In the literary tale that goes under the name Papyrus Westcar , the pharaoh Cheops, or Khufu, interrogates a 110-year-old magician named Djedi. He wants to know whether Djedi can do things like rejoining severed heads, but in particular whether he knows the layout of the secret chambers of the sanctuary of Thoth, the god of arcane wisdom.
It turns out that the king had always wanted to create the likeness of these chambers, with the aim of incorporating them in his tomb, the Great Pyramid at Giza. The ending of this tale, which dates from about 1600BC, is not preserved, but the point is that even in this early period there was thought to be something uncanny about this pyramid. It contained secrets that only the gods could have created.
This idea has flourished in the modern world, producing the alternative science that Egyptologists often refer to as pyramidiocy. A visit to almost any bookshop will show which of the two sciences occupies more space on the display counters. Until recently most Egyptologists, when faced with a question about this sort of thing, would reply that they "don't do pyramids". This is beginning to change, and in the past decade the work of Mark Lehner and Miroslav Verner in particular has begun the task of reclaiming the pyramids for archaeology. But there is still some way to go before a PhD on pyramids will find a supervisor, let alone two willing examiners.
John Romer's The Great Pyramid is a detailed yet highly readable account of what is known not only about Cheops's monument, but the pyramids in general. About 60 of these are known, but Romer concentrates on the ones that preceded the Great Pyramid and influenced its design. In particular, Cheops's father, Sneferu, managed to build three of the things, each one of which is comparable to the Great Pyramid in size. The social cost of a programme like this, and the degree of organisation that it implied, is hard to envisage even for professional engineers. One of these pyramids, the biggest of the three, was completed in ten years and seven months. Sneferu managed this without shedding his reputation as a model ruler, something that his son, in later tradition, failed to achieve.
In the course of Romer's survey, many popular misconceptions disappear. Pyramids nowadays appear in isolation, but in their original state they were the centres of whole complexes. Causeways, often gigantic in themselves, linked the temple next to the pyramid to its counterpart down on the edge of the cultivation, and it is now clear that there were elaborate settlements adjoining them, built to house and feed the workers who were employed on these projects. The Hollywood image of slaves in their thousands groaning under the lash of their taskmasters has gone for good. The men who built the pyramids were professional craftsmen and the fathers of families.
Another feature of the early pyramids, apart from size, is the disturbing accuracy of their construction. It is this accuracy that gave the impetus to pyramidiocy, but it is still difficult to comprehend the fact that the error on one of the sides of the Giza monster, one of the biggest solid constructions ever made, is 0.02 per cent in 755 feet.
Romer draws attention to two features of the pyramid that attest to something resembling a master plan, rather than a series of evolving experiments. One of these he terms the Prism Point, the place where the two principal corridors intersect, which has been carefully calculated, probably at the earliest planning stage. The other is the Great Step, which stands at the summit of the ascent known as the Grand Gallery, and which is now hidden by a metal stairway. The area of the pyramid above the Great Step is the equivalent of exactly half the area that lies below it.
Romer argues that this degree of precision could have been obtained with simple devices such as a large plumb line, and it is certainly noticeable that inaccuracies in the construction occur in areas where such a line would not have been clearly visible. But the fascination of this building can also be sensed in the occasional human detail, such as the handprint of one of the original masons in the mortar on the wall of one of the low galleries above the great king's burial chamber.
Romer has a clear eye for practicalities and a refreshing, irreverent style. He is an urbane one-off in a field dominated by earnest monographs or crackpot sensationalism. The early photographs, many of them giving a glimpse of the Great Pyramid before modern tourism, are another unique feature of this book.
John Ray is professor of Egyptology, Cambridge University.
The Great Pyramid: Ancient Egypt Revisited
Author - John Romer
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 586
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780521871662