Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Egypt - The Solar Boat

Dedicated to Antonio. Yes, all of you.

It's unusual to get two posts from me in one day, but after reading my Mum's coverage of the same day, I realised there's so much more I could and should have said.

Her posts as always are vivid and much more elegant than mine, but plenty of important vignettes remain for us both. I'd like to share just one more with you, in the detail it deserves.

The Solar Boat

When you stand at the base of the immense pyramid of Khufu, it looms overhead like a gargantuan stone steamroller. The actual shape of the structure becomes indistinct - it simply forms an arc against the sky which seems to reach an apex somewhere far away. Your eyes aren't accustomed to recognising the consistency of shapes at such a vertical distance, so the stone blocks (as tall as me) seem to be simply smaller as they reach further away. It's only when reminded that the stones at the highest point are the same size as the ones next to you that you can comprehend just how Massive this bloody thing is.

The sheer weight of it is visibly tactile from kilometres away.

From such a distance you can also see a strange high-tech pod, conspicuously parked between this pyramid and the Sphinx. It looks like a white (tinged with ubiquitous beige desert dust) coccoon from a Stanley Kubrick set. In fact, that's very much what it is.

It houses one of the most extraordinary things I have seen on the GT - the "Solar Boat". This is a cedar riverboat discovered by archaeologists in this exact spot in the 1950s. It was disassembled and secreted in a custom-carved stone pit, and concealed with the very same slabs of stone that were removed the make the storage area. It was a burial item of considerable prestige for a Pharoah. Not only is it larger than an articulated bus, it was made entirely with stone axes, flint blades, and held together with knotted ropes. This predates metal technologies - it's about 4500 years old - so there were no nails. Most amazingly, the original knotted ropes are on display, wound as thick as your thigh and bent into elaborate arches, hooks, and 90-degree twists.

Apparently others had subsequently been discovered, some even older still, but none are as well-preserved. It hovers in its white steel and glass cage, oars propped ready for deployment, as visitors follow a spiralling perambulation around it. The museum is clearly designed to effectively move masses of people through each day, but there was scarcely anyone there at the time. The Lonely Planet's guides don't give it more than a couple of sentences, but the standard of installation and design is mindblowing for a developing nation - I've seen plenty of Western museums with significantly inferior facilities.

The entire exhibition space is put together with virtually no text - if I didn't have Mum and Dad there who knew the background I would not have known much of the details. In sharp contrast to the attention to detail in the architecture and layout, only five or six vitrenes possessed small palm-card labels. These were in Arabic and English, written neatly on a 1950s typewriter, presumably at the time of their original discovery. There were no introductory panels, and the archival photographs of the restoration and excavation were self-explanatory in the manner of the best narrative signage.

It was a fantastic introduction to Cairo's museological capabilities. I'm looking forward to seeing how the infinately more famous Egyptian Museum holds up - my expectations are decidedly mixed.


  • At Monday, November 28, 2005 12:02:00 am, Blogger Kt said…

    But has anyone worked out WHY they're all called Antonio yet??!

    The solar boat was my favourite part of the visit to Giza. My daughter was so flaked out from the long flight over the previous too days that we didn't think she was paying much attention to anything at all, let alone Jenny's explanations about how the boat was sealed in the tomb to transport the king to the afterlife.

    But then two days later near one of the historical houses in the centre of town, we were shown into a mausoleum with a chain hanging from the ceiling where a lamp should have been. She asked whether the chain was to help the spirit climb to the afterlife...!


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