The pyramids were their classrooms, the long-dead pharaohs their teachers.
They didn’t have to read about the legends that haunt the world’s most famous tourist attractions. Their fathers and grandfathers told them the stories, as their fathers and grandfathers had told them.
Most never bothered to learn to read anyway.
But now, with the advent of tour books and glib guides, the last generation of old-time storytellers is coming to an end. There were 200 or so left 20 years ago. Today, there are three.
None is more famous than the one they call Champion. Seventy-one, blind in one eye, limping slightly on his right leg, he’s still filled with the mystery and history of monuments that have awed mankind since their creation 4,600 years ago.
“The day I stop talking about the pyramids and the Sphinx is the day I want to die,” said Champion, sipping mint tea before heading back to see how the Sphinx is doing, a minute’s walk away.
He can’t read, but it doesn’t matter. “I’ve known so-called experts who’ve studied the pyramids for 20 years,” he said. “They don’t know a thing.”
Hefnawi Adel Nabi Fayed was 8 when he first scampered up the massive blocks to the pinnacle of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. He got his nickname--Champion--because he was the world’s fastest pyramid climber.
Kings and world leaders came to Egypt just to see Champion climb Cheops. Nobody climbed the 452 feet to the top faster than his six minutes.
But Champion’s days of pyramid climbing are over. Antiquities officials now forbid such escapades, and anyway he turned to seeing pyramids from ground level years ago.
“Do I understand them, the pharaohs of the pyramids? Oh, yes,” he said. “Each time I go out among them, I understand them better. And each time I see Cheops’ Great Pyramid, it grows more wonderful.”
Zahi Hawass, antiquities director of the pyramids and the Sphinx, has known Champion since the 1960s, when Hawass first came to dig on Giza Plateau. Many visitors have two reasons to come to Giza, he said, to see the pyramids and to find Champion.
“Champion is a national treasure,” Hawass said. “When I look at the pyramids, it’s his face I see. If he weren’t here, I don’t think the pyramids would be either.”
It’s difficult for many to imagine the pyramids without Champion. Robed in flowing gray cotton, he’s a living monument set against some of the world’s most famous tourist treasures.
Until two years ago, when sporadic terrorism destroyed Egypt’s famous tourist industry, Champion was in such demand that tour operators booked him six months in advance. Today, he waits patiently for tourists to trickle back.
“The pyramids without tourists is like death,” Champion said. “The Sphinx without people doesn’t look nice. Everywhere is the feel of a cemetery.”
It seems a strange comment on a place that has so much to do with death. Most experts believe the pyramids were tombs for the pharaohs. Hundreds of tombs cluster around the monuments.
But for ancient Egyptians, death was a gateway to a bountiful afterlife. The same eternal optimism found on ancient tomb walls is built into the fiber of Champion.
He prepares every morning to greet tourists, whether any show up or not.
The Sphinx still sleeps as Champion gathers his energy for a sunrise rendezvous with the pharaohs. He’s lived all his life in the magic and mystery of the pyramids and the pharaohs who built them. His house and papyrus shop face the enormous smile of the Sphinx in the pyramid village Nazlett el-Sammen.
“The Sphinx and I will be waiting for you,” he told a visitor.
Today, hundreds of new guides, licensed and unlicensed, scour the pyramids area, descendants of tourist tipsters who have touted the pyramids and the Sphinx for more than 2,000 years.
Mass tourism produced massive changes in the way visitors see the pyramids. Many groups spend only an hour or so with them.
“Rush, rush. They’re killing the tourists. Whoa!” he said.
Champion prefers groups who spend all day, several days, at his side. He won’t hear of peering at the work of the pharaohs from inside an air-conditioned bus, either.
His groups must walk and feel. “Feel the stones that made the pyramids,” Champion said. “Walk around the pyramids. See and feel as I see and feel; know them as I have learned to know them all my life.”
Dorothea Traub of Berlin was among 20 German tourists who spent three days walking and talking with Champion in early June. Her group had come to Egypt to meditate, to experience what some believe to be enormous energy surrounding the pyramids, temples and tombs.
“It’s his heart, not his head, that makes Champion so special,” Traub said. “It’s Champion I’ll remember.”