You are on page 1of 22

53

CHAPTER 3
ASTRONOMICAL HISTORIOGRAPHY IN FOUR MOVEMENTS
Miguel ngel Molinero Polo

Summary. The historiographical composition alluded to in the title of the chapter is made
up of four relatively independent studies. In them, in chronological order, personages and
situations representatives of different modes of approach to the ancient Egyptian astronomy
are dealt with. The first part shows the birth of European interest in this Egyptian science,
especially its calendar, which was encountered through classical writers; and in contrast
how their search to identify the instruments employed to measure time was frustrated. The
second part emphasizes the two major astronomical discoveries of the Commission des
Sciences et Arts of the Egyptian Campaign of the French army at the end of the 18th
Century: the so-called zodiacs and the cardinal orientation of the Giza constructions; it
also presents Jomards opinions which reinforced the then developing stream of mystical
interpretation of the pyramids. The next essays focus respectively on two highly regarded
British astronomers of the 19th Century. Ch. P. Smyth directed his efforts towards a dead
end for Archaeoastronomy and Egyptology, but his work had enormous impact since the
pseudoscience known as pyramidology developed from it. N. Lockyer, despite the
mistakes in his work, opened the way to the recognition of a still unknown aspect of
Egyptian beliefs: the orientation of sacred buildings and its mythological implications.

3.1. The antiquarians and the Egyptian calendar

But as regarding human affairs, this was the account in which they all agreed: the
Egyptians, they said, were the first men who reckoned by years and made the year
to consist of twelve divisions of the seasons. They discovered this from the stars (so
they said). And their reckoning is, to my mind, a juster one than that of the Greeks;
for the Greeks add an intercalary month every other year, so that the seasons may
agree; but the Egyptians, reckoning thirty days to each of the twelve months, add
five days in every year over and above the number, and so the completed circle of
seasons is made to agree with the calendar. (Herodotus, II, 4; trans. A.D. Godley)

Around 1450, Lorenzo Valla translated into Latin the Historiae of Herodotus, whose
book devoted to Egypt opens with the above text, as a means of highlighting the
importance for him of the creation of a calendar. During these years, Poggio Bracciolini
also finished his translation of large sections of Diodorus Siculus Bibliotheca. Thus
began the dissemination of the work of the two Greek geographers in Renaissance Italy,
and afterwards, in the rest of Western Europe. It entailed the transmission of references
about the Egyptian time-keeping system, which are generally held to be correct. Strabo,
Claudius Ptolemy, Censorinus, Plutarch and some other Classical authors, whose texts
were also rediscovered and systematically copied in the course of the following decades,
complemented the information provided by the former about the vague year, the Sothic
cycle, the seasons, the annual succession of religious festivals or the role of the priests in
the development of astronomy in Egyptian civilization.
By the end of the 15th Century, the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo, discovered in
Andros in 1422, became exceedingly popular among Florentine Humanists. The editio
princeps of 1505 was followed by more than thirty editions and translations during the
54

same Century. His two books gathered nearly two hundred interpretations of
hieroglyphs, opening precisely with those signs used to write words such as eternity,
universe, year, current year or month (see Figures 3.1 and 3.2). As the author
has been identified either with a grammarian from Phanebytis, who taught in Alexandria
and Constantinople, or with a leader of a pagan school and priest in a temple devoted to
Isis uncle and nephew, probably, both from the 5th Century, the commentary that
follows the astronomical explanation of the corresponding signs can be considered as
genuinely Egyptian in advance of the filtered visions of the Graeco-Roman writers.

When they would represent a year, they delineate Isis, i.e. a woman. By the same
symbol they also represent the goddess. Now Isis is with them a star, called in
Egyptian, Sothis, but in Greek Astrocyon, (the Dog star); which seems also to
preside over the other stars, inasmuch as it sometimes rises greater, and at other
times less; sometimes brighter, and at other times not so; and moreover, because
according to the rising of this star we shew all the events of the ensuing year ()
When they would represent the year otherwise, they delineate a palm tree,
because of all others this tree alone at each renovation of the moon produces one
additional branch, so that in twelve branches the year is completed. (Horapollo,
Hieroglyphica, I, 3. Number after ed. Sbordone; trans. A.T. Cory)

Only a few years prior to the first publication of the Hieroglyphica in Venice,
Bernardo Pinturicchio finished the decoration of the Appartamenti Borgia in the
Vatican. In the vaulted ceiling of one of its chambers were depicted the hermits of
Ancient Thebes, Hermes Trismegistos and Moses within an Egyptian landscape, the
legend of Isis and Osiris and a procession of an effigy of the Apis Bull. J.S. Curl
emphasises the bizarre forms that the ancestors worship had taken in the Italian
Quattrocento, when illustrious families longed to establish lengthy and distinguished
pedigrees, in parallel with the Renaissance movement itself which sought its roots in
Classical Antiquity. One of the oddest manifestations of this yearning for a prestigious
past was this connection between Pope Alexander VI and Egypt.
Figure 3.1. This image is used to illustrate the
commentary of one of the numerous cases in which
the text of Horapollo fits with the ancient writing.
In hieroglyphs, the word month was written with
the signs or . To represent a month they
delineate a palm branch, or, the moon inverted. A
palm branch for the reason before mentioned
respecting the palm tree; and the moon inverted,
because they say, that, in its increase, when it has
come to fifteen degrees, it appears in figure with
its horns erect; and in its decrease, after having
completed the number of thirty days, it sets with its
horns inverted; Horapollo, Hieroglyphica, I, 4.
Number after the ed. Sbordone; trans. A.T. Cory.
Illustration created for Kerver edition of the
Hieroglyphica (1543).
55

Figure 3.2. Again, to signify the two Equinoxes they depict a sitting cynocephalus, for at the two
equinoxes of the year it makes water twelve times in the day, once in each hour, and it does the same also
during the two nights; wherefore not without reason do the Egyptians sculpture a sitting Cynocephalus
on their Hydrologia; and they cause the water to run from its member, because, as I said before, the
animal thus indicates the twelve hours of the equinox. And lest the contrivance, by which the water is
discharged into the Horologium, should be too wide, or on the other hand too narrow (for against both
these caution must be taken, for the one that is too wide, by discharging the water quickly, does not
accurately fulfil the measurement of the hour, neither the one that is too narrow, since it lets forth the
water little by little, and too slowly), they perforate an aperture to the extremity of the member, and
according to its thickness insert in it an iron tube adapted to the circumstances required. And this they
are pleased to do, not without sufficient reason, more than in other cases. They also use this symbol,
because it is the only animal that at the equinoxes utters its cries twelve times in the day, once in each
hour; Horapollo, Hieroglyphica, I, 16. Number after the ed. Sbordone; trans. A.T. Cory. Illustration
created for Kerver edition of the Hieroglyphica (1543) (left), and inflow water clock from Edfu (right),
from Borchardt, Die altgyptische Zeitmessung, 1920, Tafel 9.

This was disclosed in a book published by Annio of Viterbo in 1498: the different
editions show varied titles, but all of them comment on ancient authors and the
chronology of the Western Mediterranean. The recent Christian conquest of Granada in
1492 became the background to the deception, since the manuscripts on which the
work of Annio was based were supposedly found in this city. He fabricated an
impossible story of the mythical origins of several European royal households. For
example, the Hispanic monarchy would have its roots in Tubal, a grandson of Noah, and
include among its ancestors the collaborators of Tifon (Seth) in the murder of his
brother. In turn, Alexander VI would count Osiris among his ancestors.
Such a sequence of nonsense was based on the identification by Annio of a
complete version of Berosius Babyloniaca written as a matter of fact by Annio
himself, complemented with invented references to Manethos Aegyptiaca and to
several Classical authors. It must be stated that the deception was early denounced by
some scholars, but many others took it at face value and used it as a starting point for
their own studies.
This re-creation would have been inconceivable without the belief, which by the end
of the 15th Century had reached startling proportions, that the Preclassical civilizations
of the Eastern Mediterranean led by Egypt could measure time with accuracy through
astronomical means, and embody it in annals and chronographic documents. The
56

linkage between these two concepts should not be attributed to the scholars of the
Renaissance, but seems to have been a legacy of the Classical Period. This statement
can be deduced from the attribution to Manetho of a book on Astronomy,
Apostelematica, when in fact, its small fragments seem to be of the 4th Century A.D.: or
it may be due to a modernization of the original text, or the Egyptian priest was not
the author.
The lack of critical sense among the Renaissance historians explains why they
accepted the chronologies established by the Fathers of the Christian church during the
Middle Ages. These were based partially on the same authors to whom Annio assigned
his newly discovered works, even though their religious point of view was at times in
open contradiction to the pagans assertions. The fixing of a unique chronology, with
periods of time synchronized for all the known civilizations, was a task begun by Julius
the African, and overall by Eusebius (c. 260-339), a Greek from Palestine who became
bishop of Caesarea. He wrote a Chronicle in which he strove to link the Biblical account
with the history of the peoples of the ancient Near East and Classical civilizations. With
this purpose, he formulated synchronic tables, which reconciled the facts recorded in the
Bible with the lists of Assyrian kings, the Pharaonic dynasties established by Manetho
we owe to Eusebius the majority of the summaries preserved of the writings of the
Egyptian author, the Greek Olympic Games and the Roman magistrates.
The work of the Bishop of Caesarea was continued by other chroniclers. The
chronology thus established dominated Christian historiography until late Modern times.
J. Fontana can therefore assert that no author has exerted an influence similar to his in
the Western world and that no idea has been so pernicious, since the belief that the
history of humanity had begun just six or seven millennia previously effectively
prevented substantial studies of the most ancient periods of mankinds history. Even in
England, as late as the 17th Century, a man of science such as Newton could write a
treatise Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Attended, where an impossible rationalization
of ancient mythology can be found.
Returning to the 16th Century, it might be concluded that a certain amount of
knowledge, reliable though very scanty, about the Egyptian system of temporal
calculation, had been gained. This also included its application not only in the creation
of chronographic patterns, based on the succession of reigns we will not tackle the
Egyptian conception of the historical time, but also in the organizing of a calendar of
religious festivals. With the exception of Manetho and Horapollo, the sources were
basically the Classical authors.
In common with other types of Egyptian documents, more obvious than those
relating to astronomy or the calendars, as in the case of the monuments found in Rome
or texts concerning the religious beliefs, the systematization of sources in coherent
studies took place relatively late; for example, the first treatise on obelisks dates from
1589, the first one on hieroglyphs excluding the reinvention of emblemata revived by
Horapollo from 1608. It was only in the 17th Century that Athanasius Kircher
undertook the first partial synthesis of the available information about Egypt.
In the case of interest in Egyptian astronomy the lack of objects that might be related
to it, may have acted as a deterrent to their study. Since the end of the 17th Century, the
historians that we label as antiquarians gave prominence to the information stemming
from material culture as a testimony to the technological progress of the ancient
civilizations. In the case of Egypt, original texts were not even readable, since
hieroglyphic writing prevented their access. Antiquities became thus the only means of
57

renewing the research. And since the Egyptian calendar was a matter of interest, its
material rendering was found.
Bernard de Montfaucon was a French antiquarian of an astonishing activity. Among
his many works, Lantiquit explique et reprsente en figures, published in 10
volumes (Paris, 1719-1724), stands out. It is a comprehensive archaeological study of
Egyptian as well as Classical antiquities. Every artefact is presented on a plate and is
described very carefully; previous research on each item is also discussed from a very
critical point of view, since he considered much of it to be speculative and
undisciplined.
Montfaucon discusses the image depicted on a fragment of cloth from a mummy. He
identifies it as a calendar (see Figure 3.3). Before going into detail, it should be noted
that, now that we know how to read Egyptian texts and are familiar with this type of
document, one can recognize in it a copy of the Book of Going forth by Day with the end
of Chapter 148 and Chapters 149 and 150. However, several irregularities common
among these documents caused the French antiquarian to make a mistake. He
interpreted the twelve identical sections of the shroud as the twelve months of the year.
The red line placed before each text would be its name a fact that, in his opinion,
should have been of great assistance in the decipherment of the writing, since they were
already known through the Classical authors; above, he interpreted the figure of a man
or animal as the deity to which the month was devoted. In the last box were successively
depicted, the year the two snakes, the three seasons of the Egyptian calendar
corresponding to the three black, ovoid figures and the twelve months divided into
three registers. The most curious fact is that his interpretation is logical to a certain
degree, even though it was a total invention and devoid of foundation.

Figure 3.3. Shroud that Montfaucon interpreted erroneously as an ancient Egyptian calendar. It depicts,
incompletely, three chapters of the Book of Going Forth by Day. The plate begins with two mummiform
figures which match those that usually end vignette 148, since they seem to hold in their hands the oars of
heaven, one of the features of this image. After them, there follows Chapter 149; usually divided into
fourteen sections that represent an equal number of hills of the Field of Rushes, an area of the Other
World, and its divinities or associated genii, under each of whom a description is written; in this case the
number was reduced to twelve and this circumstance prompted Montfaucon to make his mistake. In the
last place is Chapter 150, a representation almost completely pictorial of the fifteen one more than in
149 hills of the Field of Rushes; in this exemplar all of them are present, attended by two snakes
usually four which perhaps represent the four cardinal points. Plate LIV of the supplement to Volume II of
Montfaucon, Lantiquit explique et reprsente en figures.
58

More interesting is his way of deducing what might have been said in the texts of
each month, since he resorts to the comparative method by analyzing other calendars
that he deems identical. He does not draw upon Roman sources, despite the fact that
they were well known in his time, but upon a Coptic document. He draws together the
comments on the calendar of an Alexandrian monk named Cosmas Indicopleustes, of
the first half of the 6th Century, whose work had been edited by Montfaucon himself
some years before. His recourse testifies to a new way of introducing research on
Egyptian culture, retrieving the value of information from the Christian Era. It should
not be forgotten that Montfaucon proved the origin of Coptic lyrics through his studies
of Greek palaeography and that he himself, based on a suggestion made by Kircher,
defended that the Coptic language was a later development of the ancient Egyptian. This
approach which later proved to be correct was fundamental to the decipherment of the
hieroglyphic writing by J.F. Champollion.

3.2. The Description de lgypte: astronomical ceilings, cardinal alignments


and mystic initiations

In August 1798, a force under Desaix was sent to Upper Egypt to pursue the
Mamelukes who had fled into the south of the country after their defeat in the Battle of
the Pyramids. Eight engineers and one sculptor had been joined to the detachment to
study the Niles hydrologic regime. From the time they left Cairo, the ruins had
awakened their curiosity. In Dendara, forgetting their mission, Dubois-Aym, Jollois
and de Villiers du Terrage focused their attention on the temple. Neither the
recriminations of the commander nor the punishment of Dubois-Aym, exiled with a
task group to the Red Sea, were enough to curb their enthusiasm on arrival in Karnak.
Two days later, in Esna, they gave themselves to the documentation of the magnificent
monument, as they would do in Philae for two weeks some time later. The stellar
diagrams of those buildings were amongst the aspects that most attracted them, as can
be seen in the subsequent memoires.
The Commission des Sciences et Arts de lArme dOrient, the group of scientists,
technicians and artists that accompanied the French army in the Campaign of Egypt
(1798-1801) also sent, during the summer of 1799, two more teams to Upper Egypt.
Directed by the surveyor Costaz and the mathematician Fourier, they benefited from the
experience of Jollois and de Villiers, who communicated their method of unifying the
criteria of documentation. At the same time, the architect Le Pre, the engineer Cont,
the astronomer Nouet, topographers like Jacotin, Ccile, Jomard, and the battalion
commander Coutelle, amongst others, pursued their activities for months in the Giza
plateau.
Accustomed to precise and meticulous technical drawing, provided by the most
recent instruments, and overcome with admiration for Egyptian architecture, they
committed themselves to making accurate and clear copies of the monuments. This
material opened up the application of objective description and notation procedures to
Egyptian art.
After the capitulations of Menou, a diplomacy which was skilful as well as energetic
was necessary to keep the documentation they had collected. After their arrival in
France, a plan was put in train to publish all this information. Specific budgets were
allocated, scientific collaborators were hired. During the two decades that it took to
59

prepare the edition of the monumental Description de lgypte, four hundred artists
were needed drawers, painters, printers to make the plates.
The mathematician Fourier wrote the memoire on ancient Egyptian astronomy. In
his analysis we can distinguish two parts. The first one, which contains new
information, describes six astronomical ceilings to which a whole chapter is devoted.
The zodiacs as they were called are those from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings
and the temples of Dendara (two), Esna, Esna North and Armant. They are almost the
only ceilings represented in the plates of the Description, which seems disproportionate
to their actual presence in Egyptian buildings. It may be a consequence of the relative
impact of the discovery: it must be remembered that the documentation teams were
formed basically by engineers and scientists and not humanists. Nevertheless, the
images have increased their value, since the temples of Esna North (see Figure 3.4) and
Armant have disappeared since then.
The second part of Fouriers essay takes the zodiacs as a departure point to create
a discourse on the Egyptian year, the two calendars one is called civil or
wandering, since his beginning advances one day every four years, and the
agricultural, subject to the seasons, the relation with historical chronology and the
comparison with the dates of the Hebrews and other peoples of Antiquity. It is the most
coherent synthesis written up till then, but not very original, since it depends mainly on
Classical sources. It must be remembered that the hieroglyphic script was still not
deciphered.
Jomard deals with the description of the Giza plateau in volume V (dition
Panckoucke). The plates of the topographic plan and the sections of the Great Pyramid
the only one already open at that time are of exceptional quality, the best published so
far. In the text, he asserts that he wants to keep himself strictly to descriptive terms (see
Figure 3.5). This attitude is desirable so as not to interrupt the exposition of the precise
dimensions of the Pyramid (), the most important object of this writing. He explains
why the measurements have been made twice, firstly by Jacotin and himself, secondly
by Le Pre and Coutelle; their results, being coincidental, confirm each others findings.
Then, through fifty pages, he spells length of the base, total height, number and height
of every row of blocks, length of the edge, inclination of the faces, calculus of surfaces
and volumes; all this for each one of the three bigger monuments, besides the methods
used to obtain them. It is instructive to note how these results and the confidence placed
on them have gone out of date. The total heights of the pyramids are rendered 144.19 m,
138.00 m and 53.00 m respectively, in chronological order, whereas M. Lehner, in a
recent book, shows 146.59 m, 143.50 m and 65.00 m as the more reliable figures. The
remainder of the measurements must be subject to a proportional adjustment. Those
metrical mistakes are meaningful if the importance that Jomard gave to the proportions
of Khufus monument is taken into account.
In volume IX he presents an analysis of the pyramids, comparing the results of his
work in situ, with the geodesic position of the plateau and the ancient accounts not
mentioned in the first text.
The contradiction between Classical authors in respect of the purpose of the
pyramids only two mention their funerary destiny and the small in his opinion
sarcophagus in the Kings chamber, lead him to deny that they were tombs. From the
medieval Arabic accounts, that made the pyramids legendary and magical places, he
takes two aspects: chronology and function.
60

Figure 3.4. Celestial diagram of a destroyed temple in Esna North. In the chapter dedicated to the
description of the astronomical ceilings, Fourier supposes that the selection of the constellations and the
creation of a zodiac antedated the Egyptian Empire, even if the lack of documents made it impossible
for him to know if it had an indigenous or Asiatic origin. The zodiac was supposed to be regulated to
create the calendar during the splendour of Thebes and, afterwards it passed to the Greeks. Indeed, the
itinerary is seen today very differently, since the Egyptian constellations are considered mainly indigenous
and the zodiacs using the term correctly Mesopotamian and with a very late entrance in Egypt (see
Chapter 6). The temple on which this celestial diagram was carved has disappeared, and this image is the
only document which remains. Description de lgpte, vol. I, plate 87.

Figure 3.5. Image of the Giza plateau. Jomard asserts in the text that he wants to show the proportions of
the pyramids with objectivity, without circumlocution. Nevertheless, he cannot avoid devoting a
paragraph to the impression produced when approaching the Great Pyramid. The delight he clearly
displays in the description indicates a degree of literary pre-romanticism, as do the plates in which views
of the plateau are given from different perspectives. Description de lgypte, vol. V, plate 7.
61

Figure 3.6. Internal chambers of the Great


Pyramid of Giza. From the wonderful tales told
by Arabic medieval authors about the pyramids,
Jomard takes a commentary by Abd el-Atif on
the perfection of the blocks in the ascending
passage of the Great Pyramid. With
exaggeration, he asserts that their joints, which
are indeed really excellent, are imperceptible, a
blade of knife cannot enter inside. The sentence
has become a common-place in contemporary
esoteric literature. Here the affirmation is
applied to the totality of the construction:
obviously an unacceptable falsity, only credible
for those who have never approached these
monuments. Description de lgypte, vol. V,
plate 15.

Figure 3.7. General plan of the Giza plateau. Since the first moment of its discovery, scientists have
wondered how Egyptians could have made the alignment of the Giza pyramids with such precision.
Jomard proposes several methods: the use of pairs of shadows during the solstices or the equinoxes after a
mention by Proclus, or lines traced from the measurement of the place where a star rises and sets, or the
transit of a star through the meridian, since these methods were supposed to be known by Egyptians.
Description de lgypte, vol. V, plate 6.

He attributes to these edifices immemorial date, since those accounts always


describe the pyramids chronology as unknown, indicating that they were built by
antediluvian kings; at the same time, the drawings of the French campaign have shown
that the Theban tombs were covered by inscriptions, absent from the Memphite
pyramids, whereas those must antedate the former.
Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah (end of the 12th Century) includes among the marvels of
these buildings a shaft that communicates with the Nile, treasures without number
heaped inside, inscriptions on the walls with the principles of the sciences, arts,
astrology, geometry, together with texts which mention the movements of the sky: the
62

position of every star, their successive changes and other references that in reality
correspond to progress in medieval Arabic astronomy.
The conclusion of the French savant was that the Great Pyramid would have been a
kind of monument to Egyptian science on which his superior knowledge would have
been fixed. Perhaps through ignorance of the functioning of some architectonical
devices which we now understand as having a technical explanation, relating to the
needs of the royal interment, he accords them mystical attributes: in this building
mysteries were celebrated or, perhaps, initiations were practised, in cult ceremonies (see
Figure 3.6).
Several elements of the ideological foundations of Freemasonry can be recognized
in these assumptions. Following the process described by E. Hornung, some of them
were gradually Egyptianized from the middle of the 18th Century, so that they could
form part of the cultural circle during the French Revolution. Among them may be
noted: the systems of symbols with numbers and their combinations, which originated in
the medieval Cabala (Jomard juggles: one hundred and twenty walks around the
pyramid are equivalent to one degree of the Egyptian sphere); the exaltation of the work
produced with the stone blocks to create the monument, which is compared to the act of
learning in the Loggia to build a new reality; the initiation inside a pyramid, first
proposed in Sthos, the novel by J. Terrasson (1731), and then reinforced by Cagliostro;
the meaning attributed to the understanding of the celestial phenomena present in Crata
Repoa (1770), a German Masonic book of wide influence which includes an
Astronomus as the sixth of seven degree of its initiation; the value given to secret
knowledge: the pyramid is highly visible, but only a profound study, following Jomard,
would allow the identification of the scientific message astronomical, mathematical,
geometrical, legislative concealed in it.
Another element in understanding the conclusions of Jomard is to be found in a
fundamental change in metrology. All the measurements given in the Description are in
metres. The metric system, today used by most of the world, was conceived by a group
of French scientists at the end of the 18th Century. It was imposed in France by the
National Convention during the Revolution. Its aim was to impose rationality and a state
system which would erase the different and arbitrary measurements of the Ancien
Rgime. It is compelling to read the measurements, in some passages of the Description,
in provisional metres instituted in August 1793 and in definitive established in
December 1799, one month after de coup dtat of Bonaparte; its mention calls to
mind the General who directed the Campaign of Egypt. The definition of metre in this
system is The length of the ten thousandth part of the Earths meridian quadrant.
Something very similar is attributed by Jomard to the ancient Egyptians, since
among his assertions, he maintained that they knew the value of the Earths
circumference, on which they based their measurement system. And he added that the
Great Pyramid held within its dimensions the national measurements of length and
surface. He had no basis for those conclusions: his measurements are incorrect, nothing
is known in Egyptian technology or Earth and astronomical knowledge that could have
allowed him to arrive at this deduction, and, of course, for the last sentence, he had in
his mind the metre model kept in Paris. It would be difficult to show more clearly how
a personal way of thinking is a product from the society of its period. However, it must
be said that those assertions were not shared by all the members of the Commission,
since Jomards assertions were contested in other sections of the Description such as the
memoire about the Elephantine nilometer and its metric implications written by P.S.
Girard.
63

A question to which Jomard gave little importance in his description of the Giza
plateau is the astronomical orientation of the pyramids on this site. This feature had
been identified earlier. The Italian traveller G.F. Gemelli de Careri, who visited Egypt in
1693, did not doubt of the monuments funerary purpose, but also attributed to them an
astronomical function. This same year, J.-M. de Cazelles takes accurate measurements
of the constructions in Giza for the Parisian Acadmie de Sciences, and he recognizes
the exact orientation to the cardinal points. Nevertheless, J.Ph. Lauer declares that the
results of these works were not known outside this institution. It is to the scientists of
the Description to whom the knowledge of this circumstance is owed. This aspect is
considered nowadays fundamental in explaining certain aspects of the eschatological
beliefs of the Egyptian civilization.
Jomard comments on the perfect alignment of Khufus pyramid to the north,
admirable from his point of view, as for us. He identified a slight deviation to the south
that he attributes to technical problems due to the difficulty of the enterprise for the
ancient builders. The other two pyramids were not measured so accurately, but the
topographer recognized their precise alignment with the older one, as is shown in the
general plan of the site (see Figure 3.7).
Reading the funerary texts allows us today to begin to understand this orientation.
Without them, it was impossible for Jomard to give plausible explanations. This did not
affect the swift outreach of the phenomenon, as can be seen from the text of an English
traveller some years after the publication of the Description, earlier even than the work
of J.S. Perring and H. Vyse on the place.

On the 16th I went again to the Pyramids, and was as much pleased as with
our former excursion. As a singular and extraordinary proof of the
astronomical correctness with which these stupendous piles are constructed,
the polar star is visible on the night of 21st of March, when looking from the
lower chamber, through the angular passage by which the Pyramid is
entered () The exactness of these points () naturally gives rise to a very
elevated idea of the knowledge the ancient Egyptians must have possessed of
the heavenly bodies; notwithstanding that the Dendera and Esneh
planispheres or zodiacs are supposed to be of the time of the Roman Empire.
(Hon. W.E. Fitzmaurice, 1834)

3.3. The Bible and the Great Pyramid: Charles Piazzi Smyth

Violent episodes of conflict between science and religion have been known since
Classical Athens. It is not necessary to recall the death of G. Bruno to remember how
dramatic could be the result in medieval and modern times. In the Western 19th Century,
one of the subjects of controversy focused on the origins of humankind. The discussions
among evolutionists and creationists were only the most widely known aspects of the
debate, often a personal one, which many scholars faced when trying to reconcile their
religious beliefs with discoveries in many branches of knowledge. The Progress in
Geology and its application to the disciplines of Palaeontology and Archaeology
contradicted the chronology established by biblical and classical texts. And, in that case,
could the Universe be something other than the product of Gods design? Ancient Egypt
was also required to take part in the dispute. The most notable case of attempting to
subordinate Egyptological discoveries to religion was the work of Charles Piazzi Smyth
(1819-1900).
64

Figure 3.8. Ch. Piazzi Smyth (right) with his refractor telescope on top of Montaa Guajara (2700 m
a.s.l.) in the Caldera of the Teide, seen behind. It is one of the stereographic images taken by his wife for
the book Teneriffe, an astronomers experiment. Smyth was a notable astronomer. Perhaps for this reason
it is so difficult to understand his writings about Giza, so far from the scientific logic he applied to his
other studies. Even if anecdotal, the author cannot avoid mentioning for the amusement of readers that it
was Smyth who deduced that the best place for an astronomical observatory had to be a high spot over sea
level on an island. He undertook his proof during his honeymoon in Tenerife: a really hard task for his
wife during those holidays. It is on this island that J.A. Belmonte and the author of this chapter carry out
our professional carriers. Ultimately, it is thanks to Smyth that the Instituto de Astrofsica de Canarias, of
which the former is a member, was created, together with the Faculty of Physics, which has been one of
the driving forces of the Universidad de La Laguna, the institution where the latter lectures.

The texts on the Giza monuments written by this eminent astronomer cannot be
understood without the book which inspired him to begin his study of the subject: The
Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built? And Who Built It? first published in 1859. John
Taylor, the author of this volume, had never visited Egypt. All his information derived
from travellers narratives and 18th Century studies on the subject. J. Greaves in his
Pyramidographia, 1646, made an objective description of these structures, but using his
measurements, some philosophers started to propose a more subjective reading of them:
Kircher suggested that they had mystical and hidden meanings; Th. Shaw thought the
Great Pyramid was a temple to Osiris; I. Newton created the concept of sacred code to
denote one of the two supposed instruments used to erect them; other authors proposed
the idea that the Egyptians used the value of in their construction.
On this basis, and slightly tweaking the mathematics, Taylor found that ten million
pyramid cubits were approximately the length of the radius of the Earth on its polar
axis (our Planet is not perfectly spherical, which allows us to play with several different
radii when pretending to arrive at coincidences). All these proportions showed him that
the Great Pyramids architect could not be an Egyptian. A monument like this was
divinely inspired, and since the Egyptians were idolatrous, it had to be a biblical
personage, Noah or Melchizedek. Besides, he deduced it was built to make a record of
the measure of the Earth. We can be fairly sure, following Lauer, that if it were not for
Smyth, these ideas would never have received much attention.
65

It is surprising that such a mixture of doubtful measurements and nonsensical


deductions could attract a man such as Piazzi Smyth of methodical temperament and,
already by then, of proven scientific value in astronomy (see Figure 3.8). A plea has to
be made in respect of certain features of his character and the cultural context in which
he developed his activities in order to understand his pyramid books.
He was a profound believer, who made a literal interpretation of the Bible, and his
writings show that he had a deep emotional commitment to demonstrating
scientifically that the Christian religion was true.
He showed also a Victorian sense of mistrust towards continental French science.
Only Jomard is sometimes mentioned with praise in his books, for some of his
unorthodox deductions. Above all, he showed a great antipathy towards the metric
system, imposed, as we have seen, by the French Revolution, which he regarded as the
erroneous product of atheistic radicals.
To demonstrate the connection proposed by Taylor: Bible-pyramids-British inch
became for him a mission and he the man for the task. It must be remembered that
archaeological studies to prove proving Biblical text without separating history from
theology were not unknown in the British intellectual milieu of that time. Only some
years later, on April 1882, the Society for the Promotion of Excavation in the Delta of
the Nile was founded. The spot was chosen because here must undoubtedly lie
concealed the documents of a lost period of Biblical history, i.e., the text follows the
records of the Hebrew captivity, as well as the ruins of the cities of the Oppression
(Pithon and Pi-Ramses). The institution is the academic and well-known Egypt
Exploration Society, following several changes of name.
Having corresponded with Taylor for some time, Piazzi Smyth departed for Egypt
financing himself, in order to measure every aspect of the Great Pyramid. He took good
equipment which allowed him to carry out much valuable work at Giza and other
pyramid sites, from January to April 1865. Besides new accurate measurements, he
photographed the monument, and significantly made the first images of the interior
passages of Khufus pyramid, using magnesium light, with a specially designed camera.
His sojourn in Egypt not only convinced him of the validity of Taylors claims, it
allowed him to deduce many other facts that demonstrated, as he thought, the special
nature of the Great Pyramid. His ideas were set out in several books published from
1864 to 1868 (see Figure 3.9).
He produced hundreds of measurements and calculations for the most part
completely useless from the archaeological point of view, as evidence that nearly every
detail of the architecture was intentionally designed. There follows a selection from a
critical article by J. Dunn:
Geometrical conclusions such as the use of the value, the precise length of the
pyramid inch after the external base, and the correspondence between its
perimeter and the number of days of the year.
Mathematical interrelationships between such elements as the number of stones
used in the construction of the inner chambers, the volume and shape of the
stone sarcophagus, the number of faces and angles of the pyramid. Relationships
combining numbers such as 25, 50, 10, 366, and 9 were included in the
dimensions as a record of the perfect standards of measurement that God
intended Mankind to use.
He also concluded that perfects units of weight and temperature were used by the
builders after testing physical properties such as the barometric pressure in the
inner chambers.
66

Besides its cardinal orientation, already known, he also juggled with the land and
sea of the parallel of latitude and the meridian which intersect at the Great
Pyramid (see Figure 3.10). Taylors thesis that the pyramid was a model of the
earth was reinforced in Smyths mind by his verification that the distance of the
earth from the sun would be approximately ten raised to the ninth power
multiplied by the height of the Great Pyramid.
The severest criticism of these conclusions arises from the arbitrariness of his
calculations. It has to be remembered that nowadays accurate measurements show that
all Egyptian state construction including pyramids were made with a code of
52.3/52.4 cm. Khufus building, as any other, is capable of becoming a quarry to be
mined for measurements ready to be used as tools for number combinations. It would be
surprising if Smyth had been unable to come up with some interesting ones. Many
scholars showed that when deriving his formulas, he simply juggled facts and figures
until he came up with a plausible correspondence.
There is a second group of conclusions, the historical ones, on which Smyth also
exceeded Taylor. He maintained that the Great Pyramid was not an Egyptian monument,
but rather the oldest man-made structure in the world. The other Egyptian pyramids
were only imitations. Although the workers came from the Nile valley, the architect who
designed it must have been one of the patriarchs from the Old Testament, since the
perfect structure of the monument embodied in its measurements the sacred cubit of
the Israelites, the pyramid inch. This was tied to his belief that the cubit used to build
both Noahs Ark and the tabernacle of Moses was also similarly based; Khufus
sarcophagus was claimed to have been carved with the same proportions, but a simple
comparison of its real measurements with those mentioned in the Bible for the
aforementioned objects prove that this is not correct. Piazzi Smyth further believed that
the British inch was derived from that ancient one and that the British people were
descended from a lost tribe of Israel. And, finally, as the paramount conclusion, that the
chambers and passages of the pyramid were a prophecy in stone of the great events in
world history, including the religious events in Great Britain during the 19th Century.
A number of Christian religious leaders accepted the theories of Smyth and
published their opinions in the organs of their religious movements. This assisted the
communication of his ideas in English speaking countries, and also through Western
Europe, among social groups who were not especially interested on Egyptology. In fact,
most of his followers were, and still are not interested in Ancient Egypt, only in its
pyramids as independent bodies isolated from the society who erected them. Smyth
began a tradition of Pyramidology that lives on today, as similar theorists continue to
produce speculations linking the pyramids with the stars, the Bible, or other fancy
theories. Most of his followers are now amalgamating these ideas with other emerging
New-Age beliefs.
Perhaps the most positive consequence of Smyths work was that the reading of his
books inspired a young man who travelled for the first time to Egypt, in 1880, to take
accurate measurements of the Giza plateau, using the triangulation method. His name
was W.M.F. Petrie and his father was an old friend of Smyth, with whom he shared an
identical religious perspective. Only a few years later the Egypt Exploration Fund
needed a British archaeologist with field experience and that young man was the only
one to be found, thanks to his Giza season. Thus began the career of the founder of
British Egyptology, the man who introduced the stratigraphical method in Egypt,
amongst other academic successes. Hi first success, by the way, was to demonstrate that
the pyramid was several feet smaller than previously believed, and that therefore the
67

metrological bases of Smyths deductions were mistaken. It was actually Petrie who
coined the term "pyramidiot" to describe the faithful followers of these ideas.

Figure 3.9. Smyths labour at Giza and other


pyramid necropolises resulted in several books:
Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid (1864)
the frontispiece is here reproduced, Life and
Work at the Great Pyramid (1867, 3 vols.) and
On the Antiquity of Intellectual Man. From a
Practical and Astronomical Point of View
(1868). He was awarded a gold metal by the
Royal Society of Edinburgh, but in 1874, after
the rejection of a paper on Khufus pyramid, he
resigned from his post as Royal Astronomer.

Figure 3.10. Smyth proposed that proceeding around the globe due north and due south of the Great
Pyramid ... there is more earth and less sea than in any other meridian all the equator round. But he
did not realize that, firstly, Earth is a globe, not a flat projection, and so, the meridian traverses the planet
through its 360 and Smyth illustrates his claim with a map. Secondly, we should ask why the Egyptians
would be interested in living in that precise place. Nothing in their texts or other documents suggests that
idea. Following Smyths reasoning, environmental conditions had nothing to do with their settlement
decision. And, thirdly, even if we accept the notion, the contrary side of the Earths meridian traverses
very little land. L. Orcutt has shown that even if taking into account a half-circle, the one traversing a few
degrees to the west (in blue in the illustration) would cross more land. Smyth also asserts that taking the
distribution of land and sea in parallels of latitude, there is more land-surface in the Great Pyramids
general parallel of 30, than in any other degree. Again, this is doubtful. A line of latitude several degrees
north (in orange) traverses more land. Plate II of Our Inheritance, with added lines by Orcutt.
68

Figure 3.11. Portrait of Norman Lockyer, the


father of Egyptian Archaeoastronomy.

3.4. Norman Lockyer: the birth of the Egyptian Archaeoastronomy

Advances made in a certain branch of knowledge due to the introduction of methods


of work and ideas from another specialism are fairly common. The study of ancient
Astronomy can teach us about humankinds first attempts to grasp the meaning and
phenomena of the Universe, and also help us to understand some aspects of ancient
everyday life, ways of thinking and religious beliefs. Letronnes discussion of the date
of the Dendara zodiac, some pages of R. Lepsiuss Denkmler and a collection of
astronomical texts made by H. Brugsch were the main contribution of Egyptologists to
the study of Egyptian Astronomy during the 19th Century. It was scientists outside the
field of Egyptology who were mainly interested in this topic. With few exceptions,
something similar took place in the 20th. The risk was and still is that the deeper
astronomers went into their subject, the further they were from the possibility of being
understood by Egyptologists. At the same time, the increase in the archive of documents
from the Egyptian civilization and the development of specific paradigms to analyse
them began to make access to that knowledge harder for non Egyptologists. Problems of
understanding arose.
Sir Norman Lockyer (see Figure 3.11) was a prestigious English astronomer in his
time. He earned his reputation, among many other successes, from the discovery of
helium and from his inauguration of Nature in 1869, nowadays one of the leading
science journals of the world, whose editorship he held until his death in 1920. For our
subject, it is interesting to know that he was an eager observer of the sun.
In 1890 he took a holiday in Greece, where he was surprised by the orientation of
some buildings. Once in England, he examined the publications of the French
Commission and the Prussian expedition to Egypt. Using the maps, he was certain that
the temples were orientated, that this feature was intentional and had an astronomical
basis. Next, he considered whether astronomy could provide dates with regard to the
foundation of the temples and, in a more general sense, whether it could assist in
historical chronology. Then he went to the Nile Valley where he made careful
measurements of monuments in the winter of 1891, trying to confirm his hypotheses.
69

Figure 3.12. Mammisi of Dendara in a plate of The dawn of Astronomy. Example of his procedure to date
a building according to the stellar information. In the case of the temple of Hathor in Dendara, he knew
that the building faced north. He identified the star that could have passed in front of it in the past, and he
chose Dubhe ( Ursae Majoris) because of its brightness. But it became circumpolar around 4000 B.C.
Searching in the inscriptions of the crypts, published by Ebers and Dmichen, he found a justification for
a first phase of the building in the time of the Followers of Horus, which he dates to 5000 B.C., and which
fitted in with the chronology he needed.

If we were tempted to compare him with Piazzi Smyth because of his profession or
the starting point of his investigation, we would be making a mistake. Through the
reading of their respective books they show themselves to be two completely different
personalities.
For Smyth, the edifices he studies were not Egyptian, and in his books they are taken
completely out of context, submerged in that mesh of numerical coincidences which we
have already described. They are the object and the aim, sheltered behind a wall of
biblical quotations that open every section of the book. There are seldom references to
conversations with Egyptologists or to the reading of the work of historians, except
those whose subject was the pyramids themselves.
By contrast, Lockyer shows himself as a sociable person, known as friend by
many archaeologists, who interviews Egyptologists and consults them about his project,
has read an abundant historical bibliography and quotes Classical sources. Above all, as
will be seen, he is concerned with integrating his results with what was then known
about Egyptian history.
When returning from Egypt, he received an article by H. Nissen published six years
before. The plans of Lepsiuss Denkmler had moved the German historian to task an
astronomer if the direction of the main axis of the temple of Karnak could be interpreted
in an astronomical way. Their common conclusion was that it was oriented both to
70

sunrise at the winter solstice and sunset at the summer solstice. In consequence, it is to
Nissen that we have to give the credit for having calculated for the first time the
possibility of a solar orientation of the Egyptian temples. But it is Lockyer who
introduced a model of study with precise data on a significant number of temples and a
global interpretation of the subject in his book The dawn of astronomy, first published in
1894. The volume received unfavourable criticism by some Egyptologists; most of them
ignored it.

Figure 3.13. Main axis of the Temple of Amon-


Re in Karnak. Frontispice of The Dawn of
Astronomy.

Lockyer used his instruments to identify which was the possible asterism to whose
rising or setting the axis was directed, and on what date the building was founded. He
distinguished between temples aligned to the sun like Karnak, and others aligned with
stars like Dendara, Luxor, Medinet Habu, Edfu. He had in mind Nissens mistake of
estimating wrong values for Karnak, because he worked on plans, creating an ideal
horizon which was not real, since the area of Luxor is surrounded by some high
mountains. He paid attention, in each particular case, to the elevations that could hinder
the observation. Once he had decided which was the star implied in the case of each
sacred construction, which he determined through the identification of the sanctuary
divinity and his celestial associations, he had to specify at which point on the horizon
the asterisms rising and setting took place. Due to the precession of the axis of the
Earth, that place changes, whereas he matched up the meeting of the variation of this
point with the axis of the building. Since the change is produced with a known rate, he
could deduce the date when the alignment took place.
The method is valid if it were accepted that every single temple was aligned at the
moment of its founding. If this is the case, the asterism must be correctly identified. And
the problem of the visibility of the horizon must be resolved. If all the premises are
correct, and there is no mistake in the calculations, the conclusions would be correct.
71

But the dates Lockyer proposed for the buildings are erroneous, because they are
extremely high. And this is the worst criticism that can be made of his work. In theory,
recourse to astronomical data should provide reliable dates since they are based on
external information and are not subject to the problems of archaeological methods of
chronology; there is a known periodicity, they are independent of historical events and,
especially, not susceptible to the subjectivity of historians. In fact, this is not completely
so. The dates he suggested are far from the ones accepted today and suspiciously close
to the ones proposed by the late 19th Century Egyptologists, based on written sources,
mainly Manetho. The mistake is in one of the steps of the process: the selection of the
asterism. Lockyer worked having in mind the chronology used at that time in
Egyptology; he explicitly accepted a date around 4000 B.C. for the beginning of
Egyptian civilization. When selecting a star, he chose one which rising or setting would
fit in with the presupposed first phase of the building. Then he made the precise
calculation, refining the date (see Figure 3.12). In the first half of the 20th Century, when
it was realised that the current chronology was very high and it was lowered by a
millennium, the method used by Lockyer was considered incorrect by archaeologists.
Even the possibility of Egyptian temple alignments was dismissed as a wrong
hypothesis.
In fact, his work had already been rejected as a whole. Some of the reasons are
evident. He created hasty generalizations, as when he ventured to suggest that Isis stood
for anything luminous to the eastward previous to sunrise, or that Osiris stood for any
celestial body becoming invisible; or when he proposed as an alternative to established
sign reading that mummies in hieroglyphs might indicate a setting star, and horns or
disk a rising one. He dared to reach historical conclusions from the astronomical
orientations without enough knowledge of Egyptian texts and civilization. An example
of this process is his explanation of the introduction of the Theban triad: he attributes
the creation of the triad to the priests of the 18th Dynasty who, pretending to increase
their power, conciliated all the cults of the land: the northern Mut since her temple is
oriented north, the Theban Amen-Ra his sanctuary is oriented east-west and the
southern Khonsu whose temple opens south as representatives of those three parts of
Egypt. Indeed, they are known prior to the date he proposed and their origins have no
relationship with the orientation of their temples.
Nevertheless, it must be recognized that many aspects of his historical conclusions,
which are unfavourably regarded today, derive from the paradigms employed by the
historians of his time. The discovery of an innovation is attributed by Lockyer to the
invasion of a more civilised people, exactly as Petrie suggested in this same decade
when trying to explain the first predynastic cemeteries he excavated, establishing what
has been known as the dynastic race hypothesis. He attributes the composite features
of the Egyptian gods, half human, half animal, to a prehistoric phase of totemism, as did
the anthropologists and historians of religion of the late 19th. His vagueness about
astronomer-priests reveals the same doubts that most Egyptologists had at this moment,
describing them sometimes as tricksters who exploit the people through their knowledge
and other times as pious idolators who deserve pity because of their errors. There is no
point in saying that none of these three interpretations is used nowadays by Egyptology.
One of the most frequent criticisms made of him is that he does not take into
account the south-eastern orientation of the temple of Karnak. He accepted the proposal
that it was conceived as a solstice temple, but gave importance only to the sunset at the
summer solstice, probably because from the sanctuary, through the open axis, only the
north-west entry is visible (see Figure 3.13). To the southeast, the view is blocked by the
72

rear wall of the sanctuary. This fact results from his particular understanding of temple
architecture: as a device to facilitate astronomical observation. He describes the
succession of pylons and doors as diaphragms that allow the astronomer to focus his
gaze on a tiny point on the horizon and even, perhaps, to make the observation in
sunlight in the case of stars. In consequence, the objective of the alignment could only
be in front of the temple, not behind him. His understanding of religious buildings
follows his own astronomical research. In 1868 he had discovered a spectroscopic
method whereby solar prominences could be studied in daylight, whereas previously
they were observable only during a total eclipse. In effect, he transposed his own
experiences to the ancient Egyptians.
Even if it is customary to emphasize only the negative aspects of Lockyers work, it
is fair to point that his work opened some new perspectives. Unfortunately,
Egyptologists have been slow to benefit from them, concealed as they are by the weak
elements of his historical assertions.
One observation led to conclusions of the utmost importance. The temples which
display several reconstructions at intervals of a few centuries with a consequent
misalignment of the main axis were supposed by Lockyer and also today by a few
researchers to indicate the refocusing of its narrow alignment to a movable star. This
would mean that the Egyptians were aware of the consequences of the Precession of the
Equinoxes, even if most probably they could not understand why it happened, and that
their mathematics was unable to predict it numerically.
Lockyer is the first to propose a serious integration of astronomy and Egyptian
religion and mythology. And this is one of his highest achievements. Nevertheless, it has
to be recognized that his work is uneven. Perhaps the problem derives from the
importance he gave to the former, as a consequence of his own professional knowledge
and interests and of the object of this specific study. It is evident that the gods, from an
Egyptian point of view, were celestial beings. But their nature does not finish here or, in
Egyptian words, a god could have thousand of names, every one of them being the
manifestation of a part of his personality. However, Lockyer only recognizes a name
with astronomical connotations and forgets others that could be many and very varied:
Egyptian gods could not simply be confined to stars.
Following G. de Santillana in the preface to the 1964 edition of The Dawn,
Lockyers merits lie in the kind of questions he dared to ask more than in his answers, in
his awareness of a technical language hidden in the myths, even if now we understand
them in a different way, and in his confidence that it is possible to decipher it by
investigating on Egyptian soil.

Acknowledgements. This work has been made under the framework of the Project BHA2003-
01686 Metodologa e historia de las religiones of the Spanish DGCyT and the European
FEDER.

3.5. References

J.S. Curl, The Egyptian Revival. Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration for Design Motifs in
the West (London / New York, 2005).
J. Dunn, The Pyramid Inch and Charles Piazzi Smyth in Egypt,
http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/pyramidinch.htm.
J. Fontana, La historia de los hombres (Barcelona, 2001).
E. Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt; Its Impact on the West (Ithaca/London, 2001).
73

J.-Ph. Lauer, Le mystre des pyramides (Paris, 1948).


L. Orcutt, Amazing Pyramid "Facts", http://www.catchpenny.org/pyramid.html.
74