Sunday, March 27, 2005

From Abu Sir to Giza

145.GizaPyramids 3.26.JPG
Originally uploaded by Miloflamingo.
For us the pyramids of Egypt are landmarks rather than monuments. They are so huge, so old, so 'there', that they are almost like local mountains. We identify where we live by them. For example, I live just north of Abu Sir and across the canal from the Sun Temple of Abu Ghorab. On Saturday a group of us decided to make the journey from Abu Sir to the pyramids of Giza, a trip of approximately 35 km or about 20 miles round trip. We left at 10:30 am and arrived back at the paddocks at 2:30 pm, a four hour ride.

There was a time when you could ride easily from Abu Sir to Giza in the desert, but it has gotten more difficult in later years. The city of Giza decided to place it's rubbish dump in the desert west of the pyramids of Abu Sir and the authorities have either sanctioned or turned a blind eye to the mining of sand for building and roadbeds in the area. Now there is a noisy, dusty road surrounded by a no man's land moonscape of piles of dirt and rubble that block the track just north of the Sakkara Country Club. You can still ride to Giza through the desert, but once you make your way through the first obstacle, you still have to be sure to go around the army camp that is slightly farther north.

A much more pleasant route lies through the countryside. We left the village by the paddocks and made our way north through two or three small villages and along farmland tracks until we reached the village of Zawya. Here we had to cross a relatively busy road and ride down the main street of the village for about 200 meters. The traffic along the main street isn't that much of a problem since the road is dirt and filled with potholes. No one goes very fast through Zawya. The cars and minibuses that might be in the road usually are going no faster than walking horses anyway.

Zawya is a large village, probably 10 to 20 thousand people, but they are not used to seeing four women riding down the main road. Nevertheless, aside from some of the more energetic and single minded children who felt that running alongside us asking why we didn't have a pen to give them, our welcome was cordial. Somehow it never seems to occure to these kids that taking a pen on a riding trip from Abu Sir to Giza really doesn't make much sense. I always ask them "What am I going to do, write a letter on horseback?" and their faces go blank. I've ridden through Zawya before and know what alleys to take through the buildings to reach a broad dirt road that continues north. The alleys are so narrow that there is room for a horse, or a couple of people, or maybe a donkey cart, but not much else. Balconies shade the street from above and for many families Saturday was washing day, so there were brilliantly coloured blankets, sheets, galabeyas, pants and shirts flapping in the wind. The horses, thank heaven, took no notice.

Once out of Zawya, we cantered down a broad dirt road that meandered along a canal with old country houses and farmland on either side. Huge eucalyptus and casuarina trees shaded the road on either side. I'm sure that the road has been used in Egyptian movies because it is so totally typical of the country roads. When traveling in the countryside it is important to greet the people that you encounter, since your are more or less trespassing on their turf. I would call out "Salaam aleikum" to the farmers, the girls cutting berseem, or the boys watching the water buffalo in the canal. The usual response is to welcome us and invite us for tea. My answer is always"God keep you. Next time." This is plenty of conversation to be having while cantering by.

The horses have been working in the countryside for years now and they know to automatically slow down for the other livestock that we may encounter. It's been many animal generations since horsemen have been seen in the farmlands, and the donkeys, cows and water buffalo are often frightened of horses with people on top of them. The horses pulling carts are familiar but not ridden horses. The looks of horror on the faces of the water buffalo, or gamoosa, are comical. When you consider that an adult water buffalo is about the size of a midsize SUV and that they are lead about on a thin rope halter, my insistence on this slowing of pace near livestock makes sense. The person holding the rope of a terrified water buffalo might be a child or woman who has no hope of holding an animal of this size still if it decides to run away. As long as the horses slow to a walk, most of the time the worst reaction we've gotten has been hard looks and slight spooks.

A few kilometers north of Zawya lies the Moneeb, a section of highway that connects the pyramids area with the Cairo Ring Road and the areas of Maadi and Giza along the Nile. Turning east along the base of the raised area of the highway we entered the desert at the point where the Antiquities Department stopped the construction of the highway. A high metal fence was constructed along the line of the proposed highway to keep people out of the antiquities areas, but in true Egyptian fashion an impromptu gate has been fashioned in the fence so that riders from the stables just south of the Moneeb can get into the desert. We entered behind a couple of groups of tourists and foreigners who were ambling along on horses behind a guide. But then we were also foreigners since there was myself (Canadian), Merri (American) and Nathalie and her daughter Pauline (Belgian). Once they had a wide open wadi in front of them, however, our horses weren't much interested in ambling. They tore off at a gallop across the sand with us whooping and laughing in the wind.

We crossed a few kilometers of desert in this fashion before we had to slow down to pick through the rubble of what had once been VIP villas and a notorious nightclub, Sahara City, that had stood on the plateau behind the Pyramids until the government ordered them pulled down. They were pulled down, but typically the job was left just not quite finished and there are still bits of wall and road lying about in the sand. There was also another metal fence in the desert with, of course, another gate in it through which we entered the main area of the pyramids of Giza. The fence is at least two or three kilometers from the actual pyramids and this time we didn't try to ride right up to the base of them due to time constraints. Have to do that next time. We took a few more photos, ran a few more wadis and then cruised back through another gate in the fence towards the Moneeb again. The area is large enough that there are a number of routes in and out so that the same path need not be taken twice.

Once we left the desert we turned south through the farms along the Mansureya Road, the road that leads to my home and paddocks. Unfortunately the northern part of this road is very busy with the garbage trucks hauling trash to the dump in the desert and the trucks hauling sand out of the desert, making it an undesirable riding area. We were able to make most of our way south to the army camp on some of the dirt roads that paralleled the Mansureya Road, but eventually we had to ride along the main road for a few hundred meters. The sandy shoulder of the road was wide enough for the horses to have room to be away from traffic, but dump trucks, garbage trucks and truck/trailer combinations make a lot of noise passing along the road. The years of acclimatising the horses to traffic paid off with wonderful behaviour on the part of our mounts, though all of us muttered the odd prayer under our breath at times. We had three bridges to cross with the horses before we could be off the main road and riding through the village of Masaken William on our way south once more. From then on it was back to the countryside dirt roads once more and whatever traffic we encountered there seemed negligible after the main road.

Everyone was glad to get back, have an orange and some cold water and a good stretch. Horses were sound on return and the riders were only slightly stiff. I was riding a recently purchased mare for the first time and was totally delighted in finding that she passed all obstacles without fuss and is a total bomb in the desert. Only problem is that she's part thoroughbred and as such a bit taller than I'm used to. Well, it isn't that much of a problem as long as I don't have to get off and on.

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