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tearing the rag off the bush again
Excerpt from "The Egyptian Chronicles" PDF E-mail


The Supreme Guide of the Council of Antiquities of Egypt is a small, compact sparkplug of a man fond of his laser pointer. With typical modesty, he announces, "I have a great respect for Howard Carter--Carter never moved Tut's remains. He left that to me."

Tutankhamen's tomb is projected on screen and submitted to precise laser probing while I take my seat as discreetly as possible in the conference hall of the new Biblioteka Alexandrina, the latest incarnation of the renowned Library of Alexandria, one that meets current seismic and fire-safety standards. No crazy Caesar is going to set this place aflame--there are no books to burn. In an institution prepared to house over three-million volumes, a flimsy 250,000 fill the shelves. All the money for the library was spent on the architecture.

Since the Supreme Guide of Antiquities has rock-star status in Egypt, the event is sold out. The guards size me up--female, unescorted, Western, blond--and decide I should be encouraged. I walk past the other Egyptians thronging the doorway, people who probably know more about the antiquities than I do. I show no remorse. Organizers produce wireless headphones for the live English translation and carry in a chair so that I can sit comfortably in full view of the screen and the esteemed guest.

The Supreme Guide, Zahi Hawass, has incontestably done more for Egyptian antiquities than any of his predecessors. But like the bull in a shawabti shop, he's been a little too quick, a little too visible. Zahi has formidable enemies--mostly on account of megalomaniac tendencies of Pharaonic proportions. But his heart is in the right place--he has a kind face, a lively spirit and an agile mind.

"I wanted to give Tut a CT scan," Zahi continues, projecting a slide of himself in a room outfitted with the latest medical technology. "In the past, it would have been impossible. But now we Egyptians have our own machines. We don't need foreigners to do this anymore."

Zahi knows how to play his audience. He doesn't mention that the CT-scanner wasn't an Egyptian purchase. While the Supreme Guide points out the 18 breaks in Tut's skeleton, I look around the room for headphones--evidence of foreigners. I spy an older couple who are probably among the last handful of Greeks calling Alexandria home. The rest of the audience seems Egyptian, about half women, mostly veiled. No one in headphones. I don’t understand why I keep looking for foreigners in Alexandria. I guess I'm hoping to find a friend.

"So, when we rotated the mummy inside the machine, something odd happened." The Supreme Guide projects a slide of the scanner. Tut's boney feet poke from the tunnel, chicken legs out of the roaster.

"The scanner stopped." The Supreme Guide pauses; the audience rustles. "The curse of the mummy?" He walks across the stage, looking perplexed. "It's a brand-new, state-of-the-art machine. We don't know why it stopped at the exact moment that the mummy went inside."

A wry smile flickers across Zahi's features. After all, things break in Egypt all the time--telephones, generators, computers, elevators, antennas, motors of every stripe. Perhaps the curse is more generalized than is usually supposed. "It took a while," he says, "but some days later the scanner worked and we were able to complete tests."

*

Skeptics of invisibilities--that rather large group of people whose brains are made in such a way that they struggle to rationalize or dismiss every synchronicity and presage, every intuition and déjà vu, every telepathic coincidence and hypnogogic insight--point out that the fan in the scanner needed to be rebooted. For them, the rupture of electricity when Tut entered the CT tunnel is perfectly logical. 

But the Italian film crew who were there on the scene when Tut brought the house down won’t buy a simplistic fan scenario. The assistant director told me that the CT-scanner worked just fine in the trials of other mummies. I can still see her pretty, baffled face. "It was really very weird," she said. "Mummies go in, mummies go out. But the minute Tut went inside: boom. No power. No power anywhere. It all cut everywhere on the set."

Zahi is a man of science, but he is also Egyptian. He knows that the country is full of mystery that even the most stalwart of rationalists have to fight to keep at bay. It flows from six thousand years of ruins the way that water flows from a desert spring. Zahi doesn't tell the audience that the electrical outage was traced to a malfunctioning fan because arguably that just replaces the event by another event, not its cause. And besides, it's to Zahi's advantage to keep Tut cloaked in mystery, since mystery brings the tourists to Tut's tomb and to the museums, even to the country itself. I'm willing to bet that Zahi has seen a lot of strange things roaming around the monuments after dark. He's keeping his mouth shut.

"The CT-scan," Zahi proclaims to an enraptured room, "showed that Tut did not die by a blow to the head, so that theory is now laid to rest."

Next up is the slide of The Supreme Guide between the paws of the Great Sphinx. He is wearing his trademark cowboy hat. "Many people don't know that there're openings to a room inside the Sphinx, probably used for ritual purposes."

Zahi doesn't mention the location of the main shaft in the Sphinx's rear end. Why on earth, I wonder again, would the Pharaonic Egyptians decide to make more or less an anal entry? I know the Pharaonic architects couldn’t put a door in the front of the Sphinx, as that would mar the majesty of what is usually thought to be Khafre's portrait. But they could have tucked the rear shaft closer to the elbow. They didn't have to conceal the opening in the Sphinx's behind.

"We haven't found anything inside the Sphinx yet," the Supreme Guide sighs. "There's problems pumping out the ground water from the tunnels--it's very complicated." His laser pointer lingers on a slide of what looks like a pit, the Supreme Guide peering solemnly over the edge into the inky blackness. "Radar from Stanford helped us locate the shafts--we don't have these machines yet." Technology is apparently a sensitive issue. "Is there a passage from the Sphinx to the Khafre's pyramid? We don't know."

Cue the three Gizeh pyramids. Numbers of blocks. Approximate weight. Approximate dates. Timeline. But like a description of a piano concerto as a fixed scale of sound arranged in mathematical sequence, an empirical description of the monument omits more than it includes.

That's not just a big pile of stones.

*

"Come on, let's go!" I encouraged X on a dark and balmy night. We walked up the hill of the Gizeh plateau to the pyramids at about 4:30 AM. "There's the guard," I observe. "Under the light at the rest house."

My X engaged the guard in a quick conversation. Money changed hands. "Don't climb Khufu," the guard roared across the sand, apparently as an after-thought. "Khufu many people die!"

"Are you sure you want to do this?" X looked anxious. 

I felt like I did when I was heading off into the Kushite ruins of Musawwarat in the Sudan with my sleeping bag in hand, determined to sleep in the temple ruins where oracular dream incubation took place. Yes, I'm going to do this.

We gazed on the mighty edifice of Khufu's pyramid respectfully while we crossed the plain to the next monument. Khafre's pyramid looked no less magisterial beneath the stars. The first few layers of blocks at the bottom are easy to climb--find a hold, yank and pull yourself up. Although Khafre's pyramid seems taller than Khufu's, in fact, it's an optical illusion created by the positioning of the son's pyramid higher up on the plateau than his father's. Since I'm climbing faster than X, I'm a couple of layers above him, too.

"Putin de merde," X cursed. His foot slipped and he hit his knee.

"Don't forget," I yelled down, "they were still holding races to the top of the pyramids until just a few decades ago." I hoped I could goad X on by arousing macho competitiveness.

"They stopped the races because too many people died," X shouted.

I get about halfway up the pyramid face, climbing in the starlight, the faintest glow of the morning sky appearing on the horizon like the distant embers of a fire.

"Dawn, it's getting more difficult. Slow down."

He didn't have to warn me. I was at a kind of impasse. The blocks had gotten bigger, like they'd decided to enlarge somehow, adding some centimeters here, some there, their volume increasing accordingly. But I know the blocks in the pyramids are all of a maddeningly consistent size--about five and half feet in height and width. I was in front of one that had swelled to the point where I couldn't find a grip. It was strange--a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't moment, when you look away, and back, and it's changed. Something has changed. The person you loved no longer loves you. The one you relied on has died. It happens so fast. The blocks have gotten bigger. And for reasons that I still can't understand, they had also started to taper out, as if their top surfaces were pushing away from the center, slanting into space. They were no longer an orderly 90° from the earth. More like 120°, 130°. I felt as if I had to swing out away from the face of the pyramid to reach the next surface.

Equally puzzling was the perception I had when looking down, past X, to the sands below. Instead of feeling as if I were in a stable position, since the base of a pyramid is progressively wider than the slant of the sides, I felt the opposite--as if I were tilting out, away from the center of the monument. I knew this was impossible. Every photo of the pyramid, every observation made from sky and earth from time immemorial, records a geometrical solid possessed of specific, quantifiable features. The sides of a pyramid trend toward the center, not out, into the sky. I stood there, slightly above the halfway mark--about 30 stories from the ground--panting. It wasn't vertigo. I wasn't dizzy--it was a sense that gravity was not operating as it should, as if gravity itself were somehow transforming matter, pulling it in odd ways. The pyramid wasn't leading me up to the sky. It was pushing me off into a topsy-turvy ripple in the fabric of reality, some dynastic wrinkle in space-time decreed by Pharaoh himself.

X convinced me to go back down.

I never spent the whole night in the Kushite dream temple either.

*

"As you can see from this slide," continues the Supreme Guide, "there are two entrances to The Great Pyramid of Khufu. The upper one is the original entrance, but it's plugged with granite blocks, an ancient method for deterring thieves. The lower tunnel was hacked out by tomb robbers in antiquity."

He projects the cross-section of the Great Pyramid on the screen so that the audience can appreciate how much trouble the robbers went to in order to tunnel into the main shaft on the other side of the granite plugs.

"We don't know what they found."

Zahi gazes regretfully at the audience.

"No artifacts have ever been located in the pyramid."

He looks baffled.

"Zero. Not even a single hieroglyph."

*

If you're lucky enough to enter Khufu's pyramid alone, a silence that is not silence but the strange, full vibration of air presses upon the inner workings of the ear in such a way that you perceive an audible pressure--very faint. This happens within the first few minutes of entering the robber's shaft. Like in a dream, you're not sure you're hearing something that somehow you hear.

In the main shaft, beyond the granite plugs, you're forced to ascend, leaning over a little more, obliged to bend your knees and bow your head. The heart beats somewhat faster; the temperature rises a few degrees. The hand-cut limestone blocks under your feet, above your head, brushing your arms at the sides are so smooth that only a trained eye perceives the trace of the rope and mallet. The joints between the blocks are disguised as geologic fissures. The fit between them is so perfect and tight it is as if the shaft is a continuous wall of undressed stone.

After hunching over during the first part of the ascent, you reach the Grand Gallery, where the ceiling inexplicably opens in a vertical slice, very narrow but over eight-and-a-half meters tall, creating an interior space that, instead of alleviating the sensation of compression, seems to augment it, so that the very air thickens as breathing becomes slightly more labored. The Grand Gallery is not cave-like, because there is nothing natural about it; nor is it depersonalized in the way that subterranean floors in skyscrapers are. It is noble, on the verge of hospitality, were it not for the overwhelming inhibition produced by the tactile perception of an exact astronomical weight placed with utmost precision overhead. The reach of the ceiling so very high above allows your thoughts to rise, too--but not too far. The ceiling height is but a fraction when measured against the actual summit of the pyramid outside.

The floor slants steeply now, so that visitors in poor physical condition have to fully concentrate on the climb. Those who suffer from claustrophobia turn around. It is a long, difficult ascent, even if you're in shape, because you have to scramble, the incline is steep, and the weight of those blocks thunder overhead.  Every step is an act of trust and grace. At the top of the shaft, you have to crawl a short distance before stepping into the King's Chamber, lined in sacrificial red granite brought from Aswan 800 kilometers to the south. The ceiling leaps up again to eight meters. The room is large enough to hold 30 comfortably. It is empty, save for Khufu's lidless granite sarcophagus where perhaps Pharaoh's body was laid to rest--or perhaps the sarcophagus has been empty for all time.

*

Once, when I arrived in the King's Chamber deep inside Khufu's pyramid, I was alone. My breathing was hard; I was sweating. I crawled out of the tunnel, took a few steps and stood still, trying to probe the phenomenology of the moment. The sound of the weight of those blocks, the heat of an extravagant man-made interiority, the exact alignment of the room and pyramid to the four cardinal points, the mineral properties of the red-granite sheathing, the two unexplained 'air ducts' perpendicular to the eastern and western slopes outside, the absence of engraving and decoration, and the imperceptible joints between those tremendous stones--conspired to produce a feeling that I can only refer to as sacred, if what is partly meant by that term is the perception of a presence seemingly distinct from the entanglements of the embodied self. It lasted but a breath or two. Then a Japanese businessman sputtered and grunted his way out of the low entrance tunnel and consciousness shifted to the concerns of sharing territory with a man in the throes of heart palpitations.

Another time, X and I entered the chamber hoping to test the effect of sacred geometry upon human sexuality; since it was off-season, we hadn't reckoned on finding a trio of Dutch backpackers in lotus position conducting their own lengthy experiments. On another occasion, I watched as a woman prayed over the sarcophagus, touching her forehead to the rim in a ritual that remains obscure.

And once I found a barefoot monk inside--a jolly, white-headed fellow in a deep, saffron robe, possibly from Central Asia. I grinned at him and giggled, because it struck me as absurd to find a robed monk standing with clasped hands, grinning in the heart of the pyramid. He had a beautiful, open face. Perhaps he was in his 60s. He positioned himself in the exact center of the room and began to chant in Sanskrit for me. I listened attentively, smiling, as the sound of his voice filled the room with a grateful wonder.

*

The Supreme Guide of Antiquities now projects a slide of the low tunnel, explaining that no one knows why the entrance to the King's Chamber was constructed at such an awkward height. Then he shows a slide of himself holding a mechanical creature, the way one might hold a small dog, near the body, affectionately.

 "We're using German robots to explore the so-called air shafts extending from the ceiling of the burial chamber. We've found a series of tiny copper doors," he concludes, flipping off the projector. "We don't know where these doors lead. Maybe nowhere."

He looks, for a second, like he's forgotten his lines.

"There are many secrets."

Applause fills the room.

*
 
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