The pyramids of ancient Egypt are perhaps the most famous man-made structures in the world. They captivate mankind on two distinct levels, the material and the spiritual. The material level inspires awe when viewing the pyramids. How could our ancestors four or five millennia ago have had the engineering genius to erect monuments that modern man would be hard pressed to duplicate? What kind of social structure made these wonders possible?
The spiritual aspect touches our hearts and causes us to make a plaintive, futile cry for immortality. An old Arab proverb says that “man fears time and time fears the pyramids.” The pyramids have made a mockery of death; they cannot be killed. Their physical presence defies the limitations of time. If there was enough intelligence to overcome the primitive conditions of the Bronze Age that produced the pyramids, then perhaps ideas can be harnessed in this advanced Industrial Age to provide a deathless life.
Some people believe that behind the greatness of ancient Egypt and the pyramids, there was a more ancient civilisation, one that became lost in the mists of time. Do the pyramids encode or enclose information about a lost civilisation? Does the Sphinx guard its record?
My friend Egyptologist Mark Lehner and I have debated all those people who are proponents of that theory, and we have demonstrated that the supposed lost civilisation is a myth. One such theory was published by Robert Schoch, a geologist from Boston University in the US, and John West, who brings tours to Egypt and is also a writer. Their theory maintains that the weathering of layers on the Sphinx indicates that it was built between 7000 and 5000 BCE.
They came up with a theory in this regard, but they neglected the evidence that the ancient Egyptians left behind them during the Pyramid Age of the Old Kingdom.
But the most important point here is: if what they say is true, why did the people of this lost civilisation not leave one single piece of evidence behind about their existence? How could they have simply disappeared?
These authors believe that the erosion on the body of the Sphinx resulted from a flood that occurred thousands of years ago. Mark Lehner and two prestigious geologists, K. L. Gauri and Thomas Aigner, undertook an analysis of the Sphinx’s surface and could not find any evidence to support this theory.
A team from Florida State University in the US also worked with radar in 1996 to search for a tunnel under the Sphinx. In their report, they stated that such a tunnel did exist, as well as another tunnel that connected the queen’s pyramid of Henutsen to the Great Pyramid. They asked the Egyptian Antiquities Department to drill under the Sphinx, but their request was denied.
In fact, the radar reading indicating a tunnel actually only revealed a crack in the stone. We tested a similar radar reading in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor that was interpreted as a tomb. But when we began our excavation, it was also found to be just a crack.
On the other hand, we also discovered that the water table was beginning to encroach on the area in front of the Sphinx. In order to investigate the situation, we had to drill down about five metres from the Sphinx. We had a machine to drill down and at an angle on the north and the south sides of the Sphinx. The drilling went down for 20 metres from one side to the other. Multiple drillings were also done near the left paw of the monument. We have photographs of all these drillings to show that there is nothing under the Sphinx.
Other people used to wonder about a “doorway” in the north side of the Sphinx. The lower part of the Sphinx is covered with layers of ancient and modern repair masonry. In 1926, when he cleared the Sphinx, the French engineer Emile Baraize found that a large patch of the ancient masonry cover had fallen away from the bedrock body of the Sphinx on its north side.
Baraize re-covered this area as part of his restorations, so this “doorway” was already known. It may be nothing more than a deep recess in the natural rock of the Sphinx, perhaps explored in ancient times during the Late Period.
Another example of such speculation comes in a book that in my opinion should never have been published. It is called The Orion Mystery. It does not contain any scientific information, and the authors need to take lessons in Egyptology. They say that the pyramids were built around 10,500 BCE and were designed to align with stars in the Orion constellation.
The most interesting thing about the book is that the authors seem to believe that merely repeating a statement makes it true. We simply do not have any data — any records, artifacts, or independently verifiable evidence — that their assertions are correct, much less worthy of serious scholarly support.
You can’t compare entertainment with real life. The Orion Mystery is as fictional as the US film E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and while it may be entertaining, it has little real foundation. Our knowledge, on the other hand, is based on facts — provable, demonstrable facts gathered through archaeological and textual evidence.
We know who built the pyramids, when, how many people it took, details of their daily lives, and details of their deaths. We know what they ate and drank. We know that when they died, they were buried close to the monuments they created.
They didn’t mysteriously appear and just as mysteriously disappear: their descendants populate Egypt today. And that is the miracle of the pyramids.
Khufu’s Pyramid: Khufu was the second king of the Old Kingdom’s Fourth Dynasty.
We know very little about him, in spite of the fact that he built the most famous tomb in the ancient world, the Great Pyramid, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He took the throne after the reign of his father, Sneferu. His full name was Khnum-Khufwy, which means “the god Khnum protects me.” Khufu was his nickname.
Recently discovered evidence says that in year 27 of his reign, Khufu sent an expedition to the Western Desert to procure “mafet”. This is the red paint that we see used to write graffiti inside and outside the pyramids. His name was found by Egyptologist John Darnell in rock inscriptions in a quarry in the Western Desert west of Naqada.
But the most recent discovery was made near the Red Sea by a French expedition in the shape of a large papyrus. To summarise its text, Mererew, the overseer of the workmen who built the pyramid, went with his crew to Sinai in year 27 of Khufu’s reign to procure copper. He mentions that he worked under Ankh-khaf the architect, and when they returned to Giza, it took them one day to travel from down on the Giza Plateau near the harbour up to the pyramids.
This papyrus is significant for two reasons: the first is that Hemiunu, the architect whom we know oversaw the building of the pyramid, had died, and Ankh-khaf took his place; and the second is the mention of year 27 of Khufu’s reign.
The most important achievement of Khufu was building the Great Pyramid on the Giza Plateau. The traditional estimate of the number of stones in this pyramid, mentioned in almost every book about it, is 2,300,000. However, there is no scientific basis for this number, and we were not able to track it to its original source.
We now believe that the pyramid was built over a natural rock core that was about nine metres high. A scientific estimate of the number of the stones used in the pyramid has been made by architects from Helwan University in Egypt, who suggest that there were just 1,200,000 blocks.
The building of the Great Pyramid can provide us with important insights into the reign of Khufu. Politically, it shows that Khufu controlled the wealth and the population of the country. He organised households all over Egypt into participating in the building of the pyramid, providing them with food (grain and beer) and they in turn providing labourers. This organisation confirms that the pyramid was a national project of the state.
From the architectural point of view, the pyramid shows the skills and the brilliance of the overseer of the king’s works and his architects.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly