The deadly case of Pyramideering

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During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the sport of ‘pyramideering’ (climbing the Great Pyramid of Giza) was such that even the classic Baedeker’s Guide to Egypt contained instructions as to how to achieve the breath-taking result:

The traveller selects two of the importunate Bedouins by whom he is assailed, and proceeds to the NE corner of the Pyramid, where the ascent begins. These strong and active attendants assist the traveller to mount by pushing, pulling, and supporting him, and will scarcely allow him a moment’s rest until the top is reached. Persons inclined to giddiness may find the descent a little trying, but the help of the Bedouins removes all danger. Both in going and returning the traveller is importuned for baksheesh, but he should decline giving anything until the descent has been safely accomplished.

In what would now be seen as blatant vandalism, the object of the ascent was to finish with a flourish by carving your name into the stone for posterity. A picnic at the summit (or even a game of golf!) was often a welcome respite from the exhausting and unrelenting climb of 182 feet of weather-eroded blocks; each one nearly as tall as a man. It is testimony to the determination and sheer grit of the genteel ladies, who managed the ascent wearing full skirts, corsets and most likely a hat! One delightful memoir comes from John Barker (1771-1849), the British Consul-General in Egypt. He recalls that, ‘we were amused in our trip to Cairo, by a view of the pyramids, on the top of the largest of which my daughter danced a quadrille’.

But not everyone reached the top safely. According to the Herald-Journal (25 April, 1989), which reported the death of 21 year-old Peter Harold Flanagan,  over 1,600 people had toppled from the dizzying heights over the course of 200 years.

Yet one case stands out as perhaps the only recorded incident of someone throwing themselves off the pyramid in an act of suicide. During March 1831, a young man named James Maze arrived in Alexandria, whose main mission it seemed was to reach the pyramids of Giza. During the trip to Cairo it was noted by fellow passengers that he seemed somewhat obsessed by them. He carried with him a simple portmanteau, within which lay just one change of clothing and a watch. On his arrival on the Giza plateau, he must have been in sublime awe of the majestic structures before him. No one who has visited can possibly be left with anything less than the feeling of something far greater than they and the constant rumbling presence of those monumental Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure.

So Maze, along with his attendant Bedouin, scaled the gargantuan steps to the apex from where the view must have taken his breath away. With the sun beginning its own scorching daily ascent, he would have seen the shimmering desert to the west and upon turning to the east, the fertile black lands, punctuated with verdant green; rich vegetation and sweeping palms like sentinels. But within moments, he stepped away from his attendants and threw himself from the pinnacle of the east side.

The incident sent shock waves through the foreign communities in Egypt and beyond. His death was mentioned ‘as a fall’ in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1831:

April 14…In consequence of a fall in ascending one of the Egyptian Pyramids, aged 32, James Maze Esq, eldest son of Peter Maze Esq of Rownham Lodge, co Somerset and partner in the house of Mssrs Peter Maze & Sons, Merchants of Bristol. 

But according to British Consul John Barker, it could not have been a fall as ‘there is no instance of the kind in the traditions of Egypt that a person has ever fallen off the Pyramids’.

A rather candid account appeared 14 years later in the American Penny Magazine (1845) which stated that a companion ran to the edge and ‘saw Maze lying on the 6th step from the top evidently in extreme agony. But before he could reach him, the unfortunate man uttered a groan, and rolling heavily down from step to step, the body continued to descend with accelerated force, until it reached the bottom a mass of bleeding matter’.

The general consensus was that he must have been of an unstable character, who perhaps wanted to become immortal in homage to the Pharaoh before him. But whatever the case, James Maze Esq., obtained an immortality of sorts, going down in history as the only recorded case of ‘suicide by pyramideering’.

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