Fair’s fair. And having spent the last post whining on about what’s wrong with life in Cairo, I should hasten to write about times when things go well. As they did last weekend. Now, what’s the first word that comes to mind when Egypt is thrown at you? In a game of free association, the first and obvious choice, at least for me, is still and I suspect, will always be, Pyramid.

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I’ve been here for just over 2 years now, and for one of those years have been making that tedious commute to the middle of the clone-do complex at the edge of the desert that houses our new campus. But riding home in the evening, every day I can see the hazy silhouette of the great structures at Giza from the bus as we approach our turnoff from the Ring Road, and it still restores the sense of awe and hence a measure of calm, and recompense. I am in Egypt still, those structures remind me. And I get to gaze on these structures that were already on Earth nearly 5000 years ago.

But it wasn’t these pyramids that helped restore my equanimity this time. It was a much odder pyramid that we had briefly passed by on a trip to the Fayoum with John Swanson 2 years ago but had not gotten a chance to go into. This past Saturday my friend Salima Ikram, Egyptologist at AUC was taking her class on a field trip there and so I got to tag along. The site is called the Meidum (pronounced my-doom) pyramid, and may perhaps be better known to some people as the Broken or Collapsed Pyramid.

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Meidum is not a common tourist site, at least not as common as either Giza or Saqqara, but all the more interesting for that reason. Chronologically it dates to a period sometime between the aforementioned two – which is to say after Djoser’s step pyramid in Saqqara but before the tombs of Khufu or any of the others that came after in Giza. Which means it’s still old kingdom, but then again so are all the pyramids. Later folks went for beautiful tombs no doubt, but the pyramids stopped after the oldies. The goldies continued though – note Tutankhamun’s stash, and he was only a minor king. The pharaoh or king who built the pyramid at Meidoom was called Sneferu or Senefru and it is situated father south of even Dashour (home to the Bent and Red pyramids) closer to the Fayoum than any of the others (which might be the reason why we even tried to go there on that trip 2 years ago). IMG_0942Aidan Dodson, a visiting Egyptologist, who gave us a talk about the site at Salima’s behest,  mentioned that there is speculation within the profession of a possible pharaonic palace site not far from these tombs (but closer to the river naturally) but thus far we have no physical evidence (aka empirical evidence for my scientific thinking students) for such a site. No matter really. Whatever the reason this pyramid was indeed built, though not used as a tomb since Senefru went to build another tomb that apparently satisfied him more.

It’s fascinating for any number of reasons. For one it gives us a hint for the intermediate stages of the evolution of a classic or “true”  (smooth almost icosahedral) pyramid structure from its predecessor the step pyramid. The Meidum pyramid represents a hybrid really, with an inner layer of steps and an other shell with the  smooth (and to my eyes, steep) slope incline of the true pyramid. This was created by filling in the steps with the building material smoothing out the shape. The reason we know this is because of what happened to it in the years (centuries?)  following its construction. Maybe because it hadn’t been used as tomb – although its entirely possible that even a mummy inside would not have deterred the scavengers – people in later generations began to scavenge this structure for stuff such as its limestone blocks from the lower part. Consequently, the stability of the structure was disturbed and its upper parts collapsed into rubble exposing its step-like interior to the outside and giving it it’s distinctive hat-like appearance (well okay, St. Exupery’s petite prince and Salima Ikram may claim it looks more like a snake that’s swallowed an elephant).

This being a field trip for budding Egyptologists, we made out way into the shaft of the pyramid, and descended deep into the earth before staring a small ascent into the chamber that would have been a the pharaohs final resting place had he wished.

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The chamber seemed somewhat more spacious than others I’ve seen (in the Red pyramid in Dashour for example) in part, as our Egyptologists explained, because of the structure of the ceiling. Here’s a photograph and FYI, the piece of wood used to lend support to the stones and preventing them from caving in is as old as the pyramid itself! Fancy that.

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Mydoom ceiling with original cross beam

The pyramid was cool (surprisingly even temperature-wise which validates my arguments for putting  pyramid visits off until fall) but even more exciting were the mastabas and funerary temple sites surrounding the pyramids. First there was a mastaba for an unknown nobleman (designated as #17 I believe) IMG_0945which we entered via a robber’s tunnel, giving me my thrilling Amelia Peabody experience. We crawled in rather scooted down a narrow tunnel  using butt and hands since the sand and gravel made it hard for me to gain proper footholds, and besides it was hard to keep stooping. To give you an idea of the dimensions, here’s photo of one of the students on his way out – IMG_0963 Down the tunnel and a ladder in a narrow shaft we went in single file, till we reached the burial chamber where the granite sarcophagus was still in place though emptied of its noble contents. Here are some pictures

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Back in the open air again there were some more fascinating bits of human history awaiting us, including two striking temple sites that were surely the prototypes for the grand monuments built several centuries later at Abu Simbel and Luxor (Hatshepsut’s temple specifically). One each for a king and queen, whose names escape my memory (Sorry Salima and Aidan). We also learned about the archeological practice of capping ancient mud brick structures with a layer of new bricks in order to preserve the old. Covered in dust from head to toe, bone tired from the heat, I was one happy girl as I descended the bus and made my way home that afternoon. And taking the good Hakim Sitt’s advice, ended the day with a couple of aspirin and a a warm shower – so that the next day brough no more than the soreness and stiffness of muscles unusually used. Three cheers for Salima and her chickadees. Thanks to them I got to see first hand what the thrills are all about.

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