Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 October - 2 November 2005
Issue No. 766
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dig days:

Zahi Hawass

Adventures in the Step Pyramid

By Zahi Hawass

People say I live dangerously because they have seen my exciting adventures in many documentary films. They see me entering shafts and tombs, and also pyramids. In one section of a live show I did few years ago with FOX TV I entered one of the queens' pyramids located south of the Menkaure Pyramid at Giza.

The interior of this pyramid is unique. The width is about 20 to 30cm. and it slopes down about 20m. After that you reach the entrance of the burial chamber, which is secured by a granite door. Only about 15cm. lies between the bottom edge of the door and the ground.

I entered the pyramid on live TV with Suzie, a TV presenter. She was very slim and could easily enter the pyramid. She had a camera on her head so that the audience could see me. They had put the camera batteries on my back, and that made it much more difficult for me to move. I managed to enter the 20m opening and proceed down the shaft, but when I reached the entrance of the burial chamber and began to enter the 15cm shaft I got stuck. I was on live TV: I was terribly scared, and of course the delay affected the timing of the programme. Suzie began to push me down but without success, and audiences all over the world could see. Many people were afraid, but it was more exciting for them than for me. Finally I took the batteries out and was able to enter. When we had finished exploring the pyramid and started to climb out I had another frightening experience. As I tried to get out, the slope of the entrance meant I found myself falling back down. When finally and with much difficulty I reached the top, I could not believe that I was alive. This is living dangerously.

About a year ago I had another great adventure inside the Step Pyramid. Although I had visited the substructure of the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara from the south entrance, which was opened in the XXVIth Dynasty, about 500 BC, this time I decided to enter from the original north entrance. The substructure of the Step Pyramid is known to be about three and a half square miles, and since it was cleared by Firth, Gun and Lauer we can see that many stones have fallen making it a very dangerous area to visit.

I entered at 9.30am, anxious to see the interior that I had read so much about. My heart was beating faster and faster with each step I took, and I held my torch to light my way. The tunnels were well cut, but when I entered further I could see many cracks in the ceiling. With difficulty I was able to see two beautiful alabaster sarcophagi made for the burial of Djoser's daughters. The two sarcophagi were masterpieces, and it is hard to explain their incredible beauty. We know that the Step Pyramid is the only Old Kingdom Pyramid where the queens were buried within the king's pyramid. We know that in later periods the wives, mothers and daughters were buried in small subsidiary pyramids located to the south of the main pyramid, except in the mortuary complex of Khufu where the queens' pyramids are located to the east.

I was able to continue further and see a large granite sarcophagus in the burial chamber covered with sand and wooden beams. Another chamber contained burial offerings such as bones, stones and pottery vessels. I left the pyramid at 5.30pm. It was one of the most important and exciting adventures of my life.

A few weeks ago I re-entered this pyramid because I planned to take the stones and sand out of the corridors and install electric lights, and also restore all the cracks in the ceiling and the burial chamber. In order to achieve this I contacted the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University to see about developing a plan for the conservation of the substructure of the pyramid.

I was filled with the same awe as I made my way though the many galleries. My friend Ihab El-Hedari, a journalist who loves archaeology more than his job, accompanied me on this incredible adventure. It was an adventure in archaeology, but what people do not know is that the tunnels in the substructure of the pyramid are about seven kms long: it is amazing.

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