Stones of Diverse Colors: Symbolic and Astronomical Significance in the Very Fabric of the Giza Casing Stones
Most casual students of ancient history know that the outer casing stones of the Giza pyramids were constructed of highly polished Tura limestone blocks that caused them to gleam like a trio of colossal jewels in the Egyptian sun. It is a lesser-known fact, however, that a portion of the casing stones were not light in color but dark, and that the Giza complex in its entirety once exhibited far more color than modern film and art depictions would indicate.
In 1898, George St. Clair wrote:
“We need not be surprised…that the Egyptians made some use of the symbolism of colors; and we need not despair of discovering what they meant.”
The British anthropologist applied his study of color symbolism to the Egyptian religious imagery, but a similar study can be extended to monumental stone, and to the casing stones of the Giza pyramids, in particular. Such an examination reveals a symbolic interplay of light and darkness in stone, its religious implications, and its physical projection onto the Plateau through astronomical phenomena.
The casing stones, in other words, were not simple adornments but acted as primary markers of the astronomy and religious symbolism of the site. While most of the Giza casing stones are now lost – one, in fact, has become the subject of recent controversy as it undergoes display in the Museum of Scotland – a review of ancient accounts gives present-day readers a glimpse of what the Giza pyramids might have looked like four thousand years ago. The resulting image adds more color—and more questions—to the story.
The Great Pyramid casing stone. ( National Museums Scotland )
The “Colored Pyramid” of Menkaure
In his exposition on the Egyptian pyramids, medieval Islamic theologian Al-Suyuti referred to the third pyramid, the pyramid attributed to the 4 th dynasty pharaoh Menkaure, as the “colored pyramid,” a convention shared by his contemporary, historian Al-Maqrizi.
The earlier Greek historian Diodorus also made mention of the unusual appearance of the small pyramid in the first book of his Bibliotheca historica , writing that, “for fifteen courses he [Menkaure] built the walls of black stone like that found about Thebes, but the rest of it he filled out with stone like that found in the other pyramids.”
Strabo, too, commented that the lower half of the pyramid appeared to be constructed of a dark “Ethiopian stone.” These texts likely refer to the red granite casing stones found at the base of the third pyramid. Sixteen of the sixty-four masonry courses were constructed of this red granite stone quarried 580 miles (934 kilometers) south of Giza at Aswan, creating the dark band of color noted by eyewitnesses in antiquity.
Granite casing stones of Menkaure’s pyramid. (JMCC1 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The third pyramid is not the only Egyptian pyramid said to have been adorned with granite. In describing the casing stones of the pyramid of Khafre , the second pyramid, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote in his account of Egypt that “for a basement he [Khafre] built the first course of Ethiopian stone of divers colors.” This is a clear reference to the same speckled red-and-black granite used in the lower portion of the pyramid of Menkaure .
Even today, the pyramid attributed to Khafre is still skirted with fallen granite casing stones. To the north of Giza at Abu Rawash lies a ruined pyramid that is said to have been encased almost wholly in granite, according to the accounts of John and Morton Edgar: the pyramid of Djedefre.
Some of the granite casing stones of the pyramids mentioned in the texts still remain, though like their limestone counterparts have lost much of the original luster and richness suggested by the historical accounts. Indeed, the exterior granite of Menkaure’s pyramid had apparently grown so dark in antiquity that Strabo, in describing the casing stones as “Ethiopian stone,” likely mistook the red granite for the black basalt stone of Ethiopia.
The remains of the ruined pyramid of Djedefre at Abu Rawash. Granite casing stones still litter the site. (AhlyMan / Public Domain )
Contrasting Colors of the Giza Plateau
The Great Pyramid’s casing stones were fashioned entirely of limestone, and any granite existing in the structure of the largest pyramid is confined to its inner chambers. The Great Pyramid’s companion temple, however, does contain a measure of darker granite in its construction, and paving stones still existing along its eastern side were constructed of black basalt seamlessly fitted to the light-colored bedrock beneath.
It has not yet been determined why, in the second and third pyramids, only some courses were cased with granite and why it exists only around the bases of these monuments. One compelling proposal has been put forth by Dr. Robert Schoch of Boston University, who believes the answer to this question lies in the Egyptians’ penchant for using red granite in restorative work. In Pyramid Quest , Schoch suggests that the builders’ special use of granite was their way of indicating that these courses were part of an older structure, while upper white limestone casing blocks revealed newer construction.
Another practical purpose for granite is its durability, but if durability were the only factor for its inclusion among the casing stones, the question remains as to why it was used in only a portion of the second two pyramids and absent entirely from the exterior of the Great Pyramid. In order to more thoroughly attempt to answer the question of why this darker granite was used, one must approach the matter through artistic symbolism and, necessarily, the fundamentally astronomical nature of the Giza Plateau.
Color and Symbolism
Was there any symbolic meaning behind the contrasting light-and-dark color scheme of the Giza Plateau? The late John Anthony West, whose influential work Serpent in the Sky reexamines Schwaller de Lubicz’s symbolist study of Egyptian temples , argued that aesthetic beauty was a secondary concern for Egyptian architects and artists. For the Egyptians, who had no word for “art,” aesthetics existed within the context of function, as art historian Gay Robins has noted. It follows that the juxtaposition of the darker granite-encased courses against their lighter limestone counterparts bears some measure of symbolic importance, but how?
The Pyramid Texts inscribed on the interior chamber walls of the 5 th dynasty pyramid of Unas at Saqqara. (GDK / Public Domain )
We know from some of the earliest Egyptian texts that universal duality was fundamental to Egyptian religious philosophy. The Pyramid Texts, dating to the 5 th dynasty but likely stemming from an older oral tradition, are replete with references to this dichotomy within the context of color: the black and white Eyes of Horus (utterance 43), the red and white crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt (utterance 239), the purification of the Pharaoh as a bright star against the blackness of the heavens (utterances 217, 301).
From a distance, the Giza complex would have evoked a sense of light-and-dark duality, a representation of the black soil of the Egyptian earth and white stone of the celestial realm; of resurrection and transformation; of light and shadow; and of day and night. At close proximity, the red granite of Aswan reveals its own sense of duality.
Art historian Lyvia Morgan has argued that, in Egyptian ka statuary of the Old Kingdom, speckled red and black granite is illustrative of Egyptian dualistic concepts, most notably relating to regeneration and renewal, and that when illuminated, the reflective stone becomes a “microcosm of the universe” as new, brilliant colors begin to emerge. The result is that a single piece of stone on a small scale comes to represent what a combination of stones embodies on a larger scale in sacred architecture. The variability as seen in a single piece of red granite can be viewed, then, as its own kind of “temple,” its own acknowledgment of the natural interplay of cosmic principles.
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Example of red granite used in Old Kingdom statuary – seated statue of Nykara, 5 th Dynasty. (Madreiling / Public Domain )
For the reasons mentioned above, it is unlikely that the use of darker stone to adorn the second and third pyramids was done with exclusive concern for aesthetic appeal. Does the Great Pyramid’s lack of color speak to the Old Kingdom Egyptians’ perception of this structure? Was the all-white Great Pyramid meant to be regarded as a structure set wholly within the celestial realm, within the concept of resurrection and celestial ascension , while the other two pyramids, to varying extents, depicted the process of ascension from the earthly realm?
Viewing the three Giza pyramids together, as they once appeared, might have given the impression of gradual rising, from partial darkness (the Menkaure pyramid) to full and perfect light (the Great Pyramid). The evidence, furthermore, suggests that the encasements of the three Giza pyramids were completed relative to one another. That is, the casing stones of each pyramid were applied with respect to the rest of the Giza complex in order to reflect dualistic concepts of Egyptian thought and echo their fundamentally astronomical underpinnings.
Indeed, the existence of a common ground plan across the Giza Plateau has been argued by a number of scholars, such as Dr. Giulio Magli and Dr. Juan Antonio Belmonte. John Legon in a 1988 article in Discussions in Egyptology showed that survey data of the Giza Plateau hint at the presence of a unifying ground plan. The precise encasements of the pyramids would seem to add a measure of support to this proposal.
Plate showing some of the casing stones still in situ at the base . (National Museums Scotland )
Light and Shadow: The Astronomical Implications
Egyptian art is known for its rich dimensions of meaning, and the fabric of sacred architecture is no exception. In order to fully understand the meaning behind the variation seen in the casing stones’ coloration, we must approach the matter through the foundational substance of Egyptian religious philosophy: astronomy.
The application of color at Giza in such a defined manner mirrors the effects of light and shadow produced by the pyramids on an astronomical level. Pyramid researcher David Davidson, a proponent of the 19 th century biblical interpretation of the Great Pyramid, wrote in 1924 that the word “pyramid” can be traced to the Hebrew-Chaldean word “urrim-midden,” in which urim/purim = “lights” and middin = “measures.” According to Davidson, urrim-midden may be roughly translated as “beacon of reflections” and “monument of measures.”
Taken together, these translations would seem to hint at an astronomical interpretation of the pyramid’s exterior design, one that invoked the interplay of light and shadow and their effects for astronomical purposes. Like a number of his contemporaries, Davidson suggested that Great Pyramid acted as a sundial. At noontime, the reflections produced by the Great Pyramid would indicate high points of the solar year: the winter and summer solstices , and the spring and autumnal equinoxes.
Giza Plateau. (Fæ / Public Domain )
Modern scholars and engineers have also noted this phenomenon. Architect Choong-Shin Lim in his presentation “The Egyptian Pyramids and the Sun” noted that the effects produced by the Great Pyramid at high points of the year would have resulted in a spectacular light show that served as an awe-inspiring backdrop to important religious festivals. Thomas Karl Dietrich , too, has suggested in The Culture of Astronomy that not only are astronomical, temporal cycles produced by light and shadow effects upon the Great Pyramid’s eight faces, but that the casing stones of the Giza pyramids created a mirror-like effect in which astronomical objects and phenomena were reflected in their polished surface.
The light-and-dark color scheme of the pyramid complex with its accompanying temples doubtless amplified, even embodied, these celestial effects.
“Egyptian religion was based on the teachings of astronomy, and the pyramids were so built as to set forth symbolically some main articles of the creed.” – George St. Clair, 1898
It is no coincidence that the ancient name of the once fully granite-encased, ruined pyramid at Abu-Rawash is conspicuously cosmological in nature: “Djedefre’s Starry Sky.” Does this name imply that the dark, speckled granite that flickers even under soft illumination was once associated with the night sky?
At its completion, Djedefre’s crystalline pyramid would have sparkled in the sun, creating a far different visual effect from that produced by the uniform, even-toned limestone cladding of other pyramids. That this same Aswan granite was chosen to dress the lower courses of two pyramids at Giza is suggestive of a symbolic and astronomical interpretation of the color variations seen in the Giza casing stones and lends further support to an astronomical reading of Giza as a whole. Greater associations, furthermore, can be drawn between the fabric of the pyramids, astronomical knowledge, and religious thought. Dr. Gaston Maspero once famously commented that “the Pyramids and the ‘Book of the Dead’ reproduce the same original, the one in words, the other in stone.”
The Book of the Dead of Hunefer. (InverseHypercube / Public Domain )
The Book of the Dead and its precursory writings the Pyramid Texts, inscribed in the inner chambers of ten 5 th dynasty pyramids at Saqqara, are unquestionably astronomical in nature . Scholar of Egyptian language and poetry Susan Brind Morrow has shown through careful philological study ( The Dawning Moon of the Mind , 2015) that the astronomical groundwork of the Pyramid Texts is far more complex and vibrant than western scholars have assumed since their discovery in 1880. The texts speak of far more than the spiritual ascension of the Pharaoh to the stars upon his death and in fact delineate the precise cycles of constellations, the moon, and the sun, all within the vehicle of poetry against the backdrop of their understanding of cosmic principles and the natural world. If we are to accept Dr. Maspero’s observation on the correlation between the structure of pyramids and Egyptian written tradition, we must consider the exterior coloration of the pyramids, ultimately, through the lens of the Egyptian astro-religious system of understanding. The aforementioned impression of gradual rising produced by viewing the Giza pyramids and their colorized casing stones as pieces of a larger picture, therefore, may point not just to ascension from darkness to light but to the gradual emergence of the sun, of Ra (white limestone), from the starry Duat (speckled granite) each morning. From this perspective, the story told by the casing stones, then, becomes one of rebirth, a cornerstone of Egyptian spirituality.
Because of the indirect, subjective nature of symbolism, we cannot say with absolute certainty that any one of the above interpretations of the casing stones reflects the original intent of the builders. We can, however, be sure of one thing. From Egypt’s sacred texts to its artwork, artists generated multiple layers of meaning through a kind of parabolic system of expression. The same can be applied to Egypt’s architectural marvels—down to each fragment of color and glint of light within their stones.
For this reason, it is necessary to study every facet of each stone used to construct the greatest wonders of the ancient world, for even the physical composition of a single stone may hide a far greater message than is apparent at first glance.
Top image: Colored Giza Casing Stones, Menkaure's Pyramid . Source: CC BY-SA 3.0
By Morgan Smith
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