mercredi 31 août 2011

La leçon d’architecture pyramidale de Baldwin Smith (XXe s.)

L’Américain Baldwin Smith (1888-1956) fut professeur d’histoire de l’architecture à l’université de Princeton et chairman du département d’Art et d’Archéologie dans le même établissement.
Son ouvrage Egyptian architecture as cultural expression, édité en 1938, propose une très intéressante leçon sur l’apparition et l’évolution de l’architecture pyramidale.
J’en propose l’articulation suivante :
- l’évolution architecturale du mastaba à la pyramide n’est pas due à un “simple raisonnement”, mais elle a été inspirée par le désir et la nécessité d’une plus grande protection des dépouilles des pharaons ;
- l’histoire égyptienne est marquée par la confrontation entre le savoir-faire des bâtisseurs royaux soucieux de rendre les pyramides invulnérables, et l’ingéniosité des pilleurs de tombes ;
- la place de l’époque de Saqqarah dans l’évolution de l’architecture égyptienne : l’art d’utiliser la pierre en maçonnerie est encore loin de la perfection ;
- le niveau jamais égalé de la IVe Dynastie dans la maîtrise de l’art funéraire (la pyramide remplace le mastaba) ;
- l’influence du culte héliopolitain sur la configuration de la vraie pyramide ;
- les pyramides de Dahchour et Meïdoum ;
- les caractéristiques de la Grande Pyramide de Guizeh et l’extraordinaire savoir-faire de ses bâtisseurs ;
- la relation d’Hérodote et la technique de l’accrétion (non prouvée pour la Grande Pyramide) ; 
- le tombeau de Shepseskaf (mastaba el-Faraoun) : opposition à la théocratie héliopolitaine ; 
- le déclin de l’architecture pyramidale au cours des Ve et VIe Dynasties.

“The stepped pyramid of Zoser is outstanding in the history of Egyptian architecture as the first pyramidal tomb, as the earliest stone structure of its kind, and finally, as supplying reasonable proof of how the pyramidal idea evolved naturally from the rectangular mastaba. In appearance, the pyramid looks like a series of mastabas of diminishing size built one on top of the other. It is 413 feet by 344 feet at the base, rises 200 feet, and each stage is from 29 to 37% feet high. Man (...) never suddenly invents forms, but under the incentive of necessity adapts and recombines old ideas. The incentive, always driving the kings of Egypt to more ambitious sepulchral monuments, was the desire for everlasting protection for their divine bodies.
The mastaba, which had taken shape both as an eternal dwelling and as a protection above the tomb, had one weakness : large as it might be made in mass and area, it was easily penetrated from the top. Therefore the next logical step was to build one mastaba on top of another, using the first as a terrace on which to gather the material and continue the work. Zoser and his architect, Imhotep, however, did not arrive at the pyramidal form by such simple reasoning. The idea was apparendy forced upon them by successive enlargements of the original mastaba. The steps in this development are buried under the great mountain of stone, but cuttings on the side prove that there were at least three enlargements of the original mastaba and then two pyramid structures, the last being an enlargement and casing for the first stepped pyramid. So much is certain, which is fortunate, for the rest of the evidence raises more problems than it answers. (...)

Bâtisseurs de pyramides contre pilleurs de tombes
The pyramid, when built, was entered (...) by a hidden and subterranean passage on the north side. Down its center is a shaft 25 m. deep and 8 m. wide, at the bottom of which is a granite sarcophagus chamber entered from the ceiling by a circular opening into which a stone stopper was lowered in order to close the entrance. To the southeast of this central chamber are passages opening into corridors off from which are rooms lined with alabaster and inlaid with the same blue imitations of rush matting as were found in the south wall tomb. The pyramid, like all subsequent efforts to attain indestructibility, was successfully entered and pilfered during ancient times. In fact, Saïtic archaeologists twenty-five hundred years ago left red lines on the walls where they squared up the designs preparatory to copying them. The futility of these elaborate preparations to attain a material immortality was never admitted by the Egyptians, although succeeding generations unscrupulously and skilfully succeeded in penetrating and robbing the greatest tombs of their predecessors. Each king went on building larger or more intricate tombs in the vain belief that his efforts would prove successful, but their very size and the riches hidden in them made such tombs an irresistible temptation. Therefore throughout Egyptian history the offensive ingenuity of tomb robbers kept pace with the defensive skill of royal builders.   

Pyramide à degrés
Saqqarah et les débuts de l’architecture égyptienne
The architectural forms at Saqqara complete the picture of the beginnings of Egyptian architecture, although much about them still seems vague and problematic. Even the forms which have hitherto been unknown in Egyptian architecture fit into a natural, although necessarily theoretical development of building tradition in the Egyptian environment. The building methods, including a type of masonry hitherto never found in Egypt, have made it necessary to revise the old views on the birth of masonry in Nilotic architecture.
At first sight this new masonry, with its simple and delicate surface and its carefully sculptural forms unconfused by hieroglyphic inscriptions, recalls Greek architecture, and therefore appears to be of superior quality to the masonry of the pyramids and temples which came later. To quote from the best and most recent study of Egyptian masonry, "the idea seems to be gaining ground that this form of masonry became, for some mysterious reason, a lost art. This is entirely erroneous. The Zoser masonry, generally speaking, is of much poorer quality than that of good mastabas and pyramid masonry of the IV and V Dynasties, and the structures, owing to the smallness of the blocks used, were not calculated to last any great time... The more the III Dynasty small-block masonry is studied, the more clear it becomes that the megalithic masonry which followed is merely a development of it." (1)
"The masonry of Zoser is inferior to the better examples of later times in that the fineness of the
joints between adjacent blocks, which appears so good when viewed from the front, only extends inwards for at most a couple of inches ; afterwards the joints become wider and irregular and are filled in with thick white gypsum mortar. In the Zoser masonry, fineness of jointing at the face of the walls was obtained at the expense of solidity." (2)

Apprentissage par essais et erreurs
In fact, the methods of stone-cutting seen at Saqqara prove what the architectural forms have indicated, namely, that stone was here used for the first time on any monumental scale, as a sculptural means of imitating traditional forms which already existed in other materials. Because of the inherently sculptural character of this and all their subsequent stone work, the Egyptians never learned the art of internal bonding and never saw the full advantage of using truly rectangular blocks of stone.
Before laying the blocks only the bedding face was cut smooth and flat ; then the vertical joints were cut to fit the adjoining stones by a process of trial and error, for the joints are not always vertical, and the top face of the course was finished without preserving continuous horizontal lines of masonry. Finally, the face of the stone-work was not smoothed off until after the wall was otherwise finished.
This sculptural treatment of stone started and then persisted because the Egyptian masons were always confronted with the problem of reproducing standard forms rather than developing a practical and sound method of building in cut stone. Before Imhotep and his apparently great innovations at Saqqara, there need not have been a long period of experimentation of which we are ignorant. Stone-cutting started in the I Dynasty with simple pavements such as were found in the tomb of King Den, but Clarke and Engelbach, who have made a thorough study of Egyptian building methods "believe that the art of laying finely dressed blocks may well have developed during Zoser's reign, the forms being translated from brick and vegetable forms".

Peinture des pierres
The stone masonry at Saqqara was painted in imitation of wood and bundled reed construction.
Floors were painted a red ochre ; the exterior walls of the enceinte show traces of red, and red was found on the bottom course of the wall about the Great Court, in the Entrance Hall of the Colonnades, on the walls of the Heb-Sed court, on Temple T, and on many of the columns. Inasmuch as red was the Egyptian color to signify wood, and a sign for a bundled reed shaft, dating from the III or IV Dynasties, has its base painted black and the rest red, save for a white line separating the two parts, there is reason to think that the columns at Saqqara were painted red.
After Zoser there was one hundred years of the III Dynasty during which five kings reigned. Little or nothing is known of these rulers and their architecture until we come to Huni and Sneferu, at the end of the III Dynasty. Their pyramids, as the next examples of known masonry, are more closely related to the architectural efforts of the IV Dynasty than to the transitional architecture of the period of Zoser.

La stupéfiante vigueur de la IVe Dynastie
The IV Dynasty stands forth from the obscurity of early Egyptian history as a period of amazing vigor. Its purposeful energy, directed by a short succession of capable rulers, brought Egyptian culture and art to a level which in many respects was never again equaled in the Nile valley and thereby fixed the mold in which the subsequent civilization was to take shape. Much of snthe creative force and organized resources were concentrated upon art as a preparation for the after life. The rectangular mastaba by this time was the standard type of tomb, although the kings had developed in the pyramid a more ambitious and symbolic form of sepulcher. Instead of being made of sun-dried brick, the mastaba was frequently constructed of limestone and its walls were decorated with finely carved and painted reliefs. (...)

Section de mastaba : Senwosret-ankh, Lisht

The mastaba, from the IV Dynasty on until it went completely out of use at the end of the Middle Kingdom, ceased to be a form of royal burial, and its place was taken by the pyramid. There was no prototype for the pyramidal tomb before the III Dynasty and it was not in the conservative nature of man to invent it. Therefore its shape had to evolve from the customary mastaba as the result of some special incentive and because of a certain association of ideas. The royal incentive was, of course, the desire for greater security, but this alone might not have made the mastaba into more than a stepped mastaba. After the experiment of King Zoser and his architect and before the end of the III Dynasty, the transitional form between this stepped mastaba and the true pyramid was built.

At Dashur, which is within sight of Saqqara, stands the blunt or False Pyramid. It is 188.5 m-square at the base and 99.04 m. high ; its casing of cut limestone has a double slope, indicating that its builder, when he began to smooth off the surface of the stepped core by means of a casting, either had not planned the set-backs with the idea of a continuous and pyramidal slope, or was imitating the pyramidal ben-ben (*) of Re-Atum at Heliopolis. Once the False Pyramid was finished by its builder, who was perhaps Huni, one of the last kings of the III Dynasty and the father of Sneferu, its divergence from a true pyramid became evident. Even then it undoubtedly required an ideographic transference of ideas to make the pyramid the established type of royal tomb.

Influence du culte héliopolitain
When the early kings ceased to live in Upper Egypt, and in the III Dynasty established their permanent residence at Memphis, they came more and more under the influence of nearby Heliopolis, with its old prestige and its powerful cult of the Sun-god. The fetish of Re was the pyramidal stone, known as the ben-ben. By the IV Dynasty the Pharaohs were sun-worshipers and considered themselves to be the sons of Re and hence his incarnation on earth. Therefore they saw the obvious resemblance between the pyramidal tomb and the sun-symbol at Heliopolis : as the spirit and power of Re was in the pyramidal ben-ben, so would their divine spirit and body lie within the pyramidal tomb.

Les deux pyramides de Snéfrou
This association was realized sometime in the III Dynasty, after Zoser, for it was at the end of the Dynasty that the offering temple was shifted, under solar influence, from the north to the east side of the pyramid. At this time the great Sneferu, who was probably the father of Khufu, built himself 
two  pyramids in his dual personality as King of Upper and Lower Egypt. The first he erected at Meydum, which he apparently never used ; he began it as a stepped pyramid with "accretion faces", as is indicated by the mason's marks showing a stepped pyramid, and by the fact that the receding faces are finished in dressed stone. The work may have been continued throughout his reign by means of building successive casings and recessed stages.

Section de la pyramide de Meïdoum
When this process had been repeated seven times, he had what was a gigantic seven-stepped pyramid, for even in its present ruined condition its three remaining stages rise to a height of 214 feet. Before the end of his life, however, Sneferu had completed his tomb at Dashur as a true
pyramid, and at Meydum had started to encase its stepped core of "accretion faces" with a smooth covering. The lower stage of this casing is still preserved, but there is no evidence to show that it was ever carried up to complete the whole pyramid. 

La pyramide “expérimentale” de Meïdoum
The entrance at Meydum is a sloping passage, starting high up on the north side, which descends underground for a distance, then continues horizontally, and finally rises as a perpendicular shaft, giving access to the sarcophagus chamber, which is half below ground and half in the stone of the first mastaba-terrace. Over the burial chamber is a stone vault made by corbeling, which is the earliest stone vault known to have been used in Egyptian architecture, although this method of roofing was used in brick for sepulchral protection as early as the II and III Dynasties. A small chapel on the east side is built onto the side of the pyramid in the same manner that offering chapels were added onto the III Dynasty mastabas at Bet Khallaf and the IV Dynasty ones at Gizeh. (...) At Meydum there are indications of the great causeway leading up to the pyramid from the river, and around the tomb are grouped, like a city with streets, the mastabas of Sneferu's family and courtiers.
For some unknown reason the pyramid at Meydum was experimental, and if it took twenty years of Sneferu's reign of twenty-six years, as Borchardt estimated, the king must have begun and perhaps finished his still larger pyramid at Dashur, before he started to encase the Meydum tomb as a true pyramid. His larger pyramid at Dashur ranks in size with the famous group at Gizeh, for it is still 709 feet wide at the base and 325 feet high. The three pyramids at Dashur and Meydum show only one technical advance over the pyramid of Zoser ; this is their use of the corbel vault in stone masonry as a roofing construction for the burial chambers. The crude portcullis method of closing the burial chamber after occupation, which was seen in the mastabas of the III Dynasty, is at Dashur worked out by accurate stonecutting as a very elaborate method of sealing up the chamber. Once the sarcophagus and its accompanying wealth were in place, the workmen burned out the wooden prop and the gigantic stone slid down into position in front of the opening.

La Grande Pyramide: caractéristiques et environnement
After Sneferu came the famous rulers of the IV Dynasty whose tombs at Gizeh still rank as one of the wonders of the world. The much illustrated and visited group consists of the three great pyramids of Khufu, Khafra, and Menkaura, with a cluster of much smaller pyramids and streets of mastabas making a large city of the dead under the supervision of the "Mayor of the Pyramids". Khufu (Cheops), who was the most powerful monarch of the Old Kingdom, began his pyramid with no modest intention of enlarging it as his reign progressed. Not only did he have the idea of a true pyramid from the start, but also he planned it to be what it has remained, the largest constructed mass of stone ever erected by man. Originally it measured 767 feet at the base and rose 479 feet. The core is built of Moqattam limestone, the casing and passages of finer limestone from Tura and Ma'sara, and the king's chamber cut from great blocks of hard granite. It is estimated that it contains 2,300,000 blocks of stone, totaling 3,277,000 cubic yards, the stones themselves averaging two and a half tons, while a few weighed as much as thirty tons. It helps a little in appreciating its size to know that the cathedrals of Florence, Milan, and St. Peter's, as well as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's could all be grouped comfortably within the area of its base.

[This picture - above] shows the vertical distribution of chambers, connected by long, sloping passages, which were intended to be concealed permanently in this stone mountain. The construction of the pyramid, however it is explained, was a remarkable feat : over the long corridors are corbeled vaults, and above the king's chamber is an ingenious effort to lighten the pressure and divert the weight by means of a triangular stone arch and superimposed slabs of stone. From this chamber two holes were pierced through the whole structure at an oblique angle, not for ventilation, as is sometimes suggested, but as exits for the spirit of the dead.
In addition to the pyramid there was a large mortuary temple on the east side, the long causeway, used at first for the transportation of materials from the river and kept as a permanent approach across the inundated land during the flood season, and streets of mastabas, while nearby was a city for the priests, workmen, and storehouses which were all needed to perpetuate the service of the dead. The causeway leading down from the mortuary temple to the edge of the valley terminated in what has been called the "Valley temple" or landing pavilion. (...)

Le savoir-faire des maçons de la IVe Dynastie
The remarkable accuracy of nearly all the stone-cutting in this pyramid furnishes astounding evidence of the technical skill of Old Kingdom stone masons. When laying out the plan of the pyramid, the workmen cleared the desert down to the solid rock, and on this floor laid a pavement with a core of natural rock rising up in the middle. Even though this outcropping of rock prevented any direct measurements, the masons were able to square the base so truly that between the north and south sides there is an error of only 7.9 inches in 9073 inches and between the east and west sides, an error of 0.3 inches in 9070.5 inches. In the construction, stones weighing tons were set with joints a ten-thousandth of an inch, involving edges and surfaces, according to Petrie, "equal to opticians' work". Unfortunately the casing, which was originally highly polished and reflected, like the sun-symbol that it was, the rays of Re, has all been quarried away to be used for the houses and mosques of Cairo.
The measurements of the Great Pyramid have inspired more ingenious and purely imaginative
speculation than any other monument in the history of the world. Many people, beginning with
Herodotus, have been unable to believe that so much labor and such great accuracy had no other, purpose than to protect a dried-up mummy. In much the same way as the Greeks thought of the mask-like Sphinx as the personification of wisdom, so the modern world has formed societies and written serious books to interpret the "pyramid prophecies" from the measurements of its stones.

La question d’Hérodote et la réponse qui lui fut apportée
The reader of these expositions may be a little surprised to find how accurately the Egyptians thought in terms of English inches and feet, and he may wonder how it was that so much of this prophetic vision of the Old Kingdom dealt only with events important to the English people.
Exactly how such a towering mass was built by Egyptian methods, without tackle and pulleys, is a reasonable question for which there is no reasonably certain answer. In the fifth century B.C. when the Greek historian Herodotus asked the same question, he was given some colorful information by one who was the ancestor of all modern dragomen and who pretended to get his information from the hieroglyphs on the stones. Herodotus was told that the equivalent of about a million and a half dollars was spent by Khufu on the radishes, onions, and garlic for the consumption of the workmen ; "a hundred thousand men", he was informed, "labored constantly and were relieved every three months by a fresh lot" ; that the causeway (1017 yards long, 60 feet wide, and 48 feet high at the highest point) was built first in ten years ; and that the pyramid itself required another twenty years.

Il n’est pas prouvé que la Grande Pyramide ait été construite par “accrétion”
The construction of the pyramid, Herodotus describes as follows : "This pyramid was built in steps... After laying stones for the base, they raised the remaining stones by machines made of short pieces of wood : for the machines were equal in number to the ranges of steps. The highest portion of the pyramid, therefore, was first finished."
It is true that the earliest pyramids and the V Dynasty pyramids at Abusir were built "in the form of steps" by what are called "accretion faces". There is no proof, however, that "accretion faces" were used in the Great Pyramid, and it is doubtful if this original method of building a pyramid by successive layers was kept up, because, as some writers believe, the Pharaohs wished to enlarge their tombs as their reigns continued. Clarke and Engelbach insist that the true pyramids were laid out to their at the top and the use of red granite for the lower courses, which looks as if Khafra started out to finish his tomb in the harder stone. 

La pyramide de Mykérinos
The last member of the sepulchral triad was built by Menkaura (Mykerinos) who was the successor and probably the brother of Khafra. His tomb, called "Divine-is-Menkaura", was inferior both in size and construction, being only 218 feet high. Southeast of the pyramid of Menkaura are the foundations of an unfinished pyramid which is of more importance to the history of the site and to the IV Dynasty than to architecture.

Mastaba el-Faraoun (cliché Jon Bodsworth)
Le mastaba el-Faraoun (tombeau de Shepseskaf)
After the III Dynasty, the pyramid was the regular mode of royal burial for a period as long as from Charlemagne down to the present. With one exception, each Pharaoh of the Old Kingdom from
the IV Dynasty on, built himself a pyramid. The one king who did not build a pyramid was Shepseskaf, the last of the IV Dynasty, and in part the innovation was responsible for the termination of his line. His tomb, the "Shelter-of-Shepseskaf", at South Saqqara, known now as the Mastabat Fara'un, or the "Seat of Pharaoh", looks like a rectangular mastaba made of large blocks of lime stone of from 1.50 m. to 2 m. high. Originally it was cased in smoothly cut, fine limestone, and had the exceptional shape of a giant sarcophagus with its top, at least, like the curved roof of the wooden coffin found at Tarkhan. This wooden coffin, we saw, was an early house-form, and the same type of "shelter", which Shepseskaf revived to be reproduced in stone upon a monumental scale, can be seen to-day in the houses of Nubia.
The interior arrangement was very much like that of a pyramid, and it has a funerary temple on the east side. Such a radical departure could not have been, in Egypt, the result of a royal fancy ; in fact, it was monumental expression of Shepseskaf's position in a bitter religious and political struggle for supremacy between the king and the priests of Re at Heliopolis - a struggle which was revived with tragic results centuries later by Amenhotep IV, when he tried to free the country from the tyranny of the priests of the Sun-god.
While the great Pharaohs of the IV Dynasty admitted their descent from Re and built their tombs in the image of his fetish, Khufu saw the political dangers of religious intrigue and domination, for there is evidence that he dealt forcefully with some of the religious zeal, and at the end of the dynasty, Shepseskaf, involved in what had become a desperate religious struggle, revolted against the growing power of the Heliopolitan theocracy by refusing to be buried under the ben-ben of Re. The result was apparently disastrous, for he was succeeded by the V Dynasty, the kings of which took the name of Re and were at first the puppets, if not the actual children, of the sun priests. 

Ve et VIe Dynasties : déclin de l’architecture pyramidale au profit des chapelles mortuaires
The pyramids built at Abusir by the three usurpers of the V Dynasty who brought about the recrudescence of sun-worship, were never more than second-class in workmanship (...).During the V and VI Dynasties the royal pyramids grew smaller and were built more economically by means of small stone, amounting to almost a rubble fill, within their casings. At the same time, the mortuary chapel increased in size and importance, while the north entrance to the pyramids, which in the late III and IV Dynasties had been high up on the face of the pyramids, came down to ground level and was in time marked by a small offering chapel above the entrance.”

(1) S. Clarke and R. Engelbach, Ancient Egyptian Masonry (1930), p. 8.
(2) Clarke and Engelbach, op. cit., p. 97.
Source : Hathi Trust Digital Library

(*) Ben-ben ou Benben : “Benben dans la mythologie égyptienne héliopolitaine représente le tertre qui émergea de Noun, l'océan primordial, et sur lequel le soleil apparut pour la première fois. La pierre benben désigne quant à elle la pierre sacrée du temple solaire d'Héliopolis. Benben est souvent citée comme étant l'endroit où vit l'oiseau Bénou, l'incarnation de l'âme de Rê. Le mot benben, dérivé de la racine wbn « s'élever en brillant », désigne également les obélisques.” (Wikipédia)

mardi 30 août 2011

“Il est naturel de croire que l'intérieur des pyramides fut toujours nu et dégarni” (baron Taylor - XIXe s.)

Dans son ouvrage L'Égypte, par le R. P. Laorty-Hadji (1856) (*), l’auteur, homme d’art et philanthrope français Isidore Justin Séverin Taylor, dit le Baron Taylor (1789-1879), résume les connaissances de son époque en matière de pyramidologie.
Cette relation ne comporte aucune révélation particulière. Elle n’est, à proprement parler, d’aucun apport à l’égyptologie scientifique. Seule pointe, de-ci de-là, l’impression d’une “idée grandiose” ou l’expression d’une réelle admiration pour le travail des bâtisseurs égyptiens.
On sait, il est vrai, que le baron Taylor avait un autre centre d’intérêt pour l’Égypte, dans la mesure où il a joué un rôle dans le transfert de l’obélisque de Louxor en France et son installation sur la place de la Concorde, à Paris. Il ne pouvait toutefois pas faire l’impasse sur les pyramides. Son récit se limite à être une bonne synthèse de ce qui devait être su, à son époque, des merveilles architecturales du plateau de Guizeh. Comme tel, il mérite d’être connu.

(*) On remarquera l’humour teinté d’un brin de provocation : “Laorty” est un anagramme de Taylor. “R.P.” doit signifier “Révérend Père”, titre qui s’accommode mal avec “hadji”, ce terme étant réservé aux Musulmans ayant accompli les rites du pèlerinage à la Mekke.

Le baron Taylor, par Nadar 
“C'est à la hauteur de Giseh, au delà du Nil, que se trouvent les grandes pyramides qui font depuis tant de siècles l'admiration du monde. L'impression que produit leur aspect gigantesque est encore augmentée par la transition brusque où l'on passe en venant du Caire. Après avoir traversé le Nil au vieux Caire près de l'île de Roudah, et marché pendant deux heures à travers des prairies verdoyantes et des jardins pleins de fraîcheur, tout à coup, à un quart de lieue des pyramides, la végétation cesse et les sables commencent avec le silence et l'isolement.
Quand on a vu ces monuments, il est impossible de ne pas en conserver une idée grandiose. Dix lieues avant d'y arriver on les découvre, et quand on en approche, ils semblent fuir devant le regard. Cependant le véritable sentiment de leurs proportions ne se manifeste que lorsqu'on est près de leur base. Alors seulement on peut juger de la grandeur de ces prodigieux monuments. La rapidité de leurs pentes, le développement de leur surface, la mémoire des temps qu'elles rappellent, le calcul du travail qu'elles ont coûté, l'idée que le déplacement des énormes matériaux qui ont servi à leur construction a été l'ouvrage de l'homme, tout saisit l'âme à la fois d'étonnement, d'humiliation et de respect, tout contribue à confondre les prétentions du monde moderne, qui n'a rien créé d'égal, pour la grandeur, la force et la durée, à ces merveilles du monde antique.

Photo Simon Cog
Les pyramides de Giseh sont assises sur un plateau de roche calcaire, élevé de cent trente pieds au-dessus du niveau du Nil. Trois d'entre elles sont particulièrement importantes. Elles sont sur une ligne diagonale, distantes les unes des autres d'environ cinq cents pas, leurs quatre faces répondant aux quatre points cardinaux. Deux, celles de Chéops et de Chéphren, sont surtout remarquables par leur masse et par leur élévation prodigieuse. La grande pyramide, qui porte le nom de Chéops, est la plus septentrionale. Les abords en sont obstrués par des monticules de sable et de décombres qui servent de chemin pour parvenir à l'entrée située à quarante pieds de la base. Cette entrée regarde le nord, et se trouve au niveau de la quinzième assise.
Pour pénétrer dans l'intérieur du monument, il faut, armé de flambeaux et de torches, se laisser glisser par une galerie étroite et rapide, qui semble précipiter les visiteurs dans les entrailles de la terre ; puis, remontant par une rampe raide et ascendante, on arrive, non sans peine, sur un palier horizontal. Ces canaux souterrains sont en pierres calcaires, parfaitement unies et appareillées. Comme tous n'ont que trois pieds et demi de hauteur, on n'y peut marcher que courbé, ce qui rend cette visite très fatigante. À l'entrée de la galerie horizontale se trouve un puits de deux cents pieds de profondeur sur deux pieds de diamètre et entièrement taillé dans le roc. Plus loin et sur le même plan, un corridor toujours étroit et bas conduit à la chambre dite de la Reine. Cette pièce, dont les murs sont en pierres calcaires, est totalement dégarnie, sans ornements, sans inscriptions ni corniches. Elle a dix-huit pieds de long sur seize de large et dix-neuf de hauteur. En dehors de cette chambre et au bout du palier horizontal, continue la rampe ascendante, cette fois plus haute et plus spacieuse, mais aussi plus rapide et plus pénible à gravir. Ses deux côtés sont garnis de banquettes en pierres parsemées de trous. Cette rampe mène à un deuxième palier, et là tout annonce que l'on va voir la pièce mystérieuse et sacramentelle du monument. Une clôture compliquée dans sa construction, et qui porte les traces d'une ouverture violente, mène dans la chambre dite du Roi. Cette chambre est un parallélogramme de trente-deux pieds de long sur seize pieds de large et dix-huit de hauteur. Elle est construite en larges blocs de granit d'un poli admirable. Sept pierres énormes traversant d'un mur à l'autre en forment le plafond. Un sarcophage en beau granit s'y fait remarquer, placé du nord au sud : vide et sans ornements, on voit qu'il a été violé par la main des hommes et que son couvercle a été arraché.
Photo Simon Cog
Voilà tout ce que l'on trouve dans cet immense monument : deux petits sanctuaires comme engloutis dans cette masse de pierres. Pour jouir de ce spectacle, le visiteur est obligé d'aspirer durant un heure entière un air rare et méphitique, de se débattre contre des nuées de chauves-souris, qui, se jetant sur les flambeaux, étourdissent les curieux par le bruit de leurs pattes ailées, et les suffoquent par leurs exhalaisons fétides. (...)
Aujourd'hui, les progrès de l'archéologie égyptienne ne laissent plus de doute sur les noms des fondateurs des pyramides de Gizeh. Le pharaon qui a bâti la plus grande est Choufou, dont le nom se lit ainsi sur plusieurs cartouches à l'intérieur du monument. C'est le roi qu'Hérodote nomme Chéops. En divers endroits de la seconde pyramide, on a lu le nom de Chafra, que l'historien grec appelle Chephren. Quant à la troisième pyramide, le sarcophage trouvé dans la salle extérieure et conservé au British Museum, est celui du roi Menkari, le Mycérinus d'Hérodote. Comme on ne retrouve dans l'inscription de ce monument ni le style ni les formules archaïques, quelques savants pensent qu'un roi bien postérieur aura fait exécuter ce tombeau en l'honneur de Mycérinus. Cette pyramide elle-même, dont l'érection primitive appartient certainement à ce dernier pharaon, paraît avoir été refaite sous un de ses successeurs, en sorte que rien ne s'oppose à ce que le cercueil qu'on y a découvert soit d'une époque comparativement récente.
Mais si la science moderne confirme (sauf une altération de forme qui s'explique parfaitement) le témoignage d'Hérodote sur les noms des fondateurs des pyramides, elle recule de bien des siècles la date de l'érection de ces monuments. D'après Hérodote et les fragments de Manéthon, peut-être mal interprétés, on avait généralement pensé que les règnes de Chéops et de ses successeurs étaient postérieurs à celui de Sésostris ou Rhamsès le Grand (...) ; aujourd'hui que la chronologie confuse des anciens pharaons a été en partie débrouillée par les travaux des successeurs de Champollion, on croit avoir trouvé la preuve que Choufou (Chéops) et les deux rois qui régnèrent immédiatement après lui appartiennent à la quatrième dynastie, ce qui, suivant les calculs de quelques égyptologues, ferait remonter la fondation des pyramides de Gizeh à plus de quatre mille ans avant notre ère.
Quant à la destination de ces merveilleux monuments, la tradition la plus probable et la plus rationnelle est celle qui voit dans les pyramides des tombeaux grandioses élevés à la mémoire des rois qui les ont bâties. Si l'on considère la forme intérieure de ces édifices, leurs galeries basses et mystérieuses, leurs clôtures en pierres granitiques, leurs caveaux étroits, propres tout au plus à loger un mort; si l'on compare leur construction à celle des monuments funèbres qui les avoisinent, leur situation dans une lande stérile, près de la plaine des Momies, nécropole de Memphis, on est amené à adopter l'explication de Strabon, d'Hérodote et de Diodore de Sicile. L'imagination pourrait, à la rigueur, se refuser à croire qu'un homme ait eu assez de pouvoir sur tout un peuple pour le forcer pendant vingt ans de sa vie à entasser pierre sur pierre, afin de lui bâtir un tombeau ; mais il ne faut jamais, en fait de mœurs et d'usages, juger par analogie. Tous les abus, toutes les tyrannies ont été possibles dans un temps et dans un pays où la royauté constituait une espèce de sacerdoce. Toutefois, des savants ont essayé de donner aux pyramides une autre destination. D'après eux, ces monuments ont été à la fois votifs et scientifiques. Les uns y ont vu une érection destinée à perpétuer le système géométrique des Égyptiens, les autres des observatoires d'astronomie.
À l'appui de ces diverses opinions, des faits ont été cités, des remarques minutieuses ont été recueillies; mais rien de positif, rien d'incontestable n'est ressorti de la lutte de ces différents systèmes. Aussi, tant qu'une certitude contraire ne sera point acquise, il sera plus naturel de croire avec tout le monde que Chéops et ses successeurs élevèrent ces pyramides pour leur servir de sépultures. (...)
Quant à la nature et à l'origine des matériaux qui ont servi à la construction des pyramides, les auteurs anciens se trouvent d'accord sur ce point avec les observateurs plus récents. Ils se réunissent tous pour dire que les pierres calcaires qui composent le massif de ces gigantesques édifices ont été extraites de la chaîne arabique du Mokattam, et que les blocs granitiques proviennent des carrières de la haute Égypte. De vastes souterrains que l'on trouve aux environs du Caire indiquent assez que des fouilles prodigieuses ont été faites dans les flancs de la montagne, ce qui concourrait à établir d'une manière à peu près incontestable l'extraction des blocs employés dans l'érection des pyramides.
Il est difficile de préciser la date de la violation de ces monuments. Un seul fait paraît prouvé, c'est qu'elle eut lieu sous les califes. Les historiens arabes qui en ont parlé l'ont tous fait avec leur exagération ordinaire. Suivant les uns, ce serait le calife Al-Mamoun qui, ayant vu les pyramides, aurait voulu en connaître l'intérieur. Après de longs travaux et de longues peines, il pénétra, dit la tradition, dans une chambre où se trouvait une statue en pierre, renfermant un corps humain, qui portait sur la poitrine un ornement d'or enrichi de pierreries, et sur sa tête une escarboucle de la grosseur d'un œuf, éblouissante comme le soleil, avec des caractères que nul homme ne put lire. D'autres attribuent l'ouverture de la grande pyramide à Haroun-al-Raschyd, ou à Saladin ; mais il n'existe aucune concordance ni sur la manière dont on força l'entrée, ni sur les objets que l'on trouva à l'intérieur.
D'après les écrits des Arabes, c'est tantôt un réduit mystérieux, espèce de sanctuaire sacerdotal, chargé de mystiques inscriptions et de signes cabalistiques ; tantôt ce sont des monuments scientifiques; d'autres fois enfin des sépultures royales, dont les flancs étaient remplis de momies, et la partie supérieure de statues en pierres étincelantes, de vases d'or et d'instruments de guerre. Dans tous ces récits merveilleux perce l'imagination arabe, écrivant l'histoire d'après les contes qui se transmettaient d'une famille à l'autre, d'une génération à une autre génération, et qui se racontaient dans les veillées. Il est toutefois naturel de croire que l'intérieur des pyramides fut toujours nu et dégarni, et que la profane avidité des califes demeura trompée par le résultat des fouilles. Cette opinion acquiert un grand degré d'évidence quand on songe que les rois d'Égypte qui les firent élever pour leur sépulture, tenant par-dessus tout à ce qu'elles demeurassent à l'abri de toute profanation, n'auraient pas voulu tenter par un luxe d'ornements inutiles l'avarice de leurs successeurs.”