Friday, October 31, 2003

No Title

It was my first trip overseas. I traveled with my mom during spring vacation in 1996 to Cairo, Egypt. As a college senior, I wrote this story about my adventure in a desert tunnel.

I can neither see nor hear anything down here. I’m alone with a man whose name I do not know, and I can’t understand a word he says. It’s just the two of us and a sarcophagus about a hundred dark feet beneath the surface of the hot desert sand. But it’s not hot down here. I hope he can find his matches...

Those thoughts ran through my mind one sunny afternoon in April 1996. It was that moment during spring vacation my sophomore year in high school that I have found myself recalling to this day. After all, how many times have I experienced a moment like that?

To understand how I arrived at that moment, let’s go back to when I was with my mom and a close family friend, my two travel companions. We rented a car in Cairo, and headed south through the desert to Faiyum, an area of miles and miles of farmland and palm trees that flourish from the Nile to its east. Working the land with their bare hands or standing idle near their mudbrick houses, men, women and children stopped and stared as we drove by on a narrow dirt road. These Egyptians didn’t have cars. They had donkeys.

Riding down the long, winding road to the step pyramid of Maidum gave me a perspective of the desolate Sahara Desert. Many archeologists believe the step pyramid of Maidum was started by King Huni of the 3rd Dynasty and completed during the reign of his successor, King Sneferu of the 4th Dynasty in about 2500 B.C.

The reason we found Maidum – a place less popular than the pyramids of Giza among tourists - is because our close family friend is an Egyptologist who spoke Arabic and read hieroglyphs on our trip and recommended a place such as this one. Next to the step pyramid is a mastaba or an ancient Egyptian cemetery, which looked more like a long, rectangular mound of rubble.

The mastaba had an entrance that resembled a hole for a large animal. Since my mom is claustrophobic, I entered without her. I ducked down as I followed an Egyptian guide, who didn’t speak English, into this narrow hole that is believed to have been the robbers’ passage. We both walked hunched over with his candle as our only source of light. I began to realize how ants feel. After trekking about a hundred feet down a steep passage, I climbed down a 10-foot wooden ladder to another part of the passage, which was just as cramped. The guide waved his hand for me to keep following him. There were a few wobbly planks we crossed to make it over gaps in the passage floor. What lurked in those chasms I could not see. At one point, the passage became so narrow, I had to crawl.

Eventually we came to the tomb chamber. It was the size of an average bedroom. Besides us, there was an enormous granite sarcophagus in the room, nothing else. Thinking how the ancient Egyptians must have transported an object that weighed a few tons this far beneath the desert sand was truly mind-boggling. The sarcophagus’s cover had been removed by archeologists, along with all the other artifacts, and taken to a museum. In a way, I felt like myself and all those who had been here previously were trespassing on sacred territory. But for some reason, I never was nervous throughout the entire experience. Maybe it was because I let my mom do the worrying for both of us. The guide held the lit candle near the tomb and before I knew it, it blew out. We’re back to the moment. Did he find his matches? Well, I made it out and I’m still here.

This story first appeared in the Blue & White magazine in April 2004.


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