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The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a treasure trove. Photo: Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a treasure trove. Photo: Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP

Ancient history and sensory overload in Cairo

From millennia-old pyramids to Tahrir Square. Radha Chadha on the wonders of Cairo

I have seen it in pictures a hundred times, but the shock and awe of finally standing at the foot of the Great Pyramid at Giza is quite something. It is massive of course—I feel like an ant looking up at an elephant—but there is something else, a stillness, a quiet stealthy presence that is both fascinating and unnerving. There is hardly anyone here—perhaps because it is the month of Ramzan, or perhaps tourism has evaporated after the revolution—but this solitariness brings on a strange sense of communion. It is pretty much me and this gigantic structure built some 4,500 years ago.

The desert sand spreads away in the distance. Time collapses. And you sense the enormous intelligence and sheer will of the ancient men who stacked 2.3 million huge blocks of stone—each weighing an average 2.5 tons—to a height of 480ft to build a perfectly symmetrical pyramid. It remained the tallest structure on earth till the Eiffel Tower came up in 1889.

Cairo is so dense with history—from these millennia-old pyramids to the relatively recent action at Tahrir Square—that you can almost feel it in the air. It seems to have absorbed influences from diverse sources—not only the umpteen dynasties of Egyptian pharaohs, but also the Libyans, Nubians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and more. There is a hilarious moment when we drive past an Indian temple-style palace and I look questioningly at my guide. She laughs, no, the Indians were never here, this was built by an India-loving Belgian, Baron Empain, and he also built the modern suburb of Heliopolis in the early 1900s. My guide, by the way, turns out to be a treat—she is a very learned Egyptologist, tries to teach me hieroglyphics and, with a bit of prodding, shares tales of famous visitors, and produces old photos of former US first lady Barbara Bush who came with her daughters-in-law—and it seems Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s wife is a petite Mexican “who can shop till she drops".

The pharaohs can give you a master lesson in marking status, not only in your lifetime but, more importantly, in the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians believed death was just a short snooze before you awakened again to eternal life, and therefore preparing for the afterlife was critical. Pharaohs, it seems, started working on their post-death arrangements as soon as they assumed the throne—the Great Pyramid, for example, was ordered by Pharaoh Khufu. It took 20 years to build, with some 100,000 men labouring on it at a time. Thankfully, his reign lasted long enough for him to be buried in it. His queens, poor things, got three teeny-weeny pyramids lined up alongside his giant one. His son Khafre was one up on him—he constructed a pyramid, a tad smaller than his dad’s, but in addition he had a magnificent sphinx built nearby, so stunning that it has become a symbol of Egypt in people’s minds.

But it is the stuff that went inside the burial chambers—remember, you need to be generously loaded with material goodies for the eternal life—that truly takes your breath away. I fleetingly hear Raj Kapoor’s song in my head suggesting exactly the opposite—Khuda ke pas jaana hai, na hathi hai, na ghoda hai, wahan paidal hi jana hai. It would have made no sense whatsoever to these status-hugging and riches-lugging pharaohs. And thank God for it, because my next stop is the Egyptian Museum, which is literally brimming over with exquisite stuff from assorted tombs in Egypt, and it is an utter feast.

You slip into overload mode. There is so much on display all around you—massive statues, inscribed tablets, beautiful furniture, items of daily use, jewellery that you are willing to die for and go into the afterlife right away—that it is hard to focus. An hour into the museum and my brain is blurring Amenhotep into Akhenaten into Sekhmet into Hatshepsut, mixing dynasties and even sexes—it doesn’t help that when the occasional woman makes it to pharaoh, she is shown with a beard—and the only graceful thing to do is to surrender on the details and try to absorb the big picture.

The biggest theme is amazing creativity and stunning craftsmanship. In fact, the skill level is so consummate that we rarely achieve a fraction of that quality today. Take the Tutankhamun gallery—it’s one name that made an emphatic dent on my brain—and you just marvel at how the goldsmiths created pieces of such beauty more than 3,000 years ago. His funerary mask, possibly the most famous artwork in the museum, is beautifully designed and flawlessly rendered in gold and precious stones. The last sarcophagus (in which young Tut’s mummified body lay) is another jaw-dropper, made of solid gold weighing 110 kilos, shaped like the human body, the face beautiful, all the regal paraphernalia sculpted in, colours rendered in precious stones (later, I check out local jewellery designer Azza Fahmy’s store—it has an interesting ancient-modern Egyptian aesthetic, a kind of back-to-the-future feel, and some of her bolder pieces are show-stoppers, what today’s Cleopatra might wear).

Outside the museum, you come on to Tahrir Square, and it is a merry mess, traffic snarled, tempers easily lost, once beautiful buildings in disrepair—it feels like I am in India. But the square is steeped in meaning, and you can’t help but think of the Arab Spring of 2011, of hopes raised and dashed, and the new equilibrium under a military ruler. And you wonder if today’s tumultuous time will be a momentary blip in history, or will be remembered 5,000 years later with the same awe and fascination that the pharaohs’ inspire.

Whether the pharaohs crossed over to an eternal life or not, they sure created an eternal memory.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

Also Read Radha’s previous Lounge columns

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