When Pharaoh Khufu set out to trump his father’s pyramid at Meidum he set the bar higher than would ever be achieved again. Khufu had a reputation for being a cruel and despotic ruler, and ignoring all other speculation about how the Great Pyramid was built, the sheer logistics of completing the project within the presumed timeframe suggests in the very least a classic overachiever. Whatever else may be true of Khufu, the man knew how to get things done.
Pharaoh Khufu was known as Cheops to the Greeks, and was also called Suphis by the Ptolemaic-Era Egyptian historian Manetho. His actual name was Khnum-Khufwy, which means “the god Khnum protects me.”
Khufu reigned from 2589 to 2566 BC and was the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, the son of Pharaoh Snefru and father of kings Djedefre and Khafre. He was coroneted in his early twenties, although sources vary regarding the length of his reign. The earliest source, the Turin King List, has him ruling for 23 years, the Ptolemaic Era Egyptian historian Manetho has him ruling for 63 years, and the Greek Historian Herodotus puts his reign at 50 years.
Although he had a reputation for cruelty to friend and foe alike, he was worshipped until well into the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, nearly 2000 years, although this may have something to do with his rather impressive pyramid. Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, has recently postulated that the reason for Khufu’s bad reputation may have to do with his declaration during his lifetime that he was the god Ra. Its one thing for a pharaoh to be a living god, quite another to declare oneself to be the living god.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu
Also known as the Great Pyramid and the Pyramid of Cheops, the Pyramid of Khufu is the oldest of the three pyramids which dominate the Giza Plateau. It is also the largest, although the Pyramid of Khafre appears taller due to being built on a higher part of the plateau. The pyramid was believed to have been completed during Khufu’s lifetime.
The architect of the Great Pyramid was Hemienu, Khufu’s Vizier and Master of Works. Hemienu was either the son of Nefermaat, the architect who built King Snefru’s pyramids, or was a son of Snefru himself, and brother to Khufu. Either way, the perfecting of the pyramidal form, from the step pyramid design to the flat-sided Red Pyramid, occurred during Hemienu’s lifetime. He would have observed firsthand the failure of the collapsed pyramid at Meidum and the tough lessons of the Bent Pyramid, which owes its odd shape to a decision to change the angle after construction was well underway.
At an original height of about 481 feet, the Pyramid of Khufu was the tallest building on Earth for more than 3,800 years, until the completion of the Lincoln Cathedral around AD 1300. It is believed that more than 2.3 million blocks were used in its construction, not including the limestone casing. Theories regarding its manner of construction abound.
It is interesting to note that even given Manetho’s rather high estimate of Khufu’s reign, the Egyptians would have had to quarry, dress, move, and place just over 100 blocks per day, at an average weight of 2.5 tons, non-stop, 24 hours a day, for 63 years to complete the Great Pyramid. Given the more likely reign of 23 years, that would mean about 274 blocks per day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week—about one block every five minutes. Such logistics naturally raise a few questions.
(For some potential answers, be sure to read the Em Hotep! exclusive series, Hemienu to Houdin)
All theories aside, the notion that Khufu’s pyramid was built by slaves has been roundly discredited. Ruins of what seems to be the builders’ village have been uncovered, along with tombs of their own. Evidence suggests that the building of Khufu’s pyramid was a national project that drew laborers, engineers, architects, craftsmen, and all of the specialized labor necessary to support such a workforce from all over Egypt. From a social perspective, the construction of Khufu’s pyramid may be compared to the conscription efforts of World War II, had the war lasted 23-63 years…
There has been some debate over whether the Great Pyramid was intended as a tomb for the pharaoh, or if it served more of a symbolic function. Most Egyptologists agree that the pyramid was intended for the burial of Khufu, but not everyone agrees on where in the pyramid he may have been interred. Zahi Hawass has expressed doubt that the King’s Chamber was the tomb of Khufu, which he thinks may still lie undisturbed within the pyramid.
Access to the pyramid is gained through the Thieves’ Entrance, a rough-hewn cave dug out by robbers more than eleven centuries ago, which leads into the original descending passageway. This in turn leads to a narrow 130 foot-long ascending passageway which is 3½ to 4 feet high, and extremely steep. This passageway lets out in the Grand Gallery, a 30-foot high passageway that continues along at a 29 degree incline, and opens into the King’s Chamber.
The King’s Chamber is lined with red granite, and the sarcophagus inside is hewn from a single block of the same. To date, two rooms besides the King’s Chamber have been found. The middle chamber is called the Queen’s Chamber, although there is no evidence it had anything to do with any of Khufu’s queens, who have their own pyramids. Its true function is unknown. The third chamber was never completed and may have originally been planned to hold the sarcophagus, but again, there is no way to be certain.
Jean-Pierre Houdin has argued that all three chambers were intended for the burial of the king, but at different times. From the outset, he contends, Hemienu wanted to make certain that the king had a suitable burial chamber, and the primary goal of the pyramid is the King’s Chamber. But Hemienu knew that completion of the King’s Chamber, the final resting place for Khufu, was a while off, so the pyramid was built with contingency burial chambers.
The underground tomb was built first and left in the rough—if needed it could be finished fairly quickly. If the king should die during the first ten years of construction he could be buried in the underground tomb. The Queen’s Chamber was then built as a more fitting temporary grave, and would have allowed Hemienu to test some of the techniques he would be using in the much grander King’s Chamber. Finally, the King’s Chamber was completed. It was fortunate the underground and middle chambers were never required, but Hemienu left nothing to chance.
Khufu’s valley temple, causeway, and mortuary temple (pyramid complex) are all but gone, with only a few basalt paving stone left to delineate their outline. His cult pyramid was recently located to the southeast of his pyramid, but the most exciting discovery was a perfectly preserved and fully intact funeral barge. (For more on the funeral barge see my feature article on the Giza Plateau here.)
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Tags: Ancient Egypt, Cheops, Djedefre, Fourth Dynasty, Giza Plateau, Giza Pyramids, Hemienu, Jean-Pierre Houdin, Khafre, Khufu, Khufu's Pyramid, King's Chamber, Pyramid Complex, Pyramids, Queen's Chamber, Sarcophagus, Snefru, The Great Pyramid, Zahi Hawass