by Paul Ross
Seeing Egypt’s ancient epicenter for the first time, most visitors are surprised…if not disappointed. The pyramids, the last of the Seven Wonders of the (ancient) World, are located in Cairo’s ‘burbs, and not in some distant and pristine desert setting as you might expect. In fact, one of Egypt’s oldest and most prestigious hotels, Mena House, advertises that one can “play golf in the shadow of the pyramids.”
The adventure that thrilled Victorian archeologists like Howard Carter has been blunted by easy access and convenience. Add to this the massive throngs of visitors that crowd the site and it makes it nearly impossible to have a personal sense of the place or to feel a connection to the invisible universe of the pharaohs
Dr. Zahi Hawass, preeminent local Egyptologist, is flailing against a stampede of unrestrained tourism in an effort to reduce the crowds and preserve his country’s ancient physical history. He’s making headway with programs that limit access and rotate site availability. But, for the time being, my wife, Judie, and I are surrounded by picnicking families, harassed by vendors, and sonically bombarded by shouting tour guides who make us think we are at the tower of Babel.
How do we engender the sense of cosmic “oneness” we were expecting? After being shoehorned into the great pyramid of Cheops (Khufu), climbing hundreds of steps and duck walking three extremely low corridors, we arrived in the King’s Chamber and came upon a group of Americans sitting on the floor, encircling a candle and attempting collective prayer. Cameras flashed all about them and comments were audible from the dark rumbling mass of humanity. Spirituality seemed misguided and futile in such an aggressive environment. However, after dozens of hours of travel and – no doubt – years of anticipation, the seekers were determined not to be denied. I could tell from some of their faces that the experience was not what was hoped for. Once again outside in the brilliant sunshine amid honking vehicles and braying dray animals, the pyramid loomed before us, massive and inaccessible. We were at the spot, yet couldn’t get to the essence of the place. It was frustrating.
“Oh, well,” another emotionally-thwarted tourist sighed, “it’s really just a tomb for the dead anyway. Not a holy place.”
“Then exactly how would you classify the ‘House of Eternity’ where the god/pharaoh makes the ultimate transition to be with Ra?” I countered.
It was a stalemate all ’round.
Egypt’s most often heard quote (attributed to everyone from Lawrence Durrell to Napoleon Bonaparte) is “everything is possible.” It’s not a celebration of imaginative triumph as much as it is a confirmation of the power of bribery. Throughout Egypt, functionaries mouthing a litany of “no’s” abound. But ask around. In minutes, the possibilities will be opened up to you. All it takes is a little patience, perseverance – and money.
Only a day after we’d been officially blockaded, the great pyramid was made available during off-hours and four of us had the King’s Chamber all to ourselves.
“Lights – on or off?” queried our compensated host.
“Off, please. But only after we’ve climbed, crawled, and reached the room.”
He complied, knowing when we’d arrived via the closed-circuit monitor mounted to the King Chamber’s wall. A soft click echoed down corridors of time and we were plunged into the blackest blackness I’ve ever known.
Days before, my wife (always more sensitive to matters of otherworldliness than I am) had been experiencing what she identified as “auditory hallucinations” at various pharaonic sites. Now at the core of ancient Egypt, she led us in a chant that replicated the syllables she had “heard.” She’d said it sounded like “Carmina Burana” – only executed with short, staccato, Egyptoid phrases.
In the darkness, our voices ranged from breathy to shouting as the unseen walls reverberated with our utterances. Periodically, there was silence as cascading echoes ebbed and then tumbled away in chaotic escape. Forty minutes passed like five, then the lights flickered back on and we were privately escorted to the Queen’s Burial Chamber. Alone in the void, we each held out our arms in a gesture of offering and receptivity. Then, once again, we commenced our Egyptian “Carmina Burana.” After about 15 minutes, our pyramid facilitator appeared and offered to take us (for some additional baksheesh) into a shaft “closed to the public.” We haggled on price but struck a bargain and an iron gate was unlocked. Though dimly illuminated, it was impossible to see the bottom. “It’d be easiest to crawl like a cat,” said our accessor. First a duck and now a cat – we were not only descending down in depth and back in time but reversing evolutionarily to boot! We negotiated a 3 1/2-foot high, 200-foot long tunnel to an unfinished room. My wife, who had opted to traverse in her now-familiar duck-walk mode, moaned in human discomfort the whole way.
In the chamber at the end of the long crawlspace, the centuries had not obliterated the still fresh-looking chisel marks on the walls and ceiling of this uncompleted room. There was a palpable presence, as if the workmen had just left on a break. The space was alive. The calm and inner peace achieved in the previous rooms were replaced by excitement and discovery. We had found our own private Egypt. I no longer cared that modern Cairo lurked just outside the door, for I was in a place of timelessness and history. And it was real. You could touch it, smell it, feel it. (Timelessness itself was underscored when the brand-new watch of one member of our intrepid party suddenly stopped working the second we entered this last space.)
Afterwards, threading the riotous traffic, the four of us knew that we had experienced something so unique we could never adequately relate what had happened. We would not look at the pyramids the same way ever again. It seemed unbelievable that, in the middle of one of the world’s most populated cities (20 million-plus), four people could find a refuge of quiet, peace, and harmony. And, for a very lucky and determined few, this will be the greatest escape. After all, it’s Egypt where everything is possible.
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