The Pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu

   Posted by: Keith Payne   

Categories: Old Kingdom, Lower Egypt, Pyramids, The Giza Plateau

khu-tabWhen 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

Pharaoh Khufu

Pharaoh Khufu (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu

The Great Pyramid of Khufu (Photo by Keith Payne)

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, Hemiunu to Houdin)
Looking up the side of Khufu's Pyramid

One two-ton block, every five minutes, day and night, non-stop, for 23 years? (Photo by Keith Payne)

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…

Climbing into the Thieves' Entrance

Climbing into the Thieves’ Entrance (Photo by Keith Payne)

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 Grand Gallery inside Khufu's Pyramid

The Grand Gallery inside Khufu’s Pyramid (Photo by Keith Payne)

Inside the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid

Inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid (Photo by Keith Payne)

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 Sarcophagus--or was it?

Khufu’s Sarcophagus–or was it? (Photo by Keith Payne)

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.)

The only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World

The only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World (Photo by Keith Payne)

Further Reading

Egyptian Monuments:

Pyramid of Khufu



National Geographic:

Great Pyramid:  Earth’s Largest

Tour Egypt:


The Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in Egypt:  An Introduction


Photograph “WIKI – Khufu.jpg” is provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons  and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of the file under the conditions that you appropriately attribute it, and that you distribute it only under a license identical to this one. Official license

ALL OTHER photographs and text are copyright 2009, all rights reserved.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, July 9th, 2009 at 7:06 pm and is filed under Old Kingdom, Lower Egypt, Pyramids, The Giza Plateau. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

11 comments so far


What a lovely website you have created, very attractive and informative at the same time. I enjoyed reading your About Me page. It gives a good insight into the title of your blog.

I was also roaming around Egypt in 1997, from July to the latter half of September. Perhaps our paths crossed.

Welcome to the Ancient Egyptian Blogosphere.

July 20th, 2009 at 9:48 pm

Thanks for the welcome and encouragement! Your own website has been an invaluable resource.

I was in Egypt from early May to early June, 1997, so I would have been stateside by the time you arrived. But I am sure we have trodden much of the same ground.

July 21st, 2009 at 10:17 am

This was a great website! It was so helpful for my world history project!!! Thanks a lot. Out of just this I got a six page report.. THANK YOU!

September 28th, 2009 at 11:41 am

Thanks Sam!

Your comment just made my day. My vision for Em Hotep! has always been to create an interesting and reliable resource for students and anybody else with a love for Egypt.

Keep watching the news for Khufu’s Pyramid, and in particular keep checking back here for my on-going series regarding Jean-Pierre Houdin’s theories about Khufu’s Pyramid.

There have been many theories about how the Great Pyramid was constructed, but in my opinion Jean-Pierre has nailed it.

The next installment is in the works now!

September 28th, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Love the site. You are a bone a fied Egyptophile like the rest of us. What a web site,nice going Keith. Oh, by the way, I visited the Nishran Shoshoe Society (I know I spelled that wrong..oh well), and chanted your chant for several hours. Very powerful and I know why you are Buddhist. Great way to go. I myself am Sufi, or something like that. I also like to write, and thank the goddess for spellcheck. It is boreing to spell a word the same way all the time, us artists spell them differently each time. ha ha. Going to Egypt in January and February. Need anything???

December 1st, 2009 at 5:43 am

Hi Sphinxlady!

Thank you for your compliments, and especially thank you for participating in the discussion!

I have great respect for Sufisim, which I studied when I practiced a form of Christian mysticism. I was, more than anything else, interested in the commonality between the mystical traditions of all religions, which I felt (and still do, by the way) were different cultural expressions of the same yearning and very similar archetypes. That was what originally interested me in ancient Egypt, but I have since expanded my interest beyond comparative mythology to a more general sociological-anthropological-historical approach.

The form or Buddhism I practice, by the way, is Nichiren, but not Shoshen. I am a member of Soka Gakkai, which is strictly a lay organization. No priests, monks, or nuns, just practitioners from top to bottom! We have leadership, but it is voluntary and based on group consciousness—more democratic that way! You can learn more about SGI at this link, if interested.

So you are travelling to our beloved Khemet next month?? I am envious! It will be a few years before I can return, but I spent a summer semester there in 1997 and can say that you are in for a brilliant experience. The only thing I need, apart from your safe return, would be any stories and/or pictures you may wish to share when you return! Although a word of advice—avoid the temptation to live behind your camera while you are there. Don’t forget to just stop every now and again and take in the environment, really think about where you are and all that has transpired on the very spot where you are standing.

As modern tourists, travelers, and scholars, we are privileged to tread in the most sacred of places, to see the Holy of Holies where 99.999% of the ancient Egyptian people would never be permitted to be. The very least we owe them, and ultimately ourselves, is to appreciate how rare that opportunity is and not just wander through like we are browsing at Walmart!

But most importantly just enjoy yourself!

December 2nd, 2009 at 4:49 pm

These pictures are the coolest thing i have ever seen. They make me want to go find a lost pyramid!

January 30th, 2010 at 10:56 am
gaaby stanton-fischer

i love him! this website rocks

March 8th, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Thanks Sydney and Gaaby!

Enjoy your visits, and don’t be shy, wade in on any discussion, ask any question! If I don;t know the answer I probably know somebody who does.

March 8th, 2010 at 10:50 pm
John Van Gelder

A truly remarkable site. I have had a lifelong fascination with the monuments of Egypt. I feel that more than anything else that they are there to inspire future generations.

November 26th, 2013 at 11:49 am

can someone tell me how Khufu died

February 3rd, 2017 at 9:04 pm

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