When I was about 7, I read a Goosebumps book called Curse of the Mummy. Remember those books? The formulaic horror-lite for kids by R L Stine and his army of ghostwriters. Well, I loved ’em. Between me and my sister we practically collected the whole set. But curse of the mummy was my favourite – I wanted to explore a pyramid, and I loved the idea that when I grew up, I could have a job doing just that.
But I couldn’t wait. I started devouring books on Ancient Egyptian history with the fervour of someone who has discovered her life’s path. Every school project I turned into some form of study on the Egyptians. I covered my room in prints and statues inspired by Egpytian art. I joined the NZ Egyptology society and started reading scholarly texts before I even graduated to the “adult” section of the library. In short, I was obsessed.
I was one of those weird kids who always knew what I wanted to do “when I grew up.” I remember a conversation with my school career’s advisor. I was one of the top students in my year, and I think she was excited to not have to hand out another information pack for the local computer-training and hospitality school. She asked me what I wanted to do when I left school, and I said I was going to be an archaeologist, and she laughed, said, “No, really …” and handed me a bunch of leaflets for law school. I didn’t listen, and left my little hometown to go study archaeology at the University of Auckland.
After studying my ass off, learning to read heiroglyphs and Ancient Greek and a smattering of Akkadian, I earned my honours degree (First Class – still the same geek girl!) Now it was time for me to find an archaeology job … oh, oops. In my enthusiasm for the subject matter, I’d overlooked something. No one wanted to hire a blind archaeologist.
So I went back to the drawing board, and focused my attention on carving out a career doing something else I’d always loved to do – something where I could forge my own path and wasn’t at the whim of employers; writing. Fast forward ten years and I’m still writing, still loving it, but still utterly fascinated by the history of Egypt.
I’m in good company. Many metal musicians are also fascinated with Egyptian history. From Symphony’s X’s epic “Pharaoh”, to Mercyful Fate’s “Curse of the Pharaohs”, to the entire Nile discography, the culture and rituals of the Egyptians are prime fodder for musical interpretation.
So … when we were planning our first epic metal adventure, my husband (also an ex-archaeologist) suggested we add a second excursion on the end after our European campervan travels – a trip through the Middle East, finishing in Egypt. I was pretty blown away that I’d finally be able to see a place I’d always dreamed of. (I’ve actually written about visiting Egypt on the blog before, but I wanted to talk about the pyramids in particular here).
After several weeks in Turkey, Syria and Jordan, we travelled into Cairo from Dahab, which is a bit of a resort oasis frequented by tourists coming in from mount Ararat (which, yes, we’d climbed just the day before). We came by road in a lumpy bus, with nothing on either side of us but desert. The journey into Cairo is like the first glimpse of the city in Bladerunner – so alive is it with lights and sounds and desert mist.
Our first stop the next day was, of course, the Great Pyramids. I squeezed CDH’s hand as we boarded the bus and drove out to Giza. I felt electric all over, like I was about to meet a long-lost friend.
What you might not realise from the photographs you’ve seen is just how close the pyramids are to the city. You drive along an ordinary street, lined with hotels and plastic palm trees, and BAM – pyramid time. A giant triangle of ancient stone is looming over you.
Our guide gave us a ten-minute talk about the basic history of the pyramid, none of which I heard because I was so excited and happy and emotional. A few highlights were likely: the pyramid is 148.5m high, and each side is 230.4m long, and was the tallest structure in the world for 3800 years. It was built in the reign of Pharaoh Khufu (around 2560BC) and construction took between 10-20 years. There are three chambers inside – including one, the “Unfinished” chamber cut into the bedrock at the base of the pyramid. The pyramid is part of a huge “complex” including smaller pyramids for Khufu’s wives, two mortuary temples, a causeway connecting the temples, the sphinx, several boats, and small mastaba tombs for nobles wanting to be buried near the king.
The pyramids are so large that when you stand on one side of them, the air feels several degrees cooler. The blocks fit so precisely together you can’t fit a hair between the cracks, and even in a construction as massive as this, the four sides have only a 58millimetres error between them. Calculations don’t on the dimensions of the pyramids point to the Egyptians understanding the use of pi, even if they could not calculate it. The pyramids were not built by slaves, as was originally thought, but by thousands of skilled workers with an organised hierarchy.
We paid to enter the belly of the Great Pyramid. You enter this through “the robber’s tunnel” a passage cut down through the bedrock, which then slopes up into the pyramid, entering the Grand Gallery – a long passage leading to the burial chambers with a 28ft high corballed roof. This tunnel was dug during the First Intermediate Period in antiquity, probably to steal all the pretties from the tomb inside. Finally, we reached the burial chamber, where a giant stone sarcophagus rested. The sarcophagus itself is larger than the ascending chamber, so it had to be placed in the chamber first and then the pyramid built around it.
Although you’re forbidden from taking images inside the pyramids, when we entered the King’s Chamber, we were pressed into a group of 30 or so Asian tourists all snapping away. It ruined the magic of the experience for me a little, but it was still pretty incredible.
The next day, CDH and I and another guy from our group booked a tour out to see the Step Pyramid of Djoser and the Dashhur necropolis. Since most tourists get their full of pyramids from Giza, these sites are practically empty, but equally – if not more – fascinating.
From Dashhur, you can see the entire evolution of the pyramid as a concept, from Djoser’s stepped structure – more closely resembling a traditional brick mastaba, to the bent pyramid, where the shape was altered three times during construction as the architects realised the slope wouldn’t support the weight of the structure. But for me, the Red Pyramid was one of the highlights of my trip, if not the highlight of my entire life.
Named for the rusty red colour of the granite stones that form it, the Red Pyramid is 103m high (the third-largest in Egpyt), and it was the Egyptians first successful completed “true pyramid” – created with smooth sides. It was the third pyramid built by the Pharaoh Sneferu, during the 30th year of his reign, and took somewhere between 10-15 years to build.
Why did Sneferu build three pyramids? Well, the first one he built, the Meidum pyramid, collapsed in antiquity, and archaeologists believe it was already showing signs of instability after it was finished (or abandoned), judging by wooden beams that had been installed to hold up internal chambers. At this time, the Bent Pyramid was already under construction, and the angle of its inclination was drastically altered from 54 to 43 degrees, probably because of lessons learned on the Meidum pyramid. But Sneferu probably wanted a proper smooth-sided pyramid, hence this third and more successful construction.
THIS was the pyramid experience I was looking for. After clambering 1/3 of the way up the side of the pyramid to the tiny entrance, we hobbled through the low tunnel, deep down (Wikipedia tells me the slope was 27 degrees), the temperature dropping to something approaching bearable with every step. We entered a great chamber, with a corballed ceiling rising some 40 feet high, empty of course, with sloping sides meeting in an apex high about our heads. At the other end, a tall triangular entrance beckoned us onward.
The second chamber was slightly larger than the first, and lives directly beneath the apex of the pyramid. It contained a wooden scaffold leading to another door high on the Southern end. We climbed that rickety structure and found ourselves in a third chamber – the corballed roof 50 feet high this time – which seemed to be a rough platform above a large, dark chasm. If you stared over the edge, all you could see was rubble, and beyond that, nothingness.
With no one else inside, there was time for us all to stand there, to run our hands along the walls, to listen to the way sound was squashed by the press of the stones, to articulate the fact we were actually standing inside a pyramid – a structure so perfectly engineered that despite the weight of the stone surrounding them, the chambers still stood intact after thousands of years. The third chamber had a rough floor dug down lower than the entrance, which suggested robbers might have dug up the floor in antiquity in their search for treasure.
Thousands of years ago, people felt so strongly, so deeply, about the afterlife, that they created THIS, all of this, as a portal to the next world. It is death and life merging – it is earth and heavens.
Nothing I saw in Egypt after that – not the treasure’s of Tutankhamen at the Egyptian museum, or the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, or the funerary temples at Abu Simbel – came close to evoking that utter sense of being connected to the history of the place, and to the minds of the people who dwelt in that place.
Sadly, much of the amazing sites we explored in the Middle East have now been damaged or utterly destroyed by war. That’s not to mention the human tragedy that is continuing there on a daily basis. I will not pretend I have the cultural or political understanding to comment on what’s going on there, but as an reader of history it always saddens me that, in a place where the evidence of thousands of years of war and persecution and slavery and greed and religious intolerance are written in the stones, that we can’t learn from the past.
If you get the opportunity, go and see these incredible structures, marvel at a shining example of the achievements of humans … before they are gone forever.
Have you visited Egypt or another ancient site? Tell us about your experiences on Facebook.
The Sunken, my dark fantasy novel, is now available on Amazon.
Want updates on the blog and when new books are coming out? Want free books before they hit the market? Sign up for the mailing list.