In 1737 and 1738, Danish naval captain Frederic Louis Norden traveled through Egypt and Nubia to make a report of them for King Christian VI, though neither man would live to see the publication of the resulting volume, Voyage d’Egypte et de Nubie, in 1755. The volume is famous for depicting the Sphinx for the first time without its nose and in a realistic style. But for fringe historians the volume is also interesting because of the mistakes Norden made, which of course they take to be something else
Perhaps most interesting to me is that Norden preserves what seems to be the last gasp of the old medieval Arabic pyramid myth, which ascribed the building of the pyramids to the antediluvians, who were identified with the Nephilim-Giants: “A TRADITION prevails amongst inhabitants of Egypt, that it had formerly been peopled by a race of giants; by whom have been raised the pyramids, spacious palaces, and temples whose remains are the object of our present attention.” Norden dismissed this out of hand, noting that if true then the doors to Egyptian buildings would have been bigger. He seemed to miss the connection of this modern tale to its older antecedents.
I bring all of this up because a recent article on Ancient Code receiving more than a little attention on social media alleges that Norden’s book is proof that the Giza plateau once featured a fourth pyramid, of black granite. The article summarizes online conspiracy theories from the past decade or so that speculate on the origins and fate of the “missing” Black Pyramid.
In 1757, Norden’s text was translated into English and published under the title Travels in Egypt & Nubia. In the translation, Norden describes the so-called Black Pyramid, which he calls the “fourth” pyramid, “almost on a diagonal line” with the other three.
Here, though, things begin to break down. Here is how Ancient Code gives Norden’s text about this pyramid, with ellipses identical to those found on the Above Top Secret message board and fringe books going back at least to 2010:
It is without coating, closed and resembles the others, but without any temple like the ﬁrst. It has however, one particular deserving remark; which is, that its summit is terminated by a single great stone, which seems to have served as a pedestal … the fourth pyramid has been made, upwards above the middle, of a stone more black than the common granite, and at least as hard. Its summit is of a yellowish stone. I shall speak elsewhere of its top, which terminates in a cube. It is, moreover, situated out of the line of the others, being more to the west … it makes a series with the three others.
Here is the same passage as published in the 1755 French and 1757 English editions:
Quant à la quatrième pyramide, elle est encore de cent pieds moindre que la troisième. Elle est aussi sans revêtement, fermée et semblable aux autres, mais sans temple, comme la première. Elle a pourtant une chose digne de remarque : son sommet est terminé par une seule et grande pierre qui semble avoir servi de piédestal. Du reste elle se trouve située hors la ligne des autres, étant un peu plus à l'ouest. Ces quatre grandes pyramides sont environnées de quantité d'autres plus petites…
The online commenters assert that the texts are the same, despite the evidence of their own eyes, having linked directly to the correct English text. So whence came the assertion that the supposed fourth pyramid was black? The fact that the modern text is a fresh translation gave me a hint that the answer could be found in the French text.
Here is where our fringe writers are not wrong but have performed a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand without making clear what they have done. The remaining sentences come from a letter Norden wrote criticizing the account of the pyramid published by John Greaves. This letter seems to appear only in the French edition of the text, and it is a separate section from the chapter where the earlier lines are written. There, Norden takes issue with Greaves’s assertion that the pyramids are three in number, and his notice that earlier writers said the third is of basalt. I will translate literally:
It is certainly an error in what these various authors wrote. All of them say that it is the third pyramid which is made from basalt: It is instead the fourth. If our learned author had bothered to approach it, he might have easily reconciled these earlier authors. He would have seen that this fourth pyramid was, and still is, up until the middle made of stone blacker than ordinary granite, and at least as hard. I dare not say whether it is of basalt, because it differs from the material, from which is made the beautiful vase, which I saw in Rome at the home of Cardinal Alessandro Albani, and which is given to be basalt.
The author does not describe the pyramid as being black per say, but rather blacker, and he seems to have used the French term plus noire more in the sense of “darker” rather than “black,” as Menkaure’s pyramid is indeed darker than the others of Giza. I feel comfortable making this distinction because everywhere else he uses the specific phrase granit noir to specify actual black granite. Thus, the pyramid was not black.
As to the question of what this “Fourth Pyramid” was, I must concur with Col. Vyse, who in 1840 suggested that Norden has mistaken one of Menkaure’s satellite pyramids, the westernmost, for a fourth great pyramid. The ruined satellite pyramid, in the form of a step-pyramid, ends in a cube, while the easternmost one (opposite Menkaure’s northeast-facing corner) could be said to resemble rubble, the “great heap” Norden describes. Given that he was also pretty bad at estimating heights, to judge by his estimates of known objects, so closely does this hypothesis fit that it seems unlikely that any other solution would work as well. However, we are left with one baffling question, which Col. Vyse noted: “Mr. Norden has entirely overlooked the two [satellite] Pyramids which are close to the one he blames Mr. Greaves for not having noticed.” Might they have been partially buried in sand? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to how Norden missed two pyramids.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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