


From the market we walked towards the Sphinx, then Hany handed over separate tickets that allowed us to get closer to the mythical part man part lion creature, 

We entered a small temple which is simply known as the Valley Temple and followed a route through, up some steps, and back outside onto a ledge.

It's was incredible to be this close.  We stood at the edge in awe of this 4500 year old statue. How it had survived for so long is a miracle.

The erosion to the body was clear to see. The sad fact is that the structure is deteorating rapidly now more than ever and has undergone several restoration projects over the past 100 years.  Some sections such as the front legs and the hind quarters have almost been rebuilt with limestone blocks.

There was some scaffolding up along the mid-section which showed the restoration was an ongoing battle.

Experts believe it was carved in situ out of the hill.  From our position we could see the area surrounding the Sphinx was dug out of the rock. Although by the turn 19th century the sphinx was up to its neck in sand, only its head visible. Italian began the excavation revealing what was underneath. 

We could also just about see the "dream stele" a dark granite slab placed between the sphinx' front legs a thousand years after the rule of Khafre by a lesser-known pharaoh Thutmose IV.  It had an inscription recording a dream in which he was asked to clear away the sand that had covered the sphinx.

With a slow but constant flow of people we decided to move from our vantage point, further up the hill, to avoid causing a bottleneck. We came to a spot level with its head.

In profile we could clearly see that it had lost its nose. Many blame the soldiers of Napoleon's army using it for target practice. Hany wasn't too sure, suggesting that the French are very cultured and love art. "I don't believe they would do it" he said.

In fact there are sketches of the sphinx dated before Napoleon's time that show the nose was already missing.

It wasn't the only piece missing. It also once had a ceremonial beard. However the chin looked in perfect condition so it probably was a separate piece of limestone added to the structure.

We moved on again, to the far end, where we looked back along the length of its body, making out its hind legs and its tail. This section of the sphinx was almost entirely wrapped in brickwork by over eager restorators.  Although some of the restoration had been essential.

After reaching the end we looped around back down the hill to where we began where we spent a few more minutes gazing at its enigmatic face. Some say it could even be the face of Khafre. It certainly formed part of the causeway leading up to his pyramid.

We waited at the meeting point for all the group to return before leaving.

I asked Hany if we had time to walk over to the front of the Great Sphinx "Yes, of couse" he replied making me feel as if it was my idea but I'm sure we were going there anyway.

 We came to a seating area, rows of permanent seats for the nightly light show. Julie decided to sit down and admire the view from there whilst I strode across a wide open space aiming to stand directly in line with the sphinx.

It was a breathtaking sight,  the classic view of the pyramids, guarded by the Great Sphinx.

After taking all the photos I wanted I stopped and looked. I imagined looking at this 4500 years ago. We British think Stonehenge is impressive, they were bult around the same time, but this is on a different scale. It's no wonder that the Pharaohs were considered to be gods by their subjects. The power wielded to achieve this must have been absolute. 

I could have so easily spent all day here, soaking it all in but our time at the pyramids was up. In our own time we all returned to Hany and made our way back to the Santa Claus mobile.  It was just before midday and we were begining to feel hungry, so it was the perfect time to stop for lunch.

Only a short drive from the Sphinx, on the corner of El-Malek Fouad and the main Al Mansoureya Road, we stopped at a Koshary restaurant called Decimal (I think). 

I had mentioned to Hany yesterday how much I wanted to try this simple rice, lentils and pasta topped with some tomato sauce,  a humble dish considered to be Egypt's national dish. I felt like we were here because I expressed an interest in this dish which felt like such a compliment.  

We all sat down at three tables pushed together for the twelve of us.

I was so excited when my meal arrived. The rice, vermicelli and short-cut macaroni formed the base of the dish. It was then topped with the lentils, a few chickpeas and crispy fried onions, A rich garlicky tomato sauce was served in a separate bowl on the side for you to administer yourself.

Then to share between three or four of us was another bowl of hot a spicy tomato sauce and some pieces of crispy fried pitta bread. It all went on top and I gave it a quick stir as best as I could without spilling any. It was a huge portion!

I loved it. I couldn't get enough of it. In fact once I had finished mine I started eating Julie's koshari.

 It was followed with dessert, whether we wanted some or not. It was a milky rice pudding which was a surprise but as it happened it was one of my favourite. This one tasted fine even if we were eating it straight out of the packet.

When we came to pay we were pleasantly surprised it was only 50 LE each for the koshari, rice pudding and we even had a drink included. They must have had a meal-deal promotion.  It was great value, especially considering the size of the portions.

Back in the minibus we drove across the city towards Tahir Square.

Cairo's roads are notorously congested. So much so that the government have decided to relocate and build a New Cairo City 40 miles East.

Hany pointed out how people waiting for local mini bus services have come up with recognised hand-signals for certain destinations, for example moving the hand in a circular motion means "Are you going to Tahir Square?"

From Tahir Square it was a short-distance to the Egyptian museum.

Despite the imminent opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum I was pleased to learn that all the main artefacts usually on display here were still here, despite thousands of items already been moved.

The building itself was still something to admire, designed by a Frenchman and built by Italians in 1902 to house the ever increasing discoveries made of Egyptian Antiquities during the 19th century. It was a lovely coral colour.

We began out in front with a red granite statue of a sphinx from the mortuary temple of Thutmoses III

We walked inside and were greeted by two great statues. To our left Rameses II, arguably the second most famous pharaoh ever (behind Tutankhamun of couse) and a lesser known to the right, who I never did find out who it was.

Hany moved seemlessly from tour guide to museum guide as he took us around ensuring we didn't miss the greatest hits.  Turning left we moved chronologically through ancient Egypt, begining with several massive stone sarcophagi and large pieces of walls covered in hieroglyphs from the Old Kingdom.

As we turned the corner we entered a room focusing on the pharaohs of the pyramids. The first was Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, with one of the smallest statues in the museum. It was only 7.5cm tall but was beautifully carvedfrom ivory. Apparently it was the only statue of Khufu that has been found to date.

In contrast the next statue was a show of strength. A life sized seated Khafre carved from an extremely hard  stone known as diorite. It had a very powerful physical presence. It was one of 23 identical staues found in the Valley Temple next to the Great Sphinx.

Hany drew our attention to a falcon, which represented the god Horus, perched behind his head. He suggested that whilst it symbolised protection it also served as a useful physical support for the head.

Completing the trinity of the Giza pyramid pharaohs was Menkaure, standing as a triad, with Hathor the goddess of joy& love (identfied by the sun disc and cow horns) to his right and a provincial deity to his left. This was one of four triads found in his valley temple on the Giza plateau. 

Pharaoh Menkaure was wearing the oddly shaped crown of Upper Egypt. Hany explained that usually it's "Up North" and "Down South"  but here in Egypt it's all comparitive to the Nile. As you travel "up river" against the flow of the Nile, you travel to Upper Egypt.

 "The Nile is the only major river of the world that flows South to North" he claimed.

Menkaure was also wearing the ceremonial beard of kings but Hany didn't mention the two small hands on his upper arm. I should have asked what they represented? but I didn't.

We left the pyramid kings and entered a room full of colour. The painted statues in here were cut from limestone and still had their pigmentation which was astonishing considering their age. These were a mind-blowing  4500 years old.

The first we came across were the statues of Rahotep, the brother of Khufu, and his wife Naforet.

Then we came to a lovely family portrait of Seneb, the funerary priest of Khufu. He was held tenderly by his wife and his two children, holding their fingers to their mouths, standing where his legs would have been. It's then you realise that Seneb was a dwarf. 

Hany pointed out the convention of painting the women as fair skinned and the men with darker tones.

We continued our journey through time, stopping some 600 years later in the 11th Dynasty to admire the painted statue of dark skinned pharaoh Mentuhotep II wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt. He was known as a reunifer of Lower and Upper Egypt after a period of turbulence and began the Middle Kingdom that ruled for almost 300 years.

I crossed the hallway to look at a bas-relief that caught my attention. It was a scene of tenderness between a pharaoh king and another. I don't know who they were or if they were male or female, or if they were about to kiss but it appeared to be a beautiful moment captured in stone.

Moving on, we passed the big head of Queen Hatshepsut placed on a pillar in the middle of the hallway. We had now moved to the begining of the New Kingdom when she reigned as Pharaoh at the turn of the 16th century BC.  She was the wife of Pharaoh Thutmose II and held on to power after his death. Strangely her son, Thutmose III tried his best to remove her from the record books.

At first glance I thought she was male but apparently the wearing of a false beard was a standard practice for the image of pharaohs. This piece was recovered from her spectacular mortuary temple near Luxor. With those large eyes and half a smile she was quite beguiling.

We continued through the ages with the statue of Akhenaten. He was certainly portrayed as being an odd shape, with a thin face and a bloated stomach.

He is known for changing his royal name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten when he decided to change the state religion to only worship the sun god Aten but he is probably best known by his association to others. He was married to Queen Nefertiti and was the father of Tutankhamun. 

We had now reached the end of the corridor, where the artefacts continued through the dynasties but instead we walked up the stairs to the first floor to find the treasures of Tutankhamun. 

At the top of the staircase we came to a large guilded box, almost 3 metres tall, 5 metres long, kept inside a glass cabinet. It was the first shrine from the tomb of Tutankhamun. 

Inside the glass cabinet, two ladies were painstakingly touching up the gold leaf, preparing it to be moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum to join three other shrines which were originally nested inside this one protecting the sarcophagus which contained the boy king.

The shrine was made of wood and almost entirely covered by a repeating pattern of columns and knots in gold leaf over a stunning blue glazed ceramic inlay. They represented the spine of Osiris and the knot of Isis, the husband and wife team of Egyptian mythology.

This and the other thousands of artefacts recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered a hundred years ago in 1922 by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings. It was the most important find of Egyptian antiquity ever.

Next to capture our attention was another smaller shrine, one that protected the canopic vases. These vases contained, with the exception of the heart, all the internal organs, even the brain. It was the practice of the mumification process. It was believed that once the pharaohs had reached the afterlife they could then reuse their organs.

It was flanked on all four sides by a goddess, with arms outstretched in protection. Each one slightly different, representing Isis, Nephthys, Neith and Serket, identified individually by a symbol above their headdress.

I looked closer at one of them. She had something that resembled a scorpion on her head. So she must have been the goddess Serket, protector from venom.

In the next cabinet were the canopic vases. Of course they weren't your run of the mill vase but were made from alabaster in the image of the pharaoh. They were a minature reproduction of a sarcophagus, 39cm tall.

The detail was exquisite. The black paint creating the eyes looked like they were painted yesterday as were the warm red of the lips.  They certainly weren't ordinary vases. 

Hany paused from his museum guide duties and told us to enter the Tutankhamun room. The famous gold death mask of Tutankhamun was on display. He wasn't permitted to guide anyone through to ensure a steady flow of people and not create a bottleneck. 

I was so excited to finally see it. When I visited forty years ago it was away on tour around the museums of the world, so I never got to see it. 

We walked inside a darkly lit room with the spotlight firmly shining on the mask in the centre. We walked straight for the masterpiece. It was displayed inside a glass cabinet and possible to get really close. There was hardly anyone else in the room so we took our time to study its absolutely stunning detail.

It was made out of solid gold. Around the neckline were inlaid gemstones of a reddish-brown, a dark blue and vivd turquoise colours.  His ceremonial beard neaty braided. The headdress, known as a nemes, had a grey inlay creating, with the gold, the stripes of the cloth. Positioned on the forehead were the cobra and vulture of Lower and Upper Egypt declaring Tutankhamun as ruler of the whole.

I stared into his eyes of white quartz and black obsidian, standing face to face. I was speechless, filled with awe. Incredble.

I moved to the back to be surprised at the amount of detail found below the headdress. An inscription in hieroglyphs from the Book of the Dead filled the entire back and shoulders. 

Photographs were not allowed. An employee stood guard at all times, so it wasn't even an option to sneak a snapshot. (I got these from Wikipedia Commons)

There were other pieces on display around the room. Literally thousands of other artefacts were discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter almost a hundred years ago in November 1922 in the Valley of the Kings. It took them ten years to trcover and catalogue them all.

I kept on returning to the mask for one last look but we had to leave eventually.

We followed Hany next to the Papyrus room where we saw some amazing pieces of ancient paper. One displayed along the entire length of the wall and was perfectly preserved.  It was found in the tomb of Yuya and Thuya.

Neither Yuya nor his wife were pharaohs but they were certainly well connected. Yuya was a wealthy landowner and became a prominent courtier in the royal court of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and Thuya was already a member of the extended royal family as a descendant of Queen Ahmose-Nefertari.

At the time of their deaths they were the in-laws to the pharaoh, as their daughter Tiye married Amenhotep III.  One of her titles was the Royal Mother of the Great Wife of the King!

We looked closer at the incredible 19.37 metre scroll. Moving from left to right it illustrated 190 chapters of mortuary and funeral rituals and continued to the journey into the afterlife. Its intention was to be a guide book for the deceased. It was known as The Book of the Dead and was a customary funerary piece. This was one of the most complete examples found. 

I focused in on one scene, where Osiris, god of the underworld sat on a throne inside a kiosk, receving offerings.

We moved on to another piece of papyrus recovered from the tomb of Djoser,  a priest of the cat goddess Bastet during the Ptolemic period, around 300BC

I'm not too sure why, but Hany was more excited about this piece. It was just one scene from the book of the dead, from a much more recent time and wasn't in the best condition.

Still it illustrated the Judgement of Osiris, the final test where the heart was weighed against a feather from the goddess Ma'at. If the scales are balanced then Osiris would allow the deceased entry to the after life. If it fails then the heart would be devoured by Ammut, represented by a hippopotamus with a crocodile head, and the deceased would remain eternally dead.

Wow, who came up with this crazy stuff?

We left the papyrus behind and came to the coffin and mummy of Yuya. It was certainly quite eerie looking at the preserved remains of his body. The remains were in remarkable condition. It was kept in an environment controlled glass cabinet to stop any further deterioration.

 His facial features, the lips, the nose, even his eye lids were all still intact. You could even see his curly blond hair at the back of the head. I don't know if hair changes colour when you're mumified but I wasn't expecting blond.   

There was a school of thought suggesting he wasn't Egyptian.

What is written and a known fact was that Yuya and Thuya's daughter married the Pharaoh Amenhotep III and that their son became Pharoah Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamun. So they were in fact great-grandparents to the boy king.

Come to think of it looking at the sarcophagus there was a family resemblence!   

Joking aside if Hany had said "this is the coffin of Tutankhamun" then I probably would have believed him. The face on the coffin was done in a very similar style. 

Further down the sarcophagus there was a beautiful necklace design in the same colours as found on Tutankhamun's death mask, the dark blue, reddish brown and turquoise. It was then followed by the image of a falcon with outstretched wings in the same colours.

At the end of the hallway we came to the death masks of Yuya and Thuya. They were made from what's called cartonnage, layers of papyrus and plaster, essentially papier mache, then covered in gold leaf.

I focused on the one in excellent condition, assuming it was the face of Thuya given its quite feminine features but Hany assured me that it was the death mask of Yuya.

There was far more artfeacts on display recovered from Yuya and Thuya's tomb. These treasures when they were found in the Valley of the Kings in 1908 were the most complete burial site found, second only to Tutankhamun discovered a few years later.

We had now completed half of the first  floor and had spent over an hour in doing so. It was time for Hany to take a break from his guiding duties and give us some free time to explore the rest of the museum.

We stood looking over the great hall planning where to go next. Hany had suggested a visit to a side room filled with mummified animals. It sounded gruesome yet fascinating. 

It turned out to be just as bizarre as  we thought. The most common animal was a cat but there was all sorts of mumified creatures inside the room, including the remains of a cow, a monster fish, even a massive Nile corocdile. Turns out that preserving crocodiles was a common practice in Upper Egypt and escpecially in Nubia, a region further South.

The one that caught our attention the most was a dog, recovered near the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the King. I'm not too sure about the baboon's story but it's believed that they were pets who were scarificed to accompany the pharaoh on his journey to the afterlife.

Next we returned downstairs and walked through the rooms through which we hadn't visited. We breezed through them a lot quicker stopping only at those which stood out like the granite statue of Ramses III between the gods Horus and Seth, represented by the head of a falcon and a dog respectively. They appear to be placing the white crown of Lower Egypt onto his head.

I had always thought the god with head of a dog or jackal was always Anubis but this was not so. I clearly needed to brush up on my ancient Egyptian mythology.

Anubis was the son of Nephthys the wife and sister of Seth, but was allegedly conceived by Osiris the brother of both Seth and Nephthys. Incest clearly wasn't an issue but if you were the sons and daughters of Geb and Nut,  the Egyptian equivalent of Adam and Eve, you didn't have much choice. 

Although, whilst I'm no expert but that story doesn't hold up. It would make more sense to me if Osiris and Nephthys were expecting a child, then out pops Anubis, with the head of a jackal, then all fingers would point accusingly towards Seth. 

Anyway, when discovering the truth about Nephthys indiscretion with Osiris, Seth murdered his brother throwing the cosmos into chaos. Which also draws parallels with the story of Cain and Abel.

 It's not beyond the imagination that the whole creation story in the Old Testament is loosely based on this ancient Egyptian mythology. After all Moses who lead his people out of Egypt to the promised land was effectively raised a prince in the court of a pharaoh, possibly Ramses II.


We continued walking around, ending up in the central hall by the side of the colossal statue of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye sat side by side with their three daughters at their feet. The Queen had her arm around the waist of her Pharaoh. It was a beautiful intimate touch within such a formal pose.

They were seven metres tall and by far the largest artefact in the museum.

The hall was filled with other large pieces. One really interesting artefact was a pyramidion, the final piece of rock placed on top of a pyramid. This was from the Black Pyramid of Pharaoh Amenemhat III in Dashur, a royal necropolis some 25 miles South of Cairo, built around late nineteenth centuty BC

It was carved on one side with a sun disc and two cobras in the centre of falcon wings over a pair of eyes. Then came a few lines of hieroglyphs one of which was his cartouche, his royal name enclosed inside an elongated oval shape.  

Hieroglyphs were such an incredible method of writting down what was spoken. All knowledge of what the symbols meant had been lost until the discovery of the Rosetta stone during the 19th century. It was a stele, a granite slab carved with a decree in ancient hieroglyph, another script known as Demotic and then ancient Greek, of which there was a great deal of understanding. This was the key needed to decypher the ancient text.

The Rosetta stone isn't here in Cairo, it's in the British Museum, London but there was another similar stele here called the Decree of Canopus which was also trilingual and used just as much, if not more  to assist in decyphering the hieroglyphics.

By now we had reached the back of the museum where much of the artefacts were either being prepared to be moved or had already been boxed up or wrapped in cellophane ready to be shipped across to the Grand Egyptian Museum. 

We made our way towards the exit. It was time to leave. We had really enjoyed our time amongst the antiquities, learning a little along the way.

The last artefact we saw was the beautiful granite sphinx of Hatshepsut, one of six recovered from her mortuary temple in Deir el-Bahri near Luxor. She now faces the gift shop through which we left.

Here you could buy anything from a pharaoh erasure to top your pencil to a very large granite replica statue. What we bought were a few postcards and a hieroglyph stencil set intended for one of the grandkids but I ended keeping it for myself.   

Back outside in the gardens we picked up a coffee from a booth in the courtyard, overlooked by a large billboard with the image of Premier League footballer, Liverpool legend and Egyptian hero Mo Salah, advertising a mobile phone.

" I'd rather not sit here looking at him" I said reliving nightmares of him terrorising the United defence and scoring a hatrick in a humilating 5-0 thrashing last October. We moved around the corner towards the front of the museum.

We had timed ourselves well, giving us some time to sit and drink our coffee before meeting up with Hany and the rest of the group at the rendevouz point.

Back on the Santa Claus bus we crossed the Nile and returned to our hotel to collect our luggage, ready to leave for the train station. There was no news on our missing rucksack. It was becoming increasingly unlikely we would ever see it again.

Hany suggested we all got some snacks to supplement the "average at best" meal served on the train.

 "The restaurant at the hotel also does take-out meals" he added with a top tip.

"What a great idea!" we thought, so we ordered our food before popping to the Alfa supermarket just a little further than the KFC ATM we used last night, for some fruit and crisps. I was also looking for some beer for the train but they didn't sell alcohol nor did the Baghdad Stores on the corner, so we returned to the restaurant and had a glass of wine/beer whilst we waited for our take-away.

Our banquet in a bag arrived. It certainly looked like we had over-ordered yet again.

At 5:45pm we left the hotel for the El Giza train station. It wasn't far, less than 3 miles away but traffic had got a lot busier. Still, shortly after 6pm we were on the platform looking for some where to sit. Our tickets were for the 7:45pm sleeper train to Aswan so we had a while to wait.

Hany brought us to a cafe at the end of the platform. Not only had they plenty of tables and chairs for us all and space to store our luggage but he knew that it was conveniently opposite (more or less) the position our carriage on the train should come to a stop.

Before taking a seat Julie and I went for a walk down the busy platform. A train arrived and we were caught up in the rush of people clambering to get on. It was fascinating to watch. Then there was a moment of drama as the train left. This woman appeared from nowhere and ran down the platform after the train. Risking her life she managed to reach an open the door and jump on board. 

We reached the end of the platform without any further incident and then slowly returned to the cafe.  where I had a cup of tea and Julie a diet coke. Time passed slowly as we waited for our train to arrive.

Five minutes before 8pm it rolled into the station.  Its battered old carriages had certainly seen better days. Our carriage more or less stopped opposite the cafe as Hany had predicted.

There were ten rooms per carriage. Julie and I had been allocated room numbered 1 & 2. Whilst they were all the same, ours were the furthest away from the toilets which was a bonus.

Each room had three seats, which could be converted into two bunk beds.  There was a small wash basin in the corner. It was certainly compact and beigue. Luckily we were a bag down as our rucksack almost filled the available floor space. We then noticed the small luggage rack, so at least we could put it up and out of the way.

There was an interconnecting door into the room next door. Perfect for a family of four. Teresa and Anthony were our neighbours this evening.

Anthony was curious about some buttons on the wall. We all had them. Two were obviously for the lights, but one had a cartoon-like "explosion" image. Kapow!

"Go on, press it" I said "go on, go on, go on" We never did find out what it was but I assume it was to call for assistance from the train attendant.

We set off shortly after eight trundling slowly down the tracks, creating a proper clackety-clack noise from the tracks. Only once we were out of the city did we begin to pick up speed.

Some fifteen minutes after leaving El Giza train station the attendant was busy bringing out trays of food for everyone on board. We pulled out our foldable table for him to place the trays on it.

The warm food came in foil take-away containers. Julie opened hers and the fried chicken inside looked edible but she was convinced it had an odd smell. She replaced the lid without trying it.

 In their defence there was plenty of food, rice, vegetables, a pot of coleslaw, a bread roll, an orange and a sponge cake. We didn't eat any of it, except for the orange which we later squeezed out some juice for a vodka and orange!   

We put the train food on the floor out of the way and brought out our own food. It was quite a feast. Julie had grilled chicken, I had ta'amia (falafels) and we shared a fattoush salad. We also had stuffed vine leaves and some flat bread. It was all very delicious and thoroughly enjoyable.

Half an hour later the attendant collected our cartons, still full of food. We felt a little embarassed but he didn't seem at all suprised by our wastefulness. I guess it happens all the time.

As soon as he had collected everybody's left overs  he returned to pull down our bunk beds. It took him less than a minute. Using a large key with a triangular hole to unlock the latch the bunks easily fell into place. He didn't even need to make the beds because the bedding was already tucked in. The pillows were only on the luggage rack, wrapped in plastic.

We didn't have to fight for the top bunk. Julie was happier on the bottom. So Igot the top bunk.

It was a bit early to go to sleep so we sat up on the bottom bed for a while. It didn't make the most comfortable of seats. There was a solid edge to the bunk which dug into the back of the legs. 

It was too early to go to sleep so we decided to find the club car as it used to be called during the golden-age of rail travel. But those days have long gone. A hotel on wheels it certainly was not.

We entered the lounge into a cloud of smoke as all the train attendants had gathered together, perched on stools around the bar to light up their cigarettes and relax. It felt more like the staff room. Embarassed by our presence they left leaving only the barman behind.

We looked at the drinks menu and ordered two teas. There was no alcohol avaiable.

We were the only passengers to have ventured out into the oddly decorated carriage. The walls, curtains and even the heavy based swivel chairs were all the same khaki colour giving it a military look.

We lifted out our tea bags from our paper cups, squeezing both of them dry back into my cup for a stronger taste.  It was now after 9pm and dark outside. All we could see through the windows were our own reflections.

Back in our cabin we settled down for the evening.  The beds were comfortable and the sheets were crisp and clean. "lights out" I said "but don't press the explosion button"

It had been an epic day and we were ready for bed.

We both fell asleep quite quickly, into quite a deep sleep, however it didn't last.

  Next Day >>>  

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