A DIFFERENT STORY. From the beginning.


Subjugation of the native Egyptians was ceremonially illustrated on the well-known ‘Narmer Palette’, a shield-shaped plaque of thin stone inscribed in raised relief on both sides in formal commemoration of the conquest. One side showed mythical animals and other Mesopotamian style features, unmistakably labelling it as ‘Sumerian’; while the other side showed King Nar-mer in royal regalia standing tall and brandishing a club in a threatening posture over a cowering unarmed peasant in a loincloth. Found in the ruins at Hierakonpolis in 1897, and now in the Cairo Museum, this palette scene has been euphemistically interpreted as showing the ‘political unification’ of the two lands of northern and southern Egypt. On the contrary, it clearly celebrates conquest by overwhelming force of arms. The abject native was not ‘unified’; rather he was vanquished; crushed by the superior lords of Sumeria.

The figure of the all-conquering king on the Narmer Palette looked unusually tall, but otherwise not particularly ‘foreign’. That’s not unexpected, but just an early example of propaganda that continued throughout the course of the Old Kingdom – where typically in sculpture and other visual records the royal family were depicted with idealised ‘normal’ features. Just as today the German Saxe-Coburgs have repositioned themselves as English Windsors.

Interestingly, King Narmer is shown brandishing a club, now called a ‘mace’, in what is usually called a ‘smiting pose’.  The ‘mace’ was a club-like weapon with a slender shaft about a forearm length, with a bulbous semi-spherical head about the size of an apple. But he was not grasping it like a club. He was holding it halfway down the shaft; waving it, not wielding it. The ‘mace’ was not a mere club – a stone on stick handle. Pottery and tomb illustrations from as early as 3800 BC show this ‘special club’ was already the symbol of supreme power – and as the royal ‘mace’ it has remained so to this day. It cannot have been a mere stone on a stick – rather it was a sophisticated weapon later referred to in to in Biblical literature as ‘the rod of our fathers’. More of that later.

Also found in association with the Narmer palette was another ceremonial object known as the ‘Scorpion Macehead’, now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.  It was again carved in relief, showing the glyph of a scorpion alongside a tall male figure in royal regalia holding oddly long-handled pinchers or tongs – such as might be used to manipulate a hot or dangerous object at arms’ length.  Thus the designation ‘Scorpion king(s)’, of pre-dynastic rulers immediately before Narmer. The immigrant Sumerian lords were elsewhere known as ‘smiths’ because of their association with the sacred fire of the forge – which obviously resonates with the use of long tongs to handle ‘hot’ objects.

The Narmer Palette and Scorpion Macehead were found in excavations conventionally dated to about 3200-3100 BC, plus or minus; and that date has become something of a benchmark for the beginning of the early dynastic period extending through the Old Kingdom for almost 1000 years. But those dates are not firm. Similar motifs of the regal figure smiting a peasant have been found on tomb murals at Nekhen dated to 3500 BC, and on pottery at Abydos dated to 3800 BC. While more modern evidence from C14-dating of the ‘First Fleet’ boat found at the foot of the Great Pyramid gives a date of 3400 BC; and other C-dating studies indicate the Great Pyramid at Giza and other Old Kingdom ruins at Saqqara are conventionally mis-dated by about 400 years ‘too late’ – they should be dated to about 400 years earlier. [1]  Altogether the range of available dates suggests everything in the Old Kingdom should be moved ‘back’ by about 400 years, including the Great Pyramid which is now firmly C-dated to 3000-2900 BC. Anyway, the absolute date turns out not to matter too much. It probably changes the beginning and ending points but doesn’t affect the sequence of the pyramid building which followed in the course of the Old Kingdom.

2a namrmer etc

The conquering King Narmer is usually considered synonymous with ‘Menes’, first Pharaoh of the Old Kingdom dynasties leading into the era of the pyramid builders – a period of phenomenal scale and skill of construction in stone. Not just the millions of tonnes of stone that remains in the pyramids themselves, but possibly half as much again in surrounding pavements and massive perimeter walls – which are now mostly missing. For example, the wall surrounding Djoser’s Step Pyramid was 10 m high and extended for a length of about 1600 m, covered with dressed limestone.

Details of the chronological sequence and architectural design of the Old Kingdom pyramids are marvellously illustrated in Harvard Professor Mark Lehner’s The Complete Pyramids, 1997 – tracing the evolution of scale and design.

Early ‘pre-dynasties’ #1-3 lasting about 350 years, were marked by fairly feeble developmental attempts at wedding-cake ‘mastaba’ style layered designs, but leading into the moderately scaled and sophisticated internal design of Djoser’s Step pyramid at Saqqara.  Djoser’s pyramid featured a strange complex of internal shafts and a very large underground gallery of ‘magazines’ – individual isolated cells – as if intended to securely store something.

3 first 3 pyrs

Then in just 110 years, the three generations of Dynasty #4 produced a remarkable flourish of ten pyramids – of which five are of astounding scale and sophistication, including the grandeur of Cheop’s Great Pyramid at Giza. The ‘big five’ – Sneferu’s at Meidum, Bent at Dashur and North at Dashur; with Cheops’ and Khafre’s at Giza – together represent over 80% of the total volume of all pyramids of the Old Kingdom.


The logistics alone are astounding. The sheer volume of stone that was quarried – some in remote locations – then transported and assembled, all in a span of just 110 years.  The scale alone challenges the orthodox model of the sweat of noble savages in loincloths.

Interestingly, the Great Pyramid itself, towering to 147 metres, represents about 30% of total Old Kingdom construction – and, like Djoser’s pyramid, the complexity of the internal chambers suggests some other function. There is evidence (later) that it was not used simply as a steam generator but diverted for another less noble purpose.

Finally, the much smaller (65 metre) pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus) at Giza suggests a late revision to a simpler and more cost-efficient model after the profligate grandeur of Khufu (Cheops) and Khafre (Chephren).

After the gross extravagance of the 4th dynasty, in the following 315 years the 5th and 6th dynasties exhibited great restraint.  They constructed another 10 pyramids – but all in a near standard and much smaller design.  It was as though a guiding hand or a central planning committee imposed an optimum cost-effective design – to a height of 50-52 metres, a slope of 50-53 degrees, with a single simple gabled internal chamber centrally at ground level.  Finally, they got it right. The first six were minor variants as they grappled to execute the instructions; then the last four were identical. Finally, an intelligent design.

Orthodox commentaries attribute these pyramids to individual Pharaohs, but they must have been only construction contractors, not grand designers.


Construction drew to a close at the end of the 6th dynasty, conventionally dated to about 2150 BC but more probably moved back to around 2550 BC.  The ‘secrets of the stars’ referred to by Josephus were inscribed inside the internal chambers of the last pyramids at Saqqara and are now known to us as the Pyramid Texts. They are still there.

Everything was finished and the great lights of the Temples of the Sun were ready to be turned on.

That marked the end of the glorious Old Kingdom age of the ‘Pyramid Builders’ after which Egypt abruptly descended into what is now euphemistically called the ‘First Intermediate Period’  – characterised by drought, famine, plague, civil disorder, chaos. It is as though the lights were turned on and everything descended into despair and disorder. A later literary record lamented that a burning power cursed the land with failed crops, plague and barrenness. [2]

Curiously the Old Kingdom period is recognised as the age of the ‘Pyramid Builders’ – only the pyramid builders. They didn’t build anything else! All the magnificent temples, memorials, colossal statues and so on that are the familiar grist of Egyptian documentaries were built hundreds, even a thousand years later by mere man-king ‘Followers’ in the Middle Kingdom. It is as though the original ‘monogene’ lords of the Old Kingdom – the lords from Sumeria – occupied Egypt for the sole purpose of building a series of stone pyramid steam generators, the Temples of the Sun.

Of course, now the pyramids are attributed as ‘tombs’ of the Pharaohs. But it was not so.

None of the pyramids has ever been found to contain the body of a Pharaoh. Actually, none of the bodies of any of the Old Kingdom kings has ever been found, anywhere. Even in several well-documented cases where pyramid internal chambers and coffers were found sealed and intact – they were all empty. Stone cold motherless empty. Curiously, pristinely empty, not even a spider. What about King Tutankhamun’s tomb found by Howard Carter in 1922, the first actual tomb ever found?  Well, he was buried around 1330 BC, at least 1000 years after the Old Kingdom pyramids; in a tunnel in the hillside of the Valley of Kings, not in a pyramid.

The completely empty pyramid ‘tombs’ have presented an inconvenient problem to orthodox Egyptologists.  In 1974 Oxford physicist Kurt Mendelssohn castigated Egyptologists over their tomb theory pointing out, ‘it is rather difficult to prove that the Pharaohs were ever buried inside them …[because] there are too many empty sarcophagi, and rather too many empty tomb chambers, to make the idea of actual burials unchallengeable’. Very droll! He suggested equivocating with ‘funerary monuments’, while the doyen of modern British Egyptologists, Professor I.E.S. Edwards, similarly dissembled with the phrase ‘symbolic cenotaphs’. While Harvard Egyptologist Dr Mark Lehner hedged with, ‘no pyramid has been found archaeologically with its burial assemblage intact’, and of the ‘[pyramid] temples excavated, none contained obvious facilities for mummification’ – confirming there is no actual evidence of mummification or burial in the pyramids or associated temples. [3]

The pyramids were not tombs, they were the ‘Great Lights’ at Heliopolis – Sun City, the Biblical ‘On’.  The entire walled enclosure of the Giza complex was called ‘Light Land’, encompassing the Great Pyramid called the akhet, meaning [place of] radiant, brilliant, shining light; while the adjacent Khafre’s pyramid was called ‘Abode of the Sun’.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead itself proclaimed … thou shinest in the horizon [pyramid], thou sendest forth thy light into the darkness, thou makest the darkness light with thy double plume.

And it is equally plain that the Egyptians literally believed all this. The original Egyptian written word for pyramid was mer – literally mr since there were no vowels – authoritatively translated by Edwards as an instrument or machine for transformation into ultimate union with the light of the sun god. But the interesting thing about that, on which everyone agrees, is that the Egyptian literature conveyed a sense that the pyramid was somehow really a functional ‘instrument’ or ‘machine’ that physically manifested light. It was not just a spiritual concept; it was a physical process. Contemporary experts have described the pyramid as a ‘cosmic engine’ which accomplished the transformation into the light of the akhet. According to Lehner, it was ‘an instrument that enabled that alchemy to take place’. [4]

But before any of this could happen, before the lights were turned on, the Sumerian lords needed to recalibrate the sacred fire of the hearth. After the failure or inadequacy of the ziggurats, they needed to experiment with turning up the heat in the stronger stone pyramids.

[1] Wilkinson, The Rise & Fall of Ancient Egypt; Lehner, Venture Inward; Rohl, A Test of Time

[2] Lamentations of Ipuwer, in Erman, Ancient Egyptian Poetry and Prose

[3] Mendelssohn, The Riddle of the Pyramids; Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt; Lehner, The Complete Pyramids

[4] Brugsch-Bey, History of Egypt Under the Pharaohs; Budge, The Egyptian Heaven & Hell; Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt;  Lehner, The Complete Pyramids

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