Underworld of the Pharaohs
By Andrew Collins
On March 3rd, 2008 I entered a previously overlooked large tomb on the Giza plateau.
I had come to this neglected area, west of the Great Pyramid, following new information that was set to challenge everything we know about the evolution of Giza’s famous monuments. My colleague, the British Egyptological researcher Nigel Skinner Simpson, had uncovered something unique in the recently rediscovered memoirs of Henry Salt (1780-1827), the British Consul General in Egypt, an avid explorer and collector of Egyptian antiquities. These recorded how Salt, in the company of his employee, the redoubtable Italian explorer and former sea-captain Giovanni Battista Caviglia (1770-1845), had entered a vast network of Catacombs beneath the plateau. After exploring them for a distance of “several hundred yards”, they came across three large chambers of equal size, each interconnected, and with further tunnels leading away into the darkness. Yet having found no gold or treasure, Salt and Caviglia had given up their search and returned to the surface, giving no hint that they ever returned to this lost underworld of the pharaohs.
Tomb of the Birds
The only people known to have gone anywhere near this vast cave system after Salt and Caviglia were the British explorer Colonel Howard Vyse (1784-1853) and his colleague, the engineer John Shae Perring (1813-1869). They would appear to have chanced upon the tomb marking the entrance to the caves during their routine explorations of the plateau in 1837. Nothing is known of what Vyse and Perring found here, other than a brief reference to them removing the mummified remains of a very large bird. A later plan of the plateau drawn by Perring shows the tomb’s deeply-cut fašade, next to which is the legend “Tombs and Pits of Bird Mummies”, indicating that they once served as a bird cemetery in which the mummified remains of birds were interred, perhaps in honour of a local bird cult. There is no question that what Salt and Caviglia found back in 1817 is of immense importance to the Egyptological world, for rumours surrounding the existence at Giza of a vast underworld go back to the Pyramid age. Ancient Egyptian creation texts, as well as an assortment of funerary literature, i.e. books of the dead, speak of a hellish realm of darkness called the Duat, guarded by demons and snakes. It is this that the ba, or spirit, of the pharaoh (and later those of the priests, nobles and laymen) had to navigate in order to gain rebirth and achieve an afterlife among the stars.
Underworld of the Soul
Egyptologists have always considered the Duat to be a purely mythical environment, meant to strike fear into those hoping to gain an easy passage to heaven. Yet there are clear indications that a physical representation of this chthonic realm existed somewhere in the vicinity of the Pyramids of Giza. It was said to have been ruled over by the earth-god Sokar, who in an ancient Egyptian funerary text called the Am-duat, the “Book of that which is in the Underworld”, is shown standing on a massive multi-headed snake. Sokar, a falcon-headed god of the dead, had been patron of the sprawling cemeteries and pyramid fields that served the ancient city of Memphis, and in particular those at Rostau, the ancient name for Giza. At South Giza, once known as Upper Rostau, archaeologists have found textual evidence of the existence thereabouts of an important shrine to Sokar honouring something called the Shetayet, quite literally the “Tomb of God”. Inscriptions tell us that the dweller of this hidden chamber was the god Osiris, Lord of the Underworld, who lies in darkness with a fiery radiance about him. Other texts preserved on the walls of the temple of Edfu in southern Egypt refer to this same chthonic realm as the Duat n Ba, or “Underworld of the Soul”.
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 the “mouth of the passages”, an allusion to the entrance to this chthonic realm. Even after the fall of ancient Egypt stories persisted concerning what awaited discovery beneath the sands at Giza. For instance, the fourth-century Graeco-Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (fl. AD 360-390), wrote of “subterranean fissures and winding passages called syringes” beneath the Pyramids, 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”. Much later, Arab travellers recorded very similar tales following conversations with Coptic Christian priests and monks as the inheritors of ancient Egypt’s forgotten wisdom. These stories told of subterranean passages created beneath the Great Pyramid by a legendary king named Saurid to preserve his race’s knowledge of the arts and sciences in advance of a cataclysm involving fire from heaven and a subsequent deluge.
Halls of Initiation
It was with the knowledge of stories such as these that the first European explorers arrived in Egypt 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. This he failed to do, 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 with similar motivations that in 1817 Henry Salt employed the Italian explorer Giovanni Caviglia to remove the sands that had engulfed the Sphinx since Roman times. Six months of digging produced no evidence of hidden chambers inside its body. Yet knowledge of the cave system, stretching beneath the plateau’s famous pyramid field, now provides firm evidence for the existence of Giza’s lost underworld.
Bizarrely enough, my wife Sue and I had explored the tomb in question just one year earlier, in January 2007. We had gone there to try and understand why this area of the plateau figured in a ground-sky overlay featuring the stars of the Cygnus constellation. Known more popularly as the Northern Cross, this prominent star group is located within the starry stream we know today as the Milky Way. In classical star lore Cygnus is seen as a swan in flight, yet among the dwellers of the Nile its stars served a different function. They would appear to have signified the womb and vulva of the sky-goddess Nuit, the mother of Osiris – the god whom all pharaohs were associated in death. Indeed, the tomb and sarcophagus, in which the pharaoh was laid to rest, represented the symbolic womb of the sky-goddess. Inside this chamber of rebirth the soul or spirit of the deceased was expected to achieve transformation into an akh, a “glorious spirit”, at one with the stars of the northern sky. In fact, among the oldest human burials uncovered in Egypt, the body of the deceased was laid to rest in a foetal position, signifying their symbolic return and rebirth within the womb of a primeval sky mother, seen as the progenitor of life on earth. 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, those that make up the wings of the celestial swan. This star-pyramid relationship is confirmed in the knowledge that from a position south-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.
The Hall of Records
Despite this astounding ground-sky relationship Cygnus’s brightest star, Deneb, remained without a corresponding marker on the ground. This puzzled me, until a colleague, having listened to my findings, suggested that the Deneb spot on the ground might signify something undiscovered, something underground. “Perhaps it’s the entrance to the Hall of Records,” he offered. The Hall of Records was the name given to Giza’s lost underworld by the American psychic Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), who as early as 1925 predicted that just such a hidden chamber, containing the records of all those who had lived on earth, would one day be found in the vicinity of the Great Pyramid and Sphinx. The discovery of the lost underworld at Giza explored by Salt and Caviglia might well go some way to fulfilling Cayce’s predictions regarding the Hall of Records. This seems especially so, for the entrance to Salt and Caviglia’s Catacombs lies just a short distance away from the Deneb spot in the ground-sky correlation. It seems no coincidence, therefore, that for the ancient Egyptians this star personified the navel and womb of the sky-goddess in her role as the Milky Way – her legs being created by the starry trail’s bifurcation to form what is known to astronomers as the Dark Rift or Cygnus Rift.
Having determined to locate Salt and Caviglia’s lost Catacombs, I sought the help of the Aassociation for Research and Enlightenment of Virginia Beach, VA, the research wing of the Edgar Cayce Foundation, who have supported research expeditions at Giza since the mid 1970s in the belief that one day the Hall of Records will eventually be found. With their support we made preparations to fly out to Egypt. My intention was to conduct a second investigation of the tomb, which, I now concluded, concealed the entrance to the little known cave system. Having reached the site on camels that eventful day in March 2008, Nigel Skinner Simpson, Sue Collins and I explored its every nook and cranny without discovering the entrance to any lost Catacombs. About to move on to other nearby tombs to continue the search there, we noticed a crack in a rock face, once sealed by a mud brick wall. Peering inside, an incredible sight greeted us – a vast cave chamber filled with rock debris, and enhanced here and there to make it more rectangular in appearance. Hesitantly, I descended into the darkness, as flocks of bats exited the entrance, disturbed by this rude intrusion into their natural habitat. After exploring the opening chamber and various side compartments, I entered a long cave tunnel that headed in the direction of Giza’s Third Pyramid. In the pitch darkness, I navigated a seemingly never ending carpet of fallen rocks and boulders. The uneven floor, thwart with dangerous cracks and hollows, was covered with animal bones, most likely those of camel carcasses dragged in by hyenas. This was something that Salt and Caviglia had also noted during their own exploration of the mysterious Catacombs.
Dangers in the Darkness
Reaching a natural bifurcation in the cave tunnel, I felt it the right time to double back and return to the surface, having taken some 20 minutes to travel just 80-90 metres. On subsequent visits, Sue and I penetrated the darkness still further, reaching a distance of perhaps 135 meters, before the air became too thin to continue. Adding to the ever-present threat of oxygen starvation and life-threatening diseases associated with bats and bat guano, was the shock discovery in the caves of a species of spider that we afterwards tentatively identified as the white widow. Putting your hands on one of these was not an option. We knew from Salt’s memoirs that the cave tunnels carried on for a minimum distance of “several hundred yards” before reaching three large chambers of equal size, from which ran further cave tunnels. Further exploration might well reveal the greater secrets of this cave complex, formed by the actions of water tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years ago. Clearly, we had not found Cayce’ Hall of Records, or the legendary Tomb of Osiris. Yet in the deepest cave compartment reached we found lightly incised parallel lines on the walls, giving hope that the caves might provide firm evidence of human activity on the plateau going back before even the Pyramid age. The cave complex’s existence might even throw new light on the ancient Egyptians’ belief in a Duat underworld existing at Giza in its role as Rostau, the “mouth of the passages”.
Most extraordinary of all is the story told to us by an Arab tomb guardian, whom we encountered in the vicinity of the Tomb of the Birds. He was elderly, spoke no English and is unlikely to have been influenced by new age visitors to the plateau. He knew the tomb, but refuses point blank to enter the caves. When asked why, the man, who wore a headscarf and traditional galabeya, said that they were the abode of a giant snake called el-Hanash. Apparently, it is “nine meters (30 feet)” long, and anyone attempting to enter el-kahf (Arabic for “the cave”) will be squeezed to death in its powerful coils. It is a fable, of course, yet one that echoes the very ancient belief that snakes of great size inhabited the Duat underworld, a tradition that persisted into Roman times with the belief that beneath the Great Pyramid reposed a god in the form of a huge serpent called Agathodaimon, the “good spirit”. I later learnt more about the mysterious el-Hanash. One story told to me by a local craftsman in Nazlet el-Samman, the village of the Pyramids, related how this underworld serpent protects the entrance to the “Hall of Records”. He will spit venom in the face and blind anyone who attempts to steal the great “diamond” it protects. Yet one day a chosen one will enter the caves and el-Hanash will blind them in just one eye. This person will go on to enter the Hall of Records and find the great jewel that has the power to bestow on them great powers. It is a strange tale, tainted by modern new age thought, although it seems to echo the ancient Egyptian belief that the Underworld of the Soul, or Tomb of Osiris, contains a power object that radiates an unearthly light. Clearly, nothing like this was found in the caves by Salt and Caviglia. Yet they left this underground world only partially explored, as we did ourselves, offering hope that one day this mystery will finally be revealed. Until then, it remains safe under the protection of el-Hanash.
Copyright Andrew Collins, 2009
All theories and evidence presented in this article are expounded in Beneath the Pyramids by Andrew Collins (Fourth Dimension Press, Virginia Beach, VA, 2009). For more information on Andrew Collins and his work, go to www.andrewcollins.com
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