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Xerses Reconsidered – A Week in Egypt

Xerxes now decided to hold a review of his army. On a rise of ground nearby, a throne of white marble had already been specially prepared for his use by the people of Abydos; so the king took his seat upon it and, looking down over the shore, was able to see the whole of his army and navy at a single view. And when he saw the whole Hellespont hidden by ships, and all the beaches and plains of Abydos filled with men, he called himself happy – and the moment after burst into tears. Artabanus, his uncle, was by his side; and when he saw how Xerxes wept, he said to him: ‘My Lord, surely there is a strange contradiction in what you do now and what you did a moment ago. Then you called yourself a happy man – and now you weep.’

‘I was thinking,’ Xerxes replied; ‘and it came into my mind how pitifully short human life is – for of all these thousands of men not one will be alive in a hundred years’ time.’

 – The tears of Xerxes, taken from Herodotus


“When it gets to the top, count how long it takes to get through the loop and stop.”

As the car climbed to the top of the track, we began counting.

“One, two, three, four, five, six.”

The car tore out of the loop and rocketed round the bend.

“There. Six seconds. How bad can it be?”

I shrugged and my father smiled and led me off to my first roller coaster ride.

Twenty or so years later, I found myself in a similar situation. My travelling partner having decided Egypt was not for her, chose a plane home, I chose to stay, to ride the rollercoaster, but already my bravery was fading and I was counting how long it would take to get through the loop.

One week.

7 days.

168 hours.

604,800 seconds.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, just that I wanted to have done it, to be able to appreciate it from the warm glow of memory without the metallic tang of fear I could taste in my mouth.

My status as a ‘proper traveller’ had already been tacitly mocked by a pair of Irish bores named Vera and Dalton who sneeringly claimed to not have the first clue where to cash a traveller’s cheque.

“So how long have you been here?” I ventured.


“Where are you off to next?”

“Not sure.”

“We’re waiting for money to arrive.”

“So…what are you doing at the moment?”



They were of course being modest here, nothing was an oversimplification. They did have a large stack of books to work their way through. Understandable really, after all, what else could one be expected to do in Cairo?

Emboldened by their lack of interest in me or anything surrounding them, I checked out of the hostel, in search of the Marriott Hotel whom I had heard through a whisper would cash a traveller’s cheque.

As I strode through the palatial surroundings of the Marriott, I looked at the restaurant. It was the strangest sight I had ever seen, there were literally hundreds of tables with nothing but a large shisha pipe to constitute breakfast. Being used to England where it is becoming increasingly difficult to smoke anywhere other than in your own home after dark, it was quite a pleasure to see a fog of smoke hanging over the breakfast of some of the wealthiest people in Cairo. 

Travellers cheques cashed, I lit a Marlboro and headed off again.

Not being entirely sure I was headed in the right direction, I asked a young Egyptian for directions to my bus stop. He was dressed in a pair of unseasonably tight Italian jeans, large heeled boots, a tight black D&G T-shirt and sported sunglasses glistening in his ludicrously over-gelled hair. After a brief exchange that included my name, where I was from and how long I was here for, I got my directions and turned to go only to be confronted by a wall of traffic. 

Michael Ondaaijte stated “he who has not seen Cairo has not seen the splendour of Islam”, so it is true to say that he who has not seen Cairo has not seen the true horror of rush hour.

“Haven’t you learnt how to cross the road like an Egyptian yet?”

“Ah no not yet.”

“It’s easy.” He said, folding his hands ready for prayer. “Just cross the road and pray to Allah.”

Incredibly as he stepped out onto the road, the cars somehow seemed to miss him. It was interesting to watch, but not a method I was going to adopt – although I did make a mental index card for Allah, it read: Allah; patron saint of pedestrians, useful.

As I came to the bus stop, the number of taxis increased, Cairean taxi drivers are clever and know that tourists get hot and confused when waiting for buses, opting for the softer option. I turned them all down with a polite “la shokran” until one of them stopped me.

“Where are you going?”

“To Giza.” I replied.

“You are getting the bus?” He asked.


“Okay, the bus stop is there. Just be careful with your bag.” Forewarned and touched by his generosity, I walked to the bus stop. At the kerbside there was a man dressed in a blue uniform, reminiscent of a French Policeman, stopping buses and generally trying to instil some kind of order into the chaotic process. He seemed like a good person to ask, but appearances can be deceptive. After a very brief conversation involving lots of hand gesticulations but no actual information, I gave up and made my way back to the kerb to see if the Lonely Planet had any advice on which bus to take. Just as I began leafing through, a voice started up behind me. 

“He doesn’t speak English,” offered the comparatively fluent man, “where are you going?”

“To the Pyramids”

“I’m going that way, I’ll help you.”

Thank you.” This wasn’t so hard after all.

When the bus pulled up it looked like a bus borrowed from a comedy film whose plot concerns an heiress, who inherits the bus company from her dead husband, against the wishes of the megalomaniacal chief of the depot who, in a dastardly plot to run her out of business, gives her only the worst buses.

“This is our bus, keep hold of your bag.”

We climbed onboard and somehow managed to find an empty square inch in which to huddle. The bus was packed, leading me to believe we were at the stage of the film where the disgruntled chief of the depot cuts the amount of buses from ten a day to one.  Still, he did have the decency to levy a charge of just 15p for the journey. One man sold a kind of inversely proportioned friendship bracelet: the more he thrust them at me, the less friendly I was inclined to be.

Mohammed, 28, was just on his way home from work. The reason for his unusually good English was that he worked for the government in some kind of intelligence capacity. The exact details of his role were lost slightly in the sleeve of a stranger’s galibyo as the bus swerved to avoid a taxi.

“What is it you want to see?” Mohammed asked in a spare moment.

“The Pyramids mainly.”

“Don’t do it the tourist way, I’ll show you a better way, Egyptian way.”

“Walk like an Egyptian?” I grinned. Mohammed smiled blankly and nodded. I was into double figures with that line and now seemed like a good time to ditch it.

We got off the bus and Mohammed suggested going for a chay as the night’s work was beginning to take its toll. He took  reat care to explain that it would be an Egyptian chay shop, not a tourist one.

The chay shop was a concrete shell with a few tables and chairs, a wooden bar and an army of flies in residence. A small black and white TV sat on a shelf high up on the near wall showing the crackly remnants of some football match. On the back wall of the chay shop were racks and racks of dismantled shisha in various states of cleanliness. When the shisha arrived at the table, I could not contain my excitement, I had to have a go. After a few deep gulps, Mohammed caught my gaze and offered me the pipe.

“Try some?”

“Please.” I swapped my Marlboro with Mohammed and took a long toke on the pipe.

Although we both knew there was nothing but apple tobacco in there, it was impossible to stop a mischievous smile forming on my lips. After a second chay for both of us, Mohammed suggested we make a move. I brought another pack of Marlboro before leaving the chay shop and thanked the proprietor in the only Egyptian I knew.

Outside the sun was shining but there was still a slight chill in the air making me thankful that I had stuffed a jumper and a pair of trousers into my rucksack. A group of children were playing football when one of them miscued and sent the ball towards my feet followed eagerly by one of the other players.

“English?” He enquired.


“Welcome to Alaska.” He beamed shaking my hand vigorously to hoots of laughter from his team-mates behind.

“That’s the difference between this village and the tourist village.” Mohammed said, a sense of paternal pride evident. “In the tourist village his first word would have been baksheesh.”

The street to Mahmoud’s stables was like nothing I had ever seen. There were no cars, just a menagerie of donkeys, horses, camels and children playing in the street, feeding the cattle, learning the family trade, to all intents and purposes, this was school for some of them. Standing on the pavement outside Mahmoud’s stables was an Arab so picture-perfect I worry it could be the News of the World’s famous sting merchant and recent thorn in the side of the Countess of Wessex. Mohammed said something to the man in Arabic then listened for a moment.

“Mahmoud will meet us inside” he pointed to the wooden building.

Inside were a number of dusty armchairs, stools and sofas all covered in dusty throw-overs and in various states of disrepair. Pictures of previous holidaymakers, enjoying their day out covered the walls, as did saddles, riding crops, stirrups and various other equipment scattered around the place, which looked as though it could double for torture equipment with no loss of efficiency. 

I lit a cigarette and pulled the ashtray over. Underneath the glass of the coffee table were hundreds of business cards, all promising a return of the hospitality they have been shown here. Mahmoud entered.

Mahmoud looked like the well-groomed Arab you only saw in Hollywood movies. He cut an authoritative air in brown deck shoes, pristine white trousers (a logistical miracle in themselves), blue denim shirt and mirrored wayfarers. Mohammed explained what I wanted to see, what I didn’t want to see and that I was not to be treated like a tourist. 

We discussed the day’s itinerary for a while and then moved onto the jousting match of agreeing a price. There is an art to this in Egypt that I have yet to master. I offered one price, but it was refused. Mahmoud offered another, I laughed, and we went back and forth like this for some time until eventually agreeing on a price, to do it the Egyptian way. I paid Mahmoud in travellers cheques.

Outside, my horse was prepared under the strict instruction that I had never been anywhere near a horse and therefore required a gentle specimen. Once a suitable steed had been saddled, I went out into the sunshine. Mahmoud sat atop a glorious, powerful looking thoroughbred whilst next to him coughed my tatty looking Dobbin. As I approached, he looked at me, then at his genetically superior pal, and back at me, knowing we had been perfectly matched. 

I thanked Mohammed for his help who was now off home for some well-needed sleep. Mahmoud gave me the most cursory introduction to horse riding and galloped off leaving Dobbin and I to our blissful mutual incompetence.

There is a natural law attaching to all tourist attractions, that of diminishing returns; however as with all laws, there is the exception. Few things have the power to take the breath away like the majesty of the Pyramids. Unlike the Niagara Falls, the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Pyramids are something that I don’t consciously remember being told about, I just always knew they were there. Sort of like a colour that I knew existed once, but could only be viewed here, in the flesh, its radiance too great for mere pictures. 

The route that Mahmoud and I followed took us round the back of the complex meaning that the Pyramids were actually blocked from view for a few minutes, but when we rounded the sandbank I felt a chill down my back as they stepped into view.

“Welcome to Egypt.” Mahmoud smiled at me. I simply nodded. 

Mohammed was right; this was the way to see the Pyramids. Seeing the shimmering edifices looming on the horizon and gradually getting nearer through the churned up desert dust just as Herodotus and Napoleon must have done is quite a sight. 

Once we got a little closer, I told Mahmoud I wanted to stop here and that I would meet him down by the Sphinx in a couple of hours for our sunset ride. With this he wished me well, took charge of my horse and galloped off into the distance, leaving me alone. 

For the first time in a couple of days, I began to walk slowly, measuring every step. I was at the apex of the rollercoaster now and with my eyes open; I counted as slowly as I could and I started from the very back of the complex, determined to see everything.

As I walked up to the first Pyramid things got a little colder as its monumental mass blocked out the sun. Another of the benefits of approaching the Pyramids from the far side was that the crowds were on the opposite side, so for a few minutes, I was genuinely alone in the shadow of history. I was amazed that here was the last of the ancient seven wonders of the world left standing, this 5000-year-old monument to man’s achievements, a monument to the superiority of an entire race – and there was no barrier protecting them. 

In celebration, I had a little climb up the first two or three steps and pinched the smallest piece of stone I could to take home for my daughter. Sat on the Pyramid, I was amazed that I had still not seen another soul since Mahmoud left. At that very moment, a mounted policeman came lurching round the comer on his camel. It was a slightly ridiculous sight seeing an officer of the law swaying about up there but the machine gun at his side did enough to reinforce his authority. I nodded in his direction and clambered down, unsure as to whether or not being up there was a shooting offence.

Reluctantly I began to wander to the front of the Pyramids, knowing that I would encounter more people. Sure enough, as soon as I came round to the front of the Pyramid, there was a small family of children climbing all over Imhotep’s pride and joy. I felt a burning desire to scream at these reckless children, but the lump of Pyramid in my pocket silenced me.

I strolled across to the glory that is Cheops Pyramid. Here, the vendors and camel merchants increased in both appearance and annoyance. My tactic so far had been simply to dismiss them with a simple “la shokran” but this new lot required a somewhat steer approach, so I simply ignored them.

There was a large dark coach at the set down point disgorging rows upon rows of tourists who were dressed curiously smartly for a trek round the desert. Without fail, every one of them had a camcorder around their neck. I have never understood people’s insistence to film inanimate objects – why film something that does not move?  I left them to their peculiar art and moved on.

Built in the second half of the third millennium BC, the Pyramids are the design of genius architect Imhotep, a man whose brilliance was so indisputable, he was later deified by the Greeks. According to the timeline of ancient Egypt, the Pyramids were not a culmination of a people’s brilliance – merely its opening gambit! The general belief is that hundreds of thousands of slaves were employed to build the monuments, dedicating their lives (not just their working lives) to the project. 

At its base, Cheops Pyramid covers 13 acres, which is roughly equivalent to seven American city blocks and is about the height of a 40-storey building. It is made of approximately two and a half million stone blocks, more than all the Cathedrals and Churches in England put together. On average, the stones weigh between two and seven tonnes. As feats of engineering they remain unsurpassed, perhaps unsurpassable.

Genius though Imhotep was, it should not be thought that he hit upon the Pyramids’ design in an Archimedes-esque moment of inspiration. The story goes that Imhotep built a Square mastaba for King Zoser. However, the king being in better health than at first suspected, Imhotep added a smaller slab on top of the flat base, then after a while decided to add another. Thus, when the King eventually came to pass, Imhotep had inadvertently created a stepped Pyramid for his master.

Despite many popular theories, the exact secret behind the pyramids construction remains unknown. The first problem is how stones weighing seven tonnes were transported 500 miles down the Nile. The annual flooding of the Nile would have provided transport, but the sheer logistics of the problem are immense. In Notes from a Small Island, Bryson says of the builders of Stonehenge: “Can you imagine trying to talk 600 people into trying to help you drag a 50-ton stone 18 miles across the countryside, and then saying, ‘Right lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales and we can party.’” 

Of course, the Pharaohs were the morning and evening stars and would have had absolute control over the slaves but even so, it was some feat.

The common belief that a system of ramps was used in order to build the Pyramids is ludicrous. Danish civil engineer P. Garde-Hanson calculated that a ramp to the top of Cheops Pyramid would require 17.5 million cubic yards of material. That’s seven times the amount needed for the Pyramid itself!  Even if this system had been used, it would leave an enormous amount of rubble, which is simply not there. 

There is no mention of such debris from any visitor all the way back to Herodotus. It is also widely accepted that the Egyptians aligned the Pyramids with certain stars and were familiar with the earth’s sphericity. It is this astrological bent that leads many to authors such as Erich Von Danniken or Graham Hancock. There is an entire literary genre that concerns itself with the Pyramids’ origin and function, some worthy of reading some less so, but until someone presents us with the original papyrus sketches signed by Imhotep himself, we’re open to suggestion.

Wandering down to the last Pyramid I stopped for a moment and looked up. A plane from…somewhere flying to… somewhere streaked across a cloudless blue sky. The sight of a 747 cruising past these ancient stone monuments somehow said so much about science and the advancement of man, both good and bad, that I wanted to cry. I stood and watched the plane drift across the sky and gave a little wave to the people inside, who I’m sure must have been enjoying a glorious view.

Surrounded by a high fence, the Sphinx is the one part of the whole complex where precautions have been taken. I walked round and had a look but after the glory of the Pyramids, the Sphinx didn’t quite match up. It was an astounding piece of work, hewn out of the rock rather than constructed, the workmanship was undeniable. 

It is said that when the Sphinx was first discovered, it was buried in sand up to its nose, an ancient secret playing hide and seek with the world. I walked down to the seating area that is used for the famous sound and light show (as seen in The Spy Who Loved Me) to have another look at the Sphinx and decided that perhaps I was a little harsh. From this distance, it looked much more impressive, an impassive guard over the souls of the Pharaohs. I turned and walked to the back of the seating area where Mahmoud was sat chatting to a group of friends.

“Finished?” Mahmoud asked.


“Okay, let us go see the sun.” Mahmoud dusted himself down and jumped on to his horse, handing me back the reins to mine.

The sky was looking a little overcast and the sun slipped behind a cloud, taking its modicum of warmth with it. Cantering along the desert, Mahmoud pointed to the horizon.

“I think we will be unlucky today, no sunset.” Looking around there were about thirty horses all making their way towards the sand dune we were at the bottom of.

“If we get to the top in time we might make it,” Mahmoud smiled at me, “ready to make some gallop?”

“Definitely.”  Before I had a chance to answer, Mahmoud’s horse stormed off in front with mine following automatically, making me realise how much more control he had over my steed than I did. The thunder of hooves rolled across the dunes as the horizon was nearly lost in the dust cloud and as we crested the sand dune, a glorious sight met our eyes.

The cloud that from the bottom appeared to cover the whole sky was in fact just a thin strip of haze from which the sun now began to peek. We brought our horses to a stop and leaned forward as the sun dripped its orange luminescence into the brown sand. I looked across to Mahmoud but he was staring straight ahead just smiling at the sun and I imagined thanking it for a good day.

Back at the stables, I bade Mahmoud farewell and climbed into the taxi that would take me back to the train station, which would take me back to Luxor, which would take me back to the airport and home to London. As the taxi picked its way through the village of Giza, I looked up. Behind all the chay shops and the small collection of houses were the Pyramids.

I looked around the village at all the villagers going about their business and I couldn’t believe that not one of them was looking up at the miracle in whose shadow they lived. I couldn’t help thinking that were I to live here every day, I would wake up and kiss the floor at my feet, give thanks that I was so lucky to live in the shadow of greatness. But then I remembered the rollercoaster, how I had started the week with my eyes firmly closed, counting the seconds until the worst of it had passed. 

Then I realised the ride had come to a stop and it was time to get off.


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