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Going Underground in Thebes, 1975

June 9, 2010

1) View of Thebes from Luxor

It wasn’t long before we arrived at the first tomb on our trip to Thebes.  We tied the donkeys to a convenient wooden fence outside the structure, a plain mastaba, and looked inside.  A guard watched us as we felt the worn relief carvings in the wall.

2) Tomb in the Valley of the Kings – this one was open to tourists: Photo by Ken and Peg Herring

“It says here that this tomb dates from 1100 BC.  A minor noble of some sort,” I said, referring to the information on the map.

“What is that over in the corner?”  Gerard pointed to a chink in the wall, where it looked like a stone had been removed.  A large, rectangular opening framed a black hole.

“I don’t know.”  Stealing a glance at the guard, I noticed he had lost interest, probably resigned to the strange ways of rich foreigners who came to walk among the dead.  What difference could it make?  These heathens, dead for centuries, had nothing to offer a true believer.

Gerard’s voice brought me back from my ruminations about the caretaker.  “I think there is a tunnel in back of the tomb.  Why don’t we check it out?  Who knows what might be back in there.”

“I don’t know.  It’s roped off.”

“So?  That is to keep inquisitive fat old tourists from hurting themselves.  We might find something interesting.  Do you have a torch with you?  I have a little one.  Let’s do it.”

Gerard disappeared into the spider hole without a backward glance.

I looked back at the two donkeys we rode up the hill to the site.  They stared blankly at the ground, swatting flies with their tails.  It was deathly hot outside in the sun, and the animals had wearily resigned themselves to the absence of shade.  The path to the valley of the Nile River dropped a hundred vertical feet behind us.

Shining my flashlight into the dust and gloom, I bent over and crawled into the passage.  The sand on the floor scratched at the palms of my hands and I squeezed through the opening, hoping the tomb’s guard hadn’t seen us step over the rope formally indicating that the tunnel was out of bounds.  Suddenly the floor dropped away and I found myself falling.  I fought tenaciously to hold my balance, but plummeted to the bottom, bumping and scraping against the bare stone.

“There you are,” Gerard said, his voice piercing the sudden silence.  Grit and dirt wafted through the freshly disturbed air, caught in the beam of his flashlight.  We had landed inside a chamber, cut from solid bedrock.  Its exact dimensions were unclear, but it had a rectangular shape, with an uneven floor of dirt.  I shone my own light around the circumference of the room.  No hieroglyphs, paintings or other decorations graced the walls.  The chamber looked unfinished, and it smelled of decay and corruption.

“Damn it,” Gerard muttered.  The bulb on his torch flickered and then went dead.  Now we had only one source of illumination.

“No worries,” I said, more confidently than I felt.  The passage back to the surface was located directly behind me, but I didn’t fancy trying to find it in the dark should my light fail.  I pointed the beam toward the center of the chamber and gave a weak yell.

Propped up over a pile of rocks a mummy stood, leaning drunkenly to the left.  It was naked and the head was missing.

“Mon dieu,” Gerard whispered.  “What is this crazy thing?”

“Just a minute.”  I crawled over to it, bumping my head on the low ceiling.  I examined the body without touching it.  The torso seemed relatively intact.  Through dried brown skin the ribcage stood out like that of a starved concentration camp victim.

“Let me pass you my camera.  You can take a picture of me beside it.”

“Ok.”  I didn’t really know what else to say.  He in turn picked his way across the floor and crouched near the mummy.  “Ready?” he asked.

I snapped a picture, the flash temporarily blinding both of us.  While my eyes readjusted to the dim light, Gerard reached closer to our find.  “Hey,” he said.  “Look here, on top of the neck.  “What are these marks on the top of the body?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think the mummy has been chewed.”  I studied it closer.  Sure enough, on the body, where the neck would have been attached to the torso, there were the clear marks of teeth. Shit.  What kind of tooth marks?  And why was it propped up like an object of devotion?

I looked at my friend.  My skin began to crawl, and my chest tightened.  Suddenly a rush of claustrophobia, call it what you like, a voice inside my head screamed, Get out!

Out loud, I called to Gerard, “I’m going to go back to the surface.”  Like a person backing away from a shark in the water, my first moves were calm and deliberate, but my body began to move of its own volition, as if the autonomic nervous system had taken command.  I scrambled to the tunnel that reached back to the tomb above.  My hands clawed through the dirt and gravel, seeking purchase, with Gerard close behind.

With a final effort I pulled free of the horrid chamber and climbed up.  My head burst through the opening and I took a solid gulp of fresh air.  Not three feet away stood a guard, a simple Egyptian peasant in a galabiya who received a few piastres a day for standing watch at the tomb site.  He shouted in Arabic, no doubt challenging our behavior.

Apparently we shouldn’t have gone exploring by ourselves underground.

3) Well above ground – life on the Nile: Photo by Ken and Peg Herring

4) Crossing from Luxor to Thebes, looking silly: photo by MC Couture


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