The Pyramids

The guidebooks say that dawn and dusk are the ''best'' times to view the Pyramids, for then they are crowned with light and stand against the sky like the stalwart guardians of Egypt's pharaonic past they were built to be. But when I think of the Pyramids, it's the light of midday that suffuses my memory. That was when they first loomed in my line of sight.

Suddenly, after the modern hotels and apartments that line the 20-minute drive from Cairo's new Ramses Hilton, they were there. And they were at once exotic and familiar. My schoolbooks hadn't done them justice, but the pictures I had seen in school days had, at least, given me a nodding acquaintance.

Since I was eager to know them better, I was first off the tour bus.

I'm not sure what I was expecting - a message from the ancients at the very least. What I got was a sales talk from the peddlers who flock around all holy, historic, and hotel sites in Egypt.

''Twelve postcards, all different, one Egyptian pound,'' said one, waving each and every postcard in front of my eyes. I had already bought postcards, so I didn't look too closely.

A grubby 10-year-old with an engaging grin moved in front of me: ''You want this scarab, lady,'' he asked, pointing out the miniature heiroglyphics on the clay bottom of a turquoise replica dung beetle. ''Fifty piasters . . . it is not old, but it is very good. See, it has the symbols of a pharaoh on it . . .''

''Lady! A pyramid, lady. Three pounds.'' That one's voice was deeper; he was a teen-ager - just. He was equally grubby, had an equally engaging grin, and he had a handful of brass pyramids in graduated sizes.

There are three major pyramids at Gza, and although there are remnants of many others in Egypt, these are the ones you think of when you think of pyramids. These are the pyramids that together compose the sole remaining wonder of the original ''Seven Wonders of the World.''

The pyramid of Cheops is the largest and the most imposing of the trio. Its very presence draws you inexorably through the hordes of peddlers and other sightseers.

Its original height was 481 feet (because most of the outer casing stones were taken to build some of Cairo's mosques, it is smaller today, measuring about 450 feet high). It covers 13 acres at the base, an area large enough to hold 10 football fields. On any given midday, it is teeming with people who, as I am, are trying to commune with the past.

In tourism matters anyway, modern Egypt often seems overshadowed by its past, by pharaohs and falcon-headed gods; by ram-headed and man-headed sphinxes; by pyramids and people who in half silhouette and often brilliant color march through as reliefs of their everyday lives - and afterlives.

The Pyramids are symbols of the afterlife. The French writer Chateaubriand described them as ''a type of door built on the edge of eternity.'' The ancients believed that when a man dies he goes to an afterlife so similar to life on earth he needs his earthly body, so they mastered the art of embalming. And they built places large enough to hold all his earthly goods.

It was the technological skill displayed by their builders that caused the Pyramids to be listed among the world's wonders. How did those ancient engineers fit the stones together so well with just rough-hewn hammers and chisels at their disposal? For that matter, how did they transport those great blocks of granite from quarries as far away as Aswan? And how were the stones lifted into place?

It's thought that they were floated down the Nile. Then they were put on sledges and pulled to the pyramid site and up steep dirt ramps which were built along the structures' flanks.

Cheops's pyramid inclines at a 51-degree angle. You feel the pull in your legs as, bent over double, you climb the narrow, two-way ''ladder'' inside - really a wooden walkway studded with cross-ties to keep you from slipping backward - to about the halfway point. It's a hard climb if you are encumbered only with camera equipment. You can't even imagine what it must have been like for men hoisting 21/2 tons of granite.

There is nothing much to see inside - no carvings or golden statues. Like most of the other ancient sites in Egypt, Cheops's pyramid was robbed in antiquity.

When you talk of antiquity here, you have any number of centuries to choose from. The pyramids at Gza, for instance, were built in the early Fourth dynasty, about 2900-2774 BC. The temples and tombs you also will visit on any tour date to equally early days: The temple of Sety I at Abydos, 1313-1292 BC. The temple of Karnak was built during several dynasties - one little chapel stands from the Twelfth (1970-1939 BC); the First Court, the largest in Egypt, dates mostly to the early 1300s BC.

The temple of Luxor, dedicated to Amon in his role as God of Fertility, has stood since the middle 1200s BC.

Luxor is 316 miles south of Cairo by air and is the jumping-off point for most of the boat tours of the Nile. Cruising the Nile is usually such a popular way to see Egypt's past that the Hilton boats and those belonging to Sheraton, to Swan, to Lindblad, and the others are booked up many seasons in advance.

This year that isn't true. During a recent cruise from Luxor to Aswan on Hilton International's MS Isis, our small band of travelers had the ship practically to ourselves.

Tourism is down this winter throughout Egypt, in large part because of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. But those of us here feel no sense of danger. Indeed, we feel just the opposite. There is a friendliness about the Egyptians that puts us immediately at ease.

It is no isolated incident, but one that is repeated again and again: As we walk in Cairo's bazaars and the Egyptian Museum, in the cities of Edfu and Esna, through the tombs in the Valley of the Kings across the Nile from Luxor, smiling Egyptians say, ''American?''

''Yes,'' we reply.

''Welcome!''

Winter is a good season to visit Egypt. Summers are so hot you have to sightsee in small doses, then repair to an air-conditioned hotel. Winter, though , is a much more temperate time, and if you dress in layers - shirts or tee shirts when the sun is high, sweaters and coats (gloves, too) added for early mornings and nights on the town - you should be comfortable.

There are several things you should do at night: In Luxor, walk past the city's own temple (it's lighted then, adding romance to the majesty you see when you come here earlier in the day). Ride a horsecart to the son et lumiere at the temple at Karnak. Once there stroll through the grounds watching the play of floodlights on the statues of Ramses, the Pylons, the sacred lake, the 134 columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall; the voices of an accompanying dramatic oration seem to play on them too.

There's also a sound and light show at the Pyramids in Gza. Several times a week the oration is in English, but even if you are here when the disembodied voices are speaking French, it won't matter much. For it's not the words you'll take home with you, but the feel of the Pyramids when the curtain of night has dropped over the hordes that people this area at other times. The dark mutes the cacophony of modern Egypt: The buses are gone. The people are silent.

A warm red glow begins to emanate from the Sphinx, so that you see its power but not its time-ravished face. Then the light moves right, to the pyramid of Cheops. In its glow, you won't see the weakness centuries of sandstorm and sun have caused it either.

The guidebooks like the Pyramids at dusk and dawn. You'll find there's good reason for visiting them at other times too.

Practical details: Under normal circumstances, hotel overbooking and difficulty in getting on aircraft are not uncommon in Egypt, so the traveler going now should rejoice in having the country to himself. Of course, any traveler to the Middle East would do well to keep an eye on the newspapers. During my visit, some Egyptians mentioned that they were watching the proceedings in April, when Israel is expected to return the Sinai to Egypt, according to the agreement worked out at Camp David.

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