I recently visited Egypt and saw for the first time the pyramids around Cairo with my own eyes. Nothing could have prepared me to the experience. For one the setting, the open desert, makes these monuments even more remarkable, if possible. Although the rural areas surrounding Cairo are currently not much developed, the tourism industry has almost encircled the Giza plateau and several other pyramids have been reached by modernity. However, it is still possible to see them in all their majesty and appreciate the original desertic setting, if one cares looking around. As a trained archaeologist, I had no problems in accepting them for what they are, royal tombs dating to 2643 BC onwards. After seeing Djoser’s step pyramid in Saqqara and two of the three Seneferu’s pyramids I was actually puzzled on why some people would even try studying the origins of these monuments from the later pyramids of Giza. To some extent, the answer might be in the relative difficulty to access some pyramids: they must have been difficult to reach in the past due to their location and today most locations are surrounded by armed police, and only a few of the pyramids at any one time are open to the public.
Pyramids of Giza. Copyright: Andrea Vianello.
I saw many enthusiastic children from local schools visiting the pyramids, and I was told that regular visits to the ancient monuments are a staple of local schools, but not everybody in Egypt is happy of this or proud of the pyramids. Talking with Egyptians, I apprehended that some radical groups see the pyramids negatively, often associating them with the “West” and its religions. I know that already in the late 12th century, one of the sons of Saladin tried to dismantle systematically Menkaura’s pyramid (the smallest of the three pyramids in Giza), luckily for us failing due to the robustness of the construction. The attempt however was motivated by the sourcing of building stones (the same rationale behind the partial destruction of the Colosseum in Rome and many other monuments of antiquity), and there are no religious or cultural reasons recorded in history. I understood therefore that today’s hostility is based on ignorance. The swarm of tourists, many from “western” countries, that surrounds most pyramids any time and day during opening hours have just equated the pyramids to the “West” in some minds. But there is more.
At first I could not see any link between pyramids and religion, but watching people more carefully, it was in front of my eyes. I could spot several groups interpreting the pyramids according to some pre-defined views that had nothing to do with history or the archaeological context. For instance, inside the burial chamber of the Great pyramid a group of people seated all around of it, and started praying with small pyramids in their hands and other symbols. I understand they considered the pyramids as structures built to gather “astral” positive energy which could be harvested inside the burial chamber. Some of the tourists felt uneasy and left. Another group very much connected the pyramids to the Bible, adding to the stories their own perspectives. And of course I could overhear plenty of myths coming from guides, to the point that I wondered if there was a limit to the gullibility of some people. I did not spend more than two days at the pyramids, but it was clear that among the wild interpretations of the pyramids circulating, views that can be interpreted as religious were present and visible. I finally understood why some people could link the pyramids to religious views, and I have to be honest that the thought worried me. It seems to me that religion is playing an increasing role in contemporary societies by pushing very polarised views capable of splitting societies and sometimes end up in violence. Whilst I respect religion, I could see that the pyramids were playing a role in different views and that the fences and armed police might have been in fact a better idea than I thought at first sight. I do not think that there is any immediate threat from all this, and I consider the current situation as the result of the power of fascination that the pyramids have always attracted on them. Still, I would not like to have people celebrating religious ceremonies foreign to the culture of those buried or living on the tomb of my ancestors, the pyramids are tombs after all, and I could share for a moment both the enthusiasm and pride of the kids marvelling at pyramids and the concerns of those adults who could not see the pyramids as part of their culture.
Since it is Christmas time, I want to mention the Weihnachtspyramide (Christmas pyramid), a traditional symbol in the German-speaking countries that has received some inspiration and the name after the reports from Egypt coming from Napoleon’s expedition in the 18th century, the same expedition that started the modern trend of fascination for the pyramids. Today, the pyramid is a symbol of Christmas. Notwithstanding the power of fascination and capability of becoming different symbols for different symbols, I wish to stress that there is a fine line distinguishing cultural symbolism (such as this one) and religious use (the pyramids becoming sacred spaces outside their original context) of the actual pyramids.