I’m going to give Ancient Origins a little bit credit for their recent article on colored stones at the Giza Pyramids. At least the article, by writer Morgan Smith, took a different approach to developing an unusual claim about the pyramids. I hadn’t heard anyone try to claim that the colors of the stone used on the pyramids’ casings were tied to astrological and astronomical symbolism. So, I award points for at least a bit of originality. However, that doesn’t make the claim any better evidenced.
Smith begins with the observation that medieval Arabic writers (whom he knows primarily from the late examples of al-Suyuti and al-Maqrizi) knew the pyramid of Menkaure—the third pyramid—as the “Colored Pyramid.” Indeed, this name for the pyramid goes back many centuries before al-Maqrizi. The Akhbar al-zaman, for example, refers to the pyramid that way around 1000 CE, and clearly it was not a new term then. It derives from the speckled granite used in the pyramid’s casing stones. This coloration differs from the Great Pyramid, which originally had only white limestone casing stones, and the pyramid of Khafre, which some believe had stripes.
Rather than attribute differences in color to fashion, style, or ornament, Smith believes that the use of different types of stone in each pyramid’s casing reflected something.
Smith begins by citing Robert Schoch’s suggestion that the Egyptians used darker stone to make repairs. He argued in his book Pyramid Quest that the color differences indicated that the bases of the pyramids were much older than dynastic Egypt and that the red granite stone work was used to indicate original antediluvian construction, while the white limestone upper reaches of the pyramids were added later as new construction under the Fourth Dynasty.
There is, of course, no evidence that the pyramids predate the Fourth Dynasty.
Smith, however, rejects some of Schoch’s argument and claims that red granite represented earth, while white limestone represented the celestial realm. Thus, the wholly white Great Pyramid was seen as entirely celestial, while the next two pyramids were intended to represent progressively more earthly concerns. Thus, each was redder than the last. Taken together, he claims, the three pyramids represent a gradual rising from darkness to light.
It’s not entirely implausible, but it would seem to strike at the heart of the vanity of the pharaohs. Would Khafre and Menkaure have wanted to portray themselves as lesser pharaohs than Khufu? And who would want to be buried in the pyramids of “darkness”?
Smith’s argument is dressed up in the language of astronomy, but it really has nothing to do with astronomy at all. Smith argues that Djedefre’s granite-clad pyramid represented the night sky because the granite sparkled in the sun like stars in the night sky. Given that the pyramid’s Egyptian name is “Djedefre’s starry sky,” this is plausible. But it isn’t astronomical. No knowledge of astronomy is necessary to liken sparkly rocks to twinkling stars. Similarly, even taking the whole of Smith’s argument at face value, there is no knowledge of astronomy implied, let alone an astronomical “system.” The only system is the vaguely defined belief system that the Egyptian afterlife realm existed in the stars.
The trouble, though, is that Smith’s argument assumes an intentionality that we can’t simply accept without question. In the cases of Menkaure’s pyramid, it had sixteen courses of granite casing, with the remaining casing being white limestone. The internal structure of the pyramid also becomes concave after the sixteenth course. The final vertical base stones and pavement around the pyramid were never completed. These facts have led many to conclude that the pyramid’s original design was altered partway through to address a building defect or because the king had grown ill. It is unclear if the original design would have included a full granite casing or if the two-tone look had always been intended. Since we simply cannot know the original intent of the architects, drawing higher-level conclusions about an overarching color plan simply can’t be supported by the extant evidence.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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