Insider Egypt: the Pyramids and Me


The mask of Tutankhamen
The mask of Tutankhamen

What Secrets Lay in these Pyramids?

By Ed Wetschler

I found the prospect of visiting Egypt daunting, but not because I feared terrorism. (Don’t let the February ’09 bomb in downtown Cairo mislead you; Egypt’s Tourist Police have not permitted a single such incident at the country’s archaeological sites since 1997.)

Nor did I fear the famously searing heat. (There’s a simple solution: Go in winter).

No, what scared me, simply, was claustrophobia.

To see some of Egypt’s greatest ancient wonders, such as the breathtakingly vivid wall paintings in the pharaohs’ Valley of the Kings, you first have to get through narrow passageways to crypts cut deep into hillsides. My concern, therefore, was that in order to savor these and other treasures, I’d have to shake my fear before I left the Cairo area.

So gather round, children, for a tale of bold actions and derring-do. That, plus one Sphinx, three pyramids, and a critique of the 1932 horror movie, The Mummy.

Cairo, Meet Memphis

Egyptian civilization dates back at least 5,000 years. The largest city in ancient Egypt, Memphis, was just a few miles from modern Cairo, so you can see extraordinary monuments without ever leaving the capital city area.

Such a limited itinerary wasn’t my intention, of course, yet it’s nice to know that if you’re in town for business or an abbreviated vacation, you can still visit some name-brand wonders of the world.

Because Egypt gets only one inch of rain per year, the ancient Egyptians built most of their settlements and monuments — from the Cairo-Gaza-Memphis area south to Abu Simbel and Luxor (Thebes) and north to Alexandria — along the Nile River.

Venture out of Cairo and you see fields of dark green garlic shoots. But take one step further, and suddenly, you’re walking on pure sand that stretches westward for almost 3,000 miles.

“New” Mummies

Boris Karloff as the mummy of Imhotep. Pyramids
Boris Karloff as the mummy of Imhotep

Back in the day, the pharaohs and anyone else who could afford a happy ending made provisions for mummification of their remains, a step they believed necessary for the afterlife.

Now, this is where The Mummy, in which Boris Karloff portrays the revivified Imhotep, goes haywire. Most Egyptians are not particularly crazy about the flick, so in tandem with getting used to underground tunnels, I looked into the life and times of the real Imhotep. And that meant visiting Saqqara.

Just south of Cairo, Saqqara (aka “Sakkara”) served as Memphis’ necropolis for more than 2,000 years, so it sprawls into the desert for miles, a sea of pyramids, mastabas (flat-topped burial chambers), and shrines. There’s plenty to explore here, and more is uncovered almost every day.

In November 2008, for example, Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief of antiquities, announced the discovery of a “new” 4,300-year-old pyramid. And in February, he unveiled a burial chamber with more than 20 mummies. But unlike Hollywood’s mummy, none of these got up for a walkabout.

Thanks to the ancients’ compulsive record-keeping, we know a lot about the historic Imhotep. He served as Pharaoh Djoser’s right-hand man and high priest from around 2650 to 2600 B.C.E., and was also history’s first identifiable architect, engineer, physician and flat-out genius, the Da Vinci of the desert.

The author at the entrance to Khafre’s burial chamber
The author at the entrance to Khafre’s burial chamber

Imhotep was so admired that after his death he was deified as the god of healing, eventually morphing into the Greek Asclepius.

The First Pyramid

It was Imhotep who built the first pyramid, a mausoleum for Djoser with sides like steps rather than the gradual walls of later pyramids.

“He may have started out constructing a mastaba,” said Ahmed Anwar, our guide, “but he kept making it bigger. Then he put a second layer on top of the first layer; this layer was smaller, for stability. Then a third layer, then a fourth….”

Today, this seminal pyramid, which stretches more than 400 feet long and 200 feet high, is still astonishing. Like later pyramids, its ingenious design allows all four walls to soak in the sun’s energy every day, which (I understand) is exactly what you want if you’re dead and buried inside, gathering strength for Act II.

One more thing: This immense edifice is not merely the inspiration for Egypt’s signature pyramids. It is also one of the world’s oldest surviving buildings.

The Great Sphinx at Giza

A passageway in the pyramid
A passageway in the pyramid

Computer models estimate that the step pyramid contains more than three miles of secret passageways, but none were open that day. There’s a relief. But though I couldn’t test myself at Saqqara, nearby Giza, site of the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramid, was not so easy to avoid.

Some say the human head atop the Sphinx, which measures about 240 feet long and 60 feet high, represents Pharaoh Khafre (aka Chefren), who lived in 2500 B.C.E.

True or not, one thing for sure is that the Sphinx has taken some hits: Earthquakes and erosion have damaged the rock, the Sphinx’s paint job (yes, it was painted!) has worn off, and the British Museum has kidnapped four chunks of its beard, which does not play well in Egypt. Nevertheless, this colossal, crouching sculpture retains its figurative beauty, and its sheer size can only be hinted at in photographs.

The same is true of the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), whose 745-foot-square base occupies 13 acres. As John Bentley IV points out in Egypt Guide, this edifice covers “an area sufficient to accommodate the cathedrals of Florence, Milan, Saint Peter’s in Rome, Saint Paul’s in London, and Westminster Abbey put together.”

Pharoah's crypt
Pharoah’s crypt

The Great Pyramid soars 449 feet — moreover, it was even taller before post-Pharaonic Egyptians looted its outer sheath for building material.

Adds Bentley, “By the time [ancient Greek historian] Herodotus visited Egypt 2,500 years ago, the pyramids of Giza were already a mind-boggling 2,000 years old.”

Inside Khafre’s Pyramid

The passageways and shafts within the pyramids were never meant to be traversed by tourists. The workers who built them (“Tombs found in 1989 indicate that the builders of these early pyramids were farmers and other workers, not slaves,” notes guide Anwaar Abdalla) would carry food and other necessities into the pyramid, seal the storage rooms, lower the mummy case into the crypt and seal the crypt, then seal the pyramid itself so that thieves would never, ever get in.

They got in anyway. More distressing, I planned to get in, too, so I joined the line outside a hobbit-size entrance to Khafre’s pyramid. This pyramid, slightly smaller than Khufu’s Great Pyramid, looks larger because the uppermost portion of its finishing stone was never looted for other buildings. Also, Khafre, son of Khufu, wanted his pyramid on higher ground than Daddy’s.

This is where the mummy case rested for thousands of years.
This is where the mummy case rested for thousands of years.

Just as I got up to the door and was taking a deep breath to calm myself, a guy who’d been six or eight spots ahead of me in line suddenly rushed back out of the opening.

“Can’t do it,” he muttered as he brushed past me.

Yikes, says I; this guy is younger, stronger, and shorter than I am. But who could blame him? Certainly not Dr. Hawass, Egypt’s star archeologist. Hawass, the Egyptian Indiana Jones, fedora and all, confesses to having been afraid of the dark when he was a child.

Even nowadays, writing about his journey into the tunnel of a pyramid, he admits, “It was very dark, and I was scared.” Well, Doctor, I’m with you.

The Pharaoh’s Crypt

Crouching like Quasimodo, I descended a 50-foot shaft that got darker, hotter, more humid with every step. Finally, the passageway led to a second passageway that was level, one with a ceiling of about 5’10” that allowed me to stand more erect. This must be the burial chamber, I muttered. Where is that damned crypt?

The signature of Giovanni Belzoni, who discovered the tomb
The signature of Giovanni Belzoni, who discovered the tomb

Not there. At the end of the level section, I had to hunch over again and ascend a shaft that mirrored the first one.

Finally, I stepped into a room about 20 by 40 feet. A dim and gloomy room, sure, one that was almost as hot as the shafts, but it was a room, thank heaven. I could stand up straight. And at one end of the room I saw a large, rectangular hole: Pharoah slept here.

Khafre’s mummy and the treasures buried with it are gone now, like all too many of ancient Egypt’s treasures, taken by grave robbers. But on one grim stone wall was a curiosity that no thief could steal: the signature of Giovanni Belzoni, who discovered the crypt and scrawled his name on one wall in 1818.

That graffiti was somehow assuring, a reminder of life outside this hidden room. It was also reassuring to realize that although the only way out was via the same narrow shafts by which I’d entered, it was a route with which I was familiar.

So there would be no surprises, no spaces tightening up to trap me forever, no cinematic mummies with homicidal tendencies. Having explored the innards of a pyramid and actually enjoyed it, I could go on to the Valley of the Kings and, quite literally, venture inside Egypt.

A couple of the half dozen or so other tourists in the burial chamber smiled at me, equally relieved. I smiled back. And we proceeded to indulge in the universal passion of travelers: We took pictures.

Exiting is easier.
Exiting is easier.


Getting There: Several airlines serve Cairo; I flew EgyptAir, which belongs to the Star Alliance (e.g. United Airlines). The food is relatively good, and the flight attendants give cute little travel packs to peons in economy class. The beverage service comes up short, though: no alcohol.

Accommodations: I stayed at the Conrad in Cairo, which offers spotless, international-style rooms, and superb lentil soup. For more moderately priced lodgings, book a room at the Windsor Cairo, a veritable landmark in downtown.

Guides: The more you know about what you’re looking at (is that a god or a bird?), the more Egypt’s art comes alive. The Egyptian Tourist Authority maintains an informative website and the Rough Guide to Egypt is a fine companion. So is Anwaar Abdalla, a guide who charges $125 day. Mr. Abdalla ain’t cheap, but she’s a PhD who brings life to art and history; she can also arrange a car and driver for $65 a day. Email

(Why not rent a car in Cairo instead of hiring a car and driver? Presumably, because you’re not crazy.)

Ed Wetschler

Ed Wetschler, president of the New York Travel Writers Association, has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky, Everett Potter’s Travel Report, and other major print and electronic media.

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