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The Great Pyramid of Giza: History and Speculation

The Great Pyramid of Giza: History and Speculation

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by James Bonwick

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Classic exploration of the Great Pyramid's construction and objectives combines imagination, erudition. Physical form; when it was built, and by whom; roles as an astronomical observatory, source of inspiration for religious teachings, scientific and mystic implications. Unabridged republication of the classic 1877 edition.


Classic exploration of the Great Pyramid's construction and objectives combines imagination, erudition. Physical form; when it was built, and by whom; roles as an astronomical observatory, source of inspiration for religious teachings, scientific and mystic implications. Unabridged republication of the classic 1877 edition.

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The Great Pyramid of Giza

History and Speculation

By James Bonwick

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-16992-7



Every one knows that the Great Pyramid has a square base and four triangular faces or sides, though not coming quite to a point at the top. Julius Solinus tells the world that "the pyramids are sharp-pointed towers in Egypt, exceeding all height which may be made by man." Ammianus Marcellinus echoes the same idea, saying, "the pyramids are towers erected altogether exceeding the height which may be made by man. In the bottom they are broadest, ending in sharp points at the top, which figure is, therefore, by geometricians called pyramidal." Propertius talked of their leading up to the stars.

While astonishing the ancients by its vast dimensions, the pyramid failed to excite much interest further in the minds of Greek and Roman writers. Some moderns are hardly astonished at it any way. Major Furlong merely calculates that it would now cost a million of pounds to build. M. Grobert, artillery officer under Bonaparte in Egypt, could not understand the fuss a few savans made about it. In his official report, he says, "Travellers have not entertained their readers about these pyramids. Their construction is rude and not very remarkable." Denon, who brought out, under Napoleon Bonaparte's patronage, the most magnificent work ever published on Egypt, was just sufficiently interested in the subject to acknowledge in his book, "We had only two hours to be at the pyramids."

Yet there are others who look upon the edifice as an echo of the Past. Every stone in the fabric has a weird look. The very outline seems to melt into the blue sky against which it reposes. On it, around it, and within it, the spiritual eye sees forms not now of earth. The ear is supernaturally quickened, and the heart pulses in sympathy with the men that were, and are. It is not the object of undefined dread, but of nameless soul attraction. To such enthusiasts the pyramid is alive; and they wait anxiously for expected revelations from it.

Those there have been, and still are, who regard that building as suggesting what it did to the Cambridge Christian Advocate, Mr. Hardwick:—"There if ever," says he, "we may hope to find the master-clue which is to guide us through the intricacies of primæval history, reveal afresh the hopes and fears which then were struggling in the human bosom, and resolve for us, it may be, many an arduous problem which concerns the origin, the early wanderings, and the final destiny of man."

For the present we have to dismiss romance and sentiment, and discuss the material question of the pyramid itself.

Strong as it is—the embodiment of strength—it is not everlasting. The elements may prove to be kinder than man. The almost cloudless skies of Egypt have smiled upon the ruins of the old land, as if cherishing the remains of what the destroying hand of man has spared. As contending sects in the primitive days of Christendom not only destroyed life, but the books of the opposite party, so rising dynasties of Egypt have sought revenge in the destruction of edifices erected by their adversaries. Every change of religion has meant the mutilation of art symbols. The god dethroned spiritually beheld his very name removed from monuments.

It has been the habit to abuse the Turk for the ruin of ruins in Egypt. History does not substantiate the charge. The cultured Semitic race, the Saracens, are more open to the reproof. Turkish pashas have ruled since Western European travellers visited the Nile; and not until the days of Mehemet Ali, of the European Albanian race, were these devastations known to any great extent. Mr. Gliddon declares that "until 1820 little injury had been done to the ruins." And this Vandalism has followed the presumed law of progress. The crushing of these glorious trophies of ancient civilisation has been in accordance with Western Ideas. Money was to be made. Money must be made. Money can be made by the breaking up of temples, and the using of their stones for sugar factories. And the progressive and much-extolled pasha broke up the temples and raised the sugar-houses.

In the sad lament of Mr. Gliddon, and his appeal to the really civilised for moral help against the barbarian, we read that three temples went to build the the factory of Esné, a part of Dendera temple for a saltpetre factory, the temple of Abydos for a bridge, the temple of Latou for a quay, and that the very chambers of the Nilometer were invaded. The temple of Syene then disappeared. The sixty-six steps which remained of the noble staircase of Elephantine were then missed. The foot of the great pyramid was a quarry for this Albanian utilitarian. "Twenty years ago," said Mr. Gliddon in 1842, that neighbourhood "abounded in legends and tablets, supplying many vacuums in history; scarcely one remains."

The very pyramid itself stood in danger. Mehemet Ali, in 1835, proposed to level it, for the sake of the blocks of stone. He only desisted from the undertaking on learning that it would be cheaper to quarry in the hill nearer Cairo. An Arab, about the year 1100, bitterly lamented that "vile and unhappy men" had broken some of the stones of the pyramids, making, as he expressed it, "all see baseness and their sordid cupidity." M. Rénan may well thus cry out in alarm, "The work of Cheops runs now greater dangers than it has encountered for 6000 years!"

A donkey ride of half an hour, or less, from that palace of comfort, "Shepheard's Hotel," brings one to the Nile bank at Old Cairo, Fostat, or Babylon. Tradition says that the great Sesostris, whoever he was, brought captives from Babylon to settle there, or build the city. It is a little beyond the interesting suburb of Boulaq, where the indefatigable and intelligent Mariette Bey has established his wonderful Egyptian Museum, till better quarters, long since promised, can be provided,

Cairo is one of the most delightful of residences, with a climate most enjoyable and healthful during the greater part of the year. In spite of certain oriental squalor, clinging to oriental romances everywhere, it is a city of palaces and luxury. The European element has long dominated in its architecture and customs, though these are mostly French, as they are Italian in Alexandria. Money can there procure every Parisian indulgence, and gratify every sensual desire. The place is fast becoming popular with the English, who are more admired by the natives than other foreigners, because reputed more liberal in payment and more true to promise. Again and again has the writer heard the wish expressed that the English, and not the Khedive, ruled in the land.

Egypt under the English would recover its lost dominion. In India we have learned, at last, and to some appreciable extent, how to govern native races. The Turks in 400 years made small progress in the work. We have had but 200 years to learn the lesson, and have, according to some, made little advance. While condemning the Turk for despising the simple fellah of Egypt, the wily Greek, and the stolid Bulgarian, it is not for us to throw the stone while our Christian and educated countrymen in India call high-class Brahmins and other refined Hindoos by the contemptuous name of Niggers. It marks no more conciliatory policy.

Perhaps there is not a people anywhere more hopeful than the Egyptian. He is industrious, he loves the soil, he is patient, he is teachable, he is intelligent, and he is grateful for kindness. More than all, he has the blood of a noble ancestry. He is the offspring of a wonderful, though by-gone, civilisation. The oppression of foreigners for 2500 years has failed to crush his spirit, which seems as merry, buoyant, and free as the 5000 years old pictures display it to have been.

Professedly Mahometan, but never bigoted, they accepted the faith of Mahomet when conquered by Saracens from Arabia, as they submitted to bow to the Cross when commanded by Christian authorities. Passive obedience has been the distinguishing trait of the Egyptians from the earliest of times. Who can tell what changes for the better will come from the government of the energetic, self-willed, self-impressing, progressive Englishman?

What a future for Africa to contemplate, should Egypt be our colony in the north, as the Cape in the south?

But dismounting from the Pegasus of imagination, let us look at the pyramid in the most prosaic light.

It is of stone,—granite, marble, and limestone. The granite and marble are for the lining of passages and chambers. The main structure is of nummulitic limestone. This is generally called of Eocene tertiary age. There was an ancient period when a vast deep sea received an immense deposit, during untold thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years. It consisted of sandy débris of older rocks, with limestone concretions; life, coralline and molluscous, existed in those warm waters. Gathering lime homes of various kinds, the animals took them to their graves in the oozy mud, and Time bound the whole as stone, and brought up the sea bottom to be a home for newborn men, from the pillars of Hercules to beyond the Indus. The empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, of the Saracen, the Turk, the Moor, the Crusader, and the Pope have rested on this rock of history. The Babe of Bethlehem slept on it; the pyramid of Gizeh was built of it.

The fossil life of the stone is marvellous, millions of tenements of beings are therein crowded to a cubic inch or so. Some of the larger concretions puzzled Herodotus. He settled it that they were the petrified date-stones of the workmen. He was equally right in his testimony that outside was a record of the expenditure of 1,600 talents for onions, &c., provided for the workmen. But both stories are susceptible of another interpretation. The granite, doubtless, comes from Elephantine and Syene on the Upper Nile; as the alabaster from the Khalil mountains, towards the Red Sea. The pyramid stones contain 0·95 carbonate of lime, 0·04 of alumina, and ·01 of oxide of iron. The Libyan hill on which the building stands is of that stone.


In front of the pyramid is a singular trench, which seems to have escaped the observation of most travellers. Dr. Richardson, in 1816, first drew attention to it, saying, "There is a broad deep trench cut in the rock at the middle of the east front of the large pyramid, and running parallel with it. It is rather broader than a carriage road; it descends toward the middle from each end, and resembles a carriage entrance to and from a pond. It is half full of sand, and is entered on the east side by a channel like a canal for the conveyance of water." He adds, "I am disposed to consider this is the channel by which the water of the Nile entered the pyramid."

Mr. Agnew describes two trenches, north and south, and both parallel to the pyramid. He notices a third hollow, pointing to the causeway, and extending for 198 feet. The other two were equal to it in length. Sir Edmund Beckett, in his valuable architectural work of 1876, speaks of trenches in the rock of the pyramid at an angle of 51° 50'; as he says, "apparently as models for the slopes on so large a scale as to avoid the risk of error." He thinks the men would find out the slope of the face, "and work stones by a template, setting them by a longer template or level with a plumbline to it."


Herodotus has a long story about the causeway, or raised road, by which stones, ready prepared, as in the case of the Jerusalem temple, could be brought from the river to the site; the base level being 140 feet above the upper cubit of the Nilometer at Rouda, or Rhodda, that is, about 130 feet above the valley of the Nile. This was said to have occupied ten years in the construction, and to have been faced or cased with stone, and adorned with hieroglyphics. It was five stadia long. What was a stadium? Some say 600 feet; a French authority gives 610 feet; Mr. Agnew says 603. This would make it over 3,000 feet long.

Diodorus wrote that it had disappeared in his day. It is only another proof of Greek inaccuracy. Professing to see, he gave only what he heard. Mr. John Greaves, Oxford Professor of Astronomy in 1637, believed the Greek historian, and did not look; contenting himself with, "there is nothing now remaining." Norden, the Dane, was there just a hundred years after, and noticed what he called the bridge; "There remains still a sufficiently considerable part of that admirable bridge to form a just idea of its whole structure, and of the use they made of it. There are likewise at the end of the third pyramid some remains of another bridge."

Pococke saw and described its ruins. An earlier foreigner gives an account of the remnant of this causeway, which he traced toward the Nile for 1,500 feet, when it was lost in the alluvium. But while he, too, observed traces of one leading to the third pyramid, he says nothing of one to the second. Richardson, when noting it, deemed that it was the road constructed by Saladin when he stripped the outer covering of the pyramid for his buildings in Cairo. Modern authorities conclude that it may be traced E.N.E. of the pyramid for 1,200 feet. Agnew expresses this opinion :—"I believe this great causeway led up to the eastern side of the great pyramid, and terminated in front, at 159 feet from the base, or at the eastern range of the circle describable about the base."


One reputed architect has informed the world that the whole was constructed of pisé. Water, by elaborate machinery, was led up to the required heights to mix with the sand, &c., to set in blocks of the needed size, and formed themselves tier by tier in the moulds. Mr. Perring thought scaffoldings were employed. Sir Gardner Wilkinson refers to the cutting away of the projecting angles, when they "smoothed the face of them to a flat inclined surface as they descended." This will meet the difficulty of its being finished downward.

Herodotus, the enigmatical historian, rather than the simple one, had before given this story. Dr. Lepsius, the German scholar, has his way of looking at it. "At the commencement of each reign," says he, "the rock-chamber destined for the monarch's grave was excavated, and one course of masonry erected upon it. If the king died in the first year of his reign, a casing was put upon it, and a pyramid formed; but if the king did not die, another course of stone was added above, and two of the same height and thickness on each side; thus, in process of time, the building assumed the form of a series of regular steps. These were cased over with stones, all the angles filled up, and stones placed for steps. Then, as Herodotus long ago informed us, the pyramid was finished from the top downwards, by all the edges being cut away, and a perfect triangle left."

Mr. Melville, the mystic, author of Veritas, has his view of the transaction; saying, "Herodotus tells us the pyramids were finished downwards, and unquestionably they were. Books, learned books, as the writers fancy, have lately been published to explain this passage. Large blocks of stone have been supposed to have been lifted to their places, and then cut as required, and the débris thrown to the base. Oh, folly!"

This is the story of the Greek :—"Having finished the first tier, they elevated the stones to the second by the aid of machinery constructed of short pieces of wood; from the second, by a similar machine, they were raised to the third, and so on to the summit. Thus there were as many machines as there were courses in the structure of the pyramids, though there might have been only one, which, being easily manageable, could be raised from one layer to the next in succession; both modes were mentioned to me, and I know not which of them deserves most credit."

Sir H. James, of the Ordnance Department, thinks the working rule of construction was by two poles, one horizontal, ten feet long, and the other vertical, of nine feet; as, "the inclination of each edge of the pyramid is what engineers call ten to nine." But Sir Edmund Beckett, as an architect, demurs; remarking, "I do not at all agree with him that the builders worked by any such inconvenient rule as that—carrying up diagonally, slanting standards at the corners, and making the courses 'lineable by eye with them, however easy it may sound theoretically."


He who has once been hauled up by the three muscular, good-tempered, but bakshish-loving so-called Arabs, but really Egyptian fellahs, will not forget the steps. The ascent is by the north-east angle, where the stones are sufficiently knocked about to give a better tread.

Herodotus wrote nearly 2300 years ago :—"This pyramid was built in the form of steps." He adds that some call them little altars. When he tells us that one of these stones is thirty feet, we stare. He may mean cubic feet, as he calls the least of them that size. M. Grobert declares they vary from 1 foot 5 inches to 4 feet in length. He noticed a gradation. The first tier gave him an average of 3 feet 10½ inches; the second, 3 feet 6½ inches; the third, 3 feet 1½ inch; then, 2 feet 11 inches; 2 feet 8 inches; 2 feet 3 inches. Mr. Perring, the accurate surveyor, gives the average of these courses at from 2 feet 2 inches to 4 feet 10 inches. About the largest stone is one 9 feet long and 6½ broad. Mr. Fergusson the architect has the average at 30 inches. The stones diminish as they approach the top.

One authority gives an elevation of 223 inches for the fifth course of masonry; 869 for the twenty-fifth; 1686 for the fiftieth; 3052 for the hundredth; and 5830 for the total vertical height. The Queen's chamber is said to be on the twenty-fifth course; and the King's on the fiftieth course.


Excerpted from The Great Pyramid of Giza by James Bonwick. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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The Great Pyramid of Giza: History and Speculation 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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