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Pyramidology: Why did Ancient Egyptians build the pyramids?

Understanding pyramids…

An edited extract from Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction (28 January, £8.99) by Ian Shaw, published by Oxford University Press. Edited extract used with permission.

One of the fiercest areas of debate in Egyptology over the years has been the question of why the pyramids took the form that they did, and what this suggests about the purpose that they served. This ‘pyramidology’ is virtually a subject in its own right. Attention has focused not only on the shape but also on the precise size and spatial disposition of pyramids, as well as the detailed internal arrangement of the chambers, and the meanings of the texts inscribed on some of the internal walls. It almost goes without saying that many of the theories advanced have been among the least plausible or logical in the history of Egyptology, owing to the well-known effect that pyramids seem to exert on the mental faculties of some researchers and enthusiasts. Not surprisingly, the choice of explanations at different points in time can tell us as much about the researchers as the problem.

A useful starting point is the very common-sense explanation that the pyramidal shape is the most structurally sound way of building as high a monument as possible, with the most efficient use of building resources and greatest likelihood of long-term stability. For many people this has the disadvantage of ignoring the possibility of both (a) the colonization of earth by aliens from outer space and (b) the existence of a previously unsuspected civilization that already flourished thousands of years before the conventional emergence of ancient Egypt. It was also once seriously suggested to me that the pyramids had not been built but that they had been created by quarrying away all the surrounding stone – this doesn’t actually explain their shape, but is a good example of the apparently inexhaustible thirst for explanations of pyramids that are imaginative rather than logical.

A very long-lasting myth about the pyramids connects them with the biblical story of Joseph – as early as the 5th century ad, the Roman writer Julius Honorius suggested that they were Joseph’s granaries. In 1859 John Taylor put forward the theory that the Great Pyramid was built by non-Egyptian invaders acting under God’s guidance. Arab writers in the Middle Ages had a theory that the Pyramids were built at the time of Noah’s flood in order to act as repositories of Egyptian wisdom and scientific knowledge. The one thing that all of these suggestions have in common is their assumption that the pyramids were in some way linked with the role played by Egypt in the Bible, since many of the early scholars studying Egypt were theologically motivated.

The great Victorian enthusiast, Charles Piazzi Smyth, Astronomer Royal of Scotland and Professor of Astronomy at Edinburgh University, managed to combine both biblical and astronomical approaches in his pyramid research. Heavily influenced by the theories of the aforementioned John Taylor (who argued that the measurements of the pyramid amounted to a kind of slide-rule record of the proportions of the world as a whole), Piazzi Smyth surveyed at Giza in 1865 and declared that the Great Pyramid had been built at just the correct size in ‘pyramid inches’ to exactly encapsulate the circumference of earth, which, according to Taylor, the Egyptians were able to calculate through their knowledge of π. Piazzi Smyth then argued, in his three-volume Life and Work at the Great Pyramid (published in 1867), that the pyramid inch was also the unit of measurement used by the builders of Noah’s Ark and Moses’ tabernacle. Since the pyramid inch was conveniently virtually the same as the British inch, it was only a small step further to suggest that all this identified the British as the lost tribe of Israel, which neatly adds rampant Victorian imperialism to Piazzi Smyth’s bundle of influences in his ruminations on pyramids.

Among the more recent discussions of pyramid form and purpose are those that emphasize the undoubted astronomical links of the pyramids. It has long been suggested that the so-called ‘air vents’ in the Great Pyramid served some astronomical function, since they are evidently carefully aligned with various stars, including the constellation of Orion (the Egyptian god Sah), which might have been the intended destination of the king’s ba, when he ascended to take his place among the circumpolar stars. Kate Spence has suggested that the architects of the pyramids may have aligned their sides with the cardinal points by sighting on two stars rotating around the position of the celestial North Pole (b-Ursae Minoris and z-Ursae Majoris). A significant problem with Spence’s theory, however, is that these stars would have been in perfect alignment in 2467 bc, whereas the most recent radiocarbon dating suggests that Khufu’s reign was about a century earlier than this date. Her hypothesis is nevertheless supported by the fact that inaccuracies in the orientations of earlier and later pyramids can be closely correlated with the degree to which the alignment of the two aforementioned stars deviates from true north.

Several well-publicized books have focused particularly on the so-called ‘Orion Mystery’, which is the suggestion that the layout of the three pyramids at Giza was intended to symbolize the pattern of the three stars making up the belt of Orion. The tendency of such books to focus on the undoubted astronomical elements in pyramid design allows the writers to introduce speculation concerning the possible involvement of extra-terrestrial beings in pyramid construction (which can conveniently tap into modern popular cultural ideas such as those presented in the 1995 film Stargate). In the late 1960s, Erich von Däniken’s bestseller, Chariots of the Gods?, argued that there had been extensive extra-terrestrial influences on early human culures. Since then, only a few writers since have gone so far as to claim that aliens may have built certain monuments, but the exploitation of astronomical aspects of the pyramids by researchers such as Robert Bauval and Graham Hancock allows them to at least imply some kind of ‘outside’ intervention.

Most Egyptologists argue that the real reasons for the physical form that the pyramids take must lie within the sphere of the Egyptians’ own religious and funerary beliefs, as expressed in their texts and visual imagery. One possibility is that both the step-pyramid form and the true pyramid represent the primitive mound of sand, piled up over the earliest pit graves, perhaps also associated with the primeval mound of creation. Certain passages in the Pyramid Texts (inscribed on interior walls of pyramids from the late 5th Dynasty onwards) support the interpretation of the step pyramid (the earlier style, best exemplified by the 3rd-Dynasty pyramid of King Djoser at Saqqara) literally as a stairway up which the king could ascend to take his place among the stars. Elsewhere, the Pyramid Texts mention the king treading the rays of the sun in order to reach heaven, and the true pyramid might possibly therefore symbolize the rays of the sun fanning down to earth.

The above suggestions all fall within the familiar rationalist pattern, whereby scholars use ancient data to explore the ways in which the ancient Egyptians themselves appear to have been discussing the pyramids. However, Egyptologists tend to use this knowledge more ‘creatively’ than they are perhaps aware, when they attempt to reconstruct ancient Egyptian patterns of thought about such cultural phenomena as the pyramids. At least some modern theories on ancient Egyptian pyramids may be simply adding to the original ancient belief system rather than actually explaining it!

Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction (28 January, £8.99) by Ian Shaw is published by Oxford University Press. Edited extract used with permission.