Climbing the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

I’ve been bogged down in research for our next travel destination, so the next post on ol’ Malcolm – aka Dr. Feelgood – will have to wait.

In the meantime, here’s a travel story from November, 1980.

There were signs all around the base blocks: It Is Strictly Forbidden to Climb the Pyramids.

It was also Strictly Forbidden to do a lot of things, but there were a lot of men in flowing white robes ready to offer young backpackers a variety of opportunities.

“HelloEnglish! HelloMister! YouWantToBuyCamelYouWantToBuyHorse?” The Sphinx, eternally mute and stately, had had to endure these men for centuries, but I was getting tired of them after five minutes.

I knew they’d already stuffed their pockets with tourist dollars the whole day, and I’d be damned if I was going to be just another camel-riding tourist at the Pyramids.

In the end I spent six months in the Middle East without once getting on a camel. I regret that now.

But after paying a few Egyptian piastres to an unlicensed guide and crawling behind him through a narrow opening inside to marvel at how completely underwhelming the interior is – no brilliant heiroglyphics, dusty mummies, carved wooden chests, or gold-covered masks here – I’m glad I didn’t just leave to go back to my Cairo hostel.

I knew I had one chance in my life to do this.

The shadow was getting longer on the east side of the Pyramids as I looked both ways, placed both palms face down into the sandy grit covering the first block, hopped and swung my left leg around high to the left, and hoisted myself up.

Suddenly I felt exhilarated at the thought I was on my way to the top of one of the world’s most ancient free-standing structures, for centuries a magnet for travellers, grave-robbers, mystics, poets and archaeologists, the subject of endless speculation as to how they were built so many thousands of years ago, and until 1889 when the Eiffel Tower was completed, the tallest thing man had ever built.

I surged ahead, hauling my body up to the second level.

HelloEnglish!HelloMister! YouComeDownItIsForbiddenToClimb!

I turned around to see a man in a dirty yellow robe waving his arms in the air as he yelled at me to get off the Pyramid.

Meeting him sort of half-way, I jumped down from the second block to the first.

Crouching low to be at eye level I said to him: Many people have climbed the Pyramids.  I can see how people have carved their names in the blocks up there!

He didn’t understand me, or pretended not to, because he kept on waving his arms at me to get down on to the ground.  It is forbidden to climb!  It is forbidden to climb! he wailed.

Suddenly I remembered where I’d been over the previous five months and what I’d picked up on the way.  A few hundred Italian Lira. Portuguese Escudos, Spanish Pesetas, Greek Drachma, French Francs, a few Swiss Franc centimes, German Pfennigs, Dutch Gilders – even Yugoslavian Dinars and Swedish Kroner –  all sitting loose in one of the pockets of my canvas and leather day pack, the leftovers from a few months of waiting in train stations, checking out of youth hostels, museum entrance fees, ferry rides, buses, food stalls and more than a few bar bills.

It’s what you gathered without even trying in the days before we traded in all that colour and variety for the cold, antiseptic uniformity of the world’s most soulless currency, the euro.

I’d wanted to leave the coins in the youth hostel, but was wary of thieves, so I always carried them around with me.

Stuffing my hand in the bag and pulling out a fistful of coins, I took a few out and handed them to him.

He looked at me incredulously, then smiled.

“OK, English” he said, sweeping his hands as if to brush me away.  “You go up now.”

Backsheesh.  The eternal currency.

No points for guessing where we’re headed.

19 Responses to “Climbing the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt”

  1. November 26, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    I visited Egypt and Israel twice, first in 1993, second time was just two years ago (where I also went to see Petra and posted it Nov. 29, 2007, where you’d kindly advised me about what I could do with photos being copied)… Anyway, the first time I was there, Egypt and Israel, I felt I was visiting something authentic and pristine. The second time, all we could hear as soon as we stepped out of the tour bus were competing cries of “One dollar! One dollar!” Commercialism had invaded the historic sites and won the battle. I’ve enjoyed your piece, brings back memories.

    • November 26, 2009 at 11:25 pm

      I know what you mean, having seen a few of the worst effects in Turkey last fall.
      In Egypt, we’re hoping to see not only a few of the must-do places – and the pyramids are one of them – but also get out into the desert and a few oases. It will be a bit of a trek, but worth it to get away from the hordes. I love the desert.

  2. November 27, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    Ah – in Liberia, that eternal currency was called “cold water” or “dash”. The first time I was asked for “cold water”, I produced a bottle from my bag. The guy looked at me like I was nuts.

    I just went back and took a peek at the cover image of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. It does look familiar😉

  3. November 28, 2009 at 2:13 am

    I spent 5 months in Cairo a few years ago during which time I had a couple of visitors, which meant a couple of extra visits to the pyramids. The first visit was worth it. A must see. The subsequent visits were well dosed with annoyance at the incessant harassment (as tourists and women).

  4. November 28, 2009 at 4:16 am

    Yep – dosh is British slang for money. Didn’t know that, but in the process of learning that I found a wonderful site called Dosh Dosh that’s full of good stuff on SEO, twitter, marketing, etc. Just spent an enjoyable hour reading through it – thanks!

  5. November 29, 2009 at 8:49 am

    i have yet to get to Egypt, and make that point every year… i really need to get my ass in gear on the travel front… now that we live in Norway, we do so much more less exotic travel!

  6. November 30, 2009 at 7:09 am

    Great post. Never been to Egypt but this reminds me of Theroux’s Dark Star Safari and the incessant hassling he described there. “No prizes for where we’re headed” – I drew a blank there but the pic of the Sphinx reminded me of Asterix and Obelix and the story of how the Sphix lost its nose. Am I just being “dof” (as we say here, that is stupid) or was that the reference? Or are you heading back to see the Sphinx. Would love to visit Egypt some day but maybe I can just read about it here instead!

    • November 30, 2009 at 7:19 pm

      Hi Pete – Dark Star Safari is one of my favourite Theroux travel books. Have you read his latest novel? It’s called Blinding Light and is about a travel writer (..) who heads to the jungles of Ecuador to take exotic drug mixtures and ends up… well, I suggest you read the book.🙂 He’s apparently working on a novel (or travel book) about India.
      Theroux fans should check out this week’s podcast at Writers and Company on CBC Radio:
      (you can subscribe in iTunes)
      I’m recommending it without first hearing it because I know it’s got to be good.

      @beaverboosh – you really are so very close, you know.

  7. December 1, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Am I the only one who wants to wag a finger in your direction and say “Naughty boy”?

  8. December 2, 2009 at 2:06 am

    Oooh ~ glad to hear about Theroux and get the recommend re: Dark Star Safari. I’ve only read The Happy Isles of Oceania and Sunrise With Seamonsters, but enjoyed both thoroughly.

    There’s a possibility of snow in Houston Friday, so we’re moving into the reading season😉

  9. 12 writechic
    December 2, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    He is naughty but bold.

    Great story, Ian!🙂

    • December 2, 2009 at 7:34 pm

      I didn’t think it was being bad so much as trying to get along and fit in with the locals.🙂

      I’d forgotten that Theroux was at the pyramids in Dark Star Safari. Here’s an excerpt I like:

      In Cairo there was a thin line between pestering and hostility – indeed, they often amounted to the same thing, and although there were plenty of beggars there was little thievery. Egyptians seemed amazingly agreeable. You think they have been briefed to make jokes, by some government bureau but no, they are just hungry, desperation making them genial and innovative. It was obvious they were hoping to make a buck but at least they had the grace to do it with a smile.

  10. December 2, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Ian – Thanks for the recommendation re Theroux’s latest. He’s always informative and entertaining.

  11. 15 Jingle
    December 11, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    I may never have any chances of visiting Egypt, only in my dreams i guess. i enjoy looking at the attractions and see your experiences from a reader’s perspective.
    have fun traveling1

  12. 16 Andy
    June 13, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Hey I was wondering if you can still climb them( with a bribe ofcoarse)

    • June 13, 2010 at 3:44 pm

      Hello Andy,
      I doubt it very much. Back then it was a bit of a free-for-all, with the hassle starting as soon as you got past the main entrance and continuing throughout. I guess I was able to turn a bit of that chaos to my advantage. There were far fewer tourists and hardly any police. Today there are tourist police at every corner to keep an eye on things, there are tour buses parked very close by, and hundreds of people milling about. You might get up a few metres to take a picture, but I doubt if you’d be able to bribe enough people to get to the top.

  13. 18 stephen lord
    August 15, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    In six or 12 months time I plan to climb the pyramid of Khufu…possibly at the crack of dawn or possibly just pay some of the guards off.

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