"Camel? camel? camel? camel? horse? horse? horse? horse? camel? camel? camel?..."
This is what you hear from the minute you step out of your black-and-white taxi at the Pyramids in Giza to the moment you stagger away, any day of the week, any week of the year. Egyptians in flowing robes and knockoff Reeboks are trying to talk you into renting their animals for a ride around some of the oldest architecture in the world. As soon as one leaves to bother some other tourist ("No thank you. No. No. NO," you say, trying not to be an ugly American), another falls into step beside you.
"Camel? Camel? Camel?..."
So we went at night, Nina and I. The pyramids are "open" until 9:30 pm, meaning that the guards won't shoot you for wandering around in the dark until then. We bought our tickets (3 prices: Egyptians, Students, Foreigners) and walked down the narrow macadam road that winds around the three pyramids, Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus (their Greek names). We were the only ones there, and our shoes were loud on the pavement. Behind us were the billion lights of Cairo, and ahead was the desert, and ancient history. The sky was clear and the combination of the moon and the fluorescent streetlights that the government so kindly provides turns everything black and white, deepening the shadows in the rocks and gullies. All around the base of Cheops (or Khufu) are broken stones, holes in the ground, and the rubble of 4000 years of sightseers.
Nina led me off the road to the side of the Great Pyramid. With each step I took towards it the great slanted sides loomed larger, the perspective changing dramatically as I moved. At its base it seemed a wall of stone, extending forever in every direction, immovable. I wanted to touch it, so I climbed up onto the little wall around it and pressed my hands flat against the cold, rough surface of a 2 ton block of limestone.The moon was very bright and I could see my shadow.
We walked a little further down the road towards Chephren (Khafre); I turned around, walking backwards, and saw Cheops recede quickly as I felt the presence of Chephren growing.
"It's funny, isn't it?" she said. "Stand still. They seem almost the same size now, even though Cheops is bigger. Look at the top of Chephren." I tilted my head back so I could see the moonlight glitter off what is left of the polished white limestone cap of the second pyramid. I tried to imagine all three of them covered with that creamy surface, shimmering in the desert like an overgrown mirage.
"Come on," Nina said. "The last one is my favorite." Mycerinus (Menkaure) is the smallest and was the last to be built. Somehow it seems more manageable. We walked a few steps further and I noticed that there were no more streetlights on the road.
"Should we go any further? It's really dark," I said hesitantly.
"Come on," she repeated, "It's OK. It's the desert, remember? There's nothing out there."
"Right." I still didn't move. Nina had lived in Cairo for two years and knew what she was talking about, but I still felt nervous about walking into the dark. They are Muslims and they will not rape you, I told myself. You will not fall into a hole and break your ankle. The guards will not lock you in.
"Here." She took my hand and we walked close together down the black road. I stopped watching my feet and noticed the ring around the moon, all the stars, the way Nina's coat looked in the colorless light, a sharply etched checkerboard pattern. It was the same coat she'd worn all through college, I think even the coat she was wearing when I met her. With time we had grown to look more alike even though we had been thousands of miles away. My hand was sweating in hers despite the chill air.
Finally we came to the base of Mycerinus, the third pyramid. The road ended and there was just a rocky path to its enterance, hacked into the sealed tomb. I felt that as long as we stayed on the road we would be OK; the road was familiar, while everything else was truly foreign. Even the night air tasted strange.
"Are you scared?" she asked me.
"A little. I think I'll stay here." I gazed at it and the smaller queen's pyramids beside it. "Pretty impressive. I feel like we're the only people on earth."
"Do you wish you were here with him?" she asked, not looking at me.
"No, I'm glad I'm here with you. Somehow I feel that this experience is symbolic."
"I'll figure it out when I get home. But I'm glad my first time here is with you."
"Me too." She moved a little closer to me, and lifted my chin up with her hand. Then she did what I had been expecting, been waiting for: kissed me softly and gently, but with meaning. We were alone. I felt the familiar thrill run through me as her arms went around me and I knew why I had come to Egypt.
I was very aware of how much things had not changed in this place. The pyramids stood as they had for centuries, through everything human, fulfilling the universal wish of immortality. I felt properly insignificant. The Egyptian workman, polishing the limestone casing of Mycerinus, must have wondered about the world and the people who would come to stand in awe at the serene mountains of cut stone; he was there in the shadows, and I knew he was pleased.
We stood there in silence looking back at the monuments. They were built a long time ago for dead people and they are all that stands between the city of 12 million and the endless dunes. I wasn't nervous anymore as I felt Nina's hands on my shoulders. In the distance we could hear the honking of car horns and the barking of rabid dogs.