The Great Pyramid of Giza – the only remaining Great Wonder of the World – has captivated me ever since I can remember. At school, I devoured every reference book chronicling the unique chapters of the exquisite and enchanting Egyptian civilization. Spanning nearly thirty centuries, its history encompassed four dynasties: Early, the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom. Its demise came in the 12th century B.C. caused by – as many historians will cite – drought, famine, economic collapse, and occupation. Many outsiders had significant influence upon Egyptian society, with Alexander the Great representing one of the most powerful agents of change. A Pharaoh. A God on Earth, and, like all contemporaries, destined – so they believed – to be immortal in the afterlife. This mesmerizing and epic tale hooked me, and I longed to visit the mysterious and magical place – Giza ─ home of the Great Pyramid.
I contemplated the lure of immortality as a kid and it had – in my wide-eyed innocent days – a certain attraction. I didn’t grasp the meaning of death until I was about six, when my grandad died. I recall being traumatized when I experienced its consequences for the very first time; I understandably wanted to know where he was. Always a tough nut to crack for any parent trying to protect their child at a time of distress; a clumsy cocktail of warm sentiments were expressed, culminating in the narrative that he had gone to a better place. At school, the older kids exposed the brutality of death. My grandad was either deep underground or had been burnt. Whichever it was, I figured he had suffered great pain at his final curtain call since neither outcome was ─ by any stretch of the imagination, and contrary to my parents’ explanation – a better place. Death was scary and immortality provided an insurance against this.
As I grew up and, due to the certainty of death, experienced the loss of more loved ones, I gravitated away from immortality, believing there is only so much grief a human being can experience; my attitude towards life changed too, with travel becoming one of the most vital elixirs of existence. I want to cram as much life as I can into my remaining years! Nonetheless, I wanted to better understand why this ancient culture had so captivated me, and still continued to fascinate me with an almost constant craving for more information – usually gleaned from the ever-giving documentary channel.
As I was driven to my hotel in Giza from Cairo International Airport it was already dark; I resigned myself to having to wait until the morning to set eyes upon the stellar structures that are aligned – in the view of some practitioners of history ─ to the three bright stars of Orion’s belt, located on the celestial equator. I am firmly on the side of the believers! My discontent gathered further pace as the taxi negotiated the choreographed chaos of the Cairo highways that beat a continuous and crazy melody of car and truck horns. The driver didn’t flinch as the spot on the carriageway ahead was sought by at least three other vehicles.
Pulling back the curtains, I peered through the balcony window and saw the brightly lit exterior of the Steigenberger Pyramids Cairo hotel with its resplendent turquoise blue pool. I was right, and would have to wait until daybreak. Then, as my eyes slowly accustomed to the contrast between the artificial light and the pitch-black sky, I could see a faint outline – one that my iPhone camera magically enhanced. I could see the Pyramids of Giza! Like an ancient echo, antiquity and modernity clashed in a very precious moment. I slept well that night in the knowledge that I would be picked up by my guide in the early hours of the next day. In the morning I opened the balcony doors and the magnificent monuments dominated the skyline.
Touching the granite blocks at the foot of the Great Pyramid where the Pharaoh Khufu was originally laid to rest, I finally connected to my childhood dream. Climbing the first tier of huge monoliths towards the public entrance to the internal labyrinth that ultimately led to the King’s Chamber, the enormity of the structure was completely overwhelming. From my vantage point I couldn’t see its apex, nor could I readily identify where its edges actually finished. It appeared to be infinitely massive.
As I climbed inside and began my ascent, I kept touching the walls whilst maintaining a steady grip on the rails that framed the Grand Gallery. On my hands and knees, I crawled into the King’s Chamber. His sarcophagus was – of course – empty, and this once intimate place was now occupied by tourists, including me, with some taking selfies. The reverence I had once felt for this awesome and seemingly incredible archaic ideology dissipated in an instant when I suddenly realized that the Pharaohs had got it totally wrong. As I commenced the steep descent, I wanted to be mistaken but the evidence was compelling, if not wholly complete. The final pieces of the jigsaw fell into place at my next stop – The Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo.
At school my science teachers introduced me to the certainty that matter cannot be created or destroyed – the law of conservation of matter; however, it can be changed. Thus, the atoms in my body have previously been part of something else and upon my death they will once again find a new structure, possibly part of another living entity, or in the earth as an important mineral element. Whatever the manner of my eventual disposal – and I prefer the fiery option – my molecular stuff will never disappear, but be consumed within the ecosystem surrounding us. My atoms are immortal, if not the complete formation that makes me, me. As I viewed the ancient dead on display it was clear that the process of mummification led to a closed system ─ keeping the intact body apart from the biological community of interacting organisms and the life-giving nutrients contained within the soil beneath our feet. This process prevented the natural immortality and rebirth of their atoms – they remain in eternal stasis. Being entombed blocked the natural return to the environment from which the body was born, and completely frustrated the creation of new life.
At dusk, as I looked upon the Great Pyramid once again, another realization appeared to mock the futility of attempting to cheat death. The very structure that sought to provide Khufu the sanctuary necessary for deliverance into the afterlife was still standing tall, with a longevity probably until the end of time itself.
So, is this the end of my Egyptian expedition? The simple answer is no, as this culture still compels me to learn more about one of the once most dominant civilizations on earth and how history has a habit of repeating itself. Next on my list is Luxor, then the Valley of the Kings.
But one thing is certain – this experience will live with me until my own atoms metamorphose into something else, as I am – of course – immortal.
© Ian Kirke 2023 / @ianjkirke