The sounds of antiquity
March 19, 2009
I spent my afternoon yesterday doing what anyone at Giza might do: timing the intervals between car horns outside my hotel. On average, there is a car horn every 3.5 seconds.
Sometimes multiple horns blared at once, although there was one outlier period of 23 seconds with no horns. Some beeped in gentle alert, some ran on for several seconds in exasperated exclamation, and some seemed to tap a rhythmic song to their fellow drivers. This goes on long into the early morning hours every day.
(All timing was done only for horns honked directly in front of the hotel. I ignored the ones I could hear in either direction down the street.)
A recent study found that the AVERAGE (not peak) decibel level on Cairo streets is above 80db. This is near the range of pain and injury, which starts at around 90db.
The horns don’t bother me. In fact, I’ve awakened at 3:00 am and been startled by the relative quiet; relative being fewer horns spaced farther apart.
Noise levels that would drive me insane at home seem like part of the music of Cairo when I’m here. But I don’t live here. Cairenes complain that the volume is making life in Africa’s largest city more unbearable all the time.
Then I thought about ancient Giza. I wondered what it would be like to stand at my hotel window and stare at the pyramids with no sound but the wind. (I’ve experienced this quiet by walking into the desert south and west of the pyramids.)
But I realized that Giza during the construction of the pyramids 4,500 years ago would not have been a quiet place. The noise volume at the pyramid settlement or on the pyramids themselves must have reached annoying levels as well.
Twenty thousand to thirty thousand people shouting, building, quarrying and dragging stone, and just moving about the daily business of life just have made Giza one of the liveliest, noisiest places on earth during the third millennium BC.
Perhaps only a quarryman ever experienced 80db…or a workman with an overseer shouting into his ear.
The melody and rhythm in the areas of the quarry where large blocks were quarried with hard stone pounders would have been different from the areas where masons were tailoring blocks with copper chisels. Both would have been accompanied by the sound of stones being dragged across the landscape and across the pyramid.
Today, the noises at the Giza Plateau and the dig site don’t evoke a settlement or a building site. There is the wind, the buses, the school children and tourists, the feral dogs, the sounds of the village of Nazlet es Saman, and the calls to prayer from the many mosques in the area. It still seems like one of the liveliest, noisiest places on earth.