An ancient traveller across the desert would probably have picked up the sound from miles away. It was a deep bass note, booming out over the Nile Valley, perhaps accompanied by another, slightly higher note, the two of them forming an eerie, resonating chord.
As the sound grew louder and more persistent in his ears, the traveller would have been filled with awe and wonder. It would have seemed like the voice of the Great God, the Lord of the Universe himself, calling him to witness the miraculous fact that the sound was issuing from a vast stone edifice towering nearly 500 feet high above the ground.
There on the Giza plateau, in the land which is today known as Egypt, the Great Pyramid was sending out a musical message across the sands. Extraordinary as the idea might seem, it was ”˜singing’
The miracle of the ”˜singing pyramid’ was made possible by two narrow shafts, just 8 inches wide, which were sunk into the north and south faces of the Pyramid and plunged downwards for distances of 235 feet and 174 feet to debouch into the so-called King’s Chamber 140 feet above the ground. Unlike the similar shafts attached to the Queen’s Chamber, these shafts were not sealed at their inner and outer ends but were cut through to provide an air passage between the interior and exterior of the Pyramid.
These airshafts, it must be emphasised, are unique. They are found here in the Great Pyramid, but in no other pyramid or tomb.
Some Egyptologists believe that the shafts were built to ventilate the King’s Chamber. Against this theory, it does not explain the oblique angle of the shafts. If ventilation were the objective, it would have been achieved much more easily by constructing the shafts horizontally.
Other scholars believe that the shafts functioned as guides for the soul of the deceased king. A popular idea of late is that the shafts were aligned to certain stars in which the king would be reborn. However, even if we humour the notion that the king was buried in this chamber ”“ an idea that runs counter to everything that is known about ancient Egyptian burial practices ”“ the fact is that a king’s soul was fully capable of passing through solid masonry (witness the ”˜false doors’ attached to Old Kingdom tombs) and hence it had no need of open shafts.
One thing that can be stated with certainty is that the shafts were of paramount importance to the Pyramid’s design. For, as Rudolf Gantenbrink has pointed out, their construction at precise sloping angles through the masonry, so calculated as to ensure their exit at the same height on the Pyramid’s central north-south axis, would have involved the builders in endless additional work, time, and energy.
Might acoustics be the answer to the conundrum?
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The King’s Chamber is unique not only in respect of its airshafts but also in the fact that it is made entirely of granite blocks. It is on account of this construction ”“ granite is a resonant quartz-bearing rock ”“ that the room possesses exceptional acoustic properties.
It has been known for centuries that the King’s Chamber has special acoustic properties. In 1581, Jean Palmerme, a French official, visited the Great Pyramid and reported that the granite sarcophagus, when struck, ”˜sounded like a bell’. Other travellers used the same phrase, and it became a favourite trick of the local Arab guides to hit the coffer and make it ring.
But it isn’t just the sarcophagus. The King’s Chamber itself is renowned for its ability to resonate in harmony with every transient sound, be it a murmur or a footstep. The room is for this reason often used by modern tourist groups for the purposes of toning and meditation.
In recent years, the acoustics of the King’s Chamber have been investigated by a number of researchers including the flautist Paul Horn, the writer Christopher Dunn, and two technicians, Tom Danley and John Reid. Their tests have established that the chamber has an impressive reverberation time (defined as ”˜the time in seconds required for a sound event to decay to one millionth of its initial level’) and resonates most strongly at very low frequencies.
When the American acoustics engineer Tom Danley played a bass note of 30 Hertz through a system of amplifiers, he reported that the resonance was so strong that it ”˜scared the wits out of several crew members’ and ”˜made everyone get up and run to the exit’.
The English acoustics engineer John Reid has observed that the 2:1 dimensions of the chamber (it measures 34 feet 4 inches from east to west, 17 feet 2 inches from north to south) are ideal for creating powerful low frequency resonances.
Of particular interest is the tower-like superstructure which rises to a maximum height of 49 feet above the King’s Chamber’s visible ceiling. This unique system comprises a further four flat granite roofs, formed by 34 horizontal beams, and at the apex a limestone gable formed by 24 cantilevered beams. Astonishingly, the huge granite beams have a combined weight of 1200 tons, which is additional to the 300 tons of the 9 beams of the visible ceiling. Why did the builders need to use so much granite?
It has always been assumed by Egyptologists that these roofs were built for the purpose of weight relief ”“ to protect the flat ceiling of the chamber below. But structural engineers have argued convincingly that such an objective could have been achieved via a much simpler design. There was simply no need to erect four extra roofs.
So, if the stacked roofs were not needed for structural reasons, then what was their purpose?
I believe the answer may lie in the resonant properties of granite. This would explain why the 43 beams have such striking variations in width and height, and why some of the beams have deep grooves cut into them. It would appear that the beams were tuned to precise frequencies, in the same way that a guitarist tunes a string by lengthening it or shortening it with his fingers.
Equally intriguing is the fact that the granite tower is essentially free-standing, being fitted between two huge limestone walls but not locked into the masonry of the Pyramid. It is as if the architect was attempting to maximize the vibration of the beams and to transmit that vibration into the chamber below.
There, the floor too is suggestive of an acoustics purpose, for instead of sitting on flat masonry, as one might expect, the twenty-one floor stones reportedly sit on a nodular underlay, rather like an upturned corrugated egg carton, allowing them maximum freedom to vibrate.
The King’s Chamber thus formed a kind of giant soundbox. But how exactly was it made to sing?
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Some writers have suggested that the King’s Chamber was designed to resonate to the voices of the priests. In this manner, the body of the king, entombed in the sarcophagus, could have been stimulated by sound. Or, more controversially, a living person, lying therein, could have been induced to an altered state of consciousness. Against these theories, however, the chamber’s prime resonant frequency, probably 30 Hertz or less, is far too low to have been vocalised by the priests, while the 1200 tons of granite in the tower-like superstructure suggest the presence of a more powerful sound source.
For this reason, I believe that the Egyptians were attempting to harness the vibrations of the Earth itself.
To understand this, we must grasp the fact that the planet we live on resonates and vibrates, though at a very low frequency that none of us notices. It does this partly because of its shifting tectonic plates but also because it is bombarded from outer space by electromagnetic radiation from the sun and by other cosmic rays.
It is therefore possible, as the writer Christopher Dunn has suggested, that the Great Pyramid functioned as an acoustic horn ”“ harnessing the vibrations of the Earth.
These low frequency vibrations would have travelled up through the foundations of the Pyramid and caused the granite beams above the King’s Chamber to resonate in sympathy. The idea behind the different sizes and masses of the beams may have been to generate harmonics of the Earth frequencies, i.e. to raise them to an audible level (the human ear can detect frequencies down to about 16 Hertz). These subtly modified vibrations would then have been transmitted down into the chamber below, which was designed to amplify and broadcast the sounds.
This brings us back to those unique airshafts which I described earlier. Their purpose, it would seem, was to relay the low frequency sounds to the outside world. (Note: It is not known for certain that the shafts were open at their upper ends. But it would not have been beyond the wit of the architect to design a simple baffle that could have kept the shafts open while preventing the ingress of birds, bats, insects and rainwater.)
The Great Pyramid would thus have functioned as a kind of geo-vibrational resonant amplifier.
When I put this idea to John Reid, he made an intriguing observation. The shafts, he said, bear a remarkable similarity to organ pipes, specifically those made of wood, these being constructed in square section of about 8 inches by 8 inches. In the light of my theory, Reid offered the opinion that the dome-shaped cavity of the southern shaft resembled a tuned Helmholtz resonator. Might the sound wave entering this shaft have been modified in order that the two shafts produced two distinct notes?
It is worth emphasising at this point that I’m not necessarily suggesting that the builders of the Pyramid had advanced scientific knowledge of acoustics. Rather, it seems more likely that they mastered their sonic art by careful observation of nature, by simple experimentation, and by a trial and error approach to the design of the King’s Chamber, perhaps using a small test pyramid that would later have been dismantled or incorporated into one of the larger pyramids on the site. In other words, I am suggesting that they had nothing more than a practical working knowledge.
As regards the volume of the sound broadcast by the Pyramid, it is difficult to estimate without building a working model. However, it is a fact that low frequency sound waves do remain audible over long distances, and it is therefore plausible that the voice of the ”˜singing pyramid’ could have been heard for miles around.
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Why, you will ask, would the builders of the Pyramid have invested so much time and trouble in creating this immense generator of sound?
The answer lies in what I consider to be the true purpose behind the building. As I explain in my books ”˜Pyramid of Secrets’ and ”˜The Midnight Sun’, the Egyptians did not practise a sun cult per se, but rather a ”˜cult of creation’, in which they repeatedly drew on the energies of ”˜the first time’ to sustain the life of the world. In keeping with this idea, the pyramids did not symbolise the rays of the sun, as many scholars believe, but rather the creation of the cosmos. Their flowing shape in fact recalled the creation myth in which the Great God, a personification of the primeval earth, ejaculated from his body the waters for the sky and the light and materials for the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Ancient Egyptian literature testifies to the importance of sound at the time of the creation. In several versions of the creation myth, the creator-god brings the cosmos into being by opening his mouth and pronouncing sacred words. Moreover, in the Pyramid Texts, a prominent theme is the creator’s emergence from the earth and ascent into the sky accompanied by a great noise and commotion. The earth quakes. Isis and Nephthys emit wails of lament. The gods shout. The voice of Geb, the earth, resounds. The king speaks to the sky. He comes forth as ”˜the Great Word’ with the gods on his ”˜lips’. He ascends with a roar. In all of these renderings of the creation myth, the emission of sound is implicit, in keeping with the cataclysmic nature of the event. What is more, the sound in question is a low frequency sound, as evidenced by its association with the ”˜quaking and trembling of the earth’.
It would make sense, therefore, if the Pyramid emitted low frequency sound from its shafts, for such sound would have commemorated the act of creation, in keeping with the monument’s overall creational symbolism.
Incidentally, consistent with this theory, it is my belief that the sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber enshrined meteoritic iron ”“ the spiritualized semen of the creator-god.
Seeing the pyramid in this way, rather than as just a king’s tomb, gives us for the first time a suitable explanation for its vast scale, the care lavished upon it, and its inestimable economic cost.
Far from being a mausoleum, a monument to the dead, we can now see that the Pyramid, in all its soaring grandeur and impenetrable mystery, was a celebration of life itself.
This was the message that I believe was booming out across the desert from the greatest wonder of the ancient world.
If this is true ”“ and I admit it is the most speculative of my theories in ”˜Pyramid of Secrets’ ”“ then why does the Pyramid no longer emit its song, and why does Egypt have no legend of a ”˜singing pyramid’?
The explanation lies in the fact that the King’s Chamber has suffered serious structural damage, possibly within a few hundred years of its construction. The roof beams are cracked and dislodged, the walls have been forced outwards and the floor stones have been shaken and dislodged. Egyptologists ascribe this to an earthquake.
The oddity is that of all the chambers in the pyramid, only the King’s Chamber and its antechamber were affected. No other room or passage sustained any subsidence damage or cracking.
I believe that this only goes to support the idea that the King’s Chamber had a unique sensitivity to the vibrations of the Earth. While the rest of the pyramid was unaffected by this mysterious shock, it seems that this tower-like structure suffered a vibrational overload.
Indeed, rather than an earthquake, I wonder whether the damage was done by a large meteorite impact, believed to have occurred in the Middle East around 2350 BC, just two hundred years after the Pyramid is thought to have been built.
This impact, or series of impacts, would have injected a huge amount of energy into the Earth’s crust and triggered a sudden, massive surge in tectonic vibration. It is all too possible that the wave of energy was simply beyond the capacity of the Pyramid’s sound system.
If so, it would have been a sadly premature end for a hugely ingenious and ambitious work of architecture.