Hollywood's dead wrong about pyramids
AS I STARED down the dark abyss of the cramped tunnel, I realised that I had been gravely misled.
By Hollywood movies, storybooks, cartoons and maybe even a National Geographic photo or two.
They had formed an impression in my mind that the legendary pyramids of Egypt have grand chambers with high ceilings, wide passages, large rooms full of treasure and booby-traps, and space for dozens of people inside.
But, really, there was room for only one person.
The deceased pharaoh.
The entrance into the Red Pyramid at the Dahshur necro-polis in Cairo was a small hole measuring just 90cm in height and 1.2m wide.
The tunnel was steep, and deep. I couldn't see the bottom.
"It is about 60m," said the guide, a young chap named Hamada.
And so I crouched and squatted and shuffled my way down, on dusty wooden planks with rungs nailed horizontally across, for the feet to rest on.
Without the rungs, the sharp angle would guarantee a slippery slide to the bottom.
The guard shone a flashlight from the entrance where he sat, so I could see better.
My legs felt like jelly by the time they touched the sandy floor of the crypt within.
"You will feel it for the next two days," said Hamada, referring to the muscle aches.
It was claustrophobic inside, and full of shadows.
Five or six steps, and you'd touch the opposite wall.
But it was the smell that struck me the most - stale and decaying, like damp soil. Wait, make that 10 times stronger.
Three other visitors were there. A woman covered her nose with a cloth; the scent of the 4,000-year-old chamber was perhaps too unpleasant.
A hollowed space in the ground indicated the likely resting place of the pharaoh - a man named Sneferu who ruled from around 2,600 BC. His remains were never found, and might have been snatched by tomb robbers long ago.
The authorities hadn't tampered too much with the original conditions, installing only a few simple lamps, wooden stairs and railings. I appreciated this, for it almost felt like I had travelled back in time, to the dawn of civilisation.
Despite the stifling desert heat outside that reached 37 deg C, the crypt was cool.
Dahshur was one of three funerary complexes that I visited on a trip to Cairo, Egypt, in late August. The admission fee is 40 Egyptian pounds (S$6), including entry into the Red Pyramid.
Another highlight in Dahshur is the Bent Pyramid, said to be a result of an error.
The builders had dramatically altered the pyramid's angle from 54 deg to 43 deg midway due to instability issues, hence the "bent" appearance.
A PANORAMIC CAMEL RIDE
At the famed Great Pyramid of Giza, again I realised that media portrayals had planted inaccurate ideas in my head.
I had vague flashes of people clambering up the big pyramid with nothing more than their hands and feet, reaching the top in a matter of minutes.
But the Great Pyramid, built over 20 years, is not just big.
It is huge. Monstrous.
Standing right next to it, the first layer of stone blocks stopped above my head.
Looking up, I could not see the tip of the pyramid.
All I got was a blast of sunlight in my eyes.
The base measures 230m on each side - roughly a 1km walk around its perimeter.
Each stone block averages 2.5 tonnes, noted Hamada.
One cannot help but ponder, how did they do this?
"Nobody knows," he said.
Several theories postulated the use of spiral ramps and pulleys, among other devices.
A ticket into the Giza complex costs 80 Egyptian pounds.
There is an area with steps where you can stand on the Great Pyramid. Eagle-eyed guards will bark fiercely if anyone tries to go higher.
My travel companion and I paid an elderly camel herder - tough haggling is required, and vendors prefer payment in US dollars or euros - for a ride to get a panoramic view of Giza.
Two boys, aged seven and 10, led our camels across a desert strip.
From this vantage point, the cluster of pyramids appeared deceptively diminutive.
"You happy? Good?" they constantly quipped, knowing that the level of satisfaction was proportional to the size of the tip they'd get later.
The bumpy camel ride ended at the Sphinx, another famous symbol. "I thought this will be much bigger," said my friend. "It looked big in the James Bond movie."
Giza was featured in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).
So, the score remains zero for Hollywood et al.
The area around the Sphinx is cordoned off so visitors cannot touch or stand on it.
Getting to Giza is surprisingly straightforward, for it is not that far outside the city.
In fact, the pyramids are visible from high points in Cairo, rising above modern skyscrapers like towering guardians, an ominous reminder that death is always on the horizon.
Such stunning views can be captured from places like Cairo Tower or Saladin Citadel.
These days, you can even take the metro to Giza. A trip costs one Egyptian pound, regardless of distance. From Giza station, you can take a bus or a short cab ride to the pyramids.
Cairo has metered taxis though some drivers may not use the meter, especially when they encounter tourists.
BELIEFS ABOUT DEATH
On the map, it is obvious that pyramids are all on the west side of the River Nile - another nice stopover where you can stroll along the banks or take a boat ride on the waters.
"The east is for the living; the west, for the dead," explained Hamada. This belief, he said, originated from the rising and setting of the sun.
I took the easy option of hiring a private driver, plus a guide and lunch, for a full-day rate of 750 Egyptian pounds.
It paid off nicely, as our guide and driver helped to get us out of sticky situations (we are very poor hagglers).
They also took us to a place to view a demonstration on how papyrus is made, by hand.
Most of all, they pulled off a priceless manoeuvre by getting us inside the ruined pyramid of Userkaf at the Saqqara necropolis, the third and oldest pyramid complex we visited.
The chamber was closed, to my dismay, but Hamada found the guard and got him to agree, for a small fee, to unlock the gates just for us.
Alone in a serene, golden-lit burial space that was much more beautiful than the plain crypt in Dahshur, the weight of history finally hit me.
Vivid hieroglyphs, in faded hues of blue, red and yellow, filled every inch of the walls.
The apex ceiling is lined with neat rows of grey stars.
The grey symbolises the eternal night of death, said Hamada. Other etchings detail magic spells for a smooth journey into the afterlife, he added.
At the far end lay a solid stone sacrophagus. I peered inside. It was empty, of course, for the mummy, as with other ancient embalmed corpses, had been moved to museums.
One key location is the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, where you can get up close with the amazingly preserved kings and queens, some still with lush hair and bearing traces of manicured fingernails.
Photo-taking of the royal mummies is not allowed, but bring your camera for snapshots of the museum's trove of artefacts, from delicate furniture to gold-gilded masks and mummified animals (including a 5m-long crocodile).
Why put in so much effort to prepare for the day you die? I wondered. Was it out of love for a king? Superstition?
"The ancient Egyptians believe that the afterlife is more important than their actual lives," Hamada offered cryptically.
I thought hard about it. In a poetic way, they were right.
For that was why we came, to gaze upon their tombs, and to remember that they lived once, a long, long time ago.