"Door Into The Dark"

The following article first appeared in the London Sunday Telegraph in the edition dated 1st January 1995. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of The Telegraph Group Limited. This article remains the copyright of The Telegraph Group Ltd.

great pyramidThe Great Pyramid is the last remaining wonder of the ancient world. Yet this great monument built for King Cheops around 4500 years ago, which now lends its dignity to the Cairo slums, is as enigmatic as it ever was. The more the mechanics of the building are revealed, the more mysterious its purpose becomes. Two years ago an astonished world learned of the possible existence of a hidden chamber at the end of a sloping shaft that leads from the lower of the Great Pyramid's two large chambers.

After a steady climb of 65 metres from the heart of the pyramid, the small 8 inch square shaft - originally believed to be for ventilation, now generally accepted as a "corridor" enabling the soul of the dead pharaoh to ascend to the heavens - comes to an abrupt halt in front of a limestone slab. This is adorned with 2 copper handles, whose position indicates an upward-sliding movement like a portcullis. This was a sensational discovery.

The Great Pyramid's four shafts have been known since 1872, but they are found in no other pyramid. Two, extending from the upper, or "Kings Chamber" exit into open air, but the lower two, from the "Queens Chamber" , disappear within, and have sparked intense curiosity about where they lead to.

Stories of a concealed chamber in the Great Pyramid had circulated since the Middle Ages, but nothing had been found here bar 3 small relics discovered 100 years ago. Inevitably, speculation in the press about what could lie behind the slab ran riot, ranging from untold, Tut. style treasure (highly unlikely) to a simple "ka" statue representing the king's sprit (possible). But most surprising was the verdict of the Head of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, under whose auspices the discovery was made. Behind the "door", Rainer Stadelmann asserted firmly, lay nothing at all. Just a block of limestone; simply a tidying up of an abandoned shaft.

Since the only sure counter to speculation is fact, the solution would surely have been to press on - an the means existed to do exactly that. Rudolf Gantenbrink, the engineer whose purpose built UPUAT-2 robot made the discovery, stated that with minimal adjustments, the robot could manoeuvre a fibre-optic camera through the triangular hole at the base of the "door/slab". Whatever lay behind it - whether sensation of the century or damp squib - the impact of its exposure would be enormous. Nothing simpler, you might think. But nothing happened. The "door" was discovered on 22nd March 1993. A week later, says Gantenbrink, he was told to pack his robot and go.

Last week a spokesman for the German Archaeological Institute denied that there was any mystery about this. "The project was finished. The shafts had been explored and there was nothing further to do. The blocking stone that was found at the end of the shaft is very normal. All these shafts were originally blocked. It is the normal construction. It is not possible to open the blocking; the Egyptians would never allow it."

But this does not tally with known facts. Parallels with other shafts cannot be made, as there is no precedent. The end of the second shaft from the Queen's Chamber has not yet been reached - the robot having revealed, and been obstructed by, two sharp bends.

What is even stranger, though, is that after the "discovery" of the "door", all further investigation shafts stopped at this cliff-hanger stage, and has not been resumed. The original reason for the German engineering team being there was to clear the shafts in the Great Pyramid to improve air flow. Humidity in the King's Chamber was running at 90 per cent, and the limestone walls were wet with moisture exhaled by crowds of tourists. Rudolf Gantenbrink's robotics experience in both nuclear plants and undersea exploration, tied in with his amateur fascination with the pyramids, made him the perfect choice for the job.

Fans were duly installed, and the humidity level rapidly fell. But for reasons that are still not entirely clear, attention shifted to the Queen's Chamber, even though it's shafts were known to have no exit. By now Gantenbrink was fascinated by the Great Pyramid's construction and how the pyramid-builders' minds worked. But the though-processes of present-day Egyptologists were on a different plane, involving - as they appeared to - international rivalry and vested interests more familiar to thriller writers than scientists.

But what evidence is there to back the theory that some concealed chamber does indeed lie behind the "door" ? According to Gantenbrink there are 12 points.
As might be expected from an engineer, historical precedent or theory play little part. What Gantenbrink focuses on are changes, intentional or accidental, in the physical appearance of the shaft as it nears the "door" - evidence to a construction engineer seemingly as clear as if it were enshrined on a blueprint.

The most important of these is the change from rough-hewn (yellow) limestone stone walls in the rest of the shaft to the highly polished white limestone of the last five metres. This stone is found nowhere else in the 180 metres of shafts so far explored - but it suggests an imminent upgrading to something grander, rather than abandonment, as some Egyptologists would have it. Then there is the evidence of structural damage (found nowhere else in any of the shafts), suggesting internal stress in the vicinity - a cavity, possibly - and, as if to confirm this, the presence of stress-reliving construction techniques (blocks laid vertically rather than horizontally) in the walls of the passage near the door.

The "door" also appears free of mortar, while all the joints between the blocks forming the shaft are mortared. And Gantenbrink lists eight further points of physical evidence, gathered from months of analysis of footage that his robot filmed within the four shafts.

"I take an absolute neutral position. It is a scientific process, and there is no need whatsoever to answer questions with speculation when these questions could be answered much more easily by continuing the research. Yet because of a stupid feud between what I call believers and non-believers, I am condemned as someone who is speculating. But I am not. I am just stating the facts. We have a device [ultrasonic] that would discover if there is a cavity behind the slab. It is a nonsensical to make theories when we have the tools to discover the facts."

The problem, according to Gantenbrink, is that he is not an Egyptologist; he is simply a hired technician. By definition, therefore, his views have no currency. Worse, he now feels that he has been bracketed with last years best-selling pyramid watcher Robert Bauval whose maverick views on pyramids, pharaohs and the blinkered approach of certain Egyptologists to their sacrosanct subject have made him persona non grata in the eye of the archaeological establishment.

But anyone who has read Bauval's populist investigation into the secrets of the Great Pyramid would recognise this as a red herring. The Orion Mystery is an exploration of a quite separate issue (whether the religion of the pharaohs was sun or start based) and has nothing to do with concealed chambers. Gantenbrink's only contribution to Bauval's theory was revised calculations of the angles of the shafts.

Gantenbrink is convinced that the Bauval connection has something to do with his excommunication and is anxious to distance himself. But the stonewalling began long before "The Orion Mystery" was published last year. Incredibly, at the end of March 1993, a full week after the discovery, not a word had been said to the press. Even stranger was the fact that the discovery appeared to coincide with the sacking of the director of the Giza Plateau site, Dr Zahi Hawass - though at the time rumours suggested that a breach of security following a visit by Colonel Gaddafi was the trigger.

But in Gantenbrink's eyes, whatever the reason for Hawass's sudden departure, he himself was now the victim of a political feud. "I was scheduled to meet the Minister of Culture about the discovery, but it never happened. A press conference was scheduled. It never happened." Dismayed and frustrated, Gantenbrink decided to go it alone, and using British contacts broke the story in The Daily Telegraph on the 7th of April 1993, and thence across the world.

Protocol; concerning the pyramids is rigid, and central to this is strict control of the release of information to the media. The pyramids are Egypt's single most important national resource as both cultural icon and foreign currency earner. Tourist, scientist or film-maker, everybody pays. A scientific licence (a pre-requisite) is contingent on a number of factors, firstly that all press announcements go through official Egyptian channels, and secondly that no commercial use is made of the research. (Commercial licences are much more expensive and difficult to obtain.) Clearly by breaking the story Gantenbrink had broken the first rule. It may also be that, in subsequently making available the video footage shot ostensibly for scientific research, he was deemed to have flouted the second, too.

The Egyptian press were at sixes and sevens. First they expostulated that Gantenbrink's robot could not have entered the shafts. "German scientist's claim a hoax" was the headline in the English-language Egyptian Gazette of April 20, 1993. A week later, however, they changed their tune, and hailed a major find.

But the damage as far as Gentenbrink was concerned was done. The German's request for a licence to re-investigate the other shaft leading from the Queen's Chamber, the northern one with the sharp bends, which his modified robot could now successfully navigate - and which he believed would throw crucial light on the "door" controversy - was refused by the Egyptian authorities.

In an even more bizarre twist to the tale, two months later the man responsible for sacking Dr Hawass at the time of the discovery of the slab, Dr Mohammed Ibrahim Bakr, was himself dismissed. But unlike Dr Hawass, he did not go quietly. In an interview with Egypt's daily newspaper Al-Ahram, Dr Bakr said he had been brought down by an official "mafia" whose aim was to impede the archaeological work for their own purposes. He also claimed that the Giza Plateau had suffered widespread thefts of antiquities and financial malpractice's. "I wanted these practices reported to the prosecution authorities but my request was refused"

Two weeks ago it seemed that some sort of a rapprochement between Rudolf Gantenbrink and the Egyptians had been achieved. From the Institute of French Engineers in Paris, Gantenbrink announced that he had offered the robot, currently housed at the British Museum, to the Egyptian Authorities. The exploration could now continue under Egyptian auspices, with an operator trained by Gantenbrink himself.

But as Gantenbrink made clear to The Sunday Telegraph last week, his announcement in Paris was less a statement of fact than a statement of faith. The offer to the Egyptians had been made back in June. A positive response to this diplomatic, and clearly personally painful, sacrifice was received in October, and Gantenbrink was preparing to go to Egypt once more.

In early November, however, came the unimaginable - a two line brush- off from Dr Bakr's successor as Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr Abdul Nour El-Din: "Thanks for your offer to train the Egyptian technician.....Unfortunately we are very busy for the time being, therefore we will postpone the matter."

Gantenbrink now hopes that by making public is offer to the Egyptians, they will think again. "The search for the truth is too important to be ruined by a silly political game," he says. "My only hope is that they will soon reach the same conclusion."


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