Early Travelers and Explorers to the Pyramids, Part I

About Egyptian Pyramids
By Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston


Some early writers, who had never visited Egypt, such as Kircher, were very imaginative in their depictions of the Great Pyramid and Sphinx



Between the 9th and 16th centuries we have little information about the pyramids, with the exception of some mostly Arab travelers. One of the earliest was Abd al-Latif, a 12th century scholar. He describes the pyramids as being covered with indecipherable writing, probably the graffiti of visitors, but his observations imply that much of the casing at Giza was still intact when he visited. However, even then the pyramids were being systematically quarried for building stone. He reports the destruction of a number of small pyramids by Emir Karakoush during the reign of Saladin. He also mentions bats as large as pigeons in the Great Pyramid of Khufu, a theme often repeated by future travelers who entered the pyramids.



While many fanciful stories came about during this period, another scholar, Edrisi, wrote a "History of the Pyramids" that seems to have been a bit more factual than many other accounts of his day.


European travel to Egypt, particularly to see the Great Pyramids at Giza, seems to have been inspired by the Crusaders who returned home with intriguing tales of what they had seen. Soon afterwards a trickle of pilgrims became a stream of travelers.



One of the domes of St. Mark's in Venice has a 12th century mosaic of the pyramids as Joseph's granaries, an idea first suggested by the 5th century AD Latin writers Julius Honorius and Rufinus. This image was repeated by many early visitors, even though direct observation should have convinced them otherwise. In fact, some of the supposedly informed guides to Egypt were concocted by people who had never even visited Egypt. Those who could not visit Egypt themselves still wrote about it, depending on their imaginations rather than their actual experiences.



George Sandys and his party visit the Great Pyramids in 1610



The Renaissance saw renewed interest in the pagan past. It was known that behind the greatness of Rome was that of Greece, and with early travel reports came the realization that behind the greatness of Greece lay that of the Near Eastern civilizations, and particularly that of Egypt.



Then, when Egypt came under Turkish rule in 1517, travel became safer. Sultan Selim I provided protection for French traders and pilgrims, and then when the printing press was invented in the mid 15th century, details and images of travelers became more widely disseminated, encouraging more people to make the voyage to Egypt.



Eventually, these visitors became "antiquaries" who, in the 16th century, began to retrieve artifacts and ancient manuscripts for the growing number of European collectors and for libraries and museums. These were not informed scholars for the most part, but rather treasure hunters.



Many of these early antiquaries, such as Kircher, considered by some as "the Father of Egyptology", even though he apparently never visited Egypt, promoted the idea, still potent today, that the pyramids contained some mystic significance. However, while these fanciful notions were still current, some early visitors such as George Sandys who visited the pyramids in 1610, accepted the idea that the pyramids were the tombs of kings.



These reports of early travelers, though ambiguous at times, are useful in determining the condition of the pyramids over time. For example, in 1546, Pierre Belon observed that the third pyramid at Giza was in perfect condition, as if it had just been built. Jean Chesneau mentioned that the other two pyramids at Giza were not "made in degrees". Did this mean that their inner, stepped core were not exposed? Also, Prosper Alpinus, one of the first Europeans to attempt an accurate measurement of the pyramids, wrote in 1591 that the viceroy of Egypt, Ibrahim Pash, enlarged the entrance to the Great Pyramid "so that a man could stand upright in it". This must have indicated a widening of the passage of al-Mamun.



In the midst of the quirky illustrations and odd ideas of the 17th century, however, came the first scientific reports about the Great Pyramid of Giza.



John Greaves (1602-1652), professor of astronomy at the University of Oxford, first reviewed the existing literature and then went to Egypt to study the pyramids for himself. He dismissed all the accounts of the Giza pyramids having been built by biblical figures or legendary kings. From the classical sources, it was he who concluded that these monuments were erected by Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre) and Mycerinus (Menkaure), as tombs for the security of the body because of an ancient Egyptian conviction that this would ensure the endurance of the soul.



Greave's Pyramidographia of 1646 included the first measured cross-section of the Great Pyramid



Greaves set out to produce detailed measurements of Khufu's pyramid with the best available instruments and a rigorously scientific approach. He calculated that the Great Pyramid had a perpendicular height of 152 meters (now known to be 146.5 meters). He made many other measurements inside and out, including counting the steps, and he even noted the basalt pavement east of the pyramid that hinted at the existence of the mortuary temple.



He also provided some clues about the other pyramids at Giza. He noted that the stones in Khafre's pyramid were not as large or as regularly laid as in the Great Pyramid, but that the surface was smooth and even free of inequalities or breaches except on the south side.



Another scholar, Benoit de Maillet, the French Consul-General in Egypt between 1692 and 1708, visited Khufu's pyramid over forty times while he was in Egypt. His plan and section of the superstructure are not as good as those of Greaves, but his drawing of the passages and chambers is more accurate. The lengths and proportions of the Ascending Passage and the Grand Gallery are nearly correct, as are the different parts of the well shaft. At that time, the Descending Passage was still unknown beyond its juncture with the Ascending Passage.



Apparently, between 1639, when Greaves was at Giza, and 1692, when Benoit de Maillet first visited Giza, the second pyramid must have been stripped to its present condition, because de Maillet mentions that the casing stones remained only at the top. It was also Maillet who called for a survey to produce an accurate map and documentation of all the ancient Egyptian sites, which the Napoleonic Expedition executed a century later.



Greave's drawing of the passages in the Great Pyramid of Khufu



Throughout the 18th century, travelers poured into Egypt, not only to describe what they saw but also sometimes to make accurate records. Simple travelogues evolved into geographical catalogues, and included the ancient sites and monuments. One of the earliest 18th century travelers was a Jesuit priest named Claude Sicard, who visited Egypt between 1707 and 1726. He documented 20 of the major pyramids, 24 complete temples and over 50 decorated tombs.



However, foremost among the 18th century antiquaries were the Englishman Richard Pococke and the Dane Friderik Norden. Both visited Egypt in 1737. Pococke made a map of Giza that was extremely schematic, while his profile of the Great Pyramid was borrowed from de Maillet. He seems to describe Khufu's causeway, describing it as being seven meters wide and 914 meters long, built of stone and reinforced by 61 circular buttresses. Of course, this bears no resemblance to Khufu's causeway. It turns out that he was describing the arches in the floodplain north of Khufu's pyramid built under Saladin from blocks taken from the Giza pyramid.



He also thought that the pyramids were made by encasing natural mounds of rock, an idea also asserted by another 18th century traveler, Scot James Bruce, who stated that, "anyone who will take the pains to remove the sand will find the solid rock there hewn into steps". In fact, Bruce and Pococke must have noticed that the bedrock is left in the cores at the northeast corner of Khufu's pyramid and in the northwest corner of the one belonging to Khafre.



Norden's Travels, published in 1755, marks a great advance in documentation, no doubt owing to his profession as an artist and naval marine architect. he was sent to Egypt by King Christian VI of Denmark and he traveled as far south as Derr in Nubia.



Another English diplomat and traveler, Nathaniel Davison, also visited the pyramids later during the 18th century. He is credited, probably incorrectly, with being the first to enter the lowest of the five stress-relieving chambers above the King's Chamber in the Pyramid of Khufu. This chamber, which he entered on July 8th, 1765, now bears his name. Recent rains had also washed away some of the sand and debris choking the Descending Passage, and Davison saw that it sloped away into the bedrock beneath. He followed it into the darkness for 39.6 meters before finding it sealed off by debris. He also investigated the well shaft, descending from the bottom of the Grand Gallery to a depth of 47.2 meters where it, too, was closed off with rubble.



Of course, some of the most important early visitors to Egypt came with the Napoleon Expedition at the end of the 18th century, but that is a story all to itself. However, the artists of the commission with Napoleon created precise views of many of the pyramids in Egypt. Colonel Coutelle and the architect J.M. Lepere undertook a detailed study of the interior of Khufu's pyramid while the surveyor E. F. Jomard and engineer and artist Cecile re-measured the superstructure, including event he height of each course of stones.



It is perhaps ironic that with the massive scholarly French effort was soon followed by the era of plunder, destruction and non-systematic excavations that were a hallmark of the Egyptian archaeology and pyramid exploration of the 19th century.



See also:

Early Pyramid Travelers and Explorers, Part I

Early Pyramid Travelers and Explorers, Part II

Early Pyramid Travelers and Explorers, Part III




Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Complete Pyramids, The (Solving the Ancient Mysteries) Lehner, Mark 1997 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05084-8
Illustrated Guide to the Pyramids, The Hawass, Zahi; Siliotti, Alberto 2003 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 825 2
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Pyramids, The (The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments) Verner, Miroslav 2001 Grove Press ISBN 0-8021-1703-1
Treasures of the Pyramids, The Hawass, Zahi 2003 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 798 1