Letters from the Underworld: Fear and Claustrophobia Inside the Pharaoh's Chamber
I would much prefer 100 degrees in the desert any day, than crawling down a dark passageway deep inside the pyramid of Cheops.....
Inside this man-made mountain is a room in which a Pharoah was laid to rest.
How is it possible you could go inside this enormous assemblage of stones?
A guide waves me over to a door. I ask myself — dare I go in?
No sooner than I begin crawling along a long, dark passageway it feels like the weight of the world is about to come crashing down on my head. But I'm in Egypt, I keep reminding myself — I have a chance to go inside and explore this ancient pyramid. Am I going to say no?
But somewhere, several thousands yards in, the light begins to fade. I press my hands against the walls.....they feel slippery......the very air around me is collapsing, heavy, and....very ancient. How do we know we're going the right direction? I know from studying these monuments in graduate school there are passages off of passages, leading into different directions......yet somewhere, up ahead, if I just keep going, I'll arrive at our destination..
My husband is further down the passage. My kids as well. No one seems to be panicking.....except me. I've been claustrophobic since I was a child. Did I become trapped in an attic once....or maybe accidentally locked myself inside a closet? I can't remember.....all I know is that there are people ahead of me, I'm crawling along this tube of ancient stone in the darkness and there's no turning back. But I'm a modern-day Persephone, right? I'm supposed to be OK with this dark passage to the Underworld stuff.....I can breathe, I keep telling myself, I can breathe....
Then I see a light flickering. Voices murmuring. The ceiling gets lower and lower, I feel like I'm crawling and......suddenly
I find myself in a large open space........the King's chamber
In the middle is a stone sarcophagus where the Pharoah was buried over 4000 years ago. The murmuring is coming from a group of people gathered in the corner.....some are seated on the floor, meditating. Over the years I had heard some believe the pyramids have a special power - that the builders lined them up with constellations in the sky, and that if you stand right in the middle of the chamber you will sense something......mysterious. The scientist in me wonders - what kind of powers? With the exception of the stone coffin, the room is empty of any other artifact. I walk around the perimeter, trying to see if I feel anything special, anything different. It's hard to tell at first. Soon the meditating group begins to file out, ducking one by one to fit into the tiny doorway in the corner of the room. I stand with my family, all of us in awe. We don't say much, but special powers or not - this feels like a sacred space.
As fascinating as this place is, we're not allowed to stay for long - eventually others will be waiting for their turn outside. Taking one last look around this most unique of rooms, my husband and kids take their leave and duck through the tiny doorway to begin the long passage back to the outside world. For a moment I am all alone. I stand in the center of the space, the words, "The power of the pyramid" spinning through my head. I raise my arms into the air, press my palms together, and close my eyes. For a moment, it's just me - standing in the middle of the Giza plateau, in the center of the pyramid of Cheops, and I feel the sacredness of this space. No sounds.....just the echo of my breathing.....and it seems eternity stands still. I open my eyes and realize everyone must be well down the passageway by now. Suddenly, I feel the claustrophobia crashing in. The calmness is fading away.....my childhood memories of becoming trapped are taking over. I pick up my backpack and dash to the corner, duck my head underneath the tiny entrance to the shaft - I'm desperate to catch up to the rest, but they are far down the corridor. It doesn't take long before I am pondering the weight of stone above my head, the sense of being far from the opening, the crouched position I must assume, crawling along the narrow tunnel, touching the clammy walls — where is the exit??? Was I supposed to go right back there? Left? Did I get lost??
It seems like it is taking.............forever
And then I see it. Just up ahead - the Light. The outside. Freedom, once again.
I may be an archaeologist, and spend a lot of time "underground", but when it comes to feeling like I'm stuck with no sense of an exit, I am a complete wimp. Some Persephone, huh?
So the next time I visit the interior of a pyramid, I'll bring of bag of breadcrumbs.....
and leave myself a trail.
Photos courtesy of author and Google images