Brier, Bob & Jean-Pierre Houdin. The Secret of the Great Pyramid.

NY: HarperCollins, 2008.

The Great Pyramid at Giza is 4,500 years old, and for most of that time it has been the most massive building in the world. It’s the only one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World still left, and is by far the oldest. (The halfway point in its age, in fact, from the day it was completed until now, is around the time of Alexander the Great. Think about that.)

It’s no surprise that it has fascinated people for its entire existence, especially those from the West. The Greeks and the Romans knew the Egyptians had built it but were unsure how. Later cultures looked at it and imagined wizards and genies. Nineteenth-century travelers talked about Atlantis. Or, at the least, assumed tens of thousands of slaves. In the 20th century, it was aliens. No one could accept that a Bronze Age culture could construct something like that. Of course, all of them were wrong. The Egyptians built the Great Pyramid — all the hundred or so surviving pyramids, in fact, in a range of sizes — and they did it with free labor, and the big one at Giza took about twenty years.

But there were still lots of unanswered questions. How did they cut granite with copper saws, and how were the huge blocks hauled to the upper levels? What in the world was the Grand Gallery for, below the middle one of the three burial chambers? In the 1990s, Henri Houdin, a retired civil engineer with vast experience in building dams and other large structures all over Africa, saw a TV special on the Great Pyramid and it got him to thinking. He knew nothing about archaeology but he knew the solutions being proposed for constructing the Pyramid wouldn’t work. By the time the builders got to the upper courses, for instance, a single straight ramp for hauling up the stones would have to have been more than a mile long, with a bulk as great as the Pyramid itself — and there was nowhere on the Giza plateau to put such a thing anyway. And where are the remains of it? Such problems had always been simply ignored.

Houdin became obsessed with the problems of the Pyramid’s design and construction and spent thousands of man-hours with newly available architectural and engineering computer software, developing a profile of the structure many times more elaborate than anything that had gone before. His son, Jean-Pierre, an architect, had knowledge and skills that complemented his father’s and he also became involved. They recruited Brier, a professional Egyptologist, who knew useful people and helped them find sponsorship and backing for the investigation.

The solutions the Houdins came up with — a spiral ramp on the inside of the Pyramid (remains of which have now been discovered, and there are other examples in Egypt, too), the use of the Grand Gallery as an engineering system involving counterweights to raise the 600-plus-ton blocks that make up the King’s Chamber to where they were needed, and the use of the earlier ramp from the lower courses to build the upper ones — have all struck archaeologists as pretty obvious once they were suggested or pointed out.

The author leads you through the exploration of and speculation about the Great Pyramid down the centuries, walks you through the problems in non-technical language (the technical stuff has been published elsewhere), and describes the process by which they were solved. The style is a little dramatic, but that’s partly the point of the book — to engender interest and support for continued investigation. It’s a fascinating story for anyone with a interest in ancient “mysteries.”

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