Selected Essays on Egyptian Archaeoastronomy
Juan Antonio Belmonte
1. Introduction: under ancient Egyptian skies ………………………………..
Mosalam Shaltout & Juan Antonio Belmonte
2. The historical background ………………………………………………....
3. Astronomical historiography in four movements ……..................................
Miguel Ángel Molinero Polo
4. The Egyptian calendar: keeping Ma’at on Earth ………………………….
Juan Antonio Belmonte
5. Astronomical chronology ………………………………………………….
6. The constellations of ancient Egypt ……………………………………….
José Lull & Juan Antonio Belmonte
7. Unveiling Seshat: new insights into the stretching of the cord ceremony …
Juan Antonio Belmonte, Miguel Ángel Molinero Polo & Noemi Miranda
8. Astronomy, landscape and symbolism: a study of the orientation of
ancient Egyptian temples ………………………………………………...
Juan Antonio Belmonte, Mosalam Shaltout & Magdi Fekri
9. The orientation of royal tombs in ancient Egypt ………………………….
César González García, Juan Antonio Belmonte & Mosalam Shaltout
10. Pyramids and stars, facts, conjectures and starry tales ……..………........
Giulio Magli & Juan Antonio Belmonte
11. Epilogue ………………………………………………………………......
Juan Antonio Belmonte & Mosalam Shaltout
I. Compared Chronology on ancient Egypt …………………….......................
II. Corpus Mensorarum (ancient Egyptian temples) ………………................
About the authors …………………………………………………………...
Giulio Magli and Juan Antonio Belmonte
Summary. In this Chapter, we will attempt a brief discussion of the different hypotheses that have related
stars and pyramids independently of their orientation. A discussion about the airshafts of Khufu’s pyramid
will be especially relevant. We will also make a critical analysis of the Orion Correlation Theory to date.
Following this, the sacred geography of the Memphite area will be discussed within an astronomical
10. 1. Introduction
Today, stars have little role in our lives. Most of us cannot see many of the stars which
would be actually visible with the naked eye, due to pollution and to the light in our
towns. At a simplistic level, even those people who proclaim themselves as “astrologers”
do not need actually to watch the stars: a computer does the job for them. For our
ancestors, however, it was not so. For many ancient cultures, watching the stars was a
detailed duty of a specialised class of people who measured the passing of time by the
observation of celestial phenomena, both for practical (e.g. agricultural) and for religious
reasons. Ancient Egypt is no exception. Curiously, although the stars have no role today
in our lives, or perhaps exactly because of that, such concepts as “the ancients and the
sky” and, in particular, “the pyramids and the sky” are able to attract worldwide interest
and debate. It is precisely the aim of the present essay to enter this sensitive argument in
detail, approaching the boundaries –which, as we shall see, are actually far more clear and
definite than may seem at a first glance– between the science called archaeoastronomy
and the non-science of the theories of the so-called “lunatic fringe”.
Firstly, a fact which is established beyond any possible doubt, and has been largely
discussed in other chapters of this book, is that ancient Egyptian planners, including those
of the 4
Dynasty pyramids would have been skilled skywatchers. It is, indeed, simply
impossible for a naked-eye observer to orient a huge building such as the Great Pyramid
within 3 arc minutes of accuracy to due north, using any other than repeated and precise
observations of the either setting, rising or meridian transit of relatively bright stars
(Dorner 1981, Spence 2000, Belmonte 2001). Therefore, the Old Kingdom pyramids, and
especially the two giants of Giza, which are among the most precisely oriented, are
architectural objects in which astronomy could be considered as built in. This fact is, of
course, by no means surprising and is based on a theory which has been extensively
discussed within this volume. We do have written sources which help us in establishing a
few details of the procedures used. This premise also applies when the primary
importance of the orientation of the symbolic apparatus connected with the king’s burial
This latter point has been largely discussed in Chapter 7, when analyzing the stretching
of the cord ceremony, documented since the first dynasties, and almost certainly
involving the observation of those stars which are “imperishable”, notably the
circumpolar stars. The adjective imperishable is, of course, reminiscent of the Pyramid
Texts, the collection of funerary writings which we know from the burial chambers of the
pyramids of the end of the 5
Dynasty onward. It is frequently acknowledged that the
content of these texts was already very old when the first known record was written, and
it is reasonable to think that they were in use during previous dynasties, including at least
. Apart from the circumpolar stars, these texts clearly mention other stars, namely
the stars of Sah (parts of Orion with his head at the Belt, see Chapter 6), and the brightest
star of all, Sopdet, our Sirius. These stars are not circumpolar, and Sirius, in particular,
had a period of invisibility (the period in which the star rises and sets during hours of
daylight and is therefore not visible) which roughly lasted 70 days in the Cairo area at the
beginning of Egyptian history. As in the case of the imperishable stars, it is probable that
Sah and Sopdet were observed and recorded since earlier times.
In view of the aforementioned issues, it might be obvious to ask whether the 4
Dynasty pyramids have any further connection with the stars, especially the
“imperishable” stars or Sirius and Orion. It is a fortunate coincidence in view of the aims
of the present volume as a whole that the first scientific discovery about the relationship
between the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the stars arose from the efforts of two scholars
from the disciplines of Egyptology and Astronomy.
10. 2. The Great Pyramid and the stars: a discussion on the upper “ventilation”
As is well known in specialized and amateur circles alike, the Great Pyramid contains
four narrow shafts which totally or partially cross the body of the monument, starting
from the north and south walls of the King’s and Queen’s chamber, respectively. These
shafts are structural elements of the building; in other words, they were conceived,
planned and carefully constructed during the development of the pyramid, layer after
layer. We shall, for the moment, concentrate only on the two upper shafts, which start
from the King’s chamber and finish in the outer northern and southern faces of the
Since the 19
Century it has been known that both shafts reach the surface of the
pyramid. They run diagonally, crossing the whole building and exiting approximately at
the same height (of course it is difficult to asses the precision of this feature because the
casing is missing). Since the chamber is slightly displaced in relation to the main vertical
axis of the pyramid, the angles of the shafts are different; further, of course, they do not
run perfectly straight and indeed it would have been impossible to make them do so, due
to the particular complexity of their construction (see below). However, even under these
circumstances, the deviation from the mean angle is within one degree or so. It is
important to stress that the construction of these two apparently insignificant channels
would have raised a very complex engineering problem. Indeed, the pyramid is a building
which is based on horizontal layers. Horizontal surfaces of blocks could not displace each
other because the gravitational force exerted by each layer on the underlying one is
vertical. Instead, to construct the shafts it would have been necessary to prepare blocks,
especially cut for this purpose, and join them to each other. Corridors could at least be
inspected at any time, an impossible thing in the case of the shafts owing to their
narrowness (around 22 cm). In spite of these difficulties, the construction of the shafts
was successful, as the investigation carried out by the engineer Rudolph Gantenbrinck
more than 4500 years after their construction has shown: not even one block of the upper
shafts is displaced.
For details see www.cheops.org, unpublished.
All in all, the shafts are one among the many spectacular achievements of the architect
of the pyramid and his specialist work crew. Certainly, they must have been highly
motivated to perform such detailed work. However, it has been thought that these
channels were constructed to ventilate the chamber during construction, assuming that
men were at work inside, in order to complete the granite sarcophagus, which was put in
place before the ceiling, or in order to perform rituals, including the burial of the king,
after the end of construction. This theory alone, however, would not explain the
complexity of the shaft’s construction, since the ventilation of the chamber could have
been structurally obtained by simpler means. For the sake of completeness, we shall
address two of the many possible theories concerning the “air shafts” neither of which
sufficiently explains the complexity of their design (for a complete discussion, see Magli,
Figure 10.1. The vaulted ceiling of the most
interior chamber of the Red Pyramid of Snefru at
Dahshur, located well inside the masonry core of
the monument. This was the first pyramid to
include chambers without direct connection to
fresh air (hot air goes up). Providing this was a
problem, it might have inspired the construction
of the “ventilation” channels of the following
pyramid to be built, Akhet Khufu. This would
suggest a multiple-task design of the devices.
Notably, no other pyramid had the same problem
afterwards. Photograph by J.A. Belmonte.
Let us therefore look at possible technical motivations. People can actually survive and
work in the internal chambers for short periods of time, due to the air which enters from
the corridor. This is proved, for instance, by the fact that the internal chambers were
visited for hundreds of years before the cleaning of the shafts. However, the high
temperature and the extremely high humidity create a sense of oppression. Fortunately
today, the shafts can actually be used as true ventilation channels with the aid of an
electric fan, although the sense of oppression can still be experienced in the upper
chamber of the red Pyramid of Snefru in Dahshur (see Figure 10.1). Of course the King’s
room is not the healthiest place in the world, but Egyptians worked hard in difficult
situations, such as in the construction of the granite vault of the subterranean chamber in
the pyramid of Menkaura, although in this case hot, rarefied air would have freely
escaped through the main access corridor. However, the quantity of air which can come in
from a shaft more than 40 m long and 22 cm wide is obviously very limited (a very weak
flow of air can be sensed when there is a north wind) and their real utility could be
questioned. Besides, there are some hints to suggest that the shafts were actually kept
closed with side slabs at the upper and lower ends even during their construction.
The above arguments are certainly enough to set aside the “air shaft” theory. However,
an additional argument could be considered. It is, indeed, illogical from the functional
point of view to require that the shafts reach the surface at the same level. It would have
been natural to determine the angles in such a way that they reached the surface with the
minimum length possible. This fact may well lead us to a possibly symbolic meaning for
the shafts, noting that the curious displacement of the King’s chamber from the main
vertical axis has never been explained in a satisfactory way. However, if the angles of
inclination of the shafts were a priori fixed for some special reason and their exit at the
same level was similarly required, then the position of the chamber would have been
consequently predetermined. But how could such a choice of angles have been
Figure 10.2. The original draft of the stellar connection for the “air-shafts” of the Great Pyramid. Only
symbolism was claimed in the original reports. Adapted from Trimble (1964).
This is the problem that Alexander Badawy and Virginia Trimble decided to solve in
1964, publishing two separate but linked papers (Badawy 1964, Trimble 1964; see Figure
10.2). They observed that the shafts pointed to a couple of relatively small sectors of the
sky. The northern shaft, in particular, has an average inclination of 31º and therefore
pointed close to the region of the northern celestial pole (the altitude of the pole equals
the latitude of the observer, i.e. around 30º at Giza). Precession changes the stars which
occupy a fixed portion of the sky during different times. Today we find Polaris at that
point. At the time of construction of the pyramid, the region of the north celestial pole
was occupied by the star Thuban, Alpha of the Draco constellation, whose angular
distance from the pole was around one degree in the 26
Century B.C. This means that
the channel could have pointed to the culmination (i.e. maximal height) of the pole star.
Analyzing the southern shaft in a similar way, they discovered that this shaft, with an
average of 45º of inclination, was pointing in the same historical period to the
culmination of the Belt of Orion, i.e. that part of the Orion constellation composed by
three relatively brilliant stars in a row: Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka.
Hence, we could consider as a fact that the two shafts were pointing to the culmination
of stars which played a relevant role in the stellar eschatology as described in the Pyramid
Texts. In particular, both the circumpolar stars and the stars of Orion’s Belt play a
fundamental role in those texts which refer to the rebirth of the king, as conspicuous
representatives of the imperishable stars and the constellation of Sah, respectively. We
give here just two key examples among many passages which pertain, taken from the
translation by Faulkner:
I [the king] will cross to that side on which are the Imperishable Stars, that I may be
among them. (PT520, §1223)
King, you are this great star, the companion of Sah, who traverses the sky with Sah
Therefore, it may seem reasonable to interpret the shafts as symbolic pathways, meant
to facilitate the ascension of the soul of the king to the starry realm. The word “symbolic”
has to be stressed here, since the astronomical orientation of the shafts does not mean that
they were used as astronomical devices as sometimes reported in popular or “fringe”
publications. Actually, indeed, the shafts exhibit various bends and, in addition, they start
with horizontal sections, since it would have been extremely dangerous to settle a block
with a diagonal squared hole cut in it on the wall of the chamber. Such a block -having a
diagonal resistance failure- might have put at serious risk the stability of the walls.
10. 3. The Great Pyramid and the stars: the lower channels
We now turn to the problem of the possible astronomical interpretation of the lower
shafts. Until some years ago, the Queen’s chamber was considered by several scholars as
an “unfinished” burial chamber; consequently, once discovered, its two shafts were also
considered “unfinished”. This misinterpretation probably arose from an inadequate
structural analysis of the building, which gave birth to many hypotheses which are
unsustainable from the technical point of view. One is, indeed, the idea that the project
could have been changed when the dockyard of the pyramid was at the height of the
Queen’s room. Similarly, although not directly related to our discussion, another example
(to which unfortunately most of the tourist guides still adhere) is the strange idea that the
narrow chambers situated over the ceiling of the King’s chamber can be “relieving
chambers”. Since the gravity force is vertical, this is, of course, a complete nonsense: the
construction of these chambers was due to the fact that the huge blocks of the true
relieving structure of the King room, a upside-down V similar to that of the Queen’s
chamber and put in place as the ceiling of the upper “relieving” chamber, would have
induced displacements in the “thin” masonry of the intersection between the walls and the
Grand Gallery if they had been put in place directly as the ceiling of the burial chamber.
However, today there is an almost general consensus that the Queen’s chamber has to be
considered as a part of the project of the internal rooms. For instance, according to
Lehner, it was very probably a sealed room for a special statue of the king, representing
his “ka” while a very recent hypothesis made of this chamber the actual burial place of
the pharaoh, providing the King’s one was abandoned for internal structural problems.
An additional proof of the fact that this room is part of the initial plan came from the
exploration of the lower shafts, initiated by Rudolph Gantenbrinck in 1992 (who was able
to reach the end of the southern shaft with a small robot) and continued by Zahi Hawass
in collaboration with the National Geographic Society in 2001, when the northern shaft
was also explored. At their final sections, both channels are cased with fine limestone,
and are closed with stone slabs (portcullises) equipped with two copper handles (or
perhaps with one handle on the external side, of which we see the locks opposite). In any
case, the height at which the shafts end on the slabs is higher than that of the Great
Gallery, thus providing evidence of a single, unified plan. Both shafts have roughly the
same angle of 38½º; however, the south channel must avoid the Grand Gallery, and
therefore exhibits a series of deliberate bends, which curiously make it resemble the form
of the adze used in the opening of the mouth ceremony that we have already connected
with the constellation of Meskhetyu, the imperishable celestial object par excellence. The
lower shafts would have reached the surface of the pyramid roughly at the same height, if
this would have been the intention, because in this case the chamber is on the vertical axis
and consequently their angle is similar. Providing the slope of the pyramid is roughly 52º,
the angle is also the optimal one to reduce to minimum the distance from the surface,
hence the original intention is probably a simple geometrical matter. However, as
previously indicated the surface of the pyramid is not reached in either case.
The problem of interpreting these shafts clearly arises from the fact that they were
deliberately terminated within the nucleus of the pyramid. However, an astronomical
interpretation has been also proposed. Either by chance or by design, the southern lower
shaft was “pointing” to Sirius (Sopdet), while the northern one was “pointing” to the
circumpolar star Mizar, one of the stars of Meskhetyu, or to Kochab, in Ursa Minor,
during the period in which the pyramid was probably under construction (Bauval 1993).
There is again mention in the Pyramid Texts of these stars and asterisms which may
provide a clue for this hypothesis. Indeed the Texts repeatedly cite Sirius as a “guide of
the King”, while Meskhetyu, as already stressed, is the celestial image of one of the adzes
(Ursa Minor is probably the second) used for the ceremony of the opening of the mouth,
aimed to give life to the ka of the deceased king (surprisingly, the shaft pointing to Mizar
has the form of the constellation). Presumably, this ceremony took place on a statue of the
king during the Old Kingdom, which, in the case of Khufu, as mentioned above, was
probably placed in the monumental niche of the Queen’s chamber. Interestingly, an
independent confirmation of the astronomical interpretation of the lower shafts may come
from the recent re-examination which has been carried out of the Serdab of the Step
Pyramid (see Bauval, 2006, who however reports only the inclination of the building, or
Shaltout et al. 2007 –also Chapter 8
, for a more reliable evaluation of the stellar
connotations of this building).
In conclusion, the astronomical interpretation of the lower channels is quite convincing
and the probability of the chance orienting of the two shafts to the above-mentioned
asterisms would be extremely low (Castellani, 1993). However, this interpretation is in
apparent conflict with the fact that the shafts were deliberately closed before reaching the
exterior of the pyramid (Wall, 2007). In this respect one may perhaps once more evoke
the Pyramid Texts, since the shafts are closed by two carefully chiselled doors which may
be a reference to the “gates of the firmament” which the king must open to reach the sky
(see e.g. PT 536, 1291).
Having accepted a symbolic meaning of the shafts, one might invoke interpretations different from the
astronomical one; in particular, an “aeshtetic” argument may be adduced for the lower shafts due to their
symmetric disposition (Dormion, 2004). These ideas cannot be ruled out, although geometry per se does not
seem to have been a prominent issue in the architecture of the Old Kingdom.
10. 4. The Giza layout and the stars: a critical analysis of the
Orion Correlation Theory
Today, an architect planning a building normally takes into account practical issues,
such as the geo-morphology of the ground, the water flows, and so on, as well as
aesthetical issues. In particular, he has to take into account existing buildings. He can do
this into two ways, either by conforming to an existing style or by breaking with the
extant and adopting new style and perspective.
It is clear to any visitor to the Giza Plateau, that the builder of the pyramid of
Menkaura did not apparently follow such a functional approach. Any architect following
a practical approach would have placed the pyramid closer to the Nile (see Figure 10.3).
In this way, a vast saving of work and time would have resulted, there being no need to
build the causeway and convey from the river the huge granite blocks which form the
ceiling of the funerary chamber and the first courses of the casing. In this context, we
wonder if the existence of an appropriate place to quarry the stones for the main body of
the pyramid to the south of the chosen location would have been sufficient. The question
thus arises, whether the builder rather followed a “traditional” approach or not, and if so,
Figure 10.3. The pyramids of Giza at high Nile. Notice the large distance between the monument of
Menkaure and the limit of Inundation. Adapted from an original old image by Lehnert and Landrock.
At first sight, a natural and “traditional” approach would have perhaps been to position
the construction with its apex on the same diagonal as that of the two existing pyramids.
Instead, “Menkaure is a divine being” is located in such a way that its north-east corner
aligns almost precisely with the ideal “diagonal” line connecting the corners of the other
Why?, we may ask, It is tempting to think that such a peculiar disposition
may well have its origin in symbolism (or, if the reader prefers, “tradition”). It was noted
many years back that this “Giza diagonal” points in the direction of Heliopolis in the
north-east (according to Jeffreys, the first mention of this fact is contained in an 1852 map
by J. Hekekyan). It is difficult to verify the accuracy of this “topographical alignment”,
Since the diagonal of the Khafre pyramid is slightly displaced with respect to that of Khufu, the corners
align in a direction approximately 43º east of north instead of 45º.
but it seems reasonable to believe that the positioning is not casual. Nevertheless, in order
to fix the position of a square-base pyramid oriented to the cardinal points it is necessary
to give two coordinates. Given that the north-east corner had to run along the “Giza
diagonal”, what criterion, if any, inspired the exact placement along this diagonal?
It is noticeable that the third pyramid is sited far into the desert whereas it could have
been built much closer to Khafre, and therefore closer to the Nile, whilst still maintaining
the diagonal constraint. In fact, the position of the pyramid was fixed in such a way that
the distance of its apex from the apex of Khafre’s roughly equals the distance between the
apex of Khafre and that of Khufu. We have already mentioned in Chapter 8 that sunset at
the winter solstice occurred at the apex of Menkaure’s pyramid as observed roughly from
the contour of the Sphinx. So a simple astronomical interest would have marked the
position. However, it is at this point that the most famous, alternative and controversial
theory about “stars and pyramids”, the so-called Orion Correlation Theory (hereafter
OCT) impinges (Bauval 1989, Bauval and Gilbert 1994).
Figure 10.4. The onset of the Orion Correlation
Theory: the plan of the pyramids of Giza
apparently resembles the distribution of the Belt
of Orion stars in the sky. N
stand for sky
and geographic north, respectively. See the text
for further discussions. Adapted from SMM/IAC
Significantly, it is by no means clear what was really meant in the relevant passages of
the Pyramid Texts when the term “rebirth as a star” is mentioned. A form of transference
of the soul of the king to his final destination -the imperishable stars and the stars of Sah-
may have been understood. This could lead to the speculative idea that the pyramids by
themselves might have been seen as images on the earth of a part or the entirely of this
“final destination”. The nucleus of the idea of the OCT is thus that Khufu, Khafre and
Menkaure built their pyramids in such a way that they resemble on the ground the
disposition of the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt (a notable section of Sah) in the sky, a
resemblance made more effective by the fact that the pyramid which would represent the
less brilliant star between the three, Mintaka, is also the smaller. Besides, by using this
disposition, the Nile could be viewed, according to OCT, as a terrestrial counterpart of the
Milky Way. It is this particular aspect of the theory that we will address in the present
section, leaving the discussion of its various “developments” to subsequent sections.
In discussing the Orion Correlation Theory, it is worth making a methodological
premise: that this theory has nothing to do with “astronomical alignments”, which are the
main fieldwork of archaeoastronomy; so, in a certain sense, the theory has nothing to do
with archaeoastronomy at all. Indeed, the relative distance between stars in the sky is
Thus, the unique “archaeoastronomical” measure which can be carried out gives a
result which is independent of the historical context: it is a comparison between the
angular distances of the three stars and that of the three pyramids. Providing the apexes of
the first and the second Giza pyramids were used to identify the distance scale between
the stars, the calculations shows that Mintaka would fall nearly inside the third pyramid,
within some 30 metres of the apex (see Figure 10.4). There is, therefore, a certain
agreement; however, it is easy to find three elements -such as three towns on a map, or
three lamp posts on a road, or even three other stars, which satisfy the premises of the
“correlation” as well with comparable, or even better precision (actually the difference in
brightness between Mintaka and the other two stars is much less accentuated than the
difference in volume between the third pyramid and the other two). This effect is called
“pareidolia”, the human necessity to recognize patterns in nature.
Consequently, it follows that, even if the ground plan of the Giza complex reflected
the Orion theory, it would be a fact which is neither verifiable nor falsifiable with purely
archaeoastronomical tools and a correct methodological approach. We can perhaps define
it as an interesting conjecture or, following the second author’s categories, as a fanciful
speculation. It should be similarly noted from the archaeological stand-point, that
although the theory does not conflict with anything known about the 4
Dynasty and the
“stellar” eschatology as described in the Pyramid Texts, neither is it by default true.
Summarizing, it is clear that only the discovery of hitherto unknown texts can lift the
OCT from the status of conjecture to that of serious, worth considering theory. We
believe that, even if the idea of replicating the belt of Orion was realized at Giza, it would
have been a decision taken by Menkaura and his architects, inspired by the already
existing pyramids. In the opinion of the present authors, the two giant pyramids and their
annexes formed in all likelihood, a unique project on their own. In fact, some years ago,
on the basis of a strictly technical analysis of the errors of orientation of the two
pyramids, the first author proposed that the second pyramid, “Khafre is a great one” (see
Chapter 8), could have been built, or at least planned, a few years before “the Horizon of
Khufu” (Magli, 2003 & 2005). The second author immediately observed however that
this position was difficult to defend on the basis of the archaeological evidence, although
the extreme accuracy by which the two giant Giza pyramids are oriented really might
point to some strict connection between the two. As a consequence, he proposed to give
up the idea of an inverse chronology in favour of a common plan for the two buildings
(see Chapter 8 and Shaltout et al. 2007 for details). Today, both the present authors agree
about this idea (see Figure 10.5). According to this proposal, Khufu would have planned
the construction of two pyramids (and large scale associated temple and burial
complexes, including the Sphinx), exactly as his father Snefru did in Dahshur; but at
Djedefre’s death, Khafre appropriated for himself one of the two pyramids, probably
unfinished or even just in outline.
The existence of a common plan is supported, amongst others evidences, by some
clues of astronomical character: for example the symmetry between the causeways of the
pyramids (once the Giza plateau is abandoned for the case of Khufu’s), which point to the
setting sun when it is in the midway points between the equinoxes and the solstices, or the
solar hierophany which can be seen from the Sphinx area, first noticed by Lehner, when
the setting sun at the summer solstice, as viewed from a position in front of the Sphinx,
This is not strictly true, due to the so called proper motion, but it can be safely considered as true for what
forms a spectacular and gigantic replica of the hieroglyph Akhet (the sun between two
mountains) or even, taking into account the Sphinx at the center, the image of the
hieroglyph which represents Hor-em-akhet, “Horus at the Horizon”, the name of the
sphinx itself (see Chapter 8).
Figure 10.5. Akhet Khufu as a complete design (see Chapter 8) including the two gigantic pyramids of Giza
and the Sphinx. Notice the irrelevance in the image of the pyramid of Menkaure, almost completely hidden
by part of the local landscape, suggesting that this building did not belong to the original plan. Photograph
by M. Sanz de Lara.
10. 5. Is there a sacred geography of the Memphite area?
We shall discuss in the following sections the possibility that the landscape of the
Memphite area may have been progressively settled during the Old Kingdom, in
accordance with some general guiding principle (“tradition”) which also took into
account the celestial realm. We shall continue the approach taken previously in this
chapter by discussing topics which are nearly proven, together with conjectures and wild
speculations, but attempting to clearly distinguish between the two.
To avoid any misunderstanding, it is in any event important to stress that we shall
discuss here the notion of a “sacred” landscape which has two peculiar characteristics,
usually absent in “fringe” archaeological speculations and which are fundamental to an
understanding of what follows. These are:
(i) It is a fully intervisible landscape, due to the relatively small size of the region (some
30 kms in length and 20 kms in width) and the considerable height of the majority of the
constructions under consideration. This means that all the suggested alignments could be
considered as visual connections and could have been easily obtained via reflecting
mirrors or night fires (of course today the visibility is much reduced by pollution).
(ii) The wider extension of the landscape, integrated by the 4
Dynasty Pyramids from
Dahshur to Abu Roash, was constructed in a very short period of time, the span of four
generations or fewer, and may reasonably reflect the religious thought of the time. Later
pyramids or temples were constructed within the same framework.
The main contributions to the idea of a sacred landscape in the Memphite area can be
briefly addressed (in historical order) as follows:
Further clues in the direction of a common project come from recent investigations on the layout of the
two main pyramid complexes, see Magli (2007).
Figure 10.6. The complete Orion Correlation Theory as defended in The Mystery of Orion and The Egypt
Code. (a) A map of the relevant region of the firmament, including the name of the most conspicuous stars
and asterisms. (b) A map of the Memphite necropolis where several individual pyramids or a group of them
have been denoted by the corresponding celestial object according to the theory. Although not directly
identified with Sirius, Djoser’s Step pyramid is somehow related to this star in The Egypt Code. Any person
can easily appreciate the vagueness of the idea with “stars” located at quite scattered and, in some cases,
1. Probably the first researcher to conceive the idea of a “global” planning of the
northern area of the Memphite landscape was Goyon (1970). He noticed the relevance
of Heliopolis and Letopolis with respect to Giza, stressing the importance of the “Giza
diagonal” we have already discussed and also the fact that Letopolis lies to the north
nearly on the same meridian as Giza, and nearly on the same parallel as Heliopolis,
across the Nile.
2. Goyon’s ideas were re-considered by Bauval in 1993, who made the first attempt to
connect the idea of a sacred landscape with the stars. This was the origin of the OCT
we have already analyzed. However, he actually tried to enlarge his “correlation” by
suggesting that the other pyramids of the 4
Dynasty also had a “celestial counterpart”
in the celestial regions near Orion (see Figure 10.6). The proposed correspondences
were between the two Snefru pyramids at Dahshur and two stars of the Taurus
constellation (the bright star Aldebaran and the quite fainter star Epsilon Tauri), and
between the two pyramids at Zawiet el Arian and Abu Rowash and the stars of Orion
Bellatrix and Saiph, respectively. We would say that, in the light of his new
“hypotheses” in The Egypt Code, neither of these two proposals can be sustained any
longer and indeed are not mentioned by the author in his new book. Actually, the map
of the sky that would result from the speculations presented in this last volume, in
combination with those already defended in The Orion Mystery, is vague and
misleading. A simple look at Figure 10.5 will illustrate the vagueness of these ideas.
Indeed, in our opinion, any attempt to identify the complete cluster of pyramids,
extending from Abu Roash to El-Fayum, with a “stellar map” (and there have been
many, especially on the Internet) will be doomed to failure, since the ideas needed to
sustain such a speculative exercise do not stand up to any serious process of
verification, still less of falsability, given the advanced state of our present knowledge
relating to society and religion in the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
3. However, Jeffreys (1998; see Figure 10.7) recently reconsidered in more detail the
topic of the intervisibility of the Old Kingdom pyramids. He realized that the visible
horizon to the south from Heliopolis was (and is) impeded by the rocky outcrop where
the Cairo Citadel is now located and by the Moqattam formation. From north to south
the view allows perfect visibility of Abu Roash, Giza, Zawyet el Arian and the sun
temples of Abu Ghorab. However, further south (Abusir, Saqqara, and Dahshur) the
view is instead blocked. According to his proposal, this distribution may reflect a
process of “solarisation” of the king’s cult; in Jeffreys words: we have then a sequence
in which those 4
Dynasty pyramids whose owners first declared an affinity with the
sun cult through their monuments and/or their choice of name/epithet, and the two 5
Dynasty sun temples, were all physically close to Heliopolis and were within its visual
orbit. These ideas have been already analyzed, in combination with astronomical
landmarks, in Chapter 8.
4. Also attention has been paid very recently to the most northerly pyramid ever
constructed in Egypt, that of Abu Roash (Bauval, 2006; Shaltout et al. 2007). This
pyramid is attributed to Djedefre, who ruled after Khufu, and the name of the pyramid
once more refers to the celestial realm, explicitly to a star: “Djedefre is a Star of the
Firmament (Sehedu)”. The pyramid is sited in such a way that, either by chance or by
design, the rising sun at the summer solstice could be seen over Heliopolis. Perhaps,
however, it is more likely that the site of the pyramid, a prominent outcrop in the
border of the valley, was chosen in such a way that the setting sun at the winter
solstice was seen over the pyramid from Heliopolis. Furthermore, Sirius at rising had
roughly the azimuth of the midwinter sun in that period, and therefore the setting of
this star behind the pyramid could also be observed from Heliopolis.
Interestingly, not far from the Abu Roash complex, the remains of the huge pyramid
called Lepsius I can be found. If finished, this would have been the largest pyramid in
Egypt. The chronology of this pyramid is not known; however, if it can be ascribed to the
Dynasty, as discussed in Chapter 8, then it may have been conceived as the second
pyramid of the complex of Djedefre, again forming a pair like those of Dahshur and, if we
are correct, those of Giza.
10. 6. Conclusions, perspectives, and starry tales
Was there any connection between “stars and pyramids”? The answer should be: “yes,
there was”, with certain reservations. The connection is clearly proved for the most
notable of the “imperishable” stars, the circumpolar, which were used probably for their
orientation (see Chapters 8 and 9), and to which the “sighting devices” for the statue of
Djoser in the Serdab of the Step Pyramid and the northern upper and lower channels of
Khufu’s pyramid were perhaps pointing. This theory probably also holds true for the stars
of Sah, to which the southern upper channel of the Great Pyramid most likely pointed. A
connection with Sirius, relating to a ritual in the Queen’s chamber, is also probable. It is
very likely that further research will disclose further, perhaps unexpected, connections
between the sacred landscape of the Memphite area and the celestial realm, helping us
also to understand how many of the “cognitive” aspects listed in the previous two sections
may actually be linked with certainty to the ancient Egyptians’ awareness of the sky.
Figure 10.7. Intervisibility between Heliopolis and the monuments of the 4
Dynasties to the north
of Memphis. See also Figure 8.38. Adapted from Jeffreys (1998).
It has taken many years of significant findings by Egyptologists, by astronomers and
also by non-academic enthusiasts to establish what is known today with a reasonable
degree of confidence. This is by no means unusual: for instance many comets, asteroids
and pertinent astrophysical events have been first discovered by non-professional
skywatchers. Unfortunately, however, the contributions of the “lunatic fringe” plague
non-professional approaches to archaeoastronomy, surrounding the discipline with high
levels of noise that we have always to deal with. Perhaps such “alternative theories”, or
wild speculations, as the second author prefers to qualify them, should not be discussed at
all in an academic context. However, we have decided to address here, albeit briefly, the
most popular of them, the so-called 10,500 B.C. theory (see e.g. Bauval and Hancock,
1997; and Bauval, 2006).
According to this hypothesis, the layout of the pyramids of Giza and the orientation
due east of the Sphinx was conceived to “bring the attention” of the observer to a date
roughly 8000 years before their construction. The reason was that at this date, due to
precession, the Belt of Orion was at its lower altitude at culmination, and the spring
equinoctial constellation was Leo; as a consequence, at that period the Belt in the sky and
the pyramids on the ground would have formed the same angle with the meridian, and the
equinoctial sun would have risen in Leo in front of the lion-body Sphinx. Although the
inventors of the theory do not claim that the plan of the pyramids was conceived at that
remote time, this hypothesis requires several assumptions which can hardly be justified.
First of all, they assume that the Old Kingdom Egyptians recognised a “Lion”
constellation, a fact which, although likely, has never been proven (a “starred lion”,
almost certainly coincident with our Leo, appears only one thousand years later in the
astronomical ceilings and clocks of the New Kingdom, see Chapter 6 or Lull and
Belmonte, 2006). Further, they assume the Sphinx to be a symbol of this supposed
constellation. Second, they assume that the Sphinx, being a symbol of this constellation,
is “misoriented” if it refers to its proper time of construction, because it is actually
oriented to the equinox, but the Lion was the equinoctial constellation 8000 years before
its construction. Consequently, they assume that the builders of the Giza monuments were
aware of the phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes, a fact which has never been
definitively attested. Further, they assume that the ancient Egyptians, being aware of the
precession of the equinoxes, were also aware of the mathematical details of the
precessional motion, with such a degree of confidence to be able to calculate its effects on
the motion of several stars (at least for Orion, Sirius and Leo) back in time for many
thousands of years. Significantly, to achieve this they would have to have developed, of
course, the basic functions of spherical trigonometry and the ability to evaluate their
values. Finally, or perhaps at the very beginning, they assume that the builders of Giza
wanted to attract our attention to the date of 10,500 BC. Why? Perhaps to tell us a starry
tale? And we have to believe it! This is not science, it is religion.
We stated in the introduction of this essay that the border between
archaeoastronomical science and fringe theories is much clearer than it may seem. It is in
fact very distinct and this volume offers such unquestionable proofs, that no further
comment is needed. Some final words, instead, may be useful about that short but
extraordinary period of the human history and civilisation which witnessed the
construction of the Old Kingdom pyramids, and notably those of the 4
tells us that stars like our sun live for billions of years, before freezing and coming to an
end, allowing new generations of stars to be born. The ancient Egyptians did not know
this, but their feeling for the enduring nature of the celestial cycles was certainly much
deeper than our own. They would have incorporated these feelings in their buildings,
relating them to the sky, and constructing them in such a magnificent way that “time has
fear of them”. Only nowadays, with the help of archaeology and its auxiliary sciences,
including the powerful tools of archaeoastronomy, are we beginning to understand how
deep their connection may have been.
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