Tunnel Vision – The Mysterious Forced Entry of the Caliph into the Great Pyramid of Giza
The classical account of the discovery of the upper chambers inside the Great Pyramid at Giza is well known. In the ninth century an Arab governor of Cairo, known as the Caliph al Ma’mun, decided to see for himself what lay inside the Great Pyramid. Because the entrance to the pyramid was concealed and its location unknown, his workers began to excavate a tunnel boldly through the casing and core blocks, with hammers and chisels. Fortuitously for the Caliph, their busy tunnelling shook the structure so much that the capstone fell off the end of the ascending passage. The resonating crash was heard by the workers, who dug in that direction and found not only the descending passage, but also the ascending passage and all the upper chambers in the pyramid. After thousands of years lying undisturbed deep inside the Great pyramid, the King’s and Queen’s chambers were finally open, and their treasure would soon belong to the Caliph.
But, as the story goes, there was no treasure. Apparently, this most ancient and precious of cupboards was completely bare. There were not only no burial artifacts, but no burial and no inscriptions either! The first thought to cross the mind of the Caliph must have been that the ‘tomb’ had been robbed. But how? Even if the secret ‘Well Shaft’ deep inside the pyramid had been found at this stage, it is hardly a suitable tunnel through which to strip a wealthy burial chamber totally bare. So where was all the loot? The Caliph and his excavators must have not only been very exasperated, after all their work, but mystified too.
Fig 1 - A cross section through the Great pyramid, looking west and showing the internal chambers.
Are we so sure that this is what really happened, just over a millennia ago? Are we simply complacent because this is what has been taught to us by respected authorities for centuries? After all, it is much easier to simply agree with the established consensus of opinion, rather than thinking positively and laterally about the problem. Fortunately there are a few individuals out there who are more than happy to challenge a whole raft of classical myths; and so it was one day that a short e-mail arrived in Ralph Ellis’ in-box from a like-minded colleague, Mark Foster. Mark had an idea that had been bothering him for some time and he wanted to throw it around a bit. A quick read convinced Ralph that it was a highly original idea and definitely worth some further thought. After a few debates here and there, the following alternative scenario to the classical story developed, which is quite attractive in many respects. Yet this new explanation not only answers some irritating puzzles, it also poses some interesting and fundamental questions in return.
Fig 2. Caliph al-Ma'mun's forced entrance into the Great Pyramid, which tracks directly towards the join between the ascending and descending passages.
As Mark explained, the basic problem with the classical explanation was that Ma'mun’s tunnel is rather too accurate for comfort: it tracks into the pyramid in a direct line for the all-important junction between the descending and ascending passageways. It is often cited that Ma'mun had to turn the tunnel sharp left to discover the original passageways, a fact that Ralph and Mark had in the back of their minds when they first visited the Great pyramid. But as Ralph and Mark ambled down the forced tunnel, they were both rather mystified, because the ‘left turn’ cited in the literature could not be found! Having backtracked the tunnel and tried again, that ‘left turn’ seemed to be no more than a slight widening of the tunnel at this point. In actual fact, the diggings were almost right on their target. So how did this happen, was Ma'mun just lucky and happened to pick the right spot? Or did he have an idea of where to go to?
Fig 3. The entrance to the Third Pyramid. Note how the granite blocks have been smoothed down around the entrance, which clearly marks its location.
There is also the problem of why Ma'mun was tunnelling inside the pyramid in the first place. Not only was the presence of the true entrance to the pyramid well known in classical times but people were also aware of the descending passage and the subterranean cavern at the very bottom of the pyramid. Strabo says of the original entrance to the Great pyramid:
The Great Pyramid, a little way up on one side, has a stone that may be taken out, which being raised up there is a sloping passage to the foundations. 1