The pyramids on the Giza plateau are empty. Far as anyone can tell they were always that way. The official explanation by Egyptian Archeologists is that those great tombs were robbed thousands of years ago. Meanwhile, tombs of other pharaohs have been opened in modern history and the treasures within were pilfered by either thieves or scientists.
There are nine pyramids on the plateau, three big ones and six little ones. The little ones are really small. They look like they were made by fourth graders out of lego bricks. The big ones are really big. They were built by adults. You can see them for a mile or so from the road leading toward the plateau as you approach. They make an impression even today, thousands of years after their construction. Ancients who lack building cranes and pneumatic tools would have good cause to believe they were built by God.
I looked at the tip of the Khufu Pyramid visible even above a three story office building with a giant advertizing sign for cell phones.
"I have a theory," I said to Ahmed. I was sitting shotgun, watching a hoard of Egyptians about to storm our car while we sat in bumper to bumper traffic. Ahmed's hands shook on the steering wheel.
"...these guys," he said. He swiveled his head from left to right then straight again. He handed me his sunglasses. "Put these on."
I held his sunglasses as the crowd got to us. He said, "They see you are American."
"Is this a problem?"
Guys in the crowd started hitting the car with their fists. One of them jumped on the trunk of the car and started punching the rear window.
"Apparently so," Ahmed said, inching his car forward a foot every time he could do so without hitting the car in front of us or crushing the life out of someone.
Tarek was in the back seat with Bill. Every now and then Tarek shouted something in Arabic toward his closed window and the angry faces.
"They see you're American," Ahmed said again. "Get down."
I wanted to oblige him, but there was no down to get in the small European sedan. And besides, we'd already been made. What good would it do?
The guy on the trunk had managed to get a stick of some sort from one of the crowd and now he was beating the rear window with it. I gave Ahmed his glasses.
I said, "I'm really sorry I suggested coming here. I've never been to Cairo, and to fly six thousand miles and not see them..."
"This guy!" Ahmed shouted in English. Then a diatribe in Arabic. "This guy." Then to me, "You are not in Cairo, you are in Giza."
"Giza. Roger that."
As if a gift from God a space opened up in front of the sedan. Ahmed hit the gas and we squirted through it. The inertia wasn't enough to dislodge the guy on the back of the car. He needed both hands to hold on so he had stopped beating on the window which offered us some comfort.
"This guy!" again, Ahmed. We suddenly had an empty road in front of us leading to the main entrance to the Giza parking. He swerved left to right. When I looked back I could still see a green shirt and jeans plastered to the rear window.
We reached the gate to the Giza plateau parking and there were two guys in police uniforms. Ahmed rolled down his window and shouted toward them. He pointed to the guy on the trunk.
The cops smiled. They shrugged. They were not interested in getting tangled up in our situation. They slid open the gate to the pyramids parking lot.
Ahmed hit the gas, accelerating from nothing to thirty miles per hour in a second or two. He kept looking in the rearview mirror as we sped up.
"He's off," Ahmed said.
I didn't look back. It wasn't clear if guy had come off of his free will or if he had been thrown violently by the lurching car. I didn't know if I should be interested in finding out or calling an ambulance.
"He's off," Ahmed said again, pulling into one of a couple hundred empty parking slots. As far as I could tell we were the only tourists at the Giza Pyramids at noon on the vernal equinox.
The four of us got out and looked at the car. The hatchback windshield wiper had been torn off.
"I'm really sorry," I said.
"We are here."
"It's the equinox, you know," I said.
Bill said, "It's also the start of the new Mayan calendar."
"We could probably balance eggs on turtle's heads."
"What are you saying?" Ahmed asked. "Why are you saying these things?"
Bill said, "There are some people in America who believe strongly in these ancient symbols. It's a sort of religion. And the first day of spring is sort of a holy day to be here."
"Nobody told me that," Tarek said. He turned over some Egyptian pounds to a guy behind a window and got us tickets.
We started walking to the visitor's entrance. The pyramids are in the desert. It's open on all sides but one tiny location where there is a gate. Given the lack of a police presence if we had chosen to walk a couple hundred yards in another direction we wouldn't have to pay any sort of entry fee.
Another group of men started to walk toward us quite briskly.
"We are the only ones here so there is going to be a lot of them," Ahmed said, bracing for the impact.
"Is this a problem?" Bill asked, as the group got to him and started imploring us in broken English. Each one could act as our guide and take us to things the usual tourists never saw.
"No," said Ahmed. "This is usual. It's just we are the only ones so they are a lot."
As Ahmed negotiated with the group Tarek turned to me and asked, "So what is your theory about the pyramids?"
I'd forgotten about that thought until he reminded me.
"Oh, yeah," I said, watching Ahmed turn over some Egyptian pounds to one of the guys. "They never found anything inside the three big pyramids."
"So?" said Tarek.
"Because it worked."
Tarek thought a moment, then must have decided I made no sense.
"They went," I said, pointing up. "All the other tombs were bad replicas which is why they found all that treasure. But the big ones - they worked."
Ahmed motioned for us to head to the gate. The crowd around us disbursed. One guy followed us peppering us with suggestions of camel rides, horse cart tours, and private crawls through the pyramids.
"Is this guy ok?" I asked Ahmed.
"Yes. We need one guy to keep all the others away."
We went through the Giza pyramid park metal detector.
Then we were in.
The only way we could get our guide to stop physically blocking our way was to agree to ride in the horse drawn carriages. At first I was resentful. I wanted to walk around the pyramids under my own power. Other than us there were two bus loads of Egyptians and lots of bored locals so the space around the plateau was vacant and inviting to the adventurous. My Egyptian friends just sighed when I suggested I be allowed to head into the desert alone. Then I realized that my motives were utterly selfish. Not only would I be depriving someone of enough money to feed his family for a day, but I'd be forcing my Egyptian hosts to commit yet another act they avoided, and that was to commit themselves to sweat-inducing exercise.
"Makes perfect sense," Bill said as he climbed onto the second buggy with Ahmed. "Sweating in the desert is not so smart."
"Thousands of years of culture."
Bill is an avid cyclist. Earlier that day he had availed himself of the Cairo Intercontinental's exercise facility. While fiercely working up a sweat he was approached by one of the gym's staff who made him stop.
"Sir, you're ruining the equipment," the guy said, pointing to the pool of sweat on the stationary bike's control panel.
Bill wiped the panel with a towel. Then draped the towel over the front of the bike.
He said, "Sorry. I should have put something down first."
He started pedaling. The guy stopped him.
"Sir, you don't look well."
Bill is in great condition. He can average twenty-five miles per hour over a hundred mile course of rolling hills in California.
The guy said, "You are losing a lot of water. I must ask you to stop and take a drink."
"How do you exercise without sweating?" Bill asked Ahmed in the buggy, referring to his morning's adventure.
"Thousands of years of practice," Tarek said as the horses pulled.
The horse yanked the cart through the sand and over the rocks. Though the air was thick and brown in Giza city, it was clean at the plateau. Temperatures cool enough that even in my black shirt I did not feel at all uncomfortable. The sky was brilliant blue and the sun beat down through the high clouds. The buggy driver stopped the cart behind the Menkuare pyramid and let us get out and walk around. He didn't mind as I wandered off behind the Queens' pyramids. Due to the near complete cessation of tourism in Egypt I was in utter solitude as I went between the Queens pyramids and then to the Khafre pyramid.
When I returned the cart driver insisted on taking my picture in several poses, the most common of which is that standing a distance from the pyramids, if one lifts his arm and acts as if he's holding away from himself something utterly putrid, a picture can be taken in which it appears the subject his holding the pyramid by the point.
After several ego-crushing shots I stopped worrying how it would appear to others that I was patting the Sphinx on the head, posing like a hieroglyphic stella while massaging the tip of the pyramid of Khufu. I let the guy take as many shots as he felt would warrant his salary. Ahmed negotiated and handed him Egyptian pounds as we left. I shoved some American cash into his hand before I got in the car figuring only good would come of it.
Instead, I inspired him to come toward me aggressively complaining about something.
"Ignore him," Ahmed said to me. Then, "Get in the car."
The driver came to the passenger's side of the car where I was sitting and began rapping on the window with his knuckle. Ahmed spun him around and began lecturing him. He got the guy to back off looking confused.
As Ahmed drove us away he told me the buggy driver was insulted by the bills I'd handed him. He could understand the numerals on the bills and wanted five times what I had given him. Then Ahmed told him there was a 6.5 to 1 exchange ratio and he'd actually been handed much more than he thought.
"But he doesn't believe me," Ahmed said as he went back to scanning the road from left to right.
There was no sign of the crowd that had mobbed us on the way in. We stopped at a take out falafel place in Giza city within sight of the pyramids and got some pita filled with various items.
As we sat there munching our foul Tarek broke the silence by looking up and laughing.
"I just got what you meant before," he said. "The big pyramids. They have nothing inside because they have worked."
I said, "I wonder why nobody ever thought of that."
"Just one of those things."
First we stopped at the upturned immolated police car. It was in a puddle. Bill took a picture of me standing next to it. Some days later I saw that picture and I realize I look very worried. I didn't think it showed at the time.
"I was born in Lebanon," Tarek said. He walked past the carbonized hulk toward the center of Tahrir Square. Bill and I paced him step for step. In my past I've joked about being a war correspondent. Now I felt like one and it wasn't comforting. Other than Bill I was the only white guy between the Egyptian Museum and Italy and the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood was massing in the streets deciding whether or not the U.S. was supporting them or the guy they disliked.
Tarek said, "But my father was a diplomat and we lived not too far from here. I walked to school through this path every day. I used to jog over the bridge to the Ali football club on the other side."
We'd been to the Ali club the prior day. Its concrete walls were emblazoned with the names and pictures of the 72 Ali soccer fans who were mowed down by the secret police during the revolution.
I held up my iPhone and took some shots. Some people in the square and took notice. They took a few steps toward us backed off apparently realizing that Tarek was our escort.
"What was that?" I asked, motioning toward a ten story concrete building whose facade was completely blackened, and all the windows shattered.
"It was a government building they destroyed during the revolution."
Beside it is what remains of the Ritz Carlton. Twelve stories high. Hundreds of rooms. The facade also blackened and cracked. Curtains from some of the rooms fluttered in the wind through broken window panes.
Seven journalists were killed here during the protests. Uncertain by whom.
"That hotel doesn't look so good," I said.
"It was already under repairs before the trouble."
We crossed the bridge over the Nile and Tarek told us it was the scene of the famous stand off between the protesters and the police. We should remember it, he thought, but the whole thing was a television news blur in my memory. Guns and water cannons. Accusations of rape. Everyone seemed to be fleeing. Everyone had blood streaming from their heads.
"I can hear your heart beating from here," Tarek said, smiling.
"Should I be worried?"
"Who knows. I don't trust Egyptians. They're too erratic."
"Then why are we here?"
"It's good for you to see the peace."
A street vendor on the bridge tries to sell us some pickled beans.
I take a couple more shots with the iPhone. The battery is almost dead. Damn location services.
On the other side of the Nile we passed the Egyptian Football Federation HQ. The windows were broken. There was evidence of fire outside.
"They burned this in protest last week. They didn't do anything after the Ali football massacre."
"What should they have done? They're not the police. They're a sports organization."
"Well, those guys over there should have done something."
The ornate building across the street is the Egyptian Police sports club. It had also been firebombed, but some weeks before.
"People are frustrated," I say, realizing how much worse all of this would have been if the populace was armed.
"Everyone expected something different under Morsi, and now they have this. Business is failing. People are suffering. Maybe it's not worse - but it seems worse than Mubarak. Whatever it is, Morsi isn't making it better."
We move on sidewalk down the tree lined street past the burned up police gym. Ahmed picks us up at the Cairo tower and drives us back through Giza to a restaurant he says is one of their favorites. We've been given a choice between dinner at the Four Seasons or at a place they usually take their kids. But it's really no choice at all. We have to see what it's like outside the business-travel bubble.
There are no metal detectors at the restaurant. No baggage X-ray machines. In fact, there's no restaurant building. There are formica topped tables and plastic dinette chairs arranged in a parking lot between some apartment buildings. The kitchen is a long row of propane grills facing the street.
"I love this food," Ahmed says. Far as I could tell the food was fantastic everywhere in Egypt. If you can afford to eat, you eat well.
A waiter brings plates of babaganush, tahini, lamb, beef, salads, potatoes, dolmas, ice cream, baklava, piles of pitas.
Tarek is watching the crowd but doesn't want to seem to be. Ahmed has given up looking for trouble and dives into a green soup made of olive oil, lamb, nuts chick peas, and piles of cilantro.
By the time we finish it's 12:30AM. Entire families with little kids are just showing up.
"This is when you come in the summer when it's hot," Tarek says. "During the day the heat would kill you here."
It's about two AM when we get back to the four layers of security at the Cairo Intercontinental Hotel. First you stop at the cones for the dogs that sniff for bombs. Then you go to a roadblock made of four pneumatic posts that protrude upward from silos in the road, each four feet tall and six inches wide where a guy who checks who's in the car. Satisfied you can identify yourselves he lowers the posts into the ground and you drive over them. Then you get to the hotel lobby door where a door man lets you out of your car and two guys wearing sunglasses at night glance over your luggage. Finally, you go through the metal detector and x-ray to get into the lobby.
Our office is four blocks from the hotel. There is no metal detector there.
"I'll be here to pick you up at eight," Ahmed says as we shake hands in the lobby and thank him and Tarek for their companionship and energy.
"You know, we can practically see the office from here," I say to him. "You don't have to trouble yourself. We can just walk over there."
"I'll be here at eight," Ahmed says as if he has not heard me. Then, "Please, do not try to walk."
"Eight then. Goodnight."
Tarek suggested the market in "Old Cairo," the part of the city behind the walls. Ahmed drives us there. The streets there are narrow. Buildings made of brick and crumbling mortar. Shops all opening onto the street. Vendors keeping an eye on their merchandise, quick to interact if you show the slightest interest.
One says to me, "Come in. Everything free. I can't sell anything, anyway. You might as well just take."
Half the shops are closed. Maybe forever, Tarek says. Here you have businesses that may have served Mohamed Ali or Lawrence that are now shuttered for good. The tourists are gone and the locals don't often come down for the atmosphere.
There are people lounging on lawn chairs next to the old city walls. Tarek says this would not have been allowed during the Mubarek times. Now people are enjoying the liberty of access to these places that were always in sight but out of reach.
"They can do that now because there are no police," Ahmed says.
"Is that good?" I ask.
"Good and bad. Good because police don't oppress the people anymore. Bad because they don't do anything at all."
Just a few days earlier lack of police protection drove a crowd to take matters into their own hands. They lynched two guys who allegedly stole someone's rickshaw.
The streets and the shops and the mosques are all illuminated in colored lamps and bright LEDs. The effect is stunning at night. These are lively places. These are places where life is celebrated through the exchange of the stuff of the world around us. We are surrounded by happy sounds and the smell of cooking.
We sit at a small cafe and sip our tea. Vendors notice the foreigners and try to sell us everything from handfuls of peanuts to old books to Rolex knockoffs.
"Shokron," Ahmed and Tarek repeat over and over. The polite way to deflect persistent entrepreneurs as it has been for millennia is to simply repeat, "Thank you," while shaking your head.
I'd been using the New York approach. Avoid eye contact. Pretend the individual has vaporized and you can walk straight through the remaining gas. Apparently this is terribly wrong but is the expected behavior of uncultured westerners so the kind people put up with it.
Eventually the sellers get the idea we're not fertile ground and they leave us alone to sip our herbal tea.
"I can imagine guys getting off their horses and coming here for tea," I say. "I can imagine British soldiers chasing people through here."
"It wasn't that long ago," Ahmed says.
He crosses his arms and smiles as a group at a table behind us begins singing "Happy Birthday" in English.
I raise my eyebrows but jet lag prevents me from clearly conceiving the question.
Ahmed says, "This is our tradition. They add some other items after the song, too."
"Many things I don't understand," I say.
Tarek says, "Like those guys at the pyramids yesterday. You know what they were doing, right?"
I shake my head and shrug. I didn't really want to think about what would have happened if they had got us out of the vehicle.
Ahmed says, "It's what they always do. They see a foreigner in the car and try to convince the driver the pyramids are closed. Then they move you to a remote parking lot and when you get out you are far from the pyramids so you have to rent their horses to get there."
"They were hitting your car with sticks to get us to rent horses?" I said.
"It is so."
"And what about the guy who jumped on the back of the car?"
Tarek says, "When we were kids we did that all the time. It's just a dangerous thing kids do."
"It seemed like he was trying to bust in the back window."
"You misunderstand. That was the other guys trying to get us to divert to rent horses. It really is a totally normal thing."
"Totally normal," Ahmed says taking the last sip from his tea cup. He gets up and we follow.
"Now we will go see if the mosque down the road is open. Obama visited there when he was in Egypt. It is important for you to see it."
"Sure," I say, because in their minds, like Obama I will need to report back to the nation when I get back that the Egyptians are hopeful, friendly, and ready to receive visitors.