Friday the 11th of January 2002 was an unusually cold day. Most residents of Cairo took a battering of a cold snap which saw the rare event of hail storms and flooding. The streets were empty, and the taxi driver took only 45 minutes from Heliopolis to the ticket office on the Giza plateau. The driver was very pleased with his first fare of the day (LE 25 / $ 5.5) that he decided to wait and take us back some 90 minutes later. Friday is the weekend in Cairo, and businesses and schools take the day off.
It was our last day in Cairo before flying back to London. I had promised my son, Hadleigh, that on this trip we are going to go inside the Great Pyramid. But 10 days earlier, there was a power cut in the area, so we ended up going into some nearby tombs and riding horses.
So, Friday the 11th was my last chance to fulfil the promise. I was not prepared for any excuses this time round. The first surprise came when the official at the ticket office said calmly that all the tickets had sold out for the day. I could not believe it. There was hardly any visitors around. Usually there would be a stream of people going into the pyramid on one side and coming out of the other; this day there were none. There was obviously a mistake.
Ten minutes and a long argument later, the matter got complicated. I insisted that I am not going away, no matter what, without two tickets to get inside the Pyramid on that day. I explained that I was leaving at dawn the following day. I was offered tickets to the second pyramid, but that was not good enough.
Eventually I got my two tickets and left a large tip.
Four or five officials were standing at the entrance of the pyramid, but still no one else going in or coming out. Another argument followed. I had a small camera that needed its own ticket. I offered to leave the camera outside rather than go back to the ticket office. A minute later we were inside the pyramid-alone.
The climb to the main burial chamber at the centre of the Great Pyramid was fairly steep, along a plank of wood and a corridor of one meter square. The corridor went on for some 20 meters, and was followed by another climb along two corridors at a more comfortable head-height. Then came the final stretch of another 20 meters at a comfortable height.
By the end of the climb we were out of breath with aching knees and painful leg muscles. But the excitement of going into the final room was worth every step. On the way, we saw another intersecting passage (blocked by an iron gate) which goes all the day down to below the base of the pyramid. There are no inscription of any kind inside the pyramid. One surprise was how hot the stones were to the touch of the hand despite the freezing weather outside.
But the biggest surprise of all awaited us at the central burial chamber.
We entered the room very quietly thinking we were alone, only to find a flicker of three candles on the floor. Some 20 to 25 people, all dressed in white were siting in a semi-circle, and some kind of ritual was in progress.
I did not know what to do, and felt like an intruder. I was soon told so, in a very clear American accent..
-"Excuse me", said the chief priestess at the head of the circle, "We paid a lot of money and endured a lot of hardship to be here today.. and we would appreciate it if we are left alone!".
- "I understand", I said quickly, still bewildered, "Just let us get our breath back from the long climb, and we will be on our way".
Another participant said quietly "You see it is not a question of you talking (which I did not) but just your mere presence.. we have to be alone". I nodded and after having a good look around, my son told me it is time to go.
And so it was: an Egyptian was kicked out of the pyramid by non-Egyptians taking over the site for a day. I did not feel bad about the experience, at all. In fact I felt privileged to have been there at the right time. I would have done anything to attend the ceremony with them and pay my respects to the great spirit of the ancient Egyptians. I felt nearer to their souls than anybody present in the room on that day.
That explained everything: the eerie silence in the pyramid, the vanishing tickets, the lack of visitors and possibly the hot stones.
Is there a significance of the date (11/01/02 or 01/11/02)? Is that ceremony performed annually, monthly, every10 years, or even once a century? Who are those people and what purpose was the ceremony? Is any of them, who may be reading this, allowed to comment or explain? Does anybody else know, or can shed a light of understanding on all this?
These are the questions for which I have no answers, but even if the event remains a mystery, I still feel privileged to have been there that Friday at mid-day.
We experienced a lot of wonderful sights in Cairo, Luxor, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan, but none was as magical or alive as this experience on our last day. It made the whole trip to Egypt worthwhile.
1. The writer is an Egyptian journalist who was on holiday for 17 days. He, along with his son and the many tourists he met, felt absolutely secure during the visit and calls for tourists to return to Egypt and enjoy its safety and hospitality.