The age of the Pyramides

  • Giulio Magli

As we saw in Chapter 4, the sciences in Egypt in general, and in the Old Kingdom in particular, have been given rather short shrift by most scientific historians, to the extent that Neugebauer even concluded that Egypt “has no place in a work on the history of mathematical astronomy” This is, as we shall see, patent nonsense.

The fact, however, that Egypt—especially the Old Kingdom—has been largely ignored is a stroke of luck for us, a not-to-be-missed chance to test all the notions we have painstakingly acquired regarding the ancients' relationship with the heavens without being fazed by too many preconceptions. To learn about the Old Kingdom astronomy, we have to start with what we have, everything we have, whether objects, texts, or even monuments weighing millions of tons, such as the pyramids. Indeed, the Old Kingdom is distinctive for being what we might call the Age of the Pyramids, a short, intense burst in human history in which the most amazing funerary monuments of humanity were created. We know little about how the decision to build such grandiose monuments was made; all we can do is seek to understand how the funerary cult of the first centuries of Dynastic Egypt evolved. Before doing this, a premise is required: no pharaoh the Old Kingdom has ever been found buried in his pyramid. (with the possible exception of Neferefre, see Verner 2002). Egyptologists blame this frustrating lacuna on the theft and desecration that took place over the centuries, though this explanation seems, at least in some cases, rather weak.

The unification of Egypt under a unique ruler, the pharaoh, took place around 3100 BC (Grimal 1994, Shaw 2004). The tombs of the pharaohs of the first two dynasties are to be found at Abydos, about 100 kilometers along the Nile from Luxor. These tombs, covered with small sand tumuli held in place with rough mud-brick walls, contain one or two rooms carved out of the rock, in which fairly convincing evidence of human sacrifice has been found. We do not know much about the significance of the human sacrifice in Egypt; for example, sometimes we find in funerary iconography the so-called tekenu–a man curled up on a sled, carried by bearers, possibly being sacrificed on the occasion of a royal funeral.


Limestone Block Divine Nature Human Sacrifice Underground Chamber Middle Kingdom 
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© Springer-Verlag New York 2009

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  • Giulio Magli

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