Secrets of the Great Pyramid
by Peter Tompkins

Harper & Row: New York, 1971

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
416 pages; profusely illustrated September 2008


Secrets of the Great Pyramid by Peter Tompkins is a Pharaoh's hoard of odd and fascinating information. Rather like the millennia-old search for Pharaonic treasure-troves, Tompkins reports a still-moving mixture of historical mystery, secret-passage exploration, accurate observation, thoughtful speculation, time-lapse astronomy, mystical geometry, fanciful mathematics, and fervent confusion. Obviously this is not a mixture that melds easily into a unitary overview, but Tompkins manages to provide a coherent and very entertaining account.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops) on the Giza Plateau of Egypt has fascinated people for thousands of years. Explorers and other experts and amateurs have disputed not only straightforward details of its massive physical presence, but the nature of its construction and even of its reason for being. This simple building of vast solidity seems to become more subtle the more one learns about it; its history of discoveries and speculation is less solid than any mirage in the desert, wavering in front of our eyes as though most explorers and theorists of pyramidology had delusions from heat-stroke.

Especially since Napoleon Bonaparte brought an army with scientists into Egypt, the pyramids have captured the imagination of the West, from serious science and history to cultic symbolism to popular culture. A long-favorite bit of mine:

Who shall doubt "the secret hid
Under Cheops' pyramid"
Was that the contractor did
   Cheops out of several millions?
Rudyard Kipling
"A General Summary"
Departmental Ditties (1886);
Rudyard Kipling's Verse,
Definitive Edition

In addition to wonderful period photographs and engravings in this large-format book, Tompkins provides the diagrams which are essential to understanding the theories put forth during the last couple of centuries. An appendix on ancient mathematics by Livio Stecchini places the ground under the shifting sands of some at least of the speculations. Secrets of the Great Pyramid is scientific and cultural history of a rare quality. Tompkins does a fine job of explaining the true, sympathizing with the hopeful, and justifying the doubtful as far as reasonable, or beyond.

A major amplifier of mysteries here is that all the ancient tombs and other buildings which were known to the ancient man-in-the-street were looted in antiquity. Unlike some concealed or buried tombs which survived in the Valley of the Kings, the Great Pyramid has been a target that one could hardly fail to notice, and hardly miss presuming that this greatest of monuments really ought to conceal grand valuables somewhere in its vast courses of stone. Breaking into it was a challenge well met: all the portable evidence is long gone. In modern times archaeologists appeared with measuring-tapes and pick-axes, but our Egyptologists are too late on the scene by ages. Certainly, though, the Great Pyramid remains fascinating, and all its mirages of interpretation provide a considerable part of its charm.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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