11-12 October 2015. A wave of fear washes over me. I’m bent double, surrounded by stone – floor, walls, and ceiling. I’m in an upward sloping dimly lit passage that’s barely wider than my body, and suddenly I’m afraid. I can’t specify what I’m afraid of except the fact of being confined in this dim cold space with no end in sight. I continue putting one foot in front of the other, following the person in front of me, my head almost level with my knees. The passage is mercifully short and the fear passes almost as quickly as it comes. Within a couple of minutes we break free into a high corridor several feet wide and many stories high. Now we are walking steadily upwards on a narrow wooden path in the middle of the passageway. We can barely see the top of the sloping walls.
We are in the Grand Gallery, a monumental hallway forty-seven metres long that ends at another very short shaft. Again we must bend double, but the shaft is only about two metres long and we can see the end of it before we even enter. We pass through it and enter into a dimly lit rectangular stone room built from red granite. It is not large, being only about ten metres by five, with a height of six metres; it’s big enough to walk around in, but not big enough to get lost in. Towards one end there’s a stone platform, an ancient sarcophagus. That’s it. Nothing remarkable at all.
What is remarkable is where we are. We are in the King’s Chamber, the burial chamber of King Khufu (Cheops) deep in the centre of the Great Pyramid on the Plains of Giza. It’s a heart stopping moment for me. I think I scream a little. I can’t believe where I am. It has been a dream of mine for fifty years to see the pyramids, but to be inside of one, right in the heart of it, surrounded by the perfectly cut stones that form it, is almost more than the mind can comprehend. I am in Egypt! Deep inside the Great Pyramid! I am ridiculously excited.
We’d arrived in Cairo the day before, late in the afternoon, met with our tour guide, and had dinner at the hotel with another couple from the group. It’s the first full day of the tour, and it begins with a drive through Cairo’s smog and crushing traffic to the Egyptian Museum. The drive gives us our first glimpse of the pyramids. Involuntarily my eyes widen and I’m immediately excited. I can’t believe I’m actually here.
The garden courtyard of the museum is filled with ancient statues; mute custodians of a great civilization that lasted for over four thousand years, and that we are still trying to piece together and understand today.
Inside, where photography is not permitted, the museum is crammed with more than 100,000 items, a breathtaking assemblage of Egyptian antiquities and one of the world’s most important collections. The original functional layout of the museum was lost with the discoveries of the treasures of Tutankhamun, and of the Royal City of Tanis. These artifacts were squeezed in, so that wandering the vast museum feels like a dim, dusty and crowded walk back through the millennia. There are one hundred and seven halls filled with artifacts from prehistoric times to the end of the pharaonic era: endless hallways of grand statues and glass enclosed cases. We see grave goods, luxurious jewellery, eating bowls and utensils, shoes, carvings, sculptures, ceramics, and toys of people who lived thousands of years ago. A monumental statue of Thutmose III, sits next to a tall glass-fronted case filled with smaller pieces. I gaze incredulous at the mummies of pharaohs I’d learned about fifty years earlier in high school, noting their skin, their hair, their fingernails, and their dried shrunken bodies. It’s an enormous amount to take in, and I am glad of our guide who tells us stories of those kings, queens, concubines, and power brokers of long ago as we follow her down the long hallways to the most interesting pieces.
The crowning glory of the museum is, of course, the treasures of Tutankhamun, a boy crowned king nearly three thousand years ago at the age of nine and mysteriously dead only nine years later. The wealth of his tomb, which now resides in the museum, is almost unimaginable. Some three thousand separate objects were found, many of which are solid gold. There are gold-covered thrones and furniture, six dismantled chariots, jars of precious oils and ointments, jars of food, and thirty jars of wine. There are gold covered shrines and gilded statues, model boats, daggers, shields and other weapons, musical instruments, lamps, ornaments, walking sticks, ostrich fans, piles of precious jewellery, clothing of the finest linen, shoes and socks, and the four canopic jars that housed the internal organs of the king. There is everything that Tutankhamun could possibly need for the afterlife. We say “you can’t take it with you”, but apparently the Egyptians of antiquity believed that you could.
And of course there are the most famous pieces of all: Tutankhamun’s solid gold Death Mask weighing eleven kilograms (24 pounds) and his three coffins, including the extraordinary solid gold coffin. I think that bears repeating: solid gold coffin. Can you imagine? Not only is it solid gold, like the mask it is intricately and beautifully decorated with engraving and inlaid precious stones. It is exquisite in its regal splendor. And then there’s another coffin, and another, that stack one inside the next like Russian dolls.
Listen to this: King Tut’s mummy had a solid gold Death Mask placed upon it. It was then placed in a solid gold coffin, which was placed in a gilded wooden coffin, which was placed in another gilded wooden coffin, which was placed in a granite sarcophagus, which was placed in a gilded shrine, and then in another gilded shrine, and then in a third gilded shrine, which was covered in a linen pall draped over a frame, all of which was placed in the outer-most gilded shrine. Can you imagine? The body was encased in nine layers of coffins and shrines, each bigger than the last! Every piece is on display in the museum, breathtaking and barely comprehensible.
And for all that, I think one of the most astonishing pieces I see, because it is so completely unexpected, is Tutankhamun’s underwear: a triangular linen cloth that looks very much like an old-fashioned diaper.
Three pyramids were constructed on the west bank of the Nile between 2575 and 2465 BCE. They were built as burial monuments for three Egyptian kings: Menkaure, Khafre (Khefren) and Khufu (Cheops). They were covered in smooth limestone and glowed in the sun. They were royal, revered places dominating the Plains of Giza, far from the city. Insistent, unassailable, undeniable, sacred.
It is still the same. For all that the tombs have been breached and probably robbed, that the city of Cairo has almost enveloped them, that the place is brimming with tourists
and with the men of the area offering horse-and-buggy or camel rides,
Arab proverb: Man fears time. Time fears the pyramids.
Approximately 2.3 million blocks of stone were cut and assembled to create the Great Pyramid of Khufu. It is an almost unimaginable feat. And that is for only one of the pyramids. There are two more of monumental size standing next to it, and several smaller pyramids throughout Egypt.
The pyramids are an enigma. The Arabs were the first to discover the way inside the Great Pyramid and it is said that they found nothing there, however we now know there are many narrow shafts winding throughout the interior with doors and more doors behind them. The king’s body has never been found. It could still be in there in some inner chamber that has yet to be discovered, or it could have, according to Arabic lore, been found with enormous riches centuries ago. It is not known if the Great Pyramid was actually built as a tomb, or as a storehouse for ancient wisdom, or as an energy accumulator, or as a map of the future of mankind. The tunnels have been explored by robot and seem to end in mysterious miniature doors. These discoveries lead to speculation that the pyramid has further secrets. Exploration is ongoing.
Housed in a new purpose-built structure, close by the pyramids on the Plains of Giza, is a huge trench that is still partially covered with enormous slabs of stone.
The trench is long and deep, and when first found the top was covered with forty-one slabs of stone, each weighing sixteen tons, each weighing 160 thousand kilograms! Forty-one of them lay side-by-side forming a lid on the trench. How did they ever move them into place?
Inside the trench was a dismantled boat, forty-two metres (138 ft) long.
This graceful boat was made from cedar imported from Lebanon 4500 years ago, and every one of the 1224 pieces of wood was joined by ropes.
Archeologists found five trenches, and five boats, all of them dismantled. The one we looked at has been painstakingly pieced together like a huge 3D jigsaw puzzle. It was an astounding feat to build it, and an equally astounding feat to piece it back together 4500 years later. It was Khufu’s boat and he needed to have it with him for the afterlife.
It’s getting late in the day. We arrive at the Sphinx towards sunset. It’s no longer possible to walk up to it. There are fences, and locked gates, and a whole huge platform with seating for the reputedly hokey evening sound and light show. Our fearless guide convinces the guards to let us in at least part way. The unmistakable ineffable monument glows golden in the late afternoon sun.
The Sphinx is the largest monolith statue in the world. It stands 73 metres long, 19 metres wide, and 20 metres high. My photograph does not reveal how enormous it is. To put it in perspective, the length is equal to that of a twenty-four-story building, and the height equal to a ten-story building. It is truly colossal. It is thought to be a portrait of King Khafre, or perhaps of his father Khufu. The Egyptians built such statues, with the head of a human and the haunches of a lion, as guards of important areas such as tombs and temples.
Greek legend: The Sphinx would devour all travellers who could not solve it’s riddle. What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening? The hero Oedipus gave the correct answer causing the Sphinx’s death. Man walks on four legs in the morning (when crawling as a baby), two legs at noon (as a child and adult throughout life), and three legs in the evening (two legs and a walking stick in old age).
We finally leave the area to have dinner at a nearby restaurant, and get to see something of the sound and light show through the window.
Some time later I was able to return to view the Sphinx on a rare clear day, and walk up closer to it. Its power is unmistakable.
And so ends the first full, very full, day of our tour through Egypt. The more I learn about ancient Egypt the more I realize how little we know for sure. When I was in high school I was invited to take honors-level art. This meant that I could specialize in art history. I was obliged to study modern painting, sculpture, and architecture. Beyond that I could choose whatever period of history I liked. I chose pre-Christian art. The reason? I was fascinated to know how we know what we know about the events of thousands of years ago just from a few shards of pottery, a few half-destroyed paintings, and some old ruins. It fascinates me to this day. For all the expertise of archaeologists it still feels to me as though it’s all a huge concoction guessed from random tantalizing clues; a folktale that could as easily be true as not. The head of the Sphinx is Khufu or Khafre? What do we know for sure about the inside of the Great Pyramid? And what was its real purpose? The more I read the more it seems that we really know very little, and even though it is frequently literally written in stone our understanding and interpretation of it really aren’t.
Next post: Alexandria and Aswan
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.