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Inside the Great Pyramid: Unraveling the Mystery

CEO Khai Intela
The Great Pyramid: Built for the Pharaoh Khufu in about 2570 B.C., sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and arguably the most mysterious structure on the planet Wiki Commons There is...

The Great Pyramid The Great Pyramid: Built for the Pharaoh Khufu in about 2570 B.C., sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and arguably the most mysterious structure on the planet Wiki Commons

There is a story, though probably fictional, about Napoleon and his encounter with the Great Pyramid. Legend has it that during his Nile expedition in 1798, Napoleon decided to spend a night alone inside the King's Chamber, the granite-lined vault at the heart of the monument. This chamber is believed to be the final resting place of Khufu, the most powerful ruler of Egypt's Old Kingdom. It is said that the sarcophagus of the Pharaoh, a fractured mass of red stone, produces a haunting ring when struck.

Venturing into the pyramid's daunting interior armed with only a flickering candle, Napoleon emerged the next morning visibly shaken. Though he chose to remain silent about what occurred that night, it wasn't until his deathbed, 23 years later, that he finally spoke up. Yet, he quickly dismissed the idea of sharing his experience, stating, "Oh, what's the use? You'd never believe me."

Now, while this story may not be true, it does highlight the enduring fascination with the enigmatic Great Pyramid. Its interior is just as captivating as its exterior. The sheer magnitude of the structure, composed of 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing over two tons, is awe-inspiring. The precision with which its sides align to the cardinal points of the compass, differing in length by no more than two inches, is mind-boggling. Standing at 481 feet tall, it remained the tallest man-made structure for nearly 4,000 years. But all these superlatives don't shed light on its mysterious airless interior.

Few understand why Khufu commissioned such an elaborate system of hidden passages and chambers within the pyramid. Out of the 35 tombs constructed between 2630 and 1750 B.C., the Great Pyramid is unique in its elevated design. Previous pyramids had burial chambers built at ground level or were solid structures with underground burial chambers. The prevailing theory once suggested that the pyramid's complex features were the result of successive plan changes to accommodate the Pharaoh's growing divine stature. However, American Egyptologist Mark Lehner challenges this notion, presenting evidence that the pyramid's design was fixed from the start. If true, it adds another layer of mystery to the pyramid's internal layout.

According to the Quarterly Review in 1818, the known passages and vaults only occupy a minuscule fraction of the pyramid's volume. The review speculates that there could be thousands of hidden chambers, each equivalent in size to the sarcophagus chamber, concealed within the structure. This staggering possibility further deepens the pyramid's enigma.

Yet, while the pyramid's design remains elusive, there is another puzzle that should be easier to unravel: who first entered the Great Pyramid after its sealing in 2566 B.C. and what did they discover inside? Mainstream studies often overlook this question, assuming that all Egyptian tombs, excluding Tutankhamun's, were plundered soon after completion. However, evidence suggests otherwise. When Khufu's grandson Menkaure's pyramid was opened in 1837, it was found to contain a mummy interred around 100 B.C., indicating previous ransacking and reuse.

Subterranean chamber The subterranean chamber in the Great Pyramid, photographed in 1909, showing the mysterious blind passage that heads off into the bedrock before terminating abruptly in a blank wall after 53 feet.

The evidence surrounding the Great Pyramid's potential plundering is inconclusive, offering conflicting accounts. Some sources claim that the upper reaches of the pyramid remained sealed until they were opened during Arab rule in the 9th century A.D. However, these accounts also imply that when the Arabs first entered the King's Chamber, the royal sarcophagus was already open, and Khufu's mummy was missing.

This discrepancy is crucial, as it forms the basis for certain popular theories that challenge Khufu's burial within the pyramid. Some suggest that if the pyramid wasn't a tomb, it must have served as a repository for ancient wisdom, an energy accumulator, or even a map of humanity's future. To understand what happened, it is essential to refer to the accounts of antiquaries, travelers, and scientists who explored Giza before the advent of modern Egyptology in the 19th century.

The Great Pyramid contains two distinct tunnel systems, the lower system resembling those found in earlier monuments and the upper system being unique to this pyramid. The lower system begins at a concealed entrance 56 feet above the ground on the north face, leading to the Subterranean Chamber deep within the pyramid. This unfinished cavern, inaccessible today, holds a mysterious pit on its floor and marks the starting point of a small, cramped tunnel with an unknown purpose, ultimately terminating in the bedrock.

Tunnel The forced tunnel in the north face of the Great Pyramid, supposedly dug on the orders of Caliph Ma'mun early in the ninth century.

Above this, within the main structure, the second tunnel system leads to a series of funerary vaults. To deter tomb robbers, the Ascending Passage was blocked with granite plugs, and its entrance in the Descending Passage was cleverly disguised. Beyond these obstacles lie the Grand Gallery, Queen's Chamber, and King's Chamber. The air shafts found in these chambers have revealed exciting discoveries. The air shafts in the Queen's Chamber, concealed until their rediscovery in the 19th century, were famously explored by robots and found to end in mysterious miniature "doors." These revelations have only fueled the hope that the Great Pyramid conceals even more secrets.

It is widely believed that the Descending Passage was opened in antiquity. Accounts from Herodotus in 445 B.C. and Strabo around 20 A.D. suggest this. However, there is no evidence that the Greeks or Romans knew about the hidden Ascending Passage. The record becomes intriguing in the 9th century during the reign of the inquisitive and learned Muslim ruler, Caliph Ma'mun.

But we must look beyond the obvious to understand the events that transpired. Most scholarly accounts firmly state that it was Ma'mun who first breached the upper reaches of the pyramid in 820 A.D. Allegedly, by then, the true entrance had been long forgotten. Ma'mun, therefore, selected a likely spot and tasked his men with creating a new entry point, which they accomplished with a stroke of luck.

Popular Science magazine, in 1954, put it this way:

"It was then, modern accounts continue, that Ma'mun's men realized that they had uncovered a secret entrance. Tunneling around the impenetrable granite, they emerged in the Ascending Passage below the Grand Gallery. At that point, they had defeated most of Khufu's defenses, and the upper reaches of the pyramid lay open to them."

This story, if accurate, adds an intriguing layer to the mystery. If the upper passages were truly concealed, it raises questions about Khufu's mummy and the opulent funerary treasures one would expect to find. The only alternative access to the upper vaults is through a crude "well shaft," whose entrance is concealed near the Queen's Chamber and exits far below in the Descending Passage. This shaft was likely dug as an escape route for workers who placed the granite plugs, but it is too narrow and rough to accommodate large treasures. Consequently, the enigma of the King's Chamber remains unsolved.

Granite plug The granite plug blocking access to the upper portion of the Great Pyramid. The fall of the large limestone cap concealing this entrance supposedly alerted Arab tunnelers to the location of Khufu's passages.

Is it possible, though, that the Arab accounts, which Egyptologists often rely on, may not be as reliable as they seem? While some aspects seem to align, others raise doubts. For instance, later visitors to the Great Pyramid were frequently disturbed by large bats roosting deep within the interior. If Ma'mun's men did not encounter them, it may suggest that no prior entry had occurred. However, other elements within these early accounts lack credibility. When examined closely, they reveal a confusing and contradictory portrayal of the pyramids. Most of these accounts originated several centuries after Ma'mun's time and make no mention of the crucial date of 820 A.D. confidently stated in modern Western works. Moreover, the reliability of all these accounts is further called into question by the fact that the chronology of Ma'mun's reign indicates he spent the year 820 in his capital, Baghdad, and only visited Cairo in 832. If he did indeed enter the Great Pyramid, it would have been in that later year.

Why, then, do Egyptologists accept that Ma'mun was responsible for penetrating the pyramid, and how did the falling capstone story circulate? The answer to the former question often hinges on one supposedly corroborating account dating back to the 820s. It is an old Syriac fragment mentioned by French writer Silvestre de Sacy in 1802, which describes Christian patriarch Dionysius Telmahrensis accompanying Ma'mun to the pyramids and providing a detailed account of the caliph's excavation. However, this account also dates to several hundred years later. It appears not in Dionysius' own chronicle (completed before Ma'mun's time) but in the 13th-century Chronicon Ecclesiasticum of Bar-Hebraeus, who incorporated passages from Dionysius. The authenticity of these passages cannot be established. Adding to the complexity, the fragment merely mentions Dionysius peering into "an opening" in one of the Giza monuments, with no certainty whether it was a passage in the Great Pyramid or even excavated by Ma'mun. Consequently, we are still reliant on late-date Arab sources.

The story of the falling capstone is an enigma of its own. It first appears in Charles Piazzi Smyth's writings in the mid-19th century, but the source of the story remains unclear. There are hints that it may have originated from the works of Muslim scientist Abu Salt al-Andalusi, who acquired his knowledge while under house arrest in an ancient library in Alexandria. Yet, even if Smyth derived his account from Abu Salt, the Muslim chronicler lived in the 12th century, hundreds of years after Ma'mun's time. So, while there is a slim chance that the capstone story is based on older, lost sources, we cannot be certain. It is equally plausible that the story was a fabrication.

The forced entry into the pyramid, a narrow passage hacked into the limestone, seems too perfect to be mere coincidence. It begs the question of whether someone, somewhere, long before the arrival of Muslims in Egypt, knew precisely where to dig. This would suggest that "Ma'mun's passage" had been created centuries earlier, perhaps even during dynastic times, only to be buried and forgotten. This realization challenges the notion that Khufu's greatest mystery remained a well-kept secret.

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