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Origins of a Cursed Pyramid

1991 view of the Pyramid

Memphis was the capital of Ancient Egypt, but it didn’t have giant pyramids (Egypt’s famous pyramids were miles away in Giza).

That didn’t stop a Memphis, Tennessee, artist named Mark Hartz from sketching up plans to build three big pyramids overlooking the Mississippi River. Nothing came of it. But 30 years later Hartz’s son resurrected the idea as a single pyramid, 32 stories tall, and Sidney Shlenker was brought in to make it real.

Shlenker was a successful wheeler-dealer best known for staging the Battle of the Sexes between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. He promised a lot. “The Great American Pyramid,” as he called it, would be home to an NBA franchise. It would have a Grammy Museum, a Hard Rock Cafe, the College Football Hall of Fame, a Secrets of the Pyramids Expo, and an amusement park named “Rakapolis.” It would have laser light shows and an incline elevator to take tourists up its outer edge to its pointy peak.

None of those promises were kept. By the time the Pyramid opened on November 9, 1991, Shlenker had skipped town, leaving a pyramid-high pile of unpaid bills. On opening night a water pipe burst in a bathroom and flooded the pyramid floor.

America has a history of cursed pyramids, but none as melodramatically hexed as the one in Memphis. Hot on the trail of American pyramids, cursed or otherwise, we’d visited the construction site in July 1991, scant months before it opened. Here’s some video as we were escorted inside by a city representative.

Even in size, The Great American Pyramid failed to live up to its greatness. Less than two years after its Memphis opening, the rival Luxor Pyramid opened in Las Vegas, 18 feet taller. Memphis residents no longer called it The Great American Pyramid. They called it The Tomb of Doom.

Shlenker’s career spiraled downward; he died in 2003. The long-promised NBA franchise finally came to the Pyramid in 2001 – then left in 2004. The Pyramid lingered on, hosting an occasional tractor pull, wrestling match, or concert, but even those stopped in 2007. The Pyramid then stood empty for years. Its giant statue of Ramesses II was hauled away.

The Memphis Pyramid, like its Egyptian predecessors, seemed fated to survive only as a spectacular ruin — until a magical Mississippi River catfish finally lifted the curse.

1991 interior view of the Pyramid

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Pyramid of Memphis

Bass Pro Shops

1 Bass Pro Drive, Memphis, TN
Downtown, along the river. I-40 exit 1 onto Riverside Drive S., then turn right at the first stoplight onto Bass Pro Drive and follow it to the Pyramid.
M-Sa 8 am - 10 pm, Su 8-7 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Free, but $10 to ride elevator to the top.
RA Rates:
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