Wonderment on the Giza Plateau (Great Sphinx)

The view was a bizarre juxtaposition.

Outside my hotel window was the Pyramid of Khafre, easily 4,500 years old. In between was the hotel swimming pool, traffic roaring on the highway, trailers and a swath of the Sahara Desert. It was enough to do a double-take if I didn’t know where I was. Khafre was a mile away, as the crow flies. What was a beeline millennia ago is now a circuitous obstacle course of tangled streets. In the thousands of years since, over 25 million people in metro Cairo, along with traffic gridlock, air pollution and urban sprawl, have encroached on the monument like the sands of the Sahara.

View from my hotel room, Le Meridien Pyramids

This is modern Egypt. I’ve wanted to come here for a long time to experience its ancient treasures. Only a few months ago, I wondered if I ever would.

Then my wife and I were here. If that sounds sudden, it was. Only in November, the chance came up to go on a tour, sponsored by Ancient Origins and booked through Travel the Unknown. Having enough reward miles for airfare made the decision easier. The holidays of November, December and January kept my wife and me busy and little time to think about pyramids, temples and the Nile. We only had the rest of January to get ready, physically and mentally. In early February, we’d be off and running. Never before have we made a decision to go far away so quickly. It would be our second trip to Africa in two years.

Our plane landed in Cairo Airport at almost midnight. We were grateful the local tour company (Lady Egypt) representative whisked us through the airport and got us to the Giza hotel in an hour, much faster than if we arrived in midday during Cairo’s legendary traffic jams.

We would have almost a full day to recover from jet lag before meeting the rest of the tour group and our hosts, Alicia McDermott from Ancient Origins; special guest, writer and researcher Andrew Collins; and our extraordinary tour guide Waleed Kamouna. All of us who signed up had our own reasons for going on this tour but enrollment through Ancient Origins tied us together by our high interest in the ancient world.

On the tour’s first official day, we had two thrilling experiences, which I’ll never forget. They were privately allotted times at the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. You read that right, our group was the only one at these sites. These visits had to be done ‘off hours,’ the Sphinx before dawn, Khufu’s pyramid after official closing time (5pm). But what special opportunities they were!

The Great Sphinx

Hopping groggily on the tour bus at 4am, we got to the Sphinx while still dark outside. We needed warm jackets to keep out the chill in the air. In front of the Sphinx’s paws, we listened to talks by Andrew and Waleed, and walked around the monument with mobile flashlights in hand. The limestone enclosure surrounding the Sphinx made it seem like a vast sunken room. It was exciting to realize that not many get this close to the Sphinx.

We waited two hours before the sun rose to light up the Sphinx. I couldn’t help but notice what others have pointed out. The Sphinx’s head is grossly undersized in relation to its body. It’s probable that it was re-carved from the head of an animal that would appear more proportional to the rest of its body. The popular candidate has been a lion.

Facing the Facts

At dawn, the strong, square features of the face was silhouetted in shadow. If the face is Khafre’s, it doesn’t look much like the one on his statue in the Cairo Museum.

Khafre’s face?
Statue of Khafre in the Cairo Museum

Whose might it be? Robert Temple makes a convincing case for its being that of Amenemhet II of the 12th dynasty, which would imply the head was re-carved during the Middle Kingdom. Amenemhet could not have seen what else was lying buried underneath. The Sphinx’s body had been buried in sand until it was uncovered by Thutmosis IV five hundred years later.

Amenemhet II sphinx, Louvre Museum (image from wikipedia)
Thutmosis IV affirms unearthing the Sphinx on the Dream Stela, erected between the Sphinx’s paws

An Age-Old Dilemma

Even in the light of day, the Sphinx looks to be very old. Dating the Sphinx has been controversial. Archaeology dates the Sphinx to the time of Khafre (c. 2570 BCE) who is associated with the closest pyramid. But, the severe water erosion patterns on the enclosure wall and Sphinx indicate to some researchers that heavy rainfall, which Egypt hasn’t experienced for 12,000 years, did the damage and dates the monument’s construction to well before the beginnings of Egyptian civilization.

Severe water erosion on the Sphinx and its enclosure

Other researchers point to a earth-sky connection between a leonine Sphinx and the constellation Leo around 10,500 BCE when the Sphinx would have been gazing directly at Leo on the night sky horizon on the spring equinox due to an astronomical phenomenon known as the precession of the equinox. (Many ancient societies were aware of precessional cycles.)

But 10,500 BCE seems like an impossibly long time ago—antediluvian, in fact. I’m more convinced by Robert Temple’s theory that the recumbent figure, instead of being a lion, was the god Anubis in the form of a jackal. At least, the timeline is more in line with dynastic, or even pre-dynastic, Egypt. The Sphinx’s body seems more dog-like than leonine. Its large paws are a Roman ‘restoration,’ hiding original ones that must have been heavily damaged, likely from water erosion. Interestingly, Anubis has always been regarded as the guardian of necropolises.

Water, Water, Everywhere

If not heavy rains 12,000 years ago, then what caused the erosion? Temple also makes a case for the Sphinx enclosure having been a moat during the Old Kingdom when inundation of the Nile brought water to its doorstep. He proposes that the moat was called Jackal Lake in many ancient texts. The Sphinx thus became an ‘island’ during these seasonal times. Regulated by a sluice gate, water was admitted into the moat by way of the channel between the Sphinx Temple and Valley Temple. The channel itself shows horizontal erosion lines, which along with those of the Sphinx and its enclosure resulted from centuries of standing water. The vertical fissures along the enclosure walls, Temple suggests, were the result of countless dredging operations to remove the moat’s constant threat: desert sand.

The Sphinx Temple lies in front of the Sphinx to the east. The Valley Temple is south of it, to the right.

Final Notes

Just before leaving the Sphinx, we got a surprise arrival of Zahi Hawass, Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs and Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. He seemed to know Andrew.

Judging from the images above, you’d think the Sphinx had very little sign of civilization around it. If only that were true. By turning around to face east, you’d see the edge of the city of Nazlet el-Samman. Cell phone towers, building silhouettes and Cairo’s infamous haze poke up above the horizon. It was a depressing sight. So was the litter. New construction is going on to this day, but in 1982 city officials established buffer zones on the Giza plateau on which it’s forbidden to build.

Nazlet el-Samman on the horizon east of the Sphinx

The group left the Sphinx as the sun was rising. I felt the same sense of wonder and mystery as anyone who’s been fortunate enough to get close to it. Afterward, we were treated to a stunning view of all three pyramids from an observation area a short bus ride away, the Sphinx nowhere in sight. Though still early in the morning, the air was already thick with pollution and the parking lot full of hawkers who were setting up shop.

Wonderment on the Giza Plateau (Great Pyramid)

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.

Though discolored over time, the Bent Pyramid at Dashur shows what casing stones would have looked like on the Great Pyramid

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.

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.

Grand Gallery

King’s Chamber

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.

King’s Chamber

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.

Coffer in the King’s Chamber

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.

Straight corners

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.

Queen’s Chamber

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.

Queen’s Chamber

Subterranean Chamber

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.

Subterranean Chamber

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.

Splendor among the Ruins: the Pyramid of Teti

The hieroglyphic inscriptions were beautiful when I first saw them, like the most intricate wallpaper. The subterranean walls of the horizontal passage, antechamber and burial chamber were covered with them. They were a complete surprise because the pyramid of Teti is a pile of rubble above ground, thanks to robbers who quarried the stone for other uses.

These so-called pyramid texts are ‘spells’ or utterances to protect and guide the deceased’s soul in his or her afterlife journey and refer to an entire corpus of texts that appear in many pyramids of the Saqqara necropolis.

The hieroglyphs on the walls and stars on the gabled ceilings owe their magical effect in large part to artificial lighting. Surfaces seem to have extra texture and vitality—a pop.

In the burial chamber is a basalt or greywacke sarcophagus. It’s damaged likely from vandalism. With the help of several smartphone flashlights, we could make out a single band of text, the first time such an inscription was carved inside a sarcophagus.

Hieroglyphs in the sarcophagus of Teti

Teti reigned roughly two centuries after Khufu. It’s obvious that the golden age of pyramid building had long gone. Yet, the subterranean chambers of his pyramid have a clear wow factor.

What the Hell Happened at Abusir?

The sites of Abusir and Abu Ghurab are located not far from Cairo. Pharaohs of the 5th dynasty built their pyramids and temples there. While the quality of pyramids was quite inferior to Giza’s, archaeological finds were important, including papyri that are the oldest ever found. Although not of primary importance to archaeologists (or because they can’t convincingly explain them), also discovered was evidence of the kind of ancient Egyptian technology that is difficult to explain. Those found at the Sun Temple of Niuserre at Abu Ghurab represent some of them.

Our tour group was scheduled to visit the temple, built to worship the sun god Ra. Apparently, we got permission to visit beforehand but when we arrived, the authorities changed their mind. Whether it was last minute or not wasn’t clear, nor was the reason. In Egypt, this kind of baffling decision can happen at any time. As a substitute, we were allowed to go to the nearby temple of pharaoh Sahure at Abusir. I was disappointed about Niuserre because I wanted to see evidence of reported advanced manufacturing technology at the site, specifically precision crafting of sandstone ‘basins’ and an alabaster ‘altar.’

We had no choice but to accept the decision. But, I didn’t expect to be surprised by the alternative.

At Sahure’s temple, the evidence of catastrophe was all around. Giant limestone and granite blocks of stone were scattered everywhere, columns broken in pieces, a mishmash of stone material that seems as if some titanic force tore everything apart. This doesn’t look at all like a simple case of defilement. The only columns left standing are two adjacent to each other made of Aswan red granite.

Two granite columns are the only ones left standing. Sahure’s pyramid is behind them.

These strewn fragments are thought to be parts of the temple walls. I thought it was curious that the floor made of polygonal slabs of basalt has not suffered as much destruction.

Basalt floor of the temple

As I wandered through the debris, I noticed granite pieces which to the touch and naked eye seemed to have perfectly flat surfaces.

There was also a fragment of a rosette-shaped column of six ‘petals.’ The curiosity is why a petal’s cross section isn’t a circular arc. Instead they have a more complex shape that seems to mimic a fuller version of the vesica piscis.

Most unbelievable of all were tubular holes in granite stones. One stone had two holes of possibly the same diameter.

Drilled holes?

When I looked inside one, the surface was finely grooved in a (presumed) spiral which means it wasn’t chipped out with chisel and hammer, rather appearing to have been ‘drilled.’

Inside grooves

How is any of the above explained other than allowing for advanced technology that the builders used but has (unfortunately) been lost to us?

One final curiosity was a stone basin at the edge of the temple floor. Aside from its being symmetrically shaped with a refined rim, it looked like a catch basin for water or other liquid fed into it from a pipe that was laid underneath the basalt floor. There may have been others, but I didn’t see them.

In the end, the stopover at Sahure’s complex was as interesting and provocative as the one to Niuserre’s would have been. With the destruction and apparent evidence of machining, I just wondered what the hell happened here.

The Splendid Temple of Hathor (Dendera)

Calling a woman a cow nowadays is asking for trouble, but the Egyptians of yore depicted Hathor as a cow, a woman with cow’s horns or woman with cow’s ears. She was one of Egypt’s most important deities, a primordial goddess, daughter of Ra and Nut, goddess of joy, female love, sex, destruction and rebirth, just some of her many aspects. She was so venerated that a cult developed around her in Dendera where a temple complex was dedicated to her. Construction of the temple began in the Ptolemaic period (Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra) and ended with additions made by Roman emperor Tiberius.

Hathor with cow ears and Hathor with cow horns and the solar disc

The Temple of Hathor was easily the most beautiful I visited in Egypt. It’s considered one of the best preserved. The still vivid paints can thank the desert sands that covered the temple for millennia and the result of meticulous restoration. The temple also impressed me with gorgeous wall carvings and the Great Hypostyle Hall.

Aside from its beauty, the temple has some remarkable features.

Capital H

The temple’s dedication to Hathor is obvious just by looking up. Her image as a female goddess with cow’s ears appears throughout the temple, most conspicuously as capitals on its 24 columns, the most striking I saw in Egypt. Her face is on all four sides, gazing out at the cardinal points of the universe. I wondered if it was religious zealousness that defaced all 96 of her faces.


The temple has two distinctive zodiacs, one which may be the oldest in the world. It’s known as the Dendera Zodiac. Visitors casually walking through the temple will never find it on their own. Our tour group was led up a stairwell to the temple roof. No one else was up there except guards. On the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to Osiris is the zodiac, the only one shaped like a circle in Egyptian art. I couldn’t make out details at first because it was covered in black soot from centuries of wood-burning underneath. With some effort, the figures of the constellations gradually became more visible. The planisphere corresponds to the modern zodiac although some constellations have Egyptian forms.


The Dendera Zodiac isn’t without controversy. In 1820, the original was removed and taken away to France where it is now displayed in the Louvre. The one in Dendera is a plaster replica. While the zodiac’s transplantation may have been legal and sanctioned by Egyptian authorities at the time, there is a bigger moral issue of its return, just as the bust of Nefertiti that rests in the Neues Museum (Berlin). Still, I was grateful to the tour for including a special visit to this facsimile.

Dendera Zodiac in the Louvre (image from http://bosabosareview.blogspot.com/p/egyptian-art.html)

The other zodiac, in the common rectangular form, appears on the ceiling of the main hall. I had to squint to see the figures because the architrave on which they’re carved is over 50ft (15m) above the floor.

Show Me Your True Colors

The colors in the main hall are gorgeous, as if they defied the ravages of time. There’s a reason. Like the Dendera Zodiac now, the ceiling and walls used to be covered in soot from centuries of burning fires inside. But after meticulous cleaning efforts, some of the original vibrancy of the colors has been beautifully restored.

So why hasn’t the Dendera Zodiac been restored? My guess is because it’s a replica, waiting for its replacement with the real one that France needs to return.

Shedding Light on a Mystery

Depending on one’s inclinations, the biggest attraction might be the so-called Dendera light bulbs. These are controversial panels in which figures appear to be holding giant ‘light bulbs,’ complete with ‘filaments’ (snake forms) and ‘cords.’ So, these guys had electricity? Hold on. Archaeologists counter that the ‘bulbs’ represent the creation of the universe emerging from lotus flowers, which are symbols of death and rebirth, the ‘cords’ are their stems and the snake, another symbol of resurrection and creation. The choice, it seems, is between symbolism and realism. These depictions are found in two places, in the main temple area and in an underground crypt. They don’t appear anywhere else in Egyptian art.

Dendera ‘light bulbs’ in the main hall
Dendera ‘light bulbs’ in an underground crypt (distortion due to panorama camera mode)

Rite of Passage

I don’t mean to titillate but many women touch it in the hopes of becoming pregnant. Near the Dendera light bulbs is a relief of a snake that symbolizes fertility, procreation, creation, resurrection. And like the ‘light bulb’ image, it too emerges from a lotus plant. The figure is well worn from countless touches over the years, not necessarily only by ladies who want children.

The snake as symbol of fertility and procreation

The Protection of Nut, the Sky Goddess

To me, the most symbolically striking image in Egyptian art is the celestial goddess Nut who is frequently depicted as the sky goddess, covered in stars and arched in exaggerated form on her hands and feet, like the vault of heaven, to protect the dead and through whose body the sun traveled in its daily cycle. In the depiction here, the sun shines its rays on Hathor’s temple.

After emerging from Nut, the sun shines its rays on Hathor’s temple. Each ray looks like a string of pyramidal crystals.

Precision of Faith

I recently read a book by Christopher Dunn. Highly experienced in engineering, tool making and precision machining, he makes some intriguing revelations about Hathor’s temple. After analyzing photographs, he concluded that the builders manufactured the Hathor column capitals that today can only be made with advanced machining tools. The capitals include not only Hathor’s head but two cornices and sistrum, a rattling musical instrument associated with her. What amazed him are the complex transitions from one kind of three-dimensional surface to another.

Column capital includes Hathor’s faces, sistrum and two cornices

Dunn also discovered that the columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall (including orthogonal projections of some critical points on the capitals) are parallel or perpendicular to each other. He took a digital image of four columns with camera on tripod aimed straight up, making sure that the center of the image coincided with the geometric center of the columns in order to avoid angular distortion. Using computer-aided design (CAD) software, reference lines were drawn along cornice edges and through certain intersections of Hathor’s head and cornice. The result indicates that the capitals are exactly aligned.

This is an incredible quality a visitor could never imagine. One would think that something a little less than perfect would hardly be noticeable; the overall effect of the temple would still be amazing. So I wondered, why the exacting standards? Is the achievement of perfection a manifestation of religious devotion, of sacredness? I wonder if other Egyptian temples show this kind of care and building prowess. I wouldn’t at all be surprised.

To walk through the Temple of Hathor was an exquisite experience. Its beautiful architecture and carvings, celestial allusions—and colors—affected me like no other temple. That the builder applied an esoteric craft in its design and construction makes the temple all the more wondrous.

The Valley Temple and Osireion: Echoes of a Bygone World Culture?

Seeing is believing.

It was deja vu all over again, as a famous American Yogi once said. I gawked at the Valley Temple of Khafre in Giza and the Osireion in Abydos. Though they are in Egypt, they reminded me of monuments I saw in Peru, halfway round the world. Cyclopean blocks of unadorned stone were cut and tightly fitted to one another. Their sizes hint at an accomplished civilization that knew how to manipulate gigantic stones in ways that we can’t explain.

Here’s where current thinking becomes unbelievable, if not ridiculous. Stones of gigantic size were said to have been quarried, dragged or ferried over great distances, lifted into place and fitted with precision by sheer muscle, hammer, pounding stone and copper chisel. In places like Peru, where mountains and valleys present insurmountable obstacles, this explanation severely strains credibility. Was there a method of transportation and masonry that we haven’t yet discovered or identified? In our scientific and rational age, we think of historical engineering achievements relative to our own, that technology evolved from simple tools (Neolithic Age) to today’s advanced industrial technology in a linear fashion. Surely, the ancients didn’t have the wherewithal to use anything but unlimited human labor, rope and crude tools to build their magnificent edifices, did they?

And yet, we can’t prove, let alone reproduce, how some of the greatest ancient monuments of the world were built.

The Valley Temple and Osireion are such examples.

Valley Temple of Khafre

The Valley Temple sits a stone’s throw away from the Sphinx. We nearly didn’t have time to see it after a full day of taking in the Sphinx, Great Pyramid and Solar Boat Museum. With the second pyramid and the Great Sphinx, it forms a complex whose construction is attributed to King Khafre (4th dynasty). The sole evidence given to Khafre’s provenance is the famous statue of him, now in the Cairo Museum, that was found buried in the Valley Temple. (That the statue was carved from diorite, a very hard igneous rock, is wondrous in itself.)

Statue of Khafre, Cairo Egyptian Museum

This is hardly proof, as some point out, only that the statue was found there. A New Kingdom stone slab called the Inventory Stela (factually disputed by some), found in Giza and dating to the 26th dynasty, claims the Sphinx and Valley Temple (the pyramids are not mentioned) were built before Khufu, Khafre’s father. Some dispute its claim, complicated by the fact that it was written roughly 2,000 years after Khafre. If it is true however, the temple’s construction would be pushed back to pre-dynastic times, or at least the Early Dynastic Period.

Inner courtyard, Valley Temple of Khafre

Whatever the uncertainty regarding dates, its physical characteristics are quite amazing. There are two layers of stone construction, granite and limestone. Limestone was laid first. Hundreds of them in the form of megalithic blocks form a surrounding wall. Some weigh 200 tons and some were lifted as much as 40ft up the temple’s eastern side. Physical evidence suggests they suffered long-term damage from former, heavy pre-dynastic rains, much like the weathering around the Sphinx and its enclosure. The limestone had been extremely eroded before granite casing stones were molded onto the softer rock. Incredibly, they were cut (or manipulated?) to conform to the limestones’ erosional patterns, all their peaks and troughs, to become the temple’s inner and outer walls. How was this renovation, or restoration, ever done? Again, hammer and copper chisel aren’t the answer. This type of dressing is quite similar in technique to shaping casing stones over the Great Pyramid’s roughly cut limestone core blocks.

Note the limestone layer at the top and granite walls below.

In addition to the retaining walls, there are two rows of gigantic, parallel granite posts that are topped with equally gigantic lintels that define the temple’s core structure.

The workmanship on the granite walls is exquisite, fitting tightly together with seams scarcely able to admit a needle point.

Aswan red granite casing stones

Other incredible features of some stones are their irregular shapes. Some are shaped like parallelograms, others are notched, yet others curve around corners at right angles.

Note notching on second large granite block from the bottom and corner block above it. An upper stone is a parallelogram.
A closer look

I stood there in amazement. What could possibly be the reason for manufacturing stones with odd dimensions? Some say it was for earthquake-proofing. Maybe so. It surely wasn’t for simplicity.

The Osireion

The Osireion, which we visited several days later, is a complex directly behind the Temple of Seti I in Abydos. It is currently regarded as a cenotaph for Osiris. It’s striking that it has a stylistic similarity to Khafre’s Valley Temple, not only because of the megalithic stonework but its design of two parallel rows of pillars flanking a central hall. As far as is known, these two structures are the only ones in Egypt built in this massive post-and-lintel style. It also is the monument that at its base may sit in greenish water depending on the Nile (also see below). There is physical evidence that the floor of the Valley Temple likewise was submerged in water for a time. Today, the Osireion looks like an open-air structure. It used to be roofed over by two rows of thick granite stone slabs, before they collapsed, were removed by stone robbers or were destroyed by a natural catastrophe, damage that was curiously spared Seti’s temple.

I was disappointed that visitors aren’t allowed to get close to the Osireion. Our tour group had to be content with gazing at it from an overlook. It’s roped off for now, unfortunate for those of us who want a closer look.

Peru Connection?

Both the Valley Temple and Osireion reminded me of stonework I saw in Peru, if not in the details. While the Egyptians favored horizontal lines, Peruvian courses of equally large stone were often laid non-linearly yet with the same, exacting fit tolerances. There are similar examples all over the world. Echoes of a common stone-working technology seem to have reverberated across the ocean.

Pisac, Peru
Ollantaytambo, Peru
Sacsayhuaman, Cusco (Peru)

And, for good measure:

Megalithic blocks, Japan (screen capture from YouTube)

What the Nub is Going On?

The image below shows casing stones at the entrance to Menkaure’s pyramid in Giza, the smallest of the three. (Unfortunately, our tour group didn’t have the opportunity to visit it.) The stones have different characteristics than the casing stones used on the other two Giza pyramids, namely, their surfaces are not flat and knob-like appendages (nubs) protrude along the bottoms of many.

Pyramid of Menkaure (image from Pinterest)

One wall of the Osireion shows the same kind of nubs.

The stones on the rear wall have nub protrusions (image from hiveminer.com)

What’s intriguing is that this same stone feature is found abundantly in Peru.

Machu Picchu (Peru)
Ollantaytambo (Peru)
Stonework, including the famous 12-sided stone, Cusco (Peru)

No one has been able to figure out what those nubs were used for. They randomly appear along the bottom edges of some (not all) stones, which means they weren’t used for lifting or any other utilitarian purpose. They are a complete mystery. It’s safe to say they weren’t decorative and it would shock me if the masons went to the trouble of purposely carving them that way. Rather than a design element, they must be the by-products of an undiscovered process?

What’s intriguing is that nubs like these also appear on stones in India, China, Japan, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere, including Micronesia.

Stone nubs, Bulgaria (screen capture from YouTube)

Am I missing something, or are there hints of a global phenomenon, a worldwide architectural legacy? A common, megalithic stone-shaping (and transportation) technology was being practiced, or handed down, all over the world that was lost long ago. Our current global, cross-pollinating culture was not the first in human history, it appears.

Because rocks don’t lend themselves to carbon-dating, we don’t know for sure when the Valley Temple and Osireion were built. They look (and likely are) contemporaneous. They probably are Old Kingdom works, but they could conceivably be older. Nevertheless from plentiful circumstantial evidence (from the fields of geology, astronomy, geometry, written and oral history, lichenometry, masonry), the ancients had a level of advanced knowledge and technologies that were sophisticated beyond measure.

Temple of Karnak (Luxor)

The Temple of Karnak in Luxor rivals an amusement park in size. The grounds are so big that it can easily surround the great cathedrals of Europe: Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, Milan and more. Started in the Middle Kingdom and added to over a period of 2,000 years into Ptolemaic times by thirty pharaohs, it is a complex mishmash of smaller temples, hypostyles, courts, chapel, pylons, storerooms and living quarters. It even contains a lake.

With this kind of cornucopia, it isn’t surprising that it’s the most visited site in Egypt second only to the Giza pyramids. In its day, it would’ve looked splendid, judging by its colossal scale and whispers of color that still remain. Now, the patina of old age hints at an ancient civilization long gone. I could have walked around here for hours.

At 50,000 sq ft/4,600 sq meters, the Hypostyle Hall is the largest religious building in the world. The largest of its 134 columns is 79ft/24m high with diameters of 10ft/3m, dwarfing mere humans who walk among them. It isn’t an experience easily forgotten. If the roof survived, the interior would have surpassed the greatest religious structures in the world.

Hypostyle Hall

Curiosities of the Temple of Seti I (Abydos, Egypt)

The hypostyle halls were the first I saw in Egypt. For that reason, the Temple of Seti I will have a special place in my memory. What for me conjures up ancient Egypt as much as the Giza Plateau are these halls and their towering and beautifully inscribed columns, bathed in mysterious, diffuse light.

Seti I may principally be known to history as being the father of Rameses II, who overshadowed his father by being the second longest ruling pharaoh in history and the greatest temple builder, but Seti’s temple in Abydos is considered one of the most beautiful and best preserved.

Relief of Isis and the king with djed pillar, Osiris Conplex

Aside from its artistic and design qualities, the temple’s curiosities lingered in my mind longer.

Who’s Who in the Pharaoh Zoo

If it weren’t for king-lists, very little would be known about the chronology of the pharaohs. The most famous one was compiled by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived in Ptolemaic times. His grouping of pharaonic history into dynasties is still used today. I had the opportunity to see the one in Seti’s temple inscribed along one wall of a passage between two halls. If it weren’t for Waleed’s explanation, it would have been just another beautiful wall of inscriptions. The list identifies 76 kings, including the names of pharaohs missing from other lists. However, for political reasons, it also omits the names of others considered illegitimate, some of them notable, including Akhenaton, Tutankhamen and the Hyksos rulers, which contributes to the problem of king-lists as a whole not being entirely consistent.

Abydos king-list

Rotorcraft and Submersibles of Ancient Egypt?

It was something I had to see for myself. Its fame has been circulating in alternative history circles for years. The temple has a controversial bas-relief panel depicting objects that look like modern vehicles, one of which has been called a helicopter. Another looks like a submarine. What in the world! you wonder. The more mundane explanation is that it’s a combination of two layers, the underlying one carved in sandstone, the other carved in an overlay of plaster. On the limestone is inscribed an epithet of Seti I, the plaster, of Rameses II, overlaid in just such a way as to cause a stir today. Fair enough, but why this modification was made only in this spot in the temple and then resemble modern-day conveyances thousands of years later are curious, to say the least. By themselves, the ‘vehicles’ are not hieroglyphs and therefore don’t mean anything other than firing up the imaginations of vimana and ancient alien fans.

But then, what about those Vedic flying ships?

What the L?

Curiously, Seti’s temple is designed in an “L” shape. No other Egyptian temple, before or since, was built in this way, a clear departure from tradition. The thing is, a structure now known as the Osireion was directly behind it. It’s been suggested that the design was changed to make a left turn, so to speak, when Seti uncovered a buried Osireion, but this is unlikely since the central axes of the main temple and Osireion are aligned. It’s likely that Seti didn’t build the Osireion but wanted to incorporate it in an overall temple plan. But the project couldn’t be completed for some reason and the L-shaped revision had to be made.

Mysterious Osireion

The Osireion was another monument I wanted to see. There is something profound about it, the sense of being very old. Seti is regarded as the builder, but its design is completely different from the rest of his temple. As beautifully embellished as the temple is in a classically Egyptian style, in contrast the Osireion is megalithic and austere. It also was constructed 50 feet lower than the level of the main temple in sand saturated with water.

The Osireion

I questioned as others do if the two sections were built at the same time. The Osireion bears much closer resemblance to the Valley Temple of Khafre on the Giza Plateau, which would put its construction date at the latest to the reign of Khafre in the Fourth Dynasty, some 1,300 years earlier. Like the Valley Temple, the central hall consists of massive granite posts and lintels. Granite is found nowhere else in Seti’s temple. The central hall at one time was roofed over by thick granite slabs that are now mostly gone. The stones used in the rest of the Osireion are limestone and sandstone.

Incredibly, the base upon which the central hall sits is over 40 feet high above the bedrock, most of it submerged in water. Did Seti have the time, skill and wherewithal to build the Osireion and its colossal foundation underwater, along with his other building projects in Egypt? Estimates vary but his reign lasted approximately 11 years.

Yet, there are New Kingdom inscriptions on the walls that surround the older structure, including many cartouches of Seti I, which conceivably were added later. The only etchings on the granite are two flower of life symbols on a single post (the source of which is unknown and possibly added in modern times).

Flower of life symbols, Osireion (image enhanced from abdutemple.blogspot.com)

If Seti didn’t build the Osireion, who did? The mysteries surrounding the Osireion to this day don’t have definitive answers. Nevertheless, I was in awe of yet another example of ancient Egyptian achievement that wasn’t diminished for the lack of personal exploration.