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Original Essays

Don't Try This at Home, Kids

by Bob Brier
  1. The Secret of the Great Pyramid: How One Man
    $14.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "It's a plausible theory, well-illustrated, and makes a useful addition to the always seductive study of pyramids. An intriguing new twist to an old enigma." Kirkus Reviews

    "Rather than immediately bowl readers over with Houdin's proposal, Brier cleverly entices them by alternating Houdin's quest with the trial-and-error development of pharaonic pyramids....[A] book to fascinate pyramid fans." Booklist

  2. The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story
    $0.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Breath[es] life into old bones and artifacts..." Booklist (starred review)

    "Brier obviously knows his subject and is impassioned by it. Readers who enjoy history or true-crime stories will be intrigued by this work." School Library Journal

  3. Ancient Egyptian Magic
    $18.99 New Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "[A] dazzling array of age-old mysteries." Dallas Morning News
It always surprises my students when I tell them we don't know how the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. Dancing in their heads are Hollywood's images of lots of guys hauling blocks up a huge ramp. The truth is, that simply wouldn't work. In order for the workers to pull the blocks, the ramp would have to have a gentle slope; but the pyramid is 480 feet high, and that would mean that Hollywood's ramp stretches for more than a mile. The ramp would be greater in volume than the pyramid! Also, archaeologists have never found the remains of such a ramp, and something that big doesn't just disappear in the dry desert. So how the Great Pyramid was built is still one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of our time.

French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin may have the solution to that puzzle. He is convinced that the two-and-a-half-ton blocks were brought to the top via a mile-long ramp corkscrewing upwards inside the pyramid — like a ramp in a parking garage — and the ramp is still inside the pyramid waiting to be discovered.

According to Jean-Pierre's theory, the internal ramp corkscrews up the pyramid in 22 straight flights. At the end of each flight, the workers hauling the blocks had to make a left turn into the next flight of the ramp, but that created a problem. You need space to turn the massive blocks, and the tunnel-like ramp would have been constricting. Jean-Pierre's idea is that, at the end of each flight, the corners of the pyramid were left open to let in light and air and provide space for the turn. But this is just theory. Is there any evidence for this? My job was to see if there was.

About 375 feet up the northeast corner of the pyramid is a notch large enough to be seen from the ground. It is just where Jean-Pierre's theory says there should be one, but we needed a closer look to see if it was an intentional construction. When the pyramid was completed with a casing of fine white limestone, the notch would have been filled in, but in the Middle Ages, the Arabs used the pyramid as a quarry for stone to build their mosques. This is probably when the notch was revealed. The only way to know if it was evidence for the internal ramp theory was to climb up and examine it.

Climbing the Pyramid is strictly forbidden for tourists, and only in very special circumstances can researchers get permission. We had permission, but it was not carte blanche. There was only one day when we could do it, and it would have to be after the Giza Plateau was free of tourists so they wouldn't see us and want to climb it themselves. Our time to climb was 6:00 p.m. on a day when the temperature on the little thermometer clipped to my bag registered 111 degrees. The National Geographic Channel was filming us for a documentary about Jean-Pierre's radical new theory of how the pyramid was built, and they wanted to film the climb, so they had a cameraman who was an experienced climber join me. I have climbed the pyramid many times, but never the northeast corner. Here the blocks are larger than at other corners, and the poor stone quality makes footholds a bit tricky. Because of the difficulty, it was decided it would just be me and Nicolas, our cameraman.

Before climbing, I met Jean-Pierre at the base of the pyramid to go over what I hoped to accomplish. I am not an architect, and wanted to know what to look for. He told me to measure the notch, examine the join where the lateral walls met the pavement, and look for any cracks that might allow me to peer in for evidence of the ramp. We said our goodbyes, and with a tape measure and small digital camera stuffed into my pocket, I began my ascent.

I was happy to have Nicolas, our cameraman, with me. As an experienced climber, he was better at picking the safest route, so I followed his lead. On the northeast corner, the blocks are about four and a half feet high for the first 20 or so courses, a bit high to hoist oneself up, so we decided to begin not at the corner but in the center of the north face of the pyramid, where the blocks were about a foot smaller. Once we were above the bottom 20 courses, we began to make our way horizontally, away from the center, towards the corner. Then it became a bit tricky. Think of the Pyramid as a giant staircase and you will have a good idea of what is involved. Normally you just keep hoisting yourself up from one level to the next. However, because the stones are crumbly here, much of the step portion has eroded, and as we made our way horizontally along one course, footing became quite difficult. Each ledge was only about nine inches deep and covered with limestone flakes. Careful not to rely on our footing, we hung on to the block above us, using the ledge for as little support as possible. Nicolas had the camera in his backpack and seemed to be doing quite well, but still each step was a bit tense. When we finally reached the corner, life got considerably better. The stones were smaller and of better quality, and soon we were moving quickly up the giant's staircase. After about five minutes we came to a very small notch. Nicolas asked if this was it, and I explained we still had a couple of hundred feet to go, and we set off.

The tourists were gone, and the calming silence along with a cooling breeze made the ascent a pleasure even though the temperature was 111 degrees. As we neared where I thought the notch should be, Nicolas went ahead so he could film me from above, climbing to the notch. After waiting a couple of minutes for him to get into position and set up, I climbed to the notch.

Jean-Pierre and I had speculated for years about what the notch would look like up close, and it wasn't what I expected. It was larger, and the pavement was quite rough; not exactly what one would want for hauling blocks. I quickly began taking the measurements Jean-Pierre had requested; I didn't want to be out in the sun for too long in this heat. Again a surprise — the area was irregular; not what I expected for a notch crafted to turn blocks. Perhaps it was just a result of medieval stone robbing. As I took measurements, I could see a crevice at the back of the notch. I decided to take my photos first, while I had good light, and then I would peek in. As I was measuring and taking photos, I explained to Nicolas and the camera what I was doing and why. I had a double purpose for this. National Geographic would get the sequence they wanted, but I would also have a video record of all my measuring as a backup. Finally, it was time to look through the crevice, and this is where the big surprise came.

I didn't have to peer in; I squeezed through the two-foot opening and found myself inside a cavern-like space about eight feet square and nine feet high! It was a very crude room with rough walls, and clearly it was ancient. The blocks of stone in this section were much larger than the opening I had slipped through, so stones couldn't have been removed at a later time to create the open space. What was a room doing so high up on the pyramid? I am not a pyramid expert — my specialty is mummies — but for the past few years I had been reading everything I could find on the Great Pyramid just so I could understand what Jean-Pierre was talking about, and I was certain I had never read anything about this room. Why wasn't it discussed in the literature? I wasn't the first to discover it — there was bold black graffiti dated 1845 on one of the blocks — but the room just seemed to have gone unnoticed.

The sun was starting to go down, but there was just enough light for me to take some photos of the interior and measure it quickly so Jean-Pierre would have some data to work from rather than just my description. Again Nicolas photographed me as I went about measuring and photographing so I would have two records of the strange room inside the pyramid. By then, we had been on the pyramid for more than an hour and it was time to head down.

Going down is far easier than going up; it's the difference between pulling your weight up on top of a block and lowering it. With gravity helping, I had time to reflect on the new finding. I wasn't sure what the room's purpose was or how it fit in with the internal ramp theory, but it did seem peculiar to me that it just happened to be behind the notch that was so important to Jean-Pierre's theory. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

÷ ÷ ÷

Bob Brier is a world-famous Egyptologist who has conducted research on pyramids and tombs in 15 countries. A senior research fellow at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, he is the author of seven books, including The Murder of Tutankhamen, and hosted the Great Egyptian series for the Learning Channel. spacer

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