Climbing Egypt’s Past
“HOW do you say ‘pyramids’ in Arabic?” I ask as I settle myself behind the driver in a Cairo taxi. “How many pyramids?” he counters. Wanting information, and not a verbal duel, I respond, “Any pyramid!” “We cannot say in Arabic, as you do in English, a pyramid or pyramids or two pyramids or three pyramids,” he explains. “You have one singular word and one plural word. But Arabic has a singular word, a plural word for two and another word for three or more.”
The taxi threads its way through the now thinning flow of vehicles, men in long robes and shrouded women carrying young children astraddle one shoulder. Note the dogs, goats and swirling dust. We are turning toward the Plain of Gizeh.
Suddenly, there they are! Head, shoulders—all of me to the waist—are thrust through the open taxi window. I am amazed to see with my own eyes the only remaining one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—the pyramids. The three at Gizeh were built by Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus.
Fumbling with unfamiliar Egyptian piasters, I pay the driver, and find myself standing in the only available shade. It is a little patch of shadow cast by a towering Arab guide. He promises to take me into the Great Pyramid’s chambers and up the outside to its top. Promptly, he plunges across the sand. I tag along, accepting his helping hand as we climb 55 feet (17 meters) above ground level to the entrance.
Inside the Pyramid
The sudden darkness inside does not have coolness as its companion. The air is hot and foul. We are going downhill, crouching in a tunnel called the Descending Corridor. Just a little less than three and a half feet (1 meter) wide and nearly four feet (1.2 meters) high, the corridor pitches downward at an angle of 26 degrees. We follow it for about 60 feet (20 meters) and then abruptly climb upward at the same 26-degree angle for another 129 feet (39 meters).
Suddenly all that I could see ahead of me—the stooped stern of the guide—disappears. He has stepped into the room that I now enter. Through the centuries it has been miscalled the “Queen’s Chamber.” However, no queen ever rested here or was intended to. Actually, it is the second of three burial chambers built in the pyramid for the pharaoh. The first is in the bedrock beneath the pyramid. But why were there three burial chambers? A good guess seems to be that over the 23 years of his reign Cheops decided that neither the original nor the second burial plans suited his increasingly majestic standards. So, this second room, measuring 18 feet, 10 inches, by 17 feet, two inches (5.7 meters by 5.2 meters), was left unfinished while masons worked above it on the room that would eventually receive his mummy.
After retracing our steps down the corridor that we had climbed, we turn upward from our cramped passage to the incline of the Grand Gallery. I unfold upward, glad to straighten my back. Perspiration stings my eyes and stains my clothes. The comparative spaciousness of the Grand Gallery (28 feet [8.5 meters] high and 153 feet [46.6 meters] long) gives the illusion of a freshening of the dead air.
The guide reaches back to help me up the high step at the upper limit of the Gallery. Again, single file, we “shrink” ourselves as we pass into a narrow passage. At about a third of its length, the passageway extends upward and outward to form an antechamber.
It is anticlimactic to step into the large room (34 by 17 feet; 10.4 by 5.2 meters) that once received Cheops’ bound and unguent-laden corpse. The lidless granite sarcophagus is not centered in the room.
Is that a breeze? Not quite, but a difference in the air. Does my nose, so long rebelling at this fetid air, detect something fresher? My guide glides across the room beckoning me to follow. He indicates a ventilation shaft. I smile. My nose would too, if it could.
We next retrace our route to the Grand Gallery. It had been built with “plug” blocks stored in it for sealing the Ascending Corridor directly below it. Workmen, after the pharaoh was interred, and after mourners and priests had left, released the blocks to catapult down the narrow Ascending Corridor. In effect, that narrow tunnel became a huge “lock,” with the blocks corking the entryway. How did the workers get out? A crude tunnel had been constructed by means of which they could bypass the plug blocks. This passageway was sealed over with facing stone so that the “escape tunnel” could not be detected.
The Climb Upward
Outside, we are now ready to climb the pyramid. For all its stepped appearance, the structure is not a staircase. Each block is roughly one yard (1 meter) high. However, windblown sand has weathered many blocks and, over the centuries, vandals have helped to whittle some others. Guides have laid out serpentine routes, taking advantage of these declivities. But still, at many levels, there is nothing to do but hook a knee over a block and jack oneself up to another terrace. We pause many times. The view of Cairo on the horizon and of the desert below is dazzling. The wind that wraps itself about the pyramid like a gauze scarf is hot and dry. Still, my rate of perspiration is a bit ahead of its rate of evaporation.
At last, one hour later, the top! As I cock my camera, my guide stands, arms akimbo, feet widespread, the wind billowing his garment. Behind him the limestone cap of Chephren’s Pyramid is framed in my viewfinder. Not just the capstone, but about 10 courses of blocks have been removed. So, the pyramid has “shrunk” from a height of 481 feet (146.6 meters) to 455 feet (138.7 meters). Far below, the Sphinx appears as if it were a paperweight nestled in the sand. My little platform at the apex began as 13.1 acres (5.3 hectares) down below!
Why a pyramid? It was not meant to be a stone tent. The workmen seem to have congealed in stone the slanting rays of the sun. Inscriptions made by workers, and present-day estimates, seem to indicate that the task was not accomplished with slave labor but that about 4,000 conscripted Egyptian laborers were on the site at a time.
But now it is time for the descent. I am sitting, dangling my legs. My feet seek the tier below, while I edge myself forward. More or less, that is how it is done. Thirty minutes later, I stand at the base of the pyramid, dusting the well-worn seat of my slacks. And am I thirsty!
To my delight, I had already found that Egyptian lemonade is not the pallid fluid passed around in summertime in the United States. It is lemon juice, only slightly stretched with water and sweetened with considerable sugar. After drinking about a quart (1 liter), I heave a great sigh of satisfaction. Sorely tempted to try yet more lemonade, I resist and head for the taxi stand.
I climb in wearily. We turn toward Cairo in a small man-made tornado of dust and engine exhaust. Should I ask, How do you say hotel in Arabic—one hotel?—Contributed.