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‘The Solidity of these Sort of Buildings, rising by slow Degrees to a Point, like Flames, shews the Advantage, insomuch, that having been known a thousand Years before the Time of Diodorus (or, which is the same, of Augustus) and subsisting yet, they have in a Manner overcome the Force of Time, which has rather succeeded in Destroying the History than the Structure of them.’
Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur,
commentary on Plate IV.
Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur: in Abbildung unterschiedener berühmten Gebäude des Alterthums und fremder Völcker; umb aus den Geschicht-büchern, Gedächtnüß-münzen, Ruinen, und eingeholten wahrhafften Abrißen, vor Augen zu stellen (Leipzig, 1725), Book 1, plate 4.
In his plate of the Pyramids of Giza, Fischer von Erlach tells us that the largest pyramid, identified as ‘A’, was the result of 360,000 men working for twenty years : ‘ten years in bringing the Stones & other Materials together, and ten Years more in raising it.’ Known today as the Great Pyramid of Giza it is both the largest and oldest of the Gizan pyramids. It was probably constructed c. 2560BC during the reign of the fourth dynastry Pharoah, Khufu. As Fischer von Erlach’s plate shows, it was part of a funeral enclosure, which included other pyramids, including those of Khafre and Menkaure. The Pyramid of Khafre (B), another fourth dynastry Pharoah, is smaller than that of his father Khufu’s, and at some point lost its casing stones. It is interesting to note that Fischer von Erlach’s plate indicates that perhaps this loss took place in the later seventeenth century since John Greaves in his 1646 Pyramidographia makes no mention of the casing stones being absent. The last major pyramid in the picture is that of the Pharoah Menkaure, who succeeded his father Khafre as Pharoah.
Fischer von Erlach not only considers the available evidence for the dimensions of the Great Pyramid at Giza but also provides his readers with information about its interior (he was evidently far more interested in the Great Pyramid as it had been acknowledged from antiquity as one of the Seven Wonders of the World):
The Entrance is towards the North, near the 16th Step or Degree, and 61 Foot distant from the Middle. The Breadth of the Entrance is 3 Foot, 3 Inches and the Height 3. Inches more. Over this Door lies a large Stone of 11 Foot long & 8 Foot broad. Within is a Hall, or Apartment, adorn’d with Compartments of Porphyry, in which is a Sepulchre or Urn of Porphyry, preserv’d entire : Which Magnificence however has contributed less to the Preservation of the Corpse deposited in it, than the Closeness of the Pyramid which contains it. Besides this Vault there is a deep Cavern, which probably has serv’d for Burials. Nothing could have inspir’d the Founders of these stupendous Monuments with the Vanity of Building such sumptuous Sepulchres, but an immoderate Desire of perpetuating their Memory ; added to the Maxim, which, according to Diodorus, the Egyptians profess’d, that Tombs were lasting Dwellings & Houses but Inns.’
Though Fischer von Erlach was at pains to mention ancient authorities such as the first century BC writer Diodorus Siculus, it is clear that the chief source for his description of the Pyramids at Giza were the travel writings of Jean de Thévenot (1633-1667), whose Relation d’un voyage fait au Levant was originally published at Paris in 1665.
Bernard de Montfaucon, L’antiquité expliquée, et représentée en figures (Paris, 1719), 5 vols. in 10, vol. 5, pt., 2, plate 134.
Thévenot was likewise utilised in Bernard de Montfaucon’s Egyptian entries in his L’antiquité expliquée, et représentée en figures (Paris, 1719), which was a multi volume work of extraordinary erudition. Worth’s 1719 edition was bound in fifteenth volumes (5 vols bound in ten and the Supplement in a further five volumes). The quality of Fischer von Erlach’s plates is readily visible when compared with this plate from de Montfaucon, which depicts the Sphinx at Giza out of all proportion to the pyramids. De Montfaucon concentrates on the visible remains and these he describes as follows :
This Sphinx is a Rock cut into a Statue, which represents a Woman’s Head : All the Body ought to be there too, but ‘tis [hidden] in the Sand, which makes a kind of a little Hill, that there is now no more than the Head and Neck to be seen. ‘Tis an extraordinary Mass, but yet the proportions have been well observed in it. The Head alone is twenty six Foot, and, according to Mr. Thevenot, ‘tis fifteen Foot from the Ear to the Chin…
Fischer von Erlach, quoting ancient sources, gives us slightly more information : ‘Either it must formerly have been entire, because Pliny mentions a Sphynx, whose Length was 143 Foot, The Height from the Belly to the Head 62 Foot, and the Circumference of the Head 102 Foot, as this is now, or this is not the Head mention’d by Pliny.’ As an aid to the reader, he chose to depict the Sphinx not only as it was but also as the original had been described by the fourth century AD commentator Ausonius : ‘Sphynx, volucris pennis, pedibus fera, fronte puella.’ (in wings a bird, in paws a beast, in face a girl).
Bernard de Montfaucon, L’antiquité expliquée, et représentée en figures (Paris, 1719), 5 vols. in 10, vol. 5, pt. 1, plate 135 (interior of the Great Pyramid).
English quotations are taken from Fischer von Erlach, Johann Bernhard, A Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture in the Representation of the Most noted Buildings of Foreign Nations…. Divided into Five Books…. Tr. Thomas Lediard, (London, 1737), 2 nd edition, and Bernard De Montfaucon, Antiquity explained, and represented in sculptures, By the Learned Father Montfaucon, translated into English by David Humphreys (London, 1721), 5 vols.
Text: Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library.