The Unknown Catacombs of Giza

Is There a Secret Seige Beneath the Pyramids?


In recent months, rumors and evidence of excavations and underground passages on and under the Giza Plateau have surfaced. But why are the local authorities mocking and downplaying these?

The Giza Plateau hosts the only surviving wonder of the ancient world: the Great Pyramid. The site as a whole continues to intrigue many, and at one time every archaeological discovery there received massive publicity. But in recent years, the excavations and discoveries at Giza are receiving almost no media attention. Why?

The central figure in all the goings-on on the Plateau since the early 1990s is Zahi Hawass, the controversial poster boy of Egyptology. In June 2009, in front of hundreds of cameras, he welcomed American president Barack Ob­ama to the Giza Plateau. He seemed far less pleased, though, with the visit in November of American pop star Beyonce, whom he labeled a “stupid person.” The comment made international headlines, as does most of what Hawass says. He is, in short, able to generate massive exposure for anything Egyptological, whether it is an archaeological discovery or a campaign to return artifacts from the Louvre or other European museums.

One might therefore think that Egypt is pleased with its son. But the Egyptian newspapers are not. In reporting on the Beyonce incident, they highlighted that this was typically Hawass, a man known for his outbursts, adding that he often uses Arabic to insult guests at dinner events and gatherings, believing that they will not understand his Ara­bic. The Bikya Masr newspaper even reported that “The incident has left archaeologists angered. They say it is time to show the world the real Hawass. ‘He insults and is so controlling that it has become extremely difficult to work in this country,’ one archaeologist [who requested anonymity] said.” So, who is the real Hawass?

As reports have it, Egypt would like to get rid of Hawass, but can’t. Indeed, Hawass, apparently, has more lives than a cat. Set for mandatory retirement in May 2010, in October 2009, the President of Egypt signed a decree nam­ing Hawass Vice Minister of Culture for life. It is a remarkable move, inasmuch as Hawass’ career has always been surrounded by scandal.

Just a year before, on October 8, 2008, the former Head of Restoration in Islamic Cairo and two other Egyptian Culture Ministry officials were jailed for ten years for receiving bribes from contractors. The Cairo court ordered Ay-man Abdel Monem, Hussein Ahmed Hussein and Abdel Hamid Qutb to pay fines of between LE 200,000 and LE 550,000. Abdel Hamid Qutb was actually the head of the technical department at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and reported to Hawass. The contracts under suspicion were worth millions of dollars and involved the restora­tion of some of Egypt’s most famous monuments.

At the time of his arrest in September 2007, Hawass was quick to defend Qutb, claiming that the accused was not in a position to give out contracts. Hawass told the BBC’s Arabic Service that contracts are only handed out after a “rigorous procedure,” and Qutb had no decision-making power. The court obviously ruled differently. Hawass, it seemed, never commented…

Despite personally loving the limelight, most of the excavations at Giza in recent months seem intended to shun the daylight. There are even allegations that Hawass is exploring the Giza underworld in almost total secrecy, with some Egyptian newspapers going as far as to use the word “illegal.”

When Hawass does announce his endeavors, he seems to distort the truth. In April 2009, Hawass reported: “Under my direction, the Supreme Council of Antiquities is working to reduce the groundwater level around antiquities sites throughout Egypt. We have completed a USAID-funded effort to de-water Karnak and Luxor temples, and work is un­derway in many other places. One of our greatest recent successes has been the development of a system to prevent the Great Sphinx at Giza from getting its paws wet!”

It reads like the most mundane of research, but it is anything but. When one looks at Hawass’s reports rather than at his statements to the press, an interesting picture emerges. We learn that in early 2008, the Supreme Council of Antiquities co-operated with Cairo University’s Engineering Center for Archaeology and Environment to drill four boreholes, each four inches in diameter and about twenty meters deep, into the bedrock at the base of the Sphinx. A camera was lowered into each borehole to allow examination of the plateau’s geology. A separate scientific update states that 260 cubic meters of water are being pumped out every hour through these drainage tubes. That’s 6,240 cubic meters or 6,240,000 liters of water per day. An Olympic swimming pool has 2,500,000 liters. In short, water of a quantity equal to almost three Olympic swimming pools is pumped away on a daily basis from underneath the Sphinx. Indeed, the Sphinx itself could roughly fit inside an Olympic swimming pool. The report continues that, as such, the water in front of the Sphinx has been reduced to 70 per cent of its original volume. But wait: no fewer than 33 monitoring points were established to inspect the movement of the body of the Sphinx and the surrounding bed­rock, this over a period of a month, and this monitoring proved that they were steady.

Now, unless I am seriously mistaken, for such significant amounts of water to be moved hourly there would need to be at least one cavity, roughly the size of a small swimming pool, which could fill up continuously with water—in short, an underground lake. Which brings us to the next question: Why are they emptying an underground lake? For stability, or for something else? One might argue that removing the water will reduce the stability of the Sphinx, which was an obvious concern since this is why the stability of the Sphinx area was being monitored. But apparently, based on a month-long observation, emptying this underground cavity does not endanger the stability of the surface structures. But why empty it in the first place? To keep the Sphinx’s paws dry?

One source, when confronted with Hawass’s reports and my observation, has gone so far as to argue that Haw­ass—accompanied by Egyptologist Mark Lehner—had actually found this lake several years ago. The lake is under the entire plateau, the area contained within the concrete wall (construction of which began in 2002). He added that, in his opinion, these projects were preparation for an exploration of the Giza underworld.

In August 2009, British author Andrew Collins and Nigel Skinner-Simpson announced they had made a fortuitous discovery on the Giza Plateau: a cave system explored by Henry Salt and Giovanni Caviglia in 1817, but whose exis­tence was subsequently forgotten.

As far back as 2003, Nigel Skinner-Simpson had realized that Henry Salt, the British consul general to Egypt, working alongside the Italian explorer and sea captain Giovanni Caviglia, had entered unknown “catacombs” at Giza, somewhere west of the pyramid field. When Salt’s memoires were published, the two men learned that they con­tained a better account of the exploration of the catacombs. The explorers had apparently penetrated “several hun­dred yards” into this structure before coming upon a spacious chamber that connected with three others of equal size, from which went labyrinthine passages. Caviglia later pursued one of these passages for a distance of “300 feet further” before giving up—the two men being put off by the fact that they had not found anything of value: no gold and no treasure, the primary obsession of these early pyramid explorers.

However, though nothing of treasure value was found, Collins was convinced that the site was later properly exca­vated and turned out to contain several mummies of birds, which were removed by Col. Howard Vyse and engineer John Shae Perring in 1837. Collins relocated the lost tomb in January 2007 in the company of his wife Sue. Little was found, other than further evidence of a local bird cult practiced within this structure. On March 3, 2008, Sue and Andy Collins and Nigel Skinner-Simpson went back to the newly baptized “Tomb of the Birds,” having gained spon­sorship from the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E) in Virginia Beach, VA. After some searching, they found a small crack in the rock face that led into a huge natural cave chamber, which connected with other cave compartments and a long cave passage. In short, the trio realized that their structure coincided with the caves discov­ered in 1817.

At present, no-one knows the total extent of the caves. As mentioned, Salt and Caviglia never reached the end, and Collins has so far been unsuccessful in interesting the Egyptian authorities in this discovery. Were the caves to con­tinue beyond the farthest point reached, they most likely head off in the direction of the Second Pyramid—whose southwest corner is only 480 meters southwest from the entrance of the Tomb of the Birds. Collins did learn from a guardian who lived in the vicinity that he was familiar with the cave and that it went on for many kilometers.

When confronted with news of Collins’ discovery, Hawass claimed that the structure had “recently” been explored by Egyptologists and further commented: “This story shows how people who do not have a background in archaeolo­gy use the media and the Internet to make headlines. […] When I saw this Internet story about a new discovery at Giza, I knew it was misleading. The article reports that a huge system of tunnels and caves has been found; however, I can say that there is no underground cave complex at this site.” Collins has challenged Hawass to produce the scien­tific report that the structure has indeed been fully explored in recent years.

Collins added: “Our caves are the only natural caves recorded on the plateau so far (despite the multitude of ru­mors). Our caves, even if proved to be isolated (which we hope is not the case), prove that Giza’s geology does include a natural cave system, which is arguably what Abbas could have been detecting on the east side of the plateau in 2006. Salt records that the caves go for ‘several hundred yards, then link with chambers and passages, one of which Caviglia explored for 300 feet further. Note the word further.I say this as people might try and say that what we found is all there is to find; i.e., approximately 300 feet (90 meters) of caves, and no more. We did not reach the end and neither did Salt and Caviglia. We reckon that the caves extend to beneath the Second Pyramid. Chambers were detected un­der the Second Pyramid by the SRI team when they performed their scans of the structure in 1977.”

Then, in late November 2009, Hawass announced that an excavation team under his charge was investigating the site: “We are clearing this system now, and it is a Late Period catacomb, like many others around Egypt. There is no mystery about it, and there is no connection with esoteric topics. We will publish our results as part of our normal process.” If the site had already been explored, why would Hawass recommence the work?

Collins’ discovery, detailed in his book Beneath the Pyramids, is therefore part of a slowly emerging picture that shows that the Giza underground holds several more secrets. Though Hawass does much to downplay and discredit this evidence, let us note he is not an ignoramus on the subject. Indeed, Hawass himself, while drilling down in front of the Sphinx temple in 1980, struck red granite at a depth of 15 meters. Red granite is not native to the Giza Pla­teau; the only source is Aswan, hundreds of miles to the south. The very presence of red granite proves that there is a manmade structure underneath the plateau. In short, since 1980, Hawass has known that there is something interesting hidden underneath the Giza Plateau.

Bill Brown is a frequent visitor to the Giza Plateau. In early November 2009, he reported that there was a full-blown excavation underway in front of the Sphinx. Brown added: “Hawass is actually digging eastward into the sand area at the restaurant area!”

Brown has discovered that the excavation involves the exploration of a collapsed shaft, which enters a double rock-cut tomb. The site of the excavation is right next to a residence and the concrete wall that surrounds the Giza Plateau and involves two shafts going down. The shafts end up in a chamber 2.5 by 3.5 meters leading to a second chamber of equal dimensions, said to contain a false door. It is possible that this chamber leads to a third chamber, though no conclusive evidence of this was found—potentially because access to it is impossible due to collapse.

The story ran in local Arab newspapers as early as late September 2009, underscoring the illegality of the excava­tion—an allegation Brown and I have been unable to corroborate. What is, however, clear is that something is occur­ring on the Giza Plateau and that the Egyptians are unhappy about the manner in which it is occurring. People with­in the SCA actually provided Brown with images allegedly taken inside the excavation site. One source even claimed a mummy had been found and added that a goat blood ceremony had been performed to protect the villagers from the curse of the violated mummy. Unsurprisingly, Egyptian officials have stated that the story about the mummy is not true.

An image of “the mummy” in question, taken on a cell-phone, was sent to Brown. The image definitely isn’t your usual mummy image and could be the very reason why few believe the story. Brown did note that a contact person in Cairo who is involved in the sale of illegal excavation discoveries said it existed, inviting Brown to come to see it. Whereas the story could therefore be hyperbole, it is a matter of fact that an excavation is in progress—as reported in the Egyptian newspapers—and that its nature is extremely controversial.

The site is within the area limits of the February 2006 GPR scans performed by an Egyptian team led by Abbas Mohamed Abbas of the National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics, which revealed a number of anom­alies underneath the Giza Plateau. There were cavities located deep into the bedrock, some up to 25 meters, with some tunnels at least three to five meters wide. In his report, Abbas speculated that the individual cavities and tun­nels might link up and might even connect to still unexplored “precious tombs,” noting that “the results of the sur­vey support the possibility of the presence of undisclosed relics of high value.” He concluded that “we can presume the existence of a momentous diversity of archaeological structures at the Pyramids plateau which remain, as yet, un­exposed.”

Unexposed, for now, but perhaps not unexplored?

By Philip Coppens

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