The Great Pyramid of Egypt stands proudly on the edge of the Giza plateau as the only surviving ancient wonder of the world. It has been singled out of the one hundred or so other pyramids of Egypt by many authors over the years and many theories over its purpose have arisen in that time. There are even some who still question that this is the tomb of a king named Khufu who reigned in the fourth dynasty, about four and a half thousand years ago.
Just why has Khufu's pyramid become the centre of such speculation when there are over one hundred others in Egypt? At 146.6 meters in height it is the largest pyramid ever built and was unsurpassed as the tallest man made structure in the world for thousands of years until the completion of France's Eiffel Tower. A prominent and unique aspect of Khufu's pyramid is the location of its burial chamber placed high in the upper structure, most of the other pyramids having their chambers on or below ground level. Much discussion has taken place concerning the four so-called 'ventilation shafts' that emanate from the King's and Queen's chambers, a feature not present in any of the other pyramids. The Great pyramid was built at a time when Egyptian masonry had risen to the peak of excellence and of all the pyramids, it is the most accurately orientated to the cardinal points.
The view of the Great Pyramid's internal chamber system that is generally printed in books on the subject is either from the east looking west, or from the west looking east. From this direction the ascending and descending passages, the magnificence of the Grand Gallery and the Antechamber can be clearly observed as the passage system runs along a north-south axis. This view also shows the means by which the individual chambers were accessed.
Chamber system of the Great Pyramid looking west
The Ancient Egyptians aligned the four sides of their pyramids with the cardinal directions with the aid of the North celestial pole, determined by observing the circumpolar stars. These stellar gods who eternally circle the pole were called the 'Imperishable Ones', the stars that neither rise nor set. Most pyramids have a passage leading from the interior to the exterior that is aimed like a telescope at this region. The inner heart of the pyramid is fixed on to this celestial hub around which the heavens rotate.
While designing the internal works of the pyramid, a number of different perspectives from all directions would have undoubtedly been drawn up. This concentration on the alignment of the pyramid with the Northern polar region of the sky, however, would suggest that the view from the south looking north was considered the principal perspective.
This less common depiction of the complete chamber system and connecting passageways viewed from the south looking north forms an image resembling that of a standing man wearing a crown. This man stands facing west, the entrance to the 'Underworld'. His crown formed by the set of small chambers situated above the King's chamber could be viewed as the top section of the Djed or Tet pillar, a symbol that later became synonymous with the resurrected god, Osiris. The custom of Ancient Egyptian Kings to identify themselves with Osiris in death dates back to a very early epoch, and the ritual of 'Raising the Djed Pillar' dates back to even earlier times. The funeral ceremonies that were carried out upon the body of the deceased King were meticulous and elaborate and great care was taken to ensure that the King was entombed with the necessary equipment to guarantee him everlasting life. The pyramid itself functioned as a part of this funeral equipment.
Ancient Egyptian artists and sculptors used particular canons of proportions when drawing or sculpting figures. When the canon is applied to the layout of the chamber system it can be confirmed that the positioning of the chambers and aspects of their dimensions comply with the proportions of figures depicted in papyri and tomb reliefs from the same period. This innovative arrangement of the pyramid's chamber system to form a hidden 'statue' of the anthropomorphised Djed pillar may reflect an early experimental stage of pyramid design.
A number of Egyptologists such as Mark Lehner and James P. Allen have noted that certain features of the pyramid reflect aspects of the religion described by the Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead, or as it was called by the Egyptians, "The Chapters of Going Forth by Day". Late Egyptologist and Director-General of Egyptian Antiquities, Sir Gaston Maspero, when speaking of Khufu's pyramid, claimed:
"The Pyramid and the Book of the Dead reproduce the same original,
the one in words, and the other in stone."
Pyramids built after Khufu's, such as that of Unas, had their chamber and passage walls covered in hieroglyphic scripts conveying the King's relationship with the cosmic forces and the heavenly gods. Commonly known and referred to as the 'Pyramid Texts', they are considered to be the oldest corpus of Ancient Egyptian religious texts.
These inscriptions contain spells and directions for the rituals that were carried out to allow the King to be transformed and resurrected. In them the King is likened to the Djed Pillar and is repeatedly identified with Osiris. In fact, Osiris features heavily in the Pyramid Texts with over 170 separate spells or utterances referring to him, suggesting that even at this early point in history Osiris had become a key player in the funeral texts. The Great Pyramid is totally void of such texts, but this does not necessarily mean that these concepts are not present. The resemblance of the god of resurrection inside Khufu's pyramid would indicate that the architecture was designed to incorporate key aspects of Ancient Egyptian myths and legends, elements that form the basis of their religion.
James P. Allen recently compared the location of the texts within the pyramid of Unas with other Old Kingdom pyramids and tombs. He recognised that the position of particular groups of texts within Unas' pyramid corresponded with the placement of the same texts in other pyramids. Spells that were recited during the ritual were immortalised as texts on the walls, further complimenting the symbolism of the tomb's layout. According to Allen the direction of the texts lead the soul's path through the tomb, flowing from the innermost parts of the sarcophagus chamber, through the Antechamber to the outside of the pyramid.
The layout of the tomb complex was designed according to the mythological locations described by the religion of the ancient Egyptians. It was thought that the soul of the King would leave his body in the sarcophagus and move from the western end of his tomb chamber to the eastern end, like the Sun after its death in the west moves underneath the Earth towards the eastern horizon where it will be reborn. The King's soul would then leave the sarcophagus chamber at its eastern end, pass through the Antechamber and fly through the corridors of the tomb to be released into the light; the soul's "Going Forth by Day".
Built in the dynasty preceding that of Unas, the Great Pyramid's walls contain no texts at all, though it is most likely that the same spells were recited at the same locations in Khufu's pyramid as they were in other pyramids. The inscription of the spells on the walls of the tomb are clearly not present in the earlier pyramids, though the arrangement of their chamber systems portray the same architectural metaphors.
Descriptions of Ancient Egyptian religion found in texts such as the Pyramid Texts and later the Book of the Dead, reflect the same themes that are manifested in the architecture of the pyramids. Perhaps more interestingly however, the portrayal of the God of Resurrection within the Great Pyramid provides a new approach to interpreting the tomb.
The Concept of the Pyramid