[February 20 2015]
On each side of the highway between Cairo and Giza is urban sprawl as designed by M. C. Escher; concrete block and brick mazes girded with skeletons of permanent scaffolding bear stairways to nowhere, topped with bare posts and absent rooftops as a rule, not an exception, due to a widely known tax loophole regarding ‘unfinished’ buildings. It is here that the points of the mythic Pyramids first pass into my eyes, finally out of childhood imagination and into the realm of the Real. It’s a blunt shock to see them rise so casually, flashing out from behind these haphazard blocks and junk-food billboards.
We eventually arrive to find the high ground of the Giza plateau playing host to a bravura performance from a rare winter sandstorm; the force of the grit-filled wind almost lifts our van off its wheels, showing how the Sphinx itself came to be drowned deep in Sahara sand by the time Napoleon came to stand under it. My scarf twists around my neck as I touch the stones of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and as I explore King Farouk’s abandoned house right next door; his modern masonry is fissured and cracked all over, shored up with wooden planks, no match for the solid stone which is the source of its neighbour’s eternal strength.
The storm becomes heavier, giving a dark yellow cast to the sky, drenching pictures of the scene in an odd sepiatone. The windblown souvenir stalls bear only rocks. We return to Cairo, to watch the tempest buffet the buildings of the central city. Safe inside the Cairo Museum, I was finally amongst those forms I had first seen in the decades-old collection of National Geographic magazines upon my grandmother’s bookcases – those forms who looked like me, lithe-bodied with black hair, alabaster skin, olive shaped eyes, dressed so lightly in gauze and gold, lapis lazuli and linen. If, in the Cairo of today women are scarved and covered, the fashion of ancient times was to show as much golden skin, and be adorned with as much gold, as possible.
Outside, behind the Museum, the burned out shell of the National Democratic Party building stands soot-blacked since 2011; the tanks and machine-gun bearing soldiers are still there just in case Tahrir Square erupts again. The sun above is eclipsed by the whirling sand which chokes the air, making it appear instead as a white moon rising above a grey Nile, a transformation as strange and eerie as an edict from an epic Biblical tale.
The next day delivers an undisguised, light-streaming sun, full under an arch of unbroken cerulean blue sky. Akenaten’s sun. Due to their fear of yesterday’s storm, the tourist hordes today are absent, and we are the first to arrive at the edge of the desert for a panoramic view of the three peaks. What I see clearly in this light is that while their power is still immense, their jagged sides are rough and exposed after centuries of suffering robbery, earthquakes and city-building caliphs. These amazing ancients harnessed pure geometry into the service of the sacred, but once their intricate beliefs had been forgotten their monuments were simply used as as a convenient quarry, preciously wrought gold objects melted down to coins and mummies ground up for fertilizer and ink. As if we, without qualm, had used parts of Notre Dame to build new McDonalds in Paris.
As I passed beyond the tumbled blocks that lie in front of the Pyramid of Menkaure into the open temple complex at its side, there was suddenly no wind. Intact here like nowhere else in Giza, the massive interlocking granite facing stones stand smooth and cool, gently absorbing the sun’s rays. Here, I knew it was time to attempt in my way to ‘worship’ the Sun Disk of Ra. There are rust edged signs that say ‘no climbing’ but none that say no sunbathing; with no one living near, just genies and ghosts, I strip down to the swimsuit I was already wearing underneath all my layers. Eyes closed and arms spread I lie with my back against the angled rocks and I dissolve into the pure light. Activated as if by a secret lever, the past replays through me for just a moment. Facing the sun’s bold round eye, I felt electrified from the inside, and understand why the sensual sun of this particular place had been so worshipped and sweated for. Nothing between my skin and the stone, barefoot, I walk through the temple paths that lie under the shadow of Khephren, the second pyramid. But then, a friend comes around the corner; his clothing, camera and baseball cap proving undeniably that it is still this time, and not another more suited to my dreaming.
Text Hannah Bhuiya and photo Hannah Bhuiya and Matthieu Perdrizet
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