Sunday, November 8, 2009

Iconically Iconic Icons

CAIRO - Are there any more overworked words in the North American version of the English language than "icon' and 'iconic'? More than 'awesome,' 'cool' and 'like,' I mean. As in"Like, that icon is awesome and, like, absolutely cool, totally.''

Well, I have just set eyes on the pyramids and the sphinx - ancient monuments that actually deserve to be called iconic. My wife, who shares my aversion to overuse of certain words, came up with the tongue-in-cheek description 'iconically iconic icons' to poke fun at the tendency to describe everything from signature restaurant dishes, to B-list movie and pop stars, to perfume and hair styles, as iconic or icons. Motoring west of Cairo proper to the Giza plateau, where the sphinx and the pyramids stand, is the quintessentially tourist thing to do in Egypt. But putting up with the photo hustlers, the hustlers who push camel rides (often the same people), the blowing sand and the heat of the sun is worth it, just to see these, uhm, iconically iconic icons.

The place is crowded, to be sure. With my hired professional guide Mohammed Abdelmaksoud ( showing the way, I paid 60 Egyptian pounds (about $12 U.S.) to pass through the security perimeter surrounding the site. The ground was hard and rocky, though there are some raised sidewalks on the walk to the Great Pyramid and paved roads traverse the site. I posed for the obligatory tourist snap after clambering up a few short sets of steps, at Mohammed's suggestion. Click! I walked back down. "It's hazy today,'' he said. It sure was. One could hardy see Giza City just a few hundred yards away, but that was just as well. It's not the prettiest part of Greater Cairo. Buildings are often jerrybuilt, fresh camel and horse dung marks the streets near the tourist sites.

There are actually nine pyramids at the heritage site, not just the three large ones you see on the postcards. I ducked and descended a paved shute bordered by handrails into the stifling, unadorned room at the bottom of the Queen's Pyramid, a small pyramid. "Just to say you went inside a pyramid,'' Mohammed said. Then we looked around some more, popping into the Solar Boat Museum (slightly overpriced at 50 Egyptian pounds) to view a reconstructed, sizable, two-prowed wooden boat that sailed the River Nile in ancient times. It is believed to be the oldest surviving boat in the world.

Onward to the sphinx, smaller than I expected and flanked in places by scaffolding - part of an attempt to protect the aging structure, which is incredibly weathered and apparently in some danger of returning to dust, but still impressive in its antiquity. The three major pyramids, too, are weathered but they are larger and quite imposing. The massive stone blocks used to build the pyramids by the brilliant engineers of ancient Egypt once had an outer skin of white limestone, but nearly all of this is gone. It must have been beautiful.

This is actually the second time I've seen the pyramids, but the first time I got close to them in the daytime. I visited Cairo in the summer of 2008, to cover the admission of Egyptair to
Star Alliance, the global grouping of airlines I am flying with now on my round the world trip. Back then, airline and alliance joined forces to put on a party for the ages at the pyramids, complete with a night-time lightshow and a performance by a British all-woman singing group called Bond. Whenever the MC called out their name and shouted "Bond!'' the jokesters at my table turned to one another and said, sotto voce, "JAMES Bond.'' The pyramids at night have a spooky quality; you are keenly reminded after dark that they were built as tombs.

Before returning to the Fairmont Nile City Hotel - I booked my tour through the hotel - I saw some actual icons (or ikons) in the original sense. These were paintings and other depictions of Christian religious scenes, handsomely mounted in the recently re-opened Coptic Museum, in Old Cairo. The gated museum, protected by heavy security and run by the Eyptian government, is a semi-hidden gem. It had few visitors when I was there - the better, for me, anyway - to enjoy the collection of textiles, sculptures, even a 4th century A.D. bible. Now, that's iconic.

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