To get to the Sakkara Step Pyramid of King Zoser, you drive into the desert, but the way to and from is surprisingly green and lush, full of farmland that literally hasn’t changed in a millennia. Forests of palm trees and native plants pass by the large windows of the bus, and open farmland where our tour group can see people picking or tending to crops. Donkeys with their backs laden with hay wait quietly for more to be piled on, and once in a while, you see a man with no animals, out in his field, yoked to his own plow, dragging his livelihood behind him through row after row. Not a life I would choose to live, but they seem, if not happy, at least accepting of this land, this fate.
There are no sidewalks, and people walking or riding donkeys line the roadways in the busier sections, the tiny towns and villages; you almost never see an Egyptian on a horse unless it’s a member of the military or they’re joyriding in the desert on the Giza Plateau. The bus, a modern and comparatively huge vehicle, travels easily across the paved roads, bumpy with gravel and sand, but occasionally must stop for donkeys, cows, or people who traverse too close in its path. Once the bus stopped at an intersection and could not continue. After a while, our guide Emil, ever impatient, jumped off the bus to see what was causing the traffic holdup in front of us. He came back shaking his head. ”Goats!” he grumbled. And indeed, a herd of goats had gotten mixed up in the traffic and their herder was trying to round them up. About fifteen minutes later, the goats presumably under control, the traffic resumed its regular pace and the bus was able to move forward.
About an hour outside of Cairo, we finally reach Sakkara, home of the step pyramid of King Zoser. Sakkara’s not my favorite site, although it has some interesting columns in one hall, and these days a lot of very friendly local dogs. The problem for me is that from what I know, the three Pyramids at Giza are clearly, vastly older, yet the step pyramid is crumbling, whereas the three on the Giza plateau are obviously of a different caliber. Though the Egyptians are proud of their homegrown pyramid, I can’t help feeling the inferiority of this burial tomb (which the Great Pyramid was never intended to be). The orthodoxy would condemn me for these blasphemous natterings, but I cannot help the feeling I have when I look upon what I consider a relatively inferior site, as if a kid built a sandcastle pyramid and it somehow stuck around for a couple thousand years.
At Sakkara, on that first trip, Emil showed us some minor tombs, beautifully colored examples of men who were workers for the Pharoah—his scribes or his priests—and could afford to be buried in the way of the king, with the stories of their lives carved and painted on the walls. On all my trips there, we have never been inside the step pyramid, as it’s off-limits, but we often now perform ceremonies in what must once have been a large temple, the walls of which have almost all fallen to rubble. There is only the ghost of the building—a half wall to shield you from the unceasing desert wind (which always seems to whip me mercilessly here) and some low stones that make up the rectangular perimeter. On our way out, we take turns crouching down to peer into the eye holes of a stone box. Inside, you see the statue of King Zoser (it’s his pyramid, remember?) staring back at you. It’s kind of the first example of 3-D.
Afterwards, Greg and I, along with our friend Lynn, went wandering off on our own. We did this so often on this trip we became known as the “bad kids” and we’ve now nicknamed our smaller group tours the “Bad Kids Tour” since we are usually off the beaten path. An Egyptian man came up and offered us horses and camels to ride; though I protested I couldn’t ride, he hiked me up, threw my leg over a horse, and thwacked the horse’s side. The horse took off, and after a moment I had to concede that as much as my fear would have kept me on the ground … this was the life! Trotting through the desert sand, no one guiding or steering me, allowing the horse to go where it wanted without worrying about stops or other traffic—it was both exhilarating and freeing. The horse would lean back, sort of tumbling down a hill of sand, and then lean forward, climbing up the next soft sandy ridge. All I had to do was lean forward and back when the horse did, and I was an instant expert. After about half an hour, we brought our horses back, spending five bucks each for the experience.
I’ve been back to Sakkhara many times, sometimes with the express intention of riding a horse again, but in ten years the opportunity has never presented itself. I often think it came up because that was the trip that freed me from the person I was before I went, and I was the last person who would have jumped on a horse and ridden off. I came out of my stone box that trip, and now I live life differently. When I am old, I will remember flying through the hot sun on the back of that horse, tumbling down the sand dunes, and the exhilaration I felt.