Pyramid of Maidum
Mastaba of ----
Fayoum Oasis
Seila Step Pyramid


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pyramid history
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seila step pyramid

February 6, 2003

An odd day today - we spent a lot of time in the car, waiting for police escort, waiting for directions, etc. We never did get to Hawara or the temples there, since we wandered all over looking for Seila. But it was an adventure!

The countryside on the way to Maidum is unbelievably green, with fields and palm trees lining the road. It is harvest season, so we share the narrow road to the Fayoum with donkey carts, heavily-laden camels, and a few flocks of goats. I had believed Egypt to be almost entirely desert; I didn't realize that the land within a few miles of the Nile is probably some of the most fertile on earth. It is almost rain-forest humid near the river, smelling richly of black dirt and vegetation. The desert is never far away, though. One moment you are surrounded by fields and trees and the next, sand. There is a distinct demarcation between the greenery and the desert -- often towns will built a small wall to prevent the flowing sand from taking over.

The Maidum pyramid is visible through the fields as we approach the site. This is an earlier pyramid than those at Dashur or Giza, and shows one of the steps in the evolution of the "true" pyramid building that reached its zenith in Giza. Instead of a step-pyramid like its predecessor, Djoser's pyramid, Maidum is a solid core of limestone faced with smooth stones that has been built out in layers "around" the core. The new layers didn't stick well to the smooth inner column of stone and the pyramid began to collapse soon after it was built. It looks like a blunt tower jutting from a sand dune.

Mark climbed in the pyramid (I'm still avoiding the tiny rooms in pyramids) and I spent the time talking to Fateh about the artifacts found nearby. One of the most notable finds is the frieze of colorful, extremely realistic geese, "The Maidum Geese", found in a nearby mastaba. Fateh was involved in saving a similar frieze - the detailed paintings on plaster are often damaged by salt leeching through from the stone. If the plaster is solid, the salt seeping from the wall builds up behind it and forces the frieze off the wall. If there are cracks or voids in the plaster layer, the salts break the mural apart and it falls from the wall in pieces. The delicate pieces can be saved by carefully laminating the front of the painting with natural starch and linen, in several layers, and carefully peeling the whole thing off the wall. Then the wall is cleaned and the plaster-linen sandwich is glued back on and cleaned. This process can take months and is often a last-ditch effort to save an important piece. Fateh said he insisted they note that what he was doing was a "lost cause" in case he damaged the piece, because the process fails so often.

To the east is a giant mud-brick mound that hides a number of mastaba tombs. Only one is open, but we gamely decide to go inside to see the difference in the structures between mastabas and pyramids and tombs. The entrance is a small, round hole leading to a 3' high tunnel. About ten feet in Mr. Fateh decides that he probably won't fit (which he won't, if he only knew!) and we all back out so he can escape. I have to slither through on my stomach to the ladder and then across boards and through a tiny hole to the burial chamber (and may I point out that I'm not skinny, either, and it was a struggle to push me through!). The room at the end is small, although maybe 10' tall with a huge empty sarcophagus of granite that was set in place as the mastaba was built. Mark carried the camera with nary a scratch, but I got pretty banged up and I was covered in sand and dirt. After we scrambled out, we all sat for a moment to catch our breath, which garnered a laugh from the several men stationed at the site. The men who watch these sites go in and out of the tombs and mastabas, and up and down the pyramid tunnels dozens of times a day. I can't imagine climbing through the hot, airless, and awfully, awfully small passages more than once!

Mud brick is still used in building - the mud is mixed with straw and flax and mixed until creamy, then left to sit until slightly sticky. It's pushed into molds and weighted, and left to dry for a week in the shade - not the sun, they want them to dry slowly so they don't break. Then, they are baked in the sun until they are hard. The bricks on the mastaba are three thousand years old and still solid. If it ever rained , of course, many of Egypt's monuments would dissolve into piles of mud, but in the desert, mud-brick can last forever.

On the east side of the pyramid is a tiny offering chapel that contains two early-style obelisks. They are massive granite slabs with rounded tops, but not the needle-like towers that we are used to. There isn't any writing on them anymore, since they are outside and the sand has scoured off any hint of writing or carving. The little temple is open to the sky - only a little space between the side of the pyramid and the temple is covered. It almost looks "added on" like a small lean-to to protect the false door that marked the "spiritual" entrance to the pyramid.

You want to see what?
Off again (with our police escort - this time they searched our bags when we went on the site) to find the Seila Step Pyramid. No one knows where it is. We set off to the Fayoum Oasis, where everyone seems to think someone will know.

We reach the end of the nome and have to wait for over an hour for an escort from the another city to pick us up. We think that the governor/commander of each "county" is responsible for the tourists in that area, so they want their own people watching them. We're not sure if the tourist police are local or federal - if local, that would explain why we have to get handed off at every different jurisdiction. Once they show up (and it wasn't that long, considering the distance they had to go!) we are off on a wild ride through the outskirts of Fayoum looking for the pyramid. In retrospect, we should have passed on it when no one was sure where it was, but we drove through some really interesting little towns and side streets (mostly on sand tracks and drainage roads) for three hours to find the place. From the response of some of the locals, they don't see tourists very often where we were - they seemed very surprised when our van trundled through a town with four or five little houses and goats running in and our of the doors. We didn't stop - the tourist police never slowed down enough for us to pause, and we weren't quite sure what would happen if we just stopped and got out…they'd probably freak out completely!

The people here are desperately poor and the houses are often roofless and have no electricity or water or any other amenities. Kids play in the dirt with the sheep and goats. People are cooking over open fires between the mud-brick houses, or in the field. The fields are lush and green and I can only imagine how many people it takes to harvest the carrots and grains and cabbages (some nearly 2 feet across!). There are no tractors or machinery in the fields: they are plowed and harvested by hand, or with the help of the many water buffalo and oxen.

If you took away the occasional power line, this area looks just like it would have five thousand years ago or more - the people do not live that much differently than ancient Egyptians.

The sheer number of unfinished buildings in Cairo and around it is amazing - as if they were abandoned half-finished. The city looks perpetually under construction - or destruction, actually.

We had to stop and ask directions a few times, each query involved a lot pointing, staring into the car to see the crazy Americans who wanted to see what? We finally got specific directions from a guy on a bicycle!

We really should have had a 4x4 to go some of the places we went today - even the notes in the books say "for four wheel drive only", but thanks to Mr. Mohammad, we made it - literally by the edge of the wheels at one point. We were driving along a rutted dirt road on the side of the irrigation ditch after having been routed through the "downtown" of this teensy little town with three houses and lots of goats. We made it over the ruts and rocks pretty well, bottomed out once or twice on the dirt, Mark and I are hanging out the windows watching the scenery and we come to a very narrow crossing - the runoff had dug a huge cavernous ditch across the road, and had worn away most of the road itself. It was wide enough for a donkey cart, perhaps, but we ended up getting out of the van and standing around it staring at the narrow bit of dirt and the width of the van axles. Then, ever so slowly, Mohammed maneuvered the van across, turning the wheels one way and another to wiggle the van across, nearly straddling the bit of road that was left and pushing rocks and sand off into the irrigation ditch with each movement. One of the back wheels was hanging off into space for a bit. When he got it past, we all piled back into the van, laughing and deciding that we needed to get a Jeep. Soon.

Seila Step Pyramid
After several towns and long stretches of sand, we arrive at a depression in the sand with a tiny pillbox on the cliff in the distance. It was another 40 minute walk to get to it. We stared for a few minutes at the teeny squareness of it, and opted for a few long distance pictures instead. The guards and workers at the site got a good laugh about it. Most of them ride motorcycles out to the site and they were quite impressed that Mohammad got a van out here. They had enough problems with the 4WD pickup truck for the guards!

There is a current dig just over the hill, but we weren't allowed to see it. We were forbidden by the police and by the American archeologist. We offered to leave the camera in the van, just to see a working dig, but no go. They were pretty surprised to see us, so I imagine that they were worried about someone "jumping" their dig. Ah, well.

Back along the sand track, the canal road, through a town - the same one, twice… we got a bit lost! - and another hour before we hit pavement again. At least this time we got to drive on the other side of the canal and didn't have to perform the "wiggle sideways and lean away from the edge" maneuvers we'd had to employ to get out to the site.

It's odd driving through these tiny towns. Everyone seems very friendly, kids wave, but I can' only imagine the thoughts and impressions of the people that we saw. They kept staring (not a lot of tourists come this way, I imagine) and the police escort can't have helped. Who are these super-rich tourists coming through to stare at us through the car windows? Why are they here?

Egyptians don't travel much, according to Fateh. Tourists are at once admired and reviled. Especially when there are only two of us, accompanied by our guide, driver, personal van, and guards, we must be VERY rich. Children seem fascinated and want money -- and for some reason which is entirely unknown to anyone, click-pens -- although they are never pushy.

It wasn't that we NEEDED four ARMED GUARDS. Geez. We passed tons of kids returning from school and lots of these half-truck busses packed so full of people they seemed ready to topple. Many of the children waved - choruses of 'allo!' followed us. Still, it was vaguely unconfortable..the illusion of "Every man is equal" that America fosters is even more of a fantasy here. There are poor and there are rich and no thought given to fairness. If you "have", you use. If you "have not", you don't. It's simple.

Fayoum Oasis
We sped along a quite modern freeway to Fayoum, the largest lake in Egypt. The roads are the first I've seen with 4 lanes (2 lanes each way, with a big median) where you have to enter the road and immediately TURN AROUND to get places. The entrance and exit ramps go only one way - basically, you enter on one side of the road going one direction and you exit only going the other direction. No clover leafs or overpasses and such. There are signs all over instructing drivers on the use of the left (inner) lane - the left lane is for U-turns and the right lane is for through traffic and traffic entering. Not the best plan, if you ask me.

People line the road selling ducks and geese (by swinging a black bag or basket in a huge circle into traffic) advertising their wares. They used to actually swing a duck, goose, or chicken on the end of the string, but that was deemed cruel and they've replaced it with the black bag. It's really visible, so it's an effective advertising method. Hand signals indicate what is for sale to the passing motorists and people just sort of stop in the road to buy dinner. Waving two hands across each other, palms down, hands flat, indicates "flat fish for sale", for example. There is a whole language of signals that the locals use.

We had lunch (roasted chicken and rice and fries and more bread) at a hotel along the shore of Lake Fayoum. This is a populate weekend spot, with long arching beaches and many old, slightly faded and tattered hotels along the shore. It was a bit too early for the crowds, and the water was too chilly for bathers, so the whole place had the air of a deserted boardwalk just waiting for the crowds to return and tucking the dust and paper wrappers of last year's crowds behind a new coat of paint.

There are rows of new resorts popping up all along the coast. I think they are hoping to make Fayoum a hotspot like the Red Sea coast. The city of Fayoum is much like Cairo - poor shantytowns in the midst of beautiful apartments. There are quite a few mostly-empty resorts, and a bustling downtown marketplace.

At the restaurant, they helpfully changed the music from interesting popular Arabic music to English (Bee Gees!) for our benefit. We laughed about it, but as we were the only guests, and we saw at least one of the four waiters dancing behind the door, we figured it was a nice gesture! Mark had more Turkish coffee. He's settled on mazbut, which is "medium sugar". Still looks like slightly filtered mud to me. Plus, he starts to talk really fast and twitch after more than one cup.

After our several-hour trek this morning, we were running a a bit late and rushed to Karanis (this time with a policeman in the van with us!) to see the museum. Most of the sites are only open from about 9-4 or so, sometimes earlier. We arrived very late, and they actually opened the museum for us personally. We felt a bit rushed - the tourist police officers followed us from one room to another, and the museum curator hovered a bit. The artifacts are very interesting, and cover ancient egyptian relics to greek-roman pottery and textiles. Upstairs, there are a number of articles of decorated clothing, handing tapestries, and books. Some of the calligraphy work is startlingly beautiful.

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