A refreshing look at the ancient pyramids of Egypt

“Yallah, yallah, yallah! Wooooo ! ” I was visiting the pyramids of Giza, Egypt, in the company of Mark Lehner, a renowned Egyptologist...


“Yallah, yallah, yallah! Wooooo!

I was visiting the pyramids of Giza, Egypt, in the company of Mark Lehner, a renowned Egyptologist, when suddenly a series of voices broke out and echoed throughout the site. Our small group turned to face the commotion, wondering what had happened – and if something was wrong.

Instead, we saw the happy faces of an approaching group of men running barefoot through the sand, some of them with bags and other gear in tow. Their faces were sweaty under the sun and their loads heavy, but their frequent screams gave the scene a festive feeling.

It turns out that their jovial entrance coincided with our own arrival at Dr. Lehner’s dig site, where the archaeologist and his team at Ancient Egypt Research Associates, or AERA, uncover the The lost city of the pyramids.

The energetic workers are led by Sayed Salah, whom they respectfully call their “rais”, the Arabic word for “leader”. Their excavation work is grueling and laborious – but there is a more subtle and deeper level, as Dr. Lehner explained.

Many of the men, most of whom hail from Abusir, a small town near Saqqara, see themselves as part of an esteemed team, linking them since the Egyptians who originally erected the pyramids.

Evidence uncovered over the past few decades suggests that the workers who built the Great Pyramids were not bonded laborers, as has long been believed. In fact, the work was probably done by paid laborers who were housed in nearby barracks. According to papyrus fragments discovered by Pierre Tallet, Egyptologist and co-author (with Dr. Lehner) of the book “The Red Sea Scrolls”, work was considered a noble and respectable profession.

And the parallel between the good humor of today’s workers and a new image of those of the past was clear to see. Along with the bounties and celebratory feasts that come with this work, these men firmly believed that they were continuing the important work of their pioneering predecessors.

I was in the presence of Dr. Lehner and his contemporary team as part of a historical private tour of the Giza pyramids, organized by the travel agency Your Private Africa. On special occasions, Dr. Lehner joins the group in leading historical journeys through Egypt for guests and patrons of his archaeological and research projects, a body of work that spans nearly 40 year.

My last visit to the pyramids was almost exactly 10 years ago, just before the start of the Arab Spring revolution. While Egypt has gone through a torrent of change over the past decade, political and otherwise, these ancient wonders have remained as majestic and otherworldly as they ever were – although, as the Dr. Lehner’s own work regularly demonstrates, there is still much to learn about the structures and the people who made and used them. With his vast expertise, constant commentary, and insider status (I lost track of the large number of government officials, other Egyptologists, and guides who greeted him throughout the tour), my experience this time, last November, was undoubtedly richer.

Seeing the Pyramids of Giza again – iconic landmarks that thousands of visitors take photos of every day – was also a richer experience for me as a photographer. And that was largely because of an unexpected joker: it rained.

In this part of the world, rainfall is a real rarity; the area typically sees less than an inch each year. And yet, “bad” weather often makes for good photos. Light streaks or interesting cloud cover can let you see things in a different way. This can be especially useful when trying to capture such heavily photographed locations.

So I considered it a stroke of luck when Mother Nature provided a rarefied dramatic backdrop just as we approached the Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo. This remarkable pyramid, I learned, is the second built by Sneferu, the founding pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt. (His successor, Khufu, went on to build the famous Great Pyramid of Giza.) Egyptologists now see the Bent Pyramid as a critical step towards building a strictly pyramidal tomb.

Mother Nature wasn’t done with her show yet, either. A strong dust storm swirled around the step pyramid of Djoser, which is part of the Saqqara necropolis located about 30 km south of Cairo. Masks and scarves were brought out as we arrived, with some people ducking for shelter from the opaque wall of airborne sand.

The season for sandstorms and the winds that cause them are known as khamsin, the Arabic word for “50”, referring to the 50 days of potential storms that arrive in late winter or early spring. From my perspective though, seeing Egypt’s most famous ancient treasures in such dramatic circumstances only made these inimitable structures more otherworldly.

I continue to follow Dr. Lehner’s fascinating excavation work through regular dispatches he sends to his research supporters. He is currently excavating sand from a Giza-based excavation site called Heit al-Ghurab, a 4,500-year-old settlement that includes two different ancient towns, a delivery dock, and several identifiable main streets. His day-to-day considerations – which he says consist of testing “beautiful theories” against “sometimes ugly facts” – range from hypothesizing the ability of cattle to pass through certain ancient openings to the exact use of a area of ​​the settlement he called the Alright Corral. (“OK”, in this case, cleverly means “Old Empire”.)

And so I eagerly await its conclusions. As I’ve watched him firsthand, I know the workers scavenging the sites next to him will be there to happily cheer on any new information the team unearths.

Tanveer Badal is a Los Angeles-based travel, architectural and lifestyle photographer. You can follow his work on instagram.



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