If correct, the revolutionary new theory would solve one of archaeology's greatest riddles - what lay behind the construction of the pyramids.
Using an astronomical computer to recreate the night sky as it would have appeared over Egypt 4,500 years ago, the researcher Robert Bauval has concluded that the construction of the pyramids was nothing less than an attempt to build heaven on earth.
The full details of Bauval's discoveries and theory are to be published next week in a book entitled The Orion Mystery. Bauval's new theory is likely to cause controversy within the Egyptological world.
However, one leading British Egyptologist - Dr Jaromir Malek of Oxford University's Griffith Institute and Ashmolean Museum - concedes that Bauval could be right.
'His star-map theory is an interesting one and it will be up to scholars to assess it point by point,' he says. A leading expert in ancient Egyptian mythology and religion, Dr Geraldine Pinch of Cambridge University's Oriental Studies faculty, is also prepared to take the new proposal seriously.
'I think there could be something in Bauval's star-map proposal. I don't think it is impossible,' she says.
Bauval's hypothesis that the largest series of pyramids - built by the fourth-dynasty kings of Egypt - was constructed as a giant map of the heavens is based on several pieces of evidence, much of which is new.
Using an astronomical computer to show the positions of the stars when the pyramids were built, Bauval discovered that one of the four shafts leading upwards from the heart of the Great Pyramid would have pointed straight at the highest point in the sky reached by the star Zita Orionis.
This is one of the three bright stars forming the belt of the constellation Orion, often known to the ancient Egyptians as Osiris, Lord of the Afterlife.
Also, a second shaft pointed straight at another bright star, Sirius - which in some Egyptian astronomical texts is identified with the goddess Isis, the wife of Osiris. Bauval then discovered that a third shaft would have pointed at a key sacred point in the night sky at exactly the moment that Zita Orionis was rising above the horizon.
Examining star maps, Bauval then discovered that all seven fourth-dynasty pyramids were arranged on the ground in exactly the same pattern as seven key stars in the Orion/Osiris constellation and its neighbouring group, the Hyades, sometimes said to have been identified by the ancient Egyptians with Osiris's brother, the god Set. Incredibly, the Great Pyramid (with its shaft pointing at Zita Orionis) correlated on the ground almost exactly to the position of that star in the heavens.
Another bright Orion star - Orion/Osiris' left shoulder - Gamma Orionis (sometimes known as Bellatrix) correlated almost exactly with the large, yet never finished, fourth-dynasty pyramid of Zawiyet El-Aryan.
Another Orion star, Kappa Orionis (Orion/Osiris' right foot), related almost exactly to the pyramid of Abu Roash, said to be the tomb of the Egyptian king, Djedefre.
The two other stars of Orion's Belt (Delta Orionis and Epsilon Orionis) were, in turn, represented on the ground plan of the pyramid complex by the pyramids associated with the fourth-dynasty kings Menkaura and Chephren.
In the nearby star group the Hyades, Bauval found that the stars Epsilon Tauri and Aldebaran correlated on the ground with the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid, both associated with another fourth-dynasty Egyptian king, Seneferu. Next, Bauval noticed that the correlation extended to match the Nile (and its long, fertile valley) with the Milky Way.
It is not only the layout of the fourth-dynasty pyramids which appears to mirror the stars of the Orion/Osiris region of the sky. In six out of seven cases the size of each pyramid is roughly in proportion to the brightness of the star which it appears to represent.
Supporting Bauval's 'star-map' theory are the original names of the pyramids. The Red Pyramid, for example, was known (in memory of its royal builder) as 'Seneferu Gleams'. The neighbouring 'Bent Pyramid' probably had the same name.
The Abu Roash pyramid was known as '(King) Djedefre is a Sehedu Star'. The Sehedu was, Bauval believes, the name of the Orion region in the night sky. Also supporting Bauval's theory are passages from the so-called 'pyramid texts', discovered inside fifth- and sixth-dynasty pyramids, 15 miles from the Great Pyramid in the late 19th century.
'O King, you are this great Star, Companion of Orion, behold Osiris has come as Orion. O king, the sky conceives you with Orion,' says one of the texts.
Further supporting evidence comes from a collection of documents - known as the Hermetica - probably compiled by some of the last followers of ancient Egyptian religion, some time between the first century BC and the third century AD.
It states: 'Egypt is an image of heaven, or to speak more exactly, in Egypt all the operations and the powers which rule and work in heaven have been transferred to the earth below.'
Bauval's fellow researcher Adrian Gilbert, editor of a recently published edition of the Hermetica, suggests that that text was the last oblique reference to the thinking behind the star-map plan of Egypt's pyramids.
He believes that after the third century the secret behind the pyramids' raison d'etre was lost for 1,700 years - until Bauval's recent discoveries.
Armed with his new theories, Bauval believes that it is now possible to reconstruct what rituals would have taken place in ancient times within the Great Pyramid itself.
According to Egyptian mythology, the god Osiris - who became the first legendary king of Egypt - was murdered by his brother (Set), turned into a mummy and was semi-resuscitated into a sort of zombie state by his wife Isis, who then became pregnant by him.
After an appropriate interval, Isis gave birth to Osiris' son and royal heir, whom she named Horus. When Horus grew up, he defeated Set and performed a ritual to breathe life into his dead father so that he could be reborn into the next world. Osiris then ascended into the sky and became the constellation Orion and, according to some ancient texts, reigned as King of the Afterlife.
Horus then became the second King of Egypt but, although still a deity, he had more human characteristics than his father. All subsequent kings of Egypt were regarded as embodiments of Horus.
Bauval believes that evidence provided by the Great Pyramid's shaft connections with key stars gives clues as to what actually happened inside the pyramid at the death of the king.
The rituals would have been an exact re-enactment of the Osiris myth. He believes that the mummy would first have been taken to the pyramid's so-called Queen's Chamber and placed in front of the shaft pointing towards the star Sirius (the stellar form of Osiris's wife Isis).
The dead king would then have symbolically impregnated Isis after she had semi-revived him. Then, after some time had elapsed, Bauval believes that the symbolically semi-resuscitated dead ruler was 'reborn' into the next life, in a ritual carried out by his son, the next king of Egypt.
This ritual, known as the 'opening of the mouth' (to enable the dead king to 'breathe'), involved the use of several sacred instruments, including an adze made of meteoritic iron (literally iron from the heavens).
Extraordinarily, Bauval has discovered that when the northern shaft leading up from the Queen's Chamber points to a group of stars shaped exactly like the adze, Osiris - in the form of Orion - rises above the horizon.
The star which, according to Bauval, the Great Pyramid represents - Zita Orionis (in the Belt of Orion) - appears on the horizon at the exact moment that the shaft points to the adze in the sky.
Bauval thinks that immediately following the 'opening of the mouth' ceremony in front of the Queen's Chamber's northern shaft, the symbolically reborn king was taken higher up in the pyramid to the so-called King's Chamber with its shaft pointing to Orion (Osiris).
Bauval's use of the shaft's stellar connections to reconstruct what happened in which parts of the Pyramid 4,500 years ago is controversial. But his reconstruction, however, is likely to be viewed with interest by many who work in the field of Egyptology.
'Given Bauval's evidence and the existing textual evidence, it is a reasonable tentative reconstruction of some of the events that may have taken place inside the Great Pyramid,' says Dr Pinch.
The Orion Mystery by Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert will be published by Heinemann pounds 16.99.
A documentary on Bauval's discoveries and theory, The Great Pyramid - Gateway to the Stars - will be shown on BBC2 on Sunday 6 February at 9.30pm.
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