Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Last of the ancient wonders

For thousands of years, the riddle of the Pyramids has puzzled observers. Assem Deif* looks to the skies for an answer

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Giza Pyramids; Pyramids text; Egyptian deity; canopic jars

Speaking of Egypt, it is the Pyramids that spring to mind. Their grandeur, their mystery and their architecture have caused more debate than any other structure on Earth. Since the time of Herodotus geographers and historians have tried to solve their riddles. The Great Pyramid of Khufu, in particular, has a design so striking that some thought only a deity could have created it. No wonder it was listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Despite their size, the precise number of pyramids in Egypt remains unknown. Pyramidal structures that were demolished or hidden under the sand are constantly being found, and Egyptologists now put their number at about 100. There are thought to be some 28 pyramid complexes dating from the third to the sixth dynasties, all standing along a narrow stretch of the desert from Abu Ruwash south to Meidum. No two of them, whether from their external appearance or their internal system, are alike.

One can divide the pyramids of Egypt into geographical groups. Ten groups are at the ancient city of Memphis. Others are at Abu Ruwash, the Giza Plateau, Abu Sir, Saqqara, Dahshour (in which lie the two pyramids of Sneferu, Khufu's father and founder of the Fourth Dynasty) and finally Meidum, which probably also belonged to Sneferu although its construction began in the reign of his father, Huni. A further few pyramids are found in Upper Egypt.

Historians and Egyptologists have come up with a unified theory explaining how and why pyramids were built, but they differ on both issues. They cannot explain, either, why they were not erected in one centralised place instead of being dispersed.

Why did the builders choose the pyramidal shape? Some Egyptologists refer to it as a solar symbol with a similarity to sunrays, linking the Pharaoh with his home the sun. This view was put forward by Alexander Moret, who said: "The beams of the sun pierce the clouds and let down to earth a ladder of rays." Others emphasised the merit of the number four in reference to the four corners and faces of a quadrilateral pyramid. The number had a sacred nature in most of ancient mythologies. It refers to the number of cardinal points, the four elements from which the universe is composed (water, earth, air and fire), the children of Nut and the sons of Horus, the names of which match with the four canopic jars containing the viscera of the deceased. In Egyptian mythology, however, one can always find enough pretexts to ascertain the divinity of any number.

Egyptologists finally decided that the pyramidal shape was no more than the ben-ben stone on a giant scale. The ben-ben once surmounted the pillar of Atum in the Sun Temple of the Phoenix at Heliopolis; it was considered the "divine seed" of the prodigal cosmic bird. It was suggested that the relic was a meteorite that had fallen from heaven and was considered sacred. A small pyramidion was placed on the top of all obelisks and pyramids.

It is not difficult to find the reason for the pyramidal shape. The structure represents just one point in the long continuum of the evolution of tomb design that began with the mastaba shape in the pre-dynastic era, followed by the layered mastabas of the Step Pyramid, Sneferu's Pyramid at Meidum -- a step pyramid like Djoser's but superimposed with a second pyramid of eight steps -- and then by a third building phase whereby it was transformed into the pyramid type we know now. The last was the outcome of a series of experimental trials to reach the optimal shape of the Fourth Dynasty.

Pyramids are a natural shape. The design is simple; they are easily built, aesthetically pleasing, and stable, especially in buildings of great height. Thus from an engineering standpoint the pyramid shape makes sense, and above all has the advantage of satisfying man's basic need to imitate familiar hills and mountains. This explains why pyramids are so common throughout the world, without entailing cultural contact.

Again, if the pyramids were meant to be tombs, as we shall see in a while, and considering that the ancient Egyptians' religion was a sun-cult as well as a star-cult; associating the king's rebirth with the Sun (Ra), Orion (Osiris) and Sirius (Sothis), with whom the king is united after death, then the Egyptians would need to erect their tombs in the form of a pyramid in order to receive the maximum amount of rays, or blessings, falling from these three gods as they traverse the sky. However, the first rises in the east while the second and third culminate due south; so by adding further steps to the early mastaba the ancients ended up with a pyramidal shape able to maximise the rays. One can also say that, from the ideological point of view, the evolution from the mastaba to the Step Pyramid, i.e. from primordial mound of the Sun to a celestial ladder to the stars, reflects the increased importance of the stellar destiny or terminus of the divine king. This is exemplified in the Pyramid Texts found at Saqqara. Here is a passage taken from the pyramid of the Sixth-Dynasty king Pepi I, in which the gods Horus and Seth are urged to help the king by taking him by the hand and leading him to the sky to sit among the stars. Eventually, the king becomes a star:

"Who shall live lives by the gods' command. You shall live! You shall rise with Orion in the eastern sky. You shall set with Orion in the western sky. Your third is Sothis, pure of thrones. She is your guide on the sky's good paths."

While Egyptologists take the view that the pyramids served as tombs, others claim they were stellar observatories or stores of hidden knowledge. Those in favour of the latter view ask why a king like Sneferu would want to build two tombs. Another king, Amenemhet III, had two pyramids built for himself, one at Dahshour containing a granite sarcophagus and one at Hawara containing a quartzite sarcophagus. Were the pyramids meant not as literal tombs, but rather cenotaphs?

Again, there is more than one incident in which the sarcophagi of kings and queens were discovered inside their pyramids. The wooden sarcophagus of Menkaura of the Fouth Dynasty, was found in the third pyramid in the Giza Plateau with remains, presumably of the king, still in place. The cover bore the sentence "Osiris, the king of Lower and Upper Egypt, Menkaura, son of Nout and the descendant of Geb and his beloved, you shall have an eternal life." The mummy of Queen Ipwet, mother of Pepi I, was found in her burial chamber. The thieves did not waste time with opening the sarcophagus. They dug a hole to steal the contents but left her coffin intact inside a second wooden sarcophagus, her bracelet still on her right arm along with parts of her necklace. And while Queen Hetepheres's sarcophagus in a subsidiary pyramid at Giza was empty, the canopic jars containing her viscera were still in place among her intact funerary items.

The view that the pyramids were tombs was therefore endorsed by a number of scholars. Some suggested the pyramids had sloping sides so the dead Pharaoh could symbolically climb to the sky and live forever. They even inferred that the mastaba structure of the Step Pyramid, the first known pyramid, was a symbolic staircase. The Bible says: 'Let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven.' Although this refers to the gardens of Babylon, the concept is the same.

Yet the pyramids represent only one element in the pyramid complex. Others included small pyramids for queens, a mortuary temple, a valley temple connected by a causeway, offering shrines, funerary boat pits and mastaba tombs for family members and nobles. The walled complex constituted only one part of an integrated necropolis, and its location was another indication that the pyramid was intended as a tomb.

According to Breasted, the Papyrus of Abbott describes regular inspections of sepulchres of former kings in the reign of Ramses IX. A report on the pyramid of Sobekemsaf II of the 17th Dynasty stated: "It was found that the thieves had broken into it... The burial place of the king was found void of the king as well as the burial place of the king's wife Nubkhas; the thieves having laid their hand upon them."

Thus it was usual to consider the pyramids as tombs for kings, not as temples for worshipping the god Osiris, or granaries, or even stellar observatories. But why did the ancient Egyptians build such huge monuments if they were meant only as tombs? Did they really need to erect a structure 147m high to bury a king? Did it stem from the depth of their religion? Herodotus (485- 425 BC) had a say on this:

"The Egyptians are religious to excess beyond any other nation in the world... they are meticulous in everything which concerns their religion... It was only the day before yesterday that the Greeks came to know the origin and form of the various gods... The names of all the gods came to Greece from Egypt..."

An ancient Egyptian would never call the dead "deceased", but rather the "glorified" or, according to the Christian Egyptians of today, "the groom [or bride] of heaven". One experiences not life and afterlife, but a first and second life. Life is a transitory period, whereas the second life is eternal and worth making an effort for.

People obsessed with the afterlife would clearly consider that a private tomb was not less important than a house, and perhaps more. Mud- brick for the transitory lifetime, stone for the eternal afterlife. We cannot locate the palaces of the Pharaohs, yet their pyramids and temples have endured the ravages of time. Khufu's son Hardjedef expressed it neatly: 'The house of death is for life.' Nor were the men who built the pyramids slaves, as was once thought, but contributors to the house of eternity for their divine ruler, the manifestation of the gods on earth. "Set up for me a tower that I may ascend to Moses's God..." the Pharaoh told the envoy sent by Moses. "I am your supreme god." This quotation from the Quran suggests that even in the time of Moses, long after pyramid building had ceased, their original use was remembered.

All Egyptologists agree that the pyramids were intended as places of ascension and transformation of the king's soul. Khufu called his pyramid akhet, meaning the place of becoming an akh (spirit) . This is verified in the Pyramid Texts, funerary inscriptions serving as resurrection rituals that adorn the interior of several Old Kingdom pyramids. Egyptologists consider them the oldest collection of sacred texts known to us from ancient Egypt, if not the whole world, and put their number to 800 spells covering some 4,000 lines, according to Maspero who first collected them and Faulkner who translated them in 1969. The passages found in the Pyramid Texts suggest that they eventually evolved into the Coffin Texts and later in the Book of Going Forth by Day, known as the Book of the Dead, which was placed with the deceased. It was remarked that no single pyramid ever contained the whole collection of spells. Altogether there are some 10 pyramids containing Pyramid Texts, the earliest texts being at Saqqara in the pyramids of Unas and Teti where some 227 spells were found in the first pyramid alone. The pyramids built prior to these dates were puzzling monuments, revealing a little information; which led Maspero to announce in 1880, after entering the first to contain texts: "Thus spoke the dumb pyramids."

The main theme of the texts is the king's resurrection in the afterworld by identifying himself with the god Osiris, lord of the underworld. Whether the king boards the sun-boat of Ra or reaches the sky by flying like a bird or climbing a ladder, all texts emphasise one common theme: his eternal afterlife. In other words, the texts provide every possible service to the deceased king on his ascent and his reception in the world of the divine. This excerpt from the pyramid of Unas expresses a plea for the king to overcome death:

"Unas lives! He is not dead! He has not been judged! He judges! You have gone alive to sit on the throne of Osiris. You are to purify yourself with the cool water of the stars, and you will climb down upon ropes of brass, on the arms of Horus, the imperishable stars have carried you. Enter then into the place where your father is, where Geb is! Your son comes to you, both of you may stride over the sky, united in darkness, that you may rise on the horizon in the place where you like to be... The messengers of Ra have come to you. Go after your sun! ..."

The tomb was seen as an instrument of rebirth where the king's body entered into the starry body of Nut in the west so that he might be resurrected, like Ra, on the eastern horizon. The texts on the north and south walls begin in the west and read to the east; i.e. in accordance with the daily movement of the Sun, which "dies" in the west and is "reborn" in the east. According to J Allen, the direction of the texts matches the soul's path through the tomb, moving from the innermost part of the sarcophagus chamber in the west ( duat ) through the antechamber ( akhet ) to the outside of the pyramid, then flying through the corridors to be released into the light ("Going Forth by Day") to the northern circumpolar stars. The spells consequently fall into three main groups with their location dictated by their functions: offering and insignia spells on the north wall of the burial chamber; resurrection spells on its south wall and finally mourning spells in eastern locations in order to awaken the deceased. The Pyramid Texts represent the boundaries of the cosmos, whereas the movement from south to north is only an imitation of the Nile stream.

This layout of the tomb complex is equally valid for the Great Pyramid. While in the Fourth Dynasty no spells were inscribed on the walls, the arrangement of the chamber systems portrayed the same architectural metaphors. This led some authors to propose that Khufu's Pyramid was the Book of the Dead symbolised in stones.

From the Fourth Dynasty, the king was addressed as "Son of Ra". Other names were Ntr and Nfr, meaning the complete god. Sometimes he was called Horus or Khunum. When the king died the godhead passed to the next reigning king, whereas his ba (soul) was united with Osiris, Horus's divine father. So while Horus was the ruler in the land of the living, Osiris ruled the land of the dead.

From earliest times the ancient Egyptian religion was both a sun-cult and a star-cult. Like Horus, Ra was god of the living. According to I E S Edwards, Ra and Osiris shared a common feature: Osiris was brought back to life after being murdered by his brother Seth, while Ra disappeared daily beneath the western horizon but was reborn each morning. In these two events the ancient Egyptians found reason to hope for their own survival.

In trying to reach a unified theory on the issue of the afterlife in ancient Egypt, scientists reached vague and ambiguous conclusions. They speak of a star-destiny in which the king is transformed into an eternal star, and a solar destiny in which he followed the god Ra to be reborn likewise, and finally an Osiris destiny in which he impersonated Osiris and was resurrected. It seems to me that this misses the point. According to the Pyramid Texts, he also frequents other places or is transformed into other gods. Eventually he achieves a kind of unification with the cosmos. Ancient Egypt, as Thomas Mann remarked, is a country where "the gods die and the dead are gods", which applied to Ra and Osiris and equally to the stars. Eternity was therefore the diffusion into the whole of the universe.

* The writer is a professor of mathematics at Cairo University and MISR University for Sciences and Technology.

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