Akhet-Khufu, or “the Horizon of Khufu,” is the ancient name for the first pyramid at Giza. The largest of all Egyptian pyramids, and the last surviving Wonder of the Ancient World, it is popularly known today as The Great Pyramid. The ancients marveled at its size; modern observers marvel at its technical precision. While neither the first nor the last of the royal pyramids in Egyptian history, it was a feat never again to be equaled. Some aspects of its construction remain a mystery today.
The Fourth Dynasty king Khnum-Khuf, more commonly called Khufu in his day and remembered by the Greeks as Cheops, ordered its construction. Although pyramids were not yet being decorated internally, this identification has been substantiated by the appearance of the king’s name among some workmen’s graffiti inside the pyramid. The king’s brother, Hemienu, served as Chief Overseer.
Khufu wished to avoid the expensive efforts of his father, Sneferu, who may have completed four pyramids in his search for one that was satisfactory. Three of Sneferu’s pyramids were large constructions, and of these, two had been disappointments. The first, at Meidum, was begun as a Step Pyramid, and the plan was redesigned during construction as a true pyramid. It was abandoned in favor of a new pyramid to be constructed at a different site, Dahshur, but this one was begun with too steep a slope, and midway through construction it had to be given a shallower rise. This one, the Bent Pyramid, has survived to the present largely intact, but the cracks sustained by its interior blocks necessitated the construction of yet another pyramid at Dahshur, now known as the Red Pyramid. In short, the reign of Sneferu had been a learning experience for Egyptian architects, and while it was probably a necessary one, Khufu did not wish to repeat the process.
Khufu selected the Giza plateau for his pyramid, far to the north of his father’s pyramid sites, and still decidedly north of the city of Memphis and its traditional royal Necropolis, Sakkara. From the beginning, this was to be an effort of supreme preparation. The bedrock upon which it was constructed was scraped level, varying less than an inch throughout. The sides of the pyramid were just as regular; they differ in length from each other by less than two inches. The perimeter of the pyramid falls short of being parallel to the north-south and east-west axes by scarcely more than three degrees. When completed, it was estimated at 481 feet tall.
Internally, the Great Pyramid consists of three rooms connected by a series of tunnels. Traditionally, it has been supposed that each of these rooms was intended, in turn, as the burial place of the king in the event that he died before the pyramid was completed; since the king survived to see the completion of his tomb, the final and most impressive room served as his burial chamber. More recent analysis, founded on a more systematic comparative analysis of pyramids suggests that all three rooms had been planned with their own purposes, even if those purposes are not yet clear.
The lowest room, or Subterranean Chamber, extends beneath the pyramid into the bedrock of the plateau. In part, it may well be a legacy of the mastaba tradition, in which the burial chamber was dug deeply into the earth underneath a superstructure. This room was never completed, which only serves to make its purpose more difficult to decipher.
The middle room, known as the Queen’s Chamber, was never anything of the sort. Khufu’s queens were given pyramids of their own. Interestingly, the passage into this room was sealed by the construction of the Grand Gallery that leads up to the King’s Chamber; moreover, the two “air shafts” that extend from the room parallel to those connected to the King’s Chamber end abruptly long before the outer surface of the pyramid is reached. Mark Lehner suggests that this room was intended as a serdab, noting that the eastern niche would have served admirably for a large statue to house the king’s Ka.
At the top, the King’s Chamber is approached by a long corbelled corridor known as the Grand Gallery. Three stone slabs rigged to ascend or descend in the manner of a portcullis blocked the final passage into the burial chamber itself, which now contains only the damaged sarcophagus of the king. The granite slabs that comprise the roof, each at least 18 feet in length, were the longest stone pieces that the Egyptians had yet used at the time of the pyramid’s construction.
The use of such pieces was not without its challenges. Despite the efforts to learn from the mistakes of Sneferu’s pyramid, some cracking did set in among the ceiling stones, very likely during the process of construction itself. Still, the room has fared well architecturally, surviving more than four and a half millennia intact. One reason for this success was the ingenious method of distributing the weight of the upper third of the pyramid above it. Five short chambers, each with its own heavy stone roof, were constructed above the King’s Chamber, and the uppermost roof was angled on the upper surface to assist in distributing the weight away from the center of the long stone slabs to the surer support of the blocks of the pyramid’s core.
Finally, the King’s Chamber included two narrow passages, one pointing north (presumably toward the North Star) and one south (presumably toward the constellation Orion). These passages do not actually open to the outside world, and it is supposed that the symbolic existence of these shafts was sufficient to enable the king’s spirit to visit the stars that had played such an important part in the ideology of royal burial in the age of Djoser, before the solar reorientation of royal ideology in the Fourth Dynasty.
The pyramid itself was only the largest part of a grand burial complex. This complex also included a large wall around the pyramid, with passage only possible through the grand mortuary temple that stood at the end of a long causeway. Three lesser pyramids housed his queens, and a fourth, still smaller, pyramid may have been intended as another home for the king’s Ka. Several pits contained boats for use by the king’s spirit, and the eastern and western sides of the pyramid are flanked by a host of mastaba burials. Khufu’s pyramid complex alone qualifies as a necropolis.
The Great Pyramid remains a subject of ongoing study. Some aspects of its engineering remain mysteries, above all the method used to convey the massive stone blocks to the very top of the pyramid. Each theory, from ramps to cranes, poses its own set of problems. Recently, Jean-Pierre Houdin has provided the most fascinating theory, in which a ramp of moderate slope was built into the outer surface of the pyramid itself. Larger openings at the corners permitted cranes to assist in getting the blocks around the corners. When construction was done, these tunnels were concealed by outer facing of the pyramid.
While this theory has not yet been proven conclusively, various methods from the use of high-tech surveying techniques to the visual observation of an exposed hollow at one of these potential corner openings have given substance to the theory. Still other mysteries, such as the true lengths and purposes of the “air shafts” absorb the attention of other researchers. The last surviving Wonder of the Ancient World continues to command wonder four and a half thousand years after it was originally sealed.
Lehner, Mark. “The Complete Pyramids: Solving the Ancient Mysteries.” Thames and Hudson, 1997
Brier, Bob. “How to Build a Pyramid.” Archaeology, Volume 60 Number 3, May/June 2007
Idem., “Return to the Great Pyramid.” Archaeology, Volume 62 Number 4, July/August 2009
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