The Giza Invitation
Giza, Egypt, 16 March 1993, 3:30 a.m.
We walked through the deserted lobby of our hotel and stepped into
the white Fiat waiting for us in the driveway outside. It was driven
by a lean, nervous Egyptian named Ali whose job it was to get us
past the guards at the Great Pyramid and away again before sunrise.
He was nervous because if things went wrong Santha and I would be
deported from Egypt and he would go to jail for six months.
Of course, things were not supposed to go wrong. That was why Ali
was with us. The day before we’d paid him 150 US dollars which he
had changed into Egyptian pounds and spread among the guards
concerned. They, in return, had agreed to turn a blind eye to our
presence during the next couple of hours.
We drove to within half a mile of the Pyramid, then walked the rest
of the way—around the side of the steep embankment that looms above
the village of Nazlet-el-Samaan and leads to the monument’s north
face. None of us said very much as we trudged through the soft sand
just out of range of the security lights. We felt excited and
apprehensive at the same time. Ali was by no means certain that his
bribes were going to work.
For a while we stood still in the shadows, gazing at the monstrous
bulk of the Pyramid reaching into the darkness above us and blotting
out the southern stars. Then a patrol of three men armed with
shotguns and wrapped in blankets against the night chill came into
view at the northeastern corner, about fifty yards away, where they
stopped to share a cigarette. Indicating that we should stay put,
Ali stepped forward into the light and walked over to the guards. He
talked to them for several minutes, apparently arguing heatedly.
Finally he beckoned to us, indicating that we should join him.
‘There’s a problem,’ he explained. ‘One of them, the captain here,
[he indicated a short, unshaven, disgruntled looking fellow] is
insisting that we pay an extra thirty dollars otherwise the deal is
off. What do you want to do?’
I fished around in my wallet, counted
out thirty dollars and handed the bills to Ali. He folded them and
passed them to the captain. With an air of aggrieved dignity, the
captain stuffed the money into his shirt pocket, and, finally, we
all shook hands.
‘OK,’ said Ali, ‘let’s go.’
As the guards continued their patrol in a westerly direction along
the northern face of the Great Pyramid, we made our way around the
northeastern corner and along the base of the eastern face.
I had long ago fallen into the habit of orienting myself according
to the monument’s sides. The northern face was aligned, almost
perfectly, to true north, the eastern face almost perfectly to true
east, the southern to true south, and the western face to true west.
The average error was only around three minutes of arc (down to less
than two minutes on the southern face)1—incredible accuracy for any
building in any epoch, and an inexplicable, almost supernatural feat
here in Egypt 4500 years ago when the Great Pyramid was supposed to
have been built.
Pyramids of Egypt, p. 208
An error of three arc minutes represents an infinitesimal deviation
from true of less than 0.015 per cent. In the opinion of structural
engineers, with whom I had discussed the Great Pyramid, the need for
such precision was impossible to understand.
From their point of
view as practical builders, the expense, difficulty and time spent
achieving it would not have been justified by the apparent results:
even if the base of the monument had been as much as two or three
degrees out of true (an error of say 1 per cent) the difference to
the naked eye would still have been too small to be noticeable. On
the other hand the difference in the magnitude of the tasks required
(to achieve accuracy within three minutes as opposed to three
degrees) would have been immense.
Overview of Giza from the north looking south, with the Great
Pyramid in the foreground.
Obviously, therefore, the ancient master-builders who had raised the
Pyramid at the very dawn of human civilization must have had
powerful motives for wanting to get the alignments with the cardinal
directions just right. Moreover, since they had achieved their
objective with uncanny exactness they must have been highly skilled,
knowledgeable and competent people with access to excellent
surveying and setting-out equipment.
This impression was confirmed
by many of the monument’s other characteristics. For example, its
sides at the base were all almost exactly the same length,
demonstrating a margin of error far smaller than modern architects
would be required to achieve today in the construction of, say, an
average-size office block. This was no office block, however. It was
the Great Pyramid of Egypt, one of the largest structures ever built
by man and one of the oldest. Its north side was 755 feet 4.9818
inches in length; its west side was 755 feet 9.1551 inches in
length; its east side was 755 feet 10.4937 inches; its south side
756 feet 0.9739 inches.2
J. H. Cole, Survey of Egypt, paper no. 39: ‘The Determination of the
Exact Size and Orientation of the Great Pyramid of Giza’, Cairo,
This meant that there was a difference of
less than 8 inches between its shortest and longest sides: an error
amounting to a tiny fraction of 1 per cent on an average side length
of over 9063 inches.
Once again, I knew from an engineering perspective that the bare
figures did not do justice to the enormous care and skill required
to achieve them. I knew, too, that scholars had not yet come up with
a convincing explanation of exactly how the Pyramid builders had
adhered consistently to such high standards of precision.3
The conventional explanations, as given in The Pyramids of Egypt,
for example, are entirely unsatisfactory, as Edwards himself admits;
see pp. 85-7, 206-41.
What really interested me, however, was the even bigger
question-mark over another issue:
If they had permitted a margin of error of
1-2 per cent— instead of less than one-tenth of 1 per cent—they
could have simplified their tasks with no apparent loss of quality.
Why hadn’t they done so?
Why had they insisted on making everything
Why, in short, in a supposedly ‘primitive’ stone
monument built more than 4500 years ago were we seeing this strange, obsessional adherence to machine-age standards of precision?
Black hole in history
Our plan was to climb the Great Pyramid—something that had been
strictly illegal since 1983 when the messy falls of several
foolhardy tourists had forced the government of Egypt to impose a
ban. I realized that we were being foolhardy too (particularly in
attempting the climb at night) and I didn’t feel good about breaking
what was basically a sensible law. By this stage, however, my
intense interest in the Pyramid, and my desire to learn everything I
could about it, had over-ridden my common sense.
Now, after parting company with the guard patrol at the
north-eastern corner of the monument, we continued to make our way
surreptitiously along the eastern face towards the south-eastern
There were dense shadows among the twisted and broken paving stones
that separated the Great Pyramid from the three much smaller
‘subsidiary’ pyramids lying immediately to its east. There were also
three deep and narrow rock-cut pits which resembled giant graves.
These had been found empty by the archaeologists who had excavated
them, but were shaped as though they had been intended to enclose
the hulls of high-prowed, streamlined boats.
Roughly halfway along the Pyramid’s eastern face we encountered
another patrol. This time it consisted of two guards, one of whom
must have been eighty years old. His companion, a teenager with
pustulant acne, informed us that the money Ali had paid was
insufficient and that fifty more Egyptian pounds would be required
if we were to proceed. I already had the notes in my hand and gave
them to the lad without delay. I was past caring how much this was
costing; I just wanted to make the climb and get down and away
before dawn without being arrested.
We walked on, reaching the south-eastern corner at a little after
Very few modern buildings, even the houses we live in, have corners
that consist of perfect ninety degree right angles; it is common for
them to be a degree or more out of true. It doesn’t make any
difference structurally and nobody notices such minute errors. In
the case of the Great Pyramid, however, I knew that the ancient
master-builders had found a way to narrow the margin of error to
Thus, while falling short of the perfect ninety
degrees, the south-eastern corner achieved an impressive 89° 56’
27”. The north-eastern corner measured 90° 3’ 2”; the southwestern
90° 0’ 33”, and the north-western was just two seconds of a degree
out of true at 89° 59’ 58”.4
4 Ibid., p. 87.
This was, of course, extraordinary. And like almost everything else
about the Great Pyramid it was also extremely difficult to explain.
Such accurate building techniques—as accurate as the best we have
today— could have evolved only after thousands of years of
development and experimentation. Yet there was no evidence that any
process of this kind had ever taken place in Egypt. The Great
Pyramid and its neighbors at Giza had emerged out of a black hole
in architectural history so deep and so wide that neither its bottom
nor its far side had ever been identified.
Ships in the desert
Guided by the increasingly perspiring Ali, who had not yet explained
why it was necessary for us to circumnavigate the Pyramid before
climbing it, we now began to make our way in a westerly direction
along the monument’s southern side. Here there were two further
boat-shaped pits, one of which, although still sealed, had been
investigated with fibre-optic cameras and was known to contain a
high-prowed sea-going vessel more than 100 feet long. The other pit
had been excavated in the 1950s. Its contents—an even larger
seagoing vessel, a full 141 feet in length5—had been placed in the
so-called Boat Museum, an ugly modern structure that gangled on
stilts beneath the south face of the Pyramid.
Made of cedarwood, the beautiful ship in the museum was still in
perfect condition 4500 years after it had been built. With a
displacement of around 40 tons, its design was particularly
thought-provoking, incorporating, in the words of one expert,
the sea-going ship’s characteristic properties, with prow and stern
soaring upward, higher than in a Viking ship, to ride out the
breakers and high seas, not to contend with the little ripples of
See Lionel Casson, Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times, University
of Texas Press, 1994, p. 17; The Ra Expeditions, p. 15.
6 The Ra
Expeditions, p. 17.
Another authority felt that the careful and clever design of this
strange pyramid boat could potentially have made it ‘a far more
seaworthy craft than anything available to Columbus’.7 Moreover, the
experts agreed that it had been built to a pattern that could only
have been ‘created by shipbuilders from a people with a long, solid
tradition of sailing on the open sea.’ 8
Present at the very beginning of Egypt’s 3000-year history, who had
those as yet unidentified shipbuilders been? They had not
accumulated their ‘long, solid tradition of sailing on the open sea’
while ploughing the fields of the landlocked Nile Valley. So where
and when had they developed their maritime skills?
There was yet another puzzle. I knew that the Ancient Egyptians had
been very good at making scale models and representations of all
manner of things for symbolic purposes.9 I therefore found it hard
to understand why they would have gone to the trouble of
manufacturing and then burying a boat as big and sophisticated as
this if its only function, as the Egyptologists claimed, had been as
a token of the spiritual vessel that would carry the soul of the
deceased king to heaven.10
That could have been achieved as
effectively with a much smaller craft, and only one would have been
needed, not several. Logic therefore suggested that these gigantic
vessels might have been intended for some other purpose altogether,
or had some quite different and still unsuspected symbolic
We had reached the rough midpoint of the southern face of the Great
Pyramid when we at last realized why we were being taken on this
long walkabout. The objective was for us to be relieved of moderate
sums of money at each of the four cardinal points. The tally thus
far was 30 US dollars at the northern face and 50 Egyptian pounds at
the eastern face. Now I shelled out a further 50 Egyptian pounds to
yet another patrol Ali was supposed to have paid off the day before.
‘Ali,’ I hissed, ‘when are we going to climb the Pyramid?’
‘Right away, Mr. Graham,’ our guide replied. He walked confidently
forward, gesturing directly ahead, then added, ‘We shall ascend at
the south-west corner ...’
7 Traveller’s Key to Ancient Egypt, pp. 132-3.
8 The Ra Expeditions,
See, for example, Christine Desroches-Noblecourt, Tutankhamen,
Penguin Books, London, 1989, pages 89, 108, 113, 283.
Spencer, The Great Pyramid Fact Sheet, P.J. Publications, 1989.
Mansion of Eternity
Have you ever climbed a pyramid, at night, fearful of arrest, with
your nerves in shreds?
It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to do, especially where the
Great Pyramid is concerned. Even though its top 31 feet are no
longer intact, its presently exposed summit platform still stands
more than 450 feet above ground level.1 It consists, moreover, of
203 separate courses of masonry, with the average course height
being about two and a quarter feet.2
1 The Pyramids of Egypt, p. 8.
Peter Lemesurier, The Great Pyramid: Your Personal Guide, Element
Books, Shaftesbury, 1987, p. 225.
Averages do not tell you everything, as I discovered soon after we
began the climb. The courses turned out to be of unequal depth, some
barely reaching knee level while others came up almost to my chest
and created formidable obstacles. At the same time the horizontal
ledges between each of the steps were very narrow, often only a
little wider than my foot, and many of the big limestone blocks,
which had looked so solid from below, proved to be crumbling and
Somewhere around 30 courses up Santha and I began to appreciate what
we had let ourselves in for. Our muscles were aching and our knees
and fingers stiff and bruised—yet we were barely one-seventh of the
way to the summit and there were still more than 170 courses to
climb. Another worry was the vertiginous drop steadily opening
Looking down along the ruptured contours that marked the
line of the southwestern corner, I was taken aback to see how far we
had already climbed and experienced a momentary, giddying
presentiment of how easy it would be for us to fall, head over heels
like Jack and Jill, bouncing and jolting over the huge layers of
stone, breaking our crowns at the bottom.
Ali had permitted a pause of a few moments for us to catch our
breaths, but now he signalled that we should press on and began to
climb again. Still using the corner as a guideline, he rapidly
disappeared into the darkness above.
Somewhat less confidently, Santha and I followed.
Time and motion
The 35th course of masonry was a hard one to clamber over, being
made of particularly massive blocks, much larger than any of the
others we had
so far encountered (except those at the very base) and estimated to
weigh between 10 and 15 tons apiece.3
This contradicted engineering
logic and commonsense, both of which called for a progressive
decrease in the size and weight of the blocks that had to be
transported to the summit as the pyramid rose ever higher. Courses
1-18, which diminished from a height of about 55.5 inches at ground
level to just over 23 inches at course 17, did obey this rule.
suddenly, at course 19, the block height rose again to almost 36
inches. At the same time the other dimensions of the blocks also
increased and their weight grew from the relatively manoeuvrable
range of 2-6 tons that was common in the first 18 courses to the
more ponderous and cumbersome range of 10-15 tons.4 These,
therefore, were really big monoliths that had been carved out of
solid limestone and raised more than 100 feet into the air before
being placed faultlessly in position.
To have worked effectively the pyramid builders must have had nerves
of steel, the agility of mountain goats, the strength of lions and
the confidence of trained steeplejacks. With the cold morning wind
whipping around my ears and threatening to launch me into flight, I
tried to imagine what it must have been like for them, poised
dangerously at this (and much higher) altitudes, lifting,
manoeuvring and positioning exactly an endless production line of
chunky limestone monoliths—the smallest of which weighed as much as
two modern family cars.
How long had the pyramid taken to complete? How many men had worked
on it? The consensus among Egyptologists was two decades and 100,000
men.5 It was also generally agreed that the construction project had
not been a year-round affair but had been confined (through labour
force availability) to the annual three-month agricultural lay-off
season imposed by the flooding of the Nile.6
As I continued to climb, I reminded myself of the implications of
all this. It wasn’t just the tens of thousands of blocks weighing 15
tons or more that the builders would have had to worry about. Year
in, year out, the real crises would have been caused by the millions
of ‘average-sized’ blocks, weighing say 2.5 tons, that also had to
be brought to the working plane. The Pyramid has been reliably
estimated to consist of a total of 2.3 million blocks.7
Dr. Joseph Davidovits and Margie Morris, The Pyramids: An Enigma
Solved, Dorset Press, New York, 1988, pp. 39-40.
4 Ibid., p. 37.
John Baines and Jaromir Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt, Time-Life
Books, Virginia, 1990,
p. 160; The Pyramids of Egypt, pp. 229-30.
6 The Pyramids of Egypt,
7 Ibid., p. 85.
that the masons worked ten hours a day, 365 days a year, the
mathematics indicate that they would have needed to place 31 blocks
in position every hour (about one block every two minutes) to
complete the Pyramid in twenty years. Assuming that construction
work had been confined to the annual three-month lay-off,
the problems multiplied: four blocks a minute would have had to be
delivered, about 240 every hour.
Such scenarios are, of course, the stuff construction managers’
nightmares are made of. Imagine, for example, the daunting degree of
coordination that must have been maintained between the masons and
the quarries to ensure the requisite rate of block flow across the
production site. Imagine also the havoc if even a single 2.5 ton
block had been dropped from, say, the 175th course.
The physical and managerial obstacles seemed staggering on their
own, but beyond these was the geometrical challenge represented by
the pyramid itself, which had to end up with its apex positioned
exactly over the centre of its base. Even the minutest error in the
angle of incline of any one of the sides at the base would have led
to a substantial misalignment of the edges at the apex. Incredible
accuracy, therefore, had to be maintained throughout, at every
course, hundreds of feet above the ground, with great stone blocks
of killing weight.
How had the job been done?
At the last count there were more than thirty competing and
conflicting theories attempting to answer that question. The
majority of academic Egyptologists have argued that ramps of one
kind or another must have been used. This was the opinion, for
example, of Professor I.E.S Edwards, a former keeper of Egyptian
Antiquities at the British Museum who asserted categorically:
one method of lifting heavy weights was open to the ancient
Egyptians, namely by means of ramps composed of brick and earth
which sloped upwards from the level of the ground to whatever height
John Baines, professor of Egyptology at Oxford University, agreed
with Edwards’s analysis and took it further:
‘As the pyramid grew in
height, the length of the ramp and the width of its base were
increased in order to maintain a constant gradient (about 1 in 10)
and to prevent the ramp from collapsing. Several ramps approaching
the pyramid from different sides were probably used.’9
To carry an inclined plane to the top of the Great Pyramid at a
gradient of 1:10 would have required a ramp 4800 feet long and more
than three times as massive as the Great Pyramid itself (with an
estimated volume of 8 million cubic meters as against the Pyramid’s
2.6 million cubic meters).10
8 Ibid., p. 220.
9 Atlas of Ancient Egypt, p. 139.
Peter Hodges and Julian Keable, How the Pyramids Were Built, Element
Books, Shaftesbury, 1989, p. 123.
Heavy weights could not have been
dragged up any gradient
steeper than this by any normal means.11 If a lesser gradient had
been chosen, the ramp would have had to be even more absurdly and
The problem was that mile-long ramps reaching a height of 480 feet
could not have been made out of ‘bricks and earth’ as Edwards and
other Egyptologists supposed. On the contrary, modern builders and
architects had proved that such ramps would have caved in under
their own weight if they had consisted of any material less costly
and less stable than the limestone ashlars of the Pyramid itself.12
Since this obviously made no sense (besides, where had the 8 million
cubic meters of surplus blocks been taken after completion of the
work?), other Egyptologists had proposed the use of spiral ramps
made of mud brick and attached to the sides of the Pyramid. These
would certainly have required less material to build, but they would
also have failed to reach the top.13
They would have presented
deadly and perhaps insurmountable problems to the teams of men
attempting to drag the big blocks of stone around their hairpin
corners. And they would have crumbled under constant use. Most
problematic of all, such ramps would have cloaked the whole pyramid,
thus making it impossible for the architects to check the accuracy
of the setting-out during building.14
But the pyramid builders had checked the accuracy of the setting
out, and they had got it right, because the apex of the pyramid was
poised exactly over the centre of the base, its angles and its
corners were true, each block was in the correct place, and each
course had been laid down level—in near-perfect symmetry and with
near-perfect alignment to the cardinal points.
Then, as though to
demonstrate that such tours-de-force of technique were mere trifles,
the ancient master-builders had gone on to play some clever
mathematical games with the monument’s dimensions, presenting us,
for example, as we saw in Chapter Twenty-three, with an accurate use
of the transcendental number pi in the ratio of its height to its
base perimeter.15 For some reason, too, it had taken their fancy to
place the Great Pyramid almost exactly on the 30th parallel at
latitude 29° 58’ 51”.
11 Ibid., p. 11.
12 Ibid., p. 13.
Ibid., p. 125-6. Failure to reach the top would be because spiral
ramps and linked scaffolds overlap and exceed the space available
long before arrival at the summit.
14 Ibid., p. 126.
See Chapter Twenty-three; The Pyramids of Egypt, p. 219; Atlas of
Ancient Egypt, p. 139.
This, as a former astronomer royal of Scotland
once observed, was ‘a sensible defalcation from 30°’, but not
necessarily in error:
For if the original designer had wished that men should see with
their body, rather than their mental eyes, the pole of the sky from
the foot of the Great Pyramid, at an altitude before them of 30°, he
would have had to take account of the refraction of the atmosphere;
and that would have necessitated the building standing not at
30° but at 29° 58’ 22”.16
Piazzi Smyth, The Great Pyramid: Its Secrets and Mysteries Revealed,
Bell Publishing Company, New York, 1990, p. 80.
Compared to the true position of 29° 58’ 51”, this was an error of
less than half an arc minute, suggesting once again that the
surveying and geodetic skills brought to bear here must have been of
the highest order.
Feeling somewhat overawed, we climbed on, past the 44th and 45th
courses of the hulking and enigmatic structure. At the 40th course
an angry voice hailed us in Arabic from the plaza below and we
looked down to see a tiny, turbaned man dressed in a billowing
kaftan. Despite the range, he had unslung his shotgun and was
preparing to take aim at us.
The guardian and the vision
He was, of course, the guardian of the Pyramid’s western face, the
patrolman of the fourth cardinal point, and he had not received the
extra funds dispensed to his colleagues of the north, east and south
I could tell from Ali’s perspiration that we were in a potentially
tricky situation. The guard was ordering us to come down at once so
that he could place us under arrest.
‘This, however, could probably
be avoided with a further payment,’ Ali explained.
I groaned. ‘Offer him 100 Egyptian pounds.’
‘Too much,’ Ali cautioned, ‘it will make the others resentful. I
shall offer him 50.’
More words were exchanged in Arabic. Indeed, over the next few
minutes, Ali and the guard managed to have quite a sustained
conversation up and down the south-western corner of the Pyramid at
4:40 in the morning. At one point a whistle was blown. Then the
guards of the southern face put in a brief appearance and stood in
conference with the guard of the western face, who had now also been
joined by the two other members of his patrol.
Just when it seemed that Ali had lost whatever argument he was
having on our behalf, he smiled and heaved a sigh of relief.
will pay the extra 50 pounds when we have returned to the ground,’
he explained. ‘They’re letting us continue but they say that if any
senior officer comes along and sees us they will not be able to help
We struggled upwards in silence for the next ten minutes or so until
we had reached the tooth course—roughly the halfway mark and already
well over 250 feet above the ground. We gazed over our shoulders to
the southwest, where a once-in-a-lifetime vision of staggering
beauty and power confronted us. The crescent moon, which hung low in
the sky to the south-east, had emerged from behind a scudding cloud
bank and projected its ghostly radiance directly at the northern and
eastern faces of the neighbouring Second Pyramid, supposedly built
by the Fourth
Dynasty Pharaoh Khafre (Chephren).
This stunning monument, second
only in size and majesty to the Great Pyramid itself (being just a
few feet shorter and 48 feet narrower at the base) appeared lit up,
as though energized from within, by a pale and unearthly fire.
Behind it in the distance, slightly offset among the dark desert
shadows, was the smaller Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus), measuring
356 feet along each side and some 215 feet in height.17
17 The Pyramids of Egypt, p. 125.
For a moment, against the glittering backdrop of the inky
sky, experienced the illusion of being in motion, of standing at the
stern of some great ship of the heavens and looking back at two
other vessels which seemed to follow in my wake, strung out in
battle order behind me.
So where was this convoy going, this squadron of pyramids?
the prodigious structures all the work of megalomaniac pharaohs, as
the Egyptologists believed?
Or had they been designed by mysterious
hands to voyage eternally through time and space towards some as yet
From this altitude, though the southern sky was partially occluded
by the vast bulk of the Pyramid of Khafre, I could see all the
western sky as it arched down from the celestial north pole towards
the distant rim of the revolving planet. Polaris, the Pole Star, was
far to my right, in the constellation of the Little Bear. Low on the
horizon, about ten degrees north of west, Regulus, the paw-star of
the imperial constellation of Leo, was about to set.
Under Egyptian skies
Just above the 150th course, Ali hissed at us to keep our heads
down. A police car had come into view around the north-western
corner of the Great Pyramid and was now proceeding along the western
flank of the monument with its blue light slowly flashing.
motionless in the shadows until the car had passed. Then we began to
climb again, with a renewed sense of urgency, heading as fast as we
could towards the summit, which we now imagined we could see jutting
out above the misty predawn haze.
For what seemed like five minutes we climbed without stopping. When
I looked up, however, the top of the Pyramid still seemed as far
away as ever. We climbed again, panting and sweating, and once again
the summit drew back before us like some legendary Welsh peak. Then,
just when we’d resigned ourselves to an endless succession of such
disappointments, we found ourselves at the top, under a breathtaking
canopy of stars, more than 450 feet above the surrounding plateau on
the most extraordinary viewing platform in the world.
To our north
and east, sprawled out across the wide, sloping valley of the River
Nile, lay the
city of Cairo, a jumble of skyscrapers and flat traditional roofs
separated by the dark defiles of narrow streets and interspersed
with the needlepoint minarets of a thousand and one mosques. A film
of reflected street-lighting shimmered over the whole scene, closing
the eyes of modern Cairenes to the wonder of the stars but at the
same time creating the hallucination of a fairyland illuminated in
greens and reds and blues and sulphurous yellows.
I felt privileged to witness this strange, electronic mirage from
such an incredible vantage point, perched on the summit platform of
the last surviving wonder of the ancient world, hovering in the sky
over Cairo like Aladdin on his magic carpet.
Not that the 203rd course of the Great Pyramid of Egypt could be
described as a carpet! Measuring just under 30 feet on each side (as
against the monument’s side length of around 755 feet at the base)
it consisted of several hundred waist-high limestone blocks, each of
which weighed about five tons. The course was not completely level:
a few blocks were missing or broken, and rising towards the southern
end there were the substantial remains of about half an additional
step of masonry.
Moreover, at the very centre of the platform,
someone had arranged for a triangular wooden scaffold to be erected,
through the middle of which rose a thick pole, just over 31 feet
long, which marked the monument’s original true height of 481.3949
feet.18 Beneath this a scrawl of graffiti had been carved into the
limestone by generations of tourists.19
18 Ibid., p. 87.
‘One is irritated by the number of imbeciles’ names written
everywhere,’ Gustave Flaubert commented in his Letters From Egypt.
‘On the top of the Great Pyramid there is a certain Buffard, 79 rue
St Martin, wallpaper manufacturer, in black letters.’
The complete ascent of the Pyramid had taken us about half an hour
and it was now just after 5 a.m., the time of morning worship.
Almost in unison, the voices of a thousand and one muezzins rang out
from the balconies of the minarets of Cairo, calling the faithful to
prayer and reaffirming the greatness, the indivisibility, the mercy
and the compassion of God. Behind me, to the south-west, the top 22
courses of Khafre’s Pyramid, still clad with their original facing
stones, seemed to float like an iceberg on the ocean of moonlight.
Knowing that we could not stay long in this bewitching place, I sat
down and gazed around at the heavens. Over to the west, across
limitless desert sands, Regulus had now set beneath the horizon, and
the rest of the lion’s body was poised to follow. The constellations
of Virgo and Libra were also dropping lower in the sky and, much
farther to the north, I could see the Great and Little Bears slowly
pacing out their eternal cycle around the celestial pole.
I looked south-east across the Nile Valley and there was the
crescent moon still spreading its spectral radiance from the bank of
the Milky Way.
Following the course of the celestial river, I looked due south:
there, crossing the meridian, was the resplendent constellation of
Scorpius dominated by the first-magnitude star Antares—a red
supergiant 300 times the diameter of the sun. North-east, above
Cairo, sailed Cygnus the swan, his tail feathers marked by Deneb, a
blue-white supergiant visible to us across more than 1800 light
years of interstellar space. Last but not least, in the northern
sky, the dragon Draco coiled sinuously among the circumpolar stars.
Indeed, 4500 years ago, when the Great Pyramid was
built for the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), one of the
stars of Draco had stood close to the celestial north pole and had
served as the Pole Star. This had been alpha Draconis, also known as
Thuban. With the passing of the millennia, however, it had gradually
been displaced from its position by the remorseless celestial mill
of the earth’s axial precession so that the Pole Star today is
Polaris in the Little Bear.20
20 Skyglobe 3.6.
I lay back, cushioned my head in my hands and gazed directly up
towards the zenith of heaven. Through the smooth cold stones I
rested on, I thought I could sense beneath me, like a living force,
the stupendous gravity and mass of the pyramid.
Thinking like giants
Covering a full 13.1 acres at the base, it weighed about six million
tons— more than all the buildings in the Square Mile of the City of
London added together,21 and consisted, as we have seen, of roughly
2.3 million individual blocks of limestone and granite. To these had
once been added a 22-acre, mirror-like cladding consisting of an
estimated 115,000 highly polished casing stones, each weighing 10
tons, which had originally covered all four of its faces.22
After being shaken loose by a massive earthquake in AD 1301, the
majority of the facing blocks had subsequently been removed for the
construction of Cairo.23 Here and there around the base, however, I
knew that enough had remained in position to permit the great
nineteenth century archaeologist, W.M. Flinders Petrie, to carry out
a detailed study of them.
21 How the Pyramids Were Built, p. 4-5.
22 Secrets of the Great
Pyramid, pp. 232, 244.
23 Ibid., p. 17.
He had been stunned to encounter
tolerances of less than one-hundredth of an inch and cemented joints
so precise and so carefully aligned that it was impossible to slip
even the fine blade of a pocket knife between them.
‘Merely to place
such stones in exact contact would be careful work’, he admitted,
‘but to do so with cement in the joint seems almost impossible; it
is to be compared to the finest opticians’ work on a
scale of acres.’24
Of course, the jointing of the casing stones was by no means the
only ‘almost impossible’ feature of the Great Pyramid. The
alignments to true north, south, east and west were ‘almost
impossible’, so too were the near- perfect ninety-degree corners,
and the incredible symmetry of the four enormous sides. And so were
the engineering logistics of raising millions of huge stones
hundreds of feet in the air ...
Whoever they had been, therefore, the architects, engineers and
stonemasons who had designed and successfully built this stupendous
monument must indeed have ‘thought like men 100 feet tall’, as
Jean-François Champollion, the founder of modern Egyptology, had
He had seen clearly what generations of his
successors were to close their eyes to: that the pyramid builders
could only have been men of giant intellectual stature. Beside the
Egyptians of old, he had added, ‘we in Europe are but
24 Cited in Traveller’s Key to Ancient Egypt, p. 90.
25 Ibid., p. 40. Champollion of course, deciphered the Rosetta Stone.
Chapter 35 -
Tombs and Tombs Only?
Climbing down the Great Pyramid was more nerve wracking than
climbing up. We were no longer struggling against the force of
gravity, so the physical effort was less. But the possibilities of a
fatal fall seemed greatly magnified now that our attention was
directed exclusively towards the ground rather than the heavens. We
picked our way with exaggerated care towards the base of the
enormous mountain of stone, sliding and slithering among the
treacherous masonry blocks, feeling as though we had been reduced to
By the time we had completed the descent the night was over and the
first wash of pale sunlight was filtering into the sky. We paid the
50 Egyptian pounds promised to the guard of the pyramid’s western
face and then, with a tremendous sense of release and exultation, we
walked jauntily away from the monument in the direction of the
Pyramid of Khafre, a few hundred meters to the south-west.
Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure ... Cheops, Chephren, Mycerinus.
they were referred to by their Egyptian or their Greek names, the
fact remained that these three pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty
(2575-2467 BC) were universally acclaimed as the builders of the Giza pyramids. This had been the case at least since Ancient
Egyptian tour guides had told the Greek historian Herodotus that the
Great Pyramid had been built by Khufu.
Herodotus had incorporated
this information into the oldest surviving written description of
the monuments, which continued:
Cheops, they said, reigned for fifty years, and on his death the
kingship was taken over by his brother Chephren. He also made a
pyramid ... it is forty feet lower than his brother’s pyramid, but
otherwise of the same greatness ... Chephren reigned for fifty-six
years ... then there succeeded Mycerinus, the son of Cheops ... This
man left a pyramid much smaller than his father’s.1
Herodotus, The History (translated by David Grene), University of
Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 187-9.
Site plan of the Giza necropolis
Herodotus saw the monuments in the fifth century BC, more than 2000
years after they had been built. Nevertheless it was largely on the
foundation of his testimony that the entire subsequent judgment of
history was based. All other commentators, up to the present,
continued uncritically to follow in the Greek historian’s footsteps.
And down the ages—although it had originally been little more than
hearsay—the attribution of the Great Pyramid to Khufu, the Second
Pyramid to Khafre and the Third Pyramid to Menkaure had assumed the
stature of unassailable fact.
Trivializing the mystery
Having parted company with Ali, Santha and I continued our walk into
the desert. Skirting the immense south-western corner of the Second
Pyramid, our eyes were drawn towards its summit. There we noted
again the intact facing stones that still covered its top 22
We also noticed that the first few courses above its base,
each of which had a ‘footprint’ of about a dozen acres, were
composed of truly massive blocks of limestone, almost too high to
clamber over, which were about 20 feet long and 6 feet thick. These
extraordinary monoliths, as I was later to discover, weighed 200
tons apiece and belonged to a distinct style of masonry to be found
at several different and widely scattered locations within the Giza
On its north and west sides the Second Pyramid sat on a level
platform cut down out of the surrounding bedrock and was thus
enclosed within a wide trench more than 15 feet deep in places.
Walking due south, parallel to the monument’s scarred western flank,
we picked our way along the edge of this trench towards the much
smaller Third Pyramid, which lay some 400 metres ahead of us in the
Khufu ... Khafre ... Menkaure ... According to all orthodox
Egyptologists the pyramids had been built as tombs—and only as
tombs—for these three pharaohs.
Yet there were some obvious
difficulties with such assertions. For example, the spacious burial
chamber of the Khafre Pyramid was empty when it was opened in 1818
by the European explorer Giovanni Belzoni. Indeed, more than empty,
the chamber was starkly, austerely bare.
The polished granite
sarcophagus which lay embedded in its floor had also been found
empty, with its lid broken into two pieces nearby.2 How was this to
To Egyptologists the answer seemed obvious. At some early date,
probably not many hundreds of years after Khafre’s death, tomb
robbers must have penetrated the chamber and cleared all its
contents including the mummified body of the pharaoh.
Much the same thing seemed to have happened at the smaller Third
Pyramid, towards which Santha and I were now walking—that attributed
to Menkaure. Here the first European to break in had been a British
colonel, Howard Vyse, who had entered the burial chamber in 1837. He
found an empty basalt sarcophagus, an anthropoid coffin lid made of
wood, and some bones. The natural assumption was that these were the
remains of Menkaure.
Modern science had subsequently proved,
however, that the bones and coffin lid dated from the early
Christian era, that is, from 2500 years after the Pyramid Age, and
thus represented the ‘intrusive burial’ of a much later individual
(quite a common practice throughout Ancient Egyptian history).
the basalt sarcophagus—well, it could have belonged to Menkaure.
Unfortunately, however, nobody had the opportunity to examine it
because it had been lost at sea when the ship on which Vyse sent it
to England had sunk off the coast of Spain.3 Since it was a matter
of record that the sarcophagus had been found empty by Vyse, it was
once again assumed that the body of the pharaoh must have been
removed by tomb robbers.
A similar assumption had been made about the body of Khufu, which
was also missing. Here the scholarly consensus, expressed as well as
anyone by George Hart of the British Museum, was that ‘no later than
500 years after Khufu’s funeral’ robbers had forced their way into
the Great Pyramid ‘to steal the burial treasure’.4
2 The Riddle of the Pyramids, p. 54.
3 Ibid., p. 55.
4 George Hart, Pharaohs and Pyramids, Guild Publishing, London,
1991, p. 91.
is that this incursion must have occurred by or before 2000 BC—since Khufu is
believed to have died in 2528 BC.5 Moreover it was assumed by
I.E.S Edwards, a leading authority on these matters, that the burial
treasure had been removed from the famous inner sanctum now known as
the King’s Chamber and that the empty ‘granite sarcophagus’ which
stood at the western end of that sanctum had ‘once contained the
King’s body, probably enclosed within an inner coffin made of
All this is orthodox, mainstream, modern scholarship, which is
unquestioningly accepted as historical fact and taught as such at
But suppose it isn’t fact.
5 Atlas of Ancient Egypt, p. 36.
6 The Pyramids of Egypt, pp. 94-5.
The Pyramids of Egypt by Professor I. E. S. Edwards is the standard
text on the pyramids.
The cupboard was bare
The mystery of the missing mummy of Khufu begins with the records of
Caliph Al-Ma’mun, a Muslim governor of Cairo in the ninth century
AD. He had engaged a team of quarriers to tunnel their way into the
pyramid’s northern face, urging them on with promises that they
would discover treasure.
Through a series of lucky accidents
‘Ma’mun’s Hole’, as archaeologists now refer to it, had joined up
with one of the monument’s several internal passageways, the
‘descending corridor’ leading downwards from the original concealed
doorway in the northern face (the location of which, though known in
classical times, had been forgotten by Ma’mun’s day).
By a further
lucky accident the vibrations that the Arabs had caused with their
battering rams and drills dislodged a block of limestone from the
ceiling of the descending corridor. When the socket from which it
had fallen was examined it was found to conceal the opening to
another corridor, this time ascending into the heart of the pyramid.
There was a problem, however. The opening was blocked by a series of
enormous plugs of solid granite, clearly contemporaneous with the
construction of the monument, which were held in place by a
narrowing of the lower end of the corridor.8
8 W. M.
Flinders Petrie, The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh (New and Revised
Edition), Histories and Mysteries of Man Ltd., London, 1990,
The quarriers were
unable either to break or to cut through the plugs. They therefore
tunnelled into the slightly softer limestone surrounding them and,
after several weeks of backbreaking toil, rejoined the ascending
corridor higher up—having bypassed a formidable obstacle never
The implications were obvious. Since no previous treasure-seekers
had penetrated this far, the interior of the pyramid must still be
virgin territory. The diggers must have licked their lips with
anticipation at the
immense quantities of gold and jewels they could now expect to find.
Similarly—though perhaps for different reasons, Ma’mun must have
been impatient to be the first into any chambers that lay ahead.
was reported that his primary motive in initiating this
investigation had not been an ambition to increase his vast personal
wealth but a desire to gain access to a storehouse of ancient wisdom
and technology which he believed to lie buried within the monument.
In this repository, according to age-old tradition, the pyramid
builders had placed,
‘instruments of iron and arms which rust not,
and glasse which might be bended and yet not broken, and strange
9 John Greaves, Pyramidographia, cited in Serpent in the Sky, p.
The Great Pyramid: entrance and plugging blocks in the ascending
The Great Pyramid: detail of corridors, shafts and chambers.
But Ma’mun and his men found nothing, not even any down-to-earth
treasure—and certainly not any high-tech, anachronistic plastic or
instruments of iron or rustproof weapons ... or strange spells
The erroneously named ‘Queen’s Chamber’ (which lay at the end a long
horizontal passageway that branched off from the ascending corridor)
turned out to be completely empty—just a severe, geometrical room.10
More disappointing still, the King’s Chamber (which the Arabs
reached after climbing the imposing Grand Gallery) also offered
little of interest. Its only furniture was a granite coffer just big
enough to contain the body of a man. Later identified, on no very
good grounds, as a ‘sarcophagus’, this undecorated stone box was
approached with trepidation by Ma’mun and his team, who found it to
be lidless and as empty as everything else in the pyramid.11
10 Secrets of the Great Pyramid, p. 11.
11 The Traveller’s Key to
Ancient Egypt, p. 120.
Why, how and when exactly had the Great Pyramid been emptied of its
Had it been 500 years after Khufu’s death, as the
Or was it not more likely, as the evidence
was beginning to suggest, that the inner chambers of the pyramid had
been empty all along, from the very beginning, that is, from the day
that the monument had originally been sealed?
Nobody, after all, had
reached the upper part of the ascending corridor before Ma’mun and
his men. And it was certain, too, that nobody had cut through the
granite plugs blocking the entrance to that corridor.
Commonsense ruled out the possibility of any earlier
incursion—unless there was another way in.
Bottlenecks in the well-shaft
There was another way in.
Farther down the descending corridor, more than 200 feet beyond the
point where the plugged end of the ascending corridor had been
found, lies the concealed entrance to another secret passageway,
deep within the subterranean bedrock of the Giza plateau. If Ma’mun
had discovered this passageway, he could have saved himself a great
deal of trouble, since it provided a readymade route around the
plugs blocking the ascending corridor.
His attention, however, had
been distracted by the challenge of tunnelling past those plugs, and
he made no effort to investigate the lower reaches of the descending
corridor (which he ended up using as a dump for the tons of stone
his diggers removed from the core of the pyramid).12
The full extent of the descending corridor was, however, well-known
and explored in classical times. The Graeco-Roman geographer Strabo
left quite a clear description of the large subterranean chamber it
debouched into (at a depth of almost 600 feet below the apex of the
pyramid).13 Graffiti from the period of the Roman occupation of
Egypt was also found inside this underground chamber, confirming
that it had once been regularly visited.
Yet, because it had been so
cunningly hidden in the beginning, the secret doorway leading off to
one side about two-thirds of the way down the western wall of the
descending corridor, remained sealed and undiscovered until the
What the doorway led to was a narrow well-shaft, about 160 feet in
extent, which rose almost vertically through the bedrock and then
through more than twenty complete courses of the Great Pyramid’s
limestone core blocks, until it joined up with the main internal
corridor system at the base of the Grand Gallery. There is no
evidence to indicate what the purpose of this strange architectural
feature might have been (although several scholars have hazarded
Indeed the only thing that is clear is that it was
engineered at the time of the construction of the pyramid and was
not the result of an intrusion by tunnelling tomb-robbers.16 The
question remains open, however, as to whether tomb-robbers might
have discovered the hidden entrance to the shaft, and made use of it
to siphon off the treasures from the King’s and Queen’s
12 Secrets of the Great Pyramid, p. 58.
The Geography of Strabo, (trans. H. L. Jones), Wm. Heinemann,
London, 1982, volume VIII, pp. 91-3.
14 Secrets of the Great
Pyramid, p. 58.
In general, it is assumed to have been used as an escape route by
workers sealed within the pyramid above the plugging blocks in the
Because, over a distance of several hundred feet through solid
masonry, it joins two narrow corridors. This could not have been
achieved by accident.
Such a possibility cannot be ruled out. Nevertheless, a review of
historical record indicates little in its favour.
For example, the upper end of the well-shaft was entered off the
Grand Gallery by the Oxford astronomer John Greaves in 1638. He
managed to descend to a depth of about sixty feet. In 1765 another
Briton, Nathaniel Davison, penetrated to a depth of about 150 feet
but found his way blocked by an impenetrable mass of sand and
stones. Later, in the 1830s, Captain G.B. Caviglia, an Italian
adventurer, reached the same depth and encountered the same
More enterprising than his predecessors, he hired Arab
workers to start excavating the rubble in the hope that there might
be something of interest beneath it. Several days of digging in
claustrophobic conditions followed before the connection with the
descending corridor was discovered.17
Is it likely that such a cramped, blocked-up shaft could have been a
viable conduit for the treasures of Khufu, supposedly the greatest
pharaoh of the magnificent Fourth Dynasty?
Even if it hadn’t been choked with debris and sealed at the lower
end, it could not have been used to bring out more than a tiny
fraction of the treasures of a typical royal tomb. This is because
the well-shaft is only three feet in diameter and incorporates
several tricky vertical sections.
At the very least, therefore, when Ma’mun and his men battered their
way into the King’s Chamber around the year AD 820, one would have
expected some of the bigger and heavier pieces from the original
burial to be still in place—like the statues and shrines that bulked
so large in Tutankhamen’s much later and presumably inferior tomb.18
17 Secrets of the Great Pyramid, pp. 56-8.
18 See Nicholas Reeves,
The Complete Tutankhamun, Thames & Hudson, London, 1990.
But nothing was found inside Khufu’s Pyramid, making this and the
alleged looting of Khafre’s monument the only tomb robberies in the
history of Egypt which achieved a clean sweep, leaving not a single
trace behind—not a torn cloth, not a shard of broken pottery, not an
unwanted figurine, not an overlooked piece of jewellery—just the
bare floors and walls and the gaping mouths of empty sarcophagi.
Not like other tombs
It was now after six in the morning and the rising sun had bathed
the summits of Khufu’s and Khafre’s Pyramids with a fleeting blush
of pastel-pink light. Menkaure’s Pyramid, being some 200 feet lower
than the other two, was still in shadow as Santha and I skirted its
north-western corner and continued our walk into the rolling sand
dunes of the surrounding desert.
I still had the tomb robbery theory on my mind. As far as I could
see the only real ‘evidence’ in favour of it was the absence of
grave goods and mummies that it had been invented to explain in the
first place. All the
other facts, particularly where the Great Pyramid was concerned,
seemed to speak persuasively against any robbery having occurred. It
was not just a matter of the narrowness and unsuitability of the
well-shaft as an escape route for bulky treasures.
remarkable feature of Khufu’s Pyramid was the absence of
inscriptions or decorations anywhere within its immense network of
galleries, corridors, passageways and chambers, and the same was
true of Khafre’s and Menkaure’s Pyramids. In none of these amazing
monuments had a single word been written in praise of the pharaohs
whose bodies they were supposed to house.
This was exceptional. No other proven burial place of any Egyptian
monarch had ever been found undecorated. The fashion throughout
Egyptian history had been for the tombs of the pharaohs to be
extensively decorated, beautifully painted from top to bottom (as in
the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, for example) and densely inscribed
with the ritual spells and invocations required to assist the
deceased on his journey towards eternal life (as in the Fifth
Dynasty pyramids at Saqqara, just twenty miles to the south of
See Valley of the Kings; for Saqqara (Fifth and Sixth Dynasties) see
Traveller’s Key to Ancient Egypt, pp. 163-7.
Why had Khufu, Khafre and
Menkaure done things so differently?
they not built their monuments to serve as tombs at all, but for
another and more subtle purpose?
Or was it possible, as certain Arab
and esoteric traditions maintained, that the Giza pyramids had been
erected long before the Fourth Dynasty by the architects of some
earlier and more advanced civilization?
Neither hypothesis was popular with Egyptologists for reasons that
were easy to understand. Moreover, while conceding that the Second
and Third Pyramids were completely devoid of internal inscriptions,
lacking even the names of Khafre and Menkaure, the scholars were
able to cite certain hieroglyphic ‘quarry marks’ (graffiti daubed on
stone blocks before they left the quarry) found inside the Great
Pyramid, which did seem to bear the name of Khufu.
A certain smell ...
The discoverer of the quarry marks was Colonel Howard Vyse, during
the destructive excavations he undertook at Giza in 1837. Extending
an existing crawlway, he cut a tunnel into the series of narrow
cavities, called ‘relieving chambers’, which lay directly above the
The quarry marks were found on the walls and
ceilings of the top four of these cavities and said things like
HOW POWERFUL IS THE WHITE CROWN OF KHNUM—
It was all very convenient. Right at the end of a costly and
otherwise fruitless digging season, just when a major archaeological
discovery was needed to legitimize the expenses he had run up, Vyse
had stumbled upon the find of the decade—the first incontrovertible
proof that Khufu had indeed been the builder of the hitherto
anonymous Great Pyramid.
One would have thought that a discovery of this nature would have
settled conclusively any lingering doubts over the ownership and
purpose of that enigmatic monument. But the doubts remained, largely
because, from the beginning, ‘a certain smell’ hung over Vyse’s
1 - It was odd that the marks were the only signs of the name Khufu
ever found anywhere inside the Great Pyramid.21
2 - It was odd that they had been found in such an obscure,
out-of-theway corner of that immense building.
3 - It was odd that they had been found at all in a monument otherwise
devoid of inscriptions of any kind.
4 - And it was extremely odd that they had been found only in the top
four of the five relieving chambers. Inevitably, suspicious minds
began to wonder whether ‘quarry marks’ might also have appeared in
the lowest of these five chambers had that chamber, too, been
discovered by Vyse (rather than by Nathaniel Davison seventy years
5 - Last but not least it was odd that several of the hieroglyphs in
the ‘quarry marks’ had been painted upside down, and that some were
unrecognizable while others had been misspelt or used
Was Vyse a forger?
I know of one plausible case made to suggest he was exactly that,24
and although final proof will probably always be lacking, it seemed
to me incautious of academic Egyptology to have accepted the
authenticity of the quarry marks without question. Besides, there
was alternative hieroglyphic evidence, arguably of purer provenance,
which appeared to indicate that Khufu could not have built the Great
20 The Pyramids of Egypt, p. 211-12; The Great Pyramid: Your
Personal Guide, p. 71.
21 Pyramids of Egypt, pp. 96.
22 Secrets of
the Great Pyramid, p. 35-6.
23 Zecharia Sitchin, The Stairway To
Heaven, Avon Books, New York, 1983, pp. 253-82.
Strangely, the same Egyptologists who readily ascribed immense
importance to Vyse’s
quarry marks were quick to downplay the significance of these other,
contradictory, hieroglyphs, which appeared on a rectangular
limestone stela which now stood in the Cairo Museum.25
The Inventory Stela, as it was called, had been discovered at Giza
in the nineteenth century by the French archaeologist Auguste
Mariette. It was something of a bombshell because its text clearly
indicated that both the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramid (as well
as several other structures on the plateau) were already in
existence long before Khufu came to the throne.
The inscription also
referred to Isis as the ‘Mistress of the Pyramid’, implying that the
monument had been dedicated to the goddess of magic and not to Khufu
at all. Finally, there was a strong suggestion that Khufu’s pyramid
might have been one of the three subsidiary structures alongside the
Great Pyramid’s eastern flank.26
All this looked like damaging evidence against the orthodox
chronology of Ancient Egypt. It also challenged the consensus view
that the Giza pyramids had been built as tombs and only as only.
However, rather than investigating the anachronistic statements in
the Inventory Stela, Egyptologists chose to devalue them. In the
words of the influential American scholar James Henry Breasted,
‘These references would be of the highest importance if the stela
were contemporaneous with Khufu; but the orthographic evidences of
its late date are entirely conclusive ...’27
Breasted meant that the nature of the hieroglyphic writing system
used in he inscription was not consistent with that used in the
Fourth Dynasty but belonged to a more recent epoch: All
Egyptologists concurred with this analysis and the final judgement,
still accepted today, was that the stela had been carved in the
Twenty-First Dynasty, about 1500 years after Khufu’s reign, and was
therefore to be regarded as a work of historical fiction.28
James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents
from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest, reprinted by
Histories and Mysteries of Man Ltd., London, 1988, pp. 83-5.
Ibid., p. 85.
27 Ibid., p. 84.
28 Ibid., and Travellers Key to
Ancient Egypt, p. 139.
Thus, citing orthographic evidence, an entire academic discipline
found reason to ignore the boat-rocking implications of the
Inventory Stela and at no time gave proper consideration to the
possibility that it could have been based upon a genuine Fourth
Dynasty inscription (just as the New English Bible, for example, is
based on a much older original). Exactly the same scholars, however,
had accepted the authenticity of a set of dubious ‘quarry marks’
without demur, turning a blind eye to their orthographic and other
Why the double standard? Could it have been because the information
contained in the ‘quarry marks’ conformed strictly to orthodox
opinion that the Great Pyramid had been built as a tomb for Khufu?
information in the Inventory Stela contradicted that opinion?
By seven in the morning Santha and I had walked far out into the
desert to the south-west of the Giza pyramids and had made ourselves
comfortable in the lee of a huge dune that offered an unobstructed
panorama over the entire site.
The date, 16 March, was just a few days away from the Spring
Equinox, one of the two occasions in the year when the sun rose
precisely due east of wherever you stood in the world. Ticking out
the days like the pointer of a giant metronome, it had bisected the
horizon this morning at a point a hair’s breadth south of due east
and had already climbed high enough to shrug off the Nile mists
which clung like a shroud to much of the city of Cairo.
Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure ... Cheops, Chephren, Mycerinus. Whether you
called them by their Egyptian or their Greek names, there was no
doubt that the three famous pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty had been
commemorated by the most splendid, the most honourable, the most
beautiful and the most enormous monuments ever seen anywhere in the
Moreover, it was clear that these pharaohs must indeed have
been closely associated with the monuments, not only because of the
folklore passed on by Herodotus (which surely had some basis in
fact) but because inscriptions and references to Khufu, Khafre and
Menkaure had been found in moderate quantities, outside the three
major pyramids, at several different parts of the Giza necropolis.
Such finds had been made consistently in and around the six
subsidiary pyramids, three of which lay to the east of the Great
Pyramid and the other three to the south of the Menkaure Pyramid.
Since much of this external evidence was ambiguous and uncertain, I
found it difficult to understand why the Egyptologists were happy to
go on citing it as confirmation of the ‘tombs and tombs only’
The problem was that this same evidence was capable of supporting—
as equally valid—a number of different and mutually contradictory
interpretations. To give just one example, the ‘close association’
observed between the three great pyramids and the three Fourth
Dynasty pharaohs could indeed have come about because these pharaohs
had built the pyramids as their tombs. But it could also have come
about if the gigantic monuments of the Giza plateau had been
standing long before the dawn of the historical civilization known
as Dynastic Egypt.
In that case, it was only necessary to assume
that in due course Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure had come along and
built a number of the subsidiary structures around the three older
pyramids—something that they would have had every reason to do
because in this way they could have appropriated the high prestige
of the original anonymous monuments (and would, almost certainly, be
viewed by posterity as their builders).
There were other possibilities too. The point was, however, that the
evidence for exactly who had built which great pyramid, when and for
what purpose was far too thin on the ground to justify the dogmatism
of the orthodox ‘tombs and tombs only’ theory. In all honesty, it
was not clear who built the pyramids. It was not clear in what epoch
they had been built. And it was not at all clear what their function
For all these reasons they were surrounded by a wonderful,
impenetrable air of mystery and as I gazed down at them out of the
desert they seemed to march towards me across the dunes ...
Chapter 36 -
Viewed from our vantage point in the desert south west of the Giza
necropolis, the site plan of the three great pyramids seemed
majestic but bizarre.
Menkaure’s pyramid was closest to us, with Khafre’s and Khufu’s
monuments behind it to the north-east. These two were situated along
a near perfect diagonal—a straight line connecting the south-western
and north-eastern corners of the pyramid of Khafre would, if
extended to the north-east, also pass through the south-western and
north-eastern corners of the Great Pyramid.
This, presumably, was
not an accident. From where we sat, however, it was easy to see that
if the same imaginary straight line was extended to the south-west
it would completely miss the Third Pyramid, the entire body of which
was offset to the east of the principal diagonal.
Egyptologists refused to recognize any anomaly in this. Why should
they? As far as they were concerned there was no site plan at Giza.
The pyramids were tombs and tombs only, built for three different
pharaohs over a period of about seventy-five years.1 It made sense
to assume that each ruler would have sought to express his own
personality and idiosyncrasies through his monument, and this was
probably why Menkaure had ‘stepped out of line’.
The Egyptologists were wrong. Though I was unaware of it that March
morning in 1993, a breakthrough had been made proving beyond doubt
that the necropolis did have an overall site plan, which dictated
the exact positioning of the three pyramids not only in relation to
one another but in relation to the River Nile a few kilometers east
of the Giza plateau.
With eerie fidelity, this immense and ambitious
layout modelled a celestial phenomenon2—which was perhaps why
Egyptologists (who pride themselves on looking exclusively at the
ground beneath their feet) had failed to spot it. On a truly giant
scale, as we see in later chapters, it also reflected the same
obsessive concern with orientations and dimensions demonstrated in
each of the monuments.
1 Atlas of Ancient Egypt, p. 36.
2 The Orion Mystery.
A singular oppression ...
Giza, Egypt, 16 March 1993, 8 a.m.
At a little over 200 feet tall (and with a side length at the base
feet) the Third Pyramid was less than half the height and well under
half the mass of the Great Pyramid. Nevertheless, it possessed a
stunning and imposing majesty of its own. As we stepped out of the
desert sunlight and into its huge geometrical shadow, I remembered
what the Iraqi writer Abdul Latif had said about it when he had
visited it in the twelfth century:
‘It appears small compared with
the other two; but viewed at a short distance and to the exclusion
of these, it excites in the imagination a singular oppression and
cannot be contemplated without painfully affecting the sight ...’3
The lower sixteen courses of the monument were still cased, as they
had been since the beginning, with facing blocks quarried out of red
granite (‘so extremely hard’, in Abdul Latif s words, ‘that iron
takes a long time, with difficulty, to make an impression on it’).4
Some of the blocks were very large; they were also closely and
cunningly fitted together in a complex interlocking jigsaw-puzzle
pattern strongly reminiscent of the cyclopean masonry at Cuzco,
Machu Picchu and other locations in far-off Peru.
As was normal, the entrance to the Third Pyramid was situated in its
northern face well above the ground. From here, at an angle of 26°
2’, a descending corridor lanced arrow-straight down into the
darkness.5 Oriented exactly north to south, this corridor was
rectangular in section and so cramped that we had to bend almost
double to fit into it. Where it passed through the masonry of the
monument its ceiling and walls consisted of well-fitted granite
blocks. More surprisingly, these continued for some distance below
3 Abdul Latif, The Eastern Key, cited in Traveller’s Key to Ancient
Egypt, p. 126.
5 Blue Guide: Egypt, A & C Black, London, 1988, p. 433.
At about seventy feet from the entrance, the corridor levelled off
and opened out into a passageway where we could stand up. This led
into a small ante-chamber with carved panelling and grooves cut into
its walls, apparently to take portcullis slabs. Reaching the end of
the chamber, we had to crouch again to enter another corridor. Bent
double, we proceeded south for about forty feet before reaching the
first of the three main burial chambers—if burial chambers they
These sombre, soundless rooms were all hewn out of solid bedrock.
The one that we stood in was rectangular in plan and oriented east
to west. Measuring about 30 feet long x 15 wide x 15 high, it had a
flat ceiling and a complex internal structure with a large,
irregular hole in its western wall leading into a dark, cave-like
space beyond. There was also an opening near the centre of the floor
which gave access to a ramp, sloping westwards, leading down to even
deeper levels. We descended the ramp.
It terminated in a short,
horizontal passage to the right of which, entered through a narrow
doorway, lay a small empty chamber, Six cells, like the sleeping
quarters of medieval monks, had been hewn
out of its walls: four on the eastern side and two to the north.
These were presumed by Egyptologists to have functioned as
‘magazines ... for storing objects which the dead king wished to
have close to his body.’6
Coming out of this chamber, we turned right again, back into the
horizontal passage. At its end lay another empty chamber,7 the
design of which is unique among the pyramids of Egypt. Some twelve
feet long by eight wide, and oriented north to south, its walls and
extensively broken and damaged floor were fashioned out of a
peculiarly dense, chocolate-coloured granite which seemed to absorb
light and sound waves.
Its ceiling consisted of eighteen huge slabs
of the same material, nine on each side, laid in facing gables.
Because they had had been hollowed from below to form a markedly
concave surface, the effect of these great monoliths was of a
perfect barrel vault, much as one might expect to find in the crypt
of a Romanesque cathedral.
Retracing our steps, we left the lower chambers and walked back up
the ramp to the large, flat-roofed, rock-hewn room above. Passing
through the ragged aperture in its western wall, we found ourselves
looking directly at the upper sides of the eighteen slabs which
formed the ceiling of the chamber below. From this perspective their
true form as a pointed gable was immediately apparent. What was less
clear was how they had been brought in here in the first place, let
alone laid so perfectly in position.
Each one must have weighed many
tons, heavy enough to have made them extremely difficult to handle
under any circumstances. And these were no ordinary circumstances.
As though they had set out deliberately to make things more
complicated for themselves (or perhaps because they found such tasks
simple?) the pyramid builders had disdained to provide an adequate
working area between the slabs and the bedrock above them.
crawling into the cavity, I was able to establish that the clearance
varied from approximately two feet at the southern end to just a few
inches at the northern end. In such a restricted space there was no
possibility that the monoliths could have been lowered into
position. Logically, therefore, they must have been raised from the
chamber floor, but how had that been done? The chamber was so small
that only a few men could have worked inside it at any one time—too
few to have had the muscle-power to lift the slabs by brute force.
Pulleys were not supposed to have existed in the Pyramid Age8 (even
if they had, there would have been insufficient room to set up
Had some unknown system of levers been used?
might there be more substance than scholars realized to the Ancient
Egyptian legends that spoke of huge
stones being effortlessly levitated by priests or magicians through
the utterance of ‘words of power’?9
6 The Pyramids of Egypt, p. 127.
It was in this chamber that Vyse found the intrusive burial (of
bones and a wooden coffin lid) referred to in Chapter Thirty-Five.
The basalt coffin where he also found (later lost at sea) is
believed to have been part of the same intrusive burial and to have
not been older than the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. See, for example, Blue
Guide, Egypt, p. 433.
8 The Pyramids of Egypt, p. 220.
9 See, for example, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, volume II,
p. 180. 10 The Pyramids of Egypt, p. 117.
Not for the first time when confronted by the mysteries of the
pyramids I knew that I was looking at an impossible engineering feat
which had nevertheless been carried out to astonishingly high and
precise standards. Moreover, if Egyptologists were to be believed,
the construction work had supposedly been undertaken at the dawn of
human civilization by a people who had not accumulated any
experience of massive construction projects.
This was, of course, a startling cultural paradox, and one for to
which no adequate explanation had ever been offered by an orthodox
The moving finger writes and having writ it moves on
Leaving the underground chambers, which seemed to vibrate at the
core of the Third Pyramid like the convoluted, multi-valved heart of
some slumbering Leviathan, we made our way along the narrow entrance
corridor and into the open air.
Our objective now was the Second Pyramid. We walked along its
western flank (just under 708 feet in length), turned right and
eventually came to the point on its north side, about 40 feet east
of the main north-south axis, where the principal entrances were
located. One of these was carved directly into the bedrock at ground
level about 30 feet in front of the monument; the other was cut into
the northern face at a height of just under 50 feet.
From the latter
a corridor sloped downwards at an angle of 25° 55’.10 From the
former, by which we now entered the pyramid, another descending
corridor led deeply underground then levelled off for a short
distance, giving access to a subterranean chamber, then ascended
steeply and finally levelled off again into a long horizontal
passageway, heading due south (into which also fed the upper
corridor that sloped down from the entrance in the north face).
High enough to stand up in, and lined at first with granite and then
with smoothly polished limestone, the horizontal passageway was
almost at ground level, that is, it lay directly beneath the
pyramid’s lowest course of masonry. It was also extremely long,
running dead straight for a further 200 feet until it debouched in
the single ‘burial chamber’ at the heart of the monument.
As we have already noted, no mummy had ever been found in this
latter chamber, nor any inscriptions, with the result that the
so-called Pyramid of Khafre was wholly anonymous. Latter-day
adventurers had, however, carved their names on to its walls—notably
the former circus strongman Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823)
who had forced his way into the
monument in 1818. His huge and flamboyant graffito, daubed in black
paint high on the south side of the chamber, was a reminder of basic
human nature: the desire that all of us feel to be recognized and
It was clear that Khafre himself had been far from
immune from this ambition, since repeated references to him (as well
as a number of flattering statues) appeared in the surrounding
11 Traveller’s Key to Ancient Egypt, p. 123.
If he had indeed built the pyramid as his
it seemed inconceivable that such a man would have failed to stamp
his name and identity somewhere within its interior.
Above Chamber and passageway system of the Pyramid of Menkaure.
Below Chamber and passageway system of the Pyramid of Khafre.
In many ways this—rather than the absence of identifying marks—was
the central problem. Prior to the reigns of Khufu, Khafre and
Menkaure there was not a single pharaoh whose name could be put
forward as a candidate. Khufu’s father Sneferu, the first king of
the Fourth Dynasty, was believed to have built the so-called ‘Bent’
and ‘Red’ Pyramids at Dahshur, about thirty miles south of Giza—an
attribution that was itself mysterious (if pyramids were indeed
tombs) since it seemed strange that one pharaoh required two
pyramids to be buried in.
Sneferu was also credited by some
Egyptologists with the construction of the ‘Collapsed’ Pyramid at Meidum (although a number of authorities insisted that this was the
tomb of Huni, the last king of the Third Dynasty).12
12 The Riddle of the Pyramids, p. 49.
The only other
builders in the Archaic Period had been Zoser, the second pharaoh of
the Third Dynasty, to whom was attributed the construction of the
‘Step Pyramid’ at Saqqara,13 and Zoser’s successor,
whose pyramid also stood at Saqqara. Therefore, despite the lack of
inscriptions, it was now assumed as obvious that the three pyramids
at Giza must have been built by Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure and must
have been intended to serve as their tombs.
We need not reiterate here the many shortcomings of the ‘tombs and
tombs only’ theory. However, these shortcomings were not limited to
the Giza pyramids but applied to all the other Third and Fourth
Dynasty Pyramids listed above. Not a single one of these monuments
had ever been found to contain the body of a pharaoh, or any signs
whatsoever of a royal burial.14 Some of them were not even equipped
with sarcophagi, for example the Collapsed Pyramid at Meidum.
Pyramid of Sekhemkhet at Saqqara (first entered in 1954 by the
Egyptian Antiquities Organization) did contain a sarcophagus—one,
which had certainly remained sealed and undisturbed since its
installation in the ‘tomb’.15 Grave robbers had never succeeded in
finding their way to it, but when it was opened, it was empty.16
13 Ibid., pp. 36-9.
14 Ibid., p. 74.
15 Ibid., p. 42.
So what was going on? How come more than twenty-five million tons of
stone had been piled up to form pyramids at Giza, Dahshur, Meidum
and Saqqara if the only point of the exercise had been to install
empty sarcophagi in empty chambers? Even admitting the hypothetical
excesses of one or two megalomaniacs, it seemed unlikely that a
whole succession of pharaohs would have sanctioned such
Buried beneath the five million tons of the Second Pyramid at Giza,
Santha and I now stepped into the monument’s spacious inner chamber,
which might have been a tomb but might equally have served some
other as yet unidentified purpose. Measuring 46.5 feet in length
from east to west, and 16.5 in breadth from north to south, this
naked and sterile apartment was topped off with an immensely strong
gabled ceiling reaching a height of 22.5 feet at its apex.
slabs, each a massive 20-ton limestone monolith, had been laid in
position at an angle of 53° 7’ 28” (which exactly matched the angle
of slope of the pyramid’s sides).17 Here there were no relieving
chambers (as there were above the King’s Chamber in the Great
Pyramid). Instead, for more than 4000
years—perhaps far more—the gabled ceiling had taken the immense
weight of the second largest stone building in the world.
17 The Traveller’s Key to Ancient Egypt, p. 123; The Pyramids Of
Egypt, p. 118.
I looked slowly around the room, which reflected a yellowish-white
radiance back at me. Quarried directly out of the living bedrock,
its walls were not at all smoothly finished, as one might have
expected, but were noticeably rough and irregular.
The floor too was
peculiar: of split-level design with a step about a foot deep
separating its eastern and western halves. The supposed sarcophagus
of Khafre lay near the western wall, embedded in the floor.
Measuring just over six feet in length, quite shallow, and somewhat
narrow to have contained the wrapped and embalmed mummy of a noble
pharaoh, its smooth red granite sides reached to about knee height.
As I gazed into its dark interior, it seemed to gape like the
doorway to another dimension.
Continue to Chapter 37