Tales from the Mena House
The Discovery of the Cheops' Solar Boat
By Jimmy Dunn
The following story is from the Mena House Oberoi book written by Nina Nelson and relates the story told to her by Kamal el Mallakh who discovered Cheops' Solar Boat. Kaamal el Mallakh was born in Assuit, Egypt on October 26, 1918. He was a dedicated scholar of Egyptology and culture and remained a bachelor until his death in October of 1987.
The most fascinating visit I have had at the pyramids was when Kamal el Mallakh took me to see the solar boat he discovered in 1954. What Cheops mighty pyramid was to do for the pharaoh's body, the boat was to do for his Ka, or soul.
The boat is most beautiful. Stretching almost 150 feet in length, some of the boat's timbers are made from whole cedars of Lebanon. The prow sweeps upward, with a papyrus end, while the bow curves inward and is tipped with a magnificently carved papyrus blossom. There are hand carved oars and ropes that might have been made today. The boat's state of preservation is remarkable. It must be the most fantastic find since Tutankhamen's tomb.
The story of the solar boat's discovery is scarcely less fascinating than the find itself.
In April 1950, close by the side of the Great Pyramid that faces the Sphinx, a road was being made for the convenience of tourists. Kamal kept an eye on the digging. His excitement was great when his men dug down to limestone powder, not the kind that capped Chephren's pyramid close by, but of the type found in the Makattam Hills on the other side of Cairo. As the men continued to dig they came upon pink cement which in turn revealed great slabs. The men uncovered either a large flat base or a great roof. Kamal thought the latter. But it was difficult to be sure and often, great finds seem on the brink and end in disappointment. Perhaps the slabs formed part of the foundation of Cheop's Pyramid. Kamal had been working on the Giza site for fourteen years and it was the first time he felt Cheops' Solar Boat might be uncovered. But boat pits by the lesser pyramids had yielded nothing, and even if it was a boat it might have been robbed in antiquity. Kamal felt he would be satisfied if only some vestiges of a Solar Boat were found. All boat pits could not be empty. But of one thing he was certain. He could not rest until he knew the answer.
Together with a team of men he cleared an area large enough to see that the great slabs might indeed form a roof. He then began to scrape down between two blocks that seemed less sturdy than the others. He made a deep chink between the two. On May 26th, 1954, he began digging in earnest. He kept on until the hole was large enough for him to be lowered into it head first. He was armed with cutting and probing instruments and continued scraping.
He paused for a time and glanced up along his body to the sky above and could see a black shadow lying along the apex of Cheops' Pyramid. Yet he could see no clouds. The sky was the color of lapis lazuli. He felt it was a momentous occasion, and for this reason his heart beat against his rib cage.
He breathed deeply, closed his eyes to accustom them to the gloom of his digging and then opened them slowly. With a steady hand he began to cut again. He worked quickly as the casing gave way and crumbled. He made the hole deep enough to twist his body in a different position downward and worked only a few inches away from his head. He kept on cutting and cutting. Time meant nothing. He was not conscious of being tired, or of lying in a perpendicular position. He probed. He cut. Suddenly and miraculously his hands were through into nothingness. He lay as if in a trance. He closed his eyes. An almost imperceptible smell crept into his nostrils. He could not define what it was. It was almost sweet. It could not be incense. Or was it? Was it perhaps the very smell of history? Then he knew. It was cedar wood! His eyes were still unopened. He drew a deep breath and determined that it was indeed cedar wood. He felt a sense of fulfillment such as he had never known before. Happiness tingled through him. His eyes were still closed. He whispered a prayer of thanks to God. His questioning mind began to function again. If indeed he smelt cedar wood from a Solar Boat below it did not mean that the white ant had not been busy. Perhaps the precious wood had been eaten through by hordes of white ants.
He shouted up to his men to hand him his mirror. It was a small, shaving variety. He reached up with one arm as far as he could and the mirror was lowered to him. He brought his hand down gently and gradually twisted into a new position so that he could plunge his arm down as far as possible in the aperture. The smell of cedar wood was now unmistakable but he could see nothing. He pushed his head against the jagged stonework and tried to turn his body so that the sunlight would slant down his back into the opening. He rocked his hand to and fro. Suddenly he caught sunrays on the mirror. He manipulated it slowly so that the light reflected downward. He saw something - something silver and bright. What could it be?
He carefully moved the mirror once more and then he suddenly saw the perfect reflection of the plate tip of an oar. His hand began to shake. He felt a great strength surge through his whole body.
"It is the boat!" he shouted. "It is the boat!"
Willing, trembling hands pulled him upward. His men were beside themselves with joy. "Congratulations, congratulations," they cried, tears streaming down their smiling faces.
Kamal held his hand to his forehead. It was shaking and his forehead felt hot and sticky. He looked at his palm. It was covered in blood. "Your head! Your poor head," said one man holding a handkerchief solicitously. Kamal had shoved his head so far into the stone he had not only cut his forehead but pushed into the bone!
As Kamal el Mallakh finished telling me the tale of how he had found Cheops' Solar Boat in its air-tight pit, I glanced at his forehead. An indented white mark showed up against his tanned skin. "I suppose one might call it an honorable scar," he smiled. "Let us go back to Mena House and have tea!"