Avec l’aide financière de John D. Rockefeller Jr., il créa en 1919, dans cette même université, l’Institut Oriental.
Dans son ouvrage Egypt through the stereoscope : a journey through the land of the Pharaohs, 1905, il a agrémenté, en familier qu’il était du stéréoscope, sa relation de voyage avec des illustrations qui, transférées sur le papier, doivent se contenter de la simple juxtaposition des clichés jumeaux, le relief en moins. (cliquer sur les illustrations pour les agrandir)
Cette convergence du récit écrit ou parlé et de l’image permettait sans doute de mieux capter l’attention des auditeurs/lecteurs. Aujourd’hui, certes, on a fait mieux dans le genre. On peut toutefois se laisser porter par ce “diaporama” avant l’heure, en notant quelques observations techniques démontrant que, si James Henry Breasted devait être un professeur particulièrement talentueux, il n’en oubliait pas pour autant de rester archéologue.
Looking up the northeast corner of the Great Pyramid, where the tourists ascend :
“Here is the very embodiment and potentiality of that ancient state of which the Pharaoh was the soul. Think of the organization of men and means, of force and skilled labor required to quarry these 2,300,000 blocks, each weighing about two and a half tons, to transport them across the Nile and lift them to the rising courses of this ever-growing monster, till the cap-stone is 481 feet from the pavement. The base of the sea of stone which forms each face is 755 feet long, and the square which it forms on the ground includes a field of over thirteen acres. When you have walked around it you have gone over 3,000 feet, some three-fifths of a mile. And in spite of the fact that a rise of ground on the spot where the pyramid stands, did not permit the engineer, who laid out the ground plan, to see his stakes from one corner to the other, but forced him to measure up and then down again, the error in the length of the sides of this square base is but sixty-five one-hundredths of an inch ; and the error of angle at the corners is but one three-hundredth part of a degree (00°-00′-12″). This far exceeds the accuracy of such masses of masonry in modern times, for although it may be quite within his power, the modern engineer finds no occasion for producing such work. It is accurately oriented to the cardinal points.
But the structure before us is not the only witness to the amount and character of the labor put into it, for the engineers of the time have shot over the face of the bluff of the plain below, a mass of waste chips from the cutting and facing of these blocks, which equals fully half the bulk of the pyramid itself.
Perhaps you are saying to yourself that this masonry looks rather rough in exterior finish to be the product of skilled workmen. Quite true, but as you have doubtless surmised, this was not originally the final exterior finish. When completed the pyramid was sheathed from summit to base in magnificent casing masonry, so skilfully set that the joints were almost undiscernible. Vast smooth surfaces then greeted the eye from base to summit. Later on we shall see a very striking demonstration of the cunning with which this work on the casing was executed. It was still in place when the first Greek visitors beheld the pyramid and wrote of it. Occasional references through classic times, and after the Moslem conquest, show that the casing was still in place until the 13th century A. D. Then all mention of it ceases until the 16th century, when an Italian traveler refers to the pyramid in such a way as to show that the casing has now disappeared.
It was removed then some time between the 13th and the 16th century by the Moslem builders of Cairo, who used the blocks thus gained for building the mosques and tombs and houses there. (...) Thus the beautiful Saracen structures of Cairo grew up at the expense of this older monument of the country. Some of the casing blocks in the lower courses were covered up by the accumulations of detritus from above, and thus escaped the crow-bars of these Moslem vandals ; thus part of the lowermost course is still in position in the centre of the north side.
But this quarrying has cost this pyramid some 30 feet of its height, and 15 or 20 feet in the length of its sides.
Perhaps this loss is not so felt by the tourist as by the archaeologist, for the former finds compensation in the fact that he may now ascend the pyramid, which would have been quite impossible had not the smooth casing masonry been removed and the terraced courses below revealed. To be sure they do not form the most comfortable stair-case in the world, for as you will note by looking at the native nearest us, some of them are nearly shoulder high ; but by dint of sundry pulling in front and pushing from behind at the hands of the willing Arabs, we shall be able to make the ascent with plenty of stopping to rest, within a half hour.”
The entrance to the Great Pyramid, the sepulcher of Khufu (in north face), seen from below :
“Mounted upon the accumulated débris in the middle of the north face of the great pyramid, we are looking up at the opening. Is it possible, you are asking, that the Pharaohs thus advertised the entrances to their tombs and invited the tomb robber in this way to the place where he might gain access to the treasures of the interior ? The recollection of the now vanished casing will immediately answer this question. What we see here is but the wreck of the ancient opening, which, piercing the casing just fifty-five feet and seven inches above the pavement, was so cunningly closed by a single flat slab of stone let into the surface, that it was invisible from below. Add to this the fact that it was not in the middle of this face of the pyramid, but twenty-four feet east of the middle, and we shall understand how baffling it must have been for the tomb robbers.
Nevertheless, they somehow gained a knowledge of it, and the entrance was known in the time of Christ. In any case, Strabo speaks of a movable stone, which closed the entrance to the pyramid. This shows that it had already been robbed in antiquity, but it was later closed again and all knowledge of the entrance lost.
That movable stone gave access to a descending passage only three and a half feet wide by four feet high, and protected from the enormous pressure from above by a superimposed peak of huge blocks of limestone, which you see in the rough opening above us. This passage points to the pole-star, and descending, rapidly passes out of the superstructure of masonry into the native rock beneath, upon which the pyramid rests, and after 345 feet terminates in a “subterranean chamber” hewn out of the rocks below the pyramid. In the ceiling of this descending passage, ninety-two feet from the entrance, there begins an ascending passage, the lower end of which is cunningly closed by seventeen feet of plug blocks of granite.
After 122 feet this ascending passage branches into two : one horizontal, leading to a chamber of limestone in the axis of the pyramid ; the other still continuing to ascend, but expanding into a splendid hall, at the upper end of which, behind an ante-chamber, is the chamber in which the king was buried.
We shall presently stand at the upper end of this hall and look down, but before doing so, notice that dark hole in the masonry, partly stopped up with stones, on our extreme right. That hole is one of the best witnesses we possess to the skill with which the entrance here was closed, for the caliph el-Mamûn (813 to 833 A. D.), the son of the famous Harûn er-Rashid, whom we all know in the Arabian Nights, forced an entrance into the pyramid for the sake of the treasure, which it was supposed to contain ; and this hole is his forced passage. As might have been supposed, his workmen attacked the middle of this side, and they toiled for months, with the entrance passage just above their heads and a little to the east, till the sound of falling stones within the pyramid, led them toward the sound and they emerged upon the descending passage. But as the pyramid had been robbed they found nothing but the king's sarcophagus in the upper chamber, and to appease his disappointed followers the caliph was obliged to place some of his own treasure there, that they might find it and be satisfied.
We are now to take our position at the top of the “Great Hall”, and look down its entire length.”
Looking down the main passage leading to Khufu's sepulcher within the Great Pyramid :
“What a gloomy, forbidding place ! (...) One hundred and fifty-seven feet long and twenty-eight feet high is this wonderful hall, and the four natives with candles stationed along the descent may indicate its vast extent, as the last candle at the lower end glimmers in the distance. But it is very narrow in proportion to its length, for the side walls are only four cubits apart, that is, less than seven feet. The ramps on either side, upon which our natives are sitting, are each a cubit thick, leaving the width of the floor only two cubits, less than three and a half feet.
Overhead, beginning with the third course above the ramps, the courses project, each beyond the next lower one, for seven courses to the roof, lost in the gloom above. The projection of each of the seven courses is just a palm, so that the total projection of seven palms is exactly a cubit from either side. This makes the distance between the side walls at the roof two cubits ; that is, the roof, like the floor between the ramps, is just two cubits wide, a little over forty-one inches.
This gradual narrowing toward the roof is, of course, for safety, as the roof must support the enormous weight of the masonry above. Some of the blocks of the side walls are not accurately dressed on the exposed surface, but if you will closely examine the joints between the first and second courses above the ramps, you will see that the surfaces now in contact are set together so skilfully that the seam can only with difficulty be discovered. Indeed there are twenty ton blocks in this pyramid which are set together with a contact of one five-hundredth of an inch, an accuracy which not only surpasses the modern mason's straight edge, says Petrie, but quite equals that of the modern manufacturing optician. How many centuries of development must have been required to attain the skill to do work on such a grand scale, and at the same time with such exquisite nicety!
Up this superb hall the body of the king was borne on the day of burial, and those cuttings in the side walls just above the ramps, were probably for the reception of the timbers intended to facilitate the ascent.
The chamber behind us in which the body was to rest is not less remarkable than the grand hall down which we look (...)”
Khufu's sarcophagus, broken by robbers, in the sepulcher-chamber of the Great Pyramid :
“Measure with your eye the huge granite blocks, as the white raiment of these two natives is outlined against them; and note the enormous slabs that form the floor. Over our heads are two hundred and fifty vertical feet of masonry threatening to crush in the roof. The great granite beams that form the roof above us are about twenty-seven feet long, four feet thick and some six feet high, as they lie on edge, and they weigh from fifty-two to fifty-four tons each. Yet an earthquake has so wrenched the masonry that every one of these beams, nine in number, is now broken short across, from one end of the chamber to the other ; but the biting grip of the enormous weight above still holds them in place.
In 1763, Mr. Davison, the British consul at Algiers, while examining the uppermost corner of the great hall outside, discovered a passage leading from that hall to a rough chamber over this, where we now stand. It was very low and was roofed with granite beams like those of the roof above us.
Col. Howard Vyse, while at work on the pyramid in 1839, was led to believe that there were similar chambers above that of Davison, and after hewing a passage upward from Davison's chamber he found no less than four more, making in all five of these chambers over us. It is evident that they are construction chambers, having no other function than to render the roof of the burial chamber safer by relieving it of some of the vast weight from above. The fifth or uppermost of them may be called a great success in this respect. It consists of a massive peak, like that over the entrance passage which we saw from the outside, built of limestone blocks, which receive and by their sideward thrust transfer from the roof to the side walls, the colossal weight to be borne. Petrie, however, thinks that there is no thrust, but that these great limestone beams extend far down into the masonry on each side of the chamber, and thus anchored in the masonry they cannot give way at the peak, but resist like cantilevers.
In any case, it will be seen how effective the crowning device is in thus supporting that solid mass above it of some 250 feet in height, so that the roof of the chamber, shattered as it is, has not fallen in, bringing down the whole complex above. But Petrie thinks that the time is coming when the roof beams at least must give way, and the chamber will then cave in over our heads. (...)
It is to-day nearly five thousand years since these walls reverberated to the fall of the last block into its place ; the whole history of the world has been enacted since that sound died away among these stones, and here we stand at the empty sarcophagus of King Khufu. As far as preserving the soul of the great king is concerned, all the wealth and power of a kingdom spent in putting his body into this eternal husk of masonry, have been in vain. But all unconsciously, by constructing this monument he brought forward a long stage upon their way, the developing arts, which were called in to aid in the creation of an indestructible mausoleum for his body; and for what Khufu thus accomplished we should remember him, not only in wonder, but also in gratitude.”