Thursday 22 January 2009 – Dashur and Meidum, Lower Egypt
Well, breakfast at The Grand is another culinary adventure, as our morning meals in Egypt have tended to be. One is greeted by an apparently bountiful sideboard, groaning with warming trays and chaffing dishes. However, the contents of these prove disappointing. The first seems to be boiled barley, which may be beneficial for one’s bowels, but hardly constitutes breakfast.
Other delights hidden beneath the stainless steel lids include more ful (a soupier and less appetising version than at the Emilio), another unidentifiable watery offering, suspiciously pink yet tasteless sausages sautéed for not nearly long enough with onion (one suspects these are intended to fool one into believing one is eating a pork sausage, but the ruse is not a good one). Another contains quarter pieces of crepe of an especially rubbery manufacture. Other platters contain more tasteless sliced luncheon meats, stale pastries and various types of bread. By our second morning, the best option was to take boiled eggs, the one item from the warming trays (which were never warm – all dishes were offered cold) that bore any resemblance to breakfast, and have it with toast and a slice of very mildly flavoured yellow cheese. Fruit-flavoured cordials masquerading as juice and more weak watery coffee and tea complete the repast.
We set off on a big bus through the morning rush hour, glimpsing the pyramids at Giza fleetingly away through the smog – I won a bonbonniere for being the first to spot them – as we headed past into the desert for a lengthy trip south to Meidum, home of an unusual pyramid, possibly built for King Sneferu around 2610BCE.
According to Mike it was started as a mastaba and then the plan was changed to make it a pyramid; however too steep an angle was started and it partially collapsed during construction. It was abandoned, then later completed and faced with limestone cladding. We crawled down into the heart of the pyramid to view the burial chamber (no one seems sure whether it was ever used), to view the rough corbelled ceiling and to smell the inevitable sweaty sour socks that scents every hole in the ground likely to attract a tourist in Egypt.
Surviving that little adventure, I eschewed the opportunity to crawl into the centre of an adjacent mastaba; others did, while we more sensible beings walked around the outside of the pyramid. We then headed back north, winding through tiny villages and roads that were surely never intended to take a large tourist coach, passing fertile agricultural land with crops of corn, tomato and more, as well as along the stinking, fetid canals that irrigate them and provide all the water needs for a large part of the nation’s population.
It is not especially reassuring when one passes groups of people washing – themselves, laundry and pots and pans – in these canals, then to see the delicious, plump ripe tomatoes and other vegetables that form such an integral part of the diet for locals and visitors in the same dank waters. Just upstream from one such scene, we passed a couple of men, stripped to the waist, in the canal with their herd of sheep, all having a good old wash. People fishing in them is also a common sight.
We eventually pulled up at Dashur, a little south west of Cairo along the Nile Valley. As with the temples of the west bank at Luxor, the pyramid complexes were built just outside the limits of the flood plain of the Nile. It is striking how arid and desolate these places, which are often just a few hundred metres from the lush farming grounds, are – dry and dusty and a person would die quickly if left out here unable to move to the river.
First stop was the Bent Pyramid, then the Red. Both were built for Sneferu; Mike says that in this early period the practice seems to have been to keep building as long as the Pharaoh lived, even if it meant constructing several pyramids or tombs. It is conjectured, according to Mike, that they first started building the Meidum pyramid; when the angle on that caused construction problems, they moved to Dashur and started another, again at a steep angle; ground subsidence due to inability of the land to support the incredible weight of this structure caused the builders to change the angle to a shallower one, and it became the so-called ‘bent’ pyramid.
With Sneferu still going strong, the builders started a third mausoleum, the ‘red’ pyramid, at a shallower angle. This pyramid is second in size only to the ‘great’ pyramid at Giza. Having completed this one successfully, the builders apparently returned to the abandoned pyramid at Meidum and completed it before the old boy finally checked out.
Having circumnavigated the Bent Pyramid on foot, we climbed half way up the north face of the Red to begin a long descent down a steep tunnel requiring one to crouch to about four feet high. The sweaty socks were gradually joined by strong ammonia, thanks to the urine and faeces of both bats and guardians. A first gallery gave a glimpse of the impressive corbelled ceiling; a short crawl through a tunnel led to another; a climb up a staircase and through another tunnel led to the innermost chamber. The architecture was impressive, but the smell was overpowering so our stay was short. The guardians had tried on their usual shenanigans all day; it got to the point where we just pushed past and ignored them – especially the really unhelpful smelly ones!
We got back to central Cairo surprisingly quicky, given that tomorrow is Friday (the first day of the Islamic weekend). After a good wash (clothes and all) we regrouped to head to the Windsor Hotel bar and restaurant. They mixed a good G&T, but couldn’t manage the dinner orders at all. The food was quite good and I enjoyed my Greek salad and humus, but was waiting until almost everyone else had finished before I received my fish tagen (tagine – but in reality, fillet of fish stewed insufficiently with onion and tomato with a bit of grilled cheese on top). Pleasant ambience but one of the costlier meals of the trip.