The sun had risen while at the Sphinx. I boarded the tour bus to go to an observation area to see the three pyramids of Giza on the horizon. It stopped briefly beforehand so we could all see Khufu and Khafre’s pyramids close together. In one of those serendipitous conjunctions in time and space, Khafre just shielded the sun along one edge to produce a spectacular glow in the sky.
The Great Pyramid has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. What started out as a youngster’s obsession with things ancient became a curiosity about the incredible feat of technology, craftsmanship and genius that it took to build it. It rightfully is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the only one left standing. So I was excited and happy to be on the Giza plateau.
To finally see the pyramid up close was humbling. What an immense structure! It looks like a series of stacked and tapering stone rows, 210 courses in all, comprising 2.3 million stones at an average weight of 2.5 tons each, a tremendous feat of architectural engineering that may last for thousands more years.
In ancient times, it must have been breathtaking to see the pyramid with perfectly flat sides. The surface would have been encased in Tura limestone. Though the Giza limestone core blocks produce a rough appearance, incredibly the casing stones were cut on the undersides to match the contours of underlying core blocks and on the outward sides as flat surfaces. It’s said that the brilliant gleam of the white Tura limestone could be seen from miles away. What a sight it would have been. The shell is long gone, removed over time for Cairo building projects. I could see that the top of the Khafre pyramid still has its casing stones relatively intact.
Seeing the outside of the pyramid was incredible enough. More special still, our tour group had the inside of the Great Pyramid (Pyramid of Khufu) all to itself. Imagine, just the twelve of us.
We arrived after public hours. Security guards were everywhere. We climbed the stairs to the entrance. There was a bit of ceremony when Andrew was given the key to open the gate. We first made our way down the Descending Passage, stooped over awkwardly to wiggle down a tunnel only 3.5ft (1m) high. Despite the Giza plateau’s arid climate, the breaths and sweat of earlier visitors made the passageway dank. We eventually reached the entrance to the Grand Gallery.
Compared to the Descending Passage, the Grand Gallery soars, roughly 28ft overhead. Looking up, I stared in amazement at the high ceiling that narrows (corbels) like inverted steps. Why were these gigantic rows of granite, some weighing 50 tons, finished so smoothly and elegantly if merely to relieve the load of the massive weight above? They certainly weren’t meant to be seen or admired; the pyramid’s entrance was blocked before looters found their way in. Modern additions make climbing the gallery easier along its 150ft length. With bannisters and foothold strips on the wood floorboards, I felt like a kid ready to bound up stairs. (At my age, bounding no longer describes my movements.) If it weren’t for artificial lighting, we would have been in total darkness, making me wonder how the ancients found their way with no visible soots marks on the walls or ceiling.
Though not nearly as brutal as in summertime, the humidity was still noticeable when we entered the King’s Chamber, even with a ventilation system that produces a low-frequency hum. The room was stark and undecorated, brooding. Some visitors feel very uncomfortable here, others energized. The walls and floor consist of massive, squarely cut granite blocks smoothly finished.
The room contains nothing more than a stone ‘sarcophagus’ along one end, no inscriptions or decoration. Since remains or lid were never found, coffer is a word more often used. One corner is heavily damaged. In the dim artificial lighting, it was hard to tell that it and the entire room is made of hard Aswan red granite, different from the limestone used mostly everywhere else.
Shining a smart phone light into the interior, I was amazed to see flat, surfaces and straight, sharp corners, as if machined. Other visitors have reported seeing saw marks and drill holes. I should have thought of bringing along a proper flashlight and carpenter’s square.
With the lights turned off, our group experienced the chamber in total darkness during which Andrew led us in a meditation. My back against the coffer, I was amazed how totally black it became with only Andrew’s voice echoing in the room and sounding distant at the same time.
The other chambers were less dramatic. The smaller Queen’s Chamber features a vaulted ceiling and a corbelled niche. The floor is roughly surfaced. The room, made of limestone, doesn’t have the cavernous, foreboding feel of the King’s Chamber. There are also two small rectangular portals on the north and south walls that lead to upwardly slanting ducts. These have been called ‘air shafts,’ thought originally to relieve chamber air pressure but they dead-end before reaching the outside. Why do two similar shafts in the King’s Chamber exit the pyramid? For the sophisticated engineering and work to incorporate the shafts in the pyramid’s design, I couldn’t help but wonder what possible purpose they served. They’re said to “point” to certain circumpolar stars (Beta of Ursa Minor, Sirius, Thuban, Orion’s belt) as they would have aligned in 2450 BC and therefore symbolically point to a region of the Milky Way where the pharaoh would complete his afterlife journey to the heavens.
The strangest room of all was the Subterranean Chamber. To get there, I had to clamber down backwards over 340ft (a continuation of the Descending Passage), longer than an American football field’s length. It’s mind-boggling that it was excavated at an angle out of the limestone bedrock over 100ft below ground.
Most of the chamber’s space is taken up by a back section divided by two strange fin-like rock structures. There is a pit in the floor near the entrance and a gated shaft on the south wall that extends for about 50ft before dead-ending.
This room is curious because it’s rough-hewn (except for the flat roof) unlike the pyramid’s other masterful features, giving the impression that it was left unfinished. This is hard to believe in light of the obvious fact that the entire pyramid was built according to some grand plan.
Many of us ask why the Great Pyramid was built. As pyramid-building goes, it is far and away the crowning achievement of the Egyptians, unlike any built before or since. It is the only pyramid ever built that has an ascending passage and upper chambers. There are several esoteric theories regarding its purpose, prompted by the pyramid’s measurements that appear to encode sacred numbers and mathematical constants, the Northern Hemisphere’s dimensions in scale and the solar year; the electromagnetic properties of granite whose vibrations produce in sensitives altered states of consciousness; and the arrangement of the three pyramids on the Giza plateau that apparently places importance on the constellations Orion and (as Andrew Collins argues) Cygnus. Some have even ascribed a more utilitarian purpose, an enormous civil engineering project, such as a gigantic water pump or energy source, requiring the Nile to power it.
Its construction wasn’t just stacking blocks either because of the three chambers, passageways, shafts and casing stones, not to mention other incredible complexities. Scientists have also discovered another large, possibly inaccessible “void” above the King’s Chamber using a cosmic radiation measurement technique known as muography.
What the pyramid’s true purpose was, we may never know. It could very well be a combination of a symbolic pharaonic pathway to the stars, an ingenious representation of the Earth and precessional cycles in code, a mental exercise for numerologists, a concentrator of telluric currents, a wondrous machine or something else entirely.
For me to be here on the Giza Plateau was not only a chance to see and be in awe of some of the world’s oldest monuments but again to question what we think we know about ancient civilizations. It happened for me in Peru and now, in Egypt.