I watched in awe as bits of dust were brushed gingerly off the wall. Mr. Garvin, who supervised the excavation, turned around and looked in my direction. I quickly put my head down and stared at the journal on my lap, pretending to take notes, as I was told to. “Mr. Garvin!” Dr. Collins exclaimed. The head archeologist pointed to the wall he was uncovering, and from a quick glance I noticed an ornate drawing stretching from the floor to the ceiling. “What is it?” Mr. Garvin asked. “It’s Anubis, the Egyptian god of death. If this is here, we may be close to the burial chamber,” Dr. Collins added. “Oh, how wonderful!” Mr. Garvin said. “That’s enough work for the day, let’s all go home and pick up again tomorrow.” I saw the glimmer of excitement in the eyes of the archeologists fade away. “Can’t we just stay for an hour or so longer?” One of the younger, newer archeologists asked. Mr. Garvin gave him a look that said “absolutely not”. “Oh, just half an hour?” he pleaded. “Hurry on out. We have to lock this place up.” The workers all exchanged glances of disappointment. “Alright men. Let’s get out of here.” He led the group of unhappy archeologists out of the room. “You too,” he added, turning to me. I grabbed my journal, stood up, brushed the dirt off of my dress, and left the room.
After crawling through the tight, narrow passages of the ancient pyramid, I assisted the group with tying a thick rope around our excavation site, the one activity involving physical labor that I was allowed to partake in. Being a woman, I was denied the opportunity to participate in archeological digs, despite that I had the same credentials as the rest of my colleagues. When I had applied for my first job three years ago, I was outraged to hear that I wasn’t allowed to do the digging. “For goodness sake, this is 1921!” I had said in shock to the man interviewing me. It had outraged me, but in the end, I realized that my only options were watching the digging, or not doing anything at all. At least I got to see the pyramids. Me and the other archeologists piled ourselves into the back of an old, beat-up automobile, and our guide, native to Egypt, turned on the motor and started driving away. The engine roared and clouds of dust and sand flew behind the car as we drove off into the seemingly never-ending desert.
9:30, my pocket watch read. I paced around my yurt, for I couldn’t seem to sleep. The round, deer-skin tent looked even smaller then it was, for the yurt was furnished in fixtures meant for a rectangular space. The entire place was covered in furniture, a bed, a sofa, a small electric stove for cooking. I sat down on the sofa. It was outdated, probably more than twenty years old, and the ornate woodwork on the top was chipped. A little bug crawled along the ripped, peach-pink fabric, and I squashed it with my fist. I leaned back and sighed. I had made it this far. There had to be a way I could make a difference, there had to be something I could do to find out more. I had always dreamed of wandering freely through the pyramids, and in the three months I had been in Egypt, I hadn’t gotten a single chance to slip away from the archeologists, even for a moment. I went over to the bed I slept on and pulled out my suitcase from underneath it. The small, dark leather suitcase was all I brought from home. In it were three outfits, multiple journals for taking notes in the pyramids, and a moving picture magazine. Since the excavation supervisor checked our bags before and after the trip, we couldn’t bring anything that we didn’t want him to see. However, everyone found a way to hide something special to them. For me, it was my collection of information on ancient Egypt. Since I was a little girl, I had been collecting photographs and newspaper clippings on the subject. The information was very important to me, and I usually kept the papers in a metal box, but for the trip, I shoved the articles between the thick pages of the moving picture magazine, and Mr. Garvin didn’t suspect a thing. I took the magazine out of the neatly packed suitcase, and waved it around so the papers would fall out. Years and years of my collected information flew out of the pages of the magazine, photographs and newspaper articles scattered on the floor around my feet. I looked at all the articles. Tomb of King Tutankhamen Discovered, was the title of one. Half of my time in Egypt had passed. Tomorrow, I decided, I would finally go on my own and discover something. It would be amazing, it would be new, whatever I found would change the way we studied ancient Egypt. The other archeologists would finally respect me as one of them. I imaged the headline of all the newspapers being Phyllis Razner Discovers Ancient Secrets in Egypt. It would be accompanied by a photograph of me along with some artifacts that I would have uncovered. I couldn’t wait for the next day to come. I could finally sneak away and change the world! However, it took me an hour to realize that the feeling keeping me awake wasn’t excitement, it was fear.
I looked around once, twice just to make sure. My palms were sweaty and I could barely hold my pencil still. I was shaking in fright, but I knew this was the only chance I would get. Mr. Garvin, Dr. Collins, and all the others were gathered around the doorway in the pyramid, laughing and rejoicing at the discovery of the path to what Dr. Collins said might be the burial chamber. For once, no one was paying any attention to what I was doing. I got up and ran out of the room, trying to be quiet and avoid anyone seeing me. Once a safe distance from the room, a feeling of relief and terror washed over me. I’m here! I’m finally here! One voice in my head said. What now? What if we get caught? What if we get lost? Another asked. I tried to clear my mind and just continued walking on.
I crawled through tight tunnels, narrow passages, and wide, open corridors, fascinated at every turn. In one room, I saw an ornate statue of the god Ra sitting against the wall. Placing my journal on the floor, I carefully walked over to the statue and touched it. A chill went through my body. I had been studying Egypt for many years, and now, I was touching, really touching, something from the time period. I noticed a small hole in the back of the statue and looked through it. To my surprise, it looked right into the room where the archeologists were! “Where on earth did she go?” Mr. Garvin asked. “I don’t know! But we shouldn’t have trusted her. Who knows where she is now?” Milton Price, another archeologist replied. I swallowed hard. Milton was a close friend of mine. “Yes! She could ruin our whole dig now that she’s gone!” Said a young college student who was currently studying to be an archeologist. He was clearly just trying to sound like he knew what he was talking about, and Mr. Garvin raised his eyebrow and stared at him. I didn’t know how much time had passed, or how close I was to the room, but I knew that I had to get as far away from the others as possible. I left the room with the statue of Ra and continued to run, as fast as I could, through the chambers of the pyramid.
I stopped to take a breather, not paying attention to anything but the fierce pounding of my heart. Once I had regained my breath, I looked up and examined the room I was in. The walls were covered floor to ceiling with faded hieroglyphs and drawings, and scattered around were large jars, small models of boats, and in one corner of the room a-a sarcophagus? I ran over to the large coffin, and as I used all my strength to lift the heavy lid, my heart beat rapidly with anticipation and excitement. Under the wooden lid I had uncovered laid a golden coffin with the stern face of king Djoser engraved on it. In some time, I had lifted up two more ornate coverings, not even thinking about what possible damage I might do to the tomb. Finally, I got to the body of the Egyptian king Djoser himself. It was in amazing condition for the thousands of years that had passed, and I could have sat there, thinking about how lucky I was, thinking about how amazing this was, how much the other archeologists would love to see this, how discoveries like this were the ones that changed the world. But instead, I just reached out my hand and touched King Djoser’s centuries-old face.
What happened then I can’t quite recall. I felt like I was falling, but my legs were on a hard surface, I tried to remove my hand from the coffin, but I couldn’t. There was a churning feeling in my stomach, a sharp pain in my head, and I fell to the floor with a crash.
The moment I woke up I knew something unusual was going on. I heard strange music playing off in the distance, and the damp, musty old smell that usually filled the pyramid was gone. My back ached as I stood up. Where next? I thought. I went out of the room, and crawled back through the tunnels to the room where the archeologists had been digging. I went into the room, but there was no one in sight. “Hello? Mr. Garvin? Dr. Collins? Where are you?” I called. I wandered through a few more rooms, until I finally found someone. But the Egyptian-looking man wearing a light cloth robe wasn’t one of the archeologists. “Excuse me, Sir?” I asked. It appeared that he hadn’t noticed me yet. He looked up at me and frowned. The man said something in a foreign language. At first I stared at him blankly, but then realized that I understood what he was saying. It was in ancient Egyptian! I had studied the language for many years, but had never heard anyone actually speak it before. He had said “Get out of here!” I thought hard for a moment, trying to remember how to say the words I was thinking in Egyptian. “Could you possibly tell me where the people are?” I asked him.
“The ones who I came with.”
“But there aren’t any others.”
“What happened to the people? Did they leave? Are they searching for me?”
The man just shook his head, puzzled. He looked me up and down and then sat on the ground, taking a clay bowl of paint, dipping his brush in it, and then running the gold paint along the wall to make a pattern. “Don’t do that!” I shouted in ancient Egyptian. “It’s going to ruin the pyramid!” “I’m just doing my job,” he said. I shook my head, furious that anyone would ruin the ancient pyramid. I was about to grab the paint from the man’s hands when he added “The pharaoh would fire me if I didn’t.”
“Of course a person like you doesn’t know how honorable it is to work for King Djoser.”
“Yes. I work for King Djoser. And if you don’t get out of the pyramid, I’m going to tell him that a woman was sneaking around in his pyramid.”
I was perplexed. I left the man and found my way out of the pyramid. Throughout the building, men dressed like him were painting ornate Egyptian designs along the walls. Was this some sort of a joke? Were my colleagues pretending it was ancient Egypt to fool me? I continued to walk through the pyramid until I reached the exit. As I stepped outside, I blinked hard, for seeing the blinding desert sunlight after spending so much time inside the dark tunnels of the pyramid made my vision blurry. People in Egyptian clothing walked about, and resting in a large, ornate chair, overseeing the men and women running around with buckets of water, food, paint, and clay, was, it was impossible, it couldn’t be true, but before my eyes, the stern face of King Djoser nodded in my direction.
I couldn’t stop staring at him. I really was in ancient Egypt. The thought was mesmerizing, wonderful, and terrifying at the same time. I didn’t know how it was possible, but there he was, there I was, in ancient Egypt. And not just in ancient Egypt. If the king Djoser was still alive, still ruling, we must have been in the Old Kingdom. As I had learned in college, it was a wonderful time in Egypt, full of new art, new ideas, and immense wealth. I turned and observed what was around me, fascinated by everything surrounding me. How amazing would this be, I thought, for the other archeologists to see? If I had really discovered a way to go back to ancient Egypt, I would be famous. Reporters from around the world would be coming to talk to me, I would have all the nicest things… “King Djoser wants to speak with you,” a young man in heavy armor said to me in ancient Egyptian, interrupting my fantasy. “Oh, um, yes, of course!” I said, following after him. My mind was swirling with so many different thoughts, but I decided to clear my head and focus on whatever was about to happen. The young man leading me halted, and I nervously approached the Egyptian king. “Hello, sir,” I said to the king. I had studied Egypt for a long time, but in this moment of confusion and shock, couldn’t quite recall how to treat a king, let alone an ancient one. “Why are you wandering in my tomb?” King Djoser asked. His voice was gravelly and deep, and his words stuck in my head long after he had finished them. “Sir, I didn’t mean to. I merely-” I stopped then, trying desperately to find a way to explain what had happened. I barely knew what had happened, and didn’t think I could possibly find a way to explain to Djoser what had happened. But I didn’t need to, for the king interrupted me. “An explanation will not be necessary. In return for your actions, you will work for me for...” He paused for a moment. “Three months.” “Sir, I-” I started to respond, but remembered that it was unacceptable to argue with a pharaoh, and as a few of Djoser’s guards grabbed me under the arms and put me in the back of a chariot, I could barely think straight.
Two weeks later, I had gotten somewhat familiar with life as an Egyptian servant. At the palace, I entertained the king and his guests, so I guess I lucked out, for I could have ended up with much worse jobs. Each day I rose and got dressed in ancient Egyptian clothing, which I found rather humorous, for after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb a few years ago, clothing made to look Egyptian had sold for hundreds of dollars. I thought it was quite interesting to live in ancient Egypt, and I have to admit that I actually quite enjoyed my time. However, when my busy days were done, I could never stop wondering how I would get home.
“Ahem! Ladies! May I have your attention!” One of the king’s guards said to us, interrupting the conversation that the other entertainers and I were having. We all turned around and looked at him. Usually on afternoons like this we went into town, but today was particularly hot and windy, so we had to stay inside. “The king has hired new people to entertain him,” the guard continued. “You all have been demoted to servers.” We all looked at him in shock. “I was just told to relay that message to you. Have a nice day.” The guard walked away as if nothing had happened. Of course, I thought. A guard like him, set for life, has no idea what it’s like to be a servant, never quite sure of what’s going to happen to them next. I realized what I was thinking and shook it out of my head. I was really starting to act like I fit in here, but I didn’t. I would have to find a way out of ancient Egypt, and soon.
I sat in bed that night, thinking of possible ways to escape. It seemed like an appropriate time to pace around the room, but if I did, the other servants who shared my sleeping quarters would become suspicious. When Djoser’s guards had taken me out of the pyramid and to Egypt’s capital, Memphis, I was so worried about what would happen that I hadn’t payed any attention to the route we took, and in the vast desert, it was easy to get lost. So, if I did run away, I would just have to hope that I was going in the right direction. It was hard, and the thought of leaving the palace, full of food, safety, and information on Egypt that I could discover, opening up the possibility of being wanted, or caught, it was terrifying. But I couldn’t stay in ancient Egypt forever.
Twenty minutes, I thought. Only twenty minutes. I wish there was more time. But there’s only twenty minutes. You have to go, now! All the servants were off at breakfast, but I had stayed behind to seize my chance to escape. I dressed in the outfit I came to ancient Egypt in, it was the only outfit I had with me that wouldn’t make me look like a servant of the king, and I quietly slipped through the door that connected the servants’ quarters to the outdoors.
I panicked for a moment when I left the building. It had been easy, so incredibly easy, that it almost didn’t seem like I really had escaped. But yet there I was, standing outside, no longer trapped working for a man who ruled a distant land thousands of years before my birth. I was free, finally free, but the sense of relief also came with worry that I might get caught. Run, a voice in my head ordered me, run now!
The wind, if anything, was worse than the previous day. As I ran wildly through the desert, I had to use both of my hands to shield my eyes from the clouds of sand that flew through the air. I had an idea of how I might be able to find my way back to the pyramid of Djoser. One thing I could do was ask a local about the pyramid’s location, but they might not know about it, or otherwise they might ask why I needed to go there, which, of course, I could not answer. And it was only a matter of time before the king and his servants realized that I had gone, and if any people knew of my whereabouts, palace guards would surely find and punish me. I decided for the time being to just wander on, getting as far away from Memphis as possible, and hoping that I would be lucky enough to find my way back to the pyramid.
Hours passed. I hadn’t found the pyramid yet, and my feet were sore and blistered. My eyes stung, for little bits of dirt and sand had found their way inside. I longed to take a rest, but knew that I had to keep on walking, and I was positive that palace guards were out searching for me on horseback. Suddenly, I spotted the faint outline a large, triangular building off in the distance. I was suddenly filled with hope and excitement, and forgetting my pain and worry, ran as fast as my legs could carry me off towards the pyramid.
I found the entrance to the building and quickly went inside to protect myself from the sand, not caring if anyone else was there. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was relieved to find myself alone. Sitting down on the hard limestone floor, I deeply breathed in and out, clearing my mind for a moment to relax.
I lifted up my head, and realized that I had fallen asleep. “Phyllis!” I said out loud. My voice echoed in the empty, cavernous room, frightening me. Don’t doze off. You don’t have all the time in the world! I silently scolded myself, then got up, and went searching for King Djoser’s burial chamber. I walked through passageways that I recognized from the dig. It amazed me how little the pyramid had changed in those thousands and thousands of years from ancient Egypt to 1924. Finally, I found my way into what I knew was the burial chamber. Yes! Finally! I thought. Relief washed over me, but when I looked down and saw no coffin, my heart sank.
“Oh, no,” I whispered, letting my legs collapse to the floor. In all the commotion and excitement of finding the pyramid, I had completely forgotten that the Egyptian king wasn’t dead yet, and therefore wouldn’t be in his tomb. I lied down on the cold floor and stared up at the half-finished drawings of Anubis on the ceiling. I felt tears roll down my cheeks. I’ll be stuck in ancient Egypt forever. The thought was terrible. I missed my own bed, stuffed with feathers, not straw, and I missed modern conveniences. I had never really imagined what life would be like without ice boxes and stoves, how people got by without having things like canned soup and vegetables on hand.
I shook my head and stood up. No, I told myself, you’re not done yet, Phyllis. There was a way to come to ancient Egypt, and there has to be a way to go out. I stood up and wiped the tears from my face, shook my head, took a deep breath, and started slowly making my way around the room, touching everything in the room, hoping that something would take me home.
Not that, no, not this one, I sighed with disappointment. I had touched everything. The floor, all four walls, the jars of paint scattered on the floor, but I still was in ancient Egypt. Frustrated, I took one more look around the room to see if I had missed anything. “Uh! Nothing!” I looked up, clenching my teeth, and realized that there was one thing I hadn’t touched in the room so far.
I went over to the part of the room with the painting of Anubis, gathered all my strength, and jumped up to the ceiling.
The next few moments were far more painful than my arrival to ancient Egypt. My left hand was stuck to the ceiling, but the rest of my body hung down, and it felt as if my arm was being pulled off. In a painful crash, I fell head first to the floor, and saw my last view of ancient Egypt, a blurry flash of colors.
I woke up with a jolt and discovered a thin line of blood tricking down my forehead. I wiped the blood on the corner of my dress and stood up, relieved to find that King Djoser’s mummified body was sitting next to me. I got up, and ran into the part of the pyramid where the archeologists had been weeks ago, not quite sure what to expect.
To my surprise, they were all still in the room. “Excuse me,” I said, walking in, relieved to be back home. “There you are!” Mr. Garvin said. “We’ve all been looking for you, it’s been two hours!” “Two hours? That’s all?” I asked, amazed and confused. “Where on earth were you?” Milton Price said, walking over. I decided not to tell them about my odd journey to ancient Egypt, but rather just let them see the tomb I had discovered. “Come with me,” I told the large group. “I have something to show you.”
March 14, 1953
When people talk to me about the time I spent as a historian in Egypt, I always tell them about my strange experience with the acclaimed archeologist Phyllis Razner, whom I met when I was a college student back in 1942. Ms. Razner became the world’s first famous female archeologist when she discovered the tomb of King Djoser in 1924. She had always been an inspiration to me, and I had the honor of meeting with her. We spent some time together walking through the tomb she had discovered, and Ms. Razner said to me “You see, Emily, I’ve always loved exploring tombs. Since the very beginning, it’s been a sort of,” she paused for a while. “..Magic.” And as if on cue, a young Egyptian man appeared from the burial chamber. Ms. Razner had told me that we were the only ones in the pyramid, yet she did not seem very surprised to see the person who came. The man looked at the two of us, puzzled. “Do not worry, young man.” Ms. Razner said, in ancient Egyptian, a lost language from thousands of years ago. “Welcome to the twentieth century.”
I never understood what Ms. Razner meant, or who the man was, but I imagine that it’s all just part of the magic that Phyllis Razner was ever so fond of.