Ancient Wings Over the Nile

Did the Saqqara Glider Merely Represent a Bird or Did it Show Knowledge of the Principles of Flight?

In 1891 the burial remains of a Ptolemaic minor official named Padi-Imen (Amun) was unearthed at Saqqara, Egypt. Though the remains dated to circa 200 B.C.E., they were part of the general excavation findings associated with the tomb of Queen Khuit, one of the wives of Pharaoh Teti of the Sixth Dynasty, from two millennia earlier. As was the common practice during the later Ptolemaic period, many of the tombs of former royal dignitaries were reused, which was the reason Padi-Imen’s burial objects were part of the Old Kingdom artifacts brought to light.

By 1898 the discovered artifacts made their way to the Cairo Museum. Among the Ptolemaic pieces was a curious winged object catalogued as Special Register No. 6347 (also designated with the number 33109). Within the context of today’s technological mindset, we can immediately see just by looking at it that it bears an uncanny resemblance to a glider craft of some type. But because at the time of its discovery the birth of modern aviation was still several years away—the Wright brothers’ first flight did not take place until 1903—the strange object was shelved away among other miscellaneous items to gather dust, unrecognized for what it really was.

In 1969, over seventy years later, Dr. Dowoud Kahlil Messiha—an Egyptologist, medical doctor, and Professor of Anatomy for the Medical Arts at Helwan University—was examining a particular museum display in Room No. 22, la­beled “bird figurines.” The other contents of the display were clearly bird sculptures, but the Saqqara artifact was dif­ferent. It possessed characteristics not found on birds, yet which are part of modern aircraft design. Dr. Messiha, who was a model plane enthusiast and member of the Egyptian Aeromodelers Club, immediately recognized the aircraft features and persuaded the Under Secretary of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to form a committee in order to in­vestigate the model. In the meetings of the committee in late 1970 and early 1971, the participating historians and aviation experts were so impressed with their findings that it was recommended that the model be placed in the Cen­tral Hall of the Cairo Museum as a temporary main exhibit. Afterwards it was returned, and today it is still housed in Room No. 22, on the second floor.

The small craft is made of very light sycamore wood and weighs 39.12 grams, or 0.5 oz. The only markings on it are faint eyes painted on the nose and two red lines under the wings, in a similar fashion that decorations appear on modern aircraft. The eye dots are actually the ends of a very small obsidian bar which is fitted through the head and gives the craft an important balancing weight.

The model’s wings are straight and aerodynamically shaped, with a span of 18.3 centimeters, or about 7.2 inches. Its pointed nose is 3.2 centimeters (1.5 inches) long. The body of the craft totals 14.2 centimeters (5.6 inches), ta­pered, terminating in a vertical tail fin. Dr. Messiha found evidence for a tail-wing piece that very likely had once been attached to the vertical tail precisely like the back tail on a modern plane. Also on the tail can faintly be seen a hiero­glyph inscription which reads, “The gift of Amun,” who was the Egyptian deity associated with the wind.

Dr. Messiha, interviewed in the May 18, 1972 London Times, made these comments on the ancient plane’s shape and sophistication:

“It is the tail that is really the most interesting thing which distinguishes this model from all others that have been discovered. No bird can produce such a contortion at the rear of its body to assume anything that looks like the model. Furthermore, there is a groove under the fin for a tail-plane (crosspiece) which is missing. This is no toy mod­el-it’s too scientifically designed and it took a lot of skill to make it.”

A full-scale version of the plane could have flown carrying heavy loads, but at low speeds, between 45 and 65 miles per hour. What is not known, however, is what the power source of the ancient craft was. Several engineers did note that the model makes a perfect glider as it is. In fact, it would have taken only the efforts of a small catapult to get a life-sized model in the air. Simply by using the rising heat currents off the Egyptian deserts on either side of the Nile, such a craft would have been able to stay in the air indefinitely with skilled maneuvering. The little model itself, even though over two thousand years old, will soar a short distance with only a slight jerk of the hand. As Dr. Messiha dis­covered, fully restored balsa replicas will travel even farther.

Just before the time period from which the little model came, a philosopher and friend of Plato, Archytas of Ta­rentum (circa 400-365 B.C.E.), is said to have successfully “set in motion a flying machine in the form of a wooden dove by means of compressed air.”

The source of his construction plans and designs had been obtained from manuscripts which eventually made their way into the Library of Alexandria, dating back to a period already considered ancient in his day.

The Saqqara sailplane has inherent within it design features which appear to have been standardized by the an­cient Egyptians over a long period of time. Three relief figures from the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak, the earliest dat­ing to the time of Ramses Ill or a thousand years before the Saqqara model was made, show the mastheads of royal ships possessing bird-like weathervanes which look remarkably like the wooden glider, complete with fixed out­stretched wings and vertical tail.

As modern free flight glider designer and builder Martin Gregorie pointed out, the intrinsic shaping of these ancient figurines, like that of the Saqqara model, would have made them excellent weathervanes, for they would have pointed directly and steadily into the wind and would not have veered from side to side.

Based on these reliefs, and on the Saqqara glider itself, creative modeler and aviation historian Paula Mercado has drawn detailed designs for a modern version of the ancient sailplane, which any small-scale glider enthusiast can build and successfully fly today.

Yet the question remains, what was the original Saqqara “bird” based upon? As Dr. Messiha noted, the ancient Egyptians always built scale models of everything they were familiar with in their daily lives and placed them in their tombs—model temples, ships, chariots, servants, and animals. Now that we have found a model plane, Dr. Messiha wondered if perhaps somewhere under the desert sands along the Nile there may yet be unearthed the remains of life-sized gliders, after which the actual Saqqara sailplane was copied.

During my twenty-five trips to Egypt between 1981 and 1997, I had several opportunities to meet with Dr. Messi­ha and his family. He was kind enough to take time out from his busy medical practice and lecture engagements to speak to our tour groups on a number of occasions, even accompanying us to Saqqara and showing us where the model glider had been found.

Twice I was also invited into his home for dinner and to meet with a group of local intellectuals. On one of these private visits he showed me the balsa model of the Saqqara glider he had made and allowed me to toss it in a “test flight” across his living room. The doctor’s model is roughly five times the size of the small glider in the Cairo Mu­seum, to make it more airworthy, but I could plainly see that he had faithfully incorporated all the design features in­herent in the ancient artifact.

Dr. Messiha told me that he was of the opinion that the model from the tomb was an artist’s impression of some­thing much larger that he had seen up close and in operation when he was alive. The small wooden object, when it was in pristine condition, probably did not fly very well. But that had not been its purpose. Its purpose, as far as the artist had been concerned, was to make a simple diminutive replica of something worthy enough to be a tomb offer­ing for the afterlife. As Dr. Messiha noted, most of the design features inherent in the full scale craft it had been based upon were accurately artistically reproduced to the point that they are still clearly identifiable over two-thousand years later.

Not long before he died in 1998, Dr. Messiha made arrangements for one of our tours to meet him in the Cairo Museum. He escorted us up to Room No. 22, which the museum guards temporarily closed off specially for our group. With the permission and under the supervision of a museum official who was a colleague of the doctor, the display case was opened; and for almost an hour, we were privileged to examine the Saqqara glider up close. Unfortu­nately, because of Museum policy, we were not allowed to take any photographs or videotape, but I did take careful notes both of Dr. Messiha’s observations and what I saw for myself.

The very first impression one gets when looking at the model is that it is no artist’s expression of a bird. Unlike the other objects in the same display case in which the model is kept, there are no renditions of legs, feet, aviary-type wings-in-flight attitudes, pronounced beak, or artistic portrayal of feathers, drawn or carved.

There is a slight protrusion at the front suggesting a beak, but it is part of the overall aerodynamic design. No paint or change of coloration was made to accentuate a bird beak—instead it is an aerofoil feature that is an essential part of the fuselage.

There are no prominent holes anywhere on the body of the model—certainly not for holding feathers, or feet, or even a pole to swivel on as some have claimed if the object was once used as a weathervane. When I was handed the glider I carefully turned it over, because there are no published photographs showing its underside. I found no evi­dence of any holes where legs or feet were once attached, or any smaller holes into which feathers could have been in­serted. The underbelly was relatively smooth, though worn with age. The only original significant indentation that I could see was in the center of the top of the wing, where the wing assemblage was attached to the main body.

There is, to be sure, a prominent circular indentation in the artifact’s underside, but there is very good evidence that this was added soon after it had arrived in the Cairo Museum, toward the beginning of the last century. The shal­low “hole” was deliberately set in place by the Museum’s early restoration department so as to be able to mount the piece on an exhibit stand. Similar modern indentations can be observed on the bird figurines that share space with the Saqqara glider in its display case. Every one was an addition necessary for mounting and exhibition purposes.

Neither does the artifact have any artist’s renderings of feathers. Skeptics have suggested that painted on feathers could have been worn off over time. But though I had the time to carefully examine practically every square millime­ter of the model, I saw no images of feathers, or even flecks of paint indicating residue that would have been left be­hind had the model’s surface been subjected to some kind of paint coating which was subsequently weathered away. The only painted images I could detect were the simple outlines of eyes, two lines under the wing, the inscription near the tail, and a catalog number added in modern times. The ancient markings, as Dr. Messiha pointed out to me, may have been placed on the model as an afterthought, part of an effort to make it into a religious relic, to better fit within a tomb setting. Or as other researchers have surmised, these may have mirrored actual designs seen by the artist on the original craft-part of the same type of decal decorations seen on modern planes today.

The claim is further made by skeptics that the model was made to resemble a falcon because it was meant to be a ceremonial object commonly used to represent one of the two main falcon-headed deities in ancient Egypt, either Horus or Ra-Harakhty.

Actually, this argument works in reverse. In Egyptian sacred iconography, the images of either Horus or Ra-Harakhty were invariably depicted with very specific symbols and accoutrements. Horus in his full form was always shown holding either an Ankh or Shen symbol in his talons and wearing a Pshemty or royal double crown on his brow, while Ra-Harakhty was never portrayed without a solar disc prominently placed on top of his head. Such fea­tures are totally lacking on the Saqqara model, and an inspection of its surfaces revealed no points where such impor­tant deific symbols were once attached. In fact, it is the striking absence of any traditional sacred markings that takes the model out of the realm of being a religious object and puts it instead squarely in the context of a technological ar­tifact.

By far the two most unbird-like features are the model’s wings and vertical tail. These are inherently linked with its aerodynamic body which is certainly very bird-like yet radically different from any other ancient Egyptian statues of birds, particularly deified ones. One need only look at the bird figures exhibited in the same museum display case as the model to see the glaring differences. The figurine bodies were often slightly deformed to accentuate deific strength and power, while the wings were spread wide, feathers splayed, either in an attack or protective mode. And the tail was invariably fanned out horizontally when the figures were portrayed in flight. In contrast, the model’s body is sleek yet aerodynamically true, the wings are tight and fixed to support airlift capacity, and the back tail is rig­idly vertical. All these are distinctive features of a glider, not a bird.

Still other skeptics have dismissed the Saqqara model as having been nothing more than a child’s toy. The unan­swered question, however, is if this was only a toy, why does it contain such sophisticated design features? The exami­nation of the model I made convinced me this was not any haphazard creation made on a whim by an ancient artist trying to mimic a bird in flight. Holding the glider in my hand, I got a strong sense of its inherent balance and design sophistication. Rather than being a mere plaything, I felt that, to the contrary, this was the end-product of a long se­ries of intensive experiments performed by a multitude of serious researchers over a very long period of time, perhaps several generations. The model was primarily meant to be studied and appreciated as a learning tool.

One of the main criticisms against the Saqqara model being a glider is the apparent lack of a stabilizing tailwing. Some authors have mistakenly written that Dr. Messiha found such a tailwing, or that there is an obvious slot in the model’s vertical tail where a tailwing was once attached. But Dr. Messiha assured me that neither was true.

However, as the doctor pointed out to me when we looked at the Saqqara glider together, the bottom edge of the vertical tail extending back into the main body is rough in appearance and to the touch, in contrast to the smooth­ness of the surfaces elsewhere. It is obvious another wood component that was once part of the original model ex­tended out the back end from this point, and that it was subsequently broken off.

I also detected that the top of the vertical tail was flattened out of its natural contour, and there is the possibility something also was attached here in former times. In certain modern aircraft designs, in fact, the tailwing appears at the top of the vertical tail rather than at its base.

Looking from a purely design function point of view, the only logical component that would have been placed in either location would have been a tailwing-and that is precisely the one item that is missing. The majority of those model plane enthusiasts who have taken the time and effort to actually build and fly a replica of the Saqqara glider, and have added the lost tailwing in precisely the designated position where one very likely existed, find that the craft works very well and perfectly sails through the air over an extended distance.

Yet despite all that has been researched and observed about the Saqqara glider, there is an intransigence in the world of conservative thinking that refuses to even consider that flying was known in the ancient past. All that we are left with are “authoritative” statements such as this one, found on the Internet in Wikipedia:

“No ancient Egyptian aircraft have ever been found, nor has any other evidence suggesting their existence come to light. As a result, the theory that the Saqqara Bird is a model of a flying machine is not accepted by mainstream Egyptologists and is generally regarded as pseudo-archaeology.”

© 2008 Joseph Robert Jochmans. All Rights Reserved. This article is an excerpt from a Time-Capsule Report, part of a special series of research writings presently available from the author. A full listing of all Reports can be re­quested by mail from: Forgotten Ages Research, P.O. Box 94891, Lincoln, NE 68509 U.S.A. Reports may also be pur­chased on-line at: www.forgottenagesresearch. com

By Joseph Robert Jochmans, Lit.D.

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