November 18, 2011
On September 14, 1224, a Saturday, Francis of Assisi—noted ascetic and holy man, future saint—was preparing to enter the second month of a retreat with a few close companions on Monte La Verna, overlooking the River Arno in Tuscany. Francis had spent the previous few weeks in prolonged contemplation of the suffering Jesus Christ on the cross, and he may well have been weak from protracted fasting. As he knelt to pray in the first light of dawn (notes the Fioretti—the ‘Little flowers of St Francis of Assisi,’ a collection of legends and stories about the saint),
he began to contemplate the Passion of Christ… and his fervor grew so strong within him that he became wholly transformed into Jesus through love and compassion…. While he was thus inflamed, he saw a seraph with six shining, fiery wings descend from heaven. This seraph drew near to St Francis in swift flight, so that he could see him clearly and recognize that he had the form of a man crucified… After a long period of secret converse, this mysterious vision faded, leaving… in his body a wonderful image and imprint of the Passion of Christ. For in the hands and feet of Saint Francis forthwith began to appear the marks of the nails in the same manner as he had seen them in the body of Jesus crucified.
In all, Francis found that he bore five marks: two on his palms and two on his feet, where the nails that fixed Christ to the cross were traditionally believed to have been hammered home, and the fifth on his side, where the Bible says Jesus had received a spear thrust from a Roman centurion.
September 1, 2011
There is a story, regrettably apocryphal, about Napoleon and the Great Pyramid. When Bonaparte visited Giza during his Nile expedition of 1798 (it goes), he determined to spend a night alone inside the King’s Chamber, the granite-lined vault that lies precisely in the center of the pyramid. This chamber is generally acknowledged as the spot where Khufu, the most powerful ruler of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c.2690-2180 BC), was interred for all eternity, and it still contains the remains of Pharaoh’s sarcophagus—a fractured mass of red stone that is said to ring like a bell when struck.
Having ventured alone into the pyramid’s forbidding interior and navigated its cramped passages armed with nothing but a guttering candle, Napoleon emerged the next morning white and shaken, and thenceforth refused to answer any questions about what had befallen him that night. Not until 23 years later, as he lay on his death bed, did the emperor at last consent to talk about his experience. Hauling himself painfully upright, he began to speak—only to halt almost immediately.
“Oh, what’s the use,” he murmured, sinking back. “You’d never believe me.”
As I say, the story is not true—Napoleon’s private secretary, De Bourrienne, who was with him in Egypt, insists that he never went inside the tomb. (A separate tradition suggests that the emperor, as he waited for other members of his party to scale the outside of the pyramid, passed the time calculating that the structure contained sufficient stone to erect a wall around all France 12 feet high and one foot thick.) That the tale is told at all, however, is testament to the fascination exerted by this most mysterious of monuments–and a reminder that the pyramid’s interior is at least as compelling as its exterior. Yes, it is impressive to know that Khufu’s monument was built from 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing on average more than two tons and cut using nothing more than copper tools; to realize that its sides are precisely aligned to the cardinal points of the compass and differ one from another in length by no more than two inches, and to calculate that, at 481 feet, the pyramid remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for practically 4,000 years—until the main spire of Lincoln Cathedral was completed in about 1400 A.D. But these superlatives do not help us to understand its airless interior.
Few would be so bold as to suggest that, even today, we know why Khufu ordered the construction of what is by far the most elaborate system of passages and chambers concealed within any pyramid. His is the only one of the 35 such tombs constructed between 2630 and 1750 B.C. to contain tunnels and vaults well above ground level. (Its immediate predecessors, the Bent Pyramid and the North Pyramid at Dahshur, have vaults built at ground level; all the others are solid structures whose burial chambers lie well underground.) For years, the commonly accepted theory was that the Great Pyramid’s elaborate features were the product of a succession of changes in plan, perhaps to accommodate Pharaoh’s increasingly divine stature as his reign went on, but the American Egyptologist Mark Lehner has marshaled evidence suggesting that the design was fixed before construction began. If so, the pyramid’s internal layout becomes even more mysterious, and that’s before we bear in mind the findings of the Quarterly Review, which reported in 1818, after careful computation, that the structure’s known passages and vaults occupy a mere 1/7,400th of its volume, so that “after leaving the contents of every second chamber solid by way of separation, there might be three thousand seven hundred chambers, each equal in size to the sarcophagus chamber, [hidden] within.”
But if the thinking behind the pyramid’s design remains unknown, there is a second puzzle that should be easier to solve: the question of who first entered the Great Pyramid after it was sealed in about 2566 B.C. and what they found inside it.
July 21, 2011
Looking back, the really strange thing was the silence. The way the church bells stopped ringing as the little group of naval cadets neared the village. The way even the ducks stood quiet and motionless by the shallow stream that ran across the road where the main street began.
And, when the boys thought about it afterward, they recalled that even the autumn birdsong faded as they neared the first houses. The wind had dropped to nothing, too.
Not a leaf stirred on the trees they passed. And the trees appeared to cast no shadows.
The street itself was quite deserted—not so odd, perhaps, for a Sunday morning in 1957, especially in the rural heart of England. But even the remotest British hamlets displayed some signs of modernity by then—cars parked by the roadside, phone wires strung along the roads, aerials on roofs—and there was nothing of that sort in this village. In fact, the houses on the high street all looked ancient; they were ragged, hand-built, timber-framed: “almost medieval in appearance,” one boy thought.
The three, all Royal Navy cadets, walked up to the nearest building and pressed their faces to its grimy windows. They could see that it was some sort of butcher’s shop, but what they glimpsed in the interior was even more unsettling. As one of them recalled for the author Andrew MacKenzie:
There were no tables or counters, just two or three whole oxen carcasses which had been skinned and in places were quite green with age. There was a green-painted door and windows with smallish glass panes, one at the front and one at the side, rather dirty-looking. I remember that as we three looked through that window in disbelief at the green and mouldy green carcasses… the general feeling certainly was one of disbelief and unreality… Who would believe that in 1957 that the health authorities would allow such conditions?
They peered into another house. It, too, had greenish, smeary windows. And it, too, appeared uninhabited. The walls had been crudely whitewashed, but the rooms were empty; the boys could see no possessions, no furniture, and they thought the rooms themselves appeared to be “not of modern day quality.” Spooked now, the cadets turned back and hurried out of the strange village. The track climbed a small hill, and they did not turn back until they had reached the top. Then, one of the three remembered, “suddenly we could hear the bells once more and saw the smoke rising from chimneys, [though] none of the chimneys was smoking when we were in the village… We ran for a few hundred yards as if to shake off the weird feeling.” [MacKenzie pp.6-9]
What happened to those three boys on that October morning more than 50 years ago remains something of a mystery. They were taking part in a map-reading exercise that ought to have been straightforward; the idea was to navigate their way across four or five miles of countryside to a designated point, then return to base and report what they had seen—which, if all went to plan, should have been the picturesque Suffolk village of Kersey. But the more they thought about it, the more the cadets wondered whether something very strange had occurred to them. Years later, William Laing, the Scottish boy who led the group, put it this way: “It was a ghost village, so to speak. It was almost as if we had walked back in time… I experienced an overwhelming feeling of sadness and depression in Kersey, but also a feeling of unfriendliness and unseen watchers which sent shivers up one’s back… I wondered if we’d knocked at a door to ask a question who might have answered it? It doesn’t bear thinking about.”