On the night of March 25th skywalker Vitaly Raskalov, photographer Vadim Mahorov, and a team of companions slipped past the security at Giza, just outside of Cairo and scaled the restricted walls of the Great pyramid of Khufu. They photo documented their ascent to the summit and less than 24 hours later Mahorov’s photographs had gone viral. Although the group were arrested upon their descent, the media broadcast their actions in an overall positive light. Eight weeks on and, although the skywalkers’ photographs have been all but washed away in the continuous tide of travel photography, the physical reality of Raskalov’s and Mahorov’s actions will not be so easily forgotten.
As an ancient history postgrad and a traveller, I recognise the beauty in the photographs taken from the lofty heights of Khufu. The shots capture a view few have seen, and magnify in detail the extraordinary architectural accomplishments of the Ancient Egyptians. However, the photographs cannot justify the potential damage that could have resulted from the groups actions; both in terms of tourism and archaeological investigation.
It was only as recently as 2012, after a long restoration process, that Egypt reopened the Pyramid of Chefren and six other ancient tombs at Giza. This was an attempt made by the government to encourage tourists back into the country after violent scenes of protest were broadcast worldwide in 2011. For many travellers –including myself– the reopening of these ancient monuments was something to be celebrated. They stand as landmarks of awe and aspiration, and are treated by most as such. The vast majority of tourists that venture to Giza adhere to the rules of the site – not just because they are told to, but also so as not to risk losing access to one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
By illegally climbing Khufu, Raskalov and Mahorov showed blind disrespect for the ancient landmark, and as a result, the photographs (however wondrous) reflect that. What the skywalker failed to understand is the raw fragility of these sites. They are not the modern, sturdy, replaceable buildings to which the Russian is accustomed, but rather relics that need to be approached gently, and treated with care. Yet the media brushed these factors aside, perhaps because the pyramids are viewed as ‘part of the furniture’ of Egypt, and, as such, the duos photographs were considered appropriate – by matter of entitlement – as if the group were simply scaling another skyscraper or bridge. In reality their actions made a mockery of the time and effort that has been devoted to preserving these wonders – and for what? A few pictures for the armchair traveller, or worse still, just the boisterous thrill of climbing up something that you’re not allowed to and taking a picture as proof to show your friends.
Aside from jeopardising access to the Pyramids for other tourists, Raskalov and Mahorov also risked harming crucial archaeological research. I may appear overzealous when I write that the skywalker could have caused major damage to current and future archaeological inquiry – but I don’t think that my concerns are unjustified. The majority of Egyptology is undertaken on a micro scale, and, like in postgraduate research in general, the big questions are discovered through focused small answers. Whether it be measuring the astronomical orientation of the pyramids, reading the epigraphs inside, or gauging the geological structure on top, each segment of information discovered helps to uncover a little more about the ancient civilization that constructed these landmarks. Fieldwork of this nature can takes months – sometime years – of planning, funding, and bureaucracy, and Raskalov might have just quite literally put his size ten foot in it.
Like most of us, I believe that people should be given the opportunity to access and experience cultural and historical sites, not only at Giza but around the world in general. It broadens our ability to connect and relate to our ancestors and in turn allows us to learn something more about our current selves and society. It is for this reason that we must not promote and praise the behaviour of Raskalov and his skywalking team, because if we do, the long-term results could be irreversible.