It has always pained me a great deal that so many people all over the world are genuinely fascinated by ancient Egypt and yet they are so woefully misinformed by sensationalist media, so-called documentaries based in pseudoscience, and the fantasy world of Hollywood. No other ancient civilization is so universally recognized and yet so thoroughly misunderstood. Sadly, Egyptologists are often so frustrated by this that they want nothing to do with the situation; it’s not just a matter of educating people, it’s completely reeducating them, trying to reverse the damage caused by ‘The Mummy’ and even the Discovery Channel.
When I tell people that I’m studying Egyptology, people always assume that this means pyramids and mummies, the only things they know about Egypt. In fact these areas are so popular that they are overrun by untrained theorists and most Egyptologists shun them rather than tackling all of the misinformation. Sometimes I can hardly blame them; even as a lowly student, I was once approached at a conference by a man who wanted to show me the home experiments that he’d carried out, pulling miniature pyramid blocks in his backyard! The sad thing though is that many people prefer madcap theories to the truth, especially when genuine research is presented in dry academic speak rather than the exciting Indiana Jones-style of tv.
Once I was actually asked in all seriousness for my professional opinion on whether alien build the pyramids. The man said: ‘There’s so much discussion of the alien theory that there must be something to it, right?’. Well, my short answer would be, ‘No. There isn’t anything to it at all.’ My longer answer will follow, with a thorough dissection of the central arguments of the alien theory and why they are wrong. I think the main reason the theory is so popular is that people like to believe in things, things that are much bigger than themselves, whether it’s god or aliens. But often people also want proof and they seek to find it in the pyramids and other ancient monuments. It’s no wonder that the pyramids are incredible enough that they inspire people to believe the unbelievable. I myself don’t think there’s anything wrong with postulating that there might be other life out there in the universe, but I also don’t believe in robbing humanity of pride in its achievements.
I think it’s rather more inspiring to think that human beings, our own ancestors, created such spectacular monumental achievements. However, some people see the concept of civilization as progressive, that humans only continue to improve upon the past, so they think that just because we are uncertain about how the pyramids were built and we ourselves would struggle to replicate their achievement, it is impossible that humans of the past could have done it.
They say that since the pyramids of Giza were built about 4500 years ago, people back then couldn’t have been skilled enough to do it. However, we’re ignoring that numerous remarkable developments were happening all those millennia ago. There are many things that were discovered in the distant past that still serve us today. The Egyptians made many brilliant innovations (something I will have to write more about in another post): simple things that we still use today, which have barely changed over the millennia since they first conceived, from the earliest forms of paper and ink, to the 24 hour day.
People say that since we wouldn’t be able to build pyramids today, that the Egyptians couldn’t have done it, but it’s not just building of the pyramids that couldn’t be replicated today. It’s hard to imagine ever being able to pull together the resources, power, money, skilled craftsmen, and architects needed to build one of the great gothic cathedrals in this day and age. It just couldn’t happen. This isn’t something to be ashamed of though, we simply use different technologies and have different priorities these days. While we couldn’t build another Notre Dame Cathedral or Great Pyramid, modern structures like the Eiffel Tower or the Gherkin wouldn’t have been possible back then either. Pyramids were possible simply because the entire economy, resources, and population of the Egyptian civilization was under the control of a single omnipotent ruler, who could mobilize them all into a monumental building project.
To argue that just because we don’t know every detail about how the pyramids were built would be a logical fallacy (an argument from ignorance) and does not prove that aliens must have built them. We have so much evidence that strongly indicates that the Egyptians themselves were responsible for building the pyramids. We have archaeological evidence of their construction: remains of the quarries, roads, tools, records of the workers and the towns in which they lived. We know why they built them and we can even observe their lengthy and imperfect evolution before they reached their architectural peak with the Great Pyramid.
To properly address the issues out there, I will cite from a number of websites that support the theory that aliens built the pyramids and some of the comments that individuals have posted there, and explain why they are incorrect. I randomly chose a number of sites from the top Google search hits for aliens and pyramids. I don’t want to single anyone out or anything, so I won’t use any names attached to the comments. The various websites from which they derive are listed at the end of this post.
I am no great pyramid expert myself, so I must acknowledge an enormous debt to the work of Mark Lehner and Dieter Arnold, from whom most of my information derives, along with other Egyptological sources, all of which are also listed at the end. I’d recommend Lehner’s ‘The Complete Pyramids’ as the best general book on the subject if you want to learn more. It is very readable with lots of illustrations and diagrams.
Why were the pyramids built?
Referring to the alien theory, someone states: ‘It’s the most sensible theory. Why would ancient Egyptians build such monstrosities just to bury their kings?’ Alien theorists say that it’s a mystery why the Egyptians or other ancient people would build such immense monuments. Therefore, it must have been aliens. But why on earth would the aliens want to build these monuments? And on earth? That makes even less sense. We definitely know the purpose behind the building of the pyramids.
They were used as tombs for the ancient Egyptian kings, but they represented much more than just a grave. They were iconic symbols of the supreme power of the ruler; what better way of showing your subjects who’s boss, than conscripting them to build you a monolith that dominates the entire landscape? Above all, they were monuments to divine Egyptian kingship, the place where the king would be transformed into a god. One of the most important Egyptian myths tells how an ancient king named Osiris was murdered by his evil usurping brother, who in turn was eventually defeated by the rightful heir to the throne, Osiris’ son Horus. In death, Egyptian kings were thought to take on the role of Osiris, the ruler of the underworld, while their son assumed the role of Horus and the kingship. And although deceased, the former king would join the eternal cycle of life to be reborn everyday with the sun god. The pyramid was thought to facilitate this. This also legitimized the rule of the successor to the throne, since the pyramid was a symbol of his father’s new divinity.
There are a number of reasons why these tombs were built in a pyramidal form. First of all, they developed out of an older form of monumental royal tombs called mastabas, which were flat-roofed rectangular buildings, that an enterprising architect named Imhotep then decided to adapt by stacking one on top of the other into a step pyramid form. Also, the pyramid was intended as a place of rebirth. An Egyptian creation myth tells of the birth of the world as a primeval mound rising out of the waters of chaos. The pyramid is a stylized mound.
In a country where the sun is always shining, the sun god Re was the supreme deity, and the king aspired to join him in being reborn every dawn. The pyramid form echoed the rays of the sun and its staircase like form allowed it to serve as an instrument of ascension. Each of the pyramids was capped with a pyramidal stone block, or pyramidion, and the carvings on the one from Amenemhat III’s pyramid at Dashur confirm its celestial role for the king; it is inscribed with a pair of eyes looking up at the sundisk and hieroglyphs that read ‘Amenemhat beholds the perfection of Re’.
The ancient names for the pyramids themselves reveal a great deal about their purpose as royal monuments and symbolic locations for the king’s divine transformation and journey to heaven. The Great Pyramid is called ‘Khufu’s horizon’, and the other two Giza pyramids are called ‘Great is Khafre’ and ‘Menkaure is Divine’. Other pyramid names include ‘Djedefre is a Sehed-Star’ and Sahure’s ‘Rising of the Ba-Spirit’. Just because the Egyptians were interested in the celestial aspect of the afterlife though, doesn’t mean they had to be inspired by aliens. People throughout history have been fascinated by the stars, and I don’t think anyone’s calling Galileo an alien.
The pyramids themselves were clearly part of Egyptian religious tradition, forming the focal point for the worship of the deceased king. Some of the rituals involved cleaning, dressing, and offering food and drink to statues of the king, who was undoubtedly human rather than green or tentacled. We actually have records of the day-to-day activities centred around the pyramids. The Abusir papyri preserve detailed records of the daily activities at the pyramids and of the people who worked there, including schedules of priest and guard duties; inventories of pyramid temple equipment; financial accounts; lists of goods supplied and stored; and records of architectural inspections.
The Egyptians had strong cultural, religious, and political reasons for building the pyramids and there is no reason to question their purpose.