“Yallah, yallah, yallah! wooo††
I was visiting the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, in the company of Mark Lehner, a famous Egyptologist, when suddenly a series of voices erupted and reverberated throughout the site. Our small group turned to face the commotion, wondering what had happened — and if anything was wrong.
Instead, we saw the happy faces of an approaching group of men running barefoot through the sand, some with bags and other gear in tow. Their faces were sweaty under the sun and their loads heavy, but their frequent booing gave the scene a sense of celebration.
As it turned out, their jovial entry coincided with our own arrival at Dr. Lehner, where the archaeologist and his team from the Ancient Egypt Research Associates, or AERA, de 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 labor-intensive – but there is a subtler, 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 a valued team, one that links them all the way back to the Egyptians who initially built the pyramids.
Evidence uncovered in recent decades suggests that the workers who built the great pyramids were not slave laborersas has long been commonly believed. In fact, the work was probably done by paid laborers housed in nearby barracks. According to papyri fragments discovered by Pierre Tallet, an Egyptologist and the co-author (along with Dr. Lehner) of the book “The Red Sea Scrolls”, the work was considered a noble, respectable profession.
And the parallel between the cheerfulness of the workers of today and a new image of that of the past was plain to see. In addition to the bonuses and festive parties that come with this job, these men firmly believed that they were continuing the important work of their innovative predecessors.
I was in the presence of Dr. Lehner and his contemporary crew as part of a history-driven private tour of the Pyramids of Giza organized by the travel agency Your private Africa† On special occasions, Dr. Lehner teamed up with the group to lead historical tours of Egypt for guests and patrons of his archaeological and research projects, spanning nearly 40 years.
My last visit to the pyramids was almost exactly 10 years ago, just before the Arab Spring revolution started. While Egypt has gone through a torrent of changes, both political and otherwise, over the past decade, these ancient wonders have remained as majestic and otherworldly as they once were—although, as Dr. Lehner’s own work regularly shows, there is still plenty to learn about the structures and the people who made and used them. With his broad expertise, constant commentary, and insider status (I lost track of the vast number of government officials, other Egyptologists, and guides greeting him on the tour), my experience this time, last November, was undoubtedly richer.
Seeing the pyramids of Giza again – iconic monuments that thousands of visitors take pictures of every day – was also a richer experience for me as a photographer. And that was largely due to one unexpected wildcard: it was raining.
In this part of the world, rainfall is a real rarity; the area generally sees less than an inch per year. And yet ‘bad’ weather often makes for good photography. Streaks of light or interesting clouds can make you see things differently. That can be especially useful when capturing locations that are photographed so heavily.
So I considered it a stroke of luck when Mother Nature provided a rarefied dramatic backdrop just as we approached the curved pyramid at Dahshur, about 40 miles south of Cairo. This remarkable pyramid, I learned, is the second built by Sneferu, the founder of the Pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt. (His successor, Khufu, went on to build the famous Great Pyramid at Giza.) Egyptologists now view the Curved Pyramid as a crucial step toward building a strictly pyramidal tomb.
Mother Nature wasn’t done with her show yet either. A heavy dust storm swirled around the Step Pyramid of Djoser, part of the Saqqara necropolis located some 30 kilometers south of Cairo. Masks and scarves were taken out when we arrived, and some people ducked into hiding from the opaque wall of sand in the sky.
The season of sandstorms, and the winds that cause them, are known as the khamsin, the Arabic word for “50,” referring to the 50 days of potential storms arriving in late winter or early spring. But from my perspective, seeing Egypt’s most famous ancient treasures under such dramatic conditions only made these inimitable structures all the more otherworldly.
I continue to see the fascinating excavation work of Dr. Lehner through regular messages that he sends to his research assistants. He is currently sifting through the sands of a dig in Giza called Heit el-Ghurabi, a 4,500-year-old settlement with two different ancient cities, a supply bay, and several recognizable main streets. His day-to-day considerations — all of which he jokes are about testing “beautiful theories” against sometimes “ugly facts” — range from hypotheses about the ability of livestock to fit through certain ancient openings to the exact use of an area of the settlement that he is the Okay Corral. (“OK,” in this case, clever stands for “Old Kingdom.”)
And so I eagerly await his findings. As I immediately noted, I know that the workers excavating the sites next to him will be there to cheer up any new bit of information the team digs up.