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Last Part - Part 4 of 6 - Next Part


Part IV
Great Pyramid of Khufu - Its Construction

Pharaoh Khufu's Ambitious Plans

The only statue ever found of Pharaoh Khufu -- all other portraits of him are thought to have been destroyed and obliterated by the Egyptians themselves, because they regarded him a cruel tyrant, and he was also said to have ignored the gods.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza, looking from south. This pyramid has some 2.3 million blocks of stone. The modern construction in front is a museum housing a 5,000 year old cedar boat.

After the death of Sneferu, his son Khufu (second king of Fourth Dynasty, ruled c. 2589 - 2566 BC) attained the throne of Egypt. During Sneferu's reign, Egypt had seen the construction of several pyramids -- each one becoming more perfect than its precedent. The complete perfection was achieved in Khufu's time. Pharaoh Khufu (many know him as Cheops, the name given him by later Greek historians) moved the place of the Royal Cemetery from Dahshur to Giza, just south of Cairo -- it was overlooked from the ancient Egyptian capital of Heliopolis just on the east side of the Nile . The Giza plateau, like all other royal cemeteries, was situated on the West Bank of the Nile -- West being the direction in which the Egyptians thought the 'Field of Reeds' or the Egyptian Underworld/Paradise was situated. Khufu, as the crown-prince, had the opportunity to observe the pyramid projects of his father. After he became the Pharaoh, he figured out the prevalent problems and finalized a design of a gigantic pyramid for his own burial at Giza. The Giza plateau bordered by the Western Desert was a perfect place for the construction. The entire 9-acre area of the site became busy with the bustle of the workers and overseers. Huge stone blocks were quarried out from the stone-mines of the South. The blocks were transported to the site by boats which rowed downstream the Nile. Then they were carried to the 100-feet high plateau on wooden sledges pulled by workers. The classical theory was that all these workers were slaves and prisoners of war. Herodotus, the 4th century BC Greek historian, when visiting Egypt calculated that the entire pyramid was the final result of the efforts of 100,000 slaves for 40 years. But that idea is now changed. In the 1990s, an entire town was found not far from the site of the Great Pyramid, the inhabitants of which have been proven to be the workers and overseers of Khufu's Pyramid Project. Some papyrus documents found there leads us to recalculating the manpower amounting to 20,000 and the time 20 years. And these workers were not even slaves.

Dimensions of the Great Pyramid

General Great Gallery King's Chamber
Side of Base: 230.33m
Height: 146.59m
Slope: 51° 16' 40''
Length of Causeway: 739.8m
Length: 47.85m
Height: 8.48 - 8.74m
Slope: 26° 16' 40''
Length: 10.49m
Width: 5.42m
Height: 5.84m
Queen's Chamber Boat Pits  
Length: 5.76m
Width: 5.23m
Height: 6.26m
Length: 52m
Width: 7.5m
Depth: 8m
Collected from Ancient Egypt - History & Chronology

The Pyramid-builders

Dr. Mark Lehner's team at work in the 'City of the Pyramid Builders', not far from the Giza Pyramids.

It was not that slavery was not thriving in Egypt, but these people were just common laborers, most likely to be the farmers of the Nile alluvium. The documents also contain the proof that they were even paid -- if not all of them. Some proofs also exist of physicians giving them treatment for diseases and wounds they had from accidents. The workers were probably even motivated to work for 'the King and the Motherland'! These workers, who were probably farmers of the Nile, did not have any work or even a home during the annual flooding of the river. Khufu used them successfully for his Pyramid construction. The financing was done from taxes imposed on Khufu's subjects -- that, again, was not in the shape of money, but in the shape of raw materials, food for the workers, and obligatory labor for the project -- a monetary system was still lacking in this time. The dimensions of the town also suggests that the number of workers calculated by modern archaeology is more or less correct. A tomb of the overseer of the town -- some sort of 'mayor' -- has been found also and examined.


The Plan behind the Construction

As I said earlier, modern calculations predict a time of 20 years for the completion of Khufu's pyramid. Herodotus says it is 40 years, and Manetho, another Egyptian historian from 2nd century BC says Khufu ruled for about 60 years -- both seem incorrect. Modern archaeologists attribute no more than 24 years or so to Khufu's reign. So, it is most probable that the Great Pyramid was finished before Khufu died. And no part of the pyramid complex seems unfinished -- that would be the case if he died before the completion of the pyramid. So, how was it possible for him to build such a 'mountain of stone' in such a short time, and such small manpower? The reasons are several. The whole construction took place according to a central plan. Different groups of workers handled stone blocks for different parts of the monument -- the overseers marked each block by a sign saying which part it will go to, and also the identifying name of the group that is supposed to do the work. The inner chambers were already being constructed as the blocks were laid -- the spaces of the chambers were not laid with any stone, so there was no need of cutting stone to make the chamber spaces -- this was the case with all pyramids. To place the blocks in their places, ramps were used. During the primary phase of construction, the giant blocks were hauled into places in the lowest layer -- they did not need to be lifted. To place the blocks of the higher layers, ramps were built on all sides with sand and earth. These ramps had low inclination or slope for the convenience of hauling the stone on sledges. As each higher layer was completed, the ramp was again filled in with earth to make it higher and keeping the slope more or less same. The remains of these ramps are thought to be found around the Pyramid today.

Construction Phases of Khufu's Great Pyramid
Click to see larger images - Collected from Digital Egypt for Universities
Stone and mud bricks must presumably have been brought via one or more ramps onto a pyramid. Few traces of these have been found, and therefore it remains unclear how ramps were arranged around a pyramid. Among the several possibilities there are the following: 1. A broad or a narrow ramp ascending on one side only. 2. One or more ramps rising around the pyramid. 3. a ramp rising from outside the pyramid base area but ending within it. It is most likely that the ramps were constructed in mud brick, rather than stone rubble, plaster or a mixture of materials.

Herodotus again writes of a wooden machine that was used to lift the stones in places. These machines were placed around the topmost layer, and they lifted stones like modern cranes -- they had pulleys and several workers pulled the rope to lift the blocks. When a layer was finished, the machines were taken higher up. This theory, however, is probably incorrect, because the number of machines needed for the 2.3 million (2,300,000) blocks would be enormous. Anyway, probably these machines were used for construction of later monuments, which Herodotus saw during his travels.


But there's no scope of believing that the work was all too simple! The blocks used to construct the Great Pyramid weighed 2.5 tons on average. The blocks of the lower layers are heavier -- each around 15 tons. The upper blocks are lighter. The heaviest blocks were placed right above the burial chamber of the Pharaoh -- their weights range from 50 to 80 tons!


The building is so perfect that there are no slit between any two blocks (at least, as seen from outside)! There isn't even any mortar to hold the stones together! The whole pyramid was cased with white lime stone which is now stripped off. Exactly how the pyramid casing stones were put has not yet been explained fully. The official name of the pyramid was 'The Pyramid which is the Place of Sunrise and Sunset'.

Were they good at math or what!


The Plan of the Three Pyramids
See Also:
The Plan of the Giza Plateau
3-D model of the Great Pyramid Complex
Collected from the Giza Plateau Mapping Project

Khufu's Pyramid is also perfect in view of mathematical accuracy. The length of two opposite sides differ by only 4.4 centimeters! The two diagonal points are almost on a straight line -- the deviation is only 2.1 centimeters! These errors are nothing compared to the great size of the monument. Also, the pyramid has an exact North-South orientation. The three pyramids of Giza even resemble the positions of the three stars in the belt of the Orion constellation, according to a recent sensational book called 'The Orion Mystery'. All these were possible because of an ingenious but simple tool ('merkhet' = 'the instrument of knowing') the Egyptians invented, which was used to calculate the positions of the stars by their astrologers. There were many other inventions they used. We will discuss these when talking about the scientific achievements of the Egyptians.


The Solar Boat found in one of the five 'Boat Pits'. This ceremonial boat is symbolic of the Pharaoh's journey through the underworld, identified with Ra's boat journey in the underworld after sunset in the west, fighting demons and rising again in the east.

Collected from Guardian's Giza

Khufu's Pyramid also has a complex of its own. It has the conventional components -- the Mortuary Temple, the Stone Causeway, and the Valley Temple. Besides these, there are three satellite pyramids -- which were probably meant for the Pharaoh's three queens. Moreover, there are 5 pits surrounding the pyramid. In one of them was found a large cedar boat -- intact even after 5000 years. It is now displayed in a museum near the Great Pyramid. These boats, called 'the Solar Boats', were put in these 'Boat Pits' -- probably because they symbolize the Pharaoh's journey through the underworld.


Even after missing its topmost stones and the capstone, this pyramid today stands 481 feet high.



The view of Giza plateau from halfway atop the Great Pyramid


The Great Pyramid under the Hale-Bopp Comet »
Collected from Guardian's Giza



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