His majesty King Cheops spent all his time trying to find out the number of secret chambers of the sanctuary of Thoth so as to have the same for his own ‘horizon’ (pyramid) …
— Westcar Papyrus, Berlin Museum
As for the pyramid of Cheops, do we know everything about it, do we really know it at all? The archaeologists thought they had conclusively explored it eighty years ago, then, lo and behold, in 1945, by pure chance, the gigantic funerary boats were found intact…
— Georges Goyon, Le Secret des Batisseurs des Grandes Pyramides
In the centuries before Christ, when Alexandria was preeminent among the cities of the Greek world and its citizens were great travellers, there were seven wonders whose reputation surpassed all others and which everyone wanted to see. Six of these — the gardens of Semiramis at Babylon, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria itself — have disappeared. Only one remains for us to visit: the pyramids of Egypt.
These extraordinary monuments, which make Stonehenge look like a morning’s work,1 have inspired awe through the centuries. Their sheer size sets them apart, let alone the perfection of their geometry. Just how they were built remains a mystery; even today we would be hard pressed to replicate them with all the advantages of modern technology. At the time of the Ancient Egyptians there were no dump-trucks or cranes, no steel cables or hoists, not even iron tools. Without the benefit of so much as a simple pulley, they built mountains from stone and, with a precision that is truly astonishing, laid these out on the desert floor. Yet the more puzzling question is why and not how they built them. Why did the Egyptians choose to build pyramids when, so far as we know, they had never been built before?2 Why did they build them so big and of such precision? Why did they scatter them around the desert instead of building them all in one place?3
Contemporary Egyptology has no convincing answers. Pick up any textbook on the subject and you will encounter the same statement, that the pyramids functioned as royal tombs. But why, when a simple hole in the ground would have sufficed, should the Egyptians have built tombs up to 147 metres high? Why make this prodigious effort to house a dead body? Even given that the pharaohs were autocrats and were revered as living gods, this seems like a colossal waste of time and energy.
The popular image of gangs of slaves forced to carry out this enormous task is also a myth; there is no evidence to suggest that people were compelled to take part in this massive enterprise against their wills — indeed, if anything, the opposite. The sheer quality of craftsmanship in the construction of the pyramids suggests a pride in the work, and there are subtleties of design which suggest ideals at odds with the brutal image of Ancient Egypt portrayed in biblical film epics.
In fact, the Egyptians were highly civilised and deeply religious at a time when Europeans were still primitive, and there is much to suggest that they built pyramids more as an affirmation of their religious convictions than to glorify dead pharaohs, however powerful. But the Egyptians were also an extremely reserved people, who kept the inner mysteries of their religion from all but a few chosen initiates. As it was these few who directed the building of the pyramids, it is not surprising that we know so little about their motives.
There are also mysteries surrounding specific pyramids, especially the Great Pyramid of Giza. Having stood intact for several millennia, it was first broken into in AD820 by a team of Arab workmen on the orders of Caliph Ma’moun, son of the legendary Haroun al Rashid.4 After weeks of tunnelling through solid limestone, they emerged into a dark, gloomy passageway. Further exploration along tunnels and galleries revealed a system of three chambers which, much to their chagrin, were all empty. Only a lidless, granite sarcophagus was found in the so-called King’s Chamber.
The Ancient Egyptians were themselves remarkably silent about the pyramids. By the time of Tutankhamun (c. 1300BC), the Giza pyramids were over one thousand years old, and the memory of who built them and why was lost. The Greeks and the Romans who occupied Egypt from the fourth century BC to the seventh century AD took little interest in these monuments, though the Greek historian, Herodotus, who spent some time in Egypt in the fifth century BC, sought to explain their origins and purpose in The Histories.This is the earliest first-hand account of the pyramids known to us and is a mixture of personal bias, local gossip and mythology.5 It was not until the Arabs invaded Egypt in the seventh century AD that a real attempt was made to explore the pyramids.
The Great Pyramid has continued to fascinate adventurers and has attracted more attention than any other single building in history. Throughout the centuries there has been the suspicion that it held further secrets, that somewhere inside was a hidden chamber, and that one day this chamber would be found. Generations of Egyptologists and amateurs have searched for it, and have used everything from dynamite to x-rays, but without success.
On 22 March 1993 the international media6 excitedly announced that Rudolf Gantenbrink, an unknown German robotics engineer, had made the most significant archaeological discovery of the decade. Employed by the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo to find a way of improving the ventilation in the Great Pyramid, Gantenbrink had sent a tiny remote-controlled robot, UPUAUT 2 (‘Opener of the Ways’ in Ancient Egyptian), up the southern shaft of the Queen’s Chamber. Coming to a halt after about sixty-five metres, the robot sent back video pictures of what appeared to be a small door, with a tantalising gap underneath it.
Now a door suggests something beyond it, perhaps a chamber. If such a chamber exists, it could not have been plundered since the pyramid was built, as the shaft was closed at both ends. This means that whatever the Ancient Egyptians might have put in it has lain undisturbed for at least 4400 years and must still be there, and if the pyramid builders took so much trouble to conceal it, it must have been very important; more important perhaps than the mummy of a dead pharaoh. This suggests that it was something they regarded as central to their religion and perhaps connected with their motivation for building the pyramids in the first place …
But Rudolf Gantenbrink was not the only person interested in the shafts, for I had been investigating them for several years in connection with their astronomical bearings. By extraordinary coincidence, Adrian Gilbert and I had been taking photographs of the Queen’s Chamber and the opening of the southern shaft just days before UPUAUT 2 went on its epic journey, and I met and talked to Rudolf and his team as they prepared for the final stages of their investigation into the Queen’s shaft.
Adrian’s and my interest was altogether more abstract: what might these shafts have symbolised? It is by now well known that they were not primarily for ventilation. It is the direction in which they point that is most significant — towards specific stellar regions which had great importance for the Ancient Egyptians. I had been researching the matter of the lost star religion of the pyramid builders for a number of years and had published several articles on the subject;7 however, it seemed to me that some of the data on the angle of one of these shafts was inaccurate. I was therefore hoping that Gantenbrink’s new measurements by laser beams would provide us with a more accurate reading, so that the astronomical target of this shaft could be verified.
1. Cross-section of the Great Pyramid showing chambers, passage-ways and shafts
Gantenbrink’s amazing discovery was reported on the front page of the Independent in London and, as his spokesman in England, I was asked by their archaeological correspondent to comment on the religious significance of the shafts. I explained that the southern shaft of the King’s Chamber pointed towards the Belt of Orion, associated with the god Osiris, and the equivalent shaft from the Queen’s Chamber (the one blocked by the ‘door’) pointed towards Sirius, the star of the goddess Isis.8 These alignments were not accidental but were clearly bound up with the purpose of the pyramid.
This was the first the world knew of an academic debate concerning a star religion linked to the pyramids, because the standard textbooks had always supported a ‘solar hypothesis’. Speaking on Channel 4 television that evening, Dr Edwards, the world authority on pyramids, lent support to my theory by suggesting that the door might hide a statue of the pharaoh ‘staring out in the direction of Orion’. On the subject of the shafts, he was quoted the next day by the Daily Mail as saying that ‘They were called ventilation shafts because nobody knew any better.… They point at the constellation of Orion, whose stars were the god Osiris.’9
What other secrets do the Giza Pyramids hold relating to the stars of Orion? With confirmation from Gantenbrink that the true angle of the shaft, verified by UPUAUT 2, fitted exactly with my predictions, I had the final evidence that a master plan governed the building of the pyramids — simple but with astounding implications for our understanding of the Pyramid Age.
My search for a solution to the Orion Mystery had begun twelve years ago.