EPISODE XIV: THE UNDERWORLD OF GIZA

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Deep beneath the shifting sands of the Egyptian desert exists a forgotten place… a mysterious network of catacombs known as Giza’s Underworld. Long considered purely metaphorical, the ancient Egyptian concept of the Afterlife is conceived of as an intense journey through lakes of fire, carnivorous animals, pits of serpents, and devious deities. However, no one ever thought this place could exist in the physical realm, until now. 

It all began in 1817 when two British explorers stumbled upon a keyhole-shaped entrance situated to the northwest of the Giza Pyramid complex. Henry Salt and his employee Giovanni Battista Caviglia “entered a vast network of catacombs beneath the plateau. After exploring them for a distance of ‘several hundred yards’ they came across three large chambers of equal size, each interconnected, and with further tunnels leading away in the darkness” (Fate 74). However, the two explorers would soon return to the surface disappointed to find no riches of jewels and gold beneath the surface…

 A section of the Amduat depicting various stages of the Duat

A section of the Amduat depicting various stages of the Duat

Funerary Texts such as the Am-Duat (“the Book of that which is in the Underworld”) suggest that a physical representation of the Underworld exists in the vicinity of the Giza pyramids. Archeological work in the Upper Rastau (the South part of the Giza Plateau) has uncovered text in recent years that adds to the growing evidence: the description of a shrine in honor of the Shetayet (literally translates as the Tomb of God) in which dwells the Lord of the Underworld, Osiris, “who lies in darkness with a fiery radiance about him” (Fate 75). An important aspect to note here is that “Rastau” roughly translates as “mouth of the passages,” which could be a reference to the entrance to the underworld. Could these underground catacombs actually be the inspiration behind the mythology of the Underworld integral to the ancient Egyptians?

 Falcon-headed Sokar

Falcon-headed Sokar

Interestingly, Salt’s account of his experience remained tucked away on a dusty shelf until the 21st century when Egyptologist Nigel Skinner Simpson began examining the memoirs left behind by Salt, and what he read suggested that what Salt and Caviglia had accidentally discovered was none other than the entrance to an ancient tomb in honor of Sokar. This particular tomb had great implications for the mythology of ancient Egyptians, who bestowed a massive amount of importance to the concept of death and the underworld. This tomb could have functioned as a Shrine, to which offerings were given to Sokar as an important God in the realm of the Underworld. Sokar is often conceived of as the resurrected version of Osiris after he is betrayed and killed by his brother only to be unsuccessfully brought back to life by his wife Isis, whose powers revived Osiris for only a day until he was forced to descend with the sun back into the realm of the Underworld.

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By this point, you’re probably wondering why was it called the Tomb of the Birds? This is due to the fact that multiple mummified birds were discovered in the vicinity of the cave entrance as well as its interior, leading researchers to believe that this was a tomb associated with the veneration of falcon-headed God Sokar. The bird mummies left as offerings to Sokar offers one line of reasoning, while others stray towards the idea that the offerings may have been left to Hermes, the Graeco-Egyptian form of the Egyptian god Thoth, the keeper of ancient records and guardian of the ancient wisdom who is also associated with the Underworld.

In fact, this second line of thought is most intriguing as it relates to American psychic Edgar Cayce’s revelations in the 1920’s that a Hall of Records would eventually be found on the Giza Plateau. Interestingly, this was not the first allusion to a possible ‘Hall of Records’. During the period of 360-390 A.D Greco-Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote of “subterranean fissures and winding passages called syringes” beneath the sands of Giza (Fate). As well, ancient Arabic travellers also recorded similar tales following contact with Coptic Christians priests of the area that had inherited the knowledge from their predecessors; again told of the existence of underground passages beneath the great pyramids that was created by a legendary king in an attempt to preserve knowledge of science and the arts of his society. Perhaps these winding passageways and catacombs once housed something far more valuable than gold or diamonds, perhaps it held the key to a vast collection of ancient knowledge – an epic underground library of sorts.

Fast forward to 2007 where Collins has just picked up the trail of breadcrumbs. On his visit to the Giza complex to trace the ground-sky overlay of a particular constellation called Cygnus, Collins determined that the placement of the three main pyramids corresponded to the three key stars of Cygnus. However, the brightest star in this constellation was missing was its corresponding ground marker. Collins’ associate (the aforementioned Simpson) then suggested that this missing marker might represent something undiscovered, something underground, perhaps the ‘Hall of Records,’ or, the Underworld. Collins and his wife went picked up where Salt and Caviglia left off and descended on Salt’s chamber in 2007 in an attempt to find a hidden entrance to the underworld.

 Terra SarX Satellite image shows the entrance to the Tomb of the Birds, and tunnels leading toward the NW corner of the Second Pyramid

Terra SarX Satellite image shows the entrance to the Tomb of the Birds, and tunnels leading toward the NW corner of the Second Pyramid

Collins searched the area fruitlessly for hours and was about to move on when he noticed a crack in the rock face, an aperture that appeared to have been covered by mud long ago. A look through the crack revealed a vast rectangular cave chamber filled with rock debris. The chamber had a number of side compartments, and a long cave tunnel heading toward Giza’s third pyramid. Collins noted numerous animal bones, something that had been similarly noted by Salt. Then Collins’ continued through the darkness until reaching a bifurcation in the tunnel, at that point he returned to report his findings; subsequent visits down the tunnel were halted at approximately 135m down due to dangerous thinning of oxygen as well as a previously unidentified species of white widow spiders.

 Diagram of Osiris' Shaft

Diagram of Osiris' Shaft

Interestingly, this is not the only underground tomb discovered on the Giza Plateau. A network of chambers referred to as the Osiris’ Shaft was discovered under the causeway leading from the Sphinx to the second Pyramid. Only until the end of 2017 was the Tomb reopened for limited public excursions, but for $2000USD you can now ‘rent’ the Tomb for two hours at a time in order to pursue the secrets contained within the multitudes of different levels that lead one deeper and deeper into Giza’s mysterious Underworld.

One of the most mysterious discoveries is the presence of three stone chests: two found in separate alcoves in a circular chamber, a third discovered in the deepest chamber where it remains fully submerged in crystal clear groundwater. The two chests found in alcoves exhibit damage appear to have exploded from the inside out, as well as a strange resinous substance found on the sides of the box as well as splattered on the ceiling of the chamber above. According to reports, these stones are made of a substance not found anywhere in Egypt, representing yet another mystery on the Giza Plateau…

Check out the Full Podcast Episode here

Collins, Andrew. "Beneath the Pyramids: A Visit to Giza's Underworld." in The Fate Book of Strange True Encounters and Unearthly Experiences ed. by Jean Marie Stine, 1995.

Visit our Resource Page to discover more about Ancient Egypt and the concept of the Underworld.

Click here to view a beautiful, entertaining and informative illustrated Youtube Video describing the process of Journeying through the Underworld.