Seeing is believing.
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 colossal sizes hint at an accomplished civilization that knew how to manipulate gargantuan stones in ways that defy explanation.
Here’s where the prevailing thinking seems 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 instead a method of transportation and masonry that we haven’t yet discovered or identified? In our scientific and rational age, we tend to think of historical engineering achievements relative to a progressive timeline, from the use of simple tools (Neolithic Age) to today’s advanced industrial technology. 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 enigmas. They don’t look anything like other Egyptian temples that are colonnaded and embellished with beautiful art and hieroglyphs. Rather they have the starkness and aura of great age.
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 connection is the famous statue of him, now at the Cairo Museum, that was found buried in the Valley Temple. (That the statue was beautifully carved from diorite, a very hard igneous rock with a Mohs scale of around 7, is wondrous in itself.)
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 (roughly 2,000 years after Khafre), claims the Sphinx and Valley Temple were built before Khufu, Khafre’s father. If true, the temple’s construction could conceivably be pushed back to pre-dynastic times, or at least the Early Dynastic Period.
Whatever the uncertainty regarding dates, the physical facts 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. 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 attached to the softer rock. Incredibly, they were cut (or manipulated?) to conform to the underlying 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. The technique is quite similar to shaping casing stones over the Great Pyramid’s irregular limestone core blocks.
In addition to the retaining walls, there are two rows of gigantic, parallel granite posts that are topped with equally gigantic lintels.
The workmanship on the granite walls is exquisite, fitting tightly together with seams scarcely able to admit a needle point.
Other incredible features of some stones are their irregular shapes. Some are trapezoidal, others have notches, yet others curve around corners at right angles.
What could possibly be the reason for fashioning stones with odd dimensions? Some suggest it was for earthquake-proofing. It surely wasn’t for simplicity.
When the Temple of Seti I in Abydos was being planned in New Kingdom times, the builders discovered a sunken monument buried in sand, now called the Osireion. How long it had been there was anybody’s guess. In 1902, it was unearthed 50ft below ground by Egyptologists William Flinders Petrie and Margaret Murray. By the looks of it, the monument wasn’t built during Seti’s time, yet the Osireion was incorporated it into the design. Seti built his temple in an entirely different style, classically Egyptian.
The Osireion 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 courtyard. It also is the monument that at its base, depending on the Nile water table, may sit in greenish water, which many of us have seen in pictures (also see below). There is likewise physical evidence that the floor of the Valley Temple saw water. Today, the Osireion looks like an open-air structure. Incredibly it used to be roofed over by two rows of equally thick stone slabs, before they collapsed or were destroyed by a natural catastrophe.
For some reason, visitors are no longer 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.
As far as is known, these two structures are the only ones in Egypt built in this massive post-and-lintel style.
Both monuments 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. Echoes of a common stone-working technology seem to reverberate across the ocean.
And, for good measure:
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.
One wall of the Osireion shows the same kind of nubs.
What’s intriguing is that this same stone feature is found abundantly in 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. 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. Could they be the by-product of an undiscovered process?
What’s intriguing is that nubs like these also appear on stone in India, China, Japan, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere, including Micronesia. Likewise, ancient megalithic construction, analogous to the Valley Temple and Osireion, shows up across the globe, the most humongous being in Lebanon.
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 has been lost to us long ago. Our current global, cross-pollinating culture was not the first in human history, it seems.
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. But from plentiful circumstantial evidence (from the fields of geology, astronomy, geometry, written and oral history, lichenometry, masonry), the ancients had a level of sophisticated knowledge and technologies for which we give them little credit and which we cannot satisfactorily explain.