A Forgotten Perspective On The Pyramids

20th November 2022 |

During the course of this past week I have been relieved to learn that the world is probably not flat after all, and that the flat-earthers seem to be losing their grip, so I’ll leave that subject and go on to something else.

I still have all the notebooks I filled during my first journey around the world, so I thought it would be interesting to see what I was jotting down 49 years ago today. But while I was looking this up I noticed something that I thought would interest you.

I was, as you know, a novice motorcyclist – I had only got my license three months earlier – and I was, quite plainly, scared. Just before starting the journey, on an overloaded and badly packed bike, I wrote:

Here is a list of the things I fear
Getting on rough ground and finding that the load makes it undriveable; Dropping the bike and not being able to pick it up again; That the odds on a fatal accident seem unreasonably high; That the combination of chores may become crushing, and pin me down to immobility; That if the bike is stolen I shall have nothing left but a few dollars to get me home; That my fear for the bike will force me into unbearable cost and sterile apartness; That the natives will really be hostile; That with one hand clamped down on a gushing artery, I shan’t be able to unpack and open a field dressing with the other; That wherever I go it will always seem to be too late.

Four years later I was happily able to say that my fears were exaggerated (although I never did have a gushing artery). But I am quite sure that being afraid during the first months were key to my survival.

So it turns out that on November 21st 1973 I was in Egypt, in Cairo and riding my bike to visit the pyramids, just like any tourist. But there weren’t any tourists because there was a war on. Remember? Egypt and Israel?

To my astonishment I see that in Jupiter’s Travels I wrote nothing about Cairo at all. Let me make up for some of it here. It turns out that what I wrote in my diary surprises even me. Only lightly edited, I quote:

A throng of guides, horses and camel drivers make an appreciation of the pyramids impossible. To have first stumbled upon them must have been marvelous but I can find no sense of awe for these lumps of stone. Less barbaric than Teohuacan, but still a monumental egoism. The marvels are all abstract – geometry, astronomy, etc.

I can’t resist the importunities of a guide who is clever enough to be less clamorous than the others, but he shows me very little. In a tent he gives me good tea made on a primus stove by a pretty wife dressed in pink. She boils the water and tea vigorously, decants it, boils it again, decants it again. How the sugar got in or where the tea leaves went I have no idea.

Walk into the second pyramid (Queen Sharfeen?) One tomb with hardboard partitions. Graffiti carved into the stone in the early 19th Century. G.R.Hill and Scheistenberger were here.

Back to the first (big) pyramid, Cheops. Inside is like something from the film Metropolis – all scaffolding and duckboards. What, in God’s name, does the average package tourist get out of it all?

I’m ready to leave altogether but give way to a camel driver, and now my reward, because he gives me a great ride, over an hour, into the sand dunes, on Jack Hulbert (that’s the name of the camel).

Faris, the driver, is bright, humorous, great fun. We take a roll of pictures with his mate, Mandor.

I really rode that camel, rein, switch and heel. JH lurched and swayed and hobbled along, with brief bursts of crazy trotting. I crossed my legs, Arab style, across his shoulders. My thighs ached from the unaccustomed movement. He is six and will go on probably until he’s twenty-five. There are sacks of clover at his side under heavy embroidered cloth.

Faris and Jack Hulbert

I’m disturbed by my failure to respond to the pyramids and question the quality of the response in others. I know perfectly well that if I want I can whip up a storm of fancies and imaginings but I was determined to let the pyramids do the work. As props for a mind hungry for sensation they do very well, no doubt, but as objects to inspire pure awe I think they fail, even more so as they are surrounded by bric-a-brac, haggling and petty detail.

I’ve been told that it’s better to see them first at night, through ‘son et lumière’ and that it’s a very good show. I quite believe it, but that’s a different matter.

The pyramids depend, like all other earthly things, on perspective. When the perspective is altered, whether by a persistent camel driver or a new catch-penny museum built up against the side of the pyramid itself, the pyramids fail to overcome. The viewer has to supply, by an act of imagination, what has been stolen. I refuse because I feel I will become an accomplice of the despoilers.