Author of the Month

Andrew Collins, Author of the Month for December 2009

Giza's Cave Underworld Rediscovered - It is the Entrance to the Tomb of Hermes? (cont.)
By Andrew Collins

Mouth of the Passages

Adding to the belief that a physical representation of the pharaoh's underworld existed at Giza is the name Rostau, which translates as something like "mouth of the passages", an obvious allusion to the entrance to some kind of subterranean realm, perhaps the Shetayet, or Underworld of the Soul. Even after the fall of Egypt with the death of Cleopatra in the first century BC, stories regarding Giza's underworld persisted. For example, the fourth-century Graeco-Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (fl. AD 360-390), who travelled extensively in Egypt and wrote concerning the Pyramids, spoke of "subterranean fissures and winding passages called syringes" underneath the plateau, which, he said "those acquainted with the ancient rites, since they had fore-knowledge that a deluge was coming, and feared that the memory of the ceremonies might be destroyed, dug in the earth in many places with great labor" (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, xxii, 15, 30).

After the fall of Egypt to the armies of Mohammed in the seventh century AD, Arab travellers recorded very similar tales following conversations with Coptic Christian priests and monks, who inherited some of ancient Egypt's ancient wisdom. These stories spoke of subterranean passages created beneath the Great Pyramid by a legendary king named Saurid in advance of a cataclysm involving fire from heaven and a subsequent deluge. In these tunnels were placed the arts and sciences of Saurid's age in order that they might be preserved for future generations of humanity. Still further tales voiced by Sabaean pilgrims who came to Giza in medieval times from far off Harran, in what is today southeast Turkey, spoke of the Second Pyramid as marking the site of the cave-tomb of Hermes Trismegistus, with his father, Seth, or Agathodaimon, a kind of demiurge in the form of a serpent, said to repose beneath the Great Pyramid. The site of Hermes' son Sab, from whom the Sabaeans claimed direct descent, was said to have been marked by the "coloured" pyramid, i.e. the Third Pyramid of Menkaure (see Arab sources quoted in Greaves, 1646, for instance).

Critics dismiss such stories as works of fiction, but what seems possible is that they predate the Arab annexation of Egypt, and thus confirm a long held belief in the existence of a subterranean world at Giza. Yet if so, what did this lost underworld contain? Was it natural, or created by human hands, and could its entrance be located today?

Hall of Initiation

It was with questions such as these that the first European explorers arrived at Giza intent on discovering the lost treasures of the Pyramids. As far back as the ninth century the ruling caliph of the Islamic world, al-Mamoun, spent an enormous amount of time and effort tunnelling a hole through into the Great Pyramid, hoping to find gold and treasure. He failed to find the wealth de desired, but those who came after him continued the trend, forever searching for hidden entrances to subterranean tunnels and vaults that were said to connect the Great Pyramid with the nearby Sphinx monument.

It was towards the end of 1816 that the Italian explorer Giovanni Caviglia arrived in Egypt with the intention of clearing away the sand that had engulfed the body of the Sphinx since Roman times. It was an exploration he undertook with the backing of the newly appointed British Consul General, Henry Salt, who would retain the post until his untimely death outside Alexandria in 1827. Why the two men zoomed in on this area of the plateau remains unclear, although it is likely that they were influenced by rumours of pseudo-Egyptian initiations having taken place within hidden compartments accessed via some secret door in the vicinity of the leonine monument.

Fig 5 - Line drawing of Caviglia's excavations at the Sphinx after an original by Henry Salt.

One perfect example of this tradition is found in "The Magic Flute" (German "Die Zauberflöte"), the Freemasonry-inspired opera written by Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and popular in the years leading up to Salt and Caviglia's arrival in Egypt. Not only does the hero of the opera have to undergo a series of ordeals within the darkness of an Egyptian "temple", but the Sphinx in the form of a dragon has to be defeated, all very reminiscent of the type of trials that the ancient Egyptians expected of the soul as it passed through the Duat underworld on its way to the afterlife.

In the six months that Caviglia spent excavating the Sphinx, no record of him finding hidden chambers has been preserved, although he did find hieroglyphs in some underground chambers accessed via tomb entrances in the sunken enclosure wall behind the Sphinx.

Having established this fact, it had been Salt and Caviglia's discovery of a vast network of "catacombs", or caves, during their explorations of the plateau that had most intrigued Nigel Skinner Simpson and myself. No one in the field of Egyptology had, to our knowledge, mentioned this matter in print. What is more, the commentary accompanying Salt's newly published memoirs misleads the reader by concluding that the "catacombs" in question were located in the wrong part of the plateau (an error admitted to Nigel by one of the authors in October 2009). Despite this obscuration of the facts, Nigel made a thorough examination of Salt's plan of the plateau, and in early 2008 finally traced the true location of the cave entrance. It turned out to be in the vicinity of the mysterious tomb, NC 2, the one that Perring had in 1837 referred to on his plan of the plateau as "Excavated tombs and pits of bird mummies".

Fig 6 - The section of John Perring's plan of the Giza plateau from 1837 showing the site of the Tomb of the Birds, marked with the legend "Excavated tombs and pits of bird mummies".

Star Correlation

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Sue Collins and I had visited this strange tomb in January 2007, some months before Salt's memoirs were published, in the belief that it might hold clues concerning the entrance to Giza's lost cave underworld. The reason we had zoomed in on this area was because it figured in a ground-sky correlation featuring the stars of the Cygnus constellation. Although this asterism, known more popularly as the Northern Cross, was seen in classical star lore as a swan in flight, in ancient Egypt its stars appeared to mark the position of the cosmic womb of the sky-goddess Nuit, the mother both of Osiris, the god of death and resurrection, and Re, the sun-god (see Wells, 1992, 1993, 1994. Also Maravelia, 2003). In Egyptian funerary texts, the coffin, tomb and sarcophagus of the pharaoh were themselves representations of the womb of the sky-goddess, within which his soul or spirit might begin the process of transformation and renewal. Such ideas surrounding the soul returning from whence it came, i.e. the womb of the cosmic mother, is echoed within various pre-dynastic burials, where the body of the deceased was laid to rest in a foetal position. Occasionally, the burials are found to contain the bones, bucrania or horns of bovines, a link to the idea that sky-goddesses such as Nuit and her great rival Hathor, the mother of Horus, were seen as dynastic personifications of a primeval Cow Mother, whose divine womb was associated not only with the origins of life, but also the destination of the soul in death.

Fig 7 - the sky-goddess Nuit in the form of the Milky Way. The stars of Cygnus marked the position of her womb and navel.

As the sky-goddess Nuit was thought to swallow the dying sun at sunset and then give birth to the new sun at dawn the next morning, the interior of her body, through which the sun-god would pass on its way to regeneration, being identified with the Duat underworld. As such, her womb, in which the spark of rebirth is attained, became the Shetayet, the conceptual Tomb of God - the perceived point of renewal of the pharaoh in his role as Osiris, Re, or, indeed, Horus. This transformation was reflected in celestial terms by the prominent presence upon the Milky Way of the stars of Cygnus, not as they appear in the night sky, but as they exist after setting within the Duat underworld.

Working with British engineer Rodney Hale, I was able to determine that the placement of the three main pyramids at Giza reflected the astronomical positions of three key stars in Cygnus, which in classical star-lore represented the wings of the celestial swan. This star-pyramid relationship is confirmed in the knowledge that from a position southeast of the plateau these same three stars would have been seen to set down into their respective pyramids around the time of their completion, c. 2500 BC.

Fig 8a - Cygnus "wing" stars overlaid on Pyramids with corresponding star setting lines, and, Fig 8b, - the Cygnus stars as they would have been seen to set from the southeast in c. 2500 BC.
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