As the 19th century progressed, new inventions like the steamship, the locomotive, and the telegraph bound the world ever closer together. While hardly the most advanced country in the world, Egypt was no exception to this general trend. Already by the 1860s, letters from Egypt, once such an unimaginably exotic land, could reach London in less than a week, and vice versa; the trip from Alexandria to Cairo, in the course of which Napoleon’s army had starved and thirsted not terribly many decades before, was now a matter of a few idle hours in a comfortable railway car. Thanks to these enormous changes, what had once been a dribble of visitors to the Giza Plateau became a steady stream. Carriages were now available for hire at every hotel in Cairo to whisk the foreigners there and back again, and the plateau was filled to bursting on many days with the day trippers’ babble of languages, alongside the shouts of the natives peddling camel rides, guided tours, and ancient artifacts of dubious authenticity. The age of the tourist had come to the Giza Plateau.

These newly minted Egyptian explorers weren’t like the rough-and-tumble adventurers of old; they craved security and predictability. A tourist industry arose in Egypt proper to cater to these needs, as did the new publishing species of the leisure traveler’s guidebook outside of the country. In 1867, a noted British Egyptologist named John Gardner Wilkinson took time out from his scholarly pursuits to write a more lucrative Handbook for Travellers in Egypt, the forerunner to the ubiquitous Lonely Planet and Fodor’s guides of today. Through its paragraphs of practical advice and its listings of hotels and railroad timetables, it conveys a vivid portrait of Egyptian tourism at the height of the Victorian Age.

That said, much of the book will ring true to any modern Giza tourist: many of his fellow travelers, writes Wilkinson, “justly complain of the torment of the people of the village [below the plateau], who collect about them like a swarm of flies, forcing their troublesome services upon them to their great discomfort and inconvenience.” But other details are more jarring, speaking to what remained a dismayingly casual attitude toward the treasures of the past during this time when archaeology was in its relative infancy, and the voices pleading for preservation rather than exploitation were still few and far between.

The first thing the traveller generally does, on arriving at the pyramids, is to ascend that of Cheops [Khufu]. The ascent is by no means difficult, though fatiguing to some unaccustomed to climbing, from the height of the stones, while others ascend with the greatest of ease; and I have known one, an officer of the Cyclops, [to] reach the top in 8 min. Ladies, who are often dragged up, rather than assisted by the Arabs, will find a great advantage in having a couple of steps, or a foot-stool, to be carried by the Arabs, and put down where the stones are high; and this would not be less useful in descending than in going up the pyramid.

For many decades to come, having tea atop the Pyramid of Khufu — and, too often, carving one’s name somewhere upon that lofty perch before departing — would remain an essential part of any grand tour of Egypt.

The independent travelers of an intellectual bent to whom Wilkinson catered — his book mixed its hotel recommendations with lengthy discussions of ancient Egyptian history — were soon joined by another breed: the package-tour traveler. By the early 1870s, Thomas Cook & Son of London, a former cabinet maker that had morphed into the first great purveyor of package tours to the growing British middle class, had started shepherding the unwashed masses through the wonders of Egypt.

Indeed, Egyptian tourism was now becoming a decidedly middlebrow affair. Amelia Edwards, a determinedly independent Victorian lady of considerable accomplishment — she would later serve as the model for the sleuth Amelia Peabody in Elizabeth Peters’s long-running and much-loved series of Egyptian mystery novels — visited Egypt for the first time in 1873, and promptly wrote a book of her own about the experience. Her description of the scene in the dining room of Shepheard’s, the largest and most popular of a growing number of Cairo hotels catering to foreign travelers, speaks to the cross-cultural melting pot that Egyptian tourism had become.

So composite and incongruous is this body, young and old, well-dressed and ill-dressed, learned and unlearned, that the new-comer’s first impulse is to inquire from what motives so many persons of dissimilar tastes and training can be led to embark upon an expedition which is, to say the least of it, very tedious, very costly, and of an altogether exceptional interest.

His curiosity, however, is soon gratified. Before two days are over, he knows everybody’s name and everybody’s business; distinguishes at first sight between a Cook’s tourist and an independent traveller; and has discovered that nine-tenths of those whom he is likely to meet are English and American. The rest will be mostly German, with a sprinkling of Belgian and French. So far en bloc; but the details are more heterogeneous still. Here are invalids in search of health; artists in search of subjects; sportsmen keen upon crocodiles; statesmen out for a holiday; special correspondents alert for gossip; collectors on the scene of papyri and mummies; men of science with only scientific ends in view; and the usual surplus of idlers who travel for the mere love of travel, or the satisfaction of a purposeless curiosity.

The American writer Mark Twain described a visit to the Giza Plateau in serio-comic fashion in his very popular travelogue The Innocents Abroad, which sold more copies than any of his novels during his lifetime. This illustration shows a rather beleaguered-looking tourist — perhaps Twain himself? — being hoisted to the top of the Pyramid of Khufu by main force by his Egyptian helpers. Accounts of how difficult the ascent actually was differ markedly — depending to a large extent, no doubt, on the physical fitness of the correspondent doing the reporting. (Public Domain)
Another scene from Twain’s travelogue shows a souvenir seeker who has climbed up to the face of the Sphinx via a ladder and is trying to chip away a piece to take home with him: “But the great image contemplated the dead ages as calmly as ever, unconscious of the small insect that was fretting at its jaw. Egyptian granite that has defied the storms and earthquakes of all time has nothing to fear from the tack-hammers of ignorant excursionists — highwaymen like this specimen. He failed in his enterprise. We sent a sheik to arrest him if he had the authority, or to warn him, if he had not, that by the laws of Egypt the crime he was attempting to commit was punishable with imprisonment or the bastinado.” (Public Domain)

Throughout the 1900s, that century of horrors and miracles, travelers continued to arrive upon the Giza Plateau from lands far away. There they gawked, they wondered, and sometimes they walked away changed by the experience, even as another era of history, impossibly remote from that of the pharaohs, continued to unfold around them in real time. Egypt became a battleground of two world wars during the first half of the century, then finally escaped the shadow of colonialism and Muhammad Ali’s despotic dynasty to become an independent republic in the 1950s. In the 1960s, it saw the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which ended the annual inundation of the Nile, during which it had always overflowed its banks and swelled to many times its normal width. But henceforward the Nile would be just another river much like any other; a rhythm which had governed Egyptian life since long before the time of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure came to an end.

And through it all, the tourists continued to stream in and then out again. Even the specter of Middle Eastern terrorism at the dawn of the new millennium could only temporarily slacken the stream of foreign visitors, never stem it entirely. Ditto the chaos of an Arab Spring and a revolution which went sadly wrong in 2011. Today, even as you read these words, tourists in larger or smaller numbers are gazing upon the pyramids. The world has changed greatly since Amelia Edwards visited the Giza Plateau in 1873, but not so much that we can’t still recognize the archetypal stuff of the Egyptian tourists of today in her descriptions. The package-tour travelers are now herded in and out of air-conditioned buses, the independent travelers can now be seen laboring up the road bent under backpacks that seem bigger than they are, but their essences remain the same.

A group of tourists pose for the camera with their guides on the Giza Plateau, circa 1912. (Public Domain)
The author and his wife do the same thing in 2018. The more things change… (Dorte Lassen)

At the same time, though, the place which the Giza Plateau has continued  to fill in popular culture is much larger than of a mere tourist destination. Countless souls who have never experienced the epiphany of actually gazing upon the pyramids have nevertheless felt some inkling of their mystery and grandeur from afar. Certainly the spirit of Egyptian Kitsch which was first inculcated by Vivant Denon remains alive and well. For proof, one need only look to that epicenter of all things kitsch, Las Vegas. The Luxor Hotel there is shaped like a pyramid, and sports a credible replica of the Sphinx — albeit in better repair than the original — keeping watch outside. (These things do ignore the fact that there are no pyramids nor giant sphinxes in the real Luxor, but then Las Vegas has never been overly concerned with such petty historical details.)

The spirit of Egyptian Kitsch inculcated by Vivant Denon has never really gone away. The Sphinx and a pyramid watch over the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)

Yet by no means does Las Vegas have a monopoly on Egyptian Kitsch. You’ll find modern-day pyramids worked in metal and glass all over if you look for them — such as the one in Memphis, Tennessee, a city which shares a name with the ancient Egyptian capital. It has boasted a “Memphis Pyramid” since 1991; formerly a sports arena, the building now houses what has to be the world’s most elaborate sporting-goods store. And of course Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Middle East, just has to have a pyramid of its own as well. Even the venerable Louvre Museum in Paris is now crowned by a pyramid, a modern architect’s invitation to the many more authentic splendors of ancient Egypt that live within.

While the architects continue to spin their fantasies in the image of Giza, the sub-genre of publishing known as alternative Egyptology continues to spin fantasies of another stripe. Over the course of the 20th century, outlandish theories about the Giza Plateau became key components of a series of ever more ambitious re-framings of all of human history. At first glance, these fantasies might seem to depart from the model of Piazzi Smyth in the sense that they’re generally — although by no means always — untethered to traditional religious beliefs. In practice, though, they tend over time to take on the trappings of religions — or cults — even if they begin under the guise of serious historical inquiries. Their adherents share with religious fundamentalists a determination to believe at any cost, which necessarily entails the outright dismissal of all evidence to the contrary, often in the most angry, condemnatory terms. Serious historians as well often engage in bitter disputes among themselves, but they tend to argue about interpretations and motivations behind established historical events which they all recognize to be true in the broad strokes. Those who practice alternative history as their religion, on the other hand, prefer to recast the events themselves into a narrative more to their liking.

The phenomenon is most vividly demonstrated by the rash of “UFO religions” that have arisen so organically from the notion of the pyramids and other ancient monuments as way stations for ancient astronauts, an idea that was first popularized by the Swiss Erich von Däniken in his breezy 1968 bestseller Chariots of the Gods. The most famous example of the species is the Heaven’s Gate cult of San Diego, 39 of whose members committed mass suicide in 1997 in an effort to commune spiritually with an alien spacecraft which they believed was passing near the earth. The existence of bizarre cults like these is often blamed upon the relative decline of more traditional religious belief and the firm, comforting answers it once offered. At bottom, in other words, the modern pyramid cults perhaps emerge from the same psychological wellspring as the theories of Smyth: a profound discomfort with the spirit of skepticism and rationalism that has come to dominate mainstream intellectual discourse in the modern world. What with their undeniable aura of other-worldliness, the Pyramids of Giza are irresistible canvases for this mystic impulse to paint upon.

The most prominent of the alternative Egpytologists of today — the natural heir to Erich von Däniken — is undoubtedly the Briton Graham Hancock. After penning a number of respectable travelogues and social investigations during the 1980s to mixed success, he discovered his real calling when he wrote The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant in 1992. Capitalizing on the prominent part played by the artifact in question in the blockbuster film Raiders of the Lost Ark, this latest investigation, which could be most charitably described as more “speculative” than anything Hancock had previously written, became his first bestseller. Thus encouraged, he published the true blueprint for the rest of his career in 1995. In Fingerprints of the Gods, he posited that a civilization more technologically and spiritually advanced than our own had once existed on Earth circa 15,000 to 10,000 BC, building many of the monuments which our historians and archaeologists have attributed to the ancients of later millennia. He and Robert Bauval co-authored a followup the next year; entitled The Message of the Sphinx: A Quest for the Hidden Legacy of Mankind, it much more exhaustively incorporated the Giza Plateau into the new scheme of history. And from that point on, the books just kept coming. Hancock today sits at the center of a cottage industry of fellow travelers which has by most accounts made him a very rich man indeed.

There’s surprisingly little to separate Piazzi Smyth’s Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid from Fingerprints of the Gods or The Message of the Sphinx. Both are written to be highly accessible to the average readers of their day; both present their findings in the form of a “quest” narrative, taking the reader on an exciting adventure unlike any to be found in some musty old book of traditional archaeology; both make plenty of space for preemptive strikes against the allegedly close-minded and hidebound historians and archaeologists who would dispute their theories. In the wake of their books’ inevitable rejection by just such parties, both Smyth and Hancock became more and more strident in their denunciation of the intellectual powers that were. Even as they did so, both were egged on by their growing cult of followers to advance ever more fantastic theories ripe for further criticism, a self-perpetuating downward spiral of absurdity with no apparent bottom. And yet both men unquestionably benefited from a certain scholarly demeanor of their own, enhanced in the case of Smyth by his real achievements as an astronomer and in that of Hancock by his background in respectable journalism.

But most of all, both men were or are, whether consciously or unconsciously, masterful if profoundly disingenuous rhetoricians, adept at shifting the burden of proof from their own shoulders to those of their critics. Faced with the exhausting and unrewarding task of disproving the assertion that the Giza Plateau was constructed as a scale model of the constellation of Orion circa 10,000 BC, along with a hundred similar claims that tend to multiply faster than they can possibly be swatted down, most modern academic Epyptologists simply throw up their hands and talk about something else — and this, of course, allows Hancock and company to declare another victory over the establishment forces, which have been struck dumb by the essential truthiness of their theories.

Yet Graham Hancock is by no means the sum total of the alternative Egyptology of today. The field is as rife with internecine disputes as any other religion. Many of the theories on offer make Hancock seem downright sober-minded. As of this writing, a popular vogue posits the Pyramid of Khufu to be an ancient nuclear reactor; the theory comes complete with diagrams showing how the pyramid’s established internal passages and chambers match up with the needs of such a device. (The question of why anyone would have chosen to build a nuclear reactor out of stone remains unanswered. Ditto the larger question, posed by the theories of Hancock as well as many others, of why an ancient civilization as advanced as is posited left behind no worked steel or other advanced metals whatsoever, only monuments in stone.)

Whether nuclear reactors enter the picture or not, ancient visitors from outer space have remained a staple of alternative Egyptology. Indeed, the connection between the Giza Plateau and little gray men from outer space has become so firm that pop culture has come to take it for granted. Take, for example, the long-running Stargate franchise of films and television shows, whose multiple convoluted plot lines all lead back to the discovery of the titular “stargate” — a dimensional portal of alien origin — on the Giza Plateau. One might happily dismiss the whole thing as the mere escapist entertainment it is if a disturbing number of people didn’t believe that the fantastical version of ancient Egyptian history which it slowly reveals is at least potentially true.

Still, we can take comfort, if it’s comfort we seek, in the knowledge that the plateau has always been a locus of fantasy. The centuries to come will doubtless have their own versions of Graham Hancock and Stargate, just as those that have passed had Piazzi Smyth, Giovanni Caviglia, Athanasius Kircher, and Hermes Trismegistus. Certainly far fewer tourists of the past, present, or future would visit the Giza Plateau without such cultivators of dreams to inspire them. The Egyptian tourist industry, one might say, needs the fabulists.

If pyramidal tourism and myth can be said to live in a symbiotic relationship with one another, respectable archaeology can be added to the same ecosystem. William Flinders Petrie was perhaps the first but by no means the last archaeologist to curse the hordes of tourists and mystics interfering with his work on the Giza Plateau. Still, the fact remains that even in his time tourism had come to pay the bills at Egypt’s Department of Antiquities. For example, it was largely for the tourists’ benefit that Gaston Maspero, the successor to August Mariette in the post of Director of Antiquities, scraped together the funds in 1886 to completely clear the front of the Sphinx from the sand for the third time in the century and to put the necessary retaining walls in place to ensure it stayed unburied. Thanks to the tourism industry, things which had once been seen only briefly by Giovanni Caviglia and Karl Richard Lepsius were now accessible to anyone who wished to study them.

The French stranglehold over Egyptian archaeology gradually gave way to a new, truly border-less scholarly community, where nationalities became less important than ideas. The new spirit was cemented one day in 1902, when teams of archaeologists from several nations met at the luxurious Mena House Hotel just to the north of the Giza Plateau. Home of Egypt’s first man-made swimming pool, the hotel ironically owed its existence to the tourist boom the archaeologists still spent so much time cursing. In these comfortable surroundings, the diggers apportioned the plateau among themselves, agreeing to coordinate their efforts and share all of their findings.

Over the decades that followed, much careful work was done on the Giza Plateau. While the archaeologists of the 20th century would never completely realize Petrie’s fondest wish of “shooting all the sand and stuff off the pyramid hill into the plain below,” they did finally manage to fully free the three great pyramids, the Sphinx, and much else on the plateau from the sand and debris that had hidden so many of their secrets from earlier explorers, measurers, and diggers. In the process, they made at least a few more major discoveries worthy of mainstream newspaper headlines.

In 1925, the American archaeologist George Reisner stumbled upon a largely intact, unplundered tomb near the Pyramid of Khufu. Although the sarcophagus inside was mysteriously empty, a canopic chest containing the preserved viscera of a woman did remain. Otherwise, the tomb was filled with opulent and evocative objects that had apparently once been owned by the woman it honored: a golden bed and canopy, two beautifully carved armchairs, a gold-plated chest for storing makeup and ointments, silver bracelets inlaid with gems. Reisner concluded that the tomb was that of Queen Hetepheres I, the mother of Khufu, its construction contemporaneous with the latter’s pyramid.

An armchair discovered in the tomb of Queen Hetepheres. (Jon Bodsworth)

Between 1925 and 1936, a Frenchman named Émile Baraize excavated extensively around and some distance in front of the Sphinx. In the latter location, he found yet another grand temple complex to join the one that had been uncovered by Mariette near the Sphinx late in the previous century. This latest find became known as simply the Temple of the Sphinx (as distinct from Khafre’s Valley Temple, which lies just to the south of it). It provided more evidence linking the Sphinx and its surroundings to the pharaoh Khafre; archaeologists soon came to believe that the entire site was indisputably contemporaneous with the Pyramid of Khafre.

For this reason and others, the Temple of the Sphinx was a hugely important discovery. Yet its excavation was also bittersweet, an object lesson in the trade-offs that come with digging on a palimpsest of history like the Giza Plateau. For Baraize’s temple, the original front porch of the Sphinx, was found below the equally grand processionary way dating from the much later era of Roman Egypt; the latter had been literally built on top of the former, which, by the time the Romans set to work some 2500 years after its construction, must already have been buried by the desert sand. For 20th-century archaeologists, to recover the one meant to destroy the other. Today all that remains of the Sphinx’s Roman-era accoutrements are the sketches and descriptions of those who got a chance to see it long ago. Henry Salt’s notes remain by far the best accounting of an architectural wonder in its own right that survived for almost 2000 years, only to be torn up and thrown aside by people looking for the wonders of a different, earlier past.

Baraize’s prioritization of one past over another is reasonable on the face of it; the culture of ancient Rome was and is much better understood than that of Old Kingdom Egypt, which makes artifacts of the latter much more precious to archaeologists. Still, the loss stings — particularly given that, in his frenzy to get at what lay below, Baraize gave nary a thought to the preservation in any form of what lay above. The processionary way has simply been lost, scattered who knows where. Few who visit the Giza Plateau today — few perhaps even of the archaeologists who excavate there — are aware that any of it ever existed.

But thankfully, much more was recovered than lost on the Giza Plateau over the course of the 20th century. On May 26, 1954, a group of workmen was clearing a path to the south of the Pyramid of Khufu when their shovels struck a large block of cut limestone where no ancient ruins had heretofore been known to exist. Kamal El-Mallakh, the director of public works on the plateau, had his workers drill a careful hole through the block. Their drill bit penetrated a hollow space beneath, out of which wafted the smell of incense and wood.

Upon being carefully pried open, the space proved to contain an extraordinary treasure: a boat suitable for a pharaoh, 140 feet (42 meters) in length and 40 tons in weight, lying neatly disassembled where the people who had built the Pyramid of Khufu had placed it almost 4500 years before. Opinions among Egyptologists vary as to its purpose in this landlocked location. Some claim it to be a “solar boat” for conveying the pharaoh’s immortal soul across the heavens, following the path of the sun. Others claim it to be the boat used to transport his corporeal remains down the Nile to their final resting place inside his pyramid; after serving this vital purpose, these Egyptologists believe, the boat was disassembled and buried alongside the pharaoh’s pyramid because the spiritual potency it had thus acquired made it dangerous for mere mortals to be around.

Whatever its purpose, the boat, consisting of some 650 components all lashed together with rope, wooden pegs, and occasional copper joints, is an awesome tribute to ancient Egyptian craftsmanship. Egyptologists employed modern builders of boats which ply the Nile to reassemble the pieces. The result of their labor stands today in a building next to the Pyramid of Khufu; it remains the oldest substantially intact boat or ship in the world. In 1985, a second boat pit and disassembled boat were discovered; this one has been left in its disassembled state.

The funereal boat of Khufu as it looked when first discovered in 1954. The people who looked upon it for the first time then were quite probably the first to do so since circa 2550 BC. (Bradipus)
The reassembled boat as it looks today, housed inside a museum next to the Pyramid of Khufu. (Berthold Werner)

The preceding have been some of the more dramatic highlights of 20th-century archaeology on the Giza Plateau. Yet it’s telling that all of the discoveries I’ve just described took place around the great pyramids rather than inside them. As blankly inscrutable as ever — all but empty of the inscriptions and decorations on which scholars depend to make sense of history — the pyramids themselves continue to give archaeologists oddly little to work with despite their immense size. Even as excavations all around them have added immensely to our store of knowledge about the Giza Plateau — archaeologists have even found what they believe to be camps or villages where the workers who built them once lived — there just doesn’t seem like there’s much more to be done inside the pyramids.

A fairly minor exception that perhaps proves this rule is the many decades worth of attention which has been given to two “air shafts” found in the Queen’s Chamber of the Pyramid of Khufu, similar to those in the King’s Chamber which were thoroughly investigated by Richard William Howard Vyse in 1837. First discovered behind cracks in the walls of the Queen’s Chamber by two British explorers named Waynman Dixon and Billy Grundy in 1872, both shafts have been probed over the years with everything from bamboo rods to robots, but neither appears to reach all the way to the surface of the pyramid, nor to house any other particular secrets. In the absence of more enticing unexplored spaces, the would-be Belzonis and Vyses of the last hundred years have had to content themselves with such small things as these.

Small wonder, then, that John Ray could write in The Times of London in 2003 that “modern Egyptologists have largely given up on the pyramids.” And, indeed, the number of prominent and serious archaeologists who still make the Pyramids of Giza themselves a primary focus of their efforts can be counted on one hand today. Most of them have long since left in-depth studies of the great pyramids to the Graham Hancocks of the world while they investigate more loquacious monuments and other forms of cultural detritus. When John Romer published a 550-page study of the Pyramid of Khufu through the Cambridge University Press in 2007, it was the first scholarly book to tackle the subject in such depth since the time of Petrie. And even when a high-tech international group calling itself simply “Scan Pyramids” detected what it believed to be a new hollow space deep inside the Pyramid of Khufu, Egyptologists were quick to damp down expectations that it might be anything more than another stress-relieving chamber or some other artifact of the structure’s construction. “There’s zero chance of hidden burial chambers,” said Aidan Dodson from the University of Bristol by way of articulating the party line.

The pyramids quite probably do have nothing more to tell us about themselves in the language of sober scholarship. Yet they continue to speak to us in another way. They continue to rise above the banalities and indignities of the tourist trade that surrounds them, just as they do the learned treatises of the academics and the less learned bestsellers of the fabulists. In 1873 — long ago as we reckon time, yet barely any time ago at all on the chronological scale of the pyramids — their eternal fascination was eloquently captured by a wide-eyed Amelia Edwards.

When at last the edge of the desert is reached, and the long sand-slope climbed, and the rocky platform gained, and the Great Pyramid [of Khufu] in all its unexpected bulk and majesty towers close above one’s head, the effect is as sudden as it is overwhelming. It shuts out the sky and horizon. It shuts out all the other Pyramids. It shuts out everything but the sense of awe and wonder.

Now, too, one discovers that it was with the forms of the Pyramids, and only their forms, that one had been acquainted all these years past. Of their surface, their colour, their relative position, their number (to say nothing of their size), one had hitherto entertained no kind of definite idea. The most careful study of plans and measurements, the clearest photographs, the most elaborate descriptions, had done little or nothing, after all, to make one know the place beforehand. This undulating table-land of sand and rock pitted with open graves and cumbered with mounds of shapeless masonry, is wholly unlike the desert of our dreams.

Even the Great Pyramid puzzles us with an unexpected sense of unlikeness. We all know, and have known from childhood, that it was stripped of its outer blocks some five hundred years ago to build Arab mosques and palaces; but the rugged, rock-like aspect of that giant staircase takes us by surprise, nevertheless. Nor does it look like a partial ruin, either. It looks as if it had been left unfinished, and as if the workmen might be coming back to-morrow morning.

The colour, again, is a surprise. Few persons can be aware beforehand of the rich tawny hue that Egyptian limestone assumes after ages of exposure to the blaze of the Egyptian sky. Seen in certain lights, the Pyramids look like piles of massy gold.

It is no easy task to realise, however imperfectly, the duration of six or seven thousand years; and the Great Pyramid, which is supposed to have been some four thousand two hundred and odd years old at the time of the birth of Christ, is now in its seventh millennary. Standing there close against the base of it; touching it; measuring her own height against one of its lowest blocks; looking up all the stages of that vast, receding, rugged wall, that leads upward like an Alpine buttress and seems almost to touch the sky, the writer suddenly became aware that these remote dates had never presented themselves to her mind until this moment as anything but abstract numerals. Now for the first time they resolved themselves into something concrete, definite, real. They were no longer figures, but years with their changes of season, their high and low Niles, their seed-times and harvests. The consciousness of that moment will never, perhaps, quite wear away. It was as if one had been snatched up for an instant to some vast height overlooking the plains of Time, and had seen the centuries mapped out beneath one’s feet.

More impressive by far than the weightiest array of figures or the most striking comparisons was the shadow cast by the Great Pyramid as the sun went down. That mighty Shadow, sharp and distinct, stretched across the stony platform of the desert and over full three-quarters of a mile of the green plain below. It divided the sunlight where it fell, just as its great original divided the sunlight in the upper air; and it darkened the space it covered, like an eclipse. It was not without a thrill of something approaching to awe that one remembered how this self-same Shadow had gone on registering not only the height of the most stupendous gnomon ever set up by human hands, but the slow passage, day by day, of more than than sixty centuries of the world’s history.

Edwards wasn’t completely up on her Egyptology; few scholars believed even in 1873 that the Pyramids of Giza were six or seven thousand years old. But whether the real number was sixty or seventy centuries or forty-five, as modern Egyptologists believe, the principle remains. The human brain struggles to process such vast swathes of time on any rational level. And yet, standing next to the pyramids themselves, we can feel the sweep of history on some level that perhaps transcends mere rationality. Certainly one can carry around a complete map of each of the pyramids’ interiors in one’s mind, and still not feel that one understands them. If we hope to at least come closer to such an understanding, we have to travel back, back, back through time, taking with us everything the pyramidal discoverers of today and yesterday have taught us about them.

Those bare facts are a prerequisite, but they aren’t enough. To succeed in our project, we need to resist the temptation to inscribe our own passions and obsessions upon these great cultural Rorschach Tests in stone. Instead we need to do our best to see them the way the people who built them must have done so. It’s time now for us to go back to the beginning — the beginning not only of the pyramids themselves but of all human civilization.

(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

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13 Comments for "Chapter 12: Tourists, Fabulists, and Diggers"

  • Andrew Pam

    “the principal remains” is a typo for “principle”.

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Derek

    To be really nit-picky, Shepheard’s Hotel is inconveniently spelled with an extra A.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Nit-picking is what I love you all for. 😉 Thanks!

  • Jacen aka Jaina

    giant staircase takes up by surprise, nevertheless” us by?

    the pyramid themselves but of all human” pyramids?

    Interesting series! Some stuff I didn’t know about the pyramids, despite being a nerd. I’m interested in seeing where we go next. Is there going to be a section on Göbekli Tepe?

    • Jimmy Maher


      No specific mention of Göbekli Tepe in this series, I’m afraid. I’m going to stick fairly close to the Giza Plateau.

  • David Boddie

    A couple of names went awry – “Symth” and “Gordon Hancock” – though the latter does sound like a plausible name for a character in a novel. I imagine a celebrity chef turned explorer, perhaps.

    • Jimmy Maher

      🙂 Thanks!

  • Peter

    Just catching up—wonderfully evocative piece as usual! Heads up that you’ve got “pyramid” for “pyramids” in the last line 🙂

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Will Moczarski

    There‘s one instance of Hanock instead of Hancock.

    Fascinating entry, as always!

  • Will Moczarski

    adept at shifting the burden of proof from their own shoulders to that of their critics
    -> should that be those of their critics?

    Also, in one caption it says that the kitsch had never gone away which sounds a bit odd. Has never gone away, maybe?

    • Jimmy Maher

      You’re correct on all counts. Thanks!


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