GOOD KING SNEFRU

We are mildly baffled by Manetho’s reasons for starting a new dynasty, the Fourth, here. Snefru was probably the son of Huni, last king of Dynasty Three, and there is nothing to indicate usurpation or conflict.

The majority of Snefru’s accomplishments were in areas that we would consider proper for a talented Egyptian ruler of this period. He sent fleets to Lebanon for cedar, some of which was used in his pyramids; he fought in Nubia and worked the turquoise mines of Sinai with such success that he became the patron deity of that region, and later kings boasted of their expeditions that “nothing like it was seen since the days of Snefru.” But in one respect Snefru differs from his fellows. In Greek times he was regarded as the kindest and most benevolent of all the ancient kings; he was the only one who was honored by the epithet “beneficent.”

Battiscombe Gunn, a British scholar, suggested that these attractive character traits are depicted in an ancient text that claims to have been composed in the time of Snefru. In the story, the king is shown as a jolly good fellow; when he calls in a prophet to entertain him with tales, he himself takes pen in hand to write the words, calling the commoner prophet “my friend” and addressing his courtiers with the word comrades, which was used by laborers and artisans as a mode of address to one another. “Make thy name to endure through the love of thee,” advises one Egyptian sage, and Snefru evidently succeeded. The names that most often survive the centuries are those of warriors and conquerors; it is pleasant to be able to honor one man for a virtue less conspicuous and more attractive than brutality. A tip of the hat, then, to “good King Snefru.”

Tales like these have no historical basis, of course. There isn’t much from these early periods in the way of historical “facts.” Few written records, in other words. That is why this book and most of the ones that discuss Egyptian history in the Old Kingdom and earlier talk primarily about tombs and statues. They are almost all we have, aside from the ubiquitous pottery, which isn’t particularly useful during this era. Hence the most interesting thing we can say about Snefru is that he seems to have had a penchant for pyramids. He built six or seven, or maybe eight of them (we can’t be sure about the attribution of several). Only three of them are relevant to the present discussion, thank goodness.

The earliest is a peculiar structure at Medum, not far from Giza. It is a conspicuous landmark today, though it does not look much like a pyramid, owing to the fact that its outer casing has fallen away and the lower courses are buried in sand. For a long time Egyptologists thought this tomb was built by Huni, or at least started by him, and that his pious son Snefru finished the job. They knew that Snefru had two tombs, because of an ancient inscription which mentioned that king’s “North” and “South” pyramids. They also knew that the Medum pyramid was believed by the Egyptians to be one of Snefru’s tombs, but they discounted this because they knew, or thought they knew, where the other two of Snefru’s tombs were located.

Admiring students of ancient Egypt have credited the Egyptians with the invention of many interesting and useful pursuits, but no one has ever given them their due as the originators of the pernicious habit of scribbling on tourist attractions. It is a habit that must arise from some basic human urge, for it has continued unabated till the present day. When the Egyptians of the Eighteenth Dynasty—a thousand years after Snefru—came to visit Medum, they carved their names on the temple walls and added comments. Age, which sanctifies many things, has legitimized even tourist scribbles, and the ancient scribbles are dignified by the name of graffiti. It is from the graffiti at Medum that we learn that Snefru was believed to be the builder of the pyramid there.

However, there are also two pyramids at Dahshur, another of the burial grounds of ancient Memphis. One of them is a very strange shape indeed. It is known as the Bent or Rhomboidal Pyramid, since it changes the angle of its slope about halfway up. The other Dahshur tomb is a true pyramid, the first ever built.

Formerly the Bent Pyramid was attributed to King Huni, and the Medum pyramid, whose attribution seemed so sure, was considered to be Snefru’s southern tomb, with the true pyramid of Dahshur as his northern. Why the confusion? Because, with all the thousands of square yards of stone surface used in such a pyramid, in no place was the name of the man who built it to be found. This is one of the most astonishing facts in archaeological research—the scanty, almost negative, evidence upon which the ownership of the great stone tombs is based. In some cases the identification is based on references found in the surrounding tombs, for it was customary that a king’s servants and courtiers be buried near him. In recent years, careful excavation at the pyramid sites has turned up conclusive evidence, but one can understand why the free and easy “hurrah-for-the-dynamite” methods of the early archaeologists failed to find kings’ names in the pyramids. In the Bent Pyramid, Snefru’s name appears in the quarry marks hastily scrawled in red chalk on the undersides of certain blocks, for the convenience of the workmen. This discovery was made in 1947, and it settled the ownership of the Bent Pyramid. Similar marks on the stones of the true pyramid at Dahshur make it certain that this is Snefru’s northern tomb. Thus we have discovered the two tombs mentioned in the ancient text. So what about Medum? Well, none of the records says Snefru had only two pyramids. It is generally accepted today that he was responsible for most, if not all, of the Medum pyramid, though some people still think that structure was finished by Snefru for his father, Huni.

It may seem extraordinary to the lay reader that Snefru, however virtuous, needed three tombs, not to mention the much smaller pyramids scattered around Egypt. It seems extraordinary to an archaeologist too. Didn’t the man know when to stop?

But let’s be sensible. The Medum pyramid, which appears to have been Snefru’s first attempt, started out as a step pyramid. Then somebody decided to fill in the steps and smooth off the sides. However, the slope was too steep and the additional layers weren’t bonded into the main structure. The whole thing started to slip. Snefru decided to start all over again, at Dahshur. His second attempt was the Bent Pyramid. The builders got that wrong too. The change in slope was an attempt to lessen the weight on the internal structures. (This is an oversimplification, but it’s the best I can do.) Cracks began to develop.

We can safely add persistence to Snefru’s other character trait. He moved a half mile south and started another pyramid. The result was the first true pyramid, one of the largest in Egypt, second in size only to the pyramids of Giza. Whew. Finally, he must have thought.

This is the accepted theory for Snefru’s plethora of pyramids. He kept trying till he got it right. It’s possible. I have to mention, though, that I’ve been inside both the Medum pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. The interior passageways are still functional. Maybe Snefru gave up too soon.

Of the two Dahshur pyramids, the Bent is the more intriguing. When John Perring and Richard Vyse, the first Europeans to work systematically around ancient Memphis, cleared this pyramid in 1839, they reported a strange and suggestive incident. Conditions within the deep passages of the pyramid were very bad, and the workmen suffered intensely from heat and foul air. On October 15, 1839, when the perspiring laborers were gasping for lack of oxygen, suddenly a strong cold wind began to blow through the choked passages. It blew for two days, so fiercely that it was difficult for the men to keep their lamps lit; then, just as abruptly, it stopped. Ahmed Fakhry, one of Egypt’s most distinguished archaeologists, heard odd noises in one of the passages when he worked there in 1951. In view of these occurrences, it is distinctly possible that there are passages and chambers within or under the Bent Pyramid that have never been found. Perhaps the real burial chamber of Snefru is still hidden. The interior of the pyramid, though not so complex as those of later periods, is complicated enough, with heavy portcullis stones blocking the passages, hidden corridors, and other devices intended to confuse and distract.

Yes, there is still work to be done, even in areas that have been searched and researched. We know, for instance, that every pyramid had several other buildings connected with it. So standardized are the various elements of the “pyramid complex” that we can look for one structure or another with confidence even when no traces of its walls show above the ever drifting sands. The pyramid was usually enclosed by a wall and had a chapel near the northern entrance to the burial chamber. A smaller, subsidiary pyramid within the enclosure walls is also a standard feature, though its precise function is still uncertain. There might also be smaller pyramids for the burials of the king’s chief wives. The wooden “solar boats” found near the Great Pyramid apparently represent another standard part of the complex, since boat-shaped pits have been found at other places, and an entire buried fleet accompanied the royal tombs at Abydos. Against the east side of the pyramid was the mortuary temple. In this building the soul of the dead king was tended by priests, who presented offerings and recited prayers for his well-being in the Land of the West, the abode of spirits. From the entrance to the mortuary temple a long causeway led down to the edge of the cultivated land. Here it joined the Valley Temple, whence the body of the king was brought by boat.

The pyramid complex (1) pyramid (2) subsidiary pyramid (3) enclosure wall (4) pyramid temple (5) causeway (6) valley temple

This is the Pyramid Age—more properly called the Old Kingdom—and we are about to discuss the biggest pyramid of them all, which was built by Khufu (called Cheops by the Greeks), the son and successor of good King Snefru. Khufu is remembered by the world at large for only one accomplishment; yet the size of the one is so gigantic that it has brought Khufu’s name and fame down undiminished through four thousand years. So much has been written about the Great Pyramid of Giza that it is impossible to add any new facts or even approach it from a freshviewpoint. Everybody wrote about it—poets, statesmen, tourists, archaeologists, novelists, engineers, fortune-tellers. Even Mark Twain’s carefully cultivated contempt for the Old World deserted him when he stood under the Great Pyramid’s immensity of stone.

The pyramid form has a certain austere beauty, and the tawny color of the stone is capable of bewitching and subtle variations from pale silver to gold as the sunlight changes. But it is not the aesthetic qualities of the Great Pyramid which have hypnotized so many people. Partly, it is the size—two and one-half million blocks of stone averaging two and a half tons each, comprising a structure which covers an area equal to the combined base areas of the cathedrals of Florence, Milan, St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s, and Westminster Abbey. In part the attraction lies in the atmosphere of mystery and mysticism which has surrounded the pyramids from the beginning. They were Houses of Eternity even to the Egyptians, dwellings in a land that was beyond mortal ken. “No one has returned from there to tell us how they fare.” When Greeks supplanted Egyptians, and Romans conquered Greeks, and the ancient heritage of Egypt was shadowed by ignorance, the imaginative visitors of classical and later times added their inventions to swell the mystery. Even in modern times, when people, one would think, should know better, the Great Pyramid of Giza has proved a fertile field for fantasy.

The people who do not know better are the pyramid mystics, who believe that the Great Pyramid is a gigantic prophecy in stone, built by a group of ancient adepts in magic. Egyptologists sometimes uncharitably refer to this group as “pyramidiots,” but the school continues to flourish despite scholarly anathemas. I cannot refrain from quoting a few of the more entertaining blunders of the mystics, which appear in one of the books they publish with such alarming frequency.

“The Egyptian word Pir-em-us meant to them something of great vertical height.” (No such word; the Egyptian name for pyramid is mer.) “In The Book of the Dead the Great Pyramid is called ‘The Temple of Amen.’” (No, it isn’t.) “The subterranean temple which is mentioned in the ancient mystical writings, and whose existence as an initiatory center scholars long denied, has recently been discovered.” (I guess the temple is the Valley Temple of the Second Pyramid, whose function had to do with the mummification of the dead; it was not built underground but was buried by sand and silt.) “The great stone in front of the breast of the Sphinx with its symbolic writings and laws for the initiate has been discovered.” (This must be the stela of Thutmose IV, which explains how he acquired the throne, and which is about as mystical as a campaign speech.) “This stone…would open to the commands of candidates upon the pronunciation of the proper word.” (So far it hasn’t.) “In adopting the mystical pyramid inch as a unit of measurement, the Egyptians realized that the Anglo-Saxon races [sic] would be the first to recognize the unit of measurement and look upon the messages concealed in the Great Pyramid as intended for them principally.”

The last statement is beyond criticism, surely. I have not mentioned the specific prophecies of the Great Pyramid, in which significant dates in world history are marked by bumps or lumps or cracks along the walls of the passages. Petrie wrote, with fine contempt, that he once caught one of the mystics surreptitiously filing down a stone boss in order to make its measurements conform to his theory. Sir William Flinders Petrie can hardly be called a biased witness; indeed, he is sometimes hailed by the pyramidiots as one of their own because his first year’s work at Giza was undertaken at the request of a friend of his father’s, one of the leading Pyramid mystics of his day. I think Petrie’s conclusions, arrived at after a long season of measuring and comparison, are worth quoting:

The theories as to the size of the pyramid are thus proved entirely impossible…. The fantastic theories, however, are still poured out, and the theorists still assert that the facts correspond to their requirements. It is useless to state the real truth of the matter, as it has no effect on those who are subject to this type of hallucination.

There is no way out; the Great Pyramid of Giza was a royal tomb, and nothing else. There is no “lost mystery” about the methods of its construction, which required only unlimited manpower and the simplest of tools. We know how this pyramid and others were built, and we could build another one just like it, using the same methods, if we had any desire to do so—and if we could conscript enough workers. Most of the stone was cut on the spot, or at quarries near Cairo from which it was floated across the river on barges at the time of Inundation, when the water extended to the edge of the desert. From that point the blocks were dragged, possibly on rollers, up the slope to the plateau. The first course of stones was laid in a square, on a site already surveyed and leveled. There is no doubt that the Egyptians knew enough about astronomy and geometry to get their angles straight. They did a beautiful job of laying out the ground plan of the Great Pyramid; the errors of orientation are astoundingly small. But they could have done it with very simple tools and equally basic mathematics.

When the first layer was in place, the second level was added by hauling the stones up a ramp of sand and brickwork. There is still some debate about precisely how these ramps worked; instead of stretching straight out from the pyramid on all four sides, and being raised when the next layer of stones was added, they may have wound round the structure. The subject is too complicated to discuss in detail; just take it from me that some form of ramp was involved. Not magic, not Martian science.

Most of the interior rooms and passages were built while the exterior was in the process of construction; the huge stone sarcophagus in Khufu’s pyramid was lowered into the burial chamber before the roofing blocks were put on. Once the structure was finished, the facing of fine white limestone was added as the ramps were moved downward, so that when all was done the slopes of the pyramid presented a smooth, unbroken surface, glistening in the sun and looking from a distance as if they had been neatly frosted. This fine casing material is gone today, which is why the Great Pyramid looks like a giant four-sided staircase; the blocks were a handy source of building stone for later kings and conquerors.

Khufu’s Valley Temple exists only as a basalt pavement. His Pyramid Temple has been cleared, but it isn’t in much better shape than the Valley Temple. The pyramid and its temple are the only major monuments of Khufu’s we possess, and we actually know very little about the monarch who constructed the largest single monument ever raised to the glory of one individual. Khufu had a bad reputation among the Greeks. Like modern visitors to Giza, they took one look at all that stone and immediately started calculating in terms of man-hours. Their calculations were supported by the ancient dragomen, who told Herodotus that it took 100,000 men twenty years to build the Great Pyramid. Modern estimates are considerably lower. The workmen were divided into “gangs,” and it’s likely that only one gang of, at most, twenty-five thousand was working at a given time. This figure would include not only the men who dragged and laid the stones but quarrymen and support groups. In any case, it would be unfair to picture Khufu as the maniacal whip-wielding tyrant the Greeks envisioned. Most of the work was carried on during the season of Inundation, when the big blocks of stone could be floated close to the building area. At this time the fields were under water and the peasants were perforce idle.

The work was done not by slaves foreign or domestic, but by Egyptians. They were fed while they were working on the pyramid, and if the crops had been bad they were probably glad to get the work. The upper ranks of the workmen—skilled stonecutters, supervisors, and so forth—were housed by the king in permanent villages near the pyramid. They also had the right to build their own small tombs near that of the god-king, and the human remains found in some of them show that although they engaged in hard manual labor they got some sort of medical attention. They were also fed by the state and supplied with basic necessities.

The Second and Third Pyramids of Giza were built by Khufu’s successors, though not in unbroken sequence. The Second Pyramid belongs to Khafre, Khufu’s son; it suffers only by comparison to its larger neighbor, and still possesses, at its very tip, several courses of the original white casing stone. Menkaure, who built pyramid number three, died before it was finished; an eloquent, if mute, witness to his premature demise may be seen today on the lower courses of casing stones around the base of his pyramid. These blocks were of red Aswan granite instead of the usual white limestone. The outer faces of the stones were not smoothed off until after they were put in place, and we can still see the exact point at which the ancient workers laid down their tools when word came that the god had joined his fathers. This pyramid is the last of the big Fourth Dynasty tombs, and Menkaure is the last of the big Fourth Dynasty kings. This pyramid is also of interest because it is the only one of the Giza group to have its owner’s name inscribed upon it. The hieroglyphic text says that Menkaure died on the twenty-third day of the fourth month; it was discovered in 1968 when workmen cleared some of the rubble from the north face, near the entrance.

The other great tourist attraction at Giza is the Sphinx. Later it became identified with a sun god, Horus of the Horizon, but it was built by Khafre as part of his funerary complex. There are a lot of other sphinxes in Egypt, but this is the biggest. I personally am unmoved by this large and maltreated monster, but the remains of the Valley Temple of the Second Pyramid, near the Sphinx, are decidedly worth attention. The dark granite that lines the walls was brought down the river, five hundred miles, from Aswan, and it is laid with such precision that one can hardly see the lines where the enormous blocks fit together. The stark simplicity of the building’s design is almost forbidding in its dignity.

The three great pyramids are not the only tombs at Giza, by a long shot. There are seven smaller queens’ pyramids near the big ones, and there are private tombs all over the plateau. But the most intriguing tomb at Giza is not a pyramid or a mastaba. It belonged to Hetepheres, Khufu’s mother, and its discovery prompted one of the most romantic theories ever proposed by a staid archaeologist.

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