It is 6am as we head out of Cairo along the west bank of the Nile. “We’re not going to Giza,” our guide Eman says decisively. “That’s for tourists.”
Instead we are going south to the Red Pyramid in Dahshur, the first sheer-sided pyramid, which was built around 2600 BC. “We will even be able to go inside to see the tomb!” Eman says excitedly.
As we stand at the foot of the 101-metre-tall pyramid, Eman explains that we have to clamber up the sloping stone face to reach the entrance, which lies at a height of 27 metres. The site is deserted and as we squeeze through the low narrow entrance we feel a sense of trepidation, as though we are about to discover a secret treasure.
Half bent over, we make our way down the long steep corridor. After about 40 metres we emerge in the first burial chamber which is covered in hieroglyphs. “Here you can see the name of the pharaoh,” Eman says while she scans the walls with her torch. “And this passage is about his life…”
“You can read hieroglyphs?” we exclaim in amazement.
“Yes,” she says with a smile. “I studied this language for four years. Here is a list of what the king wanted to take to the afterworld. The Ancient Egyptians believed that everything depicted on the walls of his tomb would materialise in the pharaoh’s afterlife.” We start wondering if she could be the reincarnation of Imhotep, King Djoser’s doctor and high priest, and the architect who created the first step pyramid.
The first chamber leads to a second chamber, which in turn leads to a third, all connected by low tunnels. We are at the very centre of the pyramid – deep, dark and mysterious. This is how the first archaeologists who entered these tombs must have felt.
After more than an hour of exploring we make our way back up into the world of the living and are welcomed by bright sunlight and dry desert air. We head for Memphis, one of the oldest cities on earth and the capital of the Old Kingdom. “Can we also go to the Great Pyramid in Giza?” we ask tentatively. Eman, who abhors anything to do with mass tourism, frowns but eventually gives in with a smile. “Ok, but only to take a picture of the Sphinx!”