The desire for immortality is as old as humanity. It was so strong in the pharaohs of ancient Egypt that they made the eternal preservation of their names and memories the overriding priority of their brief reigns on earth. For those pharaohs lucky or clever enough to build them, pyramids fulfilled just such a purpose admirably; these pharaohs’ names will forever live on alongside the stupendous monuments they built.
The pyramid that succeeded most thoroughly of all in this purpose, however, is unquestionably the Pyramid of Khufu, the most immense one of them all. Khufu’s final memorial, the most grandiose monument ever erected to a single individual, has indeed ensured his eternal place in history, even as it continues to define our perception of him all these millennia later.
In truth, we have very little other than his pyramid to go on when trying to come to grips with who Khufu really was. Outside of one small ivory statuette which Egyptologists agree dates from well after his death, we lack any reliable visual depictions of him whatsoever. And what little other information we have about him is not only fragmentary but often contradictory. This paucity ensures that he would be a mere footnote in history at best, were it not for his pyramid. As it is, though, this enigma of a man will always loom over our understanding of ancient Egypt alongside the iconic monument that bears his name.
The closest thing we have to a personal account of Khufu is displaced from him in time by almost 1000 years. A document known as the Westcar Papyrus, dating most likely from the Twelfth or Thirteenth Dynasty of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, recounts what must even then have been a much older folk tale about the already mythical pharaoh. It tells how Khufu becomes intrigued by tales of Djedi, a magician of extraordinary powers who is supposedly able to cow lions through his force of will alone and to rejoin a severed head to a creature’s body. Khufu tracks Djedi down and brings him to his palace. There the pharaoh suggests summoning a prisoner and decapitating him, so that Djedi can demonstrate one of his powers. But Djedi, whether out of compassion or humility, convinces his king to let him reunite the head and body of a goose, a crane, and an ox instead. With his powers thus duly demonstrated, he prophesies that the dynasty that began with Khufu’s father Sneferu will end after just two more pharaohs have followed Khufu. The current pharaoh takes this dismaying news with surprising equanimity; in fact, he rewards its bearer with a permanent place in his court and a royal pension. On the whole, then, Khufu comes across in the Westcar Papyrus as a wise and thoughtful ruler, even if he is willing to decapitate a prisoner in the name of a science experiment.
But Herodotus, writing at another millennium’s remove from Khufu, described a much less thoughtful ruler. As we learned in our very first chapter, the Egyptians whom the Greek father of history met on his visit to their land remembered Khufu as a bloodthirsty tyrant who enslaved people at a whim and even pressed his own daughter into prostitution in order to finance his building schemes. But then again, Manetho, Egypt’s foremost native historian, could write just a couple of centuries after Herodotus that Khufu had been such a scholar as to have written one of the most “important” books in all of Egyptian literature, albeit one left largely undescribed by Manetho himself and now lost to us if it ever really existed. Another two centuries on, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus was back to the tyrant narrative, claiming that Khufu had made himself so hated during his life that his people had decided to wreak their own form of ironic revenge on him in death: instead of burying his body in the pyramid they had been forced to construct for him at such immense cost in their own blood and treasure, they had placed it in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Taken together, it’s enough to give any student of history whiplash. What are we to make of these dichotomies? We might be tempted to draw an analogy between the enigma that is Khufu the man and the one that is the Pyramid of Khufu, so vaguely menacing in its almost brutal simplicity of form but also so incontrovertibly the proof in stone of the intellectual and technological sophistication of the people who built it.
Whatever else he was, Khufu clearly must have been a strong-willed pharaoh who wielded unusual power even by the standards of his position. Some Egyptologists see evidence that he instituted major changes in religious practice, probably to strengthen his own divine role. Possibly he declared himself to be the earthly incarnation of Ra, the god of the sun, thus cementing the supremacy of a deity whose importance in Egyptian life had been growing markedly for the last century or two. Perhaps he even dismissed the established priesthood and instituted an entirely new mode of worship, with himself as its principal object of adoration. A key piece of linguistic evidence points in this direction: Khufu would name his eventual pyramid complex at Giza “Akhet Khufu,” or “The Horizon of Khufu.”
And there are other tantalizing traces of evidence. Notably, Khufu’s sons Djedefre and Khafre would both take the epithet “son of Ra” as part of their pharaonic heraldry when they assumed the throne after him; this was a first in Egypt. The Egyptologist Zahi Hawass has theorized that the Giza Sphinx may be meant to depict Khafre actively worshiping his father, now ascended into the heavens again.
Most intriguingly of all, we know that in approximately 2150 BC, when the Old Kingdom was collapsing into a so-called “intermediate period” of instability that would come to separate it from the Middle Kingdom in the modern scholarly chronology, there was a major backlash against Khufu and the other pharaohs of his dynasty. During this period, much of the iconography associated with them was destroyed; this does much to explain the complete lack of surviving contemporary depictions of Khufu. Was this the belated reaction by Khufu’s jealous successors to the throne to his attempt to instill himself, in his role as an earthy incarnation of Ra, at the center of Egyptian religious life forevermore? And could these conflicts be the source of the later Egyptian folk tales which painted Khufu almost as a caricature of a tyrant? The details are hopelessly obscure; we can say only that something seems to have changed in Egyptian religion during his reign, then changed again four centuries later in rather violent fashion.
Thankfully, we can speak relatively more confidently of the state of Egypt itself during Khufu’s reign: a continuation of the economic prosperity and social cohesion that had marked his father’s time on the throne. For no other circumstances could have admitted so awesome an undertaking as the construction of the Pyramid of Khufu on the Giza Plateau.
It isn’t hard to understand why a proud, ambitious pharaoh like Khufu might have turned his attention to that site. His father Sneferu had showed him the benefits of building in a new location rather than sharing his glory with the tombs of his predecessors in an established center like Saqqara. The virgin spot Khufu now chose was rich with advantages both symbolic and practical.
To begin with, it lay on the western side of the Nile, which the Egyptians regarded as the side appropriate for memorializing the dead, thanks to its relationship to the setting sun. The plateau’s commanding heights stood at just the point where the Nile River turned into the Nile Delta: to look south from it was to gaze upon Upper Egypt, home to about 1 million of Khufu’s subjects; to look north was to gaze upon Lower Egypt, home to the other 500,000. Although the pharaohs were all effectively regarded as gods, competition among them to be the greatest god of all was fierce. Thus it couldn’t have been lost on Khufu that one could literally look down upon the tombs of many of his predecessors from the Giza Plateau. On a clear day, one’s eyes could range over fully 50 miles (80 kilometers) of desert to the south, taking in the pyramids at Saqqara, Meidum, and Dashur among other monuments. Few locations could have more potently advertised a pharaoh’s dominion over all of Egypt — or advertised the idea that this particular pharaoh was the greatest of them all.
And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, the Giza Plateau also had its practical advantages. Its bedrock, for one, was made of limestone. When quarried, the quality of the rock would be good enough for the bulk of the building that would need to go on there; when left in place, it would provide a foundation strong and stable enough to support the enormous weight of the pyramid Khufu envisioned — no Bent Pyramid for this pharaoh! Although the Giza Plateau lay some 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) from the Nile when the river was at its ebb, the water flowed right up to the plateau’s eastern base during the two or three weeks of every year when the inundation was at its peak. During those times, men, materials, and supplies from elsewhere in Egypt could be offloaded directly from boats and barges before the water retreated again and the plateau was returned to its majestic isolation. (In time, this natural affordance would be supplemented by the builders at Giza with new water channels permanently connecting the plateau to a canal system that was being dug at many places in Egypt during this high time of economic prosperity and expanding infrastructure.) All in all, then, just as the Nile’s rhythm was so perfectly suited to agriculture that one could easily believe it had been designed for that purpose by a higher power, one could say much the same thing about the Giza Plateau’s suitability as a site for monumental architecture.
It was customary for the planned location of a pharaoh’s final monument after death to serve as the seat of his government during life. Thus Egyptologists have long presumed that Khufu must have moved with his court to the vicinity of the Giza Plateau very soon after he assumed the throne. Yet many decades of searching for such a national capital turned up nothing. It was only in 1988 that a work crew digging a new sewage system discovered what are believed to be the ruins of Khufu’s palace, as well as a small administrative complex surrounding it. They lie not on the plateau proper — it was reserved for the tombs of the dead and those preparing them — but rather at its northeastern base, just on the edge of the Nile’s maximum reach during the inundation.
The mastermind of Khufu’s pyramid — his equivalent to Djoser’s Imhotep and Sneferu’s Nefermaat — is believed to have been his vizier, Hemiunu. In fact, Hemiunu was the son of Nefermaat, making him a cousin or a nephew of Khufu himself. Ironically, we can form a better personal picture of the vizier than we can of the pharaoh he served. His status at court during his life was commemorated with one of the most large and opulent of all the tombs on the Giza Plateau, with a life-sized statue of his corpulent figure — always the most telling sign of wealth and privilege in Egypt — standing as its centerpiece. Unlike depictions of Khufu, this statue survived the religious upheaval that marked the end of the Old Kingdom; it was uncovered by the German archaeologist Hermann Junker in 1912, still in the tomb it had graced for 4500 years.
Indeed, while Khufu’s pyramid is of course the largest tomb on the plateau dating from that pharaoh’s reign, it’s far from the only one. All around it, subservient to him in death as they were in life, are the tombs of his most favored bureaucrats, courtiers, and familial relations, their relative statuses marked by the sizes and locations of their final resting places. Grandest of all among them are the three smaller pyramids erected in honor of Khufu’s three favorite wives. (There’s no archaeological evidence whatsoever for Herodotus’s famous claim that one of these was actually the tomb of one of the pharaoh’s daughters, paid for by her personally out of her earnings from prostitution.)
The three queens’ pyramids were likely erected fairly late in Khufu’s reign, perhaps even after his own pyramid was already complete. We can assume, on the other hand, that the underground tomb of Khufu’s mother, Queen Hetepheres I, must have been among the first of the satellite tombs to be dug. Like that of Hemiunu, it would become one of the few such tombs to remain relatively intact and unplundered down through the millennia. When it was entered by the American archaeologist George Reisner in 1925, the richness and fine workmanship of the everyday artifacts found within shocked a world which still tended to view the Egyptians of Khufu’s time as a “primitive” people.
But then, virtually everything we see on the Giza Plateau disabuses us of that notion. The act of building the Pyramid of Khufu and everything around it represents a huge effort in planning and logistics. We can picture a sort of project office on the plateau presided over by Hemiunu, full of maps and scale models, buzzing with activity — a place where perfumed courtiers come to plead their cases for allotments of necropolitan real estate, where gruff construction foremen come to pick up their work assignments, where clerks, engineers, mathematicians, and even astronomers beaver away in the back offices with the bureaucratic logistics of monument building.
Of course, everything was ultimately secondary to the one great task of raising Khufu’s pyramid. With their pharaoh having chosen to build his final monument on such an unprecedented scale, it was now up to Hemiunu and his staff to complete the immense task before he died. While it seems Khufu must have assumed the throne as a young and healthy man — it’s hard to imagine him undertaking such an ambitious tomb under any other circumstances — the average life span even for a pampered member of the royalty in ancient Egypt was just 50 to 60 years. In a civilization without access to modern medicines and vaccines, sudden death could strike anyone out of the blue at any time. To fail to complete the pyramid before the pharaoh’s death would be a disaster for the entire land, a horrific disruption of the maat, that most fundamental rhythm of things.
Luckily, Egypt now had considerable experience in building pyramids, having erected three large ones of steadily increasing architectural sophistication during Sneferu’s reign. A core group of perhaps several hundred skilled masons and other tradesmen likely arrived on the Giza Plateau first to embark on this next one. These artisans were a far cry from the slaves whom Herodotus and others would later claim to have built the Pyramids of Giza; some of them were even respected and wealthy enough to get their own tombs at the base of the plateau and on the slopes leading up to it.
But their numbers were quickly augmented by many thousands of less skilled laborers. These were not slaves either, but nor were they necessarily as pleased to be here as their more respected colleagues. The various villages up and down the Nile were all expected to contribute manpower to the effort proportional to their populations. It was, like the percentage of their annual crop which they were expected to pay into the royal treasury, just one more form of national taxation. Non-specialists like these likely worked in tours of duty of perhaps as little as a few months, doing their obligatory national service before returning to their daily lives. Those who lived near the Giza Plateau may even have been allowed to commute back and forth from their villages a couple of days each week.
A complicated hierarchy descended from Hemiunu for the governance of all this activity, ranging from divisions of approximately 2000 men all the way down to individual work crews of ten, presumably composed of men gathered from the same village. The graffiti they left scattered about the Giza Plateau — including most famously that found by Howard Vyse inside the Pyramid of Khufu itself — gives a picture very different from the po-faced solemnity we tend to associate with ancient Egypt; the work crews chose fanciful names and boasted lavishly of their prowess. Surely the construction foremen were ready and willing to harness this spirit of competition to get more work out of their charges.
Archaeologists have learned much about the daily lives of these men through excavations around the Giza Plateau that were begun in the early 1990s. At the plateau’s northern base, not far from the palace of Khufu, once lay a small city of perhaps as many as 20,000 souls. About half of them may have engaged in the construction going on on the plateau itself, while the other half provided the many forms of support which such an army of workers required. There were, naturally, living quarters in this city of workers: small houses looking uncannily like modern suburban villas for the overseers and skilled artisans, long bunkhouses filled with simple sleeping platforms for the ordinary laborers. There were dining halls, which archaeologists have been able to identify by the many fish bones found within their ruins, right where the workers casually tossed them to the floor 4500 years ago. There were bakeries and smithies, granaries and pantries, breweries and mills and warehouses. And ringing the settlement were pastures for the cattle, sheep, and goats which arrived from elsewhere in Egypt as another form of royal tax, and were slaughtered by the dozens every day to keep the hungry workforce fed.
This city whose purpose was to build monuments for the dead must have been an extraordinary scene of life, as ordinary men from across the long length of Egypt met one another in the course of the greatest adventure most of them would ever have. Life was undoubtedly hard for the workers, the labor itself undoubtedly backbreaking by our modern standards, but it’s debatable whether it was really that much worse than life back in the farming villages from which they hailed. Certainly they were kept well-fed by the standards of their culture, with a diet heavy on bread and the aforementioned fish and meat, garnished with garlic and onions. Like their comrades at every other point in history, these working men also had a taste for beer, which was brewed right there at Giza and which they consumed in immense quantities. Although the vast majority of the city was male, the opposite sex also had a place: the skilled workers who lived at Giza permanently usually brought their wives and families with them, while other women were around to do some of the cooking and cleaning — and, inevitably, to service certain other needs of lonely young men far from home. One can imagine the little city as a rowdy, almost merry sort of place in the evenings, filled with men drinking and swapping stories and roughhousing after a long day, enjoying the troupes of dancers and singers who made a good living for themselves at Giza.
Still, the fact remains: it was a hard life. The men were expected to work nine days out of every ten, with the additional exception only of the holidays that came along from time to time. A working day began at dawn, when the men in the bunkhouses were awakened by the royal drummer to eat a hasty breakfast and march up to the plateau. Their foremen on the job pushed them hard, but were not completely without humanity. Doctors were on hand to minister to those who collapsed under the blazing sun; water was kept always available, being hauled up from the river throughout the day by caravans of donkeys; an ample lunch was served midway through the day. After ten hours of labor, another salvo of drumming signaled the end of the working day, and the men streamed back off the plateau to wash and rest before supper.
The first task to confront these pyramid builders is familiar to any modern construction manager: that of surveying the building site and preparing the ground. As we learned in earlier chapters, the base of the Pyramid of Khufu is aligned to the cardinal points of the compass to a well-nigh flabbergasting degree of accuracy. This precise alignment is often held up as simply unattainable by a people at Egypt’s level of technological advancement circa 2550 BC; cue up the space aliens, etc. But actually it craved only dedication and the ingenious use of tools that are known to have been at their disposal. In fact, modern researchers have field-tested at least three methods by which the Egyptians could have aligned the Pyramid of Khufu without recourse to a magnetic compass, a sextant, or any other not-yet-invented technology.
The method that seems most generally applicable requires that the Egyptians first build a small corral of sorts: a perfectly circular and perfectly level wall, with a radius of 5 feet (1.5 meters) or so and a height of about the same. They then choose any single bright, distinct star which rises and sets over the course of a night to be the key to their experiment. A man stands at the center point inside the corral at dusk and waits for this star to become visible above the wall. As soon as it appears, the man marks its position on the wall. Then he waits until dawn, and marks the position where the same star disappears from his view behind the wall. Next, he draws perfectly straight lines down the wall to ground level from each of these points. Finally, he draws two straight lines from the exact middle of the corral — i..e, from where he was standing when he made his observations — to meet each of the other lines at ground level. By bisecting the angle created by these latest lines at the center of the corral, he can find true north.
Another possibility, more straightforward in some ways, requires that the Egyptians simply wait until two circumpolar stars, Kochab and Mizar, form a vertical straight line, one star directly above the other. At this time in the earth’s history, such a line would have marked a reasonable approximation of true north. This method is problematic, however, in that it could only have yielded a result as accurate as the alignment of the Pyramid of Khufu if it was done in the precise year of 2476 BC, about three quarters of a century later than most Egyptologists believe Khufu to have assumed the throne. And yet if one accepts the later date, the theory offers a convenient explanation for something else that has long puzzled Egyptologists: the fact that the Pyramid of Khufu is actually more perfectly aligned to the cardinal points than either of the great pyramids that were built after it on the Giza Plateau. Just such a discrepancy could be explained by the two stars on which the Egyptians depended for identifying true north slowly slipping further and further out of alignment with it. But the theory does, on the other hand, also require one to believe that the Egyptians coincidentally began to build the Pyramid of Khufu in the exactly right year for their preferred method of calculating true north — the year when the stars were right, as it were. Such a coincidence, while by no means theoretically impossible, does strike many as unlikely.
A third method relies on the sun rather than the stars, smacking somewhat of the legendary Greek philosopher Thales’s purported method of ascertaining the height of the Pyramid of Khufu two millennia after it was built. A perfectly straight pole is driven into the ground. An hour or two before solar noon — i.e., the moment when the sun is directly overhead, which corresponds to noon by the clock on only two days out of the year — the farthest extent of the pole’s shadow is marked. A perfect circle is then drawn which intersect this point, with the pole standing at its center. At the same span of time after solar noon, the farthest extent of the pole’s shadow should once again just touch this circle, albeit at a different point on its circumference; this position is also marked. Straight lines are drawn from each of the two points on the circumference back to the pole. Now, by bisecting the angle created by the lines at the pole, true north is found. Although this method has some obvious advantages — it doesn’t require the construction of a corral-like apparatus like the first one described and isn’t dependent on shifting stellar alignments like the second — it’s generally agreed to be the least intrinsically accurate of the three. Many researchers are skeptical that it could yield results like those evinced by the Pyramid of Khufu’s near-perfect alignment, regardless of how often and how carefully the experiment was performed.
Just as close to perfect are the pyramid’s dimensions. The Egyptians may or may not have known about the magic number of pi that would later figure so prominently in pyramidal numerology, but they certainly were advanced enough to measure out a base that is almost exactly square; all four sides of the final structure fall within an extraordinary 8 inches (20 centimeters) of one another.
Were there deeper, sacred meanings to the specific dimensions the builders chose? As we’ve seen, that question has long been a fraught one, with people like Edme-François Jomard, John Taylor, and Piazzi Smyth, not to mention numerous practitioners of modern alternative Egyptology, devising all kinds of mystical concordances from scant or faulty evidence. Their fanciful theories have so spoiled the broth that few respectable Egyptologists dare to even approach the topic today. Still, as pointed out by the modern scholar of Giza John Romer, the numbers do intrigue. In the ancient Egyptian system of measurement, the Pyramid of Khufu is 440 cubits wide at the base and 280 cubits high — suspiciously round numbers that seem to speak to some motivation beyond convenient happenstance. Was their neatness merely an aid to calculation, or was there a deeper meaning to them? As Romer notes, what we refer to as Egyptian mathematics was really a blending of mathematics and numerology, with the one aspect extremely difficult to pull apart from the other, and the entirety of the edifice so foreign to our sensibilities that it can be hard for us to wrap our minds around it. Egyptologists don’t believe, for example, that the Egyptians had anything like our system of degrees for measuring angles. Yet, at least if we are to assume that the Pyramid of Khufu’s round numbers aren’t another coincidence, it appears that they were able to calculate how to build it to a desired height starting from a given base. Romer has developed a theory of how this may have been done using a system of grids in place of the trigonometric equations we would employ.
At any rate, if the numbers that went into the pyramid did have a deeper meaning, it seems safe to say that it was far more esoteric and culture-specific than the alternative Egyptologists would have you believe. More than that we simply cannot say.
But whatever sacred meanings the pyramid may or may not have been planned to encode, the practical issues of building it had to dominate soon enough. Certainly no one could possibly forget the disaster that had been Sneferu’s Bent Pyramid. Therefore the limestone bedrock on which this pyramid would rest must be meticulously prepared to provide an absolutely stable foundation.
This necessary precursor to the act of construction was an enormous task in itself. The slope of the plateau meant that 30 feet (9 meters) of rock had to be cut away along the northern side of the pyramid’s eventual base using only simple hand tools. First, holes were bored in the limestone using stone hammers and copper chisels. Wooden stakes were driven into these holes, then soaked with water. As the wet wood expanded, it caused cracks to appear in the rock around it, which the workmen could then attack with their pickaxes.
It was exhausting labor, but the planners were clever enough not to make it any worse than it needed to be. While the workers leveled the ground around the edges of the base, they left a rocky knoll of uncut limestone at its center, rising to 30 feet (9 meters) in height. For this, their bosses realized, could save them all a considerable amount of labor; it amounted to a head start on the task of construction, a core they could build onto as they raised their pyramid. In the end, it would spare them 160,000 tons of limestone, or 3 percent of the pyramid’s total weight. As they say, every little bit helps.
Once the rough work of cutting and removing was done, the very first act of building could begin. A stockpile of fine white limestone was on hand by now, having been floated up to the Giza Plateau during the inundation from the royal quarries at Tora, located about eight miles (13 kilometers) south of the building site on the other side of the river. This supply was used to construct the pavement on which the edges of the pyramid proper would rest. The border of fine limestone that was now built around the rocky knoll was leveled with the same astonishing precision that marks the rest of the effort: the northwest corner of the pavement is just .8 inches (2 centimeters) higher than its southeast corner. The builders accomplished this feat using only simple mechanical levels, thanks to an exhaustive, meticulous commitment to measuring the pavement’s incline again and again, inch by inch across its vast area, making the most subtle of adjustments wherever the slightest discrepancy was found.
Any great success, runs the old cliché, must be built upon a solid foundation. The Egyptians obviously believed that as well — believed it to such an extent that they threw a huge party to celebrate the completion of a pyramid’s foundation, with music, dancing, and lots of eating and drinking. The celebration bore the ceremonial name of “stretching of the cord,” probably a reference to the plumb lines used to measure off the base of the pyramid and position everything just so.
The first such party on the Giza Plateau, marking the end of the first stage of the greatest collective project in human history to date, must have been particularly raucous. Sure, the scene of the festivities looked a little incongruous, what with the finely worked limestone of the pavement surrounding that irregular mass of rough stone left in place in the middle of the building site. But no matter; the rude centerpiece gave the children something to climb on. Khufu himself was present, acting out an elaborate pantomime involving Seshat, the goddess of writing, measurement, and building. At the end of the day, a bull was sacrificed to her and the other gods whose continued beneficence would be required for the great task still before the workers; pieces of the bull were then buried at the four corners of the pyramid-to-be.
And then the party was over, and it was time to get to the work of raising the Pyramid of Khufu in earnest.
(This series's cover art is by KennyOMG, and is utilized under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)