Avant de se spécialiser dans la civilisation maya, au cours de voyages qui le menèrent en Amérique centrale et au Mexique, l’explorateur, écrivain et archéologue américain John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852) prit la direction du Moyen-Orient, avec une halte en Égypte et plus particulièrement à Guizeh et Saqqarah. Il relata ce périple dans Incidents of travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land (1837). Le texte qui suit est extrait du vol. 1 de cet ouvrage.Le récit de Stephens est sobre. Les visites qu’il a effectuées à la découverte des pyramides ont apparemment été rapides, mais non expéditives. Preuve en est que l’auteur s’attarde sur certains détails, particulièrement importants à ses yeux : mise en place du sarcophage de la chambre du Roi dans la Grande Pyramide, implantation de cette chambre, caractéristiques du “puits”... Il s’ingénia également à prolonger son programme de visites par un détour vers le site de Saqqarah, ce qui, semble-t-il, n’était pas courant à son époque, alors que les pyramides qui s’y trouvent “méritent à elles seules un pèlerinage en Égypte”.
Je relève finalement cette ligne de conduite que l’auteur a fait sienne dans sa lecture des monuments : “Je me suis toujours efforcé de prendre moi-même mes décisions, à partir des travaux, des spéculations et des opinions contradictoires des autres.” Peut-on y voir un exemple de probité intellectuelle ?
John Lloyd Stephens
“The base of the great pyramid is about eight hundred feet square, covering a surface of about eleven acres, according to the best measurement, and four hundred and sixty-one feet high ; or, to give a clearer idea, starting from a base as large as Washington Parade Ground, it rises to a tapering point nearly three times as high as Trinity Church steeple. Even as I walked around it, and looked up at it from the base, I did not feel its immensity until I commenced ascending; then, having climbed some distance up, when I stopped to breathe and look down upon my friend below, who was dwindled to insect size, and up at the great distance between me and the summit, then I realized in all their force the huge dimensions of this giant work. (...) There are two hundred and six tiers of stone, from one to four feet in height, each two or three feet smaller than the one below, making what are called the steps. Very often the steps were so high that I could not reach them with my feet. Indeed, for the most part, I was obliged to climb with my knees, deriving great assistance from the step which one Arab made for me with his knee, and the helping hand of another above. (...)The great pyramid is supposed to contain six millions of cubic feet of stone, and a hundred thousand men are said to have been employed twenty years in building it. The four angles stand exactly in the four points of the compass, inducing the belief that it was intended for other purposes than those of a sepulchre. The entrance is on the north side. The sands of the desert have encroached upon it, and, with the fallen stones and rubbish, have buried it to the sixteenth step.
Climbing over this rubbish the entrance is reached, a narrow passage three and a half feet square, lined with broad blocks of polished granite, descending in the interior at an angle of twenty-seven degrees for about ninety-two feet ; then the passage turns to the right, and winds upward to a steep ascent of eight or nine feet, and then falls into the natural passage, which is five feet high and one hundred feet long, forming a continued ascent to a sort of landing-place ; in a small recess of this is the orifice or shaft called the well. Moving onward through a long passage, the explorer comes to what is called the Queen's Chamber, seventeen feet long, fourteen wide, and twelve high. I entered a hole opening from this crypt, and crawling on my hands and knees, came to a larger opening, not a regular chamber, and now cumbered with fallen stones. Immediately above this, ascending by an inclined plane lined with highly polished granite, and about one hundred and twenty feet in length, and mounting a short space by means of holes cut in the sides, I entered the King's Chamber, about thirty-seven feet long, seventeen feet wide, and twenty feet high. The walls of the chamber are of red granite, highly polished, each stone reaching from the floor to the ceiling ; and the ceiling is formed of nine large slabs of polished granite, extending from wall to wall. It is not the least interesting part of a visit to the interior of the pyramids, as you are groping your way after your Arab guide, to feel your hand running along the sides of an enormous shaft, smooth and polished as the finest marble, and to see by the light of the flaring torch chambers of red granite from the Cataracts of the Nile, the immense blocks standing around and above you, smooth and beautifully polished in places, where, if our notions of the pyramids be true, they were intended but for few mortal eyes.
At one end of the chamber stands a sarcophagus, also of red granite ; its length is seven feet six inches, depth three and a half, breadth three feet three inches. Here is supposed to have slept one of the great rulers of the earth, the king of the then greatest kingdom of the world, the proud mortal for whom this mighty structure was raised. Where is he now ? Even his dry bones are gone, torn away by rude hands, and scattered by the winds of heaven.
There is something curious about this sarcophagus too. It is exactly the size of the orifice which forms the entrance of the pyramid, and could not have been conveyed to its place by any of the now known passages ; consequently, must have been deposited during the building, or before the passage was finished in its present state.
The interior of the pyramid is excessively hot, particularly when surrounded by a number of Arabs and flaring torches. Leaving the King's Chamber, I descended the inclined plane, and prepared to descend the well referred to by Pliny. The shaft is small; merely large enough to permit one to descend with the legs astride, the feet resting in little niches, and hands clinging to the same. (...) Moreover, it was very hot and smothering; and as there was nothing particular to see, nor any discovery to make, I concluded to give it up ; and calling my guides to return, in a few moments escaped from the hot and confined air of the pyramid. (...)
This pyramid [Cephrenes] was opened at great labour and expense by the indefatigable Belzoni, and a chamber discovered containing a sarcophagus, as in that of Cheops. The passage, however, has now become choked up and hardly accessible. Though not so high, it is much more difficult to mount than the other, the outside being covered with a coat of hard and polished cement, at the top almost perfectly smooth and unbroken. (...)
A new attempt is now making to explore the interior of this pyramid. Colonel Vyse, an English gentleman of fortune, has devoted the last six months to this most interesting work. He has for an associate in his labours the veteran Caviglia, who returns to the pyramids rich with the experience of twenty years in exploring the temples and tombs of Upper Egypt. By a detailed report and drawing received by Mr. Gliddon (now in this country) from Caviglia himself, and by private letters of later date, it appears that they have already discovered a new passage and another chamber, containing on one of the walls a single hieroglyphic. This hieroglyphic was then under the consideration of the savants and pupils of the Champollion school in Egypt ; and, whether they succeed in reading it or not, we cannot help promising ourselves the most interesting results from the enterprise and labours of Colonel Vyse and Caviglia.
The pyramids, like all the other works of the ancient Egyptians, are built with great regard to accuracy of proportion. The sepulchral chamber is not in the centre, but in an irregular and out-of-the-way position in the vast pile ; and some idea may be formed of the great ignorance which must exist in regard to the whole structure and its uses, from the fact that by computation, allowing an equal solid bulk for partition walls, there is sufficient space in the great pyramid for three thousand seven hundred chambers as large as that containing the sarcophagus.
Next to the pyramids, probably as old, and hardly inferior in interest, is the celebrated Sphinx. Notwithstanding the great labours of Caviglia, it is now so covered with sand that it is difficult to realize the bulk of this gigantic monument. Its head, neck, shoulders, and breast are still uncovered ; its face, though worn and broken, is mild, amiable, and intelligent, seeming, among the tombs around it, like a divinity guarding the dead.(...)
My movements in Egypt were too hurried, my means of observation and my stock of knowledge too limited, to enable me to speculate advisedly upon the mystery which overhangs the history of her ruined cities ; but I always endeavoured to come to some decision of my own, from the labours, the speculations, and the conflicting opinions of others. An expression which I had seen referred to in one of the books, as being the only one in the Bible in which Memphis was mentioned by name, was uppermost in my mind while I was wandering over its site. " And Memphis shall bury them." There must be, I thought, some special meaning in this expression; some allusion to the manner in which the dead were buried at Memphis, or to a cemetery or tombs different from those which existed in other cities of its day. It seems almost impossible to believe that a city, having for its burying-place the immense tombs and pyramids which even yet for many miles skirt the borders of the desert, can ever have stood upon the site of this miserable village ; but the evidence is irresistible.
The plain on which this ancient city stood is one of the richest on the Nile, and herds of cattle are still seen grazing upon it, as in the days of the Pharaohs.
The pyramids of Sacchara stand on the edge of the desert, a little south of the site of Memphis. If it was not for their mightier neighbours, these pyramids, which are comparatively seldom honoured with a visit, would alone be deemed worthy of a pilgrimage to Egypt. The first to which we came is about three hundred and fifty feet high, and seven hundred feet square at its base. The door is on the north side, one hundred and eighty feet from the base. The entrance is by a beautifully-polished shaft, two hundred feet long (...). We descended till we found the passage choked up with huge stones. I was very anxious to see the interior, as there is a chamber within said to resemble the tomb of Agamemnon at Mycene : and having once made an interesting visit to that tomb of the king of kings, I wished to compare them ; but it was excessively close, the sweat was pouring from us in streams, and we were suffocating with heat and dust. We came out and attempted to clamber up the side from the door to the top, but found it so difficult that we abandoned the effort, although Paul afterward mounted, with great ease, by one of the corners. (...)
There are several pyramids in this vicinity ; among others, one which is called the brick pyramid, and which has crumbled so gradually and uniformly that it now appears only a huge misshapen mass of brick, somewhat resembling a beehive. Its ruins speak a moral lesson. Herodotus says that this fallen pyramid was built by King Asychis, and contained on a piece of marble the vainglorious inscription : « Do not disparage my worth by comparing me to those pyramids composed of stone ; I am as much superior to them as Jove is to the rest of the deities."