This is the story of two architects, separated by 4,500 years, both trying to solve the same problem—how to build a pyramid measuring 756 feet on each side of the base, 480 feet high, and consisting of 5.5 million tons of stone.

Our master builders have different goals, however.  The first, Hemiunu, was determined to build the greatest pyramid ever, and the second, Jean-Pierre Houdin, was equally determined to figure out how he did it.

Jean-Pierre Houdin and Bob Brier wrote a book—The Secret of the Great Pyramid—about this very subject in 2008 and the paperback edition is due to hit bookstores October 6, 2009.  Ahead of the paperback, Em Hotep!  is providing you with a multi-part primer to Houdin’s work, to be followed with an interview with the man himself.

But first, who are these two architects?

Hemiunu, son of Nefermaat—or Snefru

Hemienu: Vizier, Master of Works, and architect of the Great Pyramid (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Hemienu: Vizier, Master of Works, and architect of the Great Pyramid (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Although the Great Pyramid bears the name of Pharaoh Khufu, Hemiunu was the genius behind its construction.  It was no coincidence that Hemiunu should be selected for the job, and his pedigree would have well prepared him for the task.  What we don’t know from primary sources we may infer from what we do know about his probable history, and history in general.

There are two main theories regarding Hemiunu’s childhood.  According to one theory he was the son of Pharaoh Snefru’s vizier, Nefermaat.  Vizier Nefermaat also bore the title “King’s Eldest Son,” which taken literally would have made Hemiunu Snefru’s grandson.  As the positions of Vizier and Master of Works usually went hand-in-hand, it is believed that Nefermaat probably designed and built Snefru’s pyramids, including the Red Pyramid, the first true pyramid

If Nefermaat was Hemiunu’s father, it is not difficult to imagine the two of them visiting building sites together, the youngster rapt with his father’s instructions to the workers, his discussions of geography and topography as he surveyed locations, and geological reports delivered from distant provinces.  He would have witnessed firsthand the difficult and painful lessons of the failures of the collapsed pyramid at Meidum and the second guessing that led to the oddly shaped Bent Pyramid at Dashur.

Pharaoh Snefru (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Pharaoh Snefru (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The other theory is that Hemiunu was the son of Snefru, the pharaoh himself.  As a son of the pharaoh, Hemiunu would have had an elite education leaving him well versed in the principles of mathematics and astronomy, and with an appreciation for the importance of architecture in religion.  His days at the court would have familiarized him with the intricacies of leadership and logistics.

While Hemiunu, as the son of Pharaoh Snefru, may not have visited the building sites of the pyramids (although he very well may have), he would have been privy to the discussions of their construction.  We may safely assume this from the fact that regardless of who his father may have been, he eventually became vizier and Master of Works himself for his brother—or uncle—Khufu.  And as such, he showed clear signs of having learned from, and improved upon, the methods used by pyramid builders who preceded him.

The Pyramid Age had been ushered in by Imhotep, the vizier and master architect of Pharaoh Djoser.  Imhotep invented the pyramid, and while the form he designed may have changed, his template for pyramids and the complexes associated with them would set the standard for centuries to follow.  Before Imhotep, pharaohs and other nobles were buried under mastabas, rectangular stone buildings that contained mortuary shrines to the deceased and often symbolically mirrored the homes they occupied in life.

Imhotep conceived of a burial monument consisting of a number of mastabas stacked on top of each other, growing smaller as they rose.  His invention was the Step Pyramid, and he arrived at it through a process of modification and experimentation.  Like a Third Dynasty Einstein, Imhotep started with the idea of a pyramid and by devising, testing, and refining his idea, he achieved what had never been done before.  Of course, mastabas would continue to play a major role, but for Old Kingdom Royalty, some variety of pyramid was the tomb and focal point of their funerary cult.

Hemiunu, on the other hand, was more like Michelangelo.  He knew exactly what he wanted from the beginning, and by precisely executing his vision he achieved what has never been done since.  He had a plan which underwent very little modification, nor could it have.  Hemiunu understood how every layer had to look and function—from the underground provisional tomb to the pyramidion—before he began digging.

Jean-Pierre Houdin, son of Henri

Jean-Pierre Houdin - An architectural solution to an arcitectural question (courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin)

Jean-Pierre Houdin (center) – An architectural solution to an architectural question (courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin)

Jean-Pierre Houdin also grew up among the construction of great monuments.  His father, Henri Houdin, was part of the generation of French children born after WWI whose lives would be shaped by the events of WWII.  At the end of the war, he earned a Ph.D. in engineering from Paris’s presti-gious École des Arts et Metiers.  With more than 7,000 bridges to be rebuilt, young engineers were given tremendous responsibilities. Thus in 1947 24-year-old Henri Houdin was placed in charge of rebuilding the Conflans Bridge outside of Paris (Brier and Houdin, pp. 2, 38).

Jean-Pierre was born in 1951, the younger of two sons, and spent much of his childhood playing at construction sites with his brother, Bernard.  Henri had been assigned to the Ivory Coast, a French protectorate, where he was instrumental in the rebuilding of that country, and family outings often consisted of picnics at construction sites (Brier and Houdin, pp. 38-40).

It was thus no surprise when Jean-Pierre decided to become an architect.  He entered the École des Beaux-Arts in 1970 for that purpose where, as part of his final year studies, Jean-Pierre designed a solar house that would be considered cutting edge green technology today.  The year was 1976.

Henri Houdin first became intrigued with the construction of the Great Pyramid in 1998, when he viewed a television program on the subject, The Mystery of the Pyramid.  He watched with interest as the theories of construction were spelled out, but his instinct told him that the conventional theories didn’t quite add up.  They were illogical to the trained eye of an experienced master builder and were neither based on true civil engineering techniques nor masonry processes.

The engineer immediately spotted two misconceptions. The first was that blocks were always depicted being delivered to the site from the base to the top from the outside. The second misconception was that the pyramid facing was shown being installed at the end of the process, from top to base, with no means of controlling the shape of the monument. Henri didn’t see how that could be possible.  He then had an ingenious idea: if he would have to build a pyramid, he would build it from the inside.

Henri Houdin now had a project to keep him busy in his retirement, and he tackled the quandary with relish.  How would he, as an engineer, build the pyramid?  He worked and reworked his ideas, and in 1999 went so far as to publish his theory in the journal of the French National Society of Engineers and Scientists (Brier and Houdin, p. 126).

Henri discussed his newfound passion often with Jean-Pierre, but just as the engineer had seen flaws in the approach of the non-engineers, the architect son began to notice things his engineer father had missed.  For instance, Henri had envisioned an internal ramp spiraling up the inside of the pyramid in a circular fashion.  Jean-Pierre knew that it would be impossible to move heavy blocks in a circular pattern—there is no efficient way to push or pull such weights around a constant curve.

Jean-Pierre also knew that there was no way the internal ramp could accommodate some of the larger blocks used in the construction of the King’s Chamber (Brier and Houdin, p. 126).  Somehow Hemiunu had found a way to move granite slabs, some of which weighed more than sixty tons, to a height of nearly 200 feet and maneuver them into exactly the right place.

So the architect stepped in where the engineer left off.  How had Hemiunu done it?  Or more to the point, how was Jean-Pierre going to do it?  How do you reverse engineer a five and a half million ton pyramid?


About a hundred feet to the east of the Great Pyramid, cut into the limestone bedrock, is a sixty-foot trench first surveyed in the 1880’s by Sir William M. Flinders Petrie.  The trench contains, rendered in 3D, an exact model of the descending and ascending passages of the pyramid, around which the rest would be designed.  Although the halls are much shorter, they are the exact dimensions of the real thing, a veritable walk-in blueprint, right down to the narrowing of the ascending passageway to allow blocks to be wedged in (Brier and Houdin, pp. 114-17).

As it turns out, Jean-Pierre Houdin would approach the problem in exactly the same way Hemiunu did.  Thinking like his architect predecessor, Jean-Pierre used architectural software to produce the first true 3D model of the pyramid since Hemiunu.  Other models had been made of the pyramid, to be sure, but Jean-Pierre was able to use specialized computer imagery that allowed him to turn the pyramid in any direction, to see the interior through its external skin, and to virtually travel through its passages just as Hemiunu did in his 3D model.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu - Does a mile-long ramp lie hidden within?

The Great Pyramid of Khufu – Does a mile-long ramp lie hidden within? (Photo by Keith Payne)

Jean-Pierre’s life experience as the son of an engineer, his professional training and experience as an architect, and his technological savvy made him an ideal person to reexamine the question of how Khufu’s Pyramid was conceived, planned, and ultimately built.  His zeal would bring him to the attention of Dassault Systèmes, the world leader in 3D imaging, where he would assemble a dream team of modern pyramid builders and gain the resources to give his project the attention it deserves.

Hemienu to Houdin—Building a Great Pyramid

Over the next few weeks Em Hotep! will take you inside Jean-Pierre Houdin’s ideas, explore his vision, and evaluate his conclusions.  The first part will be an examination of the internal ramp theory.  What are the shortcomings of the traditional theories and how does his internal ramp resolve these issues?  Then we will go into the core of the pyramid itself and explore Houdin’s explanations of some of the pyramid’s abiding enigmas, such as the purpose of the Grand Gallery, and how those titanic granite blocks were put into place.  Finally, we will end with an exclusive interview with Jean Pierre Houdin himself to get clarification and find out where he will take us next.

htha05 - JPH01Jean-Pierre Houdin’s mind is in perpetual motion, and describing Khufu’s Pyramid as his passion is actually an understatement—it is his magnum opus, his mission.  With his and Bob Brier’s book, The Secret of the Great Pyramid, just going into paperback in October, you can rest assured his work has continued.  In addition to the coming interview, he just might provide some clarification as we explore his theory.  Who knows what new insights may arise?

Next Part:

Hemiunu to Houdin Part One: How Do You Prefer Your Ramp, Straight or With a Twist?


Work Cited:  Brier, Bob and Jean-Pierre Houdin.  The Secret of the Great Pyramid.  New York:  Smithsonian, 2008.
Photographs “Statue-of-Hemiun.jpg” by Einsamer Schütze and “Snofru Eg Mus Kairo 2002.png” are provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons  and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of those files under the conditions that you appropriately attribute them, and that you distribute them only under a license identical to this one. Official license.  Both photographs of Jean-Pierre Houdin are courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin, all rights reserved.

ALL OTHER photographs and text are copyright (c) 2009 by Keith Payne, all rights reserved.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, September 12th, 2009 at 11:51 pm and is filed under Old Kingdom, Modern 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.

12 comments so far


coming interview? when? I am loving this 3 pipe mystery!

September 13th, 2009 at 11:26 am

Very soon!

I am thinking that Part 1 will be up next weekend, or shortly thereafter, and another week for Part 2. The interview will not take as much formattting and setup, so I am guessing it will be up in 2 to 2.5 weeks.

But I wouldn’t be too suprised if there is some short Q&A with M. Houdin involved in Parts 1 and 2. He is being extremely generous with this project, and I want the readership of Em Hotep! to receive the maximum benefit from this opportunity.

September 13th, 2009 at 4:06 pm

This promises to be a great series Keith its such a novel theory. I do recall seeing it on Discovery fronted by Bob Brier and was interested then. I will definitely buy the book. One thing that puzzles me is the description in your article re the 3D model rendered in a 60′ trench. Are you able to elaborate a bit more on this as i unclear as to exactly what is meant here? Regards Dave

September 13th, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Thanks Dave! Yes, this very exciting stuff. In terms of the 60 foot trench, I will let Bob Brier and Jean-Pierre Houdin explain that. Quoting from their book:

Petrie didn’t just study the pyramid. He surveyed the entire Giza Plateau, and in the course of his measurements discovered a curious sixty-foot trench cut into the bedrock. He quickly noticed that it is an exact model of the descending and ascending passageways in the Great Pyramid. He calls it “trial passages . . . being a model of the Great Pyramid passages, shortened in legnth, but of full size in width and height.” These trial passages are as finely cut as the passages inside the Great Pyramid…The model is so well crafted that some Egyptologists have suggested that it is the abandoned beginnings of a small pyramid… (Brier and Houdin, pp. 115-16)

Petrie’s diagram is reproduced in the book, and it basically shows what appears to be a cross section of the Great Pyramid where the descending and ascending passages intersect, with the descending passage continuing a short distance in the direct of where the underground tomb would be. So, from my reading of the book and the diagram, the trench isn’t just a trench, there are tunnels cut into the bederock that mirror the passages in the Great Pyramid. Although obviously shortend, before the ascending passage reaches the surface it changes to the dimensions of the Grand Gallery, including the levelling off at the bottom of the GG before the step up to the slope!

I hope that helps, and I will get some clarification on this either during or before the interview with M. Houdin. In the meanwhile, thanks for reading, Dave!

September 13th, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Thanks for the explanation Keith, it is a fairly large model from the description that is given. I will be at Giza in December and i will attempt to find the said trench. I presume it is accessible to the public? Keep up the great work on the blog! DaveH

September 14th, 2009 at 3:35 am

I have read the book and been in correspondence with Mr. Houdin. The book is absolutely fascinating, and his theory makes so much sense I’d call it common sense, period. He thought through every single detail of the construction and it’s so… simple, really! I highly recommend reading the book (and watching the National Geographic documentary “Unlocking the Great Pyramid”), and I can’t wait for Houdin’s team to be given the chance (that is, the permits) to do work on site that will prove his theory.

Thank you Keith for taking on the blogging on this!! BTW, is there a way to subscribe to this blog so I’m notified every time you post a new article?

Rocio G

October 17th, 2009 at 11:41 am

Hey Rocio,

Yes, the book and the National Geographic video are both indispensible. And the video is hosted by Jean-Pierre’s co-author, Bob Brier, which makes it even more pleasant!

I know that as a writer we are supposed to maintain a detachment from our subject, and where we fail that we should at least declare our biases. Although I do my best to think critically about all things, I do have to say that I personally believe that Jean-Pierre’s theory will eventually be proven correct. There may be differences between the theory and what ultimately is discovered, but part of what makes Jean-Pierre a scientist is his ability to adapt rather than cling to a pet thesis. Plus, I happen to be very fond of Jean-Pierre as a person, so I am sure these factors come through in my writing.

But having thusly declared my biases, my goal with this series is to present Jean-Pierre’s work in such a way that even the most casually interested person will be able to grasp both its sense and simplicity, and to stick to the facts to the best of my understanding of them.

Regarding subscribing to the blog, from my understanding to you subscribe to the RSS feeds and can also join through Google, although I am woefully inept in that end of the technology. Maybe if someone reading this can offer a more complete answer about subscribing through Google and RSS feeds they will be kind enough to give a better explanation here!

Also, if you look at the “Meta” box at the bottom of the second column of the sidebar to the right, there is an option to join the site, which I believe will then provide you with updates.

Thanks for reading!

October 17th, 2009 at 12:50 pm
Susi Alt Leogrande

Simply asked – I’ve been following Jean-Pierre for awhile now and haven’t been able to find his “extra” research or comparisons with other pyramids that we CAN see into for one reason or another … Anyone give me a reference where I can cross compare the interior of the other pyramids that could show some use of this internal ramp theory? I’ve seen many pics of pyramids that shows obvious lines where something once was on the interior, but would like to know what Jean-Pierre has discovered.

November 5th, 2012 at 1:59 am

Hi Susan,

Have you seen the second DVD, Khufu Reborn? Not the one NatGeo ran (Khufu Revealed). If not, email me direct and I might be able to facilitate that. 🙂

He also has new material he is working on, but I do not have a release date yet. I am not sure if Khufu Reborn will cover the ground you are seeking, but I believe that he goes more into that sort of detail with the ongoing research.


November 5th, 2012 at 8:03 am
Susi Alt Leogrande

I thank you for the insights!

November 5th, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Hi Keith,
what a fantastic theory great work Jean-Pierre, Lets not forget that the Pyramid of Senusret I were clear evidence for the ramps used to construct the pyramid still remain.
cheers paul

December 17th, 2012 at 2:09 pm
John Van Gelder

The Houdin theory is most intriguing. As with all answers, they produce more questions. As another poster mentioned, I would like an explanation for how the corners of the interior ramp were closed and the pyramidion was set in place.

The Houdin theory also poses the presence of as of yet undiscovered antechambers, in the Great Pyramid, the presence of which would do a great deal to dispel the plethora of “fringe” idea about the purpose of the Great Pyramid.

I have viewed the Dassault Systemes video many times and a comment made there indicates that Khufu’s mummy was found. This seems to be in conflict with other literature on the subject.

The Houdin theory, seems to fit better than any other set forth previously.

Thanks .. John

May 19th, 2015 at 10:33 am

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