October 2009


Ever heard about the science of pyramidology? About wild theories concerning the pyramids? Such as their mystic properties, their hidden purposes and meaning. or why they were really built (alien launching pads or rather receiving posts- like airports, no really!!! they’re there)? Just google the word pyramid and you’re as likely to land up on wildly imaginative websites making all sorts of tall claims as you are on to legitimate ones about their history etc. Being in Egypt, literally at their feet, I invoke the pyramids often in my classes.

Quick detour – for those of you who don’t know and who may care, my day job when I’m not blogging or grading papers (sorry the latter is part of my day job) is that of a university teacher. Here in Egypt I work at the American University in Cairo, where I teach a course called Scientific Thinking. It is one of those core courses, a requirement for all and considered a nuisance by most who seem to confuse the meaning of an education with that of getting a degree. I’ll rant on that attitude later, but back to this detour. Aah yes, scientific thinking… it’s a course intended to give all students some idea of what science is and why its important. Something I’m convinced is of fundamental importance even if I’m weary of teaching this course and only this course at AUC. It’s an uphill battle sometimes, faced with the why-am-I-here-? attitude of most students most of the time, not to mention certain others but one that has it’s worthwhile moments.

Which brings me back to the pyramids. As I said, here in Egypt I call on them, their images etc in classes to drive various points I’m trying to make home for the students, who like me, have these structure literally at their doorstep on a daily basis. Still, I suppose,  it is legitimate to ask what they have to do with science and critical thinking (which is another way to explain what my course is about). Nobody, can give a better answer to this question than my sort-of boss Dr. John Swanson and so as a public service, for as long as the link remains active, I’m uploading his introductory lecture for our course. It’s wonderfully informative, hilarious and gives a better idea than almost anything else I can think of how people can get sucked into believing the absurd. So let me invite you along for the ride. Click on the pyramid below and sit back and enjoy.

shpinx with backdrop

Fair’s fair. And having spent the last post whining on about what’s wrong with life in Cairo, I should hasten to write about times when things go well. As they did last weekend. Now, what’s the first word that comes to mind when Egypt is thrown at you? In a game of free association, the first and obvious choice, at least for me, is still and I suspect, will always be, Pyramid.

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I’ve been here for just over 2 years now, and for one of those years have been making that tedious commute to the middle of the clone-do complex at the edge of the desert that houses our new campus. But riding home in the evening, every day I can see the hazy silhouette of the great structures at Giza from the bus as we approach our turnoff from the Ring Road, and it still restores the sense of awe and hence a measure of calm, and recompense. I am in Egypt still, those structures remind me. And I get to gaze on these structures that were already on Earth nearly 5000 years ago.

But it wasn’t these pyramids that helped restore my equanimity this time. It was a much odder pyramid that we had briefly passed by on a trip to the Fayoum with John Swanson 2 years ago but had not gotten a chance to go into. This past Saturday my friend Salima Ikram, Egyptologist at AUC was taking her class on a field trip there and so I got to tag along. The site is called the Meidum (pronounced my-doom) pyramid, and may perhaps be better known to some people as the Broken or Collapsed Pyramid.

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Meidum is not a common tourist site, at least not as common as either Giza or Saqqara, but all the more interesting for that reason. Chronologically it dates to a period sometime between the aforementioned two – which is to say after Djoser’s step pyramid in Saqqara but before the tombs of Khufu or any of the others that came after in Giza. Which means it’s still old kingdom, but then again so are all the pyramids. Later folks went for beautiful tombs no doubt, but the pyramids stopped after the oldies. The goldies continued though – note Tutankhamun’s stash, and he was only a minor king. The pharaoh or king who built the pyramid at Meidoom was called Sneferu or Senefru and it is situated father south of even Dashour (home to the Bent and Red pyramids) closer to the Fayoum than any of the others (which might be the reason why we even tried to go there on that trip 2 years ago). IMG_0942Aidan Dodson, a visiting Egyptologist, who gave us a talk about the site at Salima’s behest,  mentioned that there is speculation within the profession of a possible pharaonic palace site not far from these tombs (but closer to the river naturally) but thus far we have no physical evidence (aka empirical evidence for my scientific thinking students) for such a site. No matter really. Whatever the reason this pyramid was indeed built, though not used as a tomb since Senefru went to build another tomb that apparently satisfied him more.

It’s fascinating for any number of reasons. For one it gives us a hint for the intermediate stages of the evolution of a classic or “true”  (smooth almost icosahedral) pyramid structure from its predecessor the step pyramid. The Meidum pyramid represents a hybrid really, with an inner layer of steps and an other shell with the  smooth (and to my eyes, steep) slope incline of the true pyramid. This was created by filling in the steps with the building material smoothing out the shape. The reason we know this is because of what happened to it in the years (centuries?)  following its construction. Maybe because it hadn’t been used as tomb – although its entirely possible that even a mummy inside would not have deterred the scavengers – people in later generations began to scavenge this structure for stuff such as its limestone blocks from the lower part. Consequently, the stability of the structure was disturbed and its upper parts collapsed into rubble exposing its step-like interior to the outside and giving it it’s distinctive hat-like appearance (well okay, St. Exupery’s petite prince and Salima Ikram may claim it looks more like a snake that’s swallowed an elephant).

This being a field trip for budding Egyptologists, we made out way into the shaft of the pyramid, and descended deep into the earth before staring a small ascent into the chamber that would have been a the pharaohs final resting place had he wished.

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The chamber seemed somewhat more spacious than others I’ve seen (in the Red pyramid in Dashour for example) in part, as our Egyptologists explained, because of the structure of the ceiling. Here’s a photograph and FYI, the piece of wood used to lend support to the stones and preventing them from caving in is as old as the pyramid itself! Fancy that.

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Mydoom ceiling with original cross beam

The pyramid was cool (surprisingly even temperature-wise which validates my arguments for putting  pyramid visits off until fall) but even more exciting were the mastabas and funerary temple sites surrounding the pyramids. First there was a mastaba for an unknown nobleman (designated as #17 I believe) IMG_0945which we entered via a robber’s tunnel, giving me my thrilling Amelia Peabody experience. We crawled in rather scooted down a narrow tunnel  using butt and hands since the sand and gravel made it hard for me to gain proper footholds, and besides it was hard to keep stooping. To give you an idea of the dimensions, here’s photo of one of the students on his way out – IMG_0963 Down the tunnel and a ladder in a narrow shaft we went in single file, till we reached the burial chamber where the granite sarcophagus was still in place though emptied of its noble contents. Here are some pictures

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Back in the open air again there were some more fascinating bits of human history awaiting us, including two striking temple sites that were surely the prototypes for the grand monuments built several centuries later at Abu Simbel and Luxor (Hatshepsut’s temple specifically). One each for a king and queen, whose names escape my memory (Sorry Salima and Aidan). We also learned about the archeological practice of capping ancient mud brick structures with a layer of new bricks in order to preserve the old. Covered in dust from head to toe, bone tired from the heat, I was one happy girl as I descended the bus and made my way home that afternoon. And taking the good Hakim Sitt’s advice, ended the day with a couple of aspirin and a a warm shower – so that the next day brough no more than the soreness and stiffness of muscles unusually used. Three cheers for Salima and her chickadees. Thanks to them I got to see first hand what the thrills are all about.

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I don’t especially like to engage in long rants and  fist-shaking on the blog although I’ve succumbed to pressure on a few occasions. In fact the whole reason for creating the Horrors of Horus category on the blog was to vent on the bad experiences in Egypt – in my defense though I haven’t indulged there too often. And on the whole the troubles I encounter are no worse than in any other place, just more unique. But I think I’m entitled today. It’s been building up and the pressure cooker needs to let off its steam!!!

It’s ironic and co-incidental (tho maybe not completely so as there may be some Freudian slip relationship going on)  that I’m writing this rant during my least favorite part of the week; the weekly shout-off that stands in for what should be the most peaceful part of the week in an Islamic country – Friday around noon. My apartment in Garden City is flanked, though not immediately by mosques. So Every Friday, come time for the Gomah (or Jumma) prayers, I am subjected to an hour’s worth of 2 imams on loudspeakers belting out their sermons at top volume over loudspeakers, in seeming competition with one another. With due apologies to the more devout of my friends, this public enforcement of prayer does not anything to endear religion to me. I’m reminded of the worst part of growing up in Punjab when a similar loud-speaker war was waged virtually everyday in that case among clashing religious cultures – mostly Sikhs and Hindus – chanting or singing off-key and later threatening the others for disturbing their  respective prayers. Seemed then to hurl any benefits of said prayers far into the outfield. Is it worse or better here? Don’t know. At least because they’re all on the same side of the God fence no threats are ensued, but still, I wish they’d be quieter about their devotions. Aahh well, I suppose as an outsider to this culture and this religion, if  I don’t like it I should grin and bear it. Mostly I do, but like I said today is my day for opening valves and letting things spill…

There’s a reason for my having switched metaphor right then. Spill. rather I should say spit, hissing and gushing like the sound of the water that’s finally at long last after a hiatus of TWENTY FOUR HOURS has graced my apartment with its presence again. Water shortage should not be either a surprise (after all I live in a desert?) or something I’m unable to deal with (I grew up in India – water cuts were par for the course but with regularity) but I figure if they’re cutting off supply I should be warned. So I can plan ahead. Collect some in bottles for using in toilets and bathrooms and simple hand-washing. None of which was possible in my apartment for the past 24 hours. The odd thing was that it was only in my floor as far as I could tell. The lower floors had water (and I have a disgruntled sidebar about that – where I got chastised for trying to be considerate – which I may or may not talk about in more detail later) but neither my across the hall neighbor nor I had any.Suddenly yesterday morning it had stopped spontaneously. I had a sink overflowing onto the counters and dining table with dishes from the previous night’s dinner party, carefully timed so that Fawzeya would handle the bulk of the cleaning but she couldn’t work her usual magic. There was no water (or barely any at that time) and I think she may have used bottled water (GASP!) for the last of the cleaning. Anyway… even before she’s gotten here, I’d gotten some warning of the trouble and took the precaution of calling the University housing office but they came, checked, said the storage tank was nearly empty but that we’d be fine once it was filled – which apparently was happening – and that insh’allah [How I hate to hear that invocation – usually it means “I’m not doing anything about it”]  we’d have it running again sometime during the day.

Stupid fool for believing them. Until this morning there was not a drop to be dripped anywhere. Even the toilets were unusable – thank goodness I’m anosmic! I swear,  when the plumber finally came this morning – and only in response to a frantic phone call from yours truly to the University emergency number – and opened the tank (apparently the damn thing had been full for heaven knows how long but no one had seen fit to release the water to our flats) the sound of the flushes was as music to my ears!

So things were salvaged after a fashion, but really, if one is going to cut water supplies off shouldn’t they at least warn the residents? I think I know the culprits, it’s the same damn people who have been tearing down the apartment on the 7th floor and disturbing our Saturday mornings while at it for the past few weeks. But try getting an admission or explanation. The best is – “Now everything is okay doctor, il-hum-du-allah.” No point is asking for warnings in the future either. A shrug is the best answer I’m likely to get. ARRRRGH.

This water episode was just the final straw I think in a series of incidents big and small that have been pushing me inexorably to the I-can’t-wait -to-get-outa-here mode, even though I’ve not been here for two weeks in a row since June! The swine flu paranoia — killing all pigs (by pumping them full of pesticide) and then herding all of us in airports to take temperatures thereby ensuring that if any of us hadn’t been exposed by then we surely would be! That reached it’s zenith at the airports over Eid. Getting back in the dead of the night last Saturday, the place looked like an Indian railway station – people with bori-bistras (and here of course many women in their own personal boris) – camped out in every spare inch of space. And I’m not sure if this was my sleepy eyes imagining things or not, but I could have sworn that I saw a couple of guys on the luggage  conveyor belts the better to get their bags!

The black boogers, pollution etc are ever present. I won’t say more. But despite everything there are little things that redeem the place – after all one can’t be relentlessly unhappy when good mangoes are to be had. nd despite October having begun, I’m still getting really nice ones. The weather is improving and I get to see my friends (who grow more precious as my time with them is getting more limited) on a semi-regular basis. And the feluccas beckon round the bend. And a visitor will visit in a week. But God! what I wouldn’t give for a couple of more weeks of the halcyon days of the last of summer – on the beaches of Crete. Stay tuned for a full account, maybe. While I go take advantage of my newly restored gift of the Nile, that made 5000 years of Egyptian history possible -wet and wonderful, water.