The North American Review/Volume 136/Issue 113/The Pyramid of Cheops

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When we look at the ruins of some ancient abbey, Netley, Melrose, or Tintern, at Stonehenge in its solitude on the Wiltshire plains, or the pyramids of the sandy tracts that border on the Nile, near Cairo, the idea suggested to the mind is that of a vast antiquity. The thoughts range back to the time when the builders of the structure before us were living men; and as we picture how generation after generation has passed away since their time, we are forcibly impressed with the nothingness of our lives compared with the life-time of our race. Yet, to the student of science these structures are but young; even the longest-lasting of them is but short-lived. To the antiquarian the pyramids seem built to last forever; the geologist finds in the continuance of the stone mounds for a few thousand years only evidence of the far vaster duration of the time-intervals during which the mounds of nature must remain, Yet even of these he has learned that

    "The hills are shadows, and they flow
        From form to form, and nothing stands;
        Like mists they melt, the solid lands;
     Like clouds, they shape themselves and go."

Knowing this, and that even the everlasting hills remain but for an instant when their duration is compared with the life-times of planets and suns, the astronomer is half disposed to smile at the thought of attributing a hoar antiquity to these monuments, which had not even been built when already the now existing hills were hundreds of times older than these stone mounds will ever be. The geologist, too, finds in the very stone of which the pyramids are built the evidence of æons of years for each day that they themselves have lasted. He sees from the structure of this stone that it was formed in a far-off period (the eocene age) when a vast sea, probably covering the whole region where the pyramids stand, received slowly a deposit of sandy débris, mixed with the remains of multitudinous forms of submarine and pelagic life. During tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years the nummulitic limestone was being formed beneath the waves of ocean. The sands which helped to make that limestone belong to an older formation still, itself formed in turn from still older rocks; and so he looks backward over the oft-times repeated change, a single oscillation only of which is pictured in the words:

    "There rolls the deep, where grew the tree;
        Oh, earth, what changes hast thou seen!
        There, where the loud street roars, hath been
     The stillness of the central sea."

Compared with the vast periods of time thus brought before our thoughts as among the demonstrated yet inconceivable truths of science, the life-time of such a structure as the great pyramid seems but as the duration of a breath. Yet, viewed as men must view the works of man, the pyramids of Egypt derive a profound interest from their antiquity. Young, compared with the works of nature, they are, of all men's works, the most ancient. They were ancient when temples and abbeys whose ruins now alone remain, were erected, and it seems as though they would endure till long after the last traces of any building now existing, or likely to be built by modern men, has disappeared from the surface of the earth. Nothing, it should seem, but some vast natural catastrophe ingulfing them beneath a new ocean, or hurling them down from the slopes of a new-formed mountain range, can destroy them utterly, unless the same race of beings which undertook to rear these vast masses should take in hand the task of destroying them.

Thus viewed, as the most ancient and the most impressive works of the human race, the pyramids have an interest to all students of human history and of human nature. It is impossible to consider carefully any of the works of man without learning something of the events which took place when those works were carried on, and something also of the character, the ideas, and the beliefs of the men to whom those works were due. If we can solve the problem presented by these strange structures, we shall have learned a lesson in the most ancient of all histories; we shall have gleaned some knowledge worth having about the ways and thoughts of the oldest civilized race whose material records have reached our time.

In undertaking an inquiry of this sort, on which many have already entered and which presents difficulties of the most serious character, it is well that we should note the conditions under which such a problem can alone be successfully dealt with.

In the first place, we must resolutely determine that, when setting forth to find a theory, no theory shall lay hold of us, and, taking possession of our minds, prevent us from duly weighing the evidence for and against not only that theory, but others.

Secondly, we must be prepared to find an element of truth in many of the theories advanced on our subject of inquiry, even though these theories be not absolutely correct.

Thirdly, it should be noticed that the true theory must accord, not with this fact or that, but with all the known facts. It is singular what mistaken notions are held by some on this point, who seem to think that the holder of a theory ought to be ready to concede that some facts are inconsistent with it. A true theory must accord with all known facts; that is, though we may not always be able to show how certain facts are to be explained by it, we must no longer hold a theory after we have been forced to admit that even a single fact is opposed to it or inconsistent with it.

Lastly,—a point I have not seen noted yet,—we should direct our attention first, not to the more easily explained facts, but to those which seem most perplexing and least readily to be interpreted; it is among these that we are most likely to find a key to unlock the mystery of our problem. A theory which explains them can hardly fail to he the true theory; whereas several theories, of which one only can be true—if any is—may explain the ordinary commonplace matters to which many direct their first attention.

Thus viewing the considerations which should guide us in dealing with the pyramids, we proceed to the inquiry, hoping that our solution may not only answer such questions as the antiquarian, the architect, the astronomer, might ask, but may tell us also something of the history and character of the princes and people who built these marvelous structures.

The first and most striking peculiarity in the pyramids, and especially in that one with which we are chiefly to deal, deservedly called the Great Pyramid, is the enormous amount of labor bestowed on their construction. The mere mass of masonry in the Great Pyramid, as originally built, amounted to nearly ninety millions of cubic feet, or in weight to nearly seven millions of tons. The base covers a space of about thirteen acres, an area considerably larger than that of Lincoln's Inn,—the largest of the London squares. The second pyramid covers about eleven acres, contains sixty-six millions of cubic feet, and the mass of stone-work cannot weigh much less than five million tons. The materials of which all the pyramids are built have been brought from considerable distances,—some greater, some less. To give an idea how little labor was spared, I may mention that, according to Dr. Richardson, the passage leading to the subterranean chamber of the Great Pyramid is lined on all four sides with finely polished slabs of large-grained red granite of Assouan, and Assouan is some five hundred miles from Ghizeh! We are not concerned just here to discuss how much labor and time were given to the construction of the pyramids, to decide whether Herodotus had been truly told that one hundred thousand men worked for twenty years in erecting the first pyramid; or whether those are right who say he meant ten thousand men working for two hundred years (since, they say, one hundred thousand men could not have worked at once on the pyramid); or whether that architect is nearer the truth who, allowing an average of fifteen miles for carriage, and three hundred days a year of ten hours a day for labor, assigned one hundred and sixty-four years as the time necessary for quarrying, elevating, and finishing the Great Pyramid. So far as the significance of the enormous amount of labor involved is concerned, it matters little at the outset whether we consider that more men worked for a shorter time or fewer men for a longer time. It is wonderful and most significant, no doubt, to think of a system by which the rulers of a country could keep together one hundred thousand men working in relays, day and night and every day for twenty years; but it would not be less wonderful or significant to learn that during two hundred years, or for seven generations of rulers and people alike, an army of ten thousand laborers had been constantly kept at work on this one alone of the pyramids of Ghizeh.

We learn, in any case, that the rulers of ancient Egypt possessed despotic power over the people, but not necessarily that the kings possessed excessive power over the aristocracy, who must, in all probability, have taken part in urging on these stupendous and, at a first view, almost useless labors. We note also that labor must have been cheap, since otherwise self-interest would have prevented Cheops, Chephren, and the rest, from devoting so much of it to these structures. The population of Egypt must at that time have been very great, food very cheap, labor abundant, and (it would seem) the lives of the people of little value either to themselves or in the eyes of their rulers. So far, indeed, as mere labor was concerned, we can hardly speak of the pyramids as costly structures, for probably Pliny was not far from the truth in conjecturing that the rulers of Egypt built the pyramids partly out of state policy, to keep the people in employment,—not, however, "to divert them," as he imagined, "from mutinies and rebellions," but because, as Dr. Zincke suggested, in those days "labor could not be bottled up." Labor was available in such enormous quantities, and so much food was stored up yearly in consequence of a system by which taxes were paid in kind, that practically the laborers and their wants cost almost nothing.

Nevertheless, we must not forget that the erection of the pyramids would have been a costly undertaking, even if the work of ordinary laborers had cost nothing. Apart from mere material, much more than ordinary labor had to be provided. As Hekekyan Bey well remarks: "These pyramids were evidently national undertakings; their plan and execution were decided after mature deliberation; laws were passed and revenues provided to carry out the public decision" (not the popular decision, be it noticed, for the rank and file had nothing to do with the matter) "by the executive authorities."

Let it next be noticed, as among those facts least questioned and most important in considering the pyramids, that they were undoubtedly associated with the religion of the people. This statement, be it observed, includes their unquestioned use as tombs. If there is one thing clear about all the pyramids of Egypt, including the Great Pyramid, it is that they were intended to cover (not merely to inclose) the bodies of the monarchs who had erected them. Chevalier Bunsen says they were "exclusively giant covers of rocky tombs"; and his long study of Egyptian antiquities justifies us in accepting his statement, omitting only the word "exclusively," simply because there is abundant evidence to show that they had other purposes. Mariette Bey is equally positive that they were exclusively tombs, equally likely to be right in considering that, whatever else they were, they certainly were that. "With regard," he says, "to the use to which the pyramids were destined, it were doing violence to all that we know of Egypt, to all that archæology teaches us of the monumental customs of that country, to see in them any other thing than tombs,—tombs, massive, full, everywhere stopped (even in their passages) most carefully, without windows, without doors, without exterior opening." If any doubt could exist as to the tombic character of the pyramids, it should be removed by the consideration that they are surrounded by tombs: as Mariette Bey has well said, "every pyramid is in the middle of a cemetery." M. Chabas, speaking of the tombs around the Pyramids of Ghizeh, says: "A certain number of these tombs were commenced at the same time as the Great Pyramid, and were completed before that colossal monument." Dr. Birch writes thus: "The tombs around the Great Pyramid are those of the princes and other members of the family or time of Khufu" (Cheops or Shofu). Lepsius sees in this cemetery "an official almanac of the Court of Kings Cheops and Chephren, the tombs giving so many names of their officers." Renan says: "The tombs, so numerous in the sands of Sakkara and at the foot of the pyramids, are all dated from the first six dynasties." Mariette Bey states that the Necropolis of Ghizeh "was absolutely closed as early as the time of Teta, king of the sixth dynasty, a hundred years or so after the building of the Great Pyramid." "He has discovered the tomb of a grandson of Snefrou, king of the third dynasty, and several mastabas (or chapels exterior to tombs) of the age of Snefrou, and asserts that the age of some of these tombs belongs even to 'that of the predecessors of the founders of the Great Pyramid.'"

But the clear proof thus afforded that the pyramids were mausoleums—chief tombs within whole cemeteries of tombs—proves indisputably also that they were associated with the religious belief of the Egyptians. All that we know of the early, as of the later (but still ancient) religious belief of the Egyptians assures us that it included full faith, of a very material sort, in a future life,—and that it was their faith in a resurrection of the body which led them to provide with such extreme care for the protection of the body. The kings and princes, high priests, chief ministers, generals, governors, court officers, stewards, and so forth, who provided tombs and cemeteries to protect the embalmed body of each according to his position, but always in a place effectually closed up and removed from all communication with the outer world, did so because they believed it to be worth their while. The body of which they took such extreme care was to be theirs again at some later time; and it was desirable that, when wanted, it should be in good condition; if Pelion would not suffice to protect it, then Ossa must be piled on Pelion to do so. A system was adopted, having direct reference to the religious belief of the Egyptians, by which it was provided that Cheops and Chephren, and all their family, with all the officers of their court and kingdom, should be preserved together, yet each in his proper and appropriate resting-place.

All this, combined with what is known of the religious character of the Egyptian faith in a future life, agrees well with the doctrine of those who find something of the temple as well as of the tomb in the pyramids of Ghizeh. All tradition points the same way. According to the most ancient Egyptian monuments, Cheops, or Shofu, or Khoufou (for his name is given in all these ways), the builder of the Great Pyramid, was a pious king, who planned a temple to Hathor, the virgin mother of the gods, offered images of gold and ivory to the gods, and wrote a book on religious matters, called in these hieroglyphic inscriptions "the sacred book." Close by the Great Pyramid has been found the tomb of "Eimei, the chief priest of the habitations of King Shofu," who Gliddon thinks was in all probability "the architect according to whose plans and directions the mighty edifice, near the foot of which he had once reposed," was built. The name of Shofu is found in tablets of the old copper mine of Mount Sinai, on which he is called "a pure king, a sacred priest."

We may hope then, in examining the best known and most striking facts respecting the Great Pyramid, to learn the nature of the religion of the Ancient Egyptians. Yet in passing, be it remembered (for our guidance as we go, perhaps), that we do know some things about Egyptian religion. We know on the one hand from the religion which the Jews brought from Egypt after their long sojourn there, and on the other from the doctrines and practices which the priestly rulers of the Jews were continually denouncing, that the Egyptian religion included, if it was not founded upon, the worship of the powers of nature, and chiefly of the host of heaven. Throughout the Jewish system of ceremonial, purged though the Jewish religion was from the grosser doctrines of Sabaism, we recognize astronomical relations. Sunrise and sunset were considered in the morning and evening sacrifices, the movements of the moon and planets in the weekly observances,[1] the new moon in the monthly festival, still named after her by the Jews, the passage of the sun over the celestial equator ascendingly in the Feast of the Passover, and his passage over the same chief circle of the heavens descendingly in the Feast of Tabernacles, the two great annual festivals of the Jewish ceremonial system. And while this system was enjoined on the Jews by Moses and his successors, the very efforts which they made to divorce the people from the worship of sun and moon and stars show what a hold this worship had taken of the Jewish mind during the time that the people stayed in the land of Egypt. Very intense must have been the Egyptian faith, at that time, in the powers of the heavenly bodies, to have produced such an influence on the people sojourning with them that, despite the hatred felt for them by this people, the influence of their faith remained, strong even against the appeals, the warnings, the denunciations of those who had brought them out of the house of bondage.

We have next to consider the actual structural features of the Great Pyramid: some peculiar to it, others shared, in greater or less degree, by the other pyramids of Ghizeh. We shall not consider minute details, to which too much attention has, perhaps, already been directed, but only those general features which are most striking, and at the same time most instructive.

First and foremost is the care shown in placing the pyramids with their four sides facing the cardinal points. In all the pyramids of Ghizeh this has been carefully attended to, but in the Great Pyramid it has been done with such exceeding care that only the exact instrumental astronomy of post-telescopic days could have done the work better. The great quadrants of Tycho Brahe would assuredly have given no better results.

That there was an object in this, and that this object was in some way connected with the religion of the builders, can hardly be doubted. But, apart from that consideration, the way in which the thing has been done is worth observing. Even the exclusively tombic theorists (to use Professor Smyth's odd phrase), even those who believe the pyramid was a temple, as well as those who see in it only a mystic meaning, agree that the exact orientation is there, and must have been obtained by very exact astronomical work; so that we are in no sense attacking their views in endeavoring to show how the result was secured.

Now, putting myself in the position of the ancient builders and architects, and trying to see how, with such astronomical knowledge as they undoubtedly possessed, with such means as they had, and as their knowledge of mathematical and optical laws would suggest, they would actually proceed, I have found myself led to precisely such peculiarities of structural detail as we find actually existing within the Great Pyramid. Not one of all the features which have attracted attention, and have been interpreted in more or less fanciful ways, but is found to be essential to the exact orientation of the pyramid,—when it is remembered that not the base only, but the whole structure was to have its faces four-square to the four quarters of the heavenly sphere.

First, the only exact way of squaring the base—a costly way, but cost was no object, and besides, another and all-important purpose was at the same time subserved—was by a slant passage through the solid rock, directed on the pole star of the day at the time of its passing the meridian below the pole (above the pole would have served as well for exact northing, but then the slant of the passage would have been greater). This would suffice for the base, and also as layer after layer was added, provided the opening of the passage at the rock surface was within the base. But after awhile the prolonged passage would reach the northern face of the growing pyramid, and thenceforward the orientation could no longer be corrected by pole star observations through this passage;[2] yet a resource presents itself by which this difficulty may be met. If from some point along the passage a reflected beam of light from the pole star (at sub-polar passage) were taken from the surface of still water, and used instead of the direct beam, another passage could be carried up southward instead of northward, and until this in turn met the southern face of the growing pyramid the orientation would be preserved, and might even be made more and more exact as layer after layer was added. Such a passage would, of course, according to the well-known laws of reflection, be inclined at the same angle to the horizon as the other.

This is precisely what we find within the Great Pyramid, the only one, it would seem, where such exact orientation was considered necessary. There is a passage through the solid rock and upward through the masonry of the pyramid, of beautifully fitted stone-work. From the very spot most suited for taking off the reflected beam along another passage, just such a passage is carried, at just the right angle for the reflected beam. At the place where the reflecting surface had to be, the stones are fitted with such exceptional closeness that the peculiarity has been regarded as a piece of profound symbolization. Stones such as would be essential for blocking up the lower part of the descending passage at each observation by the reflected beam (one or two each year would suffice) were found stored in the Queen's chamber at the level of the reflecting surface. (Many of course had been used, and afterward slid down the descending passage to the subterranean chamber, where their fragments remain to this day.) The fitting of these sliding stones (some of which may well, as appears likely, have been used later, expressly to block up the passage) was so perfect that one observer says a knife could hardly be inserted between the stone and the walls of the passage.

But more striking than the outside astronomical character of the Great Pyramid, significant though that is, more interesting than the simple but mathematically beautiful method by which the the orientation was secured, is the grand gallery into which the second ascending passage opens. Considering it as it was before the pyramid was completed and closed in after the death of Cheops, this gallery had all the properties which an astronomer desires in a transit instrument. Twenty-eight feet in height, it commanded a long vertical slice of the southern sky, precisely divided in half by the vertical line of the meridian. This would have been of little use for exact time observations if the walls of this lofty gallery (nearly one hundred and sixty feet long), had been aslant, yet the architect would have assured the astronomer (supposing they were not one and the same person), that aslant the walls of such a gallery must certainly be, or it would yield under the pressure of the mighty mass of masonry which was to be placed above it. What, however, do we find? The walls are aslant to suit architectural requirements, but they are vertical to meet the wants of the astronomer. They run up in a series of vertical steps, very shallow measured horizontally, very long measured vertically. Every part of the walls is thus vertical, yet the cross breadth of the long, lofty slice thus cut through the pyramid in the plane of the meridian, diminishes gradually toward the top, insuring perfect architectural stability.

This means more than astronomical orientation; it means astronomical observations, and specially with reference to time. The modern transit instrument (as its name implies) tells the time when the heavenly bodies pass across the meridian; the great pyramidal transit-tube, while as yet its aperture remained uncovered (which we may be sure it did so long as Cheops remained alive), told observers, suitably placed down its length, the time when those same bodies passed the meridian of Ghizeh. So is interpreted the tradition of old, that priests, placed on the top[3] of the pyramid, announced when this or that orb was passing. Passing where? To Proclus or Diodorus Siculus explanation might have been difficult,—the astronomer sees that passing the meridian was meant, and that, therefore, a meridional instrument, like the grand gallery in the Great Pyramid, must have been employed.

All this accords well with the belief that the Great Pyramid was a temple before it became a tomb. These astronomical observations were, in fact, religious observances; the astronomers were priests; their astronomy was star worship. But, if the astronomers were priests, they were also prophets. From them and their kindred in Chaldea have descended to us, not only so much of our ceremonial observances as we have derived from the Jews (so much that it takes an astronomer rightly to frame the calendar of fasts and festivals), but also those astrological superstitions which still bear sway over millions, still influence our language and literature, and if no longer, as of yore, in the ascendant, form even yet potent factors of our civilization. It was not only that they might worship the stars that the kings of Egypt built these temple tombs: their priests were also to read the stars, and, by reading, to rule the stars. The old tradition recorded by Ibn Abd Alkokm, that "in the beginning of the Great Pyramid was a fortunate horoscope," was no mere fable. This tomb-temple was the horoscope of the king-priest. We might infer this from the sacred character attributed to their rulers by the Egyptians; we might be certain in any ease that the astronomico-religious observances of which this great temple was the scene during his life-time only, were astrological in their character; but all doubt seems to be removed when we note that after his death the pyramid had no longer a use, save to cover his embalmed body. Enormous though the labor had been that was bestowed upon it, costly the work of preparation, the material, the building, the ceremonials observed upon and within this temple,—all was useless to his successors. The passages within were filled with stones above the tomb of the king in the subterranean chamber; the upper part of the pyramid was completed; a fine marble casing was placed all over it, beginning with the apex, and working downward to the pavement. For centuries after his death not a flaw or crevice existed in the "satin" surface, as the Egyptians called it, of his costly tomb.

The story of the pyramid tells us much of those who built it, of their mode of government, of the wretchedness (as to all that constitutes the dignity of manhood) of the people, and the worthlessness of their lives in the eyes of those who ruled them. It tells us also of their religion, with what full faith they believed in a future life, what powerful gods the heavenly bodies seemed to them. It speaks of their faith in priestly prophecies, and of the belief of all (save, perhaps, the priests themselves) in the teaching of the star-strewn skies. For my own part, I find a further interest in the thought that those astronomers of old worked like their younger brethren now. Whatever superstition mingled with their labors, whatever errors they may have taught, or been taught, respecting the heavenly bodies and their aspects, I can say, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes:

   "I am as old as Egypt to myself,
    Brother to them that squared the pyramids;
    By the same stars I watch. I read the page
    Whose every letter is a glittering world,
    With them who looked from Shinar's clay-built towers,
    Ere yet the wanderer of the midland sea
    Had missed the fallen sister of the seven."


  1. The Sabbath, found also in Assyrian sculptures anterior to the time of the Exodus, was manifestly among Assyrians and Egyptians an observance derived from the lunar quarters which gave the week,—the oldest of all time intervals for labor,—and its solemnity was originally due to its association with the planet Saturn, the highest, in the old astronomical sense, of all the planets, and from time immemorial associated with the thought of misfortune and gloom. The slow-moving, dull-looking orb which, according to ancient astrological ideas, ruled that day, was aptly suggestive of solemn rest, if not of absolute ill-luck should work on that day be undertaken.
  2. Dr. Richardson, one of the few who have descended into the subterranean chamber, says that the sky can be clearly seen along the stone-lined tube, some three hundred feet long, through which he had descended to that chamber. This shows that even now this long, inclined passage preserves its straightness. He adds—evidently at a venture—that at night the pole star can be seen through this tube. But the tube commands a field of view only some forty-six minutes in diameter, the center of which is less than twenty-seven degrees above the horizon.
  3. Not the top of a nearly complete pyramid, as Flammarion absurdly imagines, setting observers to observe planets and comets, while scarce able to balance themselves on the pyramid top!