The skies have been the mover of [man’s] science for millennia, they are his hopes and dreams of tomorrow; nowhere is the vision of the first men who carved their thoughts on stone so fully displayed as in the tombs of earliest Egypt
– Jane B. Sellers, The Deaths of Gods in Ancient Egypt
I A Dance for Sirius
In 1979, at London-Heathrow airport, I bought a book called The Sirius Mystery by Robert Temple.1 I took it with me to the Sudan, where I was going to work on an engineering scheme to connect the Blue Nile with the Rahad River by means of a canal system.2
The book turned out to be a historical detective story, interesting because its initial point of focus was an African tribe, the Dogon, who every sixty years enacted a ceremony called the Sigui, during which their priests put on masks and performed a complex dance. This was a renewal ceremony, based on the apparent motion of Sirius, known to most people as the ‘dog star’. Sirius is the brightest star in the heavens and is in the constellation of Canis Major just below Orion.3 The Sirius Mystery also explored aspects of Ancient Egyptian astronomy, and as I was both an amateur Egyptologist and a keen student of Ancient Egyptian astronomy, it seemed like a good book to take to the Sudan, where the night skies are ideal for star watching.
I discovered that Temple’s mystery was based on an article written in the 1950s by two French anthropologists, Griaule and Dieterlen.4 They had studied the Dogon and found them to be in possession of unexpected knowledge concerning Sirius and its invisible partner, the ‘white dwarf’, Sirius B. Robert Temple, an American living in Britain, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a graduate in Oriental Studies and Sanskrit, came across their work in the early 1960s. He was baffled as to how the Dogon could have known of the existence of Sirius B, given that it is barely visible using a very powerful telescope (it was only in 1970 that the first photograph of Sirius B was obtained with great difficulty by the astronomer Irving Lindenblad).5 Most people today remain ignorant of the existence of Sirius B and not many would even be aware of Sirius A, so how could the Dogon have had accurate information concerning Sirius B in the 1950s?
A further mystery was how the Dogon seemed to have kept physical records relating to this star, in the form of cult masks, some of which are centuries old and are stored in caves. Their obsession with this tiny star was strange: where had their knowledge originated?
Temple concluded that as it clearly had not come from modern astronomers, it must have originated from ancestral sources and had probably been passed down to the Dogon before they migrated to their present home, Mali in sub-Saharan Africa. In Egypt, in ancient times, Sirius was considered the most important star in the sky and was identified with the Egyptians’ favourite goddess, Isis. In this oblique way Temple’s initial study of the article by the French anthropologists had led him via an obscure African tribe inevitably to Ancient Egypt. He wrote:
When I began writing this book in earnest in 1967, the entire question was framed in terms of an African tribe named the Dogon.… The Dogon were in possession of information concerning the system of the star Sirius which was so incredible that I felt impelled to research the material. The result, in 1974, seven years later, is that I have been able to show that the information which the Dogon possess is really more than five thousand years old and was possessed by the Ancient Egyptians in the pre-dynastic times before 3200BC.6
Though much of the rest of his book concerning the mythology of the Near East was highly speculative, Temple had uncovered a mystery worthy of further investigation. If the Dogon had inherited their knowledge of Sirius B from the Ancient Egyptians, what other knowledge might these ancients have had concerning the stars? I had always understood that Egyptians of all periods venerated not so much the stars but the sun god, Ra; I also knew that for a short time under the pharaoh Akhenaten (c. 1350BC) there was some heresy concerning the god Aten, symbolised by the solar disc.7
In any event, at the time I read The Sirius Mystery I knew very little of their more ancient star religion. This subject turned out to be an interesting and neglected field of study and one of the most important in understanding the Ancient Egyptians’ sky religion. It also became clear that there was so little written about it because it was esoteric knowledge of the highest order. The Egyptians were probably the greatest astronomers of the ancient world, but, unlike the Greeks and Romans, most of their knowledge was restricted to a small group of initiates.8 At least some of these secrets concerned the stars.
It seemed obvious to me that the place to look for evidence of this lost knowledge was not among the tribes of Mali but in Egypt itself. There the ancients had left a wealth of contemporaneous evidence in the form of temples, tombs, obelisks, inscriptions and — above all — the pyramids. I had an intuition that the lost knowledge might be something of great significance, and felt a strong urge to pursue the trail.
Having finished my contract in the Sudan in 1980, I left for another engineering assignment, this time in the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Little did I know that in less than a year I would come across further amazing evidence that would reawaken my interest in the star mystery and point towards a connection with the pyramids.
But before going into this, let me just review current knowledge of the Pyramid Age and what is known of the sky religion of the Egyptians of that period.
II The Land of God Kings
The land of Egypt might have been just an extension of the Sahara desert were it not for the world’s longest river, the Nile. This mighty artery, with its sources deep in the heartlands of Africa, is fed by the reservoirs of Lake Tana in Ethiopia and Lakes Albert and Victoria in Uganda, and brings life to the otherwise torrid regions of Sudan and Egypt. Seen from the air, it looks like a gigantic snake, lazily slinking northwards to the cool Mediterranean. It has a presence and beauty that contrasts strangely with the burning desert beyond its banks.
The Egyptians had good reason to worship the Nile, which they believed was the manifestation of the gods. With minimal amounts of rain falling on their land, it was their only steady source of fresh water. Their lives were to a large extent governed by the rhythm of the Nile; the annual flood, caused by the melting of snow high in the mountains of Ethiopia, which occurs around the time of the summer solstice, was the most important event in their calendar. The Nile irrigated a wide area on either side of its course and deposited large amounts of thick black silt which increased the fertility of the land. So rich was this natural fertilisation that several crops were possible in a year. To all intents and purposes, Egypt was (and indeed still is) the ‘gift of the Nile’.
Geographically, Egypt’s inhabitable land (excluding a few desert oases) falls into two distinct areas: the long, narrow valley of the Nile as it winds through canyons and desert, and the triangular, flat Delta where the river meets the Mediterranean. These two territories have always been referred to as Upper and Lower Egypt and are quite different in character. The fertile valley of Upper Egypt is a thin streak of land some 600 miles long and only about three miles wide. In the past this was sufficient to support the local population, but agriculture was only part of their modus vivendi. The Nile was also a great highway linking darkest Africa with Lower Egypt. The cities of Upper Egypt were important trading posts on this highway, dealing in ivory, precious stones, wood, incense and slaves, and this trade, as much as agriculture, constituted the wealth of Upper Egypt. Lower Egypt, by contrast, is a flat alluvial plain, with some of the finest arable land in the world, irrigated by a constant water supply. Once wholly marshland, the Egyptians transformed it into farmland. It is now an area of enormous date groves and, under the shade of the palms, other crops thrive to feed both man and animals. Rich in wheat and corn, it was one of the great food baskets of the ancient world.
2. Map of Egypt looking south along the Nile Valley
The natural division of the land gave rise to the two separate kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. The capital of Upper Egypt was at Nekheb, near Hierakonopolis, under the protection of the vulture goddess Nekhebet. Lower Egypt’s capital was at Pe, a town in the Delta which the Greeks later called Buto; it was protected by the cobra goddess Edjo. How the two kingdoms related to each other in pre-dynastic times is not known, but Egyptologists believe that they were first united by Menes, a powerful king of Upper Egypt, who was also known as ‘the scorpion king’. Around 3100BC he is said to have subdued Lower Egypt, declared himself ruler over a united kingdom and founded the First Dynasty. This date is usually taken as being the start of Egyptian history, though the Egyptians considered their civilisation to be very much older and looked back to a golden age when the two lands were ruled by the gods. They believed the anthropomorphic deity Osiris was the first divine pharaoh. The fact that Egypt was really two kingdoms was, however, never forgotten and the pharaohs were always referred to as ‘Lord of the Two Lands’ or ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’. They also adopted both protective goddesses, Edjo and Nekhebet, and frequently wore a double crown, red for Lower Egypt and white for Upper Egypt, to symbolise their lordship over both lands.
Following Menes’s conquest of Lower Egypt, and unification of the kingdoms, there were to be some thirty-two dynasties up to and including the Greek Ptolemies, who took control following Egypt’s conquest by Alexander the Great in 332BC. Cleopatra was the last pharaonic ruler of Egypt before it fell to the might of Rome in 30BC, when the line of pharaohs effectively ended. This long history, from c. 3100BC to 30BC, is sub-divided for archaeological purposes into a number of periods, each comprising a number of dynasties.9 For our purposes, the most important of these is the Old Kingdom, also known as the Pyramid Age. It comprises Dynasties Three to Six (c. 2686–2181BC). This period, according to Dr Edwards, is the ‘Pyramid Age par excellence’, and reached its apotheosis in the Fourth Dynasty during which the greatest pyramids were built.10
Menes built his new capital at Memphis, amid lush palm groves on the west bank of the Nile. Its location was of great political and symbolic importance for it stood near the head of the Delta, at the junction of Upper and Lower Egypt. Almost nothing now remains of this once great city: donkeys and cattle graze under the date palms where palaces and temples once stood. There are plans to carry out major excavations of the site when funds allow, but present archaeological knowledge concerning this ancient metropolis is surprisingly scant. In later times, during the New Kingdom (c. 1450BC) the capital of united Egypt was moved to Thebes in Upper Egypt, but Memphis continued to prosper until well into the second century AD.
A few kilometres west of Memphis is the ancient necropolis of Saqqara, a royal cemetery important throughout Egyptian history. It is the site of the famous step-pyramid of Zoser and several other smaller pyramids, notably that of Unas, last pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty. Saqqara probably takes its name from Sokar, a falcon-headed deity believed to be the keeper of the whole necropolis.11 It contains many other tombs, some of which are beautifully decorated with scenes of everyday life as it must have been when the pyramids were built, and exciting discoveries continue to be made in this necropolis, most recently the tomb of a general of Ra-Moses II, north of Saqqara. Unfortunately, like the pyramids themselves, these tombs are suffering from the depredations of tourism, and are urgently in need of protection to prevent further deterioration.
3. Detail map of Memphis area
On the other side of the river from Memphis and some twenty kilometres north is the legendary sacred city of Annu or Heliopolis,12 as it was later called by the Greeks. This was the seat of a powerful priesthood whose members were the custodians of a school of wisdom or initiation, and the great temple of Ra, the sun god. The priests of Heliopolis wielded enormous influence as custodians of the state cult; their school of wisdom was famous well into the Ptolemaic period, and is mentioned with great reverence by Herodotus.13
Heliopolis is now a thriving suburb of Greater Cairo and little remains of its great past; only an obelisk of Sesostris I, a powerful pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty (c. 1940BC) and a few broken pillars and beams of an ancient temple. The Sesostris obelisk stands in lonely isolation resembling a great stone finger pointing to the sky. Yet it is only one of many that once stood in Heliopolis, including two raised by Tothmoses III of the powerful Eighteenth Dynasty. These were moved by the Romans to Alexandria in about 12BCand placed in front of the Caesarion, a temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar. Neither Tothmoses nor the Romans could have imagined that several millennia later, in AD1878, these two obelisks would leave Egypt altogether. One now stands on the Victoria Embankment in London and is known, erroneously, as Cleopatra’s Needle; the other is in New York’s Central Park outside the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts.14
On the edge of the desert, across the river from Heliopolis and a short way upstream, is the elevated plateau of Giza, known to Egyptologists as the Mokattam Formation. This site, now almost engulfed by the spread of Greater Cairo, is where the famous trio of pyramids, the last Wonder of the World, proclaim the glory of those who built them: three of the great Fourth Dynasty pharaohs whom the Greeks called Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinos.15 At Giza there are also much smaller ‘satellite’ pyramids, arrays of small, flat tombs, remnants of chapels and temples and, of course, the legendary Great Sphinx.
It is the Giza pyramids which have excited the imagination of generations and are what most people think of when they hear the word ‘pyramid’. Few modern visitors are aware, however, that the father of Cheops built two other giant pyramids at Dashour, about twenty kilometres south of Giza. Unfortunately, the army controls the site of Dashour, and it is out of bounds to the regular tourist. In the twenty-kilometre stretch from Dashour to Giza are the pyramid ‘fields’ of Saqqara, Abusir and Zawyat Al Aryan, and about six kilometres north-west of Giza is the desolate site of Abu Ruwash, where a pyramid of the Fourth Dynasty once stood. Only its base and foundations now remain. Meidum is about sixty-five kilometres south of Saqqara, but is generally not considered an integral part of the Memphite Necropolis, which covers an area thirty kilometres long by four kilometres wide.16
About seventeen kilometres north of Giza and on almost the same latitude as Heliopolis was another important centre: the ancient city of Khem, later called Letopolis. This Delta city was closely connected with the hawk god Horus, and a very ancient temple, older than the pyramids, was sited there.17
III Heliopolis and the Temple of the Phoenix
At the time the pyramids were built, there were no obelisks at Heliopolis, only a crude sacred pillar from which, apparently, the ancient name of the city, Annu, derives.18 Cairo did not exist and Heliopolis was the religious heart of the country. At Annu stood a temple dedicated to Atum, the Complete One, the father of the gods. During the Pyramid Age Atum became more and more identified with the sun god, Ra, who in time usurped Atum’s place and demoted him to the role of ‘old sun’ as it sets in the west. However, in these early days, before the Pyramid Age, Atum stood for the One God, equal to our concept of God the Father. Atum was the creative power behind the sun and everything else in the world.19
At Heliopolis there was an important sacred hill or mound upon which the First Sunrise had taken place,20 and belief has it that the sacred pillar stood on this holy mound prior to the Pyramid Age. At the beginning of the Pyramid Age, another, even more sacred relic either replaced the sacred pillar or, more likely, was placed upon it.21 This was the Benben, a mysterious conical stone which, for reasons we will discuss later, was credited with cosmic origins. The Benben Stone was housed in the Temple of the Phoenix and was symbolic of this legendary cosmic bird of regeneration, rebirth and calendrical cycles. In Ancient Egyptian art the phoenix was usually depicted as a grey heron, perhaps because of the heron’s migratory habits; it was believed that the phoenix came to Heliopolis to mark important cycles and the birth of a new age.22 Its first coming seems to have produced the cult of the Benben Stone, probably considered the divine ‘seed’ of the prodigal cosmic bird. This idea (which we shall also consider later) is evident from the root word ben or benben which can mean human sperm, human ejaculation or the seeding of a womb.23 The mysterious Benben Stone disappeared long before Herodotus visited Egypt but not before it had bequeathed its name to the apex stone or pyramidion usually placed on top of pyramids and, later, the head of an obelisk.24
4. Artist’s impression of the original temple of the Phoenix at Heliopolis, with Pillar of Atum surmounted by the Benben stone
What was the Benben and what became of it? It was clearly at the centre of an important royal cult which later built pyramids. As we have said, the holy city of Heliopolis was in the hands of a priesthood which wielded considerable power in the Pyramid Age, and there can be little doubt that the design of the pyramids was under their direction.25 The word priest as we understand today it is somewhat misleading, for the Heliopolitan sages were most likely highly trained initiates conversant not only with religious ideologies but with the study of celestial bodies and, probably, the art of symbolic architecture and hieroglyphs, the sacred form of writing invented by the Egyptians.26 Clearly, then, the Heliopolitan priesthood would have known about the mysterious stellar religion alluded to in the Sirius Mystery.
5. The Egyptian Phoenix or Bennu Bird
Egyptologists consider that Heliopolis provided the nearest thing to a state cult, for while every district had its own local gods, the Heliopolitan religion, whose pantheon was the Great Ennead of gods, was recognised everywhere.27 This great pantheon, composed of nine deities, formed the family ruled by Atum-Ra. Originally un-manifest, Atum, or Atum-Ra, masturbated and thus created Shu, the air god, and Tefnut, the moisture goddess. This couple created Geb, the earth god, and Nut, the sky goddess. Geb and Nut mated, though their copulation was interrupted by their father Shu, who, as the air, came between them and lifted the canopy of the sky away from the earth, thereby parting the divine lovers. In spite of this coitus interruptus, Nut, the sky goddess, gave birth to four anthropomorphic gods who lived on earth. These were Osiris and Seth, two male gods, and their sisters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris and Isis were united and became the subject of Ancient Egypt’s greatest myth as the first divine couple who ruled Egypt. Isis gave birth to an only son, Horus, from the seed of Osiris. Since Osiris, or his ‘soul’, was often identified with the phoenix, it is probable that the Benben Stone symbolised, among other things, his seed, and thus the generative power that created Horus from the womb of Isis.28
It is with these last five anthropomorphic or human-form gods that we shall be mostly involved, and especially with Osiris, for he was not only seen as the first divine king of Egypt, but his tragic death and miraculous resurrection provided the basis of the ancient Egyptian mysteries and the origin of their rebirth cult.29
6. The Heliopolitan Ennead of Gods plus Horus the son of Isis and Osiris
IV The Pyramid Age
The Ancient Egyptians were religious people and believed emphatically in an afterlife in some heavenly Egypt. To help the dead reach this celestial afterworld, it was deemed important to preserve the body of the deceased as far as possible and to provide the departed with the means and accessories for the arduous journey into eternity.
In pre-dynastic times the dead were buried in simple pits dug in the desert sand. The body was placed on its side in a foetal position, presumably ready to await a rebirth in the afterlife. In the dry conditions of Egypt’s western desert, natural mummification took place, probably more by accident than design. Yet the corpse was always liable to be exposed by jackals and wild dogs, desecrating it and making it easy for robbers to locate the tomb and steal precious artefacts. During the First Dynasty the Egyptians began building tombs with superstructures of mud bricks and stone to cover the burial pit and protect the corpse. These were massive rectangular structures with flat roofs commonly known as mastabas.30 There are many of them scattered in the Memphite Necropolis. They continued to be used throughout the Old Kingdom period. Up to the end of the Second Dynasty some kings were buried in them, but thereafter they were used only for the nobility; dead kings were to have much grander ‘Mansions of Eternity’.31 Mastabas were made of rock and mud bricks and are believed to have been more elaborate than the homes in which the people themselves lived. According to Dr Edwards, the reason for this was religious:
In a land where stone of excellent quality could be obtained in abundance, it may seem strange that the rulers and governing classes should have been content to spend their lives in buildings of inferior quality to their tombs. The Ancient Egyptian, however, took a different view; his house or palace was built to last for only a limited number of years … but his tomb, which he called his ‘castle of eternity’, was designed to last for ever.32
During the Third Dynasty the so-called step-pyramids appeared but these are not true pyramids in the geometrical sense of the word, so we would do better to think of them as stepped towers.33 The largest of these remaining is King Zoser’s at Saqqara, not only the largest of its kind built in Egypt but the first known structure built with stone masonry: quarried and properly cut rather than rough stones stacked together.34 This innovation is attributed to a genius priest-architect called Imhotep, who was also Zoser’s vizier. Imhotep, whom the Greeks equated with their god of medicine Asclepius, was later deified and said to be the greatest wise man. He was also the high priest of Annu and astronomer-general or chief stargazer, with the title ‘Chief of the Observers’.35
The step-pyramid of Zoser is an imposing structure; it is sixty metres high and has a rectangular base. It seems to have contained the burial chamber of King Zoser and others used for his family. Its ziggurat-like structure seems also to have symbolised a ladder whose six steps leading up to a seventh platform probably corresponded to the planetary spheres which encircle the earth and therefore to stages of ascent through which the soul must pass after death. This is a common concept found in mythologies around the world and is well documented in William Lethaby’s Architecture, Mysticism and Myth. Speaking of the ziggurat of Borsippa, restored by Nebuchadnezzar, Lethaby translates the latter’s inscription:
I have repaired and perfected the marvel of Borsippa, the temple of the seven spheres of the world. I have erected it in bricks which I have covered with copper. I have covered with zones, alternately of marble and other precious stones, the sanctuary of God.36
Writing of the step-monuments of Egypt after several pages considering similar structures in Assyria, China, and Mexico, Lethaby says:
Maspero and Perrot are disposed to accept the account of a Greek writer that the Great Pyramid was decorated in zones of colour, with the apex gilt; and it would seem more than a coincidence that the earliest pyramids, attributed to the first four dynasties, should be in stages. That at Sakkarah still has six steps, decreasing from thirty-eight feet high at the bottom to twenty-nine feet for the top, in remarkable resemblance to the Ziggurat at Babel.
7. The Pyramids of the IVth Dynasty
And Mr Petrie has found that the pyramid of Medum [sic] was built in seven degrees before the outer and continuous casing was applied, ‘producing a pyramid which served as a model to future sovereigns’.37
Looked at in this way, the step-monument of Zoser is much more than the tomb of a powerful king; it is a statement of religious beliefs and an expression of the highest art. It stands proudly above Saqqara amid the tombs of generations as a symbol of the Egyptian religion. Visible from Memphis and the surrounding Nile Valley, it would have been a constant reminder that the purpose of life on earth was to prepare for the hereafter.
Following Imhotep’s achievement at Saqqara, several other step-pyramids were built, notably at Meidum, some forty-five kilometres south of Saqqara. It is believed that this later monument was built by a successor of Zoser’s named Huni, about whom virtually nothing is known. The step-pyramid builders were succeeded by the celebrated kings of the Fourth Dynasty, who built the true pyramids. These include the magnificent pyramids of Dashour and the world-famous triad at Giza. It is not inconceivable that Imhotep also planned these, even if he did not live to see them built.