Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Pyramids on Camelback at Sunset


We arrived by bus on a dusty street in what appeared to be a small village in the middle of nowhere. Concrete buildings in various states of disrepair surrounded us. Arabic graffiti written in bold colors, large script, small script, ostentatious lettering with brightly painted outlines, or simple one-line messages written in black spray paint brought the drab, crumbling walls to life. Colorful messages to all who could but read them, they were meaningless to your average tourist, not unlike the hieroglyphics pondered over by awed and weary visitors to the pyramids for centuries. Once cracked, that code conjured up from the ground incredible visions unimagined for over two millennia. What will our story be to future travelers when we are all reduced to dust, as the sphinx stands guard against yet another age of explorers and new questions?

Children in various stages of undress ran through the narrow, dusty street. Dirty faces, healthy smiles, careful glances. "Who are these foreigners among us?" Their looks conveyed a simple understanding of this world that I could never fully comprehend, even if I chose to stay here, as an outsider in a world of insiders. They ran and they laughed.

The motion picture of which I was now a part slowed to a crawl as their movements and gestures etched themselves into the crevices of my mind with a clarity that I seldom experience. Watching them was like being under the influence of a deliciously hypnotic drug. Happy and unassuming, with an insight beyond their years into the hidden truth of the world and their place in it, I sensed that only they had a true grasp of what it really meant that I was now standing in their world, so far away from mine.

Sharing the street with us were many indifferent looking horses and camels. Each was standing or resting in its place, randomly chosen in the middle of the street, waiting patiently for a rider to climb on board so that they could begin the trek that they had learned so well from countless rides given to visitors in the past. Grunts, groans, and snorts greeted us as we waited for our guide to negotiate an agreeable price with the camel drivers and horse owners.

Of course I was the one who was in need of the hammam before our hour long expedition ("hammam" is the word for restroom or bathhouse in Arabic, which is almost exactly the same as the word for pigeon, which is "hamam" with only one "m"). I was invited to climb on board one of the drivers' personal camels to get a ride to a suitable location. He climbed on in front of me and advised me to hang on. Good advice, because after a brief moment of unanticipated G-forces and an even briefer sense of impending doom, we were 9 feet above the ground meandering towards the village, around the corner, into an entirely alien world. Whether you imagine a futuristic scene of a desolated earth after a nuclear holocaust, or a simple 18th century Mexican city that has been under siege for a month, you still will not quite be able to recreate the backstage secrets that met my gaze in the ten minute trip that followed.

Hollowed out concrete shells of buildings. Old men smoking shisha pipes that appeared to have been in use since the days when the peaks of the nearby pyramids gleamed golden in the morning sun. Ragged squares in buildings. Crumbling grey and white chunks of rubble hanging from what once had been window frames, now framing far off looks in the eyes of old women who had experienced a wholly different kind of life.

Smiles faded as my camel pushed forward through the narrow alleyway, at a slight trot now (if camels can trot). Energetic conversations changed to silently muttered chatter. Expressions aimed at my driver questioned my intrusion. 8 year olds galloping by on ponies - 10 or more in one noisy herd paying no heed to my arrival. 20 year old men hurdling by on powerful stallions in boisterous pairs. All noticed me. None acknowledged me. This was not a place custom tailored for a tourist.

We stopped in front of an edifice that looked like all of the others, and my guide started hissing a sound that sounded just like what a spider from Lord of the Rings should sound like. A spitting, gurgling hiss that communicated to the camel that the time had come to kneel down to the ground. First the front legs went down in a great dipping motion that had me clamoring and struggling to grab hold of the saddle horn behind me to keep from tumbling over the body in front of me, blocking an embarrassing fall to the ground below. Then the camel's back legs went down slowly and steadily in one motion that left us sitting comfortably on the ground once again.

I was led up a very narrow stairway past several empty, undecorated concrete whitewashed rooms, to a small, unassuming restroom that looked like it hadn't seen much use since it had been built in this location in the 1940's. Who lived here when these buildings were new? Had they ever looked new? Was there a real use for a western style restroom in this neighborhood? Was this the only restroom between this location and the place where my friends were waiting on their camels? Questions raced through my mind, but I quickly did what I had to do to ensure an enjoyable desert journey and returned once again into Mohammed's watchful gaze outside in the open corridor. In a heartbeat we were back on our mount, loping now to Mohammed's quick clicking sounds made to tell the camel that faster was better.

When we approached the end of the dirt passage at the outer edge of this camel-driver-village, I saw that my friends were already making their way into the desert. Mohammad hastened our ride towards them, and soon we were ambling across the sands looking out in the distance over the Nile and the Cairo skyline in one direction, and the imposing forms of the pyramids in the other.

At first this adventure seemed completely unreal, as if we were sitting on the back of a mechanical bull in front of a blue screen in a movie studio filming a clip that would later be mixed with a clip of some stunt actors on an actual camel in the desert beneath the pyramids. Eventually, a sense of reality settled upon us, and we were off in no particular order, headed in what seemed to be no set direction, loosely organized as a group that stretched over a quarter mile across the blowing sands. The camels settled almost immediately into a more comfortable pace, as horses passed by ridden by children and by grown-ups at a full gallop, apparently from all corners of the Arab world. This must be an incredibly popular place for enthusiasts of all ages to bring their horses and ride into the sunset shadows of history.

It wasn't long before my guide dismounted the camel and allowed me free reign over my fate. My camel stubbornly refused to speed up, except ever so slightly when I copied the clicking sounds that Mohammad had used to coax it just a few minutes earlier. The fact that I didn't have the switch that he had used to prod the camel forward probably made a difference.

It is really something to listen to the silence of the desert. It used to whisper secrets to me in the stillness of childhood nights. The rustling of a kangaroo rat or the slithering of a sidewinder resounds like a trumpet in the crisp, black air that is pierced only by a spectacular display of stars. Imagine the symphony created by the galloping hooves of Arabian stallions racing towards you at top speed across the sand, passing by in a blur of dazzling color, and then disappearing, trailed by a golden strand of rising dust, disappearing into the distant hills.

What had seemed to be a journey without direction soon revealed itself to be a loosely organized trek to a singular meeting point at the top of a large rise in the sand. I heard whistles coming from the dark forms that could just be made out on the top of the ridge in the orange light of the setting sun. This was the second meeting point for the camels and their riders, and the animals all knew where they were expected to go. My camel made his way slowly towards the incline. It chose just the right spot. (My attempts to get it to veer towards the hill and my friends before it was ready failed humorously, and I think at least one person took some pictures of my futile attempts to act like a real camel driver.) Carefully making its way over the Martian surface below us, it ambled readily over the rocks and crevices towards the crest of the hill.

Once at the top of the rise, everything was in motion. Animated chatter filled the air. Many groups of tourists, horse riders, camel drivers, and locals had gathered together at this spot. The pyramids rose in the distance glowing a dusty pinkish orange in the fading light of day.


At the very moment that my camel and I reached the summit, an amazing sound filled the air. The sound can only be conveyed if you've watched The Dark Crystal. Do you remember the mystical, wonderful sound of the UrRu Mystics as they sounded out their strange harmony together before being reunited with their Skeksis counterparts? If so, then you will have an idea of the sound that weaved its way into my soul as I crested the bluff overlooking the pyramid capped landscape to the left, accented by the Cairene skyline forming a crescent off towards the right.

At once, at a hand-stroke of the gods, voices rang out. From every corner of the horizon a melodic harmony rose up to the heavens. A call worthy of God's ear, something unearthly. Something absolutely Holy. It was the sound of a hundred muezzins, maybe more, from every mosque in Cairo, calling the faithful to prayer. The azan is sung out more than spoken. The tone carries more meaning than the words. The dedication and the love spills into the air and soaks into the pores. Tears came to my eyes. I was humbled in the midst of this overwhelming barren richness. For an all too brief moment, I stood in awe of a world where mystery mixes with modernity, where secrets dare adventurers to dream, and where a true devotion and an ancient wisdom stand firm against the winds of change.


UPDATE: May 2013 - Six years after this amazing trip, I've found a YouTube video that really captures what I was writing about above. Here is the link. I hope that you enjoy it.
Horses at the Egyptian Pyramids