As It Happens

Step inside Egypt's Bent Pyramid — open for the first time in more than 50 years

Egypt has opened the so-called Bent Pyramid to tourists. Egyptologist Salima Ikram welcomes the news and says tourists will have a better experience than she did on her journeys into the previously neglected pyramid.

Egyptologist Salima Ikram says her first trip inside the pyramid was 'very Indiana Jones'

The Bent Pyramid of Sneferu has been opened to the public after restoration work. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)
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Transcript

For the first time in more than 50 years, the ancient Egyptian Bent Pyramid is officially open to the public.

The 4,600-year-old pyramid has been under renovation. And now officials are promoting the freshly renovated monument hoping it will attract tourists eager to visit the towering 101-metre structure.  

Salima Ikram is an Egyptologist with the American University in Cairo. She has ventured into the pyramid's hidden corners a few times over the years — back when it wasn't so fresh and home to colonies of stinky bats.

As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan spoke to Ikram about the pyramid before and after its renovation.

Here is part of their conversation. 

Professor Ikram, tell us, first, why was it called the Bent Pyramid?

Well, this is one pyramid where Egyptologists are very literal. It is bent. It does not have a straight upward slope.

It goes up at one angle and then it suddenly changes its course and becomes far less acute of an angle, giving a bend in its profile.

The Bent Pyramid of King Sneferu, the first pharaoh of Egypt's 4th dynasty, is located in the ancient royal necropolis of Dahshur on the west bank of the Nile River, south of Cairo. (Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

Describe the outside for us.

It is one of the best preserved pyramids in Egypt because it actually has most of its casing stones. The plain, beautiful, white Tura limestone that covered all the pyramids so that they looked like there were these blindingly white walls of these huge pyramids when you saw them from afar.

Originally, all of these pyramids, [on] the top, had a small pyramidion on it, which was made of electrum or gold. And when the sun hit it, it would give off shafts of light.

And so, it really did look like some sort of divine construction, sacred to the sun god.

What do we know about who this pyramid was built for?

This pyramid seems to be built for [Egyptian pharaoh] Sneferu and there has been a lot of debate about Sneferu because he actually has four pyramids. 

They think that maybe as he was building he was giving sort of work to people building projects — national sort of unification kind of projects.

He either was an egomaniac — though all the texts that talk about him say that he was one of the best kings Egypt ever had — or he was very far-sighted and he decided that this was one way of unifying the country and making sure that people could be paid.

He had four pyramids. So what we think is that he might have also been trying to get it right.

And so the pyramid at Meidum, which had the really acute angle and didn't work out so well was try number one. The Bent Pyramid was try no. 2. There was a small pyramid elsewhere, which was probably try no. 3. And then, of course, the wonderful Red Pyramid, which was perfect.

People gather during an inaugural ceremony in front of the Bent Pyramid. (Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

You have been inside the Bent Pyramid. What does it look like? What does it smell like?

I went in when it had just been opened for scholars. So there was no infrastructure. What there was was leftover from the excavations.

Basically, we clambered over this sheer face and holed ourselves up to sort of halfway up the pyramid.

And then, there's a descending corridor, which was pitch black. But there were still rails left over from when they were removing the debris.

So we had to put our foot on either side of the rails and sort of go down on our bums. It smelled disgustingly of bats because there were several colonies of bats in there.

And so you'd go all the way down and then there was a vertical rope ladder, which now of course has been changed so that tourists can enter.

But then you'd have to clamour up this rope ladder, get into another room, and then there was a rickety ladder still leaning against one of the walls to get into the next chamber.

But it was very adventurous and it was very exciting, very Indiana Jones, and lots of fun because it was really like how the earliest explorers of pyramids would have experienced these places.

A man walks through a passage in the well-known Bent Pyramid. (Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

What do bats smell like, by the way?

Disgusting. They smell of a lot of piss.

Oh, right.

Concentrated.

You've maybe had better days on the job. What were you looking for when you were doing this journey into the Bent Pyramid?

I was actually just looking to see because you can look at plans and sections but it's never the same as actually being in a space and experiencing the architecture and trying to figure out what it would have been like for the ancient Egyptians also when they were building things with no electricity and having to go in and out of this place.

Visitors take in the 101-metre Bent Pyramid. (Maya Alleruzzo/The Associated Press)

One of the things that I have read is that Egypt is quite keen on on having tourists come here to the Bent Pyramid and go inside.

There is a push because, as you know, after 2011 we had a massive dip in tourism, although things are quite safe and secure. And really, it is a wonderful place to visit.

So they're opening up new sites that have never been opened properly for tourists before.

Apart from a few archeologists, no one's really been in there for the past 80 to 90 years. So it really is quite something.

Luckily, I think that the Ministry of Antiquities does a very good job at making these places tourist friendly without compromising the integrity of the building. 

Are there any questions you still have about the Bent Pyramid or are there any discoveries that you would like to make?

I think there are lots of questions about how they constructed it. 

And also, questions about whether there are any hollow spaces, such as little secret passages that you have in the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Do you have the same sort of thing here? Is this where it started?

Written by Sarah-Joyce Battersby and John McGill. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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