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A Short History of Pyramidology PDF Print E-mail

Fringe beliefs

The Great Pyramid of Giza was built for King Khufu (known to the Greeks as Cheops) some four and a half thousand years ago. It is a structure of such awe-inspiring dimensions that many people across the centuries have found it hard to credit its creation to human beings. And even harder to realise that these human beings had not fully mastered the use of, say, the simple rope pulley, let alone explosives, mechanical diggers, power drills, cranes and helicopters.

The Great Pyramid at Giza
The Great Pyramid at Giza ©
Quite apart from its sheer size (until the construction of the Eiffel Tower at the end of the 19th century, it was by far the tallest building in the world), the Great Pyramid is also an astonishing feat of geometrical accuracy. And there is evidence to suggest that its builders had a remarkably precise knowledge of astronomy, too.

'...the Great Pyramid is also an astonishing feat of geometrical accuracy.'

Today, thanks to the labours of generations of scholars, we have constructed a pretty clear account of how this remarkable work was achieved. Archaeologists have traced the technical development of the pyramid form from earlier types of Egyptian tombs; uncovered the quarries from which its stones were cut and hauled; located the remains of the barracks complex in which the work force was housed; calculated and painstakingly re-enacted the process of its construction.

A few minor points of ambiguity remain: for example, though all the experts agree that some form of giant ramp must have been used in building the higher levels, it has not been settled what kind of ramp this was. For the most part, though, everyone who has studied the matter seriously now agrees that the Pyramid was built over the course of some 20 or so years by a work force of some 20,000 people, of whom 4,000 were the hard core of labourers. And despite the familiar Hollywood image, it is also known that the workers were not slaves, but short-term conscripts, performing a kind of National Service.

'...there are many who persist in attributing the Great Pyramid to some agency outside the human race.'

This account of the making of the Great Pyramid, although rich and coherent, does not satisfy everyone, and there are many who persist in attributing the Great Pyramid to some agency outside the human race. There is a whole branch of the publishing industry devoted to meeting this hunger for pyramidical mysteries, which is sharpened by movies such as Stargate and The Fifth Element, and shows no sign of tapering off in the 21st century.

This accumulation of fringe beliefs is sometimes known as 'pyramidology'; some of its major tendencies are described here, with catch-all names for the sake of brevity.


Looking into the early days of investigation and enquiry into the Great Pyramid, it is hard to separate the genuine scholars from those who would now be regarded as cranks, since the radical split between scientific method and religious faith that characterises modern societies had not yet taken place.

'Sir Isaac Newton...a keen pyramidologist...'

Sir Isaac Newton, for example, himself a keen pyramidologist, notoriously spent as much time on alchemical experiments and biblical interpretation as he did on the work in mathematics and physics for which he is now honoured.

Napoleon as emperor
Napoleon invaded Egypt at the end of the 18th century ©
Many of those inquisitive Europeans who made the trip to Giza in the 17th and 18th centuries were drawn by the promise that it in some way embodied mysterious ancient wisdom; and though modern Egyptology, born of Napoleon's invasion of the country at the end of the 18th century, gradually became more scientific as time passed, even a reputable scientist such as Scotland's Astronomer Royal, Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), working in the 19th century, was convinced that the structure's proportions were inspired by the Christian God.

Others, like the sometime structural engineer David Davidson, went still further. Davidson persuaded himself that the Pyramid demonstrated a knowledge of the structure of the universe vastly superior to that of 19th-century science: 'the whole empirical basis of civilisation', he wrote, 'is a makeshift collection of hypotheses compared with the Natural Law basis of that civilisation of the past'.

Flinders Petrie
Flinders Petrie standing outside a tomb at Giza, in which he lived for two years ©
Egyptology came of scientific age with the accurate and painstaking excavations of Sir Flinders Petrie and others from the late 19th century onwards. At the same time 'pyramidiocy', as it is sometimes called, reached epidemic proportions, with countless cranks purporting to explain just how the Giza structure predicted the First World War, the Second Coming of Christ, the Third Reich and what have you.

Not surprisingly, the Pyramid was also seized on by just about every one of the mystical cults that thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - above all by the Theosophists, an influential group founded by one Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91). In her widely read, if all-but-unreadable, books, The Secret Doctrine (1888) and Isis Unveiled (1877), she explained to her followers that the Pyramid was 'the everlasting record and the indestructible symbol of the Mysteries and Initiations on Earth'.

'...Aleister Crowley claimed to have spent his honeymoon in the Pyramid...'

Thanks to Mme Blavatsky, the Pyramid became an essential point of pilgrimage for all self-respecting occultists. Among the notable necromancers and magi who made the journey were the Russian mathematician and mystic PD Ouspensky, whose cult is still alive in various forms today; the largely innocuous self-appointed guru 'Dr' Paul Brunton, who wrote a bestselling book, A Search in Secret Egypt (1935), where he recalled his conference with weird spirits inside the Pyramid; and the most famous of all Black Magicians, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), who claimed to have spent his honeymoon in the Pyramid, bathed in supernatural light.
Occultists of all stripes continue to be keen on the Pyramid as a place of spirits and demons, but the traditional belief that it was the product of some 'lost wisdom' from ancient times took on a new wrinkle round about 1923, when a poorly educated American by the name of Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), who had already made something of a name for himself as a trance medium, began to tell his listeners that they had lived previous lives in the lost, sunken continent of Atlantis. He claimed that he too had lived on Atlantis, and had been a high priest there.

'Cayce insisted that it was the refugee Atlanteans who had constructed, or at least designed, the Pyramid around 10,400 BC.'

Cayce told his believers that the most enlightened members of the population of Atlantis had fled the coming deluge and set up home in Egypt around 10,500 BC. (Some eight millennia, that is, before the construction of Khufu's Pyramid). Cayce insisted that it was the refugee Atlanteans who had constructed, or at least designed, the Pyramid around 10,400 BC. What's more, he said, they had built somewhere close by it a Hall of Records, crammed with their most marvellous secrets; and he predicted that this Hall would be uncovered in the last 20 years of the millennium. Fringe Egyptological circles were in a state of excitement throughout the 1990s, expecting an announcement any day. None came.
With the 1960s came something a little more space age. In 1969 - not so coincidentally, the year of the Apollo 11 mission that first put men on the moon - there appeared the first English-language version of the book Chariots of the Gods? The author of this curiously written and much publicised work was a Swiss hotelier, Erich von Daniken, and its theme passed into popular consciousness, borne along by serialisation in tabloid newspapers.

'...the earth had long ago been visited by superior beings from other worlds...'

Briefly, von Daniken contended that the earth had long ago been visited by superior beings from other worlds, whose technology appeared to our distant ancestors as a form of magic; that our most ancient monuments, including the Great Pyramid (von Daniken maintains that its construction by existing earthly methods would have taken at least 664 years, although the evidence he gives for this is not clear), are the material evidence of that visit; and that the world's religions and mythologies reflect garbled memories of the culture shock it engendered.

'...the Pyramid was a sort of freezing chamber...'

Although it is sometimes hard to penetrate von Daniken's prose, he also appears to contend that the Pyramid was a sort of freezing chamber, in which the significant dead could be preserved until such time as the sun god Ra (an astronaut, naturally) returned to revive them. Despite widespread derision, the refutations of scientists, and the promptings of plain old common sense, von Daniken's writings remain in print to this day, and help perpetuate one of the leading folk myths of our time.
The 1960s and 70s also saw the rise of that loose coalition of unorthodox and far-fetched beliefs known as New Age philosophy. The Pyramid plays as lively a role in this philosophical fashion as it did a hundred years ago in the heyday of Theosophy, and the mania for all things 'pyramidical' burns as ardently as ever.

'...the media rang with reports of people using mini-pyramids to keep milk fresh, and to sharpen not only blades but also brainpower.'

One of the more novel aspects of the craze took off in the mid-1960s, when attention shifted from the physical presence of the Giza structure to its proportions. A Czech radio engineer, Karel Dribal, heard rumours of the remarkable preservative powers of tiny model pyramids, made some tests of his own, and then announced to the world that a used razor blade, placed inside a cardboard replica of the pyramid just 15 inches high, would miraculously regain its original sharpness. Before long, the media rang with reports of people using mini-pyramids to keep milk fresh, and to sharpen not only blades but also brainpower.

That particular fad appears to have died away; but others have taken its place. For every reader who is interested in the true story of Khufu's Pyramid, there appear to be hundreds who wish to read only of its mystical secrets, its occult alignment with the heavens, its connection with the so-called 'Face on Mars' (a fuzzy photograph of a rock form taken by the space craft Viking II, in which some people believe they can make out an approximately human profile, somewhat akin to that of the Sphinx), and a supposed 'hidden chamber', the 'door' to which was recently found by a remote-controlled camera.

'...professional Egyptologists are exasperated by people's willingness to buy into fantasies about the Pyramid...'

These unorthodox theories are the stuff of many present-day bestsellers - some relatively sober and moderately well researched, others opportunistic or simply zany. Belief in them is harmless enough, no doubt, and may lead on to a further interest in matters Egyptological. But just as astronomers bemoan the persistence of belief in astrology, professional Egyptologists are exasperated by people's willingness to buy into fantasies about the Pyramid when the unadorned truth of the matter is so endlessly fascinating, and so easy to uncover.
Read on

Secrets of the Great Pyramid by Peter Tomkins (Penguin, 1973)

Giza: The Truth by Ian Lawton and Chris Ogilvie-Herald (Virgin Books, 2000)

The Orion Mystery by Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert (Arrow, 1994)

Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock (Century, 2001)

Isis Unveiled by Madame Blavatsky (Theosophical University Press, 1984

Links

Robert Bauval The site caters for the growing debates and discussions that are now part of the 'Alternative History' scene.

John Anthony West In the early 1990s West, along with Boston University geologist Robert Schoch, stated that the Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt, showed evidence of rainfall erosion, suggesting that the Sphinx was carved during or before the rains that marked the transition of northern Africa from the last Ice Age to the present interglacial epoch, a transition that occurred in the millennia from 10,000 to 5000 BC.

Edgar Cayce Cayce insisted that it was the refugee Atlanteans who had constructed, or at least designed, the Pyramid around 10,400 BC.

Erich von Däniken Von Daniken contended that the earth had long ago been visited by superior beings from other worlds, whose technology appeared to our distant ancestors as a form of magic; that our most ancient monuments, including the Great Pyramid (von Daniken maintains that its construction by existing earthly methods would have taken at least 664 years, although the evidence he gives for this is not clear), are the material evidence of that visit.

About the author

Kevin Jackson is a freelance writer, broadcaster and film-maker, whose recent publications include Pyramid: Beyond Imagination (BBC Consumer Publishing, 2002) and Invisible Forms (Thomas Dunne Books, 2000).

 

 

 
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