The pharaoh known as Djedefre, Khufu’s immediate successor to the throne, is a shadowy figure today even by the standards of his peers in the Fourth Dynasty. In fact, even the Egyptians themselves seem to have forgotten him entirely by the time Herodotus made his famous visit to the country 2000 years after the Fourth Dynasty had expired. Thus there are relatively few things we can say about him with any confidence, and even those are generally derived from circumstantial evidence alone.
Djedefre seems to have assumed the throne at an unusually advanced age, when he already had adult children of his own. Some Egyptologists have detected tantalizing traces of an internecine dispute between him and his younger brother Khafre. Yet their judgments are, once again, complicated by our lack of knowledge of the full details of the dynastic family tree and our poor understanding of the rules of pharaonic succession in general — assuming there were fast rules at all. Was Djedefre a guileful aging courtier who seized the power that rightfully belong to his naïve sibling? Or was he merely a tired middle-aged man who did his familial duty, striving his imperfect best to live up to the glorious legacy of his father? History renders no clear verdict.
Still, the notion that Djedefre’s reign was a rather shabby one in contrast to that of his father Khufu and grandfather Sneferu is supported by what little is left of the pyramid he attempted to build. Like those two, he chose a virgin site for his seat of government and eventual final resting place: Abu Roash, a hillock 5 miles (8 kilometers) north of the Giza Plateau. As a memorial site, it was far less imposing than Giza, but it did have the advantage of a convenient outcropping of limestone around which a pyramid could be built, a handy convenience much larger in size than even the rocky knoll left in place at the core of the Pyramid of Khufu. This evidence lends support to the idea that Djedefre was in a hurry just to get his pyramid done, probably due to his age upon assuming the throne. It was planned to be at most 220 feet (67 meters) tall, well under half the height of the Pyramid of Khufu and, indeed, the smallest pyramid any pharaoh had attempted since the stepped one of Djoser had inaugurated the age of Egyptian pyramid building. Fittingly for a pharaoh whose very heraldry seemed to advertise his subservience to the one who had come before him — he was explicitly described as the son of Ra, while Khufu may have laid a claim to being the sun god himself — Djedefre reverted to the old practice of being buried under his pyramid rather than well up inside it.
Djedefre is believed to have reigned for as little as eight years, at the end of which time his body was hastily interred inside his sorry pyramid and Egypt moved on. Poorly built as it was, his pyramid was ill-equipped to withstand the ravages of time. Today it’s just a seldom visited pile of rubble in the desert, as little remembered by the tourists who descend upon Egypt each year as the pharaoh who was once interred there.
The fact that it was Khufu’s son Khafre rather than one of Djedefre’s own sons who succeeded him to the throne may be another sign of his weakness. But whatever the reasons behind his ascension, Khafre quickly proved himself to be more like his father than his older brother. He would become a builder on a scale comparable to that of Khufu — or even greater, if one is willing to take in the aggregate the two iconic monuments he would leave behind him, along with their many ancillary temples and tombs.
Concluding that no finer location than the Giza Plateau could be imagined for the purpose of projecting royal power, Khafre elected to break with the tradition of his three predecessors on the throne and do his building right next to the monuments of his father. Egyptologists believe that he also elected to reuse the palace of Khufu at the base of the plateau, making it once again the seat of the Egyptian government.
To take his willingness to reuse his father’s palace as a sign that Khafre suffered from any lack of ambition of his own would, however, be deeply mistaken; this truly was a pharaoh determined to meet or exceed the grandiose standards of Sneferu and Khufu. One of the more amusing signs of the tacit competition that went on between each living pharaoh and his ancestors is the location on the Giza Plateau where Khafre chose to erect his pyramid: the higher ground to the southwest of Khufu’s existing pyramid. Thus, even though the base of the Pyramid of Khafre is 50 feet (15 meters) shorter on a side than that of the Pyramid of Khufu, and the entire structure is 10 feet (3 meters) lower when measured from base to peak, its top is actually slightly higher when measured from sea level — and, most importantly, it appears to be taller when one gazes upon the two from a distance. If, as some Egyptologists theorize, Khufu had managed to establish himself as an especially divine pharaoh, to be accorded a certain deference by his progeny, the location chosen by Khafre would have allowed him to follow the letter of the religious law by not building a pyramid that was higher than his father’s whilst perhaps violating its spirit by making the sizes of the two pyramids appear to have just the opposite relation to one another.
Khafre’s chief vizier and director of construction was one Ankhhaf, probably either another of his brothers or his uncle. Although a staggering achievement in architecture in its own right, the pyramid whose building Ankhhaf supervised isn’t quite as perfect a specimen as the Pyramid of Khufu. Its orientation to the cardinal points of the compass, for one thing, is somewhat less exact. Even more tellingly, the workers somehow got off-track as they were building it; its sides start to drift out of alignment with its base as they rise, until an abrupt twist at the top wrenches them back into place. Needless to say, this slightly more haphazardly constructed pyramid possesses none of the Pyramid of Khufu’s neat round-number concordances; any mystical meanings those numbers might have held were apparently lost on the builders of the Pyramid of Khafre.
As we learned when we explored it alongside Giovanni Belzoni, the interior of the Pyramid of Khafre is far less complex than that of Khufu, representing nothing like the same ingenious feat of structural engineering. Straight passages, sealed in an equally straightforward manner after the pharaoh’s entombment with granite portcullises, lead directly to the burial chamber, which is located just below ground level; whether due to lack of time or resources or a religious dogma that stipulated that only Khufu had been an earthly incarnation of Ra deserving of such an honor, Khafre didn’t attempt to emulate his father by placing his burial chamber up inside his pyramid. Because of its interior simplicity, the Pyramid of Khafre has proved a less intriguing subject for students of ancient Egypt, respectable and otherwise, to probe and ponder. The biggest mystery about it is the fact that it, alone among Egyptian pyramids, has two planned entrances: one located a short distance up its north face in about the same location as the Pyramid of Khufu’s entryway, the other directly below this entrance at ground level. Why the architects should thus have elected to expose the entombed pharaoh to two possible lines of attack remains unclear.
Of course, the Pyramid of Khafre also required an array of supporting structures similar to those which accompanied the Pyramid of Khufu. Khafre elected not to erect satellite pyramids to any of his queens — make of that what you will! — but his temples are much more impressive than those of Khufu today, if perhaps only thanks to their chancing to be better preserved. There are three of them in all — a mortuary and a valley temple and a unique Temple of the Sphinx — joined by the usual network of causeways, surrounded with the usual tombs of the pharaoh’s family and most favored courtiers.
But the monument with which Khafre will forever be most intimately bound, even more so than his pyramid, is the strange, enigmatic Giza Sphinx, gazing due eastward toward the Nile and the rising sun from its position directly east of his pyramid. Unlike the pyramids, it was carved rather than constructed, hewed out of the living bedrock of the plateau. No internal spaces were planned or dug into it, despite millennia of speculation to the contrary by later generations. Yet in its own way, it represents an achievement every bit as awesome as the pyramids themselves. Nothing remotely comparable existed before it in Egypt — or, indeed, anywhere on the planet. It truly is humanity’s first great masterpiece of monumental sculpture. Thanks to many decades of careful archaeological investigation, we now have a pretty good idea of how it was made. Recent excavations have even uncovered the remnants of some of the tools that were used.
We believe, then, that the workers began with the rough labor of carving away the bedrock before, behind, and on both sides of the eventual sculpture, leaving behind a large rectangular mound destined to be worked into the Sphinx. But as they reached the point where they had planned for the creature’s rump and haunches to be, they discovered an ugly vertical fault running through the rock, which would weaken the sculpture enormously if it was terminated at that point. So, they continued the mound beyond this point, to a spot where the limestone became structurally sound again; this accounts for the finished sculpture’s disproportionately elongated body.
In the end, they were left with a rough mound 66 feet (20 meters) high, 240 feet (73 meters) long, and 62 feet (19 meters) wide. The exposed limestone revealed itself to be composed of three vertical strata of varying quality, with only the top layer suitable for sculpting fine detail. It wasn’t ideal, but the Egyptians were undaunted. A sculptor among them took full advantage of the materials nature had placed at his disposal, rendering the head and face that mark the Sphinx’s highest point with enormous skill and subtlety. We know nothing of the ancient Michelangelo responsible for this masterpiece. Yet, like the small workers’ cities and the graffiti we find scattered here and there, the face of the Sphinx reveals a human side to the Giza Plateau, this otherworldly place of cold, carved stone. For the Sphinx, we can clearly see, is one of us.
The bedrock behind the Sphinx’s head, down to the point where the creature’s neck joined its body, was carved away; ditto almost the entirety of the limestone in front of the head, leaving behind only two protuberances in the rough shape of the creature’s outstretched forelegs. Better quality limestone from Tora, suitable for fine carving, was now brought in and used to coat the entire body below the neck, including the forelegs. This stuff was then sculpted into paws, legs, tail, and sinews — and thus the Giza Sphinx was finished. It stands today not only as a symbol of the Egyptians’ technical skill and artistic sublety but as another proof of their ability to think on their feet and improvise their way out of difficulties. Indeed, the stretched leonine body that was imposed upon the Sphinx by circumstances actually manages to increase its visual impact.
Since the late 19th century, most mainstream Egyptologists have been convinced that the Sphinx is a representation of Khafre himself. A considerable amount of archaeological evidence points in this direction. Unlike in the case of Khufu, some explicitly labeled contemporary depictions of Khafre have survived; while such things are inevitably subjective, these certainly seem to resemble the face carved on the Sphinx. And then there’s the way that the Sphinx’s position on the Giza Plateau situates it as a sort of guardian at the entrance to Khafre’s memorial complex, the perfect symbolic companion to his pyramid.
That said, it should be noted that another school of thought, not entirely unreasonable, insists that the Sphinx is instead a depiction of Khufu. The one piece of hard evidence for such a contention is a stele found at a temple built much later on the Giza Plateau, probably between 700 and 500 BC. It seems to say that Khufu built his pyramid after first making the Sphinx. Yet the majority of Egyptologists find this stele fairly easy to dismiss; as the reporting of Herodotus demonstrates all too clearly, the Egyptians living 2000 years after the time of Khufu and Khafre were decidedly confused about many aspects of what was to them already ancient history. Certainly it’s hard to imagine why Khufu would have elected to place the Sphinx so far away from his pyramid and its other ancillary monuments.
Other, softer arguments actually manage to make a better case for the Sphinx as Khufu rather than Khafre. Assuming Khufu did succeed in establishing himself as the literal god of Ra on earth, it’s not impossible to imagine Khafre building the Sphinx in honor of his father as part of his own monument complex. But then again, few pharaohs had much interest in further glorifying their ancestors when they had their own legacies to think of; Khufu must have had a very special status indeed in Egyptian religious life to tempt his son into such an extravagant gesture as this one. The debate will doubtless continue, but the preponderance of the evidence does seem to point to the Sphinx as Khafre. And even if it doesn’t represent that pharaoh, it was in all probability built during his reign.
One point on which all Egyptologists can agree, however, is that Khafre must have been both a powerful monarch and a long-lived one to build as he did on the Giza Plateau. A reign comparable to that of Khufu in both respects seems a virtual given. If his pyramid wasn’t quite as perfectly planned or executed as that of his father, all of the building he did around it, including those three beautiful temples and of course the Sphinx, more than makes up for it.
But when we come to the subject of what happened immediately after Khafre finally died, we run into another of those frustratingly obscure periods in Egyptian history. Some Egyptologists today, following a tradition dating back to Herodotus, presume that Khafre was directly succeeded by Menkaure. Yet there are intimations in some of the Egyptians’ own texts that one or more pharaohs reigned between the two.
One of the most mysterious of all Egyptian archaeological sites is near the town of Zawyet El Aryan, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of the Giza Plateau. Here lies the apparent unfinished foundation of a pyramid planned on a scale very close to those of Khufu and Khafre, with a base fully 655 feet (200 meters) on a side. Some Egyptologists connect it to Nebka II, a pharaoh about whom nothing is known apart from a name, who many suspect to have been the direct successor of Khafre. Sadly, efforts to study the site in depth have been stymied since the 1960s by the fact that the land is owned by the Egyptian military and held strictly off-limits. If this unfinished pyramid does indeed postdate Khafre, it represents the aborted last ever attempt to construct a pyramid on such a scale. While Egypt would continue to build pyramids on a regular basis for centuries to come, henceforward they would be more modest affairs.
That fact alone gives the story of Menkaure, the third and last pharaoh to build a final resting place for himself on the Giza Plateau, a note of anticlimax. He was almost certainly a son of Khafre — an indication that, whatever pharaoh or pharaohs might have been crowned between the two of them, the total span of time in question must not have been terribly long.
Later Egyptian folk tales about Menkaure were generally positive, making a marked contrast to those involving his most storied predecessors. They describe a pharaoh who seems almost self-effacing, if such a thing is imaginable in a man in his position. As you may remember, the Egyptians of Herodotus’s time told their interlocutor that Menkaure had angered the gods by being too gentle with his people — definitely a charge applicable to vanishingly few other pharaohs. Other stories told of his love for his family — for one daughter in particular — and his practice of dealing fairly with everyone.
The Pyramid of Menkaure lines up very well with such depictions in some ways. At well under half the height of those of Khufu and Khafre, it lacks the same sense of overweening grandiosity. In another sense, though, Menkaure could be said simply to have elected to trade size for quality: he determined to build the smooth outer casing of his pyramid entirely out of red granite rather than Tora limestone. Such a material was heavier, harder, and much more difficult to carve than the other. Most of all, though, it was enormously expensive; it was quarried only at the extreme southern end of Egypt, next to the First Cataract, from which it had to be floated by barge some 450 miles (725 kilometers) to reach the Giza Plateau. It seems that Menkaure’s unusual modesty, if it existed at all, did have its limits.
Various sources describe Menkaure as having reigned anywhere from 18 to 63 years, but the shorter span seems most likely, given that when he died his pyramid and much of the rest of his mortuary complex were still unfinished. In an unusual move — perhaps another sign of the good will he had accrued during his reign? — Shepseskaf, his son and successor to the throne, finished both of these things for him. But the son’s charity, like the father’s alleged modesty, did have its limits: the builders elected to revert the pyramid’s casing to the traditional Tora limestone above its sixteenth course, while they finished Menkaure’s temple using the still cruder material of mud-brick, seldom seen in Egyptian monumental architecture since Imhotep had first taught the people to build in stone.
As we learned when we visited it alongside Richard William Howard Vyse, the interior of the Pyramid of Menkaure is more complicated and confusing than that of the Pyramid of Khafre, with a passage to nowhere leading back up into the structure from the subterranean burial chamber. Perhaps Menkaure originally intended to be buried higher up in his pyramid, like his grandfather Khufu, but lost his race with mortality before his plans could come to fruition. Presumably Shepseskaf, whose desire to just get things done and move on after his father’s death is evident all over the pyramid and its surroundings, would have seen little need to shepherd any such scheme through to completion.
It turned out that he was right to be in a hurry: Shepseskaf, the canonical final pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, may have reigned for as little as four years. Upon his death, he was buried at Saqqara in a hastily constructed mastaba rather than a pyramid.
It isn’t clear why Egypt’s later historians would decide to mark the pharaoh that followed — Userkaf, who probably assumed the throne somewhere between 2500 and 2450 BC — as the first pharaoh of a new dynasty, Egypt’s fifth. Certainly none of the pharaohs of the Fourth Dynasty seem to have had any lack of progeny, and there’s little evidence in the Egypt of this period of the sort of social unrest that might have allowed an ambitious outsider to claim the throne. There are some indications that a woman named Khentkaus, a daughter of Menkaure and queen of Shepseskaf — such incestuous tangles were common among the royal family — may have married a priest after her husband and son’s deaths and thereby started a new pharaonic line. But even if so, the details of how such a thing might have occurred are lost to us. The important fact for our purposes is that the Fourth Dynasty, the architects of and inspiration for most of what we see today on the Giza Plateau, ended just one pharaoh removed from Menkaure.
Again, though, this isn’t to say that Egypt ceased to build pyramids at this point. From here on, it did so with some frequency at Saqqara, as well as at a new site known as Abusir which came to be favored by a number of the later pharaohs. In all, post-Fourth Dynasty pharaohs managed to complete at least ten more pyramids prior to the end of the Old Kingdom in approximately 2100 BC. During the Middle Kingdom, which lasted from about 2000 until 1630 BC, they managed almost as many again. Only after that did the form go out of style. And yet of this large selection of later pyramids, only two — those of the Middle Kingdom pharaohs Senwosret III and Amenemhet III — exceed even the Pyramid of Menkaure in height, while none come close to scaling the heights reached by those of Khufu and Khafre.
Still, these smaller pyramids built at other locations do have one thing that’s painfully lacking on the Giza Plateau. Beginning with the pyramids from near the end of the Fifth Dynasty, the infuriatingly blank stone walls which have so perplexed and frustrated archaeologists at Giza suddenly erupted in a riot of hieroglyphs at other locations. These appropriately named “Pyramid Texts” constitute the oldest Egyptian religious scriptures that remain to us. They explain, in all the ways the Pyramids of Giza refuse to do, why the structures they adorn exist:
O King, raise yourself upon your iron bones and golden members, for this body of yours belongs to a god; it will not grow moldy, it will not be destroyed, it will not putrefy. The warmth which is on your mouth is the breath which issued from the nostrils of Seth, and the winds of the sky will be destroyed if the warmth which is on your mouth be destroyed; the sky will be deprived of stars if the warmth which is on your mouth be lacking. May your flesh be born to life, and may your life be more than the life of the stars.
We still don’t know why an unquestionably literate civilization waited so long to explain itself on the walls of its most important monuments, but we can be happy that it so belatedly did so. Not only are the Pyramid Texts culturally informative, they’re also beautiful and sometimes disarmingly wise, reflecting longings for immortality with which we can still identify all too easily today.
But the Pyramid Texts are, after all, artifacts of a later incarnation of Egypt, not quite the same as the one which built at Giza. So, rather than dwelling on them, we should return now to the desert plateau that is our real focus and look upon it as it was at the height of its original splendor. What was the Giza Plateau like when all there was fresh and clean and new, a showcase for a burgeoning civilization that was, in the context of its time, at the cutting edge of modernity? Let’s try to visit it now in our mind’s eye; let’s set our mental time machine for, say, 2475 BC, just after the Pyramid of Menkaure was completed.
We get there by sailing up the Nile, that source of all good things in Egypt. Turning off the river into one of the artificial canals that have been sprouting up all over the country in recent decades, we cover a few more miles to arrive at a neatly cut little harbor. Once full of rude barges off-loading their cargoes of Tora limestone and First Cataract granite when construction was in full swing, it now houses mostly sleek ships of state and pleasure like our own. From our ship in the harbor, we can look up the plateau’s eastern slope, seeing the Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure stretching out in a neat line from northeast to southwest. (The place almost certainly wasn’t originally planned this way — Khufu probably thought his pyramid was destined to stand alone when he first chose the plateau — but it was natural for the Egyptian builders, with their love of order and mathematical symmetry, to add onto it in such a fashion.) Just at the shoreline of the harbor, behind a lovely rectangular temple, crouches the Sphinx, staring out impassively at us, as it does at every new arrival.
Still under the gaze of the Sphinx, we disembark onto a quay and walk up a ramp toward the entrance to his temple. A set of double doors — one carved with reliefs representing Upper Egypt, the other Lower Egypt — are set into a red-granite facade. Passing through the doors, we walk through a sanctuary to enter a colonnaded courtyard paved in sparkling alabaster, with walls clad in more alabaster along with Tora limestone and granite. Statues of Khafre are set into niches on either wall, and a glistening white altar stands in the center of the space, ready to receive our sacrifices. Perhaps, because we are Very Important Visitors — this is our fantasy, after all! — a delegation of priests is waiting for us here, with sizzling meats whose aroma fills the air and gourds full of heady wine. We partake, and we also give the gods and the departed pharaohs who have now joined them their due.
We pass out of the temple on its other side into the causeway that runs up the plateau toward the Pyramid of Khafre. It’s a totally enclosed space, with the exception only of some openings for light and ventilation near the ceiling. Its floor is made of finely worked basalt, its walls and ceiling cool limestone. Everywhere along its length it bursts with color, being covered with painted bas-reliefs depicting every walk of Egyptian life, from the pharaoh to ordinary laborers in the fields or on the river. We are seeing, we realize, the living image of maat: an orderly society, productive and happy, in tune with the natural and the supernatural world. Is it just a touch idealized? Of course — but then, this is a place of worship and celebration.
When we reach another temple of Khafre at the end of the causeway, we have to pause to appreciate anew his sly gamesmanship. Without directly challenging his father’s claim of oneness with Ra by building a pyramid taller than his, Khafre — or Ankhhaf, his vizier — added on to the Giza Plateau in such a way as to make himself its centerpiece. It’s his Sphinx which welcomes us; it’s his pyramid which occupies pride of place in the center of the landscape, in the very spot to which the causeway leading up from the harbor has taken us. Well played, Khafre. Well played.
As we wander about the complex, everything we see around us is neat and tidy, as well it ought to be, being fussed over endlessly by the many priests who live here. Unpainted walls are the exception rather than the norm in most of the interior spaces, and there’s even a fair amount of standing water and greenery about; the climate of Egypt, while dramatically changed from what it was five millennia ago, is not yet quite as arid as it will later become. (Lions, for example, aren’t yet completely unknown in Egypt, at least along the most southerly stretches of the Nile.) And anyway, if there’s one thing Egyptians know, it’s irrigation; channels for the life-giving water of the Nile have been cut all over the plateau.
As the day is drawing to a close, we walk westward out of the complex to the plateau’s highest point and look back at where we’ve been. The three great pyramids stand there in their neat row, those of Khufu and Khafre appearing as twins from this short distance. As we watch the the dying rays of the sun positively dance off their sheer white surfaces beneath the crowning glories of their golden pyramidions, it isn’t hard for us to believe that we really are witnessing a manifestation of the immortal spirits of the pharaohs who are interred inside. The Pyramid of Menkaure, though, is a little different — and yet no less impressive for it. It’s almost a miniature jewel in contrast to its two older siblings, fashioned in three colors that make an ever-changing but continuously lovely contrast with one another: a rusty red at the bottom, sparkling white in the middle, pure gold on top. Standing here, we can understand why so many who take the time to really look at the Pyramid of Menkaure over the millennia to come will declare it to be the most beautiful of them all.
Raising our eyes while we still can as these final precious minutes of the day expire, we see beyond the plateau the great river, the glue binding together the first and only true nation-state on earth. Out there is Egypt — rich, brusque, industrious, thriving. And there at our feet is the Giza Plateau, a great nation’s spiritual heart. As darkness overtakes the scene, a question enters our minds unbidden. Can anything so gold long remain?
(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.)