We were young and stupid when we paid $45 for a driver to Memphis and Saqqara for a day. These were in the days before we knew how easy, cheap and ubiquitous Uber was in Cairo. We went with the same driver who picked us up at the Cairo airport. He spoke a few words of English but not much more.
We drove through the sprawling city of Cairo. It’s mostly monochromatic in a dusty drab brown. The air is heavy with smog and sand. The people live in big apartment buildings made of red brick or brown brick or covered in cement. They are 15 or 20 stories tall with satellite dishes on the balconies. The balconies are my favorite thing about Cairo. Housing is expensive and most average people don’t have a lawn to garden or a house to paint but they have a balcony and they are not shy to express their creativity.
In Daniel Pinkwater children’s book The Big Orange Splot, Mr. Plumbean decides to paint his drab boring house on a perfectly identical block to suit his whims. His neighbors one by one go try to talk some sense into him so they have have their perfect “neat street” back but instead they are all swayed to paint their own homes in crazy, fanciful ways. Mr. Plumbean says, “My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.”
There are bright green balconies and orange ones. Some have red stripes or polka dots or yellow and grey chevrons. Some have murals of a forest, of a street or cartoon characters. Some are plain. Honestly, more are plain than are painted but it’s the painted ones that stick out, the bright colors against a drab city of blocky tall buildings.
Saqqara is south of Cairo and has the honor of containing the first pyramid. The deified architect Imhotep oversaw the step pyramid that housed Djoser’s tomb and paved the way for the construction of the pyramids at Giza.
The step temple at Saqqara is not well marked. There’s an entrance to be sure with huge supported columns opening up into a courtyard that’s being restored. one of the sides of the pyramid is actively under restoration and I swore I read that you could go into the temple. There were two doors at the base of opposite sides both of which looked pretty sketchy. A steep slope with worn 2”x10”s and a pit of empty water bottles and chip wrappers lead into an open door. The inside of the pyramid had intermittent illuminated light bulbs and a dead end. So we climbed out and headed back to the front which seemed like our best option.
There was no sign that explicitly said we could not enter the pyramid. There were no guards or barriers. The lights were on, the door was unlocked and we walked down a wooden walkway to the center of the temple where a giant scaffolding was erected to (we supposed) take visitors down to the tombs. We walked down at least 5 stories. Chris didn’t like the feel of the shake metal and opted to head back up but Megan and I persevered until we were faced with a dilemma. A metal ladder was tied to the scaffolding to take people the last 20 feet to the ground but there was no good way to get from where the steps ended to the ladder.
A very flimsy 2”x10” seemed unsafe. We ducked under the stair rail. I was wearing a long flowing skirt, it wasn’t practical for the task at hand. I tied it up and shimmied along the scaffolding to the ladder. I ducked under to get on the ladder and told Megan to wait for me while I disappeared down the illuminated hall. I didn’t find much. There was a tomb with some blue stones stuck into the wall, but the ground was dirty, there were electrical cords and tools and buckets and it certainly didn’t feel like a place for visitors.
I told Megan there was nothing to see and started back up the ladder. I was a sweaty mess and nervous about falling to my death as I shimmied back across the scaffolding to the steps. We climbed back up dusty and dirty from our adventure. When we got to the top Chris was standing in the entry tunnel with two rather cross tomb guards who told us we weren’t supposed to go down there and wanted us to pay them money, which we didn’t. We said we were sorry and that there was no sign or barred door to indicate that we couldn’t enter. We scurried down the entry tunnel and on to the next tomb.