Time was running out to visit White Sands National Monument. The New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo and nearby pistachio farms took up most of our day. In a few hours, it would soon be dark.
When my wife and I were there in 2011, White Sands was a national monument. Only in January of this year was it made a national park, a designation it’s been trying to get since 1898. In recognition of its new park status, it seems appropriate now to recall our experience there.
There was the remote possibility that we wouldn’t have been able to enter the park. Military tests conducted in the White Sands Missile Range, which completely surrounds White Sands, would have closed off the park.
Going through this part of the Tularosa Basin was a disorienting experience, like being surrounded by snow fields, except the landscape was covered in white dunes composed of fine grains of gypsum.
When we arrived, it was still and quiet, ironic because the area was host to the Trinity site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Wave patterns on the dunes indicated that winds blew only recently (top image). I stuck my hand into the sand. It was strangely cool to the touch. There was no sighting of animal life except for a darkling beetle that seemed like a perfect target for predators. At the visitor’s center, we signed up for the last ranger-led tour of the day.
The area has the largest gypsum dune field in the world, the ranger pointed out. White Sands preserves more than half of it. The particles come from ancient Lake Lucero to the southwest, a huge drainage basin where considerable amounts of hydrated calcium sulfate (gypsum) were deposited millions of years ago. Winds since have continued to break it apart and grind it up into ever finer grains.
The landscape is harsh where few plants grow. The alkaline, almost barren soil miraculously hasn’t prevented some to adapt.
To survive, the ranger explained, plants sink their roots quickly and deeply into the soil in search of water. One of these is the skunkbush sumac that can bind gypsum to its root system. When the surrounding sand is blown away by winds, what are sometimes left behind are curious mounds called pedestals.
The ranger tour lasted until almost dusk. If nothing else, it was an opportunity for golden hour photography.
Exploring White Sands after sunset is more beautiful still. Like snow, the gypsum fields lighten the landscape well into twilight, a winter scene in summer.
The park closed an hour after sunset. We could easily have spent many hours here, if not a full day.
The American Southwest has its share of hardy plants that evolved to survive punishingly dry and hot conditions. The ocotillo is as spiny as any cactus, although it isn’t one itself. They sort of look like tall dead sticks splaying out from the ground, but they produce beautiful red blossoms after a rain. Look closely at the base and you’ll see a tangle of spiky stems that dare you to stick your hand inside. The photo above was taken at Joshua Tree National Park.
This is the time of year in the Pacific Northwest when irises bloom. There is a nice assortment of bearded irises in my daughter’s neighborhood in Seattle. While they’re gorgeous to look at, I never bothered to look inside the flower. This takes a little effort because the upright petals (called standards) need to be peeled back to reveal the interior. Photography is even more of a challenge because of the ‘obstruction’ and the casting of a shadow when the camera gets close. But, when I took these pictures, it was bright and sunny outside, and I had my camera phone handy. It was worth the trouble.
Outside my hotel window was the Pyramid of Khafre, easily 4,500 years old. In between was the hotel swimming pool, traffic roaring on the highway, trailers and a swath of the Sahara Desert. It was enough to do a double-take if I didn’t know where I was. Khafre was a mile away, as the crow flies. What was a beeline millennia ago is now a circuitous obstacle course of tangled streets. In the thousands of years since, over 25 million people in metro Cairo, along with traffic gridlock, air pollution and urban sprawl, have encroached on the monument like the sands of the Sahara.
This is modern Egypt. I’ve wanted to come here for a long time to experience its ancient treasures. Only a few months ago, I wondered if I ever would.
Then my wife and I were here. If that sounds sudden, it was. Only in November, the chance came up to go on a tour, sponsored by Ancient Origins and booked through Travel the Unknown. Having enough reward miles for airfare made the decision easier. The holidays of November, December and January kept my wife and me busy and little time to think about pyramids, temples and the Nile. We only had the rest of January to get ready, physically and mentally. In early February, we’d be off and running. Never before have we made a decision to go far away so quickly. It would be our second trip to Africa in two years.
Our plane landed in Cairo Airport at almost midnight. We were grateful the local tour company (Lady Egypt) representative whisked us through the airport and got us to the Giza hotel in an hour, much faster than if we arrived in midday during Cairo’s legendary traffic jams.
We would have almost a full day to recover from jet lag before meeting the rest of the tour group and our hosts, Alicia McDermott from Ancient Origins; special guest, writer and researcher Andrew Collins; and our extraordinary tour guide Waleed Kamouna. All of us who signed up had our own reasons for going on this tour but enrollment through Ancient Origins tied us together by our high interest in the ancient world.
On the tour’s first official day, we had two thrilling experiences, which I’ll never forget. They were privately allotted times at the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. You read that right, our group was the only one at these sites. These visits had to be done ‘off hours,’ the Sphinx before dawn, Khufu’s pyramid after official closing time (5pm). But what special opportunities they were!
The Great Sphinx
Hopping groggily on the tour bus at 4am, we got to the Sphinx while still dark outside. We needed warm jackets to keep out the chill in the air. In front of the Sphinx’s paws, we listened to talks by Andrew and Waleed, and walked around the monument with mobile flashlights in hand. The limestone enclosure surrounding the Sphinx made it seem like a vast sunken room. It was exciting to realize that not many get this close to the Sphinx.
We waited two hours before the sun rose to light up the Sphinx. I couldn’t help but notice what others have pointed out. The Sphinx’s head is grossly undersized in relation to its body. It’s probable that it was re-carved from the head of an animal that would appear more proportional to the rest of its body. The popular candidate has been a lion.
Facing the Facts
At dawn, the strong, square features of the face was silhouetted in shadow. If the face is Khafre’s, it doesn’t look much like the one on his statue in the Cairo Museum.
Whose might it be? Robert Temple makes a convincing case for its being that of Amenemhet II of the 12th dynasty, which would imply the head was re-carved during the Middle Kingdom. Amenemhet could not have seen what else was lying buried underneath. The Sphinx’s body had been buried in sand until it was uncovered by Thutmosis IV five hundred years later.
An Age-Old Dilemma
Even in the light of day, the Sphinx looks to be very old. Dating the Sphinx has been controversial. Archaeology dates the Sphinx to the time of Khafre (c. 2570 BCE) who is associated with the closest pyramid. But, the severe water erosion patterns on the enclosure wall and Sphinx indicate to some researchers that heavy rainfall, which Egypt hasn’t experienced for 12,000 years, did the damage and dates the monument’s construction to well before the beginnings of Egyptian civilization.
Other researchers point to a earth-sky connection between a leonine Sphinx and the constellation Leo around 10,500 BCE when the Sphinx would have been gazing directly at Leo on the night sky horizon on the spring equinox due to an astronomical phenomenon known as the precession of the equinox. (Many ancient societies were aware of precessional cycles.)
But 10,500 BCE seems like an impossibly long time ago—antediluvian, in fact. I’m more convinced by Robert Temple’s theory that the recumbent figure, instead of being a lion, was the god Anubis in the form of a jackal. At least, the timeline is more in line with dynastic, or even pre-dynastic, Egypt. The Sphinx’s body seems more dog-like than leonine. Its large paws are a Roman ‘restoration,’ hiding original ones that must have been heavily damaged, likely from water erosion. Interestingly, Anubis has always been regarded as the guardian of necropolises.
Water, Water, Everywhere
If not heavy rains 12,000 years ago, then what caused the erosion? Temple also makes a case for the Sphinx enclosure having been a moat during the Old Kingdom when inundation of the Nile brought water to its doorstep. He proposes that the moat was called Jackal Lake in many ancient texts. The Sphinx thus became an ‘island’ during these seasonal times. Regulated by a sluice gate, water was admitted into the moat by way of the channel between the Sphinx Temple and Valley Temple. The channel itself shows horizontal erosion lines, which along with those of the Sphinx and its enclosure resulted from centuries of standing water. The vertical fissures along the enclosure walls, Temple suggests, were the result of countless dredging operations to remove the moat’s constant threat: desert sand.
Just before leaving the Sphinx, we got a surprise arrival of Zahi Hawass, Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs and Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. He seemed to know Andrew.
Judging from the images above, you’d think the Sphinx had very little sign of civilization around it. If only that were true. By turning around to face east, you’d see the edge of the city of Nazlet el-Samman. Cell phone towers, building silhouettes and Cairo’s infamous haze poke up above the horizon. It was a depressing sight. So was the litter. New construction is going on to this day, but in 1982 city officials established buffer zones on the Giza plateau on which it’s forbidden to build.
The group left the Sphinx as the sun was rising. I felt the same sense of wonder and mystery as anyone who’s been fortunate enough to get close to it. Afterward, we were treated to a stunning view of all three pyramids from an observation area a short bus ride away, the Sphinx nowhere in sight. Though still early in the morning, the air was already thick with pollution and the parking lot full of hawkers who were setting up shop.
The sun had risen while at the Sphinx. I boarded the tour bus to go to an observation area to see the three pyramids of Giza on the horizon. It stopped briefly beforehand so we could all see Khufu and Khafre’s pyramids close together. In one of those serendipitous conjunctions in time and space, Khafre just shielded the sun along one edge to produce a spectacular glow in the sky.
The Great Pyramid has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. What started out as a youngster’s obsession with things ancient became a curiosity about the incredible feat of technology, craftsmanship and genius that it took to build it. It rightfully is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the only one left standing. So I was excited and happy to be on the Giza plateau.
To finally see the pyramid up close was humbling. What an immense structure! It looks like a series of stacked and tapering stone rows, 210 courses in all, comprising 2.3 million stones at an average weight of 2.5 tons each, a tremendous feat of architectural engineering that may last for thousands more years.
In ancient times, it must have been breathtaking to see the pyramid with perfectly flat sides. The surface would have been encased in Tura limestone. Though the Giza limestone core blocks produce a rough appearance, incredibly the casing stones were cut on the undersides to match the contours of underlying core blocks and on the outward sides as flat surfaces. It’s said that the brilliant gleam of the white Tura limestone could be seen from miles away. What a sight it would have been. The shell is long gone, removed over time for Cairo building projects. I could see that the top of the Khafre pyramid still has its casing stones relatively intact.
Seeing the outside of the pyramid was incredible enough. More special still, our tour group had the inside of the Great Pyramid (Pyramid of Khufu) all to itself. Imagine, just the twelve of us.
We arrived after public hours. Security guards were everywhere. We climbed the stairs to the entrance. There was a bit of ceremony when Andrew was given the key to open the gate. We first made our way down the Descending Passage, stooped over awkwardly to wiggle down a tunnel only 3.5ft (1m) high. Despite the Giza plateau’s arid climate, the breaths and sweat of earlier visitors made the passageway dank. We eventually reached the entrance to the Grand Gallery.
Compared to the Descending Passage, the Grand Gallery soars, roughly 28ft overhead. Looking up, I stared in amazement at the high ceiling that narrows (corbels) like inverted steps. Why were these gigantic rows of granite, some weighing 50 tons, finished so smoothly and elegantly if merely to relieve the load of the massive weight above? They certainly weren’t meant to be seen or admired; the pyramid’s entrance was blocked before looters found their way in. Modern additions make climbing the gallery easier along its 150ft length. With bannisters and foothold strips on the wood floorboards, I felt like a kid ready to bound up stairs. (At my age, bounding no longer describes my movements.) If it weren’t for artificial lighting, we would have been in total darkness, making me wonder how the ancients found their way with no visible soots marks on the walls or ceiling.
Though not nearly as brutal as in summertime, the humidity was still noticeable when we entered the King’s Chamber, even with a ventilation system that produces a low-frequency hum. The room was stark and undecorated, brooding. Some visitors feel very uncomfortable here, others energized. The walls and floor consist of massive, squarely cut granite blocks smoothly finished.
The room contains nothing more than a stone ‘sarcophagus’ along one end, no inscriptions or decoration. Since remains or lid were never found, coffer is a word more often used. One corner is heavily damaged. In the dim artificial lighting, it was hard to tell that it and the entire room is made of hard Aswan red granite, different from the limestone used mostly everywhere else.
Shining a smart phone light into the interior, I was amazed to see flat, surfaces and straight, sharp corners, as if machined. Other visitors have reported seeing saw marks and drill holes. I should have thought of bringing along a proper flashlight and carpenter’s square.
With the lights turned off, our group experienced the chamber in total darkness during which Andrew led us in a meditation. My back against the coffer, I was amazed how totally black it became with only Andrew’s voice echoing in the room and sounding distant at the same time.
The other chambers were less dramatic. The smaller Queen’s Chamber features a vaulted ceiling and a corbelled niche. The floor is roughly surfaced. The room, made of limestone, doesn’t have the cavernous, foreboding feel of the King’s Chamber. There are also two small rectangular portals on the north and south walls that lead to upwardly slanting ducts. These have been called ‘air shafts,’ thought originally to relieve chamber air pressure but they dead-end before reaching the outside. Why do two similar shafts in the King’s Chamber exit the pyramid? For the sophisticated engineering and work to incorporate the shafts in the pyramid’s design, I couldn’t help but wonder what possible purpose they served. They’re said to “point” to certain circumpolar stars (Beta of Ursa Minor, Sirius, Thuban, Orion’s belt) as they would have aligned in 2450 BC and therefore symbolically point to a region of the Milky Way where the pharaoh would complete his afterlife journey to the heavens.
The strangest room of all was the Subterranean Chamber. To get there, I had to clamber down backwards over 340ft (a continuation of the Descending Passage), longer than an American football field’s length. It’s mind-boggling that it was excavated at an angle out of the limestone bedrock over 100ft below ground.
Most of the chamber’s space is taken up by a back section divided by two strange fin-like rock structures. There is a pit in the floor near the entrance and a gated shaft on the south wall that extends for about 50ft before dead-ending.
This room is curious because it’s rough-hewn (except for the flat roof) unlike the pyramid’s other masterful features, giving the impression that it was left unfinished. This is hard to believe in light of the obvious fact that the entire pyramid was built according to some grand plan.
Many of us ask why the Great Pyramid was built. As pyramid-building goes, it is far and away the crowning achievement of the Egyptians, unlike any built before or since. It is the only pyramid ever built that has an ascending passage and upper chambers. There are several esoteric theories regarding its purpose, prompted by the pyramid’s measurements that appear to encode sacred numbers and mathematical constants, the Northern Hemisphere’s dimensions in scale and the solar year; the electromagnetic properties of granite whose vibrations produce in sensitives altered states of consciousness; and the arrangement of the three pyramids on the Giza plateau that apparently places importance on the constellations Orion and (as Andrew Collins argues) Cygnus. Some have even ascribed a more utilitarian purpose, an enormous civil engineering project, such as a gigantic water pump or energy source, requiring the Nile to power it.
Its construction wasn’t just stacking blocks either because of the three chambers, passageways, shafts and casing stones, not to mention other incredible complexities. Scientists have also discovered another large, possibly inaccessible “void” above the King’s Chamber using a cosmic radiation measurement technique known as muography.
What the pyramid’s true purpose was, we may never know. It could very well be a combination of a symbolic pharaonic pathway to the stars, an ingenious representation of the Earth and precessional cycles in code, a mental exercise for numerologists, a concentrator of telluric currents, a wondrous machine or something else entirely.
For me to be here on the Giza Plateau was not only a chance to see and be in awe of some of the world’s oldest monuments but again to question what we think we know about ancient civilizations. It happened for me in Peru and now, in Egypt.
The hieroglyphic inscriptions were beautiful when I first saw them, like the most intricate wallpaper. The subterranean walls of the horizontal passage, antechamber and burial chamber were covered with them. They were a complete surprise because the pyramid of Teti is a pile of rubble above ground, thanks to robbers who quarried the stone for other uses.
These so-called pyramid texts are ‘spells’ or utterances to protect and guide the deceased’s soul in his or her afterlife journey and refer to an entire corpus of texts that appear in many pyramids of the Saqqara necropolis.
The hieroglyphs on the walls and stars on the gabled ceilings owe their magical effect in large part to artificial lighting. Surfaces seem to have extra texture and vitality—a pop.
In the burial chamber is a basalt or greywacke sarcophagus. It’s damaged likely from vandalism. With the help of several smartphone flashlights, we could make out a single band of text, the first time such an inscription was carved inside a sarcophagus.
Teti reigned roughly two centuries after Khufu. It’s obvious that the golden age of pyramid building had long gone. Yet, the subterranean chambers of his pyramid have a clear wow factor.
The sites of Abusir and Abu Ghurab are located not far from Cairo. Pharaohs of the 5th dynasty built their pyramids and temples there. While the quality of pyramids was quite inferior to Giza’s, archaeological finds were important, including papyri that are the oldest ever found. Although not of primary importance to archaeologists (or because they can’t convincingly explain them), also discovered was evidence of the kind of ancient Egyptian technology that is difficult to explain. Those found at the Sun Temple of Niuserre at Abu Ghurab represent some of them.
Our tour group was scheduled to visit the temple, built to worship the sun god Ra. Apparently, we got permission to visit beforehand but when we arrived, the authorities changed their mind. Whether it was last minute or not wasn’t clear, nor was the reason. In Egypt, this kind of baffling decision can happen at any time. As a substitute, we were allowed to go to the nearby temple of pharaoh Sahure at Abusir. I was disappointed about Niuserre because I wanted to see evidence of reported advanced manufacturing technology at the site, specifically precision crafting of sandstone ‘basins’ and an alabaster ‘altar.’
We had no choice but to accept the decision. But, I didn’t expect to be surprised by the alternative.
At Sahure’s temple, the evidence of catastrophe was all around. Giant limestone and granite blocks of stone were scattered everywhere, columns broken in pieces, a mishmash of stone material that seems as if some titanic force tore everything apart. This doesn’t look at all like a simple case of defilement. The only columns left standing are two adjacent to each other made of Aswan red granite.
These strewn fragments are thought to be parts of the temple walls. I thought it was curious that the floor made of polygonal slabs of basalt has not suffered as much destruction.
As I wandered through the debris, I noticed granite pieces which to the touch and naked eye seemed to have perfectly flat surfaces.
There was also a fragment of a rosette-shaped column of six ‘petals.’ The curiosity is why a petal’s cross section isn’t a circular arc. Instead they have a more complex shape that seems to mimic a fuller version of the vesica piscis.
Most unbelievable of all were tubular holes in granite stones. One stone had two holes of possibly the same diameter.
When I looked inside one, the surface was finely grooved in a (presumed) spiral which means it wasn’t chipped out with chisel and hammer, rather appearing to have been ‘drilled.’
How is any of the above explained other than allowing for advanced technology that the builders used but has (unfortunately) been lost to us?
One final curiosity was a stone basin at the edge of the temple floor. Aside from its being symmetrically shaped with a refined rim, it looked like a catch basin for water or other liquid fed into it from a pipe that was laid underneath the basalt floor. There may have been others, but I didn’t see them.
In the end, the stopover at Sahure’s complex was as interesting and provocative as the one to Niuserre’s would have been. With the destruction and apparent evidence of machining, I just wondered what the hell happened here.
Mostapha was as spirited a person as they come. He enthusiastically greeted my wife and me at the cruise ship dock and immediately whisked us off to the Temple of Edfu in his horse carriage. From the seat, sitting or standing, he bellowed at people along the way but in fact was greeting or acknowledging acquaintances, his volume necessary to be heard over the clattering of hundreds of other carriages taking passengers to and from the temple.
He kept turning around toward us, “Good!?” I understood his question to ask if we were enjoying the ride. “Good!” I yelled back.
The horse carriage ride is a unique experience in Egypt, matched by one in Luxor. Each carriage comfortably fits two adult passengers, but there were plenty others lined up at the dock to take all the Nile cruise ship passengers. When we got to the temple drop-off area, there was an unbelievable jam of vehicles, including carriages, cars, buses and tuk-tuks, so much so that we had to wend our way through countless horses to get to curbside. “I find you,” Mostapha guaranteed. I figured he’d done this many times before. “OK.”
After visiting the temple, we stood at curbside wondering how Mostapha would find us. We walked aimlessly toward a mass of carriages. They all looked alike.
Within a minute, he emerged. “Good?” “Good,” I answered, relieved he found us. The word had taken on a different meaning, a sort of asking if we enjoyed the temple visit, I imagine. I wished I could communicate with him more than with just a few words.
Mostapha took us back to the cruise ship dock and asked for baksheesh, even though Waleed had taken care of it beforehand. Even so, I gave him a tip anyway, figuring he could use it. After all, the ride was good.
Another tour group on our cruise vessel chose not to take the carriages. Why? we asked at dinnertime. Their position was that the horses are being mistreated, often whipped and malnourished. Then, I recalled how Mostapha would whirl a knotted rope in the air and strike the side of his horse, after which it would pick up speed. It seemed at the time more like a cue to the animal than a forceful strike. Or was I mistaken? When I got back home, I did a search on the internet and found many tourist voices with the same concern. Animal mistreatment is a vexing problem for tourism. The elephants of Thailand are another example, even the camels of the Giza Plateau rides. Is a special experience worth an animal’s suffering?
Zep Tepi and the Temple of Horus at Edfu
One of the distinctive features of the temple, as Andrew pointed out, is an inscription on an outer wall called the Edfu Building Texts that represent the most complete description of Zep Tepi, the First Time, deep in the past before pharaonic Egypt when the world re-emerged after a catastrophic flood drowned the previous one.
It wore me out. At Egypt’s popular tourist sites, I got besieged by hawkers selling their wares. They couldn’t be avoided. I steeled myself for the inevitable barrage.
The routine would invariably be the same. Some guy (it was almost always a male) would approach. He’d hold up something and immediately quote a price, say, one U.S. dollar. That seemed like the going price for many things. It’s an amount that I could easily afford, no?
I’d say no.
He would continue, “Only $1.”
“No, thank you.”
“No, I don’t want it.”
“Only $1,” he’d press on.
This could go on longer. The thing is, he’d follow you as you try to make your way toward a temple or wherever you were headed. Eventually, if you’re resolute with eyes forward, he’ll drop back and bother someone else. If you so much as look at whatever he’s selling, the hawker will see it as an opening. He will be very good at reading your eyes, so my advice is to wear dark glasses to hide your curiosity. If you stop to handle the object, you’re as good as sunk. For pricier items, the starting asking price will be high. If you’ve dealt with haggling before, you know the drill. In an occupation where competition is high, the most aggressive will reap greater rewards.
If you do buy, you need to be careful. I bought a booklet on Abu Simbel. I noticed later that it had some water damage. Because I was still in the area, I found the seller and got it replaced. I wasn’t so lucky when I bought a T-shirt elsewhere that turned out to be too small, even though the seller told me at the time of sale that it was the right size. The moral: check your merchandise immediately after purchase.
It’s easy to understand the seller’s situation. Life is pretty tough in Egypt; the poverty rate is high and getting higher. Unemployment and under-employment affect millions of Egyptians. Selling something, however small, is significant. An amount that seems trivial to me might make a big difference to the seller.
But the high pressure made me less likely to do any shopping, let alone buy anything. It might be different if I were a shopper, but I’m not. I don’t have much use for souvenirs. That’s just me. Rather than dwell on the nature of the transaction, I could have switched mental gears with the attitude to help people instead, like one member of our tour (LB) did, who purchased the entire collection of knickknacks from a boy at a Theban temple. He didn’t need his purchases, I was sure. The boy gave him a heartfelt hug. It was simply an act of generosity. This wouldn’t be the only time I would notice LB’s largesse.
Hawking is a way of life in Egypt. I didn’t especially warm to it, but others on the tour seemed to tolerate it more. Some tourists think it’s rather fun.