Wednesday, 18 October 2006

The Egypt Code – Robert Bauval *****

When this book dropped onto the doormat, my first inclination was to dump it in the bin labelled “new age garbage.” But I am very glad I didn’t. Robert Bauval came to fame over 10 years ago with the theory that the great pyramids represent the three stars of Orion’s belt, and that shafts in the pyramids align with historical star positions – that the function of these incredible structures was very much as part of a star and sun oriented religion rather than simply as fancy tombs. Now he takes his ideas much further.
One quick consideration – should this book even be on a popular science website? In a word, yes. Although archaeology studies historical subjects, it is itself a science – doubly so here, where both archaeology and astronomy come into play.
I have to confess to a weakness for books of this kind. I have had on my shelves since my late teens two books of absolute rubbish which are nonetheless delightful because they have the same sort of appeal. They are The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins, the man who came up with the idea of ley lines, and The Pattern of the Past by Guy Underwood, an exploration of a thesis that ancient monuments in the UK are oriented to underground springs and other sources detectable by dowsing. I don’t accept for a minute either of the premises. Although Watkins thought of ley lines as old pathways, not giving them the mystical surroundings of the modern new age approach, his ideas mostly reflect the inevitable coincidences that will build up when you consider so many points on a map. It would be much stranger if there weren’t alignments of places on a map. And Underwood’s book is based purely on subjective responses, rather than science. Yet both are very appealing.
The reason they are enjoyable is that both books come up with a hidden theory of the past, something that links us with our ancestors, but is testable in the modern day. The Egypt Code has that same attraction. Here is an exploration of an ancient pattern that has been sitting under our noses, but we haven’t seen, with the big advantage over my old books that Bauval has based his theory on proper science and practical observation, not coincidence or something as lacking in rigour as dowsing. It’s exactly the same attraction that something like The Da Vinci Code has (does the similarity of the title surprise anyone?) – ancient secrets uncovered as a sort of large scale puzzle – all the more exciting because this is for real, not Dan Brown’s overblown fictional world.
In The Egypt Code, Bauval takes his original theory and makes it part of an epic concept – that a whole sweeping set of construction is a reflection of the sky on Earth, and that the locations of the various major religious sites reflect the positioning of various celestial events at certain times in history. Although this is reminiscent of Gerald Hawkins’ largely discredit attempt to suggest that Stonehenge was a complex astronomical calculator, not just having the accepted handful of sun and moon alignments, it actually makes a lot more sense than the Stonehenge theory, given the Ancient Egyptian obsession with the sun and the stars. Bauval’s arguments are very convincing.
It was fascinating reading this book shortly after Nancy Abrams and Joel R. Primack’s book The View from the Centre of the Universe with its stress on the importance of having a cosmology as a way to establish your place in the universe. The Ancient Egyptian world that Bauval describes shows just how much a cosmology contribute. The Egyptian cosmology seems strange now, but it served its function at the time as way of incorporating the best “scientific” view into everyday life, and as Bauval points out, this is an interesting lesson for us today.
Bauval may or may not be right, but it certainly would be wrong to dismiss his ideas out of hand. They are practical, scientific views and they explain a lot that is otherwise difficult to understand. Most of all, this book is imbued with the sense of wonder that is essential for good science, plus the intrigue of a good thriller. Everyone is familiar with the pin-ups of the egyptology world – the great pyramids and Sphinx, the temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel and Tutankhamen’s tomb, but The Egypt Code reveals a whole cluster of structures that are less well known, including the totally bizarre tilted observational “bunker” (my words) at Saqqara. It makes it clear that egyptology has been unwise to ignore astronomy as much as it has to date.
Bauval is an outsider – but the best ideas generally do come from outsiders. After all, experts are great at telling us what’s not possible. Outsiders can often make silly mistakes, but they can also stumble upon original ideas that wouldn’t occur to those who are blinkered by accepted wisdom. You may find Bauval’s sometimes rather self-congratulatory style a little irritating, but I would still highly recommend this book.
Review by Brian Clegg

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