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  Columnist: Robert G. Bauval

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The 'Giza Diagonal' and 'The Horizon of Khufu'

Posted on Saturday, 1 September, 2012 | 2 comments
Columnist: Robert G. Bauval

There is a persistent bur erroneous theory regarding the layout of the Giza Pyramids originally that,

(1) The southeastern corners of the three main pyramids (G1, G2 and G3) formed a diagonal deliberately intended to link up with the city of Heliopolis.

(2) that the two larger pyramids of Khufu and Khafre on the Giza necropolis (referred in this article as G1 and G2) were part of a unified plan initiated by Khufu in order to create a giant hieroglyphic sign representing the sign ‘sun disc between two mounds’ N27.

The so-called “Giza Diagonal”

The two larger pyramids, G1 and G2, are of almost equal size and are placed in such a way as to have their NE-SW diagonals almost in alignment i.e. not exactly 45º to their meridian but 43º 27’. On maps and aerial photography it also does appears that the southeastern corners of the three pyramids G1, G2 and G3 form a line 45 to the meridian. All this implies, but not proves, that there was perhaps a deliberate intention for this relative positioning of the three pyramids. This has led various Egyptologists, including Hans Goedicke, Mark Lehner and Kate Spence, as well as many archaeo-astronomers including Juan Belmonte and Giulio Magli, to perpetuate a claim that the ancient builders deliberately created a ‘Giza Diagonal’ to symbolically connect the pyramids to the city of Heliopolis.

The idea of a symbolic link between the Giza pyramids and Heliopolis, however, is not new. In 1852 the Egyptian-Armenian engineer, Joseph Hekekyan (1807-1875), had published a paper titled ‘Topographical Sketch of Heliopolis and Surrounding Lands’ (the original now in the manuscript archives of the British Library in London).i in which Hekekyan noted that the SW-NE diagonal passing through the apex of the Great Pyramid (G1), if extended towards the north-east, will also pass through the apex of the Sesotris I obelisk at Matareya-Heliopolis (a suburb of Cairo) some 24 kilometers away and which, according to Egyptologists, probably marked the location of the Sun Temple of Re at Heliopolis. ii

Also in 1970 the French Egyptologist George Goyon published an article on the astronomical orientation of the Great Pyramid and also pointed out that the line passing through the SW-NE diagonal of the Great Pyramid would extend all the way to the Sesostris I obelisk at Heliopolis.iii Also later, in 1983, the American Egyptologist Hans Goedicke of John Hopkins University presented a variation to Hekekyan original idea, now claiming that a straight line could be drawn from the southeastern corners of the three Giza pyramids which was ‘was deliberately aimed at Heliopolis and the sanctuary of the Benben Stone’iv. This line was dubbed the ‘Giza diagonal’. And although in 1984 Mark Lehner pointed out that this so-called ‘Giza diagonal’ did not, in fact, link the southeast corners since the southeast corners of the three pyramids, but that G2 (the middle pyramid) was "slightly stepped back".v Unfortunately the term "slightly stepped back" that Lehner used in this context has mislead many to assume that the ‘Giza diagonal’ actually existed and was a deliberate alignment by the ancient builders but who had only made a slight error in setting it out. But closer scrutiny of the “slightly stepped back” position of G2 was to prove a gross understatement of reality on the ground. Based on the accurate chain survey of Sir William Flinders Petrie of 1881, a line joining the southeastern corners of G1 and G2 would miss the southeastern corner of G3 by a massive 23 meters!

Even if another diagonal line was to be drawn between the southeastern corners of G1 and G3, it would still miss the southeast corner of G2 by 12 meters ---the ‘slight stepped back” distance of Mark Lehner. To put it in other words, the “Giza diagonal” simply does not exist. Yet because of Lehner’s ill-advised “slightly stepped back” description of the 12 meters miss of G2, the myth of a “Giza Diagonal” has persisted and is regularly used by Egyptologists to explain the layout of the three Giza pyramidsvi, with Dr. Giulio Magli being the latest victim of this erroneous theory. Yet Dr. Magli was well-aware of the 12 meters discrepancy for G2 because, we informed him of it before he wrote his article. Indeed Dr. Magli mentions it in a footnote but, Like Lehner before him, Magli chose words that are clearly intended to downplay the importance of the discrepancy:

"It is known that the disposition of the Giza pyramids on the ground is characterized by what is customarily called the “Giza diagonal”. It is an ideal line which connects the south-east corners of the three pyramids with good accuracy. It was observed already many years ago that this “Giza diagonal” might have had a symbolic meaning, since it points in the direction of the city of Heliopolis…the second pyramid “misses” the diagonal by 12 meters’.

By any reckoning, missing a target by 12 meters can hardly be considered ‘good accuracy’. The discrepancy is far too large to be regarded an ‘error’, however inexperienced the ancient surveyor might have been. Indeed, judging from the extremely high level of surveying accuracy of other alignments at Giza ---the square base of each pyramid is with 14 arc minutes accuracy to the cardinal directions--- the maximum error margin to be expected from the same ancient surveyor should not be more than 0.5 meters. To quote Flinders Petrie’s words when he showed that the so-called ‘Pyramid Inch’ did not exist --‘the ugly little fact that killed the beautiful theory’--- the ugly little fact of a 12 meters discrepancy has killed the beautiful theory of the “Giza diagonal”. vii

The G1 and G2 ‘unified project’ and the N27 sign “sun disk between two mounds”

Another ‘ugly little fact’ that kills the second part of Magli’s theory, namely that G1 and G2 were intended to create the hieroglyphic sign N27 “sun disk between two mounds”, is in the understanding of the hieroglyphic signs that form the name ‘Akhet Khufu’, often translated as ‘the horizon of Khufu’. Magli finds particularly significance in this, and concludes that when the midsummer sun is seen setting between (G1) and (G2) it forms,

‘…a spectacular replica of the hieroglyphic sign ‘Akhet’ which is the ‘sun disk between two mountains’….the reason why I find striking similarities with what might have been the global Khufu project at Giza is firstly contained in the title of this paper, Akhet Khufu, “the horizon of Khufu”… Akhet Khufu is the name of the Giza 1 pyramid, according to inscriptions present in tombs dated some two hundred years later which report the names of all the three pyramids (Giza 2 at that time was “Khafra is great”). Thus, according to these sources the name of Giza 1 was a precise description of the main hierophany at the site, a hierophany which however could occur only if Giza 2 existed as well.”

This ‘hierophany’, as Magli calls it, was, in fact, first proposed by Mark Lehner in 1985. According to Lehner:

“ ….[a] dramatic effect is created at sunset during the summer solstice as viewed, again, from the eastern niche of the Sphinx Temple. At this time, and from this vantage, the sun sets almost exactly midway between the Khufu and Khafre pyramids, thus construing the image of the Akhet, ‘Horizon’, hieroglyph on a scale of acres.”viii

Expanding on Lehner’s theory, Magli added that,

“The hieroglyphs were actually firstly used with the exact meaning of their images; for instance, the altar for offerings had precisely the same “arrow” form of the hieroglyph standing for “altar”. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that the complex was called Akhet Khufu because it actually was it: the Akhet - the horizon - belonging to Khufu, the king who had “joined the sun-god” as the slightly later (but probably already existing) Pyramid Texts will say.”

Dr. Magli thus concluded that G1 and G2 were deliberately positioned relative to each other to create the hieroglyphic sign N27 ‘Akhet’ i.e. “sun disk between two mountains”, and this is why Khufu called this project ‘Akhet Khufu’. On face value this seems a reasonable conclusion. But there is, however, a fatal flaw with this idea: the hieroglyphic sign of the ‘sun disk between two mountains’ did not exist when Khufu built his pyramid. ! And even if it did, it was not used in the writing of the name ‘Akhet Khufu’. In 1997 Lehner did acknowledged this fact:

"Khufu's pyramid was Akhet Khufu. Here, and in the Pyramid Texts, Akhet is written with the crested-ibis and elliptical land-sign, not with the hieroglyph of the sun disk between two mountains that was used later to write 'horizon'." ix

In fact sign N27 is not found in the Pyramid Texts, where the word ‘Akhet’ is written with the crested-ibis sign G25:, and the elliptical land-sign N18:

The same applies for the word ‘Akhet’ in the name ‘akhet Khufu’, where ‘Akhet’ is also written with the crested-ibis sign G25 and elliptical land-sign N16. If Khufu’s intention was to associate his funerary area to the N27 “sun disk between two mounds” sign, let alone built two giant pyramids to create this sign, then one would think that he would have used the N27 sign in the name of his funerary complex. Amazingly, this mistake in interpretation of the name of the Great Pyramid is still found in recently published book. To be fair, Lehner did recognize that ‘Akhet’ ---although erroneously translated as 'horizon' in many books--- is written with the crested-ibis that also denotes the word Akh, meaning a 'spirit' who lives in the Duat (afterworld), the latter ‘often written with a star in a circle, a reference to Orion, the stellar expression of Osiris’. Lehner thus offered another meaning for 'Akhet Khufu':

‘The place where the deceased (king Khufu) becomes an Akh, a suggested translation id “Spirit” or “Light” Land.’

So what does ‘Akhet’ mean? Egyptologist James P. allen, who is an expert on the Pyramid Texts, explains that,

‘The Axt (Akhet) is the place in which the king, like the sun and other celestial beings, undergoes the final transformation from the inertness of death and night to the form that allows him to live effectively - that is as an akh - in his new world. It is for this reason that the king and his celestial companions are said to "rise from the Axt (Akhet)," and not because the Axt (Akhet) is a place on the horizon or - as some have suggested - because it is a place of light.’ x

Akhet, therefore, must mean the ‘Place of Becoming Akh’...xi


The theory of the “Giza diagonal” i.e. that the southeast corners of the three pyramids form a diagonal leading to Heliopolis, as well as the theory that G1 and G2 were deliberately designed as one project to represent the sign N27, do not hold to serious scrutiny. Accepting that the layout of the three pyramids was a deliberation based on some plan or ideology, then some other explanation must be sought.

(1) J. Hekekyan (Brit. Lib. Add. MS 37458.21) 1852. Hekekyan wrote: “'Right Line identical with the South West and North Eastern Diagonal of the Soris (Cheops) Pyramid and the Obelisk''.

(2) Jeffreys, D G, 1998. The topography of Heliopolis and Memphis: some cognitive aspects, in H Guksch & D Polz (eds), Stationen: Beitrage zur Kulturgeschichte Agyptens. Rainer Stadelmann Gewimdet, 63-71. Mainz.

(3) G. goyon, ‘Nouvelles Observations relatives a L’Orientation de la Pyramide de Cheops’, Revue D’Egyptologie Tome 22, 1970, pp. 91-2.

(4) Washington Post 30 November 1983.

(5) M. Lehner, A contextual approach to the Giza pyramids, Archiv. fur Orientforschung, 1885, vol. 32, pp. 136-158.

(6) M. Lehner, The Complete Pyramids, Thames and Hudson 1997, p. 107. Even more recently in 2003 British Egyptologist Kate Spence reproduces the map with the so-called ‘Giza diagonal’ and claims that ‘Mark Lehner suggests that the southeast corners of the pyramids may have been deliberately aligned’ (K. Spence 'Are the Pyramids aligned with the Stars', The Seventy Great Mysteries of Ancient Egypt, edited by Bill Manly, Thames & Hudson, 2003, pp. 71-3). Ironically, the reason Spence mentioned the 'Giza Diagonal' was to argue against the stellar-based Orion-Giza correlation plan that I proposed in my book The Orion Mystery (1994).

(7) Flinders Petrie, Seventy Years in Archaeology, 1932, p. 13. He was referring to his debunking of the so-called Pyramid Inch of John Taylor and the theory that Piazzi Smyth had build upon it.

(8) M. Lehner, A contextual approach to the Giza pyramids, Archiv. fur Orientforschung, 1885, vol. 32, p. 141.

(9) M. Lehner, The Complete Pyramids, Thames & Hudson 1997, p. 29

(10) J.P. Allen, The Cosmology of the Pyramid Texts, 1997, pp. 19-20.

(11) J.P. Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Brill 2005, p. 11 and p. 425

More information on Robert Bauval's next tour to Egypt is available here

Article Copyright© Robert G. Bauval - reproduced with permission.

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