Alison R Reed (also writing as Marianna Bell and Michael N Allison)

Part 1

"What about going to Cairo for the day?" enquired Sandra, our tousled haired holiday rep.  "It's only an hour's flight away from Cyprus - you'll never be so close again.  Think about it!  The pyramids; the sphinx; a cruise on the Nile!  All in one day!"  She beamed round at us expectantly.  I caught Mike's eye. 

"Do you want to go?" he asked, cocking his head on one side as he watched closely for my reaction.

"Can we afford it?"  I replied, worried as usual about spending the money.

"Forget about that for the moment, do you want to go?"

"Mmm, yes, please!" I nodded and I had a suspicion my eyes were sparkling with excitement.

So that was how we came to be sitting on an Egyptian aeroplane at Paphos airport at 9 o'clock on a February morning.  By 10 o'clock we were circling Cairo and by quarter past we were disembarking.  The sun was shining and the light somehow seemed brighter and cleaner than in Britain even on a sunny day.

Cairo airport was spacious and largely deserted until several customs officers appeared from nowhere and collected our passports; we received in return a card printed with a large number 1.  Obediently we filed onto the nearest coach, marked number 1, where we sat until another four vehicles had filled up.  Looking out of the window I could see a protection of security guards standing with legs apart, arms folded, eyes hidden by sunglasses and jackets rucked up by the Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machine gun tucked into their waist holsters.  It was too much like the movies and I did a double-take, not quite believing what I was seeing.  A small Egyptian lady with dyed red hair and an enormous personality got onto our coach.  She introduced herself in heavily accented English as Salwar. 

The airport car-park was pretty much like any other airport but immediately beyond its confines was another world.  George, the driver, edged carefully into the traffic on the dual carriageway and we were swept along in the melee.  Cars and lorries, nearly all of them scratched or dented or held together with tape, converged on us.  Salwar was giving us a running commentary about where we were going, what we would see and where we would eat when I was distracted by a huge box of dead fish, white and pink and bluey-grey, passing the coach window.  It was fastened to the roof of a dirty red pick-up truck and completely open to the elements.  I nudged Mike.

"I hope that's not our dinner!" I whispered and he grimaced.

A few minutes later, I watched, fascinated, whilst a lad of about 12, driving a donkey and flat cart with huge wheels, effortlessly negotiated the teeming traffic on the roundabout.  An unconcerned road-sweeper swept up dust and litter from the gutter with his broom and dumped it into a small hand-cart, whilst walking into the four-lines of traffic on the three lane road. 

Palm trees, like I used to imagine in Sunday school, lined the central reservation and although there was an overall feeling of dust and dryness, I was surprised by the amount of greenery.  We made our way through office blocks, apartments, small fields and houses, and then we were surrounded by the City of the Dead which went on for what seemed like miles.

"This is where the people of Cairo bury their dead," intoned Salwar.  "Cairo already has 17 million people, and one million more are born every 9 months and they have to live somewhere.  One million of them live in the City of the Dead."

I stared at Mike and then at the dilapidated houses, many of which had no roofs, crowded together with barely a space to walk between them.

"People actually LIVE in the cemetery?" asked another passenger.  "With all the dead bodies? Ugh!" and his companion giggled nervously.

"They feel that the dead cannot hurt them!" replied Salwar, calmly. 

"At least some of them have electricity and tv," said Mike pointing to sagging cables and an incongruous satellite dish.

Suddenly my attention was drawn to the fact that we had left the main road, and were negotiating a narrow tarmac strip and there in front loomed the decaying splendour of the pyramids. 

"Don't forget, 'la-la-la' means 'no'.  Stay close to me," shouted Salwar as she alighted from the coach and went to stand a few yards away, holding up a large plastic paddle marked '1'.  The air was dusty and warm and the sun shone from a pale blue sky, although a haze hovering over Cairo prevented us from seeing very far.  I pulled my cap a little lower over my eyes and Mike clipped on his sunglasses.  Holding hands, we scrambled over the sand and stones and then the rocks, trying to keep up with Salwar in her sensible shoes.  In a moment we were in a queue outside number two pyramid and then we had to bend almost double to file into a small hole, like a line of ants.  There were no steps, just planks with metal rails fastened cross-wise and wide enough for two people, one going in and one coming out.  And it was dark.  I couldn't see the hand in front of my face in parts but the people in front went further and further down into the bowels of the pyramid and I duly followed.  Just when I thought it was going to go on forever and I was contemplating turning round and going out, it opened out into a tall chamber, maybe double the width of the narrow tunnel.  It was good to stand upright, even it was only for a few yards, before crouching again for a short climb upwards and another narrow passage which this time led to the burial chamber.

To say that I was a disappointed was an understatement.  I don't know what I expected, but a high-ceilinged room with an empty stone sarcophagus and nothing else, seemed a bit of a let down.  In all the programmes I've ever seen, the burial chamber was filled with treasures for the after life: jewellery, chairs, tables, dried flowers, the trivia of everyday life but there was nothing.  Not even the dust of millennia.  It had been swept as clean as you can get a pyramid in the Sahara.  We turned to go back out and studiously ignored the outstretched hand of a local who felt that all visitors should give him money. 

The sun blinded us as we emerged from the stone womb and almost immediately we were pounced on as a likely target by a young man hawking his postcards.  He spoke very good English, but then as we were to find out, so many of them spoke at least some English as it was the only way to make a living.  Mike grasped my hand tightly and we stumbled over the stones towards the coaches, accompanied by an incessant babble from our young native companion.  He gave up eventually and we were able to look around us properly.  The coach park was enormous, I thought there were only a few coaches when we arrived but there must have been over a 100 now and I couldn't for the life of me remember what colour ours was! 

The pyramids looked exactly like all the photos I'd ever seen of Giza - which is what I'd expected - but there was an unreality about it all as well.  Many of the cladding stones had fallen off and lay at the base.  It was surprising to see that they were made of granite ground silkily smooth without the aid of power tools and still able to reflect the light.  With the light shining onto it 4,000 years ago, it must have been a spectacular sight.

An armed police man was arguing with a be-robed man who wanted to bring his horse and cart down to the tourists, presumably to give rides around the place.  They wrestled over the gun but a camel-mounted colleague had seen the incident and he came to enforce the rule of law and the intruder was seen off.  We watched him trotting up the steep hillside; several times he looked back to see if the police were still watching and they were.  

"Look at all those police!" said Mike.  "They're everywhere!"

"Yes.  A few years ago some tourists were killed by a madman with a gun.  We don't want that to happen again," explained Salwar.

Despite the warm weather, I shivered.

Our next stop was a plateau which overlooked the pyramids.  Again it was crowded with tourists and how the drivers manage to move their coaches around without incident, is beyond me.  The view was duly admired and photographed and in the distance we could just make out the city of Cairo. 

We drove down to the Sphinx which nestles in front of the Second Pyramid, that of Khafre (also known as Chepren) and into which we had descended.  To our right was the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) and further away on our left was the smallest of the three pyramids, that of Menkaure.  Prominent on the sky line was a policeman, cross-legged on his camel steadfastly gazing over the scene from his vantage point on a nearby hill.  Tourists milled about, alternately dithering and then purposefully striding, as if in some elaborate dance, whilst the Sphinx, settled and comfortable for millenia, stared thoughtfully above our heads into the distance.  Weather-worn and battered, it was an imposing sight and to uneducated Egyptians this creation of part-lion and part-Pharaoh must have been mysterious and awe-inspiring, maybe even frightening.  It towered above us but was partly obscured by the sandstone blocks and fencing in front of his paws.  A better view could be had by joining a long queue to stand on the specially built walls alongside the monument but as there were only twenty minutes left before we had to get back to the coach, we stayed where we were and watched the crowds.

Maybe I'm showing my ignorance, but I'd always thought of the Sphinx and the pyramids as being in the middle of the Sahara Desert with nothing for miles around.  How wrong I was!  Cairo has developed all around Giza and having just discovered this fact, I should not have been surprised to turn round and find the Pizza Hut a hundred yards away.  But I was.