Pythagoras Rides Again
The development of orthodox Egyptology in the historical context
The earliest recorded account of Egypt comes to us from the Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt around 500 BC, when it was already well into its decline. Though much that he wrote has proven true, much is evidently fancy; Herodotus indiscriminately reports as truth tales told to him by an ancient version of tourist guides, whom he mistook for temple priests.
Like so many travellers after him, Herodotus marvelled at the sights. But neither he nor anyone following had access to those responsible for their construction. Throughout history, then, visitors to Egypt have recorded their impressions according to personal interpretation. But the exact nature of Egyptian knowledge, locked as it was in the impenetrable hieroglyphs, could not help but remain a mystery. Modern Egyptologists insist with justice that no possibility of understanding Egypt existed until the hieroglyphs were deciphered.
In the late eighteenth century, Napoleon invaded Eygpt armed with scholars as well as soldiers, determined to solve the mystery as well as to build an empire. Accounts of his discoveries, illustrated with fine, accurately rendered drawings, made Egyptian civilisation known to a European public for the first time and interest ran high as gifted scholars pitted their wits against the hieroglyphs. But it was not until 1822, nearly thirty years after Napoleon's campaign, that a key was found.
Jean François Champollion was convinced, at the age of twelve, that he would decipher the hieroglyphs. He set out to master all the languages, ancient and modern, that he believed would lead to this goal. The solution was provided by the Rosetta Stone, a Ptolemaic relic upon which the same inscription was recorded in hieroglyphs, demotic (a sort of shorthand or vernacular form of the hieroglyphs) and Greek. Working back through the Greek into the hieroglyphs, Champollion was eventually led to the answer or, rather, a partial answer. Egyptology was born.
Prior to Champollion's discovery, many scholars worked upon the reasonable assumption that a civilisation capable of such works must have had a high order of knowledge. Some made sound observations that were subsequently forgotten or neglected in the face of the apparently boastful, repetitive, banal and incoherent nature of the translated hieroglyphs.
The early translations stand in such striking contrast to the works themselves that it is hard to believe so few scholars should have stopped to question the paradox. But it is, of course, impossible to 'prove' a masterpiece. Those who understand, understand. Emotional and psychological factors, more than science, combined to make modern Egyptology.
MacDonald, 1973, p. 95
How did the Egyptians build an immense structure like this [the pyramids]? We do not know all the details even now. It is clear from what remains that they used huge limestone blocks, but there are still problems over how they managed to slide one block across another, and of the way in which the walls and ceiling of the inner chamber are supported ... Obviously they used a block and tackle to lift the blocks, but even so the precise method of getting objects so large and heavy up hundreds of feet without a tall crane to help them is uncertain, while their technique of supporting the internal blocks is completely unknown.
J. P. Lauer
Le Problème des Pyramides d'Egypte
Payot, 1952, pp. 186 and 190
From the astronomical point of view, the single unarguable fact ... is the extreme care taken in the orientation. The most extraordinary result is found at the pyramid of Cheops, but the precision is scarcely less with Chephren and Mycerinus ... Such close approximations repeated by many buildings cannot be accidental, and bear witness to certain astronomical knowledge ...
From the mathematical point of view, the study of the pyramids, and especially the great pyramid reveals very remarkable geometrical properties as well as numerical rapports that deserve attention. But the whole problem that this poses is to establish the extent to which the builders were aware of these properties.
The pyramids and pyramidology
Of all the monuments of Egypt, the pyramids have always provoked the keenest interest and wildest theories. Generations of Egyptologists have stolidly declared that the pyramids were built for the most trivial and misconceived motives, that their dimensions and proportions are accidents, and that their bulk is no more than an instance of pharaonic egomania. Yet the layman remains unconvinced, and anything smacking of mystery continues to excite attention.
Ancient sources reported that the pyramids, and the Great Pyramid of Cheops in particular, were built to embody in their dimensions and proportions a wealth of astronomical, mathematical, geographic and geodesic data. (Geodesy: the branch of applied mathematics which determines the figures and areas of the earth's surface.)
One of Napoleon's scholars, Edmé-François Jomard, was particularly intrigued by this theory. But while certain of his calculations seemed to bear out the idea, others did not jibe. Accurate measuring of the pyramid overall was then impossible due to the sand and debris around the base, and — as is generally the case in science — those data that supported prevailing orthodox theory were retained, while those that were embarrassing were ignored.
In England, however, Jomard's ideas were taken up by an amateur astronomer, mathematician and religious zealot, John Taylor, who found many astonishing coincidences between the measurements and proportions of the pyramids and the then but recently verified modern measurements of the earth. He could not attribute this to chance. As a fundamentalist, however, Taylor believed in the literal truth of the Bible, and could not bring himself to attribute such knowledge to the ancient Egyptians — a race much abused in the Old Testament (though Moses learned his wisdom at the court of the pharaoh by Biblical account). Given his fundamentalism, Taylor had no choice but to call in direct divine intervention, and the pseudoscience of 'pyramidology' was born.
Dr. Kurt Mendelssohn
The Riddle of the Pyramids
Thames & Hudson, 1974, passim
The most obvious reason is believed to have been a religious one, and based on the self-interest of the individual. We know far too little about the spiritual concepts prevailing 5000 years ago to say exactly what motivated the average Egyptian farmer to give his time and labour to pyramid construction ... [Dr. Mendelssohn supports the view that the problems of policing and guarding would have made it impossible to build the pyramids with forced or slave labour, therefore the work must have been done voluntarily.] We may say that the resurrection of the pharaoh, ensured by a suitable burial, was essential for the afterlife of the common man ... Altogether one begins to wonder whether esoteric religious concepts were really more important in bringing about the pyramid age than such down-to-earth issues as assured food and a new dimension in neighbourliness ... After four centuries of fitful attempts at unification and internal strife, the stage had finally been reached when the gods, Horus and Seth, were finally at peace ... The stage was set for the next great step in the development of human society, the creation of the state. The pyramid was going to provide the means of achieving it.
Once it is realised that the main object of pyramid construction was a work programme leading to a new social order, the religious meaning and ritual importance of the pyramids recede into the background. If anything these manmade mountains are a monument to the progress of man into a new pattern of life, the national state, which was to become his social home for the next 5000 years.
The state as created by the Fourth Dynasty was the nucleus from which, through an infinite variety of expansions, mankind has progressed to its present form. Author's italics. [Dr. Mendelssohn received his Ph.D. in Physics from Berlin University in 1933, an ideal time and place at which to learn that the national state represented the apogee of progress. Author's note.]
Though Taylor initially found few devotees, his ideas came before the Astronomer-Royal of Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth. Smyth set out for Egypt to confirm Taylor's thesis. His measurements on site were by far the most precise to date, and again confirmed the hypothesis that the ancient Egyptians had precise advanced astronomical, mathematical and geodesic knowledge, which was embodied in a magnificent system of related weights and measures, whose remnants were still in wide use the world over in the form of bushels, gallons, acres and other measures.
But, as avid a fundamentalist as Taylor, Piazzi Smyth could not credit the Egyptians with high learning; he, too, had recourse to divinity. Shortly thereafter, another religious enthusiast, Robert Menzies, proposed that the passage system of the Great Pyramid was intended as a system of prophecy from which the date of the Second Coming might be deduced. And at that point, pyramidology became a zealot's playground. Curious as it may now seem, the Anglo-Israelite theory (that the British were descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel) was one upon which many educated Victorians, not otherwise bereft of sense, spent much time and thought. Pyramidology was a hotly contested intellectual issue.
But in Smyth's ostensibly scientific context, the theory stood or fell upon the validity of the 'pyramid inch', a measure invented by Smyth and manifested in no other Egyptian monument or metric device. When this was disproved by the still more exacting measurements of W. M. Flinders Petrie, the theory was undermined, though enthusiasts continued to read more and more detailed prophecies into the king's chamber. With the advent of the space age, spiritual descendants of the pyramidologists (Erich Von Danikin is the least credible, hence most successful of these) continue to propose new and fantastic uses for the pyramids: they served as landing pads for space ships or were protective baffles for ancient scientists tapping the energy of the Van Allen belt.
Needless to say, these theories are backed by no concrete evidence. But if lack of evidence constitutes the criterion for judging the crankiness of any given theory, then there is one theory crankier than all the fantasising of the pyramidologists and the UFO freaks. This is the theory that the great pyramids were built as tombs, and as tombs only.
Mysteries of the Mexican Pyramids
Harper & Row, 1976, p. 256
As the numbers 1296 and 864 were the key to unravelling the astronomical and geodetic secrets of the Great Pyramid, they may in due course resolve the mysteries of the Mesoamerican pyramids.
Is it a coincidence that a circle of 1,296,000 units has a radius of 206, 265 units and that 20, 6264 is the length of both an English and an Egyptian cubit, that the Hebrew shekel weighs 129.6 grams, and the English guinea 129.6 grains, and the measure of the Most Holy in Solomon's Temple is 1296 inches?
Not only was the number 1,296,000 the numerical basis for astronomical measurements as far back as the records are traceable, it was also the favorite number in Plato's mystic symbolism.
In support of this theory there is no direct or indirect evidence whatsoever. While the numerous small pyramids of Middle and Late Kingdom Egypt were clearly and obviously designed as tombs, and have disclosed a wealth of mummies and coffins, the eight 'great' pyramids assigned to the Third and Fourth Dynasties of the Old Kingdom have revealed no sign of either coffin or mummy. The construction of these vast edifices differs in every way from the later tombs. The curious, slanting passageways could not possibly be less conducive to the elaborate funerary rituals for which Egypt was famed. The stark interiors of the 'tomb chambers' stand in vivid contrast to the lavishly inscribed and carved chambers of later Egypt. In addition, the eight great pyramids are believed to have been built over the reigns of three pharaohs (though this is disputed due to the lack of direct evidence attributing these pyramids to specific pharaohs). In any case, it works out at more than one great pyramid per pharaoh, inviting speculation of multiple burials for a king.
Egyptologists, and following them historians, refuse to entertain the possible validity of alternatives to the 'tombs only' theory, no matter how well supported. What, then, is the appeal of this undocumented, unlikely and indefensible hypothesis?
I believe it is that it is prosaic and trivial. In Egyptology, as in so many modern disciplines, all questions are believed to have 'rational' answers. If no evidence is available to provide a rational answer, the customary solution is to trivialise the mystery. In many academic circles triviality is a synonym for reason.
Given this passion for trivialisation, the unsubstantiated claims of the pyramidologists had serious repercussions.
Throughout the development of Egyptology, from Jomard on, qualified, serious and sane scholars have challenged the prevailing preconceptions and the widespread determination to regard the Egyptians as primitives. Biot, Lockyer and Proctor, professional astronomers, put forward solid theories attesting to a high order of Egyptian astronomical knowledge. Lockyer — who was derided for proposing that Stonehenge was built as an astronomical instrument — showed how the pyramids might have served practically to gather precise astronomical data.
In many other fields, specialists also attested to high Egyptian knowledge. But the sensational claims of Smyth, Menzies, and their successors stole the spotlight, and allowed orthodox Egyptologists to tar any and all dissenting theories with the brush of pyramidology. The provocative speculations of Lockyer and others were ignored.
Meanwhile, Darwin's theory of evolution had been published.
When Egyptology began, most scholars, as dutiful sons of the Enlightenment, were atheists, materialists or only nominally religious. Most were convinced they represented an apogee of civilisation. But the process was not yet regarded as inevitable and automatic; the most renowned intellects of the time did not yet regard themselves as advanced apes. It was not yet heretical to suggest that ancient people had actually known something.
L. E. Orgel
Origins of Life
Chapman and Hall, passim, 1973
There are of course enormous gaps in our knowledge, but I believe the origins of life can now be discussed fruitfully within the framework of modern chemistry and evolutionary biology. It must be admitted from the beginning that the way in which condensation reactions occurred on the primitive earth is not understood ... It is the enormous gap that must be bridged between the most complicated inorganic objects and these simplest living organisms that provides most of the intellectual challenge of the problem of the origin of life ... We know very little about the chemistry of the organisms that lived on earth three billion years ago ... The conditions that existed on the primitive earth are very different from those that are usually used by organic chemists. Although many of the constituents of cells can be synthesised in the laboratory, a few of the most important cannot yet be made under prebiotic conditions. It is even harder to join the simple organic molecules together to form polymers similar to proteins and nucleic acids.
Consequently, a great deal of work will have to be done before we can propose a single complete theory of the origin of life and show by experiment that each step could have occurred on the primitive earth ... We do not understand much about the later stages in the evolution of the code. We do not know whether the structure of the code is an historical accident or not ... The genetic code is the result of an elaborate series of adaptations ... Virtually nothing is known about the successive steps in this adaptation ... We have seen that the idea of natural selection is a very simple one and that it completely eliminates the need to postulate any internal or external 'will' that directs evolution ... Today, to many biologists, the law of natural selection seems almost a tautology.
But as the theory of evolution became dogma, it became (and remains) impossible to attribute exact knowledge to ancient cultures without undermining the faith in progress. Thus, lumped in with the pyramidologists, incapable of supporting sound insight with ironclad proof, the many early Egyptologists who were men of breadth and vision gradually lost ground. In retrospect, this can be seen as inevitable.