Unraveling the Mystery of the Great Pyramid Air-Shafts
The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza near Cairo in Egypt is the last of the surviving Seven Wonders of the World. For more than forty centuries until the 19th century, it was the tallest and the most massive structure ever built by humans. Within itself, it enshrines disciplines of mathematics, trigonometry, engineering and geography. It is also one of the most complex pyramids ever built, with its system of passages, gallery and chambers, which makes it quite unique with respect to the other pyramids in Egypt and elsewhere.
The Great Pyramid has air-shafts or just shafts that lead outwards from both the Queen’s and the King’s chamber. The purpose of these shafts is not very well known. Some experts have theorized that these channels served as passages to let the air flow inside the chambers and keep them ventilated while others have suggested that these shafts merely served as passages for the “Ka” (spirit) of the deceased King to travel to the circumpolar stars, which practically never set, hence immortal.
All Giza Pyramids in one shot. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
So what were these shafts intended for? Why were these incorporated in the design of the pyramid? There are several questions such as these and many more. In this article, we will delve into the subject of these so-called “air-shafts”, go through their history, design and purpose.
Schematic cross-section of the Great Pyramid. (7 denotes Queen's Chamber and shafts/vents, 10 denotes King’s Chamber and shafts) (CC BY-SA 4.0)
It’s believed by Egyptologists that the Great Pyramid was originally built to serve as the tomb of the Old Kingdom’s Sixth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu (Khnum Khufwy) and was sealed with all the funerary equipment and other things needed by the deceased king in the afterlife.
Ivory idol of Khufu in detail. (Public Domain)
It remained intact for at least a couple of centuries after it was sealed. The Great Pyramid was broken into and deprived of its funerary items along with the royal mummy of Khufu sometime during the overlapping period at the end of the Old Kingdom and the start of the First Intermediate. Not only was the Great Pyramid violated, but also the pyramids of Djedefre, Khafre, and Menkaure were broken into and robbed too. The cult temples of Khufu and Khafra were also vandalized and had most of their statuary broken or carted away. The site of Giza lay in neglected and ruinous state for another two thousand years, though it was briefly revived during the New Kingdom under Thutmose IV, who erected the Dream Stele between the paws of Great Sphinx to avow that his ascension to Kingship was divinely ordained and another thousand years later it was revived as an ancient cult site by the Pharaohs of the XXVI dynasty.
Dream Stele, detail; reproduction at Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, San Jose. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Sphinx and Great Pyramids of Egypt. (Source: BigStockPhoto)
The Giza plateau, already famous as an ancient site by the Roman period, was a popular tourist destination. Accounts left by Greek and Roman travelers such as Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and Strabo, of the Great Pyramid are useful in their own ways but it is interesting to note that the descriptions given by them of the Great Pyramid only talk about the descending passage and the subterranean chamber. Strabo also talks about the swivel door on the entrance to the descending passage on the outside of the Great Pyramid, which had to be lifted to open, and when closed, it lay flush, indistinguishable from the surrounding masonry.
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The Hunt for Treasure and Knowledge
As per the written history and oral traditions, the first forced entry into the Great Pyramid was conducted by Baghdad Caliph Abdullah al-Mamum. Abdullah al-Mamum was taken in by the tall stories of pyramids containing unaccountable treasure and priceless documents relating to ancient science. For the next thousand years, Great Pyramid had only a few visitors summoning enough courage to go inside its dark and seemingly dreadful passageways.
There was a resurgence of immense interest in Ancient Egypt during the Renaissance Period. In 1638, English astronomer John Greaves visited the Great Pyramid to collect data that would help him get accurate measurement of the Earth with respect to its circumference, dimensions and other geographical properties. He is credited to be the first visitor who undertook the scientific measurements of the Great Pyramid. He published his findings in his book, “Pyramidographia: Or A Description Of The Pyramids In Aegypt”. The book was well received within the academic circles and the subsequent discussions led to speculations about some sort of air ventilation system being present in the Great Pyramid.
George Sandys, an English traveler and a poet, who visited the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid in 1610 at least 28 years before Greaves, had noted “In the walls on each side of the upper Room there are two holes, one opposite to another; their ends are not discernable, nor big enough to be crept into; sooty within, and made as they say, by a flame of fire which darted through it.” George Sandys at that time was not sure about structure or purpose of the air-shaft openings and they did not excite him enough to probe any further.
John Greaves also makes mention of the openings of the air-shafts inside the King’s Chamber in his book. He states “This made me take notice of two inlets or spaces in the south and north sides of the chamber, just opposite to one another, that in the north was in breadth 700 of 1000 parts of English foot. In the depth of 400 of 1000 parts, evenly cut, and running in strait (sic) line six feet and farther, into the thickness of the wall; on the south is larger, and somewhat round, no so long as the former, and, by blackness within it, seems to have been a receptacle for burning lamps.” Even though Greaves had a lively discussion with Dr. William Harvey about the quality of air inside the Great Pyramid, (which is presented as a footnote in the later editions of his book), it never occurred to him that the air-shafts might have served as conduits for ventilation inside the building.
Transparent view of Khufu's pyramid from SouthEast. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Excavating the Pyramid
It was not until two hundred years later, in 1837, when under the supervision of Colonel Howard-Vyse, extensive excavations and explorations were conducted in Giza pyramids. Colonel Howard-Vyse initially thought that channels in the King’s Chamber were conduits to hitherto unknown chambers in the Great Pyramid. Also, the drawings of Great Pyramid made at that time showed no air-shafts leading outwards from the Queen’s Chamber, as these were discovered much later. On May 15th 1837, when the northern shaft was finally cleared of debris and rubbish that had accumulated in its passageway and by means of boring rods and water, it was confirmed that the shaft directly served as a conduit from the outside to the King’s Chamber.
Scrapbook page containing an annotated photograph showing six men positioned around the entrance to the Cheops pyramid. The page also includes a labeled diagram showing the interior chambers and passageways of the pyramid, and their dimensions. Circa 1860 – 1890 (Public Domain)
The workmen found the opening of the southern air-shaft by going around the pyramid and finding it within the same location on the southern face as they had found the opening on the northern face. Howard-Vyse’s assistant, Mr. Hill found a stone blocking the southern air-shaft and with some effort managed to remove it. “Upon the removal of this block the channel was completely open; an immediate rush of air took place, and we had the satisfaction of finding that the ventilation of the King's Chamber was perfectly restored, and that the air within it was cool and fresh. This is how the shafts in the Pyramid came to be known as air channels, thought to be ancient climate control mechanism built in the design of the pyramid.
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The shafts in the Queen’s Chamber were not discovered until thirty-five years later, in 1872, by Waynman Dixon. “….In that year, Waynman Dixon and his friend Dr. Grant found a crack in the south wall of the Queen's Chamber. After pushing a long wire into the crack, indicating that a void was behind it, Dixon hired a carpenter named Bill Grundy to cut through the wall. A rectangular channel, 8.6 inches wide and 8 inches high, was found leading 7 feet into the pyramid before turning upward at about a 32º angle. With the two similar shafts of the King's Chamber in mind, Dixon measured a like position on the north wall, and Grundy chiseled away and, as expected, found the opening of a similar channel.”
Top Image: Great Pyramid of Giza at night (CC BY-ND 2.0)
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