The seventeenth century of our epoch is the heart of what historians refer to as the Early Modern Period. It was modern in the sense that new innovations, from the printing press to the compass, from the first joint-stock corporations to the latest sailing-ship designs, were ushering in a newly globalized perspective in the countries of Europe in particular. Yet it was indeed still early in the day for modernity, and the latest trends in life and thought still sat uneasily beside the stubborn relics of the Middle Ages.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the “natural philosophy” of the day, the set of disciplines that would, slowly and painfully, evolve into modern science. Even as natural philosophers began to probe the world around them using methods of logic and controlled experimentation not that out of keeping with the science of today, many of them were still obsessed as well with humors and alchemy, astrology and numerology. The classic example of the conflicted Early Modern natural philosopher must always be Sir Isaac Newton, who was laying down the groundwork of modern calculus and physics at the same time that he searched unceasingly for a “philosopher’s stone” that would transmute base metals into gold. In the mind of Newton as in Early Modern society in general, there was no clear demarcation between physics and metaphysics.

This conflation of the practical and the mystical in European thought was to a large degree courtesy of ancient Egypt. During or around the first century AD, a group of anonymous scholars had compiled a Greek translation of some much older Egyptian writings, covering a huge range of subjects, from relatively grounded inquiries into natural phenomena to expansive religious and spiritual meditations. For unknown reasons, either the translators themselves or the transcribers who followed them attributed it all to a single long-dead sage known as Hermes Trismegistus: “Hermes the Thrice-Great.” When the so-called “Hermetica” made its way to Europe from Constantinople along with many other ancient writings more than a millennium later, it was embraced wholeheartedly by European thinkers. Hermes was often given the status of a prophet, and his writings were taken as the key to a theory of everything that would unite humanity’s understandings of the physical and spiritual realms. In 1543, for example, when Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory of heliocentrism, he mounted a preemptive defense against charges of apostasy by noting that the divine Hermes too had claimed that the earth actually orbited the sun, not the other way around.

The Hermetica’s origins in ancient Egypt did much to fuel the growing European fascination with that long-dead culture, even as the other-worldly Pyramids of Giza became the embodiment of this most alluringly mysterious of all ancient civilizations. Much of the mystery was down to the fact that Egyptian culture was literally unreadable. While ancient Greece and Rome could be studied by reading the words of their own peoples, the hieroglyphs found on Egyptian monuments and artifacts remained a closed book.

Virtually the only Egyptian source of Egyptian history available to scholars was Manetho, a native of the country who had lived around 300 BC, in its immediately post-Pharaonic era, and written a chronicle of its history in Greek. His book was invaluable as the only source of its kind, but it was based as much on legend as fact in many places, with a notable surfeit of hard dates and concrete details and a considerable degree of assumed knowledge which its readers of almost 2000 years later no longer possessed.

Otherwise, the closest scholars could come to the culture was to read what complete outsiders, such as Herodotus, had written about Pharaonic Egypt. Some of the more mystically-minded scholars believed that Egyptian hieroglyphs could never be understood, that they represented a form of spiritual communion unavailable to the more spiritually debased age of the seventeenth century.

The foremost early exemplar of the impact which Hermeticism had on the study of ancient Egypt is the career of the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, who is still sometimes called “the father of Egyptology.” Born in Würzburg in 1602, Kircher was driven to Rome by the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War. There he established a reputation as the foremost Catholic polymath of his time, with a special interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs, which he saw as a means of coming closer to the divine truths embedded in the Hermetica. “Hermes Trismegistus,” he wrote, “first instituted the hieroglyphs, thus becoming the prince and parent of all Egyptian theology and philosophy, was the first and most ancient among the Egyptians, and rightly thought of divine things; and engraved his opinion for all eternity on lasting stones and huge rocks.” Kircher apparently never visited Egypt himself, but he had no shortage of research materials. Many ancient Egyptian obelisks and other artifacts with hieroglyphic inscriptions had been sent to Rome during the days of empire, and Kircher, who served as curator of the Collegio Romano where many of them had been collected, could study them all to his heart’s content.

Kircher claimed, correctly, that Coptic, a still-living if dwindling language in the Egypt of his own time — it has since been almost entirely superseded by Arabic — was the immediate descendant of the language that had been spoken there during ancient times. Yet he failed to make the leap from there to the assumption, seemingly obvious to our sensibilities, that hieroglyphic writing was merely an earlier method of encoding the spoken language than the Coptic script he knew. He rather saw the older form of writing as something fundamentally different from everyday language, a higher medium of communication.

He further claimed that he had deciphered said medium, publishing the details of his research in four thick volumes. Even at the time, his claims were greeted with skepticism outside the Vatican, especially after some wag sent him an alleged ancient document to translate, full of random combinations of hieroglyphs, and he promptly produced a florid message in Latin. Later centuries would indeed show that Kircher had understood virtually nothing of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. He translated the inscription on one obelisk as, “The protection of Osiris against the violence of Typho must be elicited according to the proper rites and ceremonies by sacrifices and by appeal to the tutelary Genii of the triple world, in order to ensure the enjoyment of the prosperity customarily given by the Nile against the violence of the enemy Typho.” Actually, it was just a list of names.

But even as Athanasius Kircher was approaching the nascent discipline of Egyptology as an essentially metaphysical pursuit, others were applying more grounded techniques that smack of modern science. The earliest and perhaps most remarkable of these was an Englishman named John Greaves, who was seeking to understand ancient Egypt in an entirely different way at the same time that Kircher was communing with the spirit of Hermes the Thrice-Great.

John Greaves. (Public Domain)

Greaves was born the very same year as Kircher. The son of a provincial schoolteacher, he arrived in Oxford at age 15, where he received an education that must strike us, the products of the Age of the Specialist, as impossibly diverse: Greek, Latin, philosophy, literature, mathematics, astronomy. Yet in at least one way, Greaves’s mindset was indubitably modern: he loved to put numbers onto things, loved to quantify the world around him. He plotted the altitude and distance of stars, the latitude and longitude of cities; he measured the dimensions of St. Peter’s Basilica and the circumference of the walls around Lucca.

In 1637, now well-established as a professor of geometry and astronomy, he won a commission from the Archbishop of Canterbury to “travel into the eastern parts of the world, to obtain books , especially in the Arabic language.” Now 35 years old, Greaves was an ambitious scholar, self-confident enough to make observations that sometimes went against the grain of tradition. He would parlay his bibliophilic excursion into the first sober and — we can dare to say it — scientific examination of a Pyramid of Giza.

After long sojourns in Rome, Padua, Florence, Constantinople, and Rhodes, Greaves arrived in Alexandria at the beginning of 1639. During the four or five months he spent there, seeking out rare manuscripts for his patron in the erstwhile home of the most famous library the world has ever known, he also found time to travel overland to Cairo and the Giza Plateau. He arrived complete with a veritable treasure chest of measuring equipment; he wasn’t after metaphysical enlightenment, but rather hard data.

So, like the tourists still do today, he and two companions made the “gentle and easy ascent” from the Nile Valley to the Giza Plateau, observing how the geology of the latter gives the pyramids “a permanent and stable support.” Soon they stood before what Greaves considered the “fairest” of the pyramids, as well as the oldest and the biggest: the Pyramid of Khufu.

Unpacking his instruments, he got to the sweaty work of measurement under the desert sun. He’d read with care Herodotus, still the preeminent resource for understanding Egyptian history in the seventeenth century, and he was eager to find out if the latter’s stated size of the Pyramid of Khufu — 800 feet (244 meters) on a side at the base — was correct. He concluded that his illustrious predecessor had been reasonably close to the mark but far from exactly right: his own measurements yielded an approximate result of 693 feet (211 meters) on a side. (He could actually only measure one side “for lack of an even level and a convenient distance to place my instruments,” and extrapolated the other sides on the assumption that the base was a perfect square. Luckily for him, later measurers would prove his assumption correct.)

Much more interesting was the question of the Pyramid of Khufu’s height. Being thoroughly familiar with all of the ancient texts that touched on the pyramids, Greaves knew well the story of how Thales of Miletus, who was regarded by Aristotle himself as the first of the great Greek philosophers, reputedly found the pyramid’s height at some time around 600 BC, arguably inventing the mathematical concept of ratio in the process. Thales, as the story went, planted a stick in the ground on the Giza Plateau, then recorded the exact moment when the stick’s shadow was the same length as the stick itself. The next day at the same moment, he measured the length of the pyramid’s shadow and added to that figure half of the length of its base — which would have obscured part of its shadow — to arrive at the pyramid’s height.

Thales’s method of measuring the Pyramid of Khufu, as reported in the ancient sources. (Dake)

This story of Thales at the Pyramid of Khufu seemed to contradict another oft-repeated ancient claim that was frequently given a mystical significance by the people of Greaves’s time: that the pyramids cast no shadow at all. This, Greaves now observed, was definitely untrue. Even at noon, he could observe a shadow. As an astronomer, however, he recognized that he — and presumably Thales — had chosen precisely the correct time of year to come if they wished to see such a thing. For almost three quarters of the year, the pyramid’s shadow at noon wouldn’t be long enough to exceed the width of its base, giving the illusion that it cast no shadow at all.

In at least one sense, then, the Thales story checked out, but that’s not to say that Greaves found it overly credible on the whole. Unusually for a time when most ancient philosophers were regarded as virtual infallible demigods, he approached anecdotes like this one with skepticism; indeed, he decidedly relished in pointing out the ancients’ errors of fact and measurement. Only the merest fragments of Thales’s own writings survived, meaning that his purported accomplishments — this one among them — must be viewed entirely through the eyes of those ancients who came after and wrote about him. Tellingly, none of the several sources which described Thales’s experiment on the Giza Plateau deigned to say what the actual height he measured was. Even more tellingly, no one ever seemed to have succeeded in replicating it.

So, Greaves wasn’t inclined to give Thales the benefit of much doubt. He saw the shadow-measuring technique as “a way at the best, by reason of the faintness and scattering of the extremity of the shadow in so great an altitude, uncertain and subject unto error.” As a modern natural philosopher, he was sure that he could do better.

We can superimpose a right triangle onto a pyramid. If we know a and b in the diagram above, we can determine h — the pyramid’s height — using the Pythagorean Theorem. (Public Domain)

Greaves believed the Pyramid of Khufu to be made from four equilateral triangles — i.e., triangles in which all three sides are of equal length — leaning inward so that their upper points all met at the apex of the structure. The origin of this belief is hard to pinpoint. He may have derived it from Herodotus’s statement that the height of the pyramid was the same as the length of its base. Even a fairly cursory examination would have revealed this to be incorrect, but Greaves may have concluded that what Herodotus really meant to say was that the distance up one of its lateral edges was the same as the length of its base. At any rate, all of the calculations he now proceeded to make were predicated on this assumption.

A simple formula, derived from the Pythagorean Theorem, told him that the height of any equilateral triangle is equal to half its side length multiplied by 1.44. Using this formula, Greaves arrived at a height for the pyramid of 499 feet (152 meters) from his estimated measurement of its base of 693 feet (211 meters) on a side. This height, he noted with a trace of patriotism, was at least 20 feet (6 meters) less by his reckoning than the spire of the old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, before it had been struck by lightning and knocked down in 1561. (In 1666, the whole cathedral would be gutted by the Great Fire of London, making way for the version of St. Paul’s that stands today.)

Having completed their observations at the base of the pyramid, Greaves and his companions now experienced something no tourist of today can even dream of: a hair-raising scramble up one of its sides to its very peak. By the time Greaves arrived in Egypt, the smooth casing had been completely removed from the pyramid, thus making such an excursion possible.

A closeup view of the “stair steps” of the Pyramid of Khufu, up which John Greaves and his colleagues scrambled almost 400 years ago. (John Solaro )

And so they arrived at the top, “which ends not in a point, as mathematical Pyramids do, but in a little flat or square”; the pyramid, in other words, appeared to have had its very tip lopped off. One can scarcely imagine the vista that must have greeted their eyes from their precarious perch, high above the desert sand. Proclus, one of the last Greek classical philosophers, had claimed in circa AD 450 that ancient Egyptian priests had once stood upon this perch and made observations of the firmament. These resulted in the 365-day calendar that still remained with humanity, in only modestly adjusted form, in Greaves’s day, as it still does in ours.

It’s an almost irresistibly romantic image, one that goes straight to the heart of the pyramids’ allure. But Greaves, once again, was having none of it. As an astronomer himself, he knew something about the practicalities of stargazing. This part of Egypt, he noted, was largely flat: “Neither can I comprehend, to what purpose the Priests with so much difficulty should ascend so high; when below with more ease, and as much certainty, they might from their own lodgings hewn in the rocks, upon which the Pyramids are erected, make the same observations. For seeing all Egypt is but as it were one continued plain, they might from these cliffs have, over the plains of Egypt, as free and open a prospect of the heavens, as from the tops of the Pyramids themselves.” (Greaves didn’t seem to be aware that there had once been a smooth covering on top of the massive stone blocks over which he and his friends had just scrambled. He therefore didn’t address the question of how the stargazing priests — or anyone else — would have gotten to the top in the first place before the casing was removed. Yet one can conjecture that it must have been possible by Proclus’s day at least, else how could the story have arisen? Perhaps a staircase was cut out of the casing during ancient times.)

Greaves and his companions scrambled back down to ground level. Now awaited the next phase of their investigations: to go inside the Pyramid of Khufu, the only one of the three with a known, accessible entrance. They were by no means the first Europeans to do so; a slow trickle of adventurers and wealthy curiosity seekers had been making the trek to the Giza Plateau and going inside the Pyramid of Khufu since the time of the Crusades. Nor was there any reason to expect treasures inside. Greaves knew that the pyramid was a tomb, having no time for any of the more fanciful or mystical explanations for its existence, and also knew that it had long since been emptied of its contents. Nevertheless, he was conscious, as modern tourists still are today, of the transgression he was about to commit. He thought about the ancients’ “reverend and awful regard, mixed with superstition, in not presuming to enter those chambers of death, which religion and devotion had consecrated to the rest and quiet of the dead.” While he would not be the first European to enter this realm of the dead, he would be the first to write in detail about what lay inside.

The entrance to the Pyramid of Khufu used by Greaves and his colleagues. In the seventeenth century, a bank of sand led up to it. (Olaf Tausch)
Greaves’s diagram of the Pyramid of Khufu’s interior as he visited it in 1639. (Public Domain)

Greaves and his companions entered the pyramid from a forbidding opening located 38 feet (11.6 meters) above the ground on its north face, reached via a convenient mound of sand piled up against the pyramid’s side; this may have been man-made or may have been a natural result of the winds that swept across the plateau. Wishing to test an anecdote of the Roman essayist Plutarch, Greaves fired off a musket just inside the entrance, causing an eerie echo which continued for quite some time up and down the passage they would soon have to follow. They must have felt like lost souls entering the underworld as they made their way down this steeply-declining passage, lit only by the fast-receding sunlight shining in from the entrance behind them and by the lit tapers they carried.

Greaves noticed in the passage “the labour of an exquisite hand, as appears by the smoothness and evenness of the work, and by the close knitting of the joints.” Some 90 feet (27 meters) inside, rubble piled up on its floor forced them to “serpent-like creep upon our bellies” for some nine feet (2.5 meters), holding their tapers aloft before them as they crawled to avoid the unpleasant prospect of a blackout.

The straitened section of descending passage opened out slightly only to dead-end in a jumble of rubble. This area had become the abode of bats, “and those so ugly, and of so large a size, exceeding a foot in length, that I have not elsewhere seen the like.” We can imagine the creatures, disturbed by the men’s flaming tapers, flapping wildly around their faces in the dark and narrow space.

Thankfully, there was another way out besides the way the men had come. Adjacent to where the straitened section of passage ended was a “steep and massy stone,” almost ten feet (3 meters) in height. Scrambling up its side, they arrived at what Greaves dubbed the “first gallery,” a narrow ascending passage of a much more finished character, built of “smooth and polished marble, and, where not smeared with filth, appearing of a white and alabaster color.” One of Greaves’s companions was a Venetian who knew something about stonework. He was very impressed with the craftsmanship. (That said, he perhaps didn’t know as much about stonework as Greaves believed. There actually is no marble in or on the Pyramid of Khufu, only limestone and granite.)

At the apparent top of this narrow section of passage, just where it appeared to open up further, a hole was cut out of the wall, leading unto another narrow passage which ran horizontally. Just inside it was what appeared to be a well — made, Greaves noted, using much the same techniques as the more recently dug ones he had seen around Alexandria. It was somewhat over three feet (.9 meters) across, with holes for climbing cut into its sides. Could this lead down to the nether region so cryptically and tantalizingly described by Herodotus, where Khufu’s sepulchral chamber supposedly lay as an island on an underground sea? Adventurous and dexterous scholar though he was, Greaves didn’t dare attempt a descent to find out. Instead he lit a rag on fire and dropped it down the well; it fell only a short distance. Using a measuring line, he estimated the obstruction on which it had landed to begin only about 20 feet (6 meters) below. Whether that was the well’s true bottom, or whether it was merely stopped up with debris, must remain an open question.

The same passage — blessedly horizontal! — continued for about 125 feet (38 meters) beyond the well, the stones once again “very massy and exquisitely joined.” It terminated in the first real chamber the men had encountered, an “arched vault” about 20 feet (6 meters) long, 17 feet (5 meters) wide, and 15 feet (4.5 meters) high. The chamber was full of rancid garbage, overpowering any relief the men might have felt at being in such a relatively large space at last and rather cutting short their stay.

Going back the way they had come and then beginning to ascend once more, the men emerged into a far larger passage, which Greaves dubbed the second gallery but which later explorers would more appropriately name the Grand Gallery. Even in the flickering candlelight, even with the filth that coated its every surface, they could see that this space was handsomely constructed. It measured 154 feet (46.9 meters) in length, 6 feet (1.8 meters) in width, and 26 feet (7.9 meters) in height. “This gallery or corridor,” Greaves would later write, “is built of white and polished marble [sic], the which is very evenly cut in spacious squares or tables. Of such materials as is the pavement, such is the roof, and such are the side-walls that flank it; the coagmentation or knitting of the joints is so close, that they are scarce discernible to the naked eye.” Running along the walls were “two banks (like benches) of sleek and polished stone. Upon the top of these benches, near the angle, where they close and join with the wall, are little spaces cut in right-angled parallel figures, set on each side opposite to one another; intended, no question, for some other end than ornament.”

Climbing the length of the gallery — a treacherous endeavor, given the steep angle of ascent and the smooth, slick flooring — the men arrived at a closet-like chamber with a flat floor, 10 feet (3 meters) in length, 5.5 feet (1.7 meters) in width, and 12 feet (3.7 meters) in height. Its middle was partially blocked by a great slab of “red-speckled marble [actually granite], wedged into mortises on either side,” leaving a gap of just three feet (.9 meters) between stone and floor. It appeared to be a crude form of portcullis which had once been lowered all the way to the floor to prevent access to what lay beyond the chamber. Grooves in the walls and hollow spaces in the ceiling provided evidence that it had once had two companions, now apparently shattered and removed in their entirety. The men crawled nervously under the portcullis.

An opening at the other end of the portcullis chamber led into a level passage which ran another nine feet (2.7 meters) to end in a “glorious” chamber, measuring 34.5 feet (10.5 meters) in length, 17 feet (5.2 meters) in width, and 19.5 feet (5.9 meters) in height. Its smooth walls were marked only by two niches, one to the north and one to the south. Greaves was clearly awed by the space:

This rich and spacious chamber, in which art may seem to have contended with nature, the curious work being not inferior to the rich materials, stands as it were in the heart and center of the Pyramid, equidistant from all the sides, and almost in the midst between the basis and the top. The floor, the sides, the roof of it, are all made of vast and exquisite tables of Thebaick marble [sic], which, if they were not veiled and obscured by the steam of tapers, would appear glittering and shining. From the top of it descending to the bottom there are but six ranges of stone, all of which being respectively sized to an equal height, very gracefully in one and the same altitude run round the room. The stones, which cover this place, are of a strange and stupendous length, like so many huge beams lying flat, and traversing the room, and withall supporting that infinite mass and weight of the Pyramid above.

It would have been obvious from the stately magnificence of the space that the men had reached the true heart of the pyramid even if there hadn’t been a sarcophagus standing near the center of the chamber — the one tangible remainder of the treasures that must once have been here. The lid had been removed and the pharaoh’s mummy was, naturally, long gone, but what remained was still impressive. It must have been carved, Greaves believed, from a single slab of marble; it rang like a bell when he tapped it. He chiselled a small chunk from its surface, discovering it to be speckled in black, white, and red, such that it must have sparkled brilliantly in full lighting; his Venetian friend insisted that it must have come from the legendary quarries on Mount Sinai. (Once again, he was mistaken: the sarcophagus was actually made of granite, not marble.) Taking the sarcophagus’s proportions, as he was always so wont to do, Greaves mused that the people of antiquity must have been roughly the same size as the people of his own time, not the giants some still claimed them to have been.

The reason that the sarcophagus remained here was clear: it was far too large to fit through the passages leading out of the pyramid. The natural question, then, was how it was brought in in the first place. Greaves could only conclude that “by some machine it was raised and conveyed up without, before this oratory or chamber was finished, and the roof closed.”

There was no other passage leading out of the burial chamber. They had reached the end of the line, it seemed; there was nothing for it but to return the way they had come. Three hours after entering, the three men emerged again “into the light and sun,” exhausted, filthy, and a little shaken by their intimate communion with such an inconceivably ancient structure.

Greaves was less taken with the Pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, and gave them far less attention, not even bothering to measure them. Likewise, he took no apparent notice whatsoever of the Sphinx, whose body was probably buried under the sand at the time, but whose head alone was still a spectacular piece of sculpture indeed. Perhaps his surveyor’s attitude was affected by the fact that there was no way to climb these structures or to go inside. Or perhaps he simply did what he accused others of doing: “I have observed all travellers in my time in Egypt fill themselves so full, and as it were so surfeit with the sight of the greater and fairer Pyramid, that they had no appetite to be spectators of the rest, where they should only see the same miracle (for the Pyramids are all of the same figure) the farther they went, decreasing, and presented as it were in a less form; or, if they did view this, very perfunctorily and lightly.”

In at least one sense, however, Greaves’s brief observations of the Pyramid of Khafre are extraordinarily interesting. “The stones are of colour white,” he wrote, “nothing so great and vast as those of the first and fairest Pyramid; the sides rise not with degrees like that, but are all of them plain and smooth, the whole fabrick (except where it is opposed to the south) seeming very entire, free from any deformed ruptures or breaches.” It would seem, in other words, that the Pyramid of Khafre’s smooth casing was still intact on at least three sides at this late date of 1639. That Greaves should have found this intact pyramid to be so aesthetically inferior to its naked sibling is odd — but, having never seen what he saw, we can’t say much more about it than that.

After departing Egypt and sojourning once again in Italy, Greaves finally returned to England in the summer of 1640, three years after he had departed. He didn’t publish an account of his adventures on the Giza Plateau until 1646, in a manuscript with the delightful title of Pyramidographia. Alongside his personal measurements and observations, he theorized therein, as best he could from scant data, about when the pyramids were built. From a thorough and thoughtful comparison of Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Biblical sources, he surmised that Khufu had reigned and built his pyramid around 1266 BC.

Like everyone who has ever visited the Giza Plateau, dating back to the time of Herodotus and doubtless long before, Greaves couldn’t help but wonder how such an ancient, presumably primitive culture could have erected such monuments. All that existed in the historical record was rank speculation. As we saw in the last chapter, Herodotus claimed the pyramids had been built by using some vague “machine” to lift the blocks into place. Diodorus and Pliny parroted a legend that the Egyptians had piled up huge mounds of salt and/or sand to use as building platforms; when the Nile overflowed its banks to come quite close to the edge of the Giza Plateau, which it did almost every year prior to the construction of the modern Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, it dissolved and carried these mounds away.

In this respect, these ancient writers were, one might say, just typical tourists. Not only does everyone who visits the pyramids wonder how they were built, everyone seems compelled to proffer an explanation. Thus, having rejected the accounts of all of the classical texts as impossible, Greaves proposed his own theory: “First they made a large and spacious tower in the midst reaching to the top; to the sides of this tower I conceive the rest of the building to have been applied piece after piece, like so many buttresses or supporters, still lessoning in height, till at last they came to the lowermost degree.” Greaves’s “tower” has much in common with classical pyramid-building dei ex machina in that it raises rather more questions than it answers. Suffice to say that the debate over how the pyramids were built wouldn’t be settled in Greaves’s lifetime, nor in many lifetimes thereafter.

Over the course of his scholarly career, Greaves wrote on many other subjects unrelated to the pyramids, from the systems of weights and measures in use during ancient times to the etymologies of Arabic, continuing to publish even after Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads cast him out of his professorship at Oxford. He died in 1652, doubtless regarding his work on the pyramids as but one small part of his intellectual legacy.

During the century and a half following Greaves’s visit, quite a number of travelers published their own observations of the Giza Plateau. The Frenchman Benoît de Maillet, who served as his country’s consul-general in Egypt from 1692 to 1708, spent more time inside the Pyramid of Khufu than any European to date; he claimed to have entered it more than 40 times over those years. By the time he arrived in Cairo, the Pyramid of Khafre had been stripped of its smooth casing everywhere but at the very top, as it remains today. It would therefore seem that this final act of desecration was committed by the inhabitants of Cairo at some point during the mid- to late-1600s.

Maillet and others made diagrams and measurements of their own on the Giza Plateau, in many cases more accurately than John Greaves had managed. Yet none of them contrived a way inside the Pyramid of Khafre or Menkaure, nor did they make public any earth-shattering new discoveries inside the Pyramid of Khufu. The only man to come remotely close to such a thing was the Englishman Nathaniel Davison. In 1765, pursuing an odd echo he had noticed near the central burial chamber, as well as rumors he had gleaned from the Egyptians who hung about the Giza Plateau even then to serve curious European visitors, he found another chamber above the burial chamber, accessible via a breach in the very top of the wall at the end of the Grand Gallery. The hidden chamber’s walls, floor, and ceiling were unfinished, leading Davison to theorize that the space had been hollowed out to relieve some of the pressure that thousands of tons of rock must make on the roof and walls of the burial chamber — a sophisticated bit of structural engineering indeed for an allegedly primitive people.

Otherwise, the visitors who followed John Greaves produced mostly more speculation. For example, the Danish naval officer Frederick Norden arrived at the Giza Plateau in 1737 on a surveying mission at the request of his king, and was inspired by what he saw there to respond directly to Greaves’s chronological arguments. He wasn’t convinced that the Pyramid of Khufu could have been built so recently as 1266 BC, in light of its complete lack of the hieroglyphs which covered other, presumably later Egyptian monuments, and in light of the fact that he believed its stones to be unpolished — “which is a certain mark, that, at the time when the pyramids were raised, they had not yet the art of polishing this sort of marble [sic].”

Conjecture of this sort was all that the visitors could manage. Despite another 150 years of speculation and documentation of the pyramids’ obvious physical attributes, little more of real import was known about them or the culture that had built them at the end of the 18th century than during John Greaves’s time. But at last, an accidental confluence of geopolitical developments was about to usher in the first great era of concentrated discovery across all of Egypt — and not least on the Giza Plateau.

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(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

13 Comments for "Chapter 2: The Mystic and the Measurer"

  • Derek

    The way this site has grown out of Filfre gives me a slight feeling of déjà vu. I developed an interest in ancient Egypt inspired in large part by childhood computer games, and I ended up using the internet as my outlet for that interest—in my case, by researching and writing about ancient Egyptian religion for Wikipedia. (I may be partly responsible for your cover art for these articles; I’m not the one who took the photo, but I made it more visible by adding it to the Wikipedia article about the Giza necropolis back in September.)

    Giza is very familiar ground to me, so I’m afraid I won’t get as much out of this series of posts as I do out of Filfre, which has filled gaping holes in my knowledge of computer game history. But you discuss the pyramid well, as usual, and I look forward to your articles on less familiar wonders.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks for that, then! It’s a magnificent picture. My wife and I took quite a few photos, as you do, when we were at the pyramids last year, but didn’t manage to get any without a lot of tourists milling about in the foreground.

  • sam

    Typographic note: fractional metres take the plural, so “.9 meters”, not “.9 meter”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Noted. Thanks!

  • Paul

    Although I had books on the pyramids as a child, I have never much followed up on my early interest in scholarship regarding the ancient world. I am very much looking forward to the next installments of this series, and indeed the things this blog may focus on in the future. I am especially eager for you to get into the actual ancient history – while reception and the history of scholarship itself is fascinating enough, I long to read more about the people who actually went out to build those stupendous things in the desert. Sure, I could read up on that elsewhere. But I’m looking forward to reading it in your voice, as I’ve very much come to enjoy over the few months I’ve been lurking now.

  • RVP

    Minor typo: “the pyramid, in other words, appeared to have had its very tip lobbed off” -> “… lopped off”

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Will Moczarski

    There‘s a Hermes Trigmegistus that should be Trismegistus.

  • Will Moczarski

    Re climbing the great pyramid: By my father‘s account, it was not unusual for egyptian tourist guides to offer races up the pyramids as a sort of betting game in the 1950‘s.

    I really enjoy this series and am hooked on yet another blog of yours, so expect some more typo comments soon 😉

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks, and cool. The more the merrier. I need all the help I can get with Egyptian and Greek names. 😉

      And that’s an interesting anecdote. I didn’t realize it was still possible to climb the pyramids as late as the 1950s…

      • Will Moczarski

        I asked him again yesterday to confirm this and it was even as late as 1960 or 1961. It appears to have been forbidden to climb them at this point but it seems that nobody cared and the races were a common practice to earn some money off the (relatively few) tourists.

  • Leo Vellés

    Although i never played an Infocom game, reading your articles in The Digital Antiquarian i always felt that if i have to pick one, it will be Infidel. Now, reading Greaves’s journey through the pyramid, i was thinking what a perfect setting it is for so many puzzles to create.
    I read both blogs on my phone, and in the Digital i can click on the pictures to see them with more detail, but i can”t do it in the Analog. It would be very useful to see Greaves’s diagram of the pyramid that way. Will you consider adding this possibility here?
    By rhe way, another awesome article!

    • Jimmy Maher

      I had some trouble making that work with this WordPress theme. But I promise to have another go at it soon.


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