Pacing back and forth across the Giza plateau, Mamdouh El-Damaty, Egypt’s beleaguered minister of antiquities, could scarcely keep a smile from his face as he broke the news of a potentially ground-breaking discovery.
An international team of archaeologists and engineers has identified an “impressive anomaly” at the base of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, also called Cheops, Giza’s largest pyramid.
Temperature differences between stone blocks indicate that there may be hidden chambers or clues to the pyramid’s construction inside. (In recent weeks similar scanning by other researchers in the tomb of King Tut revealed the possibility of a hidden chamber as well.)
“The pyramids have lots of secrets,” Damaty said against a backdrop of enthusiastic applause and the flash of cameras. “And today, Cheops will give us one of his secrets.”
In ordinary circumstances, such a development would likely inspire serious excitement among historians, many of whom still puzzle over the 4,500-year-old structure’s precise composition. But for a country reeling from a weak economy and a barrage of negative publicity that has dissuaded many tourists from visiting, the possibility of unraveling the mystery behind a wonder of the world has taken on a broader significance.
“I think this will be the start of a new science for Egyptologists,” Damaty said, voicing the hopes of desperate local hoteliers and tour guides.
Members of the Scan Pyramid crew, drawn from various Canadian, Egyptian, Japanese, and French institutions, were more circumspect about what they’ve found. “We have to be modest,” said Matthieu Klein of the University of Laval near Montreal. Klein and his colleagues have firm instructions to use only non-intrusive methods of exploration.
Cairo-based Egyptologists, some of whom have been invited to help interpret future findings, are excited about what this development might mean for their understanding of ancient Egyptian history.
“It is amazing that there is yet another passageway—or more than one—inside the pyramid,” said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. “It will help explain the method of construction of this monument. It might also be a physical manifestation of the religious ideas of the ancient Egyptians in terms of how they believed that the soul of the king would travel between this world and the next.”
But Ikram also sounded a cautionary note: “Of course this could just be large fissures, or a single chamber needed for construction.”
Even if the scanning team is onto something big, tour operators say there’s no guarantee visitors will return quickly enough to salvage the livelihoods of millions of Egyptians who rely in some way on tourism.
The accidental killing of eight Mexican tourists on a desert safari in September tarnished an industry that had already been hurt by four years of political instability. The continued fallout from the recent plane crash in the Sinai Peninsula, which most Western governments suspect was caused by a terrorist bomb, is likely to pitch tourist-dependent businesses even farther into the deep freeze.
At the pyramids, horse stables catering to tourists are located only steps from the possible new passageway. The horses appear malnourished because their owners lack the means to adequately feed them.
Marwa Mohammed, a tour guide who has suffered a 90 percent drop in income, came to the minister’s press conference out of curiosity. She said no manner of discoveries will ease her woes.
“Is this good news? Yes of course. But no tunnel will help me feed my family,” she said.
The Ministry of Antiquities announced that scan work will resume in early December after a three week hiatus.