Finding wisdom on the road
July 26th, 2023
Naked in a Pyramid: Travels and Observations by Yosef Wosk (Anvil Press $24.95)
by Yosef Wosk
The Great Pyramid of Giza, with its neighbouring Sphinx, is the only Wonder of the Ancient World that still exists. It was the earth’s tallest man-made structure for almost 4,000 years.
Initially, I entered the once-hidden core of the Great Pyramid with a group of tourists, as was customary, to access both the Queen’s and the King’s chambers. Hours later, with the help of bakshish and a long-shirted gallibaya-garbed guide named Ibrahim, I illegally climbed the Great Pyramid after midnight.
The vertical height of the Great Pyramid is 449 feet, roughly equivalent to a 45-storey building if measured vertically, but the extended slant height of each face is 610 feet. Perched on the outer shell of the greatest building of antiquity, under the hypnotic gaze of a full moon, I found myself ascending from the desert floor at a precipitous 51.5º angle of incline.
It was much more harrowing than anticipated. Half-way up I became petrified, feeling I could neither continue the climb nor descend to terra firma below. I desperately projected that the only way I could be rescued from the man-made mountain was if a helicopter lowered a rope and lifted me to safety. Seduced by the siren song of gravity’s ghost and with desert winds urging me to let go, I contemplated suicide, not out of depression but with a dramatic leap into what I imagined to be a transcendent realm of eternal peace.
Saved by a sudden vision of the future, I barely managed to restrain myself from stepping into the abyss of certain doom. Still trembling, I closed my eyes, caught my breath, turned to the Great Mother and embraced her massive bones.
I share these sensations with you reluctantly even now, wary of reigniting the trauma. I felt I was willing to sacrifice everything—to die to my limited self, to become a martyr to soul-searching.
I was young and foolish enough—about 35 years old—that I still wanted to accomplish the audacious feat of reaching the summit. With my guide Ibrahim’s assistance, I continued for another frightening hour or two of slow climbing. When I finally arrived at the top of the pyramid, I discovered that it had lost its cap and a few layers of stone. The structure is about thirty feet shorter than when it was originally built 4,500 years ago.
The flat area at the crown is about thirty feet in each direction. When I reached it, I was surprised to find that two other explorers who had climbed the pyramid that night were sleeping up there. As I surveyed the rare and magnificent 360º view of the vast moon-lit desert, a gentle ecstasy coursed through my body. I was drunk with danger and exhausted with having grappled with mortality. It was, however, not yet time to fully relax.
I wanted to remain there forever but after about fifteen minutes we decided to return. I was concerned that I might be discovered and arrested by the Egyptian police for trespassing on a heritage monument and endangering life—my own. The descent took about an hour, my body carefully hugging each block before dropping onto the ledge of the one below.
It was about 5 a.m. when I sunk to the ground and kissed it with a profound sense of accomplishment mixed with having been delivered from imminent death. As it turned out, this was just a prelude to an equally memorable experience….
With special permission from the Ministry of State for Antiquities, I re-entered the Great Pyramid the following day with a small group of foreign visitors and stumbled cautiously, backwards, down a narrow, low, dim, claustrophobic-inducing shaft leading to mysterious chambers beneath the pyramid.
Only a few carried flashlights to illuminate the diagonal passageway for the others. The carved rock slanted corridor was not tall enough to stand up in so we had to remain crouched. Most of the time we lowered ourselves slowly on our hands and knees or upon our bellies.
When some were suddenly struck with claustrophobic panic attacks and needed to escape to the surface, they had to wait for others to pause in somewhat larger crevices where two people could hardly pass with some difficulty.
The air was dank and stale. Sound was muted. We navigated by touch and trust more than by sight or logic. Then another fear crept in: perhaps the 2,300,000 blocks of stone weighing some 6,500,000 tons, and stacked directly overhead, might collapse upon us. Apprehensive, a couple more adventurers withdrew from the crypt, scrambled up the confined tunnel and quickly exited through the guarded exterior gate.
The deeper we descended, the thinner the oxygen became, and the more one felt prone to hallucinations.
After about twenty minutes of inching down the narrow passageway, we arrived at what seemed like two large subterranean caverns with high ceilings and a series of sub-caves. We were a hundred feet beneath the pyramid. The King’s Chamber was concealed higher up within the pyramid so possibly these chambers were originally intended to be the pharaoh’s final resting place.
Letting the others proceed, I chose a secluded corner of one of the rough-hewn caverns and—in the dark, bereft of cover, and yet buried deep beneath the earth—I removed my clothes.
Having abandoned the trappings of civilization and perceiving nothing but an ethereal cradle of Pure Essence, I emptied my mind and contemplated existence.
In the belly of the beast, I performed one more unthinkable act. No, not that, although I imagine that over the centuries more than one expression of endless blind passion had been consummated in the chasmic womb of Egypt.
In a small backpack, I had a bottle of water and my tefillin (phylacteries), small leather boxes containing Hebrew texts, Jewish prayer amulets inscribed with words from the Torah. I placed one of them around my head—something that helped to activate my crown chakra. The second one was wrapped seven times around my left arm as a sign of aligning physical action with spiritual forces.
It might have been the only time in history this was done in a pyramid—certainly by a man as naked as Adam. This private ceremony connected me to the heritage of my birth tradition as a member of the tribe of Levi, and to the Exodus from the very civilization that built this extraordinary structure. I also felt a direct link to Abraham and Sarah who emerged from Mesopotamia almost 4,800 years previously.
Knowing that I might be underground for a relatively short time, and cloaked in an atmosphere of palpable fear, I focused on meditative imagery, using the power of the pyramid directly overhead to amplify its effects. I allowed my mind to wander into the heart of heaven, there to engage the Infinite, the All and the No Thing.
I was simultaneously vibrant like never before and extinguished as never again. Opinions, beliefs and directions melted away; history was both fulfilled and erased; the personal gave way to the universal.
An hour later, upon emerging from the netherworld into fresh air and warm sunlight, fully clothed and overflowing with gratitude, I felt reborn, wrung from the birth canal all over again.
Like the classic Fool in the Tarot with his knapsack on a pole, divorced from his family and safety, I have often set off, leaving the nest of propriety and security, lured by the notion of wisdom. This was one such pilgrimage, a remnant of treasured memories scattered by the dance of forgotten time.
[This an abridged version of a longer memoir within Yosef Wosk’s first collection of non-fiction, Naked in a Pyramid: Travels and Observations (Anvil Press, $24.95), to be published in October.]