What is a Pyramid?


In the profusion of notions about pyramids, the foregoing are true, or might as well be true since they have been plausibly suggested and not proven false. Pyramids do indeed double as cisterns (but not tombs) in Mexico and Guatemala and as tombs (but not cisterns) in Egypt. Pyramids certainly conceal secrets of the Ancients, even if only the secrets the Ancients were keeping from each other―such as where mother is buried, a piece of intelligence many an ancient high priest or pharaoh tried to keep from many an ancient grave robber. In fact, some pyramids conceal entire pyramids. One discussed here has five other pyramids of diminishing size inside.

But pyramid theories do not stop there. These striking monuments have been characterized in every imaginable role from tabernacles of prophecy to repositories of mysterious forms of energy. As observed a century ago by the first great pyramid archaeologist, W. Flinders Petrie:

“The Great Pyramid has lent its name as a sort of byword for paradoxes; and as moths to a candle, so are theorizers attracted to it.”

The only hypothesis not yet proposed (but give them time) is that pyramids are formed by volcanic eruptions. Petrie’s “theorizers” address the questions of how and why the ancient pyramids were built, what knowledge they do or do not represent, what secrets they may or may not hold. Investigators have ranged from the scholarly to the speculative to the occult, and some cast off into the realm of pure daffyness. Most are represented to one degree or another in the following―seventeen ways of looking at a pyramid.


The First Architect

Imhotep was vizier and royal architect to Djoser or Zoser, first king of the Third Dynasty (about 2600 B.C.). Before his time, all personal authorship of structural design is unknown.

But if architects remained anonymous, viziers did not, and Imhotep become the world ’s first architect of record with his startling departure in the shape of royal tombs―the first pyramid.

At Saqqara, 15 miles from the center of Cairo, Imhotep conceived what is now known as the Step Pyramid. It began as a conventional mastaba―a low, flat, slightly trapezoidal tomb of the sort built for previous pharaohs―but this time with another mastaba on top, slightly smaller, then another and another. Originally a four-step structure, it was then expanded to a six-step design, and the basic pyramid shape was in place for all time.

Succeeding generations of pyramid builders filled in the steps with facing stones, smoothing the sides to the now familiar geometrical profile. Ironically, the Great Pyramid which was to follow―one of the most remarkable achievements of architecture and engineering and one in which leading scholars such as W. Flinders Petrie see the decisive vision and supervision of a single genius―was designed by an architect whose identity is forever lost.


Numbers and Letters

The Great Pyramid at Giza has measurements which embody the Pi quantity, about which the Egyptians supposedly knew nothing until a thousand years later. Ratio of the pyramid’s base to its height* is precisely ½ Pi―an eerie coincidence if unplanned (See The Maximum Pyramid). The word  Pyramid also incorporates the letters P and I, and between those two letters, spelled backward, is the name of the mother of Jesus. The G in Giza is pronounced soft (like a J) by the Arabs (though hard by the Egyptians) and has been variously spelled Gizeh, Djiseh, and Jeeseh.

Some people get very excited about that sort of thing.

* The height of the Great Pyramid, 485.5 feet, was known to its builders and is well known now. But at the time the ancient Greeks were visiting Egypt, this information had either been lost or was considered a secret. Pythagoras reportedly sliced through the confusion and red tape in a hurry. He simply measured the pyramid’s shadow at the same time of day when his own shadow equaled his height.


Sinuhit Remembers

For an insider’s perspective on pyramids, it is necessary to go back to the “Memoirs of Sinuhit,” a story so often repeated in ancient Egypt that it has turned up on several surviving Papyri and in this fragment inscribed on a stone now lodged in the British Museum:

“A pyramid was constructed for me in stone, in the circle of pyramids. The dressers of stone dressed the tomb and devised the walls of it. The draughtsmen drew there, the chief of the sculptors carved there, the chief of the works which are done in the necropolis traveled the country for all the furnishing with which I beautified the tomb. I assigned peasants to it, and it had domains and fields in the neighborhood of the city, as is done with Friends of the first rank. There was a statue of gold with a loincloth of silver gilt, which the sons of the King made for me, rejoicing to do that for me, for I was in favor with the King―until the day arrived that I landed on the other bank.

It is happily finished in peace.”



The Human Pyramid

In the odd parade of scholars, adventurers, and eccentrics who have rummaged the remainders of ancient Egypt, few approach the Anglicized Italian circus performer named Giovanni Battista Belzoni. According to Professor Brian Fagan in The Rape of the Nile, Belzoni spirited more antiquities out of Egypt than Napoleon’s army.

Beyond that, he is remembered for two feats. One was the 1820 account of his tomb and pyramid explorations, Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Tombs, Temples, and Excavations in Aegypt and Nubia. The other was his circus act, a “human pyramid” in which he lifted a twelve man pyramid on a platform attached to his belt.

Belzoni’s records seem likely to stand: best archaeological book by a circus strongman; best circus act ever performed by an Egyptologist.

At left: Long before Belzoni’s circus pyramid, the 50-man human pyramid commemorated here was deployed not for entertainment but for military attack. It was used to scale the walls of Aquileia and win a battle in 1420 between the warring Castello and San Nicolo families of Venice.


Hidden Doors and Hinging Stones

In The Tale of Two Brothers, one of the Egyptian folktales recovered on papyrus, the architect commissioned to design a treasury for Pharaoh Rhampsinitus is said to have shaped and fitted a massive stone so perfectly that one man could move it aside.

From the archaeological evidence, many entrances including that of the Great Pyramid were indeed closed by means of enormous stones, balanced to pivot open for the priests who knew which stone and where to push. The same device was used in many of the temples, where treasures, tombs, and sanctuaries were hidden and their entrances disguised. An inscription at Denderah boasts:

“The door is unknown to the profane. If they seek for it, no one finds it except the prophets of the goddess.”

Since the deceased were often interred with a lavish complement of earthly goods and ornaments, the robbery of tombs was an ancient and thriving industry―and still is, though the booty now finds its way to art collectors and museums instead of merchants and bazaars. Histories, popular tales, and architectural remains all show great preoccupation with the problem of concealing these repositories. At Denderah, a dozen crypts and a treasury chamber were concealed in the temple walls. At Heliopolis, the god Thoth was said to have hidden his library behind an immense movable stone.


Seekers After Secrets

Piazzi Smyth, Astronomer Royal of Scotland in the 1850’s, did not care for the metric system. The French had introduced the meter as a fraction of the meridian through Paris of all places, and then slightly miscalculated even that. Still less did Smyth like the British inch, which was officially defined as the length of three grains of barley. In the Great Pyramid, he sought the “true” geographical and astronomical inch, then found to his surprise that the British inch was a scant one thousandth off. From this he reasoned that the British must be one of the lost tribes of Israel, who had brought the true inch with them from the Middle East.

Isaac Newton had pursued an inquiry similar to Smyth’s two centuries earlier. By Newton’s day, the earth had been circumnavigated but not yet measured, and an accurate figure for the circumference was the only thing holding up his general theory of gravitation. In the 1650’s, Newton tried to rediscover the “sacred cubit” and thus the 600-cubit “stadium” of ancient times because classical scholars told him this unit had been based on the geographical degree. Newton’s collaborators brought back measurements from Khufu’s pyramid and other monuments, but either the data was faulty or the classical assumption was wrong. So Newton’s theory of gravity had to wait nearly twenty years, until the French astronomer Jean Picard triangulated an accurate earth circumference in 1671.

Napoleon, a century after Newton, took an entourage of scholars along with his army in the attempted conquest of Egypt. Naturally, the presence of these noncombatant, non-load-bearing academics and the rations they consumed were not much appreciated by the hard pressed French regulars. Attacked by Mameluke cavalrymen, the soldiers would form into squares and yell, “Asses and Savants to the center!”

Still, the savants carefully catalogued the pyramids and debated learnedly over their observations. Napoleon jotted down his own. On his rough sketch of the Giza pyramids, he noted the calculation that they contained enough stone to build a ten foot wall around France.

Lord Kingsborough, around Belzoni’s time, became fascinated not with Egyptian pyramids but with the truncated pyramids of Central America and the ancient codices unearthed there. He finally had all of the codices published in nine imperial folio volumes at his own expense―32,000 pounds―which, as it happened, was more than he had. Sued by the paper supplier, Lord Kingsborough spent his last days in Sheriff’s Prison in Dublin.


The Pyramid as Inverted Chinese Box

Although their pyramids did not match those of the earlier Egyptians for size, Aztec and Mayan builders may have been headed in that direction. Having built one of their truncated pyramids, they would subsequently add another layer, and later another―changing the pyramid but also enlarging it. At Tenayuca in Central America, the largest pyramid incorporates at least five older pyramids, one inside the next like a “Chinese box.” Size was apparently not the main objective in these successive redesigns. Each had a facade with symbolic and ornamental carvings markedly different from its forerunner. Over the ornate temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan, a very plain pyramid was laid.

Progressive enlargement of the Tenayuca pyramid, expanded once every 52-year cycle of Venus and the Sun as reckoned by the Aztec calendar. A modest structure (A) believed to date from the year 1247 was overlaid by successive additions in (B) 1299, (C) 1351, (D) 1403, (E) 1455, and (F) 1507.

It’s been suggested that the occasions for these rebuildings were the coincidences of the two main astronomical cycles used by the Central American Indians as the basis for calendars. They had calculated the 365 day solar cycle and a 260 day cycle of Venus, which they divided into 13 months of 20 days each. Every 52 years, the two main cycles ended and renewed at the same time, and a new pyramid was built. Probable dates for Tenayuca rebuildings are AD 1299, 1351, 1403, 1455, and 1507.

Then Cortez arrived.


The Point of a Pyramid

In the long history of pyramid investigations, it’s curious how often an astronomer discovers that the true purpose of a pyramid was astronomical: observatory, calendar, or clock. Yet a surveyor who studies the pyramids at Giza finds that their real function was that of survey markers, which he announces in a book called The Pyramid Riddle Solved. Various mathematicians have seen in the Great Pyramid a giant model and monument of the mathematical knowledge of the day―possibly with a touch of nostalgia for a time when society accorded to mathematics its due stature. Historians of religion, science, and architecture tend to see the main significance of a pyramid as, respectively, religious, scientific,  or architectural. Occultists find it to be magical. UFOlogists cite it as the first work of ancient astronauts, stopping by earth to quarry awhile. Archaeologists, who dote on cities and tombs, can’t see the pyramid as a city but can easily see a tomb, even though the corpus delecti is invariably missing. And some suspect there’s a city, too―catacombed beneath the Sphinx and the three pyramids of the Giza plateau.

A physicist broke the mold, deciding that the main purpose of the Egyptian pyramids was political. In a provocative study of the great age of pyramid building* Kurt Mendelssohn concludes that the principal invention these structures represent is that of the nation-state. In one vast public works project, the scattered villages and separate kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were united in one country, and government jobs were created for over 100,000 farmers idled each year during the three month inundation of the Nile.

The Riddle of the Pyramids, by Kurt Mendelssohn, New York, 1974


Sound the Crumpets

If by some stroke of archaeological luck an ancient Greek home is unearthed with a loaf of bread still intact in the hearth, and if the loaf is roughly pyramidal in shape, it may settle the problem of where the word “pyramid” came from.

A papyrus scroll found in Egypt uses the term per-em-us to mean the vertical height of a pyramid―a possible source of the Greek word pyramis (plural, pyramides) from which the English language takes “pyramid.”

But there was already a purely Greek word pyramis of less doubtful origin. It means “wheat cake.” The first written reports of the pyramids come from Greek travelers who had discovered on the Plain of Giza objects unlike any buildings they had ever seen. If their shape suggested nothing so much as some then-familiar variant of the crumpet or cruller, then that might be the most descriptive term to use for the folks back home―in which case the pyramids were named in the same manner as the wedding cake buildings on Park Avenue.


The Maximum Pyramid

Whether by accident or by design, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops to the Greeks) has proved an astonishing source of mathematical, astronomical, and geographical intrigue.

It is the greatest of three pyramids which stand with the Sphinx on the Giza plateau near Cairo, a city originally built with facing stones stripped from the Great Pyramid.

Awesome in its magnitude and fabled as a storehouse of secret knowledge, powers, and treasures, it has incited ceaseless speculation and exploration ever since the Egyptians lost track of how or why it was built. But what has promoted several centuries of scholars to join the search along with mystics and grave robbers is mounting evidence of almost uncanny precision in the Great Pyramid’s design and execution.




Why Pi?

Did the Egyptians really know the diameter and circumference of earth and the sun’s distance 4,500 years ago? And how could they have been building in Pi ratios when, by all available records, Egyptian mathematicians did not arrive at the concept of Pi until the pyramid was 800 to 1,000 years old? Even then, their calculation of the quantity (3.16, as shown on the Rhind Papyrus) was cruder than the precise ratio the great Pyramid seems to express. Yet the Great Pyramid keeps turning up Pi  ratios, inside and out. The perimeter of its main compartment, the so called “King’s Chamber,” is exactly 3.14 times its length, and the large granite coffer or sarcophagus in this room shows the same proportion. In the earlier, rhomboidal or “Bent Pyramid” at Dashur, a few miles to the south, the sides begin to ascend at the same 2-Pi angle as the Great Pyramid, then change half way up to 3-Pi (43 ½º ) ratio.

One explanation offered by skeptics is that the Pi ratio might have been inadvertently built into ancient measuring devices. If the Egyptians happened to be measuring lateral distances by rolling a marked cylinder and vertical distances by the cylinder’s height (See  diagram), their ratios would accidentally relate circumference to diameter of a circle―which is Pi.

The same might be true if the measuring device were a cord unrolled from a cylindrical spool or drum with a one-cubit diameter.

In theory, the Egyptians could have calculated the size of earth. The questions is, did they? By measuring the distance between two sites and then comparing the lengths of shadows at the moment of equinox, they could have worked out the degree of arc between those two points and thus the size of the sphere―if they had guessed the world was spherical―and could have used the same data for at least a rough figure on the distance to the sun.


More Eurekas

Pyramidologists have also discovered in the Great Pyramid what some consider to be a near perfect representation of the Northern Hemisphere: the pyramid’s apex at the North Pole, its base proportional to the equator, and each side proportional in area to one of the spherical quadrants.

When Herodotus visited the site, Egyptian priests told him that the area of each pyramid face was equal to the square of its height. This yields the “Phi” constant (1.618) regarded by Plato as the most fundamental key to mathematics and physics. It relates spherical sections to flat ones. Leonardo called it the Golden Section and, more recently, Le Corbusier incorporated it into his modular grid.

Finally, it has been seriously maintained that the great Pyramid is an expression of (and possibly a message about) all of the astronomical and gravitational properties of a solar year, including the distance of earth to sun, the rate at which the earth is falling into the sun, the specific gravity of both, and the speed of light. The debate has raged for three centuries and appears good for at least three more. Critics challenge specific measurements and historical assumptions of each new theory. They also point out that any physical object has proportions, and any set of proportions is likely to suggest meanings to someone who is looking for them. One distinguished antiquarian even found evidence of the Phi constant in Egyptian tomb pictures―in the corner angles of the Pharaoh’s loin cloth.

“If a suitable unit of measurement is chosen,” an irreverent investigator observed, “an exact equivalent to the distance of Timbuktu is certain to be found in the roof girder work of the Crystal Palace, or in the number of street lamps in Bond Street, or the specific gravity of mud, or the mean weight of adult goldfish.”*

* ibid., as quoted by Tompkins


The Pyramid Inch

In the proportions of the Great Pyramid, analysts have discovered one baffling surprise after another―ratios which exhibit either profound significance or nothing but coincidence and post-facto rationalizations, depending on which side one chooses in the continuing controversy.

Its height is one billionth the distance to the sun. Its perimeter is equal in length to a half minute of latitude, and its apothem (the line from the apex down the middle of a side) equals a tenth of a minute. The pyramid’s perimeter also has the same proportion to its height as does the circumference of a circle to its radius: two times Pi. The unit of measurement (what Isaac Newton called “the sacred cubit”) employed by its builders―assuming they planned the pyramid’s dimensions in whole numbers―has been calculated as one ten millionth of the radius of earth. Exactly one ten millionth. *

This cubit would be equal to .636 meters, which is 25.025 inches―or an even 25 “pyramid inches” ―in which case the apothem and height measurements come out to whole numbers and each side of the base is a surprising 365.24, exactly the number of days in a solar year.

Another theoretical model puts the sacred cubit at .4618 meters, giving the pyramid a design width of 500 cubits and an apothem of 400.

Not surprisingly, these conclusions have been vehemently challenged on various grounds, including disputes about the actual measurements (which must infer the additional mass of missing face stones and capstone) and doubts about the length of cubit the builders actually had in mind. But if the above figures are accepted, a case can be made for the pyramid inch and the pyramid cubit as the ideal units of reckoning for both time and space. By basing the unit on the dimensions and orbit of the planet itself (assuming for the moment that the ancients knew these quantities), the Egyptians would have been measuring distance in fractions of the earth’s axis and time in fractions of the circumference―whose rotation equals a day―as well as fractions of the distance to the sun, which is the orbital radius on which the earth cycles once each year. Or, using the .4618 meter cubit, one cubit equals a thousandth of a second in the sense that the earth, at its equator, rotates a distance of 1,000 cubits per second.

*  See Secrets of the Great Pyramid by Peter Tomkins, New York, 1971


Varieties of the Manmade Mountain


Silbury Hill in England: a 4,000 year old manmade mound.

Since early prehistoric thatch huts, pyramid roofs have topped residential structures around the world.

Aztec “Pyramid of the Moon,” Teotihuacan, Mexico, dating from the time of Christ.

The “Bent Pyramid” at Dashur, Egypt.

Mayan style pyramid at Tikai, Guatemala, built around 700 A.D.

Old Sarum at Salisbury, England, a crude step-pyramid built as an Iron Age fort.

Pyramid condominium, Syria: natural rock with cave apartments hollowed out between 400 and 500 A.D.

The step-pyramid at Saqqara: forerunner of the great Egyptian pyramids.

Schematic of a 160-foot ziggurat in Elam―now West Iran―built about 1300 B.C.


The Mysterious Pyramid Lever

In a recent experiment, 35 men set out to move a one-ton stone a distance of 4 ½ miles, without benefit of truck, tractor, or winch. It took them a week.

Yet a thousand years ago, pyramid and temple builders in Central America were quarrying stones estimated up to 200 tons and moving them for many miles. And nearly five thousand years ago, Egyptian pyramid builders were doing roughly the same thing, in both cases without the wheel, even without draft animals.

In the Great Pyramid near Cairo, there are roughly 2,300,000 stones averaging 2 ½ tons each. For the “King’s Chamber” inside, gigantic slabs of red granite―up to 70 tons in weight―were cut from deposits at Aswan, over 500 miles away.

Hoisting device referred to by Herodotus and interpreted by H. Straub-Roessler                                    

Since no one could imagine how pre-machine man could have accomplished these feats, stories have grown over the centuries of lost principles of engineering known to the ancients and of mysterious “pyramid levers.” When he visited Egypt around 450 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a wooden hoisting machine used for pyramid construction, and modern engineers such as Olaf Tellefsen have been able to hypothesize workable hoists that might have been within the means of Egyptian technology. Tellefsen’s model calls for a sturdy wooden arm pivoting on a fulcrum and using counterweights. (* Natural History, Nov., 1970)

A hoist using ropes and rollers, theorized b R. Borchardt as the Egyptian means for lowering granite slabs to seal or open the pyramid's secret entry.

The problem remains of supplying comparable implements to the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inca, the Easter Islanders, the Druids for Stonehenge, and the Chinese for the Great Wall. Even those recent speculators who have been willing to assign Ancient Astronauts to the distant past―complete with anti-gravity devices―are stymied by the fact that ancient users of massive stones are separated not only by thousands of miles but also by thousands of years.

Most modern scholars are sticking with less exotic explanations. They note that the fact Herodotus lived 2,400 years ago doesn’t make his reports reliable―that he did not claim to have seen a “pyramid lever” and in any event did not arrive at Giza until the pyramids were as ancient to him as he is to us. What Herodotus did see was the remnant of a causeway and a large road from the Nile to the Giza hill, apparently for the hauling of stones.

One quarry was across the river. The Aswan granite quarries were on the same river, albeit far upstream, and the Egyptians had sturdy boats of bundled papyrus stalks which might have been lashed together as barges. Though they lacked block and tackle, the pyramid builders did have rollers, sledges, and levers. Ancient tomb and papyrus drawings show work gangs dragging large objects with ropes, while one worker pours water or grease on the skid surface.

Beyond that, the workers themselves apparently felt that they―not a machine―deserved the credit. They hailed their own accomplishments by scratching the names of their work crews into some of the larger blocks they moved―the Victorious Gang, the Boat Gang, the Vigorous Gang, the Enduring Gang.

Remnants of dirt ramps have been found around two pyramids, suggesting that stones were dragged up these inclined planes, possibly in an upward spiral around the work. British scholar Moses Cotsworth pointed out around 1900 that the outer core stones themselves might have supported such a ramp if they were laid in an upward spiral. Either way, the spiral ramp could extend upward bit by bit as the core stones were laid, then gradually be removed as facing stones were placed, starting at the top and working down.

That doesn’t make it easy, but it begins to sound possible―especially when the labor force is estimated at 100,000 or more during the flood season, when farmers couldn’t work their fields.


The Not So Great Pyramid

To what celestial purpose is this pyramid addressed? A whole society’s sense of identity may be validated in one great pyramid. But there are lesser felicities to honor as well. South of Mexico City, near the village of Tepoztlan, stands a very modest pyramid dedicated to Tepoztcatl―Aztec god of strong drink―to whom small tributes were so often raised that no massive monument was necessary.


“Resonating Energy”

No doubt the ancients had their secrets. Most people do. They might, however, have trouble recognizing some of the “Secrets of the Ancients” being marketed today.
But step right up. Get your Cheops scale model pyramid kit, and you may never have to buy another razor blade: kept in a pyramid, oriented to true north, razor blades stay sharp indefinitely and old ones regain a keen edge.

Get a large enough scale model, and you won’t need a refrigerator. Meat kept in a pyramid won’t spoil.

Plants grow faster. Rosebuds remain forever fresh. Get a pyramid large enough to sit in or sleep in, and you will feel better, relieve any pain or ill, gain composure, and increase your intellectual, psychic, and sexual powers. You may even tingle. All for $3.50 to several thousand, depending how large your pyramid needs may be.

All of these wondrous benefits are said to flow from the psi-force, orgone, or resonating energy which the pyramid shape captures and concentrates. Some enthusiasts feel that the pyramid’s geometry alters the gravitational and magnetic fields. Others say it causes local changes in the time-space continuum or that it funnels energy from the Van Allen Belts. One researcher warns of the potential health hazard: if pyramid power destroys the bacteria that cause meat to spoil (or mummies to decompose), then it may also kill the useful and necessary bacteria of normal life processes. He might have added that a pyramid would be a terrible place to make wine and cheese. If you would like to conduct your own pyramid experiments, directions for making one out of cardboard appear below.