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The 19th century was marked by a slowly worsening discordance between science and religion, two voices that had largely sung in unison before. As long as science hadn’t challenged the core narratives of religion, it had usually been embraced by the religious as just another way of celebrating God’s divine creation; indeed, many or most scientists of earlier times had themselves been devoutly religious. By the beginning of the century in question, however, the march of scientific progress was carrying it to places that the religious were finding to be increasingly uncomfortable. When Charles Darwin in 1859 published On the Origin of Species, the most important single scientific work in history, the split came to seem truly irrevocable. In daring to proffer a credible explanation of how something as breathtakingly complex as a human being, so often offered up as the ultimate proof of God’s existence, could have been “designed” absent a divine designer, Darwin had, whether he liked it or not, declared war on the religious establishment. That war continues to be fought in our homes, schools, and governments to this day.

A similar rift began to affect studies of ancient Egypt during the same period. Earlier in the century, men like Giovanni Caviglia and Howard Vyse, full of metaphysical notions about Egyptian civilization drawn from the Bible and various mystical texts, could still have their work taken seriously by the international community of scholars. Later in the century, though, as men like Samuel Birch, Karl Richard Lepsius, and Auguste Mariette moved toward a more strictly empirical understanding of ancient Egypt, that became less and less the case. Thus began another conflict that remains with us to this day, between the “mainstream” or “respectable” branches of Egyptology and what a steadfastly neutral observer might refer to as “alternative Egyptology”; the respectable Egyptologists, for their part, tend to prefer terms like “the pyramidiots.” The founding text of this alternative Egyptology was published the very same year as On the Origin of Species. It was The Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built and Who Built It? by John Taylor. Even in 1859, most sober-minded Egyptologists thought they had already done a pretty good job of answering those questions. But Taylor, needless to say, begged to differ.

Whatever else one can say about him, Taylor was no idiot. Already 78 years old at the time he finished his book about the Pyramid of Khufu, he had been a prominent editor and publisher on the London literary scene for decades by that point. He’s still remembered by historians of literature today for having advised, encouraged, and published the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and John Clare among other important men of letters. When not shepherding the works of these others to publication, Taylor also wrote prolifically in his own hand on a bewildering variety of topics. Late in his life, religion and politics began to fill the lion’s share of his output, his fundamentalist views on the former fueling his ever more reactionary views on the latter.

He focused much of his attention on an oddly specific subject, one that may sound more innocuous than divisively political to modern ears: systems of measurement. Yet the subject was in fact inextricably bound up with the politics of the time, at least in the mind of reactionary thinkers like Taylor. He was violently opposed to the new metric system, which had been adopted as the standard in France at the end of the last century as a gift of the in-with-the-new sentiment of that country’s revolution, then been spread across Europe by Napoleon’s armies at the beginning of the current one. By the mid-1800s, a debate was raging in Britain as well over whether the country should join much of the European continent in embracing the new standard. A staunch traditionalist by education and inclination, Taylor knew exactly where he stood. He claimed that the old, so-called “imperial” standard was not only “more perfect” than the alternative — a highly dubious claim at best — but that it was actually favored by God; the metric system wasn’t just practically flawed, it was also atheistic and immoral. He found his justification in the Old Testament, mixed liberally with the doctrine of British Exceptionalism that has always haunted that nation’s relations with mainland Europe.

Our Motto, from Deuteronomy, points to a very important consideration: vis. — That the people who maintain a perfect and just weight, and a perfect and just measure, may expected lengthened days in the land which God giveth them. If any people were entitled to so great a favour, it might be the Inhabitants of this Country. They have had the same measures of Length, Capacity, and Weight, from the earliest times; and they have been blessed with a long and unbroken series of peaceful Governments. Greater freedom from external foes, and from internal dissensions, has not fallen to the lot of any other nation.

Yet Taylor couldn’t hope to make his argument by pointing to the peace and prosperity of Britain alone — especially not when such potent counter-examples to this claimed “freedom from internal dissensions” as the English Civil War lurked not that far back in the country’s past. He craved more concrete proofs for his assertion that the imperial system was literally divine. And he found them in the Pyramid of Khufu of all places, then as now one of the most ancient substantially intact human-made structures in the world, vastly more magnificent in size and grandeur than any of the few structures that had come before it.

He wasn’t, of course, the first person to want to read deeper meanings into the measurements and proportions of the Pyramids of Giza. The most respectable proponent of pyramidal numerology to precede Taylor had ironically been the Frenchman Edme-François Jomard, who also happened to have been an early advocate for the hated metric system. Circa 1800, he had originated the idea that the Pyramid of Khufu encoded through its proportions the standard systems of measurements in use at the time it was constructed.

In 1838, an obscure British author named H. Agnew had first proposed the other theory that would become the foundation of Taylor’s work. He claimed that, although “the chief objects of these buildings [is] to serve for sepulchral monuments, the Egyptians sought, in the appropriate figure of the Pyramid, to perpetuate, at the same time, a portion of their geometrical science.” The height of the Pyramid of Menkaure, he said, was equal to the radius of a circle whose circumference was equal to the perimeter of the pyramid’s base — or, stated another way, to the square of one of the base’s sides. To state things yet a third way, the area of the circle in question was equal to the area of the pyramid’s base.

The geometry proposed by H. Agnew for the Pyramid of Menkaure, later to be adapted by John Taylor and Charles Piazzi Smyth to the Pyramid of Khufu. (Public Domain)
The ancient geometric paradox of squaring the circle. In order to produce a square with the same area as a circle that has a radius of 1, the length of each of the square’s sides must be equal to the square root of pi. But, because pi is a transcendental irrational number — i.e., a number that goes on forever without ever repeating a pattern — it’s not possible to do more than approximate this value. (Public Domain)

The correspondence Agnew claimed to have detected, if it proved to be absolute, would imply that the ancient Egyptians had in fact solved the most famous unsolved problem in geometry, that of squaring the circle — i.e., calculating the necessary dimensions of a square that has the exact same area as a given circle. What seems like it ought to be straightforward enough on the face of it is actually made impossible by the unusual properties of the irrational number known as pi, a fact that was definitively proved only in 1882. Even in 1838, however, Agnew was willing to acknowledge that squaring the circle exactly was “probably” a mathematical impossibility. Nevertheless, he wrote, the Egyptians had managed “the greatest practical approximation to exactness” and used it in the construction of the Pyramid of Menkaure, which he regarded as having the greatest “perfection of form” of all the pyramids despite its relatively small size in comparison to the Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre.

Two decades later, John Taylor borrowed Agnew’s innovation without attribution and moved it from the Pyramid of Menkaure to the Pyramid of Khufu, apparently on the assumption that the pyramid used to codify a divine system of measurement must necessarily be the biggest and grandest of them all. (As for “perfection of form,” that has always been in the eye of the beholder on the Giza Plateau.)

Over two centuries before, John Greaves, the first European to make a methodical attempt to measure the Pyramid of Khufu, had assumed based on an anecdote from Herodotus that it is was constructed from four equilateral triangles, meaning the slope of each of its sides should be 60 degrees. Later surveyors had proved this not to be the case; the real figure was something close to 51.8 degrees. “What reason,” Taylor asked, “can be assigned for the founders of the Great Pyramid giving it this precise angle, and not rather making each face an equilateral triangle?” He didn’t bother asking the obvious companion question: why should they have made each face an equilateral triangle? Instead, having pre-determined that there was meaning in the pyramid’s shape and proportions, he proceeded to speculate what that meaning might be.

Here he made a rather astonishing leap of logic: the architects of the pyramid, he claimed, knew that the earth is a sphere, and even that it orbits around the sun rather than vice versa — a theory that had come to be accepted in Europe only in the last few centuries. Further, the architects had deduced the circumference of the earth by “observing the motion of the heavenly bodies over the earth’s surface.” “They assumed the Earth to be a perfect sphere,” Taylor wrote, “and as they knew that the radius of a circle must bear a certain proportion to its circumference, they then built a Pyramid of such a height in proportion to its base, that its perpendicular would be equal to the radius of a circle equal in circumference to the perimeter of the base.”  The Pyramid of Khufu thus preserved for posterity, by an incredibly convoluted means, a record of the circumference of the earth, which figure could be determined by multiplying the length of one of the pyramid’s base’s sides by 120 million. (How posterity was supposed to know what factor to use in making this calculation went unexplained.)

But there was more: the Pyramid of Khufu also encoded within its dimensions the value of pi, the sacred number its architects had needed to use to arrive at said dimensions in the first place. According at least to the measurements Taylor preferred to employ, the length of a side of the pyramid’s base was evenly divisible by a “sacred cubit” handed down directly from God — the latter being an old alchemical concept Taylor had borrowed from Isaac Newton. In Newton and Taylor’s world, a sacred cubit consisted of exactly 25 ancient inches, each of which was 1.001 imperial inches. (The modern world was, after all, an imperfect and fallen place even for a godly people like the Britons.) The fact that the pyramid could be measured in ancient inches or sacred cubits without recourse to fractions validated the measurement in Taylor’s mind.

And there was still more. The circumference of the earth by Taylor’s best reckoning was equal to precisely 1,570,896,000 ancient inches — again, no fractions required. His “logic” from here became so bizarre that I can’t hope to explain it. I can only quote it:

If this last measure is doubled, the figures amount to 3,141,792,000. Now it is well known, that the proportion which the diameter of a circle bears to its circumference, is expressed by the figures 1 to 3.1415972 [i.e., pi]; but these figures differ from those last mentioned only by the substitution of 5 for 7 in the fifth place. What is the reason for this remarkable agreement? Is it accidental? Or does it imply design?

The thunderingly obvious answer is that of course it’s accidental — or, rather, the product of a mind determined to come up with a desired correspondence by hook or by crook. Taylor was helped enormously in these endeavors by the sheer inexactness of all measurements of the pyramids to date. As we’ve seen, such complications as the enormous quantities of sand and rubble obscuring the true base of each of the pyramids, along with doubts about the thickness of the smooth casings that had once covered them, had made all proposed measurements of the pyramids, especially in their original forms with casings intact, into mere approximations at best. Thus Taylor had a wide range of numbers to choose from; when any given number didn’t fit his theories, it was easy enough to find another one that worked better. If he did this often enough, and fed these ideal numbers through enough convoluted calculations like the ones just described, he could always arrive at his desired result of “incontrovertible” proof that the imperial system was divinely inspired. The very ease with which he was able to shift Agnew’s original theory from the Pyramid of Menkaure to the Pyramid of Khufu, just by massaging the numbers a bit, demonstrates the process in action.

Now, all that remained was to anchor the actual event of the Pyramid of Khufu’s construction to the divine word of God. This didn’t strike Taylor as such a leap. Even the most sober-minded Egyptologists agreed that the pyramids were aligned to the cardinal points of the compass with a precision that would be difficult to better even in modern times. How could a people as primitive as the ancient Egyptians have accomplished such a feat if they hadn’t had divine help? Taylor reached back to a vague anecdote from Manetho, an Egyptian scholar of the post-pharaonic period who had written a history of his country. He had told of a group of “strangers” who had once entered Egypt and somehow conquered it without a battle. These people, Taylor decided, must have been a tribe of God’s chosen who had visited the country in the time between those of Noah and Abraham. The pharaoh Khufu had always had a terrible reputation in Egyptian history; witness the tales of cruelty and oppression which the Egyptians had told of him to Herodotus in circa 440 BC. This reputation must be down to the fact that the chosen strangers had convinced Khufu as well to worship the one true God, causing his “idolatrous” subjects to resent him forever. What people insisted on calling the Pyramid of Khufu wasn’t conceived by the Egyptians themselves to honor their pharaoh in death, but by a since-forgotten Biblical patriarch as a means of preserving a “Divine Revelation” made to him during the time before “the Art of Writing was communicated to mankind” through Moses.

Amidst much else, this claim ignored a growing body of evidence that the people who had built the Pyramid of Khufu did in fact have a system of writing — evidence which included the graffiti found by Vyse inside the pyramid itself, in a space where no one else  appeared ever to have ventured since the original builders had sealed it up. No matter; an illiterate Egyptian civilization at the time of the pyramid’s construction suited Taylor’s agenda, and thus must be the case.

Most of the sober thinkers of Taylor’s day were highly skeptical of his arguments for all of the reasons just given. He tried to present his ideas before the Royal Society of London, only to be roundly rejected. The Athenaeum, one of the predominant magazines of the British intelligentsia, likewise remained unconvinced in its review of his book: “He wants basis for his superstructure.” One critic pointed out cogently that “the broken surface of the Pyramid leaves us in doubt of what the angle really is, and what the measures of the base and height originally were — a doubt which makes it in vain to discuss any question which would be disturbed by a blunder of one in a hundred.” Even those willing to consider the possibility that the proportions of the Pyramid of Khufu revealed a surprisingly deep understanding of geometry on the part of the builders blanched at Taylor’s theories about it encoding a commandment from God handed down before the time of Moses. In light of all this, Taylor’s ideas would almost certainly have been entirely forgotten following his death in 1864 were it not for one man: Charles Piazzi Smyth.

An interest in ancient civilizations ran in the Smyth family, who were an accomplished and successful lot on anyone’s terms. Piazzi Smyth’s father was a distinguished Royal Navy officer named William Henry Smyth, whose duties during and immediately after the Napoleonic Wars caused him to spend much time in the Mediterranean. He became a personal acquaintance of Muhammad Ali during this period, and became fascinated with the heritage of the country. His enthusiasm for ancient Egypt was such that he named a daughter “Rosetta,” and even endeavored, albeit unsuccessfully, to negotiate the removal of a magnificent ancient obelisk known as “Cleopatra’s Needle” from Alexandria to London. (The removal would finally be effected under other auspices in 1877.)

Ironically, this elder Smyth had no truck whatsoever with the more metaphysical strains of Egyptology. Late in life, during his retirement in England, he was still mocking the “erroneous conclusions stamped with factitious erudition” of “the sages who perceived an indication of the mariner’s compass in the mystic Tau, the symbol of eternal life, and a still more inducted set who believed that the Pyramids were erected for the squaring of the circle.” Would that his son had inherited some of his skepticism.

And yet, prone to “factitious erudition” though he would indeed prove to be when it came to the Pyramid of Khufu, the younger Smyth was no more of an idiot in the abstract than his father — or, for that matter, than John Taylor. On the contrary: he was one of the preeminent astronomers of his time, whose reputation almost from adolescence was so prodigious that he was appointed in 1846, at the tender age of 27, to the prestigious posts of Astronomer Royal for Scotland and professor of astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. Over the course of the 42 years during which he would hold those posts, he would be  responsible for many breakthroughs. He’s remembered most of all today for his work in building observatories in the most remote of places, preferably at high altitudes, where light pollution and atmospheric disturbances are at their least. He stated that an astronomer must necessarily be “peripatetic”: a wanderer, going where the stars are clearest. In keeping with that philosophy, he traveled widely in pursuit of, to use his favorite phrase from Isaac Newton, “serene air above the gossamer clouds.” He can justly be regarded as the father of “mountaintop astronomy.”

Piazzi Smyth’s initial reaction to John Taylor’s book about the Pyramid of Khufu was actually very much in keeping with what we might expect from the learned son of the skeptical William Henry Smyth. He asked why Taylor failed to so much as mention the latest finding of respected Egyptologists like Karl Richard Lepsius, and asked why we should presume that the Pyramid of Khufu was endowed with so many hidden meanings when the rest of the monuments of ancient Egypt were not. These were  two very good, very sensible questions indeed. But sadly, no sentiment so sensible in regard to the Pyramid of Khufu would ever issue from Smyth again.

During the five years that followed the publication of Taylor’s book, Smyth gradually revised his initial opinion of it, going from curt dismissal to uncritical acceptance of virtually everything it contained. He never met Taylor in person, but the two corresponded extensively by post; Taylor, it seems, was thrilled to have such a respectable man of science take up his ideas. Following the older man’s death, Smyth took on the role of anointed mouthpiece of Taylor’s vision as a veritable religious undertaking, all but deifying his predecessor as a prophet, himself as his chosen disciple: “with almost his last breath emphatically he [Taylor] confided this, the most important labour of his long life-toil, to my most unworthy hands.”

In 1864, just a few months after Taylor’s death, Smyth published Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid. Taylor’s book on the same subject had been muddled and rambling, a rather poor prototype in many ways for the many future books of alternative Egyptology that would capture the public’s imagination. Smyth’s was the prototype perfected. It remains an oddly compelling — and oddly modern — read even today. The book opens with as much straight-to-the-point forcefulness as a PowerPoint presentation, with a recitation of the “Three Keys required for the opening of the Great Pyramid” — those being pure mathematics, the astronomical and physical sciences, and Biblical history. It then takes its reader by the hand for a shared journey through its revisionist past. To read it is to embark on an adventure, during which one will learn secrets which “they” — “they” being the Egyptological establishment — are too timid to countenance. Small wonder it became a bestseller, going through countless printings and several major revisions over the remaining 36 years of Smyth’s life.

Smyth left no doubt whence his inspiration had come; throughout his book, he credited John Taylor in all the ways the latter had failed to credit his own inspirations of Edme-François Jomard and H. Agnew. At the same time, though, Smyth took practical steps to remedy the more obviously dubious aspects of Taylor’s work, as well as to elaborate on those places where its details were particularly sketchy.

Smyth felt compelled by the growing mass of archaeological evidence to the contrary to back away from Taylor’s claim that an illiterate culture had constructed the Pyramid of Khufu. No worries: he made much of the lack of hieroglyphs on or in the pyramid in another way. Clearly, he reasoned, some divine “constraint” had “positively forbade [the Egyptians] from putting their unmistakable decorations and elsewhere accustomed inscriptions on the finished building; more especially too from identifying it in any manner, direct or indirect, with their impure and even bestial form of worship.” He dismissed the graffiti discovered above the King’s Chamber by Vyse, even with its direct references to Khufu, as having been mere “practical marks” used in the course of the construction, never intended to be seen. (This was admittedly true enough, even if one did have to wonder why the workers so repeatedly referenced the pharaoh for whom they were not building the pyramid. )

All of the other pyramids in Egypt, Smyth explained, had been built afterward by the Egyptians out of “involuntary bending to the sway of a really superior intelligence,” albeit whilst betraying “the most profound ignorance of their noble model’s chiefest internal features, as well as all of its niceties of angle and cosmic harmonies of linear measurement.” (He didn’t explain how the Egyptians were able to align their debased caricatures of the Pyramid of Khufu on the Giza Plateau so perfectly with the cardinal points of the compass without God’s help.) As such passages indicate, Smyth loathed the real ancient Egyptians with a passion which he otherwise reserved for Catholics and the French. For example, he called the Sphinx a “monster, an idol in itself, with symptoms typifying the lowest mental organization, [which] positively reeks with anti-Great Pyramid idolatry throughout its substance.” When he could combine his three great hates, so much the better. “As a rule,” he wrote, “it is Frenchman and Roman Catholics who get up the most outrageous enthusiasm for the Sphinx.”

These antipathies, one might even say, formed the very basis for his whole enterprise. Like Taylor, Smyth was tremendously invested in the imperial system of weights and measures. As he was writing and publishing his book, the debate over whether Britain should join so much of the rest of Europe in adopting the metric system — or, as Smyth derisively called it, the “French system” — was raging hotter than ever, with bills that would force said adoption having been introduced in Parliament. Smyth’s frenzy to prove that what he called the “pyramidal inch” was a gift from God, to be rejected at the nation of Britain’s peril, ultimately had more to do with these contemporary political concerns than anything that had ever taken place on the Giza Plateau. An everyday measuring system may strike us as a rather shabby sort of divine revelation, but to Smyth, desperate to hold back the winds of change, it was all-important.

Neither Taylor nor Smyth had actually visited the Giza Plateau prior to writing their books. After finishing his, however, Smyth finally remedied that. In November of 1864, he and his wife Jessica — an unusually adventurous woman, who shared in most of her husband’s endeavors to a surprising degree — boarded a passenger steamer in Wales for the trip to Alexandria, hence onward to Cairo. They brought with them the finest measuring equipment of the day; Smyth’s primary objective, as he had told his bemused and confused friends and colleagues, was to measure the Pyramid of Khufu for himself, thereby to “affirm” or “refute” his “wonderful theory of the Great Pyramid.” Many of his colleagues doubtless thought to themselves that it might have been a good idea to take this step before publishing a book on the subject — but then, most of them undoubtedly also knew perfectly well what his verdict must turn out to be.

Once the couple arrived in Cairo in December, they had to spend another month negotiating permission for their project from Director of Antiquities Auguste Mariette, who had virtually complete control of such matters. (And he was a Frenchman at that!) But at last they settled into a tomb on the Giza Plateau, where they were looked after by some of the same Egyptians who had served Vyse three decades before. They spent almost as much time as he had living at the site — some four months in all — and, although they had neither the permission nor the means to make new excavations, conducted the most meticulous survey of the Pyramid of Khufu to have been done since 1838.

Along with their cutting-edge measuring rods, telescopes, spirit levels, and clinometers, the couple had at least one piece of equipment that had been entirely unavailable to Vyse: a camera. The photographs they brought back with them were among the first ever taken on the Giza Plateau. People who couldn’t travel all the way to Egypt would no longer have to imagine the scene from sketches and textual descriptions. Now, at last, they could see it all for themselves.

One of the first ever photographs of the Pyramid of Khufu, taken by Charles Piazzi Smyth in early 1865. (Public Domain)
Jessica Smyth inside the King’s Chamber, standing beside the sepulcher of Khufu. Taking his lead from Edme-François Jomard, her husband insisted on calling the sepulcher a “coffer.” Rather than a receptacle for the pharaoh’s remains, he believed it to be a method of divine communication, its dimensions encoding information about such diverse topics as the density of the earth and the capacity of Noah’s Ark. (Public Domain)
One of the “keystone sockets” that had first been uncovered by Jomard at each corner of the Pyramid of Khufu. They seemed to furnish clues as to how far the pyramid had extended when its smooth outer casing was intact — but, because it wasn’t clear whether the pyramid had extended to their very outer edges, they actually offered a tempting range of possible measuring points, ideal for manipulating the numbers to get them just right for whatever numerological theory the measurer wished to “prove.” (Public Domain)
Smyth gone native, sporting an Egyptian tarboosh. Although his writings oozed contempt for all Egyptian culture, ancient and modern, he and his wife seem to have gotten on oddly well with the servants and guides who facilitated their stay on the Giza Plateau. (Public Domain)

As anyone familiar with the man could have predicted, Smyth claimed that his measurements confirmed everything he had already written about the Pyramid of Khufu in the broad strokes; it would only require a little modest massaging of the numbers and formulas in the next edition of his bestseller to make it all right as rain. In addition, he came home armed with many new theories, based on new mathematical concordances he claimed to have discovered. Astronomical measurements taken from just inside the pyramid’s entrance told him that it had been built in 2173 BC, an auspicious date when the Pleiades were at the equinox and the constellation of Draco was at the precise opposite pole; the perimeter of the pyramid’s base, which measured 365.25 sacred cubits, encoded the precise length of a year in days; the interior geometry of the pyramid communicated the pattern of astronomical precession, the slight wobble of the earth as it rotates on its axis; the sepulcher inside the King’s Chamber, which Smyth, borrowing from Jomard, refused to acknowledge as such and insisted on calling a “coffer” instead, encoded the density of the earth; the same coffer was exactly .0001 percent as large as Noah’s Ark; the ascending passageway leading up to the King’s Chamber was really a timeline of humanity’s past and future history (the point where it opened up into the handsome Grand Gallery, for example, marked the beginning of the Christian era); etc., etc.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh gave him a medal for his measurements, but pointedly not for his conclusions based on them. “His measurements were most exact, but [his] logic was most wretched,” said one of them. “It was a spurious archaeology and astronomy that fed such fancies and romances.” The same wag noted that the width of the brim of his hat was exactly one 20-millionth of the earth’s polar axis. Was the hat too therefore a message from God? Smyth responded to such raillery by comparing himself to Johannes Kepler, whose revolutionary ideas about planetary motion had had to wait until decades after his death to achieve wide acceptance: “The book is written to be read either now or by posterity. I care not which.”

In reality, though, Smyth’s book was being read in the here and now — being read and accepted by a large segment of the general public if not by most of his peers in academia. For people of a more conservative religious bent, it became a source of great comfort, a needed bolster for a traditionalist worldview that had been badly shaken by Charles Darwin among others. Unsurprisingly, Smyth was himself as heated an opponent of the theory of evolution as he was of the metric system. The Pyramid of Khufu, which he believed to be the very first man-made monument, had also been the largest in existence for many thousands of years. How was this compatible with evolution’s claim that humanity was the product of slow, gradual development? One American religious magazine put it thus:

Professor Smyth confronts [believers in the theory of evolution] with the Great Pyramid — no rude structure, like the mausolea on the banks of the Boyne, the mounds of our Western States, the heaps on the shores of the Euphrates and the Tigris — but a building combining accurate knowledge in its conception, with exquisite skill in its execution — and he says, “Up to a certain point in the historic scale, architectural monuments are not; and when this at length makes its appearance on the stage, it enters larger in its stature than its successors and as high in its intellectuality as any of them. This building, whence is it, of men or from God?” It matters not to which they attribute it; in either case the reply is fatal to their cherished theory.

The obvious riposte to such an argument was to note that, even if one agreed that the Pyramid of Khufu was the oldest monument worthy of the name still in existence, the fact of its ongoing existence was because of its enormous size, which had kept it at least partially unburied by the desert sand and made it extremely difficult to dismantle in its entirety. At the time of this article, archaeologists were already excavating earlier pyramids at locations other than Giza that, although in widely varying states of preservation, demonstrated the exact process of pyramidal evolution which this author believed to be lacking. (We’ll learn more about them in a future chapter.) But of course the magazine’s argument wasn’t really made in the expectation of a good-faith discussion of its merits. It was made to provide comfort to its like-minded readers, and this it doubtless did.

Placards like this one, advertising lectures drawn largely from Smyth, could be seen hanging outside of churches all over the Western world during the latter part of the 19th century. (Public Domain)

Theories of alternative Egyptology since Smyth have continued to reflect the intellectual and social tensions of their day, whether those tensions involve systems of measurement or possible visits to our planet by aliens from outer space. Even when presented in the guise of purely secular propositions, they continue to command among their adherents a fervor that can only be described as religious.

Just as God requires the Devil, the religion of pyramidology requires an antagonist to push back against. Here, as in so many other places, Piazzi Smyth provided the model. The preface to the 1881 edition of Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid is rather shockingly modern in the way it casts its author as the plainspoken Outsider seeking after the Truth that is being ignored by the intellectual and scientific classes, “the so-called Egyptologists; who, though exceedingly learned in their lettered way touching Egyptian remains of more recent times, have never much troubled themselves to examine the far more ancient, as well as purer, Great Pyramid in the mechanical and scientific way required. Indeed, the literary Egyptologists seem, by their criticisms, rather angered than otherwise, to hear that such precise and strictly provable data, in merely modern instrumental measure, when at last collected by others than themselves, are most successful in showing a radical difference between the Great, and every other, Pyramid in Egyptian land.”

Even much of the concrete historical evidence which the pyramidologists of later eras have had to work around is the same as that which caused Smyth headaches. The graffiti discovered by Vyse inside the Pyramid of Khufu, for example, remains today a consistent thorn in the side of those who would posit the structure to be a nuclear reactor or a gateway to another dimension rather than a mere tomb. They often resolve complications like these via that final recourse of alternative Egyptology, the conspiracy theory. They claim that Vyse faked the graffiti he found, although plausible reasons as to why he would have done such a thing — not to mention how he would have done it, given that he was untutored in Egyptian hieroglyphs — remain a considerable challenge to invent.

And yet it must be admitted that many of them do a better job of it than one might expect. The best modern priests of pyramidology are, like Smyth, non-idiots, compelling and imaginative writers possessed of enough logical facility to cobble together arguments that seem superficially compelling. In the end, this is all that a readership which desperately wants to believe really asks of them.

But still the question remains: just why have so many minds that could have done well at more productive pursuits followed Taylor and Smyth down this rabbit hole, at least some of them in good faith? The religion of pyramidology may be the ultimate testament to the ineffable power these strange monuments have over our psyches. As we stare at these blank masses of stone, they reflect our own times and thoughts back at us. If the Giza Plateau itself is a physical palimpsest of the history that has taken place there, the ever-shifting meanings and stories we layer upon the place from afar is a psychological palimpsest of who we once were, who we are now, and perhaps who we someday will become.

(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.)

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12 Comments for "Chapter 10: The Publisher and the Astronomer"

  • David Boddie

    A nice reflective interlude this time – very enjoyable to read. It makes me wonder what will come next.

    One typo: “It was made to provide comfort to its like-minded readers, and this is doubtless did.” (it doubtless did)

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks!

      Reply
  • 7iebx

    Hey Jimmy, just a mention that your post about this article on the Digital Antiquarian doesn’t appear to be a working link. At least, it didn’t work for me.

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Woops! Thanks!

      Reply
  • Brian

    Wait… are you saying you don’t believe that the pyramids are the waystation for the gray aliens currently surveilling Earth?

    Nice article, my favorite so far! And I don’t believe any of the quackery above at all.

    Reply
  • Martin

    You have made several references to the “builders graffiti”. Do you have any links so we can actually see it for ourselves.

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Good images can be tough to come by because the stress-relieving chambers are closed to the public. But there’s at least one decent photograph here, showing the cartouche of Khufu: http://myblog.robertbauval.co.uk/2014/07/24/two-dots-or-not-two-dots-that-is-the-question. Vyse’s original descriptions and sketches are found in his book about the Giza Plateau, which is freely available via archive.org and Google Books.

      Reply
      • Martin

        Perhaps that’s why there are all these alternate theories. That seems like the strongest piece of evidence of ‘normal’ man-made construction. Seems odd that it is not widely known or (putting on foil hat) the authorities know that the weirder stuff sells and don’t need this stuff too widely known.

        Reply
      • Mike

        They might need more protection.

        Two Germans vandalised the cartouches during 2013. They were cranks trying to ‘prove’ the pyramid wasn’t built by Khufu, but instead by a much older civilisation – possibly with the assistance of aliens (there seem to be links to modern day cranks like Hancock). They took unauthorised samples of the pigment from the cartouches then smuggled them out of the country without the necessary permits.

        The two, and their cameramen were tried in-absentia in Egypt and sentenced to five years in prion, a further twelve Egyptian employees from the Ministry for Antiquities and the Giza security team were also sent for trial. The German government returned the samples in 2014, but the damage was already done.

        Reply
  • Doug Orleans

    Two minor typos to report: “predominate” should be “predominant”, and “back way” should be “back away”. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks!

      Reply
  • Arekusu

    Great work! Thanks!

    Reply

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