BY ANDREW MOLE
Starting a trip to Egypt which would begin in Cairo, follow the Nile south and end in Abu Simbel, should have been done the other way around because after seeing the Great Pyramid of Giza nothing else would come close to being as overwhelmingly impressive
IT’S HARD to grasp, living in Echuca-Moama, just how hectic traffic can be.
Forget Melbourne, and Sydney is not even in the hunt.
Cairo, a city of almost eight million, is remarkable because every one of those residents seems to have a car, a motorbike, pushbike or a mule and cart.
And they are all trying to share the same laneways, although the Egyptian government could have saved a small fortune in paint because lanes don’t seem to mean a thing to anyone.
And probably have saved even more by not bothering with thousands of traffic lights because no-one gives them a second glance.
I asked our guide one day how much insurance costs because I had not seen a car, from luxury European brands to your average Japanese or Korean el cheapo, that was not dinged, and often dinged repeatedly and badly.
Our driver Mohammed (I’ll get back to that) burst out laughing. “No-one has insurance here,” he said.
So what happens when there is a crash?
“The drivers get out and have an argument, then they feel better and get back in their cars and keep going,” he said.
As if on cue there was a loud bang and two cars, both trying to make illegal turns, had broadsided each other.
A traffic policeman, desperately trying to attract the attention of any driver to follow his signals, glanced over at the noise and then looked away.
By which time both drivers were going hell for leather in a shouting match of significant proportions. Which lasted about 80 seconds, give or take, at which point they withdrew to their cars, hooked around each other, and departed.
No exchange of addresses, license details or insurer information.
Just into gear and gone.
It was a curious distraction, but only that, because already I could see, looming over the city skyline, one of the world’s greatest attractions.
The Great Pyramid of Giza looms ever bigger and, for all the world, appears to be in someone’s backyard until you get close enough to realise two things:
1. It’s sheer enormity
2. That it is still set in a desert, albeit one shrunk to just a shadow of its former glory.
But once you have arrived you see nothing else, not even the appalling McDonald’s with its balcony overlooking the Sphynx.
The pyramid is breathtaking.
You can go to any of the world’s great buildings and you will never be anywhere near as overawed, speechless or staggered as you will be in that very first moment standing at the foot of this stupendous legacy of an ancient world.
You can lean back and not see the top; you can reach out and touch the massive stone blocks of its foundation layers and wonder how a people without the wheel managed to truck them around.
Give or take a decade the Great Pyramid went up in 2584 BC.
It then measured 146.5m – give or take a cubit or two.
It took mankind more than 4000 years to build something that stood higher, and even then that was a bit of a crib – it was an 1874 church in Germany that needed a spire to go less than one metre higher.
This last remaining – and oldest – of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World leaves you in no doubt the other six would have wanted to be pretty damn special to top this.
It may, or may not, have been a funerary temple for the Pharaoh Khufu and it may be surrounded by a series of lesser pyramids, but it is without doubt without equal.
You can clamber over its exposed body, its original cover, which gave it a smooth finish, is long gone, and you can squeeze your way into its humid, hot interior where you see nothing but an empty room.
You can go as high as you like on its stepped exterior but whichever way you turn, whatever way you approach, you remain dwarfed.
I have stood in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world’s tallest building, but was tainted before I got there.
Once you have encountered the Great Pyramid anything and everything runs a distant second.
It is plain; it serves no purpose yet is such a raw statement of control of an empire and an environment that nothing modern man does will be in the same ballpark.
If, in your life, you see just one thing in a country other than your own, this is it.
When you finally walk back far enough to drink it all in (because if you are anywhere within its reach your camera won’t be able to get it all) you finally get a chance to look around.
And be careful you don’t fall into the sunken surrounds of the Sphynx.
Obviously this is worth a serious look, but it lacks the raw power of that massive pile of stone overlooking it, and has been treated with scorn by the elements (and ham-fisted efforts to repair it).
Also you cannot miss the Khufu’s ship, built to carry him off into the afterlife.
Built with the cedars of Lebanon it remains a spectacular exhibit if only because of its age and because it is complete.
And at 43.6m Khufu clearly planned to sail off in style.
So you put your little booties on and get to walk around it and marvel at the excess of the ancient dynasties – the tour guide insists it could be put on the Nile now and safely sail away.
I could fill pages with superlatives; I have been through the Smithsonians, the Hermitage, Buckingham Palace and Versailles.
None of them came close to making my jaw drop like it did when I got out of the car and looked up at what the Egyptians had built.
Nothing ever will.
So I’ll stop there but for a few final observations.
If you do go to the Great Pyramid you will be besieged by the most aggressive hawkers known to man.
They will even throw things at you and if you instinctively catch them they consider that a sale and will start demanding money.
And that McDonald’s. Well apart from the purpose of most McDonald’s – to provide a toilet – its balcony is about the only place you can stand and fit the Sphynx and the three primary pyramids into the one photo – that will be modern man’s legacy to the world.
Finally, getting back to Mohammed. Our guide assured us nearly every man he knew was called Mohammed. After that Ibrahim might have been a distant second.
So I tried it out in a souk later that day, simply shouting “Mohammed”. Sure enough, nearly every man within earshot turned around to see who was calling him.
Turning to our personal Mohammed I asked him how it went in school and other communal areas when you wanted to call someone.
He looked at me as though it was the strangest question he had ever heard.
So we shook hands, I handed over his fee, and we headed off on our own, different, cultural paths.