Great Pyramid Puzzle Persists | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.09.2002
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Great Pyramid Puzzle Persists

As robots explored an ominous door in a shaft in Egypt's great pyramid, the star of the show was Egyptain researcher Zahi Hawass. But it was a German scientist who had first discovered it.


Scientists and engineers gathered in the heart of the pyramid for the event

Before a live, international televsion audience on Tuesday, the Pyramid Rover – a robot the size of a small toy train – slowly crawled up the narrow shaft in the Great Pyramid – taking more than two hours to reach its destination, a smooth, stone door.

In Germany, by now 5:30 a.m., tired-eyed television viewers watched intensely as the robot drilled a small hole in the door, only to reveal – another door.

For weeks, the National Geographic Channel, which broadcast the event in 141 countries, had announced the event with the words “in 4,500 years no one has seen the world we will see today”.

But what world viewers got instead was a great disappointment: All the tiny camera showed was a small, uncluttered space, backed by a stone surface believed to be another door.

Waiting for this moment all their lives

But Zahi Hawass, the director of Eygypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said it was no anticlimax.

Dressed in a bright red polo shirt and leather hat and looking very much the modern-day Indiana Jones, Hawass said “I have waited for this moment all my life”. Along with engineers from the Boston firm iRobot and researchers from National Geographic, he said he had spent at least a year planning for Tuesday.

The only person missing, however, was Rudolf Gantenbrink, a German researcher, who had discovered the shafts and the ominous door back in 1993 and made the first attempts to explore the shafts with a self-made robot nine years ago.

Speaking at a talk show on German television, Gantenbrink expressed his disappointment at not having been invited to take part in the exploration. He said without his first attempts with a robot back in 1993, the Egyptians would most probably never have embarked on the adventure.

“Nevertheless, it was still fascinating for me to see what was on the other side,” Gantenbrink said on Tuesday.

Significant shafts

Gantenbrink discovered his fascination for the Cheops pyramid back in 1987. He was particularly interested in the so-called “air shafts” in the pyramid which were too small for a human to pass through.

“A stone structure of such magnitude (a pyramid) ….is a sufficiently gargantuan undertaking to daunt any builder," he said. "But adding diagonal shafts through such a structure so complicates the task that it becomes a builder’s nightmare. The builders must have ascribed great significance to the shafts.”

He resolved to delve into the matter and in 1992 embarked on his first investigation, accompanied by an assistant from the German Egyptology Institute and his first specially constructed robot. It took more than a year, and several robot prototypes to finally make a significant discovery – a smooth, stone slab, which was later referred to simply as “The Door”.

Since then, archaeologists all over the world have speculated what could be behind the door. Speculations ranged from a statue, a mummy, or that the shaft had been constructed for the souls of those buried in the pyramid, to help them on their trip to the stars.

Eventually the Egyptian government took over the case, handing it over to Hawass and his team.

Nine years on

On Tuesday, Gantenbrink said he could not believe it had taken nine years for the puzzle of the door to have been solved. When asked what he expected on the other side of the second door, Gantenbrink said he expected a third door, and then possibly a mummy. He suspected it could be the body of the mother of Cheops, who is missing from her burial chamber. “But who knows when we will find out what is on the other side of the second door”, he said on Tuesday. “It may take another nine years to find out.”