Saturday, May 03, 2008

Innocents Abroad 2: Panic Tunnel

Ever since my primary toys were Legos I have been fascinated with Pyramids. I would fashion Pyramids out of my fresh, red blocks and even make attempts at the Sphinx. I would read about the mummies and be scared by a dusty, linen-wrapped Boris Karloff. My parents took me to the Chicago Field Museum to see actual mummies and artifacts and I pressed my nose and stubby fingers against the glass to see if I could see them breathe or something. I have always been fascinated with Egypt.

At first our guide in Egypt teased us with passing glimpses of the great pyramids of Giza as we drove to various OTHER places in Cairo but finally there I stood. The fine sand would whip up into little desert tornados in the blue-skied backdrop while I stood looking at the immense structures built 5000 years ago. I just stood there taking it all in, it just didn’t seem quite real to me. It was kind of like my Grand Canyon experience: you know it’s there, you know you are there, but it all seems like you are looking at a huge, two dimensional photo and not reality. For a few Egyptian Pounds you could talk one of the security guards into letting you get your picture taken on one of the millions of huge stones hauled from miles away to form the Pyramids, so my wife and I get our picture taken next to them.

One of the things I could not have pictured was how many pyramids there were on the Giza Plateau. From the Cheops and Knufu pyramids you can see another 60-70 other ones across the desert. The Pyramids of Pharaohs and officials alike were bumping up like teenage zits on the desert landscape. Some just mounds, others excavated but all having a hidden story beneath them.

Our guide directed us to one that we could go into, go under and discover some of those hidden stories. My mind when back to the labyrinth Boris and even Abbot and Costello explored. I was looking forward to being handed a torch made out of a stick and mummy linen, soaked in some oil reserve, and like Indiana Jones go down exploring through all the cobwebs. Reality was much different. I am over six foot tall and the opening was MAYBE four foot so I had to bend over. The tunnel was not a labyrinth it was simply a way down, down, and more down. It was well worn steps in this small tunnel that I had to walk bent over. There were no torches but a simply a poorly wired string of fluorescents. After an eternity of downward steps we came to a small room a mile or two below the pyramid. The room was about 20 foot square with only the one entrance. I finally arrived there, out of breath from all the steps and realized I could not breathe. There was no oxygen pumped into the place, we were miles underground, there were hundreds of other people filing in and out breathing all my air, and I was feeling panic well up inside me like some kind of mental regurgitation. So this is what a panic attack is like, I thought. I fought the urge as I bent into the task of climbing all those steps again. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed more like heaven than I have ever experienced and as I finally burst out of the opening I felt that I needed to do an “I’m alive!” victory dance.

My boyhood fantasies were crushed and I put away my Indy fedora as I enjoyed air like never before. But quickly questions and a thirst for knowledge overtook my disappointments: How did they get the sarcophagus down there? They must have built the pyramid OVER the burial chamber with all the stuff in it right? How did the thieves get all the stuff out through that little hole? How did they find that little hole in the first place? While my boyhood dreams were pushed to the background I didn’t mourn them because they were replaced by experiences I will never forget and by new questions to research. And that really is what education is all about.

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