This trip was like an excerpt from the movie Mission Impossible, when every minute of my travel was crammed with twists and turns. Expecting the unexpected became the norm. After my eventful journey during which I knocked down an inebriated man clutching at my tee, and survived a flight reeking of sweat, food and alcohol, and a long stopover at Bahrain, I was really looking forward to catching some shut-eye and fueling my system before we ventured out to do anything.
As luck would have it, we landed in Cairo and, in a flash, we were ushered out of the airport into a bus that we assumed was on our way to the hotel, but instead came to a halt somewhere in the middle of a dusty compound packed with numerous tourists vehicles, haggling vendors, noisy tourists and camels lounging in the hot summer sun.
Ancient ruins adorned with an encrypted pictorial script and gargantuan edifices built with geometrical precision: this is the land where afterlife was venerated more than life on earth.
An architectural marvel, each ancient edifice reflects the effort, enthusiasm and patronage offered to honor the Gods, glorify the rulers and prepare for the afterlife of a person, still alive. Of course it’s the afterlife and the massive structures that aided as passages for the souls preserved within them into the unknown realm that fascinated me and got me here. But what I saw during my bus journey was just another concrete jungle, quite deserted, with littered roads and a scattering of palms and people on the roads. I dozed off, disappointed at the dry urban landscape.
‘Welcome from the land of Amitabh Bachchan’, greeted one of the men as we stepped out of the bus. ‘Pretty like Nefertiti’, said another man with a toothy grin, in an ochre green gown. As we made our way through the swarm of locals hovering around and ogling at us bunch of girls, far away, in the distance I could see tiny triangles. As my pupils gradually calibrated themselves to the glare of the hot desert sun beating down on us I figured what they were. We were in Giza! Not the hotel…
I wasn’t sure whether I was elated at the sight of the pyramids or sleepy, irritable, famished and livid at the tour operator. Obviously, he had muddled with our itinerary. Spread out on the plateau, the pyramids stood tall in the scorching desert heat. The area of barren land we had to cover in the oppressive heat was no joke. However, we trudged along and soon the tiny triangles no longer seemed tiny, but were towering over us. An ant beside the pyramid, I didn’t even measure up to half its plinth. Despite the harsh weather, the pyramid had stood the test of time and had plenty to share of an era gone by.
After a brief history on the evolution of these colossal coffins or burial mounds; from the tiny step pyramids to the transitional stages of the pyramid, from the steps to the smooth slopes soaring towards the sky, we finally walked over to the three main majestic pyramids on the plateau – the pyramid of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaura. It felt surreal.
It is not puzzling as to why for decades the pyramids have fascinated scientists, architects and historians alike. They have for long pondered over the origins of these edifices, the labor and strategy that must have been used to construct them and what it conceals. Standing taller than the pyramids of Khufu and Menkaura is Khafre’s, with the deteriorated half-man half-lion sculpture of the Sphinx guarding the entrance.
We were invited to a tour inside the pyramid of Khafre. As excited as I was to go for it, I was also petrified after I saw the entrance to the pyramid. An extremely narrow shaft, about three to four feet high and five to six feet in width, this little passage was further divided into two by means of a rope. One side was for people to crawl in and the other to crawl out. All claustrophobic or asthmatic folks were asked to wait outside or enter at their own risk.
Although terribly claustrophobic, there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity – no matter what. So I took in a deep breath of the hot summer air and made my way to the passage crammed with people. So first you crouch and then you have to bend a little more almost as if you were crawling in because the passage gets smaller and then you just keep scampering uphill through the shaft until it opens to a huge prayer hall sort of space into which all the tiny passages inside the pyramid opened into; passages that lead to other smaller rooms, which housed chests and urns long ago. Dimly lit, this space is large enough to stand erect. Probably several years ago, this hall, I presume, would have been quiet and dark, warm like a womb for the soul within before it entered a new phase of life. I remember reading how some of the urns were meant to preserve certain body parts of the mummy and the chests for all kinds of treasures to aid the departing soul in its afterlife.
However, that afternoon, as we entered the hall, there were plenty of people milling about, talking in hushed whispers. In a corner were a group of men clad in black standing in a circle and engrossed in chanting some verses I couldn’t follow. Pretty sure this was not an everyday ritual. “Did the Medjai shown in the film The Mummy actually exist?” I thought to myself looking at those men. A secret group who perhaps still believed and worshipped the pagan gods? I was quite disappointed because there were obviously no mummies and no noticeable signs of Hieroglyphics or paintings of Anubis (God who leads people to the underworld) or Osiris (God of the afterlife) on the walls; absolutely nothing. Just a huge space inside the pyramid and the tour meant just this room. So we spent about five minutes inside the pyramid, where Khafre’s mummy would have rested once upon a time, his soul / heart weighed against the feather by Osiris as per Egyptian mythology.
Egyptians, like most civilizations back in the day, believed in afterlife and the Day of Judgment. Legend has it that the fate of the deceased person would be decided by weighing the heart. So the heart of the person was preserved within the body during mummification so that it could travel with the deceased into the afterlife.
On entering the underworld, Osiris, weighed the person’s heart on a scale against the feather of Ma’at (goddess of order, truth, and righteousness). If the heart weighed more than the feather, it meant that person was more wicked than good, and the heart would be devoured by Ammit, a demon thus causing him to die a second death and be completely annihilated from existence.
Hopefully, Khafre’s attained afterlife, assuming it proved to be worthy of it and if not, then condemned to die a second death and exterminated completely. Wonder what fate had in store for him?
Looking back now I realize I had expected this tour to be much more than an empty prayer hall, at least a sliver of what I saw at the museum later but there was nothing much happening inside.
So after pottering around for a while we decided to make our way out through the narrow shaft and out into the open. What a relief it was to finally be out in the open without being closed in by walls on all sides. As I got onto the bus I ticked off the pyramids of Giza off my bucket list.
One of the wonders of the world was my list. Giza, today just a shadow of a mystical and enigmatic Egypt, continues to draw tourists from all over the world charmed by her rich and decadent past.
[Images sourced from the web]