CAIRO, EGYPT — In Cairo, where most people speak Arabic as well as English and some people speak, in addition to that, Spanish, French, or German, our cab driver knew one American word. As he weaved through traffic he turned around in his seat so he could face us and said, “Pepsi!”
The next morning, Samh, our guide to the pyramids, picked us up after breakfast. No one else had eaten since before dawn, as my husband and I arrived here in the ninth month of the Hijra calendar, during Ramadan. According to the Qu’ran, during Ramadan Muslims can eat and drink only at night, when they cannot “plainly distinguish a white thread from a black thread by the daylight.” In addition to eating and drinking, Samh explained, it is solely between sundown and sunup that one can smoke, lie, have sex, and think unsavory thoughts. “For instance,” he said to me, “I cannot think to myself right now that you have pretty brown eyes.”
Samh is also, we learned, diabetic. And a six-pack-a-day smoker. As the day progressed Samh the guide became Samh the cranky, dehydrated Egyptologist with low blood sugar. I feared he would lapse into shock in the shadow of one of the pyramids.
“Just one little orange slice,” I said. “A sip of water?”
But he would not be tempted.
Samh is a PhD candidate in Egyptian history at Cairo University. Working as a guide to put himself through school, he has collected plenty of irritating evidence that many tourists are misinformed about Egypt’s ancient history. His champion cause was setting us straight. Samh didn’t care about those who firmly believe aliens built the Great Pyramids, his sheep are more subtly astray.
It was with great care then that Samh tutored us about the mummification process. Mummification was essential for that boat ride into the afterlife. It was an intricate process that took more than two months and cost a pretty piastre. Not for the squeamish, making a mummy meant cutting out the intestines, stomach, lungs, and liver; wrapping them carefully in linen; and squeezing them into canopic jars. (Morticians picked the brain through the nose with long hooks and, as it was presumed unimportant, tossed it in the primeval Egyptian dustbin. Each canopic jar had a different sculpture on its lid: falcon for the intestines, jackal for the stomach, baboon for the lungs, and human for the liver. Archaeologists excavated these four jars and their corresponding contents from tomb after tomb in Egypt.
Samh taught us this and more as we explored the step pyramids of Zoser. But, he lamented, since the movie The Mummy some cinefile in every group of tourists will inevitably ask, “What about the fifth jar? The one with the lion’s head on it?”
Next stop: Giza Plateau, of the Great Pyramids and Sphinx. Lucky for us, Giza is located just outside of Cairo, for The Mummy would have one believe the Great Pyramids are located a few hundred miles south, in the city of Thebes.
As Samh showed us around the Sphinx we overheard another tour guide confidently telling his group, “And this is the temple of Princess Leia.”
“Ah,” said the group.
“Which temple?” Samh said, “What princess? And who is Leia?”
His fasting body in need of a rest, Samh passed my husband and me to another guide who led us into the belly of Khafre’s pyramid. This pyramid was the second of the Great Pyramids built, Khafre being the son of Khufu, who built the first and largest of the Giza Plateau pyramids. Khafre did not want to disrespect his father by building a larger pyramid. Instead, he built it on slightly higher ground. Thus it is smaller, covering only eleven square acres, but it looks taller. Clever Khafre.
Inside, the pyramid was hot and airless, nothing at all like a cave. Once at the bottom there was. . . nothing. The contents have, of course, been carefully excavated and moved to the Egyptian Museum. But if you go, and you make it all the way to the bottom, you will no doubt be chosen to visit a room that no one else gets to see. This is simply because you are special. We were special too, my husband and I, for a stranger appeared from nowhere and led us away, saying, “You come with me because we are friends. No one else. Just you.”
When we arrived in a dark, stifling, room, the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a coat closet, our new friend instructed, “Now. Breathe. In! Out! In! Out!”
My husband and I breathed. In. Out.
“There!” he exclaimed, pleased. “Now you will get pregnant.”
It was 3:30 in the afternoon, and Samh, near collapse, had saved the best for last. He was sending us on a camel ride through the Sahara Desert so we could gaze back at the Great Pyramids in the afternoon light. As we waited for our ruminants to be saddled, Samh told us that our camel guide would likely have a lot to say about the Great Pyramids. “All three are made of limestone and granite,” Samh said. “Because they are different colors, he will tell you that one is limestone, one granite, and one basalt. Also, the top of Khufu’s pyramid has worn away over time. He might tell you that Napoleon shot it off with a cannon.”
Off we rode on our camels into the edge of the Sahara. Are we Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun? Popski’s Private Army fighting the bad guys during World War II? Or are we Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz?
Camels are captivating animals. Despite that hump in their back they have great posture. They hold their heads high and never hurry. And they always have a disinterested, eyes-half-closed, vaguely smarmy grin on their faces. I’m not sure why, but I decide that it’s important that the camels like me, in sort of the same way it’s important that ballet dancers and French people like me.
The sun was setting, and we had to ride back to Samh so he could break his fast for the day. We stopped for one last look at the Great Pyramids. It’s quiet. My husband and I look at what has stood almost exactly the same for forty-three centuries.
“Now I will tell you about the Great Pyramids,” our guide says. “That one is made of limestone; that one of granite; that one of basalt. The one on the right is missing its top because Napoleon shot it off with his cannon.”