In Egypt, where almost everything we know, love and hate first began, there is a place called Gizeh, “by the high place, ” in Arabic. Here is where Khufu, son of Seneferu, of the fourth dynasty of kings of Kemet, built his tomb. It was strong and precise, to serve as the home of Khufu, who was Horus while living, and would be Osiris afterwards. People counted on him to be their emissary from the land of the living to the vast and brooding underworld, at least until the next king died.
The living and breathing land of Kemet, the Dark Earth, was but metaphor for the cosmic truth of creation, power, betrayal and redemption that was the real world. Well, not redemption, exactly; more like accommodation. Those Egyptians were practical, if anything. But that story, of sibling rivalry and savage butchery, along with countless others of conspiracy, duplicity and ultimate justice, is for another time. Suffice it to say that in the Egyptian version of eternal truth, when power and glory clash with pragmatism, it’s pragmatism every time.
But this is a personal story, my story. Some years ago, I visited Khufu’s pyramid with a group I was supposed to teach something to. We were allowed inside, and climbed to the so-called king’s chamber. I say so-called, because in spite of elaborate steps to safeguard the room, and the presence of a granite sarcophagus therein, Khufu was really buried in a secret chamber deep below. To no avail, as it turned out, as the tomb was robbed almost immediately. Have I mentioned the Egyptians were pragmatic folk?
It’s a bit unnerving, deep inside a hole burrowed into six million tons of limestone. If you look up to the ceiling of the chamber, you see a great crack extending through the rock from one side to the other. I wouldn’t call it worrying, but it’s not reassuring, either. Our group leader announced that he had arranged for the modern electric lights and ventilation system to be turned off for a few minutes, to allow us to fully savor the experience. He asked us to lie down on the floor, or sit if we preferred; he then donned his nemes ( the royal headwear), grabbed his crook and staff, and lay down inside the sarcophagus. Don’t ask.
The lights went out, and the hum of the great fans slowly stopped. No one spoke; I swear no one even breathed. For – how long? – there was nothing, absolutely nothing. I have never experienced such darkness and silence. Then a remarkable thing happened. Six million tons of enormous, closely fitted limestone blocks ceased to exist. I felt liberated not only from the walls of stone, but the walls of flesh and bone that surrounded me. My body and the vast, trackless universe merged. The stars were invisible to me, of course, but I could feel them, and the long gamma scream of the great black holes, the ancient bones of galaxies.
Someone coughed. The lights haltingly came back on, the ventilation fans scraped to life, and all that rock wearily resumed existence.