An Ordered Landscape

We have come a long way since the idea that the pyramids were nothing but the product of the wildest dreams of megalomaniac sovereigns, monuments created without any overall design and packed with ventilation shafts. But our journey is not yet over.

We have still to tackle the problem of the topographical arrangement of the pyramids themselves, or more precisely of those located in that vast area stretching from Abu Roash to Abu Sir, by way of Giza.

Let us start with a careful look at a map of the plateau. Immediately one gets the impression that the arrangement of the great pyramid complexes on the plain is not random, but quite ordered, following a strict but unfathomable logic.

To remove any lingering doubts, let us suppose that we have one building in a neighborhood, and an architect decides to add another. He will normally build the new one in line with the others, unless there is not enough space, an intervening river, or some other natural obstruction. The other alternative is to break away completely from what already existed, to arrange the new building in as original a way as possible.

In fact, at Giza it did not happen either of these two ways. The designers did not choose to place the two buildings in line, even though they could have done so if they so wished. Aligning the pyramids on the same parallel would not have made sense, since it would involve moving steadily away from the Nile, with the preexisting pyramid plumb in the middle. But placing

G. Magli, Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-76566-2_19, 379 © Praxis Publishing, Ltd. 2009

N 300 m

N 300 m

Figure 19.1: Schematic map of the Giza plateau: 1, 2, 3 Main Pyramids; 4, 7, 12 funerary temples; 5, 8, 13 causeways; 6 modern village; 9 Khafre Valley Temple; 10, 11 Sphinx Temple and Sphinx; 14 Menkaure Valley Temple

the new pyramid on or near the same meridian of the preexisting one, facing the Nile, would have been a convenient solution in all respects. That, however, was not done, and not for any reasons relating to the morphology of the land—quite the opposite. Indeed, the geography of the place, if anything, would clearly have deterred the designers from building Khufu's pyramid so close to the rocky ridge running across the northern part of the plateau. As it was, to build the causeway sloping downhill, they had to create hefty structures out of stone blocks, which allowed the monumental path to leapfrog over the abrupt edge of the plateau, more than 20 meters high. Some of the blocks from this great endeavor can still be seen at the point where the Giza archaeological area ends, north west of the Great Pyramid, and the modern village of Naziet starts.

The pyramid of Khafre, in turn, even though it is located in a much more amenable place, in that it is the highest on the western horizon (making it seem taller than Khufu's, though in fact it is not), and the plateau stretches out more gently at the base, is not really situated in what would be the most natural position. The idea—sometimes put forward—that its location may be due to the necessity of having a free view in the north for orientation is easily seen to be unsound, since there was no need for a free horizon in the north to look at the sky in the zone of circumpolar stars; the maximal blocking-sight view of the first pyramid viewing from the parallel of the northern baseline of the second is nearly equal to the height of the pole. The best place of all would actually have been a few dozen meters eastward, avoiding the rocky ridge behind the west side. Yet, to build the monument exactly where they wanted it, the planners needed to cut through the bedrock of this ridge to a length of several hundreds meters. This huge gash is still visible today, running along the west side of the pyramid, and is one of the most spectacular engineering works ever carried out on the Giza plateau. The result, which was clearly planned and wanted, was that the diagonals of the two great pyramids are almost aligned in such a way that, as we shall see in a moment, the lines formed by the their southeast corners point toward a preordained direction.

This puzzling arrangement can be seen quite clearly in the reconstruction, made by Egyptologist Mark Lehner (1985a), of the plateau of Giza before and after the building of the pyramids. The plateau has a funnel shape, which, from the horizon visible from the Nile flood plain, narrows off as it descends gently toward today's sound-and-light-show area, opposite the second pyramid temples, while to the north the rocky ridge rises steeply until it forms the outcrop in front of the east side of the first pyramid. By studying the geology of the area, Lehner also discovered something curious: the main quarry for the first pyramid is situated to its south, a quite natural position, but it stops just at the level of the second pyramid's causeway. Since it is obvious that it would have been preferable to start the quarry as near the pyramid as possible so that the access ramp would be initially low and short, it would appear that the designer had factored in the construction of the second pyramid's causeway right from the start.

Finally, the position of the third pyramid, that of Menkaure, is completely incomprehensible. It is located very, very far, a long way off from everything else, lost in the desert. Thus, enormous extra effort was required to build it; for example, the lower courses of casing, made of heavy granite blocks from Aswan, were transported along the Nile and then laboriously dragged across the desert. No geological or morphological reasons can justify planting a pyramid in such an insignificant, almost hidden location. At first glance, the only conceivable reason might be that placing the pyramid at such a distance enabled the southeast corner to be aligned with those of the other two pyramids. . .

Thus, there can be no doubt that a scheme with its own internal logic was followed at Giza. The two great pyramids, in particular, show clear signs of constituting a unified project, and the pyramid of Menkaure seems to have been deliberately planned to correlate harmoniously with them. The same can be said of the causeways and temples, as we shall see in the next section. The basic problem, then, is understanding the logic behind it all. And yet it does not appear that Egyptologists ever considered the possibility that the great structures of the Giza plateau were all created according to an overall design or common framework (see e.g. Jordan 1999).

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