Orion Sirius and the Sacred Landscape in the Age of the Pyramids

Still other clues point to a unitary project at Giza. First, however, we have to widen our analysis to the global arrangement of the plateau, and beyond.

As we have learned, interesting discoveries in the realm of archaeotopo-graphy are made by applying the methods of archaeoastronomy to landscape (natural or human-made) features when studying alignments. For instance, we have seen that monument builders in the past took great interest in sacred mountains, as in the case of the Incas or of the dolmen of Antequera in Spain (see Chapter 15).

The French Egyptologist Goyon (1994) was probably the first to suspect that two ancient cities located north of Giza, Letopolis and Heliopolis, had an important role to play in the sacred landscape of the Age of the Pyramid.

Letopolis was sacred to Horus and lay on the west bank of the Nile, directly north of Giza. This association with the north, and thus with the constellation of the Bull's Foreleg, was reinforced by the fact that the very shape of the Nile territory as it widens in the delta recalls this constellation, and indeed Letopolis was the capital of the Egyptian province bearing the name "Bull's Leg.''

Heliopolis, situated northeast of Giza on the east bank of the Nile, had been a center for sun worship since the earliest dynasties (see Chapter 16). The sun temple of Heliopolis was known as Iunu, that is, "column'' or "pillar," and was a sort of "umbilicus mundi'' of the country; there would appear to be no doubt that the priests there were engaged in astronomy.

Apart from noting that Letopolis lay exactly to the north of Giza, Goyon also noticed that the distances between Giza and Letopolis and between Letopolis and Heliopolis are approximately equal. Further, at Giza there is a clear signal of interest in Heliopolis: the "diagonal," on which the southeast corners of the three pyramids align, points toward this city.

Another aspect that might be significant in the link between Giza and Heliopolis is the position of the capital of the Old Kingdom, Memphis. Memphis stands further to the south of Giza, on the west bank of the Nile, close to the necropolis of Saqquara. The location does not appear to be particularly appealing for the erection of the most important city in the kingdom; it is near the Nile flood plain and criss-crossed (even today) by irrigation canals dating most probably from ancient times. Recently, however, during his survey for the refurbishment of the whole Giza area (the Giza Master Plan Project), architect Tarek Naga (personal communication to the author) noticed that Giza, Heliopolis, and Memphis roughly form the

Zawiet Aryan Map
Figure 19.4: Intervisibility of the pyramids of the Memphite area and Heliopolis (adapted from Jeffreys)

three vertices of a "sacred" right-angled triangle (the 3,4,5-sided triangle) of which the Memphis-Heliopolis stretch takes up the hypotenuse.

It is tempting to assume, then, that Heliopolis was somehow the center of attraction for the entire sacred area during the Age of the Pyramids. Could this really be the reason why Menkaure puzzlingly chose to build his own pyramid in an area so far from the ridge of the plateau—the desire to align its corner along the Giza diagonal that indicated Heliopolis? Nevertheless, sliding the corner of a pyramid along a line is obviously not sufficient for fixing its position on the ground. One must also decide where to stop—and Menkaure decided to stop pretty far off. Why?

One possible answer is provided by the controversial but nonetheless fascinating theory called the Orion correlation theory. We imagine ourselves at Giza, watching the sky to the southeast on a clear night, while we await the rising of the stars of Orion's Belt. In the sky twinkles the Winding Waterway of the Milky Way. The first to rise is the constellation of Taurus, with its

Figure 19.5: An old picture of the Giza Plateau from south-west; the line defined by the right corners of the pyramids in the picture points to Heliopolis.

elongated shape, then Orion, and then the Belt, which is unmistakable, as it consists of three stars, two of which (Al Nitak and Al Nilam) have virtually the same brilliance, and the third (Mintaka) is slightly less bright. We can trace out a segment, a main diagonal, between the first two stars. The third star, however, does not lie on the diagonal; it is a little displaced. Now let us look at the ground: to our left flows the stately Nile, and we have three enormous pyramids, two almost identical, with a smaller third one, slightly displaced with respect to the diagonal of the other two. The idea, then, is that the overall arrangement of the three pyramids in relation to each other, and also to the Nile, has been astronomically anchored to create a terrestrial image of the three stars of Orion's Belt and their position in relation to the Milky Way (Bauval 1989, 1995). (Another of Bauval's proposals—that the arrangement of these monuments is linked to the configuration of these stars at a much earlier time than the Age of the Pyramids—is not supported by historical or archaeological evidence, and therefore has to be rejected.)

If this theory is right, Giza is a beautiful example, as well as being one of the first chronologically, of a sacred landscape that has been conceived as a replica of the sky. To test its validity, we first consider the quantitative aspect. This test can be done using a high-resolution photograph of the Belt, and identifying the two points defined by the brightest stars of the Belt with the centers of the Khufu and Khafre pyramids. Using the scale thus obtained and looking for the position of Menkaure, it is seen that the center of this pyramid is located about 30 meters away from the point that would correspond to the third star (this latter point falls therefore within the base of the pyramid).

What are the odds that it is just a coincidence? It is difficult to answer this question since we are not dealing with an astronomical alignment in the strict technical sense of the term (Magli and Belmonte 2008). In fact, the distance of the stars from one another hardly varies at all over time, and so if we carefully choose three points, anywhere, that have the same arrangement and scale (not so difficult to find—for example, three towns conveniently selected from an atlas or three lampposts), we can claim to have discovered a correlation with Orion produced yesterday or a hundred years ago. The sport of seeking stellar correlations in the layouts of cities, cathedrals (or even mountains ...), often not even visible from one another, has become immensely popular on the Web. Therefore, a rigorous approach is insufficient to prove the validity of the theory. One could even reverse the process and, keeping fixed the pyramids, find three other stars that match. However, the Pyramid Texts (Chapter 17) confirm that the stars of Orion belonged to the Duat realm of stellar rebirth in the Old Kingdom funerary

Taunts

Taunts

Figure 19.6: The "Duat" region of the sky

cult, and the orientation of the southern shafts of the Khufu pyramid further strengthens this conclusion at Giza; therefore, the proposal of an Orion correlation makes sense.

All in all, I believe that, although we cannot assert that the correlation is "proven," it provides a feasible explanation for the problem of understanding why the third pyramid was located so far away in the desert. I do think, however, that the original layout of the two main pyramids had nothing to do with the correlation with Orion; if the correlation is really there, then it was Menkaure who had the clever idea (since for reasons of shortage of resources, he was forced to build a more modest pyramid than the other two) of taking advantage of the existing ones and adding a new ""dimension'', the representation of the third star on the ground, thus assuring himself the title of ""great,'' along with his predecessors (the name of the third pyramid was "Menkaure is divine''). Most of the criticisms that have been leveled against the Orion correlation theory actually tend to be somewhat subjective or prejudiced, except perhaps that of the archaeoastronomer Edwin Krupp (1997b), who rejects it observing that, if one looks at the plateau of Giza, from north to south, and compares it with the sky, one sees, in order across the plateau, Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, and in order across the sky, Mintaka, Al Nilam, and Al Nitak. So it might be said that the pyramids and stars were

"cross-linked" (the cardinal points in the sky and on earth were exchanged) when the image of the sky was brought down to the earth. This objection is a valid one, but there is no absolute recipe for replicating the sky; further, if Menkaure conceived the idea, he had no other way round to realize it.

Another topographical issue that might be possibly assuaged by archaeoastronomy regards the choice of the site of Abu Roash by Khufu's first son, Djedefre. Again, it makes sense that this king did not choose the best available position for building a pyramid—which, as we have repeatedly seen, essentially was that of Khafre—only if one admits that this position was already occupied. However, instead of choosing another building site on the plateau (it is certain that works in Giza were carried out under Djedefre, since the Khufu boat pit brings his cartouches), he moved several kilometers north, to a hill that should have created additional problems for the access of materials from the Nile. Why did he move there?

Whether it is by chance or not, the Abu Roash pyramid is situated at an azimuth, in relation to Heliopolis, equivalent to that of the sun at the winter solstice, which was thus seen from this city as setting on the pyramid (Bauval 2006); Sirius also had a similar azimuth at the time of the construction of the pyramid (Shaltout et al. 2007), and perhaps this was connected to the name of the pyramid, which was "Djedefre is a star Sehedu" (we do not know the meaning of the term Sehedu). Therefore, the project for Djedefre's pyramid was likely linked to Heliopolis. Actually, in a comprehensive study of the visibility between Heliopolis and the Old Kingdom pyramids, Egyptologist David Jeffreys (1998) has shown that all the pyramids of those pharaohs claiming an "affinity with the sun'' were built in areas on the west bank of the Nile that were visible along with Heliopolis—from the north, Abu Roash, Giza, and Zawiet el Aryan. The last site visible with Heliopolis going south is that of the sun temples of Abu Gurob; even further southward, the view is blocked by the rocky formation that stretches out into the medieval citadel of Cairo.

Thus, strong evidence exists that, under the fourth dynasty, the entire area of Memphis was conceived of as a sacred landscape, with isolated monuments that communicated with one another visually during the day and via astronomical alignments at dawn, sunset, and during the night. It is likely that some of these links are yet to be discovered. As far as we are concerned, however, our journey is almost over, except for one very last thing.

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