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Tomb of Doom: The Mysterious Past of the 'Cursed' Memphis Pyramid

If it's abandoned for long enough, any building can get a spooky reputation — but the Memphis Pyramid's mystique is unlike any other.

Memphis Pyramid
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the largest pyramids in the northern hemisphere and may be among the top 10 biggest pyramids in the world, depending upon how you measure. It has been called the “Tomb of Doom” and is rumored to have been cursed by the removal of a crystal skull. It’s also a Bass Pro Shop, and it’s located in Memphis, Tennessee.

All of these are true facts about the so-called “Memphis Pyramid,” one of the most peculiar modern landmarks in America, and a building with a history that is stranger than fiction. 

Memphis Pyramid
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  • Photo Credit: Trevor Birchett / Wikimedia Commons

Originally conceived of by Mark C. Hartz in 1954, the “Great American Pyramid” was once going to be a complex involving three pyramids on the banks of the Mississippi River. As a nod to the city’s namesake, the Memphis pyramids were to be built as two-thirds scale replicas of the famous Pyramids of Giza, located near the ancient city of Memphis in Egypt.

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Built on the Giza Plateau during Ancient Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty, which lasted from circa 2613 BCE to 2492 BCE—more than four thousand years ago—the Great Pyramids of Giza are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The pyramid complex includes three large pyramids—the Pyramid of Khufu, also known as the Great Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure—not to mention the three smaller Pyramids of Queens as well as various graveyards, tombs, temples, worker villages, and, of course, the Great Sphinx.

Memphis Pyramid
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  • The pyramids at Giza. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today, the pyramids are striking for how they stand separate. While there is city all around, the pyramids themselves are on their own island of sand, not far from Cairo and the banks of the Nile. When they were built, however, the ancient city of Memphis, which was once the capital of Egypt for hundreds of years, was just a few miles away.

Today, the ruins of ancient Memphis lie buried beneath the sands or excavated via archaeological expeditions. The nearest inhabited town is Mit Rahina, home to a massive open-air museum built around the fallen statue of Ramses II that once stood near the temple of Ptah in the city of Memphis.

As famous as the great city itself are the city’s necropolises and the numerous pyramids that surround the ruins of the ancient city. These tombs and pyramids have been studied by archaeologists since the early 19th century. Some of the earliest excavations were conducted by Giovanni Caviglia and Charles Sloane, who was then the British Consul in Cairo. They discovered the statue of Ramses II and, with it, the ruins of ancient Memphis.

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The sprawling necropolises which once surrounded the ancient city are home to numerous tombs and pyramids, and the Pyramids of Giza, some twelve miles distant, are considered to be a part of this complex of pyramids and ancient tombs.

While scholars continue to debate precisely how the massive Pyramids of Giza were constructed near ancient Memphis, we know exactly what went into building the new Memphis Pyramid near the Mississippi river.

Though it was originally going to be a complex of three pyramids like its namesake, getting the project off the ground took decades, and it was actually Marc Hartz’s son, Jon Brent Hartz, who designed what would ultimately become the Memphis Pyramid. By then, the ambitious three pyramid complex had been reduced to a single large pyramid—one of the largest in the world. The project broke ground in 1989, and the building first opened to the public in 1991.

“[The] cosmic balance of the earth may have been disrupted...” 

The builders of the Memphis Pyramid hoped that it would be that city’s answer to such famous landmarks as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, promising a laser light show and homages to the city’s musical history. Memphis could use the boost that such an ambitious project would bring—at least, so reasoned its planners. 

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But the pyramid was plagued with problems from before it even opened its doors. A torrential rain storm delayed construction and plans for shops and amenities in the structure fell through, including a music museum, a shortwave radio station, a nearby theme park, and a Hard Rock café. (Keep that last one in mind, as it will be important later.)   

When the Memphis Pyramid did finally open its doors in 1991, its grand opening was a concert by country duo the Judds. Unfortunately, when a packed house all poured into the restrooms at the same time, the combined stresses of all those flushing toilets proved too much for the city’s sewer transfer station. The toilets backed up, flooding the arena with sewage. It seemed that the Memphis Pyramid was off to a less-than-auspicious start.

"All of that was part of the glamour and mystery and mysticism of Egypt."

memphis pyramid
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There are stories of an actual death in the pyramid—a stagehand who fell from the rigging. Even the Memphis Pyramid’s recent convergence to a retail destination doesn’t appear to have been enough to shake the curse, and in 2016, shortly after a Bass Pro Shop opened its doors in the long-vacant structure, history seemed to repeat itself.

On June 4th, a man opened fire near a bar in the Pinch neighborhood across the street from where the Memphis Pyramid is located. Police responded to a call and found two victims shot and badly wounded. Another victim was waiting in the parking lot of the Bass Pro Shop, where the shooter had fled. Police ultimately caught the suspect, but not before he hit and killed a police officer with his car. 

The Memphis Pyramid was intended to house sports teams such as the Memphis Grizzlies and, appropriately enough, the Memphis Pharaohs, but, unfortunately, the costs of upgrading the pyramid to meet the standards necessary to host an NBA team like the Grizzlies proved cost prohibitive. 

In spite of its troubled history, the pyramid in Memphis hosted basketball tournaments, including the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the WWF St. Valentine’s Day Massacre pay-per-view event, a boxing match between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, and bands and singers like Mary J. Blige, the Rolling Stones, and Phish.

For the most part, the pyramid closed its doors in 2004, and remained empty for a decade, though it found occasional use in the intervening years, such as when it was used as a sound stage for the movie Black Snake Moan.

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Any building that sits empty long enough is bound to attract some urban legends, especially a building as prominent and uniquely-shaped as the Memphis Pyramid. But the pyramid’s reputation as the “Tomb of Doom” was only helped along by a strange discovery which occurred shortly after the pyramid first opened. 

According to Tom Jones, a consultant with Smart City Consulting in Memphis, workers discovered a black metal box at the apex of the pyramid, riveted to the building’s steel infrastructure. Inside, they found a crystal skull, which had been placed there by Isaac Tigrett, founder of the Hard Rock Café restaurant chain.

Memphis Pyramid
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  • A crystal skull as depicted in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

    Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

According to Tigrett, the skull was only one of several “crystal and mystical objects” placed throughout the building, though the others have never been found. In a blog post, Jones describes Tigrett’s reaction to the removal of the crystal skull. “You don’t have any idea what you have done,” he quotes Tigrett as saying, while going on to claim that the “cosmic balance of the earth may have been disrupted” by the removal of the skull, which “city and county officials” were told “had materialized in the hands of Mr. Tigrett’s guru.”

In a phone call with the New York Times, Tigrett later dismissed most of these claims as “utter nonsense,” though he didn’t deny placing the skull, or the other mystical items which remain unfound to this day. “All of that was part of the glamour and mystery and mysticism of Egypt,” the Times quotes Tigrett as saying

While the Memphis Pyramid sat empty for most of a decade, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Several attractions eyed the unusual building as possible new homes, but all of them fell through, until, in 2008, a tentative deal was reached with a perhaps unlikely partner, Bass Pro Shops.

Billed by the company as “one of the most dynamic, immersive retail experiences in the world,” the destination retail project came as a boon to the city and to the Memphis pyramid, which had set empty for years. Then-mayor A C Wharton Jr. considered it the best option for the beleaguered location, asking, “what revenue-producing, tax-producing activities would be well suited to be located in a pyramid?”

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“I’ve never been in a Bass Pro, but all I know is that Memphis is very lucky,” the Times quoted 73-year-old Memphis resident Mary Crawford as saying. “This thing is going to bring a lot of people to town.” Of course, not everyone was so happy to see the Memphis pyramid converted into a retail outfitting giant, and some Memphis residents expressed skepticism as to the wisdom of choosing Bass Pro over some of the other options.

In the same article, the Times quoted a worker at a downtown art gallery who was concerned that the Bass Pro Shop would dilute Memphis culture. Even they admitted, though, that they found the idea more appealing than “having a giant empty paperweight downtown.”

Still, it seemed that the pyramid maybe hadn’t quite shaken off all its curses, as the development of the Bass Pro Shops deal took years to solidify. An agreement was signed in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the new Bass Pro Shops megastore opened the doors of the Memphis Pyramid once more.

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While the owners of Bass Pro and the architects of the deal might have been reluctant to acknowledge any belief that the Memphis Pyramid was actually cursed, Bass Pro heavyweights weren’t immune to the mysticism of the building. On the company’s website, Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris said that the deal was finalized after a friend of his caught a big catfish in the shadow of the troubled structure, which he saw as an omen.

The new store is home to a hotel with rooms designed to look like cabins in a cypress swamp, a shooting and archery range, an undersea-themed bowling alley, a man-made swamp, and the tallest freestanding elevator in America. At the top of the elevator is an observation deck built in imitation of the Grand Canyon skywalk, from which visitors can look out over Memphis or the Mississippi River and, perhaps on a particularly clear night, imagine that they are in ancient Egypt. 

The Memphis Pyramid, which has been home to so many different things over the years, including deaths and maybe curses, now holds more than 600,000 gallons of water, 1,800 fish, pools filled with live alligators, and the largest collection of waterfowl-related gear in the world. 

Of course, it’s also still home to all those other “crystal and mystical objects” that haven’t yet been found …

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons