A Surprisingly Spiritual Experience
When reflecting upon the history of the land of endless time, a century may not be viewed a considerable length of time.
Within a century, over 45 centuries ago, the world’s then-tallest human-made structure, the Red Pyramid, was consigned to the after-thoughts of eternity upon the completion of the Great Pyramid of Giza. A proud and majestic structure, the first “true” pyramid, the Red Pyramid signified the location where the Son of Ra would return to his father. After considerable hardship, Snefru had finally completed a structure worthy of transporting him to the Afterlife. Whether or not Snefru lay inside remains a mystery.
I am not a religious man. Nor am I a particularly spiritual one. Outwardly, I think I would be viewed as essentially a beer-loving, sport-obsessed larrikin who loves a laugh. Inwardly I’ve never been so sure.
As one tours through Egypt, it is near-impossible to not be simply overwhelmed. In 2 short weeks, I had seen some of the world’s most amazing structures, testament to the vision of a few and the hard work of a few million. From the glorious Abu Simbel, to the bewitching Pyramids of Giza and the once-hidden Valley of the Kings. To name a few. At each step, it was expected to be left breathless. The height of expectation stood tall enough to be disturbed by all-too-human factors. “Baksheesh, Baksheesh” disturbed my attempt to connect with the Pyramids of Giza, the utter freeze of a bus with air-conditioning on full throttle on the journey through the night to Abu Simbel left me sleep-deprived and nearly listless. An allergic reaction at Karnak distracted me from the vast wonders that abound in the world’s largest open-air museum. Food-poisoning and the lure of conversation also contributed to the reality of touring Egypt being different from the impossible, soul-shaking adventure I had imagined. This is not to say that I did not enjoy every moment of the trip. It is to say that, often, the imagination outweighs reality.
Perhaps that recount has been embellished with the sense of memory and the curse of converting thoughts to writing. I only have fond memories of touring Egypt, yet thoughts may give way to unwarranted words to prove a point.
Throughout our exploration of Egypt, the mind could not fully capture the magnitude of what the eyes witnessed. Dates of creation and construction would blur between learning the names of those in the touring party and the time we had to wake the following morning. I’m not convinced that my brain is adequately conditioned to view the Pyramids of Giza one day and the mighty temple of Ramses the 2nd merely days later. Regardless, I felt the trip had become essentially a taster – a first experience that would serve as a platform for future travel to the region.
Until we arrived in Dahshur.
The Step Pyramid at Saqqarra had long been on my wish list to visit. Djoser’s creation of the first pyramid is indeed a structure of immense beauty. Exploring the accompanying complex was another fascinating element, woven into the rich tapestry of Egyptian culture from the outset. I knew that there lay two further pyramids of note further to the South, but didn’t know too much about them.
One was the Bent Pyramid, Snefru’s second attempt at constructing a Pyramid. It derives its name from the dramatic change in angle of the Pyramid halfway up, a necessary alteration as the base appeared structurally unsound.
The other was the Red Pyramid.
We had hired a taxi driver from off the street in Cairo. A friendly man with a young family whose lack of credentials pointed squarely to his entrepenurial qualities. Through bustling streets comprising of makeship shops, donkeys and 1970s cars, we meandered our way through the southern outskirts of Cairo and onto Dahshur. A bouncing kangaroo hung from the rear-vision mirror, seemingly the only familiar object in sight. The lush, green oasis ends abruptly as we are confronted with the Western Desert. The line of trees and greenery starkly contrasts the damagingly sparse, open terrain of the large expanse of sand and wind. We were close.
40km south of Cairo and 14,000 km from home, we arrived at the Red Pyramid.
After the constant bustle of 20 million people had rung in our ears for days, suddenly all we heard was the echoing wind of 20 million years. Our vision, so used to being inundated with an array of colour and sights, was immediately transfixed on a single structure.
The Red Pyramid stood where it had for over 45 hundred years. It had endured the sun and wind for over one million, six hundred thousand days. I viewed it with my 20 year old eyes, standing meekly on my roughly seven thousand day old legs. Each of the remaining stones that adorned the exterior of the structure were visible. A signal to the labourious task that long-since deceased humans endured to erect the gigantic structure. It had taken 17 years to complete, with work undertaken when farmers were unable to be of use during the flood season.
The sandy-coloured walkway weaved its way up the slope to the point where it blended into the rock, the entrance now visible a few metres up the rockface. Its presence in the seat of history immense when compared with the vast open-plain of sand that it stood on top of. Whilst we would not accuse the weather of being cold, pants and a jumper were probably a necessity.
Religious artefacts abound the Egyptian landscape. Be they in the form of mosques, Coptic churches or other, far more ancient structures.
While the pyramids are often-viewed as a symbol of the Pharaoh’s status within Egyptian religion, it is the view of this, possibly cynical, author that their purpose was at least equally as a means for the ruling class, and government, to assert their dominance over the essentially working class. That the ruling elite were able to flex their muscle and keep the workers under their control whilst underlining their own importance through the creation of behemoth structures and bequeathing future control by adorning the Pharaoh with divine heritage and right.
It is with this mindset that I entered the pyramid. A uniformed man with a sidearm and a devilish moustache sat reading the paper at the entrance, requesting a few pounds to aide in the upkeep of the complex (we assumed).
The blisteringly bright exterior gave way to near-complete darkness. Our eyes took a moment to adjust as the close chamber claimed us and took us in. It was tight and cramped on all sides. I hunched my back for the duration of the 50 or so steps, creeping forward through the ancient passage. Surprisingly, each step brought us closer to an increased degree of heat as a bead of sweat appeared on my forehead.
Finally, we arrived in an opening. The first chamber of the Red Pyramid was scantily lit by a light struggling against the immensity of 4 millennia of heavy air. We ventured on into seemingly warmer, heavier air into another constricting passageway. Bending down, taking ever smaller steps through the dim causeway, breathing became heavier as we moved away from every Western convenience we had known. Another opening appeared and as we arrived into the second chamber we came across a pair of fellow travellers.
It was not an occasion for conversation however, as the pair seemed studied in a pose of either prayer or relaxation. They sat atop a multi-coloured fabric, peaceful in their presence inside of stark history. Usually, I would view such a scene with scepticism. However, deep inside this feat of engineering and human ingenuity, I felt I knew them immediately. After briefly studying the pair, we turned and observed the next challenge. Approximately 8 metres across the chamber lay a ladder. With a sense of exploration and adventure we approached it.
Perhaps it was the realisation of a childhood dream, perhaps it was mild hallucination based on the seeming lack of oxygen, but I found at the top of this ladder, and another claustrophobic chamber, was my own version of peace.
Deep inside a structure that had stood for longer than I could imagine, standing underneath 100 metres and 16 layers of pure rock, barely observing a dimly-lit room that, somehow, reached 8 metres high with angled, pyramid-like walls, I found a rare calm.
At once I felt connected to a man I never knew. I thought I could make sense of what had taken place in a land I have no human connection with. I understood who I was, what I thought, who I loved and what I stood for. I cared not for the future. Was undisturbed by my past. All that mattered was my time in vivid silence, staring intently at an unadorned wall, lost purely in my own mind. Thoughts came, but for once in an orderly, calm, unimportant fashion. I couldn’t have cared if an hour past,or a minute. Gradually, I came to view it as a quasi-religious or spiritual moment, where I felt I could connect with the innermost region of my soul yet also view myself objectionably. Perhaps, I thought, people were able to reach a place in life where they could think, act and live with purity. The weight of more than heavy air, more than rock, more than thousands of years of history weighed on relaxed shoulders.
The vivid silence ended. A clamour of people, sounding more akin to a rock concert than an exploration into a pyramid poured their way into the passageway. I could feel my lack of consciousness drift away as reality returned. Frustrated, I stood as no less than 15 people entered the room, speaking continuously at the height of their voice, stopped for a moment in the room, took a photo, turned and left as quickly as they had come.
The faux-religious experience had ended. It was gone. These people had shaken this peaceful moment to the degree that it could not recover. It was a shame, but it wasn’t entirely.
You see, this is what happens on a daily basis in the world we reside in.
People are unable to recognise the state of strangers’ souls. To assess their needs and state of mind. In essence, people are not able to understand innately what another person is going through, and cannot transport themselves to view their perspective at any given moment.
These tourists could not know the state of my existence. For them, it was merely a day out to a pyramid. Ironically, it was probably the same mindset that I had arrived with. Had a arrived with a friend, instead of a soulmate, I may have spent the time talking, joking or laughing. I may have commented on inanity. The temperature change, the tight spaces. Yet, for whatever reason, I had entered the space with a frame of mind ready to be challenged and moved so deeply that I would write about it in this fashion nearly 4 years later.
I myself have no doubt been that tourist many-a-time. Making ridiculous comments at a place where a nearby traveller may have spent their life dreaming of visiting.
Essentially, the problem with a religious experience is that it has to deal with the rigours and inconveniences of daily life and other people who may not share that mindset.
The world would be a better place if all could realise that such experience was possible, and that anyone is able to reach their own moment of peace, at any moment, in any location.
All people deserve the freedom to reach for happiness and understanding.