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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.