Secret Chambers of the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt

Secret Chambers of the Great Pyramid of Khufu

by Jimmy Dunn

The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in Egypt, the Only Remaining Member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Gilles Dormion, in conjunction with Jean Patrice Goidin, has participated in various work at the Great Pyramid built by Khufu at Giza in Egypt, as well as other pyramids in Egypt. They worked on the ventilation system within the Great Pyramid, and the French team also used an instrument which measures differences in gravity to find internal spaces.

They did discover some abnormalities and obtained authorization from the Supreme Council of Antiquities to drill a series of minute holes into the west wall of the Queen's Chamber. The project, testing the theory of a hidden chamber behind the west wall, revealed a large cavity filled with unusually fine sand. Apparently these and some other studies were responsible for the estimated number of blocks used to build the Great Pyramid being drastically reduced. It is now believed that the cavities could total 15 to 20 percent of the structure.

Somewhat widely reported in the news of late, a French team consisting of Dormion and Jean-Yves Verd'hurt claim that a fourth, undiscovered room lies underneath the pyramid's so-called Queen's Chamber and insist that it is likely the burial chamber for the Egyptian Pharaoh, also known as Cheops, even though a damaged sarcophagus was found in the upper chamber known as the King's Chamber. They believe that, were this room to be discovered, it would perhaps never have been violated, and would probably contain the king's remains.To their credit, they have been working in the pyramids of Egypt for 20 years, and their radar analyses in another pyramid, at Meidum, led in 2000 to the discovery of two previously undetected rooms.

The King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Khufu with the sarcophagus in place

This is really not a new story, but rather an older one now brought back into the limelight due to publicity surrounding a book that has just been published by the pair.

Gilles Dormion and Jean-Yves Verd'hurt first set out to probe the mysteries of the Great Pyramid in 1986, returning in 1998. Using a technique called microgravimetry to measure the density of materials, they believe that they have discovered a cavity underneath the Queen's Chamber and evidence that the stone tiling had been moved at some point.

Using radar technology, Japanese investigators also confirmed a cavity a few meters wide. The French team suggest this is a corridor leading to a further chamber in the belly of the pyramid, which could be the real burial chamber. They believe that none of the pyramid's three existing rooms qualify as a royal burial chamber. Indeed, most Egyptologists do not believe that the Queen's Chamber or the Subterranean chamber are burial chambers.

The French team, however, suggests that the King's Chamber, currently believed by most Egyptologists to be at least the initial resting place of the king, also could not be a burial chamber because it is not strong enough, and they point to deep cracks in the massive granite blocks that form the chamber ceiling. Indeed, even some scholars believe that the cracks in the chamber's ceiling may have developed even before the pyramid was put to its intended use, and question its final use as a burial chamber, though most seem to believe that it was built for that purpose. However, even those who believe that the chamber was never put to use believe that Khufu may have been buried elsewhere rather than in another, hidden chamber.

The Queens Chamber in the Great Pyramid

One respected Egyptologist, Jean-Pierre Corteggiani, of the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, was impressed by their work from the start. What first struck him, he said, was that the georadar images were collected and interpreted by a non-Egyptologist, Jean-Pierre Baron, of Safege, a French company that specializes in georadar.

"This specialist works for a company, one of whose main projects is to lay out the future TGV [express train] route from Paris to Strasbourg," said Mr Corteggiani. "If he says it is safe to lay the rails here, because there is no cavity under the ground here, he'd better be right. If not, the death toll will be very high." Mr Corteggiani was also intrigued by the location of the proposed room, which is said to be under the so-called Queen's Chamber, but further west, which would place it "at the cross-section of the diagonals and the absolute heart of the pyramid", a possibly symbolic resting place for Khufu.

Mr Corteggiani brought Mr Dormion and Mr Verd'hurt's ideas to the attention of Nicolas Grimal, who holds the chair in Egyptology at the Collge de France. Mr Grimal was sufficiently impressed to write the preface to Mr Dormion's book, La Chambre de Chops that if the findings are confirmed, they represent "without doubt, one of the greatest discoveries in Egyptology". However, when the two present their conclusions to an international congress of Egyptologists in Grenoble in a week's time (September 6-12, 2004), they are likely to meet with more skepticism.

"The idea that Khufu's burial chamber is still to be found in the pyramid I find unbelievable," said Aidan Dodson, an expert in Egyptian funerary archaeology at the University of Bristol. "Architecturally there is no reason why there should be a corridor underneath the queen's room. The burial chamber has always been known." The two Frenchmen have come up with a hypothesis that challenges one of the most popular theories about the Great Pyramid: that its internal structure was conceived in advance and built as planned. However, while this hypothesis is popular, there are many Egyptologists who, for many years, have questioned its validity. Mr. Dormion and Mr. Verd'hurt argue that the pyramid evolved by trial and error, as the architects saw that rooms initially conceived as burial chambers would not take the weight placed on top of them, and went back to the drawing-board.

Above the King's Chamber, whose roof is reinforced with granite beams weighing 50 tons each, they built in an ingenious system of relieving chambers or cavities.

"The idea was to deflect the weight of the masonry over the core of the pyramid away from those roofing beams and out to the sides," said Jeffrey Spencer, deputy keeper of the British Museum's department of ancient Egypt and Sudan.

But the granite beams are cracked - faults that Mr. Spencer said had traditionally been put down to earthquake activity long after the pyramid was completed. Mr. Dormion argues instead that "this accident occurred during the building of the pyramid, in the sight and to the knowledge of the builders".

He points to traces of 4,500-year-old plaster in the cracks - evidence, he believes, of attempts to shore up the roof. "At the end of the day," Mr. Dormion writes, "the entire problem of the Great Pyramid can be summed up by this theory: Khufu had three funeral chambers built for himself. The first remained unfinished, the second was available and the third cracked. Khufu was therefore interred in the second."

Or rather beneath the second, because the Queen's Chamber itself was not equipped to receive a dead king - lacking, most notably, an entrance wide enough to accommodate the stone sarcophagus Khufu ordered for himself.

Dormion and Verd'hurt believe that an investigation could be non-intrusive. According to them, " would simply have to pass a fiber optic cable down through existing holes in the stone, to see if there are portcullis blocks in the corridor below," said Mr Verd'hurt. "Then it will be necessary to enter the front part of the corridor and penetrate the room, taking all precautions to ensure that it is not contaminated."

We must wonder how, exactly, Mr. Dormion and Mr. Verd'hurt have come to the conclusion that there is not simply another sand cavity beneath the Queens Chamber. However, the question of finding answers to these mysteries will probably not come directly from them, as their request to further investigate their findings have been denied by the SCA under the direction of Dr. Zahi Hawass.

I can remember, years ago, when I first walked into Dr. Zahi Hawass' quaint office on the Giza Plateau. He was already well known by then, but clearly this was a space occupied by a scholar, filled with books, everywhere books, and other material about Egyptology and specifically Giza. I was introduced to him by somewhat of a character, an individual who had once claimed that Dr. Hawass had a tunnel leading out of his bathroom to secret chambers under the Sphinx, or Pyramid. I don't remember which, but Dr. Hawass, I believe, let the young man investigate his claims which, of course, proved to be unfounded. This had helped reform the young amateur Egyptologist to more conservative thought.

In that first meeting, I seriously thought about playing a small joke on the famous Dr. Hawass. Knowing that he was constantly harassed by mostly amateur enthusiasts to investigate this or that fantastic rumor about secret passages, chambers and such, I considered, with a straight face, asking Dr. Hawass' permission to disassemble the Great Pyramid, block by block, in order to search for hidden chambers. I didn't. Dr. Hawass just seemed way too serious, which he is about Egyptology.

Over the years, I have found a great deal of respect for the man. He is a champion of Egypt's ancient sites who is, I believe, directing archaeological work, now as the Chairman of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), in the very direction that it needs to be taken. He has placed emphasis on work that must be done to investigate endangered sites, such as in the Delta, while slowing up work to unearth antiquities in order to protect and preserve those that have already been excavated.

What is not surprising is the SCA's ban on "private investigations", even by accredited scholars. Today, all work on Egyptian antiquities must be performed under the auspices of recognized institutions, meaning for the most part, well known universities, museums and a few other established archaeological organizations. Undoubtedly, this is due to the astounding number of requests that the Egyptian government receives from all over, some hair-brained, some serious, but all together overwhelming. Dr. Hawass' intensions are twofold. Certainly he wishes to protect Egypt's grand monuments from what could be pointless destruction, but also to have them treated with the respect that they deserve.

There is actually one other factor. For many years, while Egyptians could be said to have been in charge of their own monuments, in fact, foreign scholars wielded considerable power. There is an effort within the SCA, and specific to Dr. Hawass, to gain Egyptian control over all things related to the country's ancient monuments. Hence, once Dr. Hawass took control of the agency, there was no more status quo. Most projects that were inaugurated under his predecessor at the SCA were required to be specifically renewed by Dr. Hawass, and he has used this to show the Egyptology community that Egyptians do call the shots on what are, after all, the property of Egypt.

Therefore, when two French amateur archaeologists claim to have located the secret burial chamber of Khufu in the Great Pyramid at Giza, it is little wonder that the SCA, under Dr. Hawass' leadership, refused to grant them permission to further their investigations. Gilles Dormion is an architect, while Jean-Yves Verd'hurt is a retired property agent. In refusing them permission to investigate the Great Pyramid further, Dr. Hawass is simply following the rules laid out by the SCA under his direction.

Not that this would necessarily preclude the French Team from operating under the control of a recognized institution. However, Dr. Hawass apparently believes that the investigation would require the drilling of holes. When he turned down the French team's request, he stated that he had consulted with two prominent archeologists, German Rainer Stadelmann and American Mark Lehner, both very well known Egyptologists and specialists on Pyramids in general and the Great Pyramid specifically, and all three "decided that we can't let just anyone make holes in the pyramids" based only on the data we now have".

Apparently, the evidence surrounding the French team's findings are somewhat more questionable than their news releases might indicate, but if their findings are sound, we will doubtless hear much more about all of this in the coming months. On the other hand, we have found that frequently, such headline news simply disappears if the research turns up faulty. So, one way or the other, time, always on the side of the Great Pyramid, will tell.