In September of 1978, the Grateful Dead traveled to Egypt and played three shows at the Great Pyramid of Giza, with the Great Sphinx looking over their shoulders. It wasn’t the first time a rock band played in an ancient setting. Pink Floyd performed songs in the middle of the Amphitheatre of Pompeii in October 1971. But Floyd performed to an “empty” house, playing to no live fans, only ghosts. (Watch footage here.) The Dead’s shows, on the other hand, were real gigs, attended by Deadheads who made the journey over, and they could thank Phil Lesh for putting it all in motion. Lesh later said, “it sort of became my project because I was one of the first people in the band who was on the trip of playing at places of power. You know, power that’s been preserved from the ancient world. The pyramids are like the obvious number one choice because no matter what anyone thinks they might be, there is definitely some kind of mojo about the pyramids.”
Logistically speaking, the concerts weren’t the easiest to stage. Rolling Stone reported that an “equipment truck got stuck in sand and had to be towed by camels.” Because the electricity in Egypt was an “a winkin’, blinkin’ affair,” Bob Weir later recalled, the jetlagged band had difficulties recording the first of the three shows. But, as with most adventures, the inconveniences were offset by the wondrous nature of the experience.
Weir captured it well when he said: “I got to a point where the head of the Sphinx was lined up with the top of the Great Pyramid, all lit up. All of a sudden, I went to this timeless place. The sounds from the stage — they could have been from any time. It was as if I went into eternity.” The Sphinx and Great Pyramid date back to roughly 2560 BC.
The Dead were joined on this trip by the counterculture author Ken Kesey (not to mention Bill Graham and Bill Walton) who apparently captured footage on Super-8 reels. (Watch it above.) Kesey himself later tried to explain the symbolism of the visit, saying: “The people who were there recognized this as a respectful and holy event that went back to something we can all just barely glimpse, them and us both. Our relationship to ancient humans. To this place on the planet. To the planet’s place in the universe. All that cosmic stuff is what the Dead are based on. The Egyptians could understand that.”
At the very top of the post, you can see the Dead performing “Ollin Arageed,” with Egyptian oudist Hamza el-Din and other local musicians, before seguing into “Fire on the Mountain.” The clip gives you a good feel for the awe-inspiring scene. Just above, we have a longer playlist of performances that took place on September 16, 1978 — the same night there was a lunar eclipse. The complete 9/16/78 show can be streamed on Archive.org, as can the shows from 9/14 and 9/15. A 2CD/1 DVD package (Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978) captures the Dead’s visit and can be purchased online.
To get more on the Pyramid concerts, read Chapter 43 of Dennis McNally’s book, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.