If the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, what were the first steps Hemiunu took when starting the construction of the Great Pyramid?  Six letters from Hemiunu is a work of epistolary historical fiction, with a very heavy emphasis on historical, which explores the sort of details that would have required his attention immediately after choosing a building site for Khufu’s Pyramid.

The purpose of these imaginary missives from the desk of the Overseer of All the King’s Works is to give the reader an idea of the amount of planning, materials, and manpower involved not only in building the Great Pyramid, but in preparation for the work itself.  There were mines and quarries to be opened, a fully functional workers’ city to be constructed, and an entire nation to be mobilized.

In many ways this is a re-introduction to the Hemiunu to Houdin series, but it is also intended to be a stand-alone monologic narrative (fancy-speak for letters from just one person that tell a story) of how Hemiunu initiated the project that would occupy all of Egypt for more than two decades.  Methods and materials, labor and logistics, tools and tasks, they are all here for your evaluation, along with a short annotated bibliography at the end.

Note:  The names used, with the exception of the Grand Vizier himself, are invented but not without some forethought (the Overseer of the Expedition to the Sinai to open the copper mines, for instance, is named Biah-Ahky, which translates to copper miner), and the titles and positions they hold do have their historical counterparts.

Letter 1:  The Selection of the Building Site

From the Greatest of the Five of the House of Thoth, Chief Justice, Grand Vizier and Overseer of All the King’s Works, Hemiunu, Holder of the King’s Seal, to the overseers, administrators, and nomarchs of the Two Lands:  Life, Prosperity, Health!

All of Upper and Lower Egypt Rejoice!  A place has been chosen for the pyramid complex of our pharaoh, Khufu, May He Live!  May He Prosper!  May He Be Healthy!  The pyramid where our king shall rest in body will be called Akhet Khufu—Khufu on the Horizon.

Hemienu and his entourage would have sailed the Nile in a more luxuriously appointed barge than this one, from the tomb of Vizier Mereruka, but the scale was probably about the same (Photo by Keith Payne)

Hemiunu and his entourage would have sailed the Nile in a more luxuriously appointed barge than this one, from the tomb of Vizier Mereruka, but the scale was probably about the same (Photo by Keith Payne)

Many of you have traveled with me the length of the Nile and have surveyed numerous sites, providing good counsel.  Many days and nights have we held court on the land and on my barge, and many passionate cases have been tendered.  Your service to our king will be remembered by all people, for all time.

I have decided against Saqqara and Dashur and have chosen instead the site in the north, at Rostau.

I have good reasons for this choice.  First, there is a vast quantity of good yellow limestone there from which to build the inner structures of the pyramid and temples.  Second, there is a gentle slope which begins in the low area, suitable for a quay, and which connects the best location for the main quarry to the top of the plateau.  A donkey released at the summit will follow this same natural ramp down to an easy path to the Nile.  Donkeys have uncanny judgment in these matters and we should heed his guidance.

Contour Map of the Giza Plateau

Of equal consideration are the plateau’s qualities of expanse and orientation.  It is an elevated plane with room enough for at least three, possibly more, large pyramids and numerous precincts for cemeteries.  Its elevation and orientation will make these monuments visible from Saqqara and Dashur and provide a desirable view when approached from the capital at Memphis.  In particular, I have decided upon the site that we identified as the lesser quarry, on the northeast extreme of the plateau.  This location is not the highest, but I have good reasons for this choice as well.

The Pyramids of Dashur and Giza as viewed from Saqqara (Photo by Gaspa)

The Pyramids of Abu Sir and Giza as viewed from Saqqara (Photo by Gaspa)

By constructing the first pyramid at the northeast corner, the natural ramp formed by the slope is left open to allow future building projects on the plateau.  Building on the highest point first would block access to the northeast corner.  To make the best use of the space, the plateau should be developed in the northeast first, with successive pharaohs building their pyramids along a southwest trajectory.  This will assure that the natural ramp remains open to future construction on the summit.

What is a setatBuilding the pyramid within the lesser quarry is advantageous in other ways as well, not the least of which is 147 setat of limestone that needn’t be transported once cut.  Another advantage is the lay of the land, which slopes upward to the west.  When the outline of the pyramid is leveled, the elevated section inside the perimeter will be left intact.  By shaping this hill to fit within the construction, one tenth of the pyramid’s core will already be complete.

The main quarry at the bottom of the slope holds another 176 setat of good limestone, which together with the northeast quarry will provide more than enough blocks to construct the greatest pyramid complex ever built.

All of Upper and Lower Egypt:  Unite for our pharaoh, Son of Re, Khufu, May He Live!  May He Prosper!  May He Be Healthy!

Letter 2:  Expedition to Open the Sinai Copper Mines

To Iahbty-Semyt, Administrator of the Eastern Desert, and to Biah-Ahky, Overseer of the Expedition to Sinai, Peace upon your goings!

There can be no doubt, Khufu on the Horizon is the greatest project ever undertaken by the people of Egypt, but this great work will require more resources than we have on hand.  There is enough copper for chisels and other tools to begin operations, but as work progresses we will have need of much more than we have now.  By way of investment, I have apportioned such supplies as you will require to lead a mining expedition to the Sinai.

Copper picks, saws, and drilling tubes have been made available, along with the powdered quartzite needed to make the drills and saws cut.  I call this an investment because these resources are in need all throughout Egypt as the great work begins.  In return, the pharaoh will need 840,000 deben of processed copper over the course of your operations.  Your work will be hard, but your afterlife will hold every luxury.

To avoid the transport of unnecessary waste materials, all smelting will take place at the mines.  You will be provided with mud brick to build the kilns and granite pounders for crushing the ore.  Moulds will be provided for pouring the copper into 50 deben ingots.  A supply train will make regular deliveries of wood for the kilns and will return with your finished ingots.

The number of donkeys and carts, baskets, and other equipment required has been left to your expert discretion, you need only inform the Overseer of Provisions of your needs.  A company of soldiers will be attached to your expedition to protect you in your journey, and will remain with you throughout operations to defend against the wild people of the desert.

This reproduction of a scene from the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Rekhmire shows metal workers stoking a fire and smelting ore. Although much later than Hemienu’s time, the methods and tools remained largely the same (Graphic by Achille-Constant-Theodore Emile Prisse d'Avennes)

The tools and methods used by these New Kingdom metal workers to smelt ore were largely the same as those used by Heminu’s workers (Graphic by Achille-Constant-Theodore Emile Prisse d’Avennes)

For this expedition you will select fifty of your best miners, no slaves or prisoners.  Your route will take you across the Eastern Desert to the Red Sea, where ships will bear you to the Sinai.  From there you will continue on donkey to the Plains of Markha and the mines at Wadi Maghara, where the greenest veins of ore—the easiest to smelt—are to be found.

If in the course of your work turquoise is discovered and may be extracted with ease, please do so, but not at the expense of mining the ore.

Map of Lower Egypt and the SinaiIn addition to reopening the copper mines at Wadi Maghara, you are to assemble missions to Sewew and the Faiyum to cull the dolerite which is abundant in those lands, and which is vital to the operation of the granite quarry at Aswan.

It is imperative that your expeditions depart as soon as your equipment, supplies, and provisions may be gathered.  The quarries at Rostau and Tura require more copper as soon as you can deliver it, and the work at Aswan must not be delayed if the granite is to be delivered on schedule.

May Isis watch over you.

Letter 3: Recruitment of the Unskilled and Semi-Skilled Labor Force

To Ahwet-Tepey, Administrator of the Corvée, Life and Peace!

What is bakAn important task is given you, for you are my eyes and voice throughout the Two Lands.  You are to send recruiters to every nome, from Theb-Ka in the Delta to Ta-Seti at Aswan.  These recruiters will identify those men whose privilege will be to pay their bak debt working to raise Khufu on the Horizon from the Plateau of Rostau.  All the strongest men of the realm are summoned to pit their endurance and athleticism against one another for the glory of the king and the honor of their towns and families!

These recruiters will arrange the schedule of rotation and provide the men with their work assignments.  Men will be needed for the quarries at Aswan and Tura, as well as the main quarry at Rostau and the lesser quarry where the pyramid will be raised.  Men will also be needed to provide supporting services to the great work, both at rest and in the quarries.

Work crewThere will be jobs for hearty men of few skills who will work under direct supervision.  For these jobs select men who are stout of body and spirited in nature.  These men they will be working in teams with others from their families and villages, competing in their labor with men from all over Egypt for glory and honor.  Tell these men they will travel, gain experience and character, and will come to be all they are capable of being.  And they will eat better every day in service to the king than they do on festival days at home!

When selecting these men bear in mind the sort of labor they will be doing.  Their backs will move the levers that free the blocks in the quarries, pull the laden sleds, and load, unload, and arrange the great blocks of Khufu on the Horizon. Their arms will clear the debris and bust rocks for filler material.  They will grind gypsum and pour mortar.  Their legs will carry water for the work, wood for the fires, and tools to and from the sharpeners and the stone cutters.  They will work in quarries, on docks, and on the pyramid itself.

Teams from the corvée pulling a colossal statue on a great sled. Most of the stone moved throughout Giza would have been on much smaller sleds, but the granite beams quarried at Aswan would have been pulled on sleds not unlike this one (Drawn by Faucher-Gudin)

Teams from the corvée pulling a colossal statue on a great sled. Most of the stone moved throughout Giza would have been on much smaller sleds, but the granite beams quarried at Aswan would have been pulled on sleds not unlike this one (Drawn by Faucher-Gudin)

Of course, some men will need to remain behind on their farms to do their part for Khufu on the Horizon.  These men will till the earth, fish the Nile, and tend their flocks and herds as they have always done.  Their bak debt will be paid on hooves, in barrels, and in grain sacks.  Cattle and goats, and the drovers to deliver them.  Fish and fowl.  Emmer and Barley, garlic and leeks.  Onions, radishes, cucumbers, dates, honey, and figs.  Salt and herbs.  All for the glory of Egypt, all for the glory of the Pharaoh, all for the sake of Ma’at!

Carrying provisions to the storehouse and granaries

Your recruiters must also seek men with useful talents or the ability to learn quickly.  Unlike the unskilled men, who will be constantly told come here and go there, these men will have regular assignments such as positioning levers, rough shaping stone, and sharpening tools.  They will operate machines which have been designed to lift and turn the laden sleds.  They will cook the meals in the barracks and assist the bakers and brewers.

A Young brewery worker from the Old Kingdom (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

A Young brewery worker from the Old Kingdom (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

These are coveted positions to which they will return for their season of bak labor year after year, with prospects for advancement.  They are opportunities to learn a trade, and a clever man may find himself apprenticed to a master.  For this reason your recruiters should know that bribes and nepotism will not be tolerated.  Any man who corrupts this great work will find himself and his family made destitute, his lands seized, and his place in the afterlife forfeit.

Your men need not worry about skilled artisans and craftsmen, as these will be recruited by their nomarchs and overseers.  Your recruiters need only concern themselves with mobilizing the main body of the corvée to the pharaoh’s service.

Arrange shifts and rotations of the corvée, send the right workers where they are needed most, and coordinate with the Royal Treasury and the Overseer of Provisions to assure that the granaries and storehouses remain stocked.

Map of the workers' cityIt is important for your men to work with haste, but of especial importance that those who will be recruiting from Lower Egypt, particularly the nomes of Khensu, Ka-Khem, Heq-At, and lower Aneb-Hetch—those nomes closest to Rostau—immediately send workers to the plateau to begin construction of the city where the permanent residents and rotating labor force will dwell.

This city will grow over time, but even in Year One there will be need for barracks, granaries, bakeries, breweries, and other facilities necessary to support the great work.

I wish you peace!  May you live, prosper, and be healthy!

Letter 4:  Recruitment of the Skilled Labor Force

To the Nomarchs and Overseers of Upper and Lower Egypt—Life, Prosperity, and Health!

Let word go out to all nomes and territories—men and women of wisdom and ability, your skills are required at the main site and in the quarries for Khufu on the Horizon!

The mudbrick buildings and narrow streets of the workers’ city (Graphic courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin/Dassault Systemes)

The mudbrick buildings and narrow streets of the workers’ city (Graphic courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin/Dassault Systemes)

To all the nomarchs:  send proclamations throughout your domains saying that Pharaoh Khufu (May He Live!  May He Prosper!  May He be Healthy!) requires the immediate services of skilled tradesmen of all professions!

Potters, weavers, metallurgists and smiths, woodworkers, carpenters, drovers, millers, butchers, bakers, and brewers–come to Rostau to serve your bak debt.  If you choose to remain, opportunities abound for you to make your fortunes.  There will be commerce and industry the year round.

A worker’s city is to be constructed at Rostau straight away—barracks, administrative buildings, granaries, bakeries, breweries, work yards, smithies, and foundries.  There will be permanent dwellings for those who bring their families to settle, and your king encourages this heartily!  Already the workers gather to build this city, to labor in the quarry, and to cut the foundations for Khufu on the Horizon!  Those craftsmen and artisans who are first to arrive will have the most desirable jobs, the finest housing, the best in all things!

Mudbrick was used for the worker’s city because there was a need to build as quickly and cheaply as possible before the main workforce arrived (Graphic by Achille-Constant-Theodore Emile Prisse d'Avennes)

Mudbrick was used for the worker’s city because there was a need to build as quickly and cheaply as possible (Graphic by Achille-Constant-Theodore Emile Prisse d’Avennes)

To Sha-Asha, the Overseer of Craftsmen, there is immediate need at Rostau for journeymen of all professions—mud brick makers, thatchers, carpenters, wood workers, potters, smiths, rope makers and weavers.  There is need in the quarries for men skilled in the working of copper and the making of tools.  Everywhere there is demand for basket makers.  There are ships to be built and sails to be made.  All sons and daughters of Egypt owe bak, but those who have a trade can truly better their lives.

What is a cubitTo Henem-Meha, Overseer of the King’s Quarries and Inspector of Masons, there is need at Rostau to build containment walls for the workers’ city, to construct a quay at the foot of the plateau, and to pave the access road from the quay to the northeast quarry.  There will also be need for a canal to be dug from the Nile to the quay, a distance of more than half an iter.  Plan for the canal to be at least 12,380 cubits in length and wide and deep enough to support a barge carrying granite beams equal in weight to well over 2 million deben of copper.

In addition, operations are to commence at the quarry at Tura, eight miles upstream from Rostau, from which the fine white limestone for the pyramid and temple facings will be cut and dressed.  Work is also to begin at the granite quarry at Aswan.

There is need in all places for surveyors, stone cutters, breakers and ledgemen, masons, dredgers, drillers, pounders, and grinders.  Your teams will be provided with related specialists, such as carpenters and smiths, as they require.  The unskilled and semi-skilled help are being dispatched.

ScribesTo Qai-Sesh, Magistrate, Overseer of the Scribes, and Overseer of the Priests of Re, to you I bid Life, Prosperity, and Health!  In all work centers, but especially at Rostau, there is need of architects and master surveyors, engineers, overseers of labor, priests to advise and bless construction and to sanctify grounds, astrologers, lawyers, physicians and herbalists, counters and inspectors, logisticians, provisioners, and scribes of all varieties.

With all haste let word go out!  As the Nile rises in Akhet, let all Egypt rise to the great work of Khufu on the Horizon!  As the crops emerge in Peret, let the wise and skilled of Upper and Lower Egypt emerge and come forth to the pharaoh’s service!  As grain is harvested in Shemu, nomarchs and overseers:  gather the bounty of Egypt’s craftsmen, artisans, and experts in all things!

Letter Five:  The Opening of the Quarry at Tura

To Iner-Sedjenajeninmer, Quarry Master and Overseer of the Expedition at Tura, Long Life!

Stone cutters at workSoon the professional craftsmen, semi-skilled workmen, and main force of no less than 500 men will begin arriving at Tura for the commencement of work.  The luminous white limestone of Tura shines in the sun like the surface of the Nile, unlike the dull and course yellow limestone of Rostau.

For this reason the Tura limestone will be the finished outer facing of Khufu on the Horizon, as well as the mortuary and valley temples, ka and queens’ pyramids, and the finished causeway.  All of Khufu’s (Life!  Prosperity!  Health!) pyramid complex will shine like a diadem on the brow of Isis!

But those who say take leisure, that the outer casing stones will not be needed until the core is erected, are in serious error and know nothing of what my father Snefru (May He Have Life in the East!) achieved.  If the outer surface of a smooth-sided pyramid is not laid first, the corners will not meet at the top.  Small errors at the beginning grow to colossal failures in the end.  The angle and its maintenance are determined by the surface, not the core.  For these reasons, the limestone of Tura will be needed before the first course of Khufu on the Horizon can be laid.

This copper adze would have been used in woodwork, but the copper chisels used in the quarries and at the pyramid site would have looked similar (Original photo by Jon Bodsworth)

This copper adze would have been used in woodwork, but the copper chisels used in the quarries and at the pyramid site would have looked similar (Original photo by Jon Bodsworth)

This need is compounded by the qualities of the limestone of Tura.  The limestone you will be working with is soft when it is first quarried and cuts easily in straight lines.  This makes extraction, precise shaping, and polishing very easy.

But as soon as the surfaces are exposed to the air they begin to calcify and form a hard shell.  This increases their durability, but means that all shaping and polishing must be completed at the quarry before they are ever shipped.  This means, of course, that some blocks will sustain damage in transport, but these can be easily patched and mortared.

Dressing the blocks will require a high degree of exactitude.  To finish the stone before the surface hardens the workers will need to move fast.  You will be provided with enough copper to assure that as each chisel dulls there will be another to replace it.  Runners will be in constant motion, carrying away dulled tools and returning with sharpened ones.  Each tool will have to be reheated to be sharpened, so other runners will keep the fire of the smithies stoked.  Coordination of your workforce will be essential.

Cubit measuring rods such as these from the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Aperia would have been common tools in the quarries and at the pyramid construction site (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

Cubit measuring rods such as these from the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Aperia would have been common tools in the quarries and at the pyramid construction site (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

As the blocks are cut, they must each be lined up side by side exactly as they will be installed on the pyramid.  Once the face is cut to a perfect angle of 14/11 seked, the angle of the pyramid, it must be polished with quartzite powder.  To assure an ideal fit, a toothless copper saw with quartzite grit will need to be passed between each block to perfect their sides to their one another.

Each block will be numbered to ensure that it is placed correctly when installed.  By installing the outer layer of Tura limestone first, the surveyors and architects will be able to observe that all the angles are correct, which if your work is exact, they will be.  With the facing stones in place, a supporting layer of well calibrated Rostau limestone forty cubits thick will be erected behind them.  The internal ramp will be built into this sturdy layer.  The rough core filling, as well as all chambers, passageways, and some machinery necessary for construction, will be contained behind the support layer.

Building from within—Workers lever one of the Tura limestone blocks into place. Also depicted is the 20 meter-thick layer of local limestone which supported the internal ramp. Some of the rough core is represented in the upper-right corner (Graphic courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin/Dassault Systemes)

Building from within—Workers lever one of the Tura limestone blocks into place. Also depicted is the 20 meter-thick layer of local limestone which supported the internal ramp. Some of the rough core is represented in the upper-right corner (Graphic courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin/Dassault Systemes)

Course by course, this is how Khufu on the Horizon will come into being.  Iner-Sedjenajeninmer, you have been chosen to oversee the work at Tura because of your qualifications, and the pharaoh is counting on you.  As you cut, shape, and perfect each numbered course of blocks, you will be essentially building the pyramid first at Tura and then shipping it to Rostau.  The rest of the pyramid will be built within what you provide.  It is imperative that you know this.  Great will be your reward, and you will dwell with the pharaoh forever.  Friend of the King, go in peace!

Letter Six:  The Opening of the Quarry at Aswan

To Emratab-Neb, Quarry Master and Overseer of the Expedition to Aswan, Prosperity!

A workforce of no less than 500 men, including quarry workers, supportive staff, and all manner of experts has been dispatched to Aswan.  Although we will not have need for granite until Year Twelve, work must begin immediately.  The qualities of the stone and the logistics required to deliver it to Rostau will make your work slow and tedious and even more reliant on the seasons than other quarry work.  Rest assured, all of these difficulties have been resolved, but your mastery and patience will be demanded in equal measure.  The pharaoh asks much of you, and great will be the glory.

An Aswan granite quarry at the site of the Unfinished Obelisk (Photo by Joe Pyrek)

An Aswan granite quarry at the site of the Unfinished Obelisk (Photo by Joe Pyrek)

The granite you will be quarrying is too hard for chisels, so expect a minimum of copper to be rationed to your operation.  Instead you will be receiving large quantities of dolerite, which is harder than the granite of Aswan.  Wooden wedges driven into natural cracks and those opened with dolerite mallets can be soaked with water, causing them to expand and free the stone.  Once extracted, the granite can be shaped into great beams with dolerite pounders.

A spherical dolerite pounder left behind in the Great Pyramid. These pounders were harder than the Aswan granite, which couldn’t be shaped with copper tools (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

A spherical dolerite pounder left behind in the Great Pyramid. These pounders were harder than the Aswan granite, which couldn’t be shaped with copper tools (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

Dolerite is being collected by missions dispatched to Sewew and the Faiyum for that purpose.   Additionally, teams have been sent forth to the cataracts, where the Nile gives up dolerite shaped into spheres.  These special pounders will allow your most expert stone cutters to shape the hard granite into the specific forms needed for the great work.

These great beams will weigh up to 2 million deben [around 60 tons], some of them possibly more.  They will be used to protect vulnerable chambers within the pyramid, to bear and direct the pressure of incredible amounts of weight, and to span wide reaches with minimal support, where limestone would crack under its own mass.  They will likewise be used for structural purposes in the temples connected to Khufu on the Horizon.

You will have to quarry, shape, and ship more than 118 million deben [3,500 tons, give or take] of granite from Aswan before this great work is done, more than has been used in the entirety of Egypt’s past.  The beams will make the twenty-day journey down the Nile on mighty barges.  An expedition has been sent to Lebanon to acquire cedar for the manufacture of these barges, and the Overseer of Shipwrights and Chandlers, who has already begun work on the lesser barges for the Tura limestone, has the plans for these vessels at the ready.

Along with the other experts being sent to Aswan, you will receive a team of dredgers who will oversee the digging of trenches in the flood lands during the season of Shemu, when the plains are dry.  These trenches will be deep enough to hold the barges so that their decks are level with the land.  As granite beams are completed they will be loaded onto great sleds, wood for which is also being procured from Lebanon, and these sleds will be towed onto the barges and left there.  When the plains flood in the season of Akhet, the barges will be lifted by the Nile and carried to Rostau on the rapid currents of the inundation.

Granite beams lined up on the King’s Chamber level of the pyramid. The large team of workers on the right is pulling another great beam (not depicted) up the ramp with aid of counter-weight machinery housed in the Grand Gallery, top center (Graphic courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin/Dassault Systems)

Granite beams lined up on the King’s Chamber level of the pyramid (Graphic courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin/Dassault Systems)

As you can see, you will need every day of the following twelve years to maintain the schedule required by the construction.  The quarrying will be slow, and the dressing of the stone many times more so.  Beams should be shipped in the Akhet immediately following their completion, to be stored on site at Rostau.

The center of all this effort, the primary reason for the great work, is the 10 by 20 cubits chamber in which the king’s body will rest.  Everything else, from the bottom of the causeway to the tip of pyramidion, is there to physically and spiritually support that sacred space.

The granite beams you will be sending to the plateau are what make this sacred space possible.  Without them, the great work will fail.  You labor for the king, for Ma’at, and for the glory of all Egypt.

Cut-away view of the King’s Chamber with its granite support beams. The physics required in constructing the 10 by 20 cubits burial chamber with its flat ceiling guided nearly every other decision made by Hemienu (Graphic courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin/Dassault Systemes)

Cut-away view of the King’s Chamber with its granite support beams. The physics required in constructing the 10 by 20 cubits burial chamber with its flat ceiling guided nearly every other decision made by Hemiunu (Graphic courtesy of Jean-Pierre Houdin/Dassault Systemes)

Annotated Bibliography

  • Brier, Bob, and Jean-Pierre Houdin. The Secret of the Great Pyramid: How One Man’s Obsession Led to the Solution of Ancient Egypt’s Greatest Mystery. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

In this paradigm-shifter, Jean-Pierre Houdin and Bob Brier introduce M. Houdin’s theories about the construction of the Great Pyramid.  Written for a general audience, but without skimming over details or dumbing down the material, The Secret of the Great Pyramid is a detailed explanation of the internal ramp theory and the physical and circumstantial evidence in support of it.

The Secret of the Great Pyramid accomplishes the delightful achievement of being a book that is equally at home in your Works Cited page and your beach bag.  But don’t confuse its mass appeal with being light on scholarship.  I do not use the words paradigm-shifter lightly–Jean-Pierre Houdin’s work takes us around the corner and into the next phase of understanding how the monuments of the Memphis Necropolis, from Saqqara to Giza, were constructed, and The Secret of the Great Pyramid is your introduction to the future of comprehending the past.  A strong endorsement, I know..  And I stand behind every word!

For this article the following sections were especially helpful:  Pyramid site selection (pp. 58-78); details of the Tura limestone (pp. 67-72); the granite quarry at Aswan (pp. 67-69); the workers’ city (pp. 64-66); logistics (pp. 70-1); Sinai mining operations (pp. 71-2).

  • Hitchins, Derek K.  The Pyramid Builder’s Handbook.  Self-published via Lulu, 2010.

In The Pyramid Builder’s Handbook, Derek K. Hitchins sets out to explain how these massive national building projects were carried out in terms of systems engineering.  Hitchins brings his experience as an engineer to the task of exploring the history of pyramid development, logistics, and how the process of problem resolution utilized existing technologies and methods as well as led to new ones.

Hitchins is effective in debunking the construction theories involving external ramps only (pp. 141-5), but does not address the possibility of an internal ramp, much less a combined solution of an internal and external ramp.  He favors what he calls “rocking methods” (pp. 146-48), which involves balancing the stones on two facing wedges and inserting planks beneath each wedge while the block is “rocked” onto the other, thus raising the stone step by step.

While this method could certainly work in raising individual blocks, and was possibly used in certain applications, compared to the internal ramp theory it seems to this writer to be tedious and impractical.  Hitchins is an expert in systems engineering and the Gentle Reader is encouraged to evaluate his arguments for him/herself.  But in the writing of this article, The Pyramid Builder’s Handbook was most useful in describing the corvée and the division of labor.

The Pyramid Builder’s Handbook is well written and presented in a textbook-style, with ample photographs and illustrations.  The material can be fairly technical at times, and general readers may find it more useful as a reference work, as opposed to something you will read from cover to cover.  While I do not agree with all of Hitchins’ conclusions, I found the book to be incredibly informative and packed with useful data and information.

For this article the following sections were especially helpful:  The corvée and labor organization (pp. 9-12, 123-26. 138-41); logistics and feeding the workforce (pp. 117-21); Khufu’s Pyramid in general (pp. 39-45).

  • Houdin, Jean-Pierre.  Khufu’s Pyramid Revealed.  Giza:  Abydos Pub., 2010.

In Khufu’s Pyramid Revealed, Jean-Pierre Houdin expands on the materiel introduced in The Secret of the Great Pyramid, going into much greater detail regarding how all of the elements of both his theory and the pyramid itself fit together into a cohesive whole.  While still a highly readable work, Khufu’s Pyramid Revealed delves further into Hemiunu’s simple solutions for the complex problems posed by the Great Work of building Khufu on the Horizon.

Nearly every page is beautifully illustrated by the aesthetically pleasing and intricately detailed computer graphics produced by M. Houdin and Dassault Systemes (some of which appear in this article), who have graciously supported Jean-Pierre in every aspect of his work.  Khufu’s Pyramid Revealed leaves—literally—no stone unturned in showing how the Great Pyramid was constructed using tools and techniques known to have been in use during the period in question.

For this article the following sections were especially helpful:  Details of the Tura limestone (p. 17); tools and logistics (pp. 19-21); requirements for the King’s Chamber (pp. 29, 53); building from within (pp. 33-35); pyramid site selection (p. 43); the corvée and workers’ city (pp. 45-47).

  • Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Mark Lehner’s magnum opus of all things pyramidical, The Complete Pyramids covers the history and development not only of the pyramids themselves, but of the people who have studied them.  From the first instance of stacking one mastaba on top of another to the pyramids of Late Antiquity, Lehner explicates the design, function, and evolution of these complex tombs and “resurrection machines.”

The Complete Pyramids predates the publication of Jean-Pierre Houdin’s work by a couple of years, so the internal ramp theory gets a grand total of one paragraph (p. 216) and is limited to the theories proposed by Dieter Arnold.  However, for his detailed treatment of the individual pyramids, the people who built them, and the tools they used, Lehner’s Complete Pyramids is required reading for every Egyptologist, amateur and professional alike.

Heavily illustrated and presented in textbook format, The Complete Pyramids is as accessible to laypersons as it is useful to experts, which is to say, very.  Again, I have to admit my biases in favor of Jean-Pierre Houdin’s work as being the most thorough and up to date treatment of pyramid construction, but it is difficult to fully appreciate the achievements of the latter without understanding the historical and cultural context which Lehner gives to the subject.

As always, the Gentle Reader is encouraged to explore these books first hand and with a joyous heart and an open mind reach his or her own conclusions—and reading The Complete Pyramids is a joy.

For this article the following sections were especially helpful:  Khufu’s Pyramid in general (pp. 108-19); pyramid site selection (pp. 12-13); the Giza Plateau (pp. 106-07); logistics (pp. 202-05); quarries (pp. 206-07); tools (210-11); the corvée (pp. 224-25); the workers’ city (pp. 230-33, 238-39); feeding the workforce (236-37).

  • Lehner, Mark.  Et al.  AERAgram:  The Official Newsletter of Ancient Egypt Research Associates.  Vol. 1-10.

The Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) is the organization founded in 1985 by Mark Lehner and Matthew McCauley for the purpose of funding and facilitating the Giza Plateau Mapping Project, and extension of Lehner’s work with the Great Sphinx.  AERA’s primary focus in the last decade has been the excavation and analysis of the pyramid workers’ city at Giza.

AERAgram is the newsletter and biannual report of the work at the site and has been extremely valuable in understanding the corvée and the bak system, as well as how the various social strata of the pyramid city worked and lived.  All ten volumes of AERAgram, which are available in pdf format from the official AERA website, were consulted in writing this article.

  • Siliotti, Alberto. Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1997.

Alberto Siliotti’s Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt is an excellent introductory-level encyclopedia of pyramids, with hundreds of photographs, maps, and diagrams.  Siliotti’s large-format book has entries on all of the major pyramids and necropolises, with details of the temples and complexes associated with them.

While the photography provides a veritable tour of the architecture and landscape, I found the site and structure maps especially useful.  While clearly an entry level book, its thoroughness and layout makes it a handy reference for Egypt aficionados of all varieties.  This is one of those coffee table books you often see on the bargain tables and in the remainder bins, and if you come across a copy you will not regret picking it up.

For this article the following sections were especially helpful:  Khufu’s Pyramid in general (pp. 48-53); the Giza Plateau (pp. 46-7); tools and construction (pp. 40-4); workers’ city (p. 45).

  • Wilkinson, A. H. Toby.  Early Dynastic Egypt.  New York:  Routledge, 1999.

Early Dynastic Egypt explores how government and the world’s first bureaucracy developed in the earliest phase of Old Kingdom Period of Egypt, from Dynasties Zero to Three.  In this heavily researched work (nearly every paragraph in this book has at least one citation!), author Toby A. H. Wilkinson delves into the subjects of administration, foreign relations, and the establishment of urban centers with the thoroughness of a master who knows his subject and sincerely wants you to know it as well.

Wilkinson provides individual mini-biographies for every Egyptian ruler from the unnamed kings of Dynasty 0 through to Huni and Qahedjet.  The section on the establishment of authority (pp. 92-279) explains in detail how the royal administration developed, from the petty nobility to the creation of the vizier, and the growth (by necessity) of a complex system of titles and functionaries.

Although the timeframe of Early Dynastic Egypt (just barely) predates the subject of this article, it was an invaluable resource in understanding the foundations of the political system and hierarchy in which Hemiunu operated and how it was vital to mobilizing the nation toward the singular goal of building Khufu’s Pyramid.   It has been stated that while the Egyptians built the pyramids, the pyramids built Egypt.  In other words, the national political system emerged from the process of organizing the great work of pyramid construction.  Toby Wilkinson shows that the roots of the nation-state of Egypt actually reach considerably further back than the Fourth Dynasty.

For this article the following sections were especially helpful:  Administration and royal titles (pp. 92-126); Sinai mining operations (pp. 121-22; 139-46); mines and quarries in general (144-45); development of the corvée (pp. 94-95, 120); the institution of the vizier (116-118); administration of royal building projects (pp. 113-14).

Copyright by Keith Payne, 2010.  All rights reserved.

Graphics “Workers’ city”, “Building from within”, Granite beams qued”, and “King’s chamber” by Jean-Pierre Houdin/Dassault Systemes are copyrighted by Jean-Pierre Houdin and Dassault Systems and are used with their kind permission—all rights reserved.  Graphic “Contour Map of the Giza Plateau” by Jean-Pierre Houdin/Albert Ranson is copyrighted by Jean-Pierre Houdin and Albert Ranson and is used with their kind permission—all rights reserved.  Photographs “The Pyramids of Dashur and Giza as viewed from Saqqara” by Gaspa, and “Aswan granite quarry” by Joe Pyrek are used in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.  Photographs  “Dolerite Sphere”, “Cubit measuring rods”, “Old kingdom figure showing beer making”, “Basalt drill core”, and “Copper adze” by Jon Bodsworth have been kindly released by Mr. Bodsworth to the public domain.  Drawings “Stone-cutters finishing the dressing of limestone blocks”, “Colossal statue being dragged on a sled”, and “Measuring wheat and depositing it in the granaries“ drawn by Faucher-Gudin (Maspero, Gaston. History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria. Vol. II, Part A. London: Grolier Society), courtesy of Project Gutenberg, and plates “Metal workers” and “Mudbrick makers”, by Achille-Constant-Theodore Emile Prisse d’Avennes (Atlas de I’Histoire de I’Art Egyptien, d’apres les monuments, depuis les temps les plus reculesjusqu’d la domination romains, 1877), are in the public domain as their copyrights have expired.

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13 comments so far


Nice work Keith!

You’ve obviously put a lot of time and effort into this piece and it was a pleasure to read. I loved all the accompanying illustrations. How humbling of Hemienu to have the donkey determine the location of the Great Pyramid. 🙂

Jean-Pierre’s Internal Spiral Ramp theory makes the most sense and answers a lot of questions. It seems others agree as it was the most voted for theory on the construction of the Great Pyramid in the last Readers Poll at Talking Pyramids.

I’m looking forward to reading part 2.


August 4th, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Thanks, Vincent! The work was a joy!

I know that some of it is repetitious, maybe even a little tedious, but the purpose was to put Hemienu’s mission into some perspective. We all know that building Khufu’s Pyramid was a phenomenal undertaking, but to really think about the scale he was working on in terms of the number of years, the amount of materials, and the size of the workforce is even more humbling than taking orders from a donkey!

The donkey idea, by the way, came from correspondence with Jean-Pierre, and when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Who (or what) would know better how to choose the path of least resistance down a hill than a donkey?

Thank you for sharing the poll, I will go right over and vote after I finish typing this! The internal ramp theory is sensible, internally consistent, and not only explains how the pyramid was built, but accounts for the unusual elements, such as what purpose the Grand Gallery could have served.

The theory is genius. What separates intelligence from genius is that an intelligent person can solve a complex problem. A genius can solve a complex problem in the simplest and most economical manner and explain to the rest of us how it was done! Although Hemienu did not leave the explanation behind for us, the level of delegation required by the work meant that he was obviously able to widely communicate his vision so that others could carry it out.

It is no coincidence that Hemienu and Houdin are both architects! 🙂

August 4th, 2010 at 9:11 pm
Fred Sierevogel

Tja,dit is een theorie die alle kanten op kan,het is een beetje verwonderlijk dat vincent dit onderstreept,de bouw van de grote piramide duurde 22jaar,hoe kan dan zo iemand met dit standpunt komen,zeer vreemde argumenten woren ook hier gebruikt.
grt Fred

August 10th, 2010 at 10:06 am

Hi Fred,

Thanks for contributing! Although this is an English-language blog, I do not simply reject out of hand foreign language contributions and it is my policy to post the submissions in their original language then attempt as best I can an English translation and response.

Nor do I reject critical responses, indeed, they are welcome here! All I ask is that, in keeping with the title and spirit of the website (Em Hotep = In Peace), the writers make their point respectfully and support their contrary opinions with data, or in the very least a logical counterpoint of some variety.

Having said that, I am as unfamiliar with Dutch as one can possibly be, and so I will not even attempt a word-for-word translation! But from what I can gather using online translators, I would summarize your bullet points as:

The construction of the Great Pyramid took 22 years, people on all sides can see that my arguments are very strange, and you find it a bit surprising that Vincent has given his approval.

Firstly, nothing within this article contradicts a 22-year time frame for building the Great Pyramid. Somewhere within the range of 20-24 years seems to be a logical timeframe based on the physical and written sources. Trying to narrow it down to something more specific is probably not possible, and so taking someone to task for differing from your opinion by a year or two is tantamount to arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Of course, if you have some opposing evidence to cite, that would change everything! If so, please share!

Secondly, I have been called, with varying degrees of accuracy, a strange person, but the arguments I make are based on what are in my opinion the most up-to-date, sensible, and comprehensive theories I know of. That is, of course, my opinion. I will gladly defend it, should any arrows fall within shield-reach. I do not purport that these theories are 100% accurate, which would not be a scientific position to hold. But they are falsifiable, which requires more than simply being strange. Incidentally, they may be right or they may be wrong, but I am not sure by what standard they may be called strange.

I would also hasten to add that this particular article is a work of historical fiction. While every detail is based upon sound theory or evidence, it is not a thesis. The intent of Six Letters was not to prove, for example, that the copper for the Great Work was specifically mined at Wadi Maghara, or that the copper was shipped in 50 deben ingots. We know that the mines at Wadi Maghara were in operation a generation earlier, in the time of Snefru, and that weight during the Old Kingdom was measured in deben. I used these facts to make my article more detailed and lifelike. If you have any suggestions or corrections they are welcome, and if they are incorporated you will most certainly be credited for them!

Thirdly, I think that we would both agree that Vincent adheres to a high standard of scholarship, and while I never take his encouragement to be tacit approval of the entire content of anything I have written, his critique is a reliable barometer and his opinion is highly valued. I have noted that anytime Vincent puts forth an opposing opinion he always supports it with facts, data, and other niceties of valuable debate.

I hope that addresses your concerns, and if I missed something in translation, please post a response in English. As I said, I don’t want to discourage foreign language posters, but in my rather limited and obviously incomplete attempt to translate, I was unable to find anything specific to which to respond. An actual counterpoint, to which I may counter my own point, would be helpful.

Thank you again for your contribution!

By the way, I acknowledge your response to the other article, and while I am not particularly keen on censorship, moderation is a necessary evil. To the point, your other message was pure vitriol without a single specific criticism or position. Perhaps a re-composition, with less heat and more light, could be a learning opportunity for us both?

August 10th, 2010 at 5:42 pm
Richard van Buren

Let me handle this one, Semsu, I do understand “him” perfectly:

Hee Fredje, dachtje dat de benodigde materialen al klaar lagen of uit de rotsen kwamen vliegen? Stenen hakken, koper smelten, het spul vervoeren, en dergelijke kost tijd… veel tijd, JIJ daarentegen bent er duidleijk een uit de “gespreide bedjes generatie”, de AE (Ancient Egypts) waren dat dus niet, Fred.

Mjn vraag is dan ook hoe jij tot jouw commentaar hebt kunnen komen zonder belast te zijn door enige kennis van de bouwkundiuge moglijkheden en prblemen in die tijd

August 22nd, 2010 at 4:29 am

Hi Richard,

Of course! You are a good and trusted friend and I have full confidence in your response. But for the sake of our readers who do not speak Dutch, I would be most appreciative if you would provide a translation!

I have posted your response without a translation because I know you to be knowledgeable and respectful of decorum, so I am not worried about anything offensive or off topic, I would just like to see your wisdom accessible to all of our readers!

August 22nd, 2010 at 8:51 am
Richard van Buren

My”wisdom”? OMGR (the R stands for “Ra”)
Well, since you asked for it 🙂 here it is, let other decide on my “wisdom”
Hey Freddy, did you think the necessary material was already at the
building site, or came flying from the rocks? Cutting stone, melting
copper, transporting the stuff and so, takes time… much time YOU, in
contrast are one of the “bed is made up already generation” [Translated
very loosely.] the AE (Ancient Egyptians) weren’t, Fred.

Therefore my question is how you could come to your comment, without
being burdened by knowledge of the constructional possibilities and
problems in those days?

August 22nd, 2010 at 10:09 am
Richard van Buren

In addition to my previous post, checked with Mark Lehner’s “The Complete Pyramids” gives on page 206 a construction time for “The Great Pyramid” of 23 years.
So, Shemsu, your estimate of 20 – 14 years was rather close!


August 22nd, 2010 at 11:06 am

Well, since you agreed with me I would say your wisdom is very well established indeed! 😉

But thank you, I believe your point was very well made.

August 22nd, 2010 at 5:08 pm
Philippe Costes

These six letters are a sympathetic and (once again) a good pedagogic way to help to feel the organization behind the stones. Something obvious is that one can’t built a pyramid without planification… but planification is just a word, and it’s a harder work to explain it, in a agreable way. Thanks.

December 28th, 2010 at 9:26 pm
David Joyce


I would like to use this image on my blog from your excellent article http://emhotep.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/SLH11-Colossal-statue-being-dragged-on-a-sled.png

Is this ok under the terms of Fair Use?


May 12th, 2013 at 5:42 am

Hi David,

Yes, that picture is in the Public Domain, so feel free to use it as you please 🙂


May 17th, 2013 at 7:28 am

I felt the 6 letters were a wonderful way of illustrating just how big a job this would be. Quite mind blowing, showing how well organised the Ancients were. The number of times this feat was repeated before and after is also something to make you think. Imhotep gets a lot of publicity – shame Hemienu’s profile is not similarly high.

October 23rd, 2013 at 12:31 pm

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