Quel qu’il soit, il a démontré qu’il avait étudié son sujet, en prenant appui sur des références majeures, dont Hérodote bien sûr, mais aussi Richardson, Belzoni, Caviglia... Par contre, c’est vraiment à très grands traits qu’il décrit à la fois l’extérieur et l’intérieur des pyramides, ainsi que leur environnement et la technique de leur construction. Sous sa plume, c’est bien d’un ouvrage de vulgarisation pour le moins sommaire qu’il s’agit. Les connaisseurs resteront sur leur faim.
J’ai toutefois retenu ce texte pour ses derniers développements, où l’auteur s’est livré à une comparaison risquée entre la démesure et la relative inutilité des pyramides et quelques constructions modernes. Pourquoi les pharaons ont-ils vu si grand, qui plus est sans prendre en considération le bonheur de leur peuple, alors que des édifices plus petits que les imposantes pyramides auraient répondu aux mêmes fonctions ? Comparer la construction des pyramides à celle du métro et des égouts londoniens : on reconnaît bien là le célèbre pragmatisme britannique !
“The pyramids of Gizeh are the largest and most curious. They stand upon a bed of rock some hundred and fifty feet above the desert, and may, consequently, be seen at immense distances. Approaching them from Upper Egypt, the author of "Scenes and Impressions" (*) was continually deceived, by believing himself within a field's length of these stupendous monuments ; when, before reaching their base, he had to ride four miles. So extremely clear is the air in this country, that such objects, though at a distance, are seen with the distinctness of close approximation.
Why these stupendous piles were raised, or for what purpose intended, has never been discovered. Of the innumerable conjectures this mystery has given rise to, the belief that they were designed as monuments for the dead, seems the most probable. (1)
These edifices are believed to be the most ancient amongst the peculiar structures of the kind in Egypt. The dimensions of the principal one (that of Cheops) are seven hundred and fifty-two feet at the base, which, being nearly square, would give about three thousand feet for its four sides ; its altitude is four hundred and sixty feet (2) ; higher than St. Peter's at Rome by twenty-three feet, and higher than St. Paul's at London by one hundred and sixteen. The exterior of the pyramids is built in steps, of which there are in the largest, two hundred and six.
An adequate idea of the vast magnitude of this stupendous work (which covers eleven acres of ground) may be conceived, by supposing the whole of Lincoln's Inn Fields filled up with masonry towering to the sky, the base of the great pyramid nearly coinciding in dimension with that area. (...)
The summit consists of six stone blocks, and is about thirty feet square.
The quantity of stone used to build this pyramid has been recorded as six millions of tons ; or more than three times the quantity employed for that vast undertaking, the Breakwater, thrown across Plymouth Sound. Its solid contents being more than 85,000,000 cubic feet, or above 3,148,147 cubic yards.
We have the authority of Herodotus (Bibl. Hist. ii. 125) for stating that the pyramid was originally cased or plastered over. "For, he says, the sums expended in radishes, onions, and garlic, for the workmen, were marked in Egyptian characters on this pyramid, and amounted - for I well remember what the interpreter who explained those pyramids said - to 1600 talents of silver" (345,600 l.). A hundred thousand men were employed for twenty years in raising this enormous pile.
It has been argued, not without show of probability, that the children of Israel assisted in the construction of these pyramids during the captivity, made so "bitter with hard bondage". It is certain that afterwards, during their sufferings in the desert while flying from Egypt, they speak with desire of the "onions and garlic" freely afforded them by their task-masters, and so particularly mentioned by Herodotus as a portion of the food supplied to the builders of the pyramids.
In continuation of the same passage in Herodotus, we are told that the great pyramid was made in the form of steps, for the convenience of building. One tier having been laid, stones for the next were raised upon it by "machines contrived of short pieces of wood", and so on till the summit was gained. The structure was then finished by a facing of polished stones ; this work commencing at the top, and ending at the base. The cement which was used was composed of thin lime and a very little sand, and has held the stones together so firmly for succeeding ages, "that, says Dr. Richardson, it stands with the security of a mountain, the most indestructible pile that human ingenuity ever reared".
The outer casing has been removed, the ascent being now by no means regular or easy. "It is a mistake to suppose there are steps, the passage is performed over blocks of stone and granite, some broken off, others crumbling away, and others, which having dropped out altogether, have left an angle in the masonry ; but all these are very irregular. Occasionally the width and height of the stones are equal, but generally the height greatly exceeds the width ; in many parts the blocks are four feet high." (3) The first tier of stones is even with a man's chest.
Admittance to the interior of the great pyramid is gained upon the sixteenth step, on the side towards the north. After traversing several passages the traveller arrives at one on an inclined plane, which leads to a sort of landing-place, where, in a small recess, is the orifice of what has been named "the well." This celebrated excavation consists of two shafts, connected, about mid-way, by a low narrow gallery. (...) A continuation of the same passage leads to the “queen's chamber" ; above is " the king's", in which stands an empty sarcophagus ; immediately over which is "Davidson's chamber”, so named in honour of its discoverer.
The second, or pyramid of Cephrenes, standing close to the great pyramid, is not so large. The secret of its entrance defied all efforts at discovery, till the enterprise and perseverance of Belzoni explored the opening. A chamber was found in the interior that contained a sarcophagus, in which were the bones of a bull, an object of degrading worship amongst the ancient Egyptians.
About three hundred paces from the second pyramid is the gigantic statue of the Sphynx, a fabulous monster which the Egyptians took such delight in delineating. This enormous statue had been overthrown ; and, till lately, only the head, neck, and a portion of the back were visible above the sand ; which, having been cleared away by M. Belzoni, two temples were found; one between its legs, the other, hollowed out in one of its paws. The circuit of this monster's head round the forehead was, we are informed by Pliny, one hundred and two feet, the whole length of the figure one hundred and forty-three, the height from the belly to the top of the head, sixty-two feet.
Besides the pyramids of Gizeh, those of Abousir, Sakkarah, and Dashour, are placed at various distances from each other over a space of twenty leagues, on declivities that slope towards the river. A French (**) gentleman (M. Caviglia) who resides near the pyramids of Gizeh, and to whom the world is indebted for much valuable information regarding them, has confidently stated his belief, that there is a subterranean communication between the pyramids of Gizeh and those of Sakkarah.
Comparaison entre les pyramides et les édifices modernes
In contemplating these immense results of human labour, time, and wealth ; their immensity, and the various uncertainties and mysteries in which their history is shrouded, may impress us with notions and feelings concerning them considerably to the disadvantage of modern edifices and national works of later date ; but their utter uselessness (so far as regards their size) ought to check this kind of veneration ; for, even supposing them to have been designed for any of the various purposes conjecture has assigned to them, a greater number of smaller buildings would have answered the same uses : hence one must only look upon them as great misapplications of labour and capital. A comparison with the works of any modern city will make this the more evident. London, for example, is paved to the very outskirts with stone brought from Scotland. Imagine the same time, material, and labour, to have been employed in raising pyramids, would they not have equalled the stupendous piles of Egypt ? The subways of London, the sewers, water and gas-pipes, &c., also present an amount of labour and ingenuity immeasurably superior to the most wonderful monuments of ancient industry ; besides adding to the comforts and consequently the happiness of mankind, which is more than can be attributed to the temples, pyramids, or sphynxes of Egypt.”
(1) In "A Dissertation on the Pyramids of Egypt" (1833), the following conjectures are collected from various authors : granaries for storing corn ; retreats of safety in the event of another flood, or too great a rise of the Nile ; monuments to memorialize great events ; temples for consulting oracles ; observatories for astronomical purposes ; altars devoted to gods ; and, afterwards, the tombs and depositories of kings. To these we must add the fanciful theory of Dr. Clarke, who contends that the pyramids were built in honour of the patriarch Joseph.
(2) According to the calculations given in the Description de I'Égypte, published by the French Government. The Greek historian Herodotus gives seven hundred and forty-six feet for the base, and four hundred and sixty-one feet for the height.
(3) Narrative of a Journey from Calcutta to Europe by way of Egypt, by Mrs. C. Lushington.
(*) Sans doute s’agit-il de Moyle Sherer.
(**) Erreur manifeste de l’auteur : Caviglia était bien Italien.