Dogs of the Desert: Nutmeg in Egypt

Saqqara, Egypt — May 2008

The first thing I noticed when our tour bus pulled into the parking area at Saqqara, on the outskirts of Cairo, was not the glut of tourists. It wasn’t the noxious odor of diesel fuel from the dozens of other busses crammed side-by-side, nor the choking clouds of sandy dust they kicked up. It wasn’t the desolate, monochrome terrain, nor the magnificent Step Pyramid of Djoser we’d come to visit.

It was the dogs. All the starving, thirsting, ailing, wretched, roasting-in-the-scorching-sun dogs. They seemed to materialize right out of the sand, there were so many of them. Most looked like mongrels, though they came in a variety of sizes and colors. So desperate were they for anything resembling shade that they came scurrying toward our bus as we came to a stop and crawled underneath it to escape the punishing heat.

“My God,” I thought, “I never expected to see dogs out here in the Sahara. There are SO MANY!”

Scores of other dogs hid beneath all the other buses, their limp tongues dripping with saliva. Their short, choppy breaths were a futile attempt to cool their abnormally high body temperatures as quickly as possible before the local Egyptian men guarding our buses noticed them and scared them off. From one bus to the next, they scurried, vainly trying to find that one vehicle under which they could enjoy a prolonged reprieve.

It infuriated me to see these men frighten off the dogs, who were doing nothing more than seeking shelter – what any suffering creature would do under similar circumstances.

Our tour of the Step Pyramid and the subterranean chambers of the surrounding complex lasted about 90 minutes. The entire time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the plight of those dogs. When we eventually emerged from underground, we passed through the partially enclosed – and thus well-shaded – ruins of an ancient temple, between the pyramid and the parking area.

There, on large slabs of carved stone, two dogs sought relief from the heat. One was male, the other female. They made an adorable, if heartbreaking couple. The male, exhausted and defeated, plopped down onto the cool stone, while his mate, ever vigilant despite her condition, remained standing as tourists streamed by them without so much as an acknowledgement.

“I need to do something,” I thought, reaching for a bottle of water in my back pocket – the only comfort I had to offer. I approached the stone slabs, which rose to about waist height. The recumbent male glanced at me forlornly and I displayed my water bottle. I then unscrewed the cap, cupped my hand, and poured a small amount of water in it. Instantly recognizing what it was, the dog lifted himself up and slowly walked over to me.

“Want some water?” I said softly.

As I resumed pouring water into my cupped hand, the dog leaned down and began lapping it up. I tried offering the bottle to his female, but she was not as trusting and refused to come any closer to me than she already was. I tried coaxing her in gentle tones, but to no avail. So, I let the male continue drinking. He finished the bottle.

Some of the other tourists finally stopped and stared, marveling at how this wild dog was behaving so tamely, literally drinking out of the palm of my hand. I thought it remarkable only to the extent that this poor animal was in such dire straits that he was willing to risk approaching a stranger in order to quench its thirst.

It was there, in that precise moment, that my idea for a worldwide animal charity was born. If I could do something as simple as this, offering water to thirsty dogs in Egypt at the spur of the moment, imagine what I could do with proper planning and a legion of donors to support me!

My only regret that day was that I had just one bottle of water to give the dogs. I agonized over having to leave the canine couple at Saqqara, and resolved never to forget them. To ensure it, I went back and snapped their photo, which I later developed, framed, and hung on a wall at home. Not a day has passed that I haven’t thought about, prayed for, or wondered what ever became of their sweet souls.  ETS

(Note: This post was adapted from the author’s first book, an as-yet unpublished travel memoir.)