Reexamining the High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt
An Interview with John Anthony West
Text and Photos by Ray Grasse
During the 1980's I came across a fascinating book titled Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt, by independent scholar John Anthony West. Based on the research of the French mathematician and Orientalist, R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1891-1962), the book suggested that there was a deep wisdom encoded in the art, mythology, and architecture of this ancient culture, and which could be only be fully understood from a "symbolist" perspective.
Several years later while working as an acquisitions editor for Quest Books in Wheaton, Illinois, I learned that West's book had gone out of print, at which point I worked to secure the rights for a new, updated edition. Thus it was in 1993 that Quest came out with its own edition of Serpent in the Sky. The timing of the new version turned out to be fortuitous, since that was also the year John's work reached a worldwide audience due to a TV special John and partner Boris Said produced for NBC, titled Mystery of the Sphinx, hosted by Charlton Heston. The ratings exceeded everyone's expectations, and the show's discussion of a vastly older Sphinx triggered a firestorm of controversy in archaeological circles both East and West.
But two years before that I'd conducted the following interview with John for The Quest Magazine, in which we discussed the importance of ancient Egypt and the implications of his (and geologist Robert Schoch's) research regarding the antiquity of the Sphinx. As John put it, this interview essentially "broke the story" about their findings, and it eventually proved to be one of the most widely circulated articles Quest ran during the entire 1990s. Because John's comments remain thought-provoking and relevant today, I've reprinted the interview here along with a brief update at its conclusion.
Ray Grasse: For a number of years you've argued that the Great Sphinx holds the key to a different understanding of ancient Egypt. Could you explain that?
John Anthony West: Yes. An observation made by R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz in one of his books, translated into English as Sacred Science, was that the Great Sphinx of Giza had been weathered by water and not by sand and wind as was generally and universally assumed. I realized that in principle it should be possible to prove that; this is the geological question, not an Egyptological or archeological question. And I realized that if you could prove that the Great Sphinx of Giza had been weathered by water it would upset virtually the entire historical applecart, not only regarding Egypt but also regarding everything that was accepted about ancient history and the evolution of human civilization.
RG: Why is that?
JAW: First of all, I knew enough about the geology of Egypt—I'm not a geologist but I had done my homework—to realize that the conventional scenario held that the Sahara was a relatively recent desert. Before 15,000 B.C. it was a fertile savanna, something like modern Kenya. Between 15,000 and 10,000 B.C. there is a somewhat shadowy period, during which Egypt was subject to enormous rainfalls and periodic high floods. Following the cessation of the waters, Egypt became Sahara and has been Sahara ever since, becoming increasingly drier. So I reasoned that if you could prove that the Sphinx had been weathered by water, it would have to mean that the Sphinx was there before the water was there. If that geological dating is correct, it would mean that the Sphinx dated from sometime before 10,000 B.C. and probably before 15,000 B.C. Now, the actual dating is still at issue, but the scenario is fairly iron-clad. In other words, the sequence of events is fertile savanna, long periods of rains, and then desert. So whenever or however that dating is revised or arranged, the Sphinx was there before the rain was there. This means that no matter how you slice it, the Sphinx is a great deal older than anything else in dynastic Egypt. And when I say the sphinx, I don't mean just the Sphinx itself, but other structures connected with it on the Giza plateau.
RG: You've been back to Egypt several times recently to try and establish further corroborations for this theory, haven't you?
JAW: Yes. I've been back there on several excursions with a team of geologists and geophysicists, all of whom agree with me that absolutely, the Sphinx is weathered by water. It was not built by the pharaoh Chephren around 2,500 B.C., and it's a lot older than conventionally argued. Exactly how much older we can't yet determine, but that's the next big stage of research.
RG: As you know, some theorists claim the erosion you are talking about could be due to other factors, such as ground water.
JAW: Yes, this is one of the current explanations, but none of those theorists who have suggested this are experts in stratigraphy or geomorphology, or in patterns of weathering. But the geologists with me are. My principle investigator, Dr. Robert Schoch of Boston University, is a stratigrapher, and the others are knowledgeable in these and other specialized areas, and all agree that ground water weather, or any other form of weathering would not produce the weathering patterns that you see. They can only be produced by precipitation---that is to say, rainfall, lots of rainfall—over along periods of time.
RG: I understand that part of your current research has involved seismic studies done around the Sphinx itself.
JAW: Yes, we went in there with seismographs, which are activated by hitting a metal plate with a sledge, which sends shock waves into the ground, when then go through the different materials underground and return, and are then read out by a computer. In other words, it's a way of looking for underground structures. Basically, we went looking to see if there were any possible chambers or cavities under the Sphinx which might corroborate, say, Edgar Cayce's readings, which suggested that there was a so-called "Hall of Records" under the sphinx in which the whole history of mankind could be read out.
RG: And did you find anything?
JAW: Well, we found some very interesting stuff. And the Japanese, who were working with, I believe, radar detection, also found sort of suspicious-looking cavities in front of the Sphinx and on either side. Our resolution is probably better than that of the Japanese, better than anything that has been done to date, and it's still not good enough to tell us precisely what it is. They could be what are called "karst" features, which are natural deformations in the bedrock. However, the way they come out, and the way they are sited makes it look certainly provocative. The next step probably will be to go back there, now that we know what we are looking for, and go in with seismographs and do an even more detailed study. The Department of Antiquities is interested in this, and if we can tell them exactly where they ought to look, they probably would go through with a drill and one of those micro-cameras and see if they can photograph something.
RG: As you know, your own work and theories have come up against some resistance in the academic community and among conventional Egyptologists in particular. To what do you attribute this?
JAW: Well, one of the features of the academic community is that they are notoriously resistant to new ideas in general, and in this case what's at stake is overturning the entire historical applecart—and these people make a living selling apples. So it's not surprising that you get this sort of resistance. It's unfortunate, because scholars and academics are supposed to be interested in the objective truth, which is not supposed to be associated with emotional reactions. The fact of the matter is that there is invariably an emotional reaction to any new idea, particular one as radical as this. It's a psychological rather than an academic problem.
RG: Part of the problem seems to be over the fact that you are coming from outside the mainstream academic community?
JAW: Well, yes, and actually, in a sense, rightfully so. This is why I need my geologists and geophysicists to back me up. I'm not a geologist or a geophysicist. The fact of the matter is that until very recent times most of the important discoveries in archaeology were made by amateurs; Schliemann and Troy is perhaps the most dramatic example of this. But generally speaking, many of the most important discoveries were made by impassioned amateurs. And, actually, since I've been studying Egyptology and related subjects for some 20-25 years, I don't regard the lack of formal credentials as an impediment. In fact (laughing), I tend to regard it as an advantage, because my tenured neck is not on the line, and I’m not obliged to worry about the ruffled feelings of my colleagues.
RG: How do you feel we can practically implement or learn from the ancient Egyptian worldview? In other words, is all of this simply something that is to remain of merely academic, intellectual interest to us, or is there something the ancient Egyptians really have to teach us who live in the twentieth century?
JAW: Well, we stand to learn a great deal. To begin with, it hinges upon understanding the difference between progress and civilization. What we now have we call progress—I call it a kind of shiny barbarism—and it has nothing to do with civilization. In a true civilization, human beings generally understand that we are on this earth for a purpose, that our lives have a certain meaning. In Egypt, if we wanted to apply a single definition to the Egyptian esoteric doctrine, it would be the transformation of the soul; the possibility that we have to transform ourselves from the material beings that we are by birth to the spiritual beings that we are by birthright. And all of the Egyptian doctrine, all of their temples, all of their tombs, everything that they ever did, was directed towards that tremendous aim. And while we're not about to go rebuild temples or pyramids, or anything of that sort, we can certainly learn from the Egyptians how a true civilization functions when it understands this question of meaning and human destiny.
After all, it's now becoming quite clear what the results of progress are: we're living on a planet that's about to founder in its own landfills, the skies are polluted, the seas are polluted, the earth is polluted, all of this being a result, actually of "progress" and the materialistic philosophy that backs it up—i.e., we have no destiny, our lives have no meaning, we might as well be comfortable as we can and produce as much rubbish as we can because this pleases us. We can see the results of progress unfolding in the headlines every daily newspaper.
So, with the model or example in front of us of a true civilization that functioned for thousands of years—it too went under in the end for a complex variety of reasons—those of us who have our wits still about us and are not blinded by the technological feats of progress, can in fact start to personally and collectively re-establish a civilization on this earth. That's the reason I personally lead my trips to Egypt, to let people see Egypt for themselves, through symbolist eyes, which in turn dramatizes as nothing else can this crucial and glaring difference between the progress of today and the civilization of the past.
RG: But, practically speaking, how could one bring about such a state of civilized "sacred" values in today's world? In ancient times, it was possible for a certain set of values to be imposed on a society from the top down by the priests or pharaohs. But in a pluralistic, democratic society like ours, how would one even go about effecting such a change?
JAW: In one sense, you couldn't, but in another, I think it's a mistake to think that in ancient Egypt such things were imposed, as it were, "from the top down." It certainly came from the top down, but it's unlikely that it was imposed. We tend to think of these as tyrannical societies and all of the slaves did what they were told. But it's quite clear when you look at what they produced that slaves don't produce that kind of work. They produce Yugos, and Russian guns, and junk. But slaves don't produce masterpieces of art. In other words, everything that works well works via hierarchy. The word "imposed" connotes that the system was a tyranny, and I don't think that a legitimate civilization works that way. It works because the people at the top are doing their job correctly, and everything knows that.
Nevertheless, how do you get such a thing going? You get it going by starting with yourself, obviously; that's the only person you can work on. This is one of the reasons politics is so useless; it imagines that people who have never worked upon themselves can suddenly be changed. The only way to change anything is to start off by trying to civilize yourself. If enough people start doing this, suddenly you have the possibility of something approaching a civilization. And obviously, if a few people are trying to civilize themselves, and if they're getting anywhere, then you have a little organization.
So you don't start off trying to build a little pyramid or a Temple of Karnak, but maybe you start of trying to build a little school or a little farm, or something according to sacred principles. If a small group of people is behaving in some kind of civilized manner, they tend to have an influence outside their own sphere. Let's face it, this is how the great religions all got their start, because there was one Buddha or one Muhammad, or one Christ who had the sufficient inner authority to convince a lot of people that this was the way that they could live their lives. In modern history, these things have tended to function for a while relatively inefficiently, compared, let's say, with a tremendous civilization like ancient Egypt, particularly in the Old Kingdom. Nevertheless, you can see that the examples are there. And it can only start with individuals, understanding what is at stake—that we have the potential for the immortality of the soul, as the old doctrines taught. This is our birthright, and this is the promise held out to us by all the great religions and all of the great teachers.
Postscript: Although their research continues to be controversial, there have been significant developments in other regions which shed new light on West and Schoch's theory. For instance, one of the original criticisms of their work was the seeming absence of other monumental structures in the world during the time frame they proposed for the Sphinx's construction. Scholars like Mark Lehner asked, What evidence is there to suggest human society was complex enough during those early millennia to have created something as sophisticated and labor-intensive as the Great Sphinx? Yet the discovery of an archaeological site in Turkey called Göbekli Tepe during the 1990s has shown that complex monumental structures were being constructed as early as 10,000 BCE--well within the time frame proposed by West and Schoch. Similar research is underway in other archaeological sites around the world which could eventually lend support to the idea that civilization dawned far earlier than conventionally thought, and which made ancient structures like the Sphinx feasible.
Ray Grasse is author of The Waking Dream (Quest 1996), Signs of the Times (Hampton Roads, 2002), and Under a Sacred Sky (Wessex 2016). His website is