Being in History in Ancient Egypt

Ed Wetschler said his trip to Egypt in his article, “Inside Egypt: The Mummy, the Pyramids and Me,” was “daunting.” To me, Egypt might be a little daunting, but mainly a thrill like no other. Since I was a little girl I wanted to run around the pyramids, search for history, and ride camels. His vacation was certainly an adventure that might have been “daunting” at points to him, but overly exciting from any other place in the world for me.

To see some of Egypt’s greatest ancient wonders, such as the breathtakingly vivid wall paintings in the pharoahs’ 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.

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.

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….”

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.

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.