It’s a fairly difficult and very claustrophobic climb to the top of the inside of the Great Pyramid. I had to leave my camera with the guard at the entrance but there’s not really much to photograph anyway. A narrow passageway through stone with some added steps and handrails to make the climbing easier. It’s not what you see inside the Great Pyramid that matters. It’s what you feel.
Two people are exiting the top chamber just as I arrive. We squeeze past each other in the passage and I find myself in a magical place. It’s just a stone room with no windows about fifteen feet wide and 25 feet long. But it’s a stone room inside the very top of the Great Pyramid. It has inappropriate electric lights but without them it would be pitch black. Lucky for me, there are only three other people inside. A Spanish couple who are milling around the stone box (tomb?) at the far end and an older Asian woman (Korean?) who is sitting cross-legged on the floor with her eyes closed and hands folded as if she is deep in prayer.
I walk around the room for a few minutes examining the stonework. Massive blocks perfectly shaped to fit tightly together. As I run my fingers over the stone, I start to hear a sound…a beautiful sound. It sounds like angels singing. It’s the Asian woman and she seems to be singing a prayer. The acoustics of the chamber make it seem like a whole chorus of sweet melodic voices. I feel a stirring in my soul. That warm fuzzy energy that I associate with the concept of God. I sit down on the stone floor, cross my legs like a Buddha, close my eyes, and listen…
So, here I am, sitting on top of the Great Pyramid, bathing in the glow of the universe. The wave washes over me. I feel peace. I feel love. I feel joy. It all makes sense. It really does. Paradise is possible if we choose to make it so. The woman’s voice is a message. It’s a language I don’t understand but the meaning is clear. It’s the song of universal harmony.
That’s when I hear a rumble in the passageway. A tour group has arrived. They come charging into the chamber laughing and joking and taking illegal photos with their cellphones. The moment is lost. The miracle is gone. But that’s okay. I did have my moment.
I’m mentally prepared for hassle when I leave my hostel in the morning and head towards the Great Pyramids. The greater the wonder, the greater the hassle and the Pyramids are perhaps the greatest wonder of them all. The metro is crowded but fairly easy to navigate. It’s only a 20 minute ride from downtown Cairo to the suburb of Giza. Shortly after I leave the subway, the game begins. An overly enthusiastic taxi driver insists that he will be the one to take me to the pyramids. He has friends there who can show me how to see the Pyramids “as a traveler rather than a tourist.” They have camels to take me on the journey of a lifetime all around the Pyramids. “No thanks,” I say, and head towards the minibuses.
There’s about ten different minibuses taking locals to various places around Giza. A guy uses his hands to form a pyramid shape and points at the minibus I need. It’s only two pounds (40 cents). I squeeze into the back seat and the minibus takes off. I’m the only foreigner on board and the minibus stops many times letting people off and taking on new passengers. After a while, there are only a few people left in the vehicle and we stop at a corner from where its possible to see the pyramid. There are three guys on the corner and they try to convince me to get off the minibus. Indeed, they practically drag me from my seat as they flash pictures of the pyramid and claim to be guides. But the driver indicates I should stay on the bus so I do. We circumnavigate a big block and I’m dropped off at the bottom of a road that leads up to the entrance.
The way up the hill is a minor hassle. Seven or eight people offer me a camel ride around the pyramids for 30 pounds. But I’ve ridden camels several times before and I don’t particularly like it. I’d rather walk at my own pace and take photos at my leisure. They are very friendly with their offers but also overbearing. I shrug them off and go to the ticket window.
It costs 60 pounds for a ticket into the pyramids in general and another 50 for a special ticket to climb inside the Great Pyramid. Just inside the gate, I’m approached by a guy with a badge claiming to be an Egyptologist and he offers to be my guide. I will pay after, he tells me, “only if I like.” But I don’t want a guide so I brush him off. After that, four or five camel drivers and horse riders come up and offer me a journey around the pyramids for 30 pounds. But I want to walk so I say no. I do understand problem. Before the revolution, the pyramids received over a thousand visitors a day. Nowadays, they are lucky to get a hundred. Those same camel drivers and guides and scoundrels who served thousands now have to fight over the few visitors who still come. The competition is fierce. I feel like a fresh hunk of meat in a school of piranha. I was prepared for hassle, but this is epic hassle.
I find the entrance to the Great Pyramid, give my ticket and camera to the guard and go inside. My timing is good. It’s late morning. The early tour groups have come and gone and the afternoon groups haven’t arrived yet. I have this amazing place almost to myself. After the onslaught of attention outside, the aloneness is particularly special. I make my way to the top where I have a semi-mystical experience listening to an older Asian woman sing. I hesitate to describe such things because they are by there very nature indescribable. But is possible to connect with the universal energy and when it does happen, it’s pretty gosh darn wonderful. Even if that connection only lasts a few moments.
When I exit the pyramids, the hassle continues and the sun is very hot. First there’s the guard who offers to take my photo with the pyramid behind me. Of course he wants baksheesh. Then there’s more camel drivers and postcard sellers. I do give them small amounts. Usually for photos of them posing with their camels or me posing with their camels or with my finger on top of a distant pyramid. Perhaps my giving small amounts encourages them. They are absolutely relentless with their offers of service. One guy follows me for half an hour. As I walk through the sand between pyramids he rides along next to me talking, insisting, begging. It’s really rather unfortunate that people have to stoop to such levels because the business of tourism they relied upon has collapsed. I finally give the guy ten pounds just so he will leave me alone. It’s the last of my small change.
To be quite honest, I’m not having a particularly fantastic time. The pyramids are spectacular and all but the sun is too high in the sky. The light isn’t good for photography and the rays beat down on my face. l’m thirsty and I’m hungry. I thought for sure they’d have a food stand or restaurant of some type inside the grounds but they don’t. If I want to satisfy my nutritional needs, I’m going to have to leave.
Finally, I find a place to escape the camel drivers. There’s a fallen down rock pile of an ancient building in front of one of the pyramids. It’s not spectacular but there is a small maze of corridors to get lost in. There’s shade there, and no other people…except one.
The young Egyptian man comes out of nowhere and starts following me around. He starts explaining the meaning and significance of the fallen down rock piles. I stop him with a wave of the hand.
“Listen,” I say. “I have no more money. I gave it all to the camel drivers. Understand? No baksheesh. I don’t need a guide. I want to walk around alone.”
“No problem friend,” he says, “I need no baksheesh. You are guest and you are welcome. I only wish to help. Would you like a cigarette?”
“No thanks,” I say, “I don’t smoke cigarettes.” I turn and start walking away.
“Okay,” he says, “but how about hashish? Joint? I have some.”
And so I turn around to chat. This is much more my kind of harassment. Nevertheless, I only have big bills, I don’t want to buy, and I really need to go eat and drink something. “I’d love to,” I say and shake his hand. “But not now. I have no money. I will go outside and come back in an hour. Will you be here?”
“Yes,” he says, “my name Mohammed, and I am always here if you need me,”
I head towards the exit gate. Along the way, I stop at the Sphinx to take some photos. But the sunlight is too bright and there are too many calls for baksheesh. I check with the guard to make sure I can get back in on the same ticket. I can. A great wave of relief washes over me when I’m finally outside. Maybe I don’t want to go back. I’ll eat something and think about it. I get ripped off at the food stand. I ask about the price of the sandwiches beforehand but then he way overcharges me for water and coffee. It’s not much money really but it’s still annoying. Oh well, at least I got my hundred bill note changed. After my frustrating morning, I almost call it a day and go back to my room. Do I really want to put up with more? But my earlier photos were shitty and I want the afternoon light. Besides, there’s always Mohammed. So I do go back.
How incredibly awesome is the afternoon? It is a mind boggling and enchanting experience. Yeah, I know, you probably think its the cannabis. And that is part of it. But honestly, the weed is just one variable of many that contribute to the sensory extravaganza. First of all, my hunger and thirst are satisfied and I carry a full water bottle. This makes a big difference. Secondly, the harassment is significantly reduced. Maybe they recognize me from before as a cheapskate or maybe they are just tired. Don’t get me wrong. The hassle doesn’t stop. It just lets up to a manageable level. Then, of course, I go see Mohammed. I don’t buy any off him because I don’t like to carry it on my person in foreign countries. But I give him 20 pounds for a couple of puffs off his joint. It is perhaps, the best three dollars I spend all day.
Sunshine on the pyramids makes me happy. Sunshine on the pyramids, makes me glow. I take lots of photos. But pixels can’t capture it and words can’t describe it. The light, the shadow, the color, the energy. This place, it seems, was built by gods. Geometrically supernatural and visually overwhelming. Snap, crackle, pop. The glory of the universe is manifest in a great big pile of stones.
In the very late afternoon, I walk to a distant viewpoint sand dune and get some great shots of the pyramids all in a row glowing with the setting sun. As I meander back towards the entrance gate soaking up the unreal atmosphere, I pass by the second biggest pyramid. That’s when I meet another Mohammed.
“Hey my friend. Welcome to Egypt. You want to climb the pyramid?” He’s a middle aged man (40s or 50s) and he’s dressed in a Muslim jellaba with a full head wrap.
“I thought it was against the rules to climb the pyramid,” I say.
“Rules are made to be broken,” he says, “I’m the guard here. My name Mohammed. If you want to climb the pyramid, you can.”
“How much is it going to cost me?”
“Money not important friend. Pay what you want. This is opportunity. Chance of a lifetime. Come on, go ahead.”
And so I do. I give my camera to Mohammed so he can capture my ascent. I climb up the back side, away from the crowds so no one can see me. I don’t go all the way to the top…only about two thirds. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty incredible sensation. Here I am, breaking the rules, sitting on top of the Great Pyramid. How good is my life?
When I climb back down and get my camera back, Mohammed wants his baksheesh. I’m feeling generous so I give him 20 pounds. But of course that’s not enough.
“20 is nothing man. You had chance of a lifetime. I have family to feed. Very few tourists now. Very hard times. Give me more.”
“I’m sorry about the lack of tourists,” I say, “but I am only one person and I have only so much to give.”
“Okay then,” he says, “don’t give me more money. But when you go back to your country, you give your people my message.”
“Oh yeah,” I say, “what message is that?”
“Egypt is good place and Muslims here are good people. Don’t believe what they tell you on your television. Muslims are not terrorists. We have Muslim president now. You will see he is good man. He is one of us. You can travel all over Egypt and Muslims will welcome you everywhere you go. They will treat you as a guest. So tell your friends. Tell everyone you know. Go to Egypt. They will welcome you there.”
I say goodbye to Mohammed and head towards the exit. The sunset is one for the record books. The Sphynx and Pyramids sparkle like diamonds ablaze with cosmic glow. I walk among them and feel their supernatural power. The pyramids have given me something special on this day. But it’s probably going to take a while before I understand what that special something is.