Ancient History & Civilisation



THE PYRAMIDS AT GIZA ARE THE SOLE SURVIVING WONDER OF THE ANCIENT world. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon have disappeared without a trace; the Temple of Diana at Ephesus lies in ruins; but the pyramids stand, as awesome and enduring today as when they were first built four and a half thousand years ago. Of the three pyramids built by successive generations of kings in the Fourth Dynasty, it is the oldest and biggest, the Great Pyramid of King Khufu, that attracts the most attention—and deservedly so. It is truly vast, built from 2.3 million blocks of stone, each weighing on average more than a ton, and covering an area of thirteen acres. A simple calculation reveals that the builders would have had to set one block of stone in place every two minutes during a ten-hour day, working without a pause throughout the year for the two decades of Khufu’s reign (2545–2525). Once completed, at 481 feet high, the Great Pyramid remained unsurpassed in scale until modern times. For forty-four centuries, until the completion of the Eiffel Tower inA.D. 1889, it was the tallest building in the world. Yet despite its massive size, it is engineered and aligned with breathtaking precision, its orientation to true north diverging by only one twentieth of one degree. More than any other monument in the world, the Great Pyramid seems to defy rational explanation. Little wonder that it has attracted wild speculation about its construction, meaning, and purpose. Theories range from the unorthodox (its blocks are made of an ancient type of concrete) to the downright dotty (the blocks were moved by sound waves), and a whole host of otherworldly builders have been invoked to account for its bewildering size and perfection, including refugees from Atlantis and visitors from another planet. The truth is, if anything, even more amazing. The Great Pyramid was, indeed, the product of something extraordinary: not extraterrestrial intelligence but a superhuman authority. This radical new projection of royal power had a profound significance for ancient Egyptian civilization as a whole, and to understand its origins, we need to go back a generation before the Great Pyramid, to the reign of Khufu’s father.

The Egyptians’ penchant for monumentality can be traced back to prehistoric times at Nabta Playa; the construction of a vast edifice of stone was first fully realized during the reign of Khasekhemwy, at the end of the Second Dynasty; and the first pyramid was built for his successor, Netjerikhet, at the beginning of the Third. But the advent of the true, geometrical pyramid during the reign of Sneferu (2575–2545), first king of the Fourth Dynasty and father of Khufu, marked something quite new—not just the perfection of an architectural form or a change in the concept of the royal afterlife, but the transformation of the relationship between the king and his people. As was so often true in ancient Egyptian history, the new order was initially proclaimed in the king’s titles. For his Horus name, the most ancient and symbolically most significant element of the royal titulary, Sneferu took the phrase “neb maat.” The common translation, “lord of truth,” scarcely does it justice. In ancient Egyptian ideology “maat” was the embodiment of truth, justice, righteousness, and created order—in short, the divinely ordained pattern of the universe. The word “neb” meant not just “lord,” but “possessor,” “owner,” and “keeper.” Sneferu was announcing nothing less than a new model of kingship. For him, the exercise of power was no longer confined to dispensing justice. It meant having a monopoly on truth. The king’s word was the law because the king himself was the law. If this smacked more of divine than human authority, that was the point.

To reinforce this blunt message, Sneferu adopted a new title, netjer nefer. It meant, simply, “the perfect god.” Is that really how his subjects saw him? Throughout history, megalomaniacs and tyrants have used such epithets—“father of the nation,” “dear leader”—but the terms usually have a hollow ring. Modern experience suggests that the titles are more about brainwashing and subjugation than the expression of popular acclaim. And yet, when it comes to ancient Egypt, scholars still balk at such an interpretation. A leading expert on the Pyramid Age has written that “support for the system was genuine and widespread” and that “coercive state mechanisms, such as police, were conspicuous by their absence.”1 Unless Fourth Dynasty Egypt was a utopian society, never again experienced in human history, this rose-tinted view seems highly unlikely. When the head of state is “the perfect god,” opposition becomes not just unwise but unthinkable. When the king also controls the written record, it is hardly surprising that accounts of repression or brutality are absent. Archaeology, however, reveals something more of the truth.

Throughout the first three dynasties, Egyptian society retained much of its prehistoric character. The material culture was largely dominated by forms (of pottery, stone vessels, even statuary) derived from predynastic antecedents. The major regional centers were still those from the period of state formation, places such as Inerty, Nekheb, Tjeni, Nubt, and Nekhen. Beyond the immediate confines of the royal court, society, too, seems to have been organized along ancient, traditional lines, dominated by family, regional, and perhaps tribal loyalties. All that seems to have changed at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty. New styles of pottery and sculpture were promulgated by the court to be produced in state workshops. New towns were founded by the state to replace the earlier centers of power—Iunet (modern Dendera) displaced Tjeni as the regional administrative capital, Thebes grew at the expense of Nubt, and Djeba eclipsed Nekhen. It is tempting to see these phenomena as parts of a deliberate and coordinated government policy designed to snuff out local autonomy and replace it with a new, absolute dependency on central authority. Even in the mortuary sphere, the king’s commanding presence held sway. Anyone with any position whatsoever in the vast machinery of government now sought to be buried in the court cemetery, founded by the king and dominated by his own gigantic funerary monument, rather than being interred in their local burial ground, hallowed by age and ancestral ties.

The first of these new court cemeteries grew up at Meidum, a rather remote site near the entrance to the Fayum. The choice of location was significant in itself. By breaking with tradition and eschewing the existing royal burial grounds of Abdju and Saqqara, Sneferu was distancing himself from his ancestors, too. His was an avowedly forward-looking age, in which power would be independent of inheritance. As such, the age demanded a bold, new architectural statement. So Sneferu’s engineers and builders set to work on a monument designed to surpass anything that had been attempted before. Although it followed the basic form of Netjerikhet’s Step Pyramid, the Meidum pyramid was altogether grander in scale, rising up in eight giant steps (against Netjerikhet’s six), and was half again as high as its predecessor. In a further break with tradition, the complex of buildings surrounding the Step Pyramid was abandoned in favor of an elongated plan, with the various architectural elements laid out along an axis. This led eastward from the pyramid itself, via a small temple and a stone causeway to a valley temple on the edge of cultivation. The east-west orientation, replacing the northern alignment of Third Dynasty royal monuments, was no accident either—Sneferu’s final journey would consciously mirror the sun’s course across the heavens, from its rising in the east to its setting in the west. As “the perfect god,” the king was publicly associating himself with the supreme divinity and source of all life.

But even this was not enough for a ruler of Sneferu’s vaunting ambition. After about a decade on the throne, with the Meidum pyramid all but complete, the king embarked upon an even more audacious project. Once again, he chose a virgin site (modern Dahshur) at the southern end of the great necropolis of Memphis. Perhaps deliberately, his chosen spot was within sight of Netjerikhet’s Step Pyramid, but—as if to drum home the message that his was a new era—Sneferu had plans for an entirely new form of monument: Egypt’s first true geometric pyramid. The subtle solar symbolism of the Meidum complex would be replaced by the overt representation of a shaft of sunlight, rendered in stone on a monumental scale. The name of the Dahshur pyramid, Appearance, used the same word as the rising of the sun. A new age had truly dawned. An eight-and-a-half-acre site was cleared for construction, and the plans were for the most majestic pyramid yet, with sides rising at a steep angle of 60 degrees to a height of nearly five hundred feet. A subsidiary pyramid for the king’s ka (eternal spirit), a small side chapel, a long stone causeway, and a valley temple for the celebration of the royal mortuary cult were laid out at the same time, as part of a single grand design.

To fund this massive project, and ensure a perpetual supply of commodities for the king’s cult, an equally vast administrative effort was required. An entry on the Palermo Stone for the fourteenth year of Sneferu’s reign records the creation of thirty-five royal estates (complete with their human workforces) and 122 cattle farms. Many of these new foundations were located in the wide expanses of the delta, and one of them, in the western delta, subsequently grew to a considerable size. Imu (modern Kom el-Hisn) demonstrates the extent to which government policy shaped the demography of Old Kingdom Egypt. Although cattle seem to have been reared in large numbers at the site, the local population did not enjoy the fruits of their labors. Their diet was unusually low in beef and cattle products, suggesting that most of the livestock was sent straight to the royal palace and cult centers near Memphis, leaving the cattle keepers themselves to survive on more meager fare. Even the cereals grown at Imu seem to have been fed preferentially to the cattle rather than to their human attendants. Once again, we see the essentially self-interested nature of the ancient Egyptian monarchy. This was not so much enlightened despotism as despotism, pure and simple.

While the extensive low-lying fields of the delta provided ideal grazing for vast herds of cattle, the royal estates in Upper Egypt concentrated on grain production. The staple crop was barley, which provided the basic ingredient for both bread and beer. Egypt’s climate and the annual regime of the Nile favored arable farming. As soon as the floodwaters receded, in early autumn, seed was broadcast over the newly irrigated and fertilized fields, and it germinated quickly. The main growing season coincided with the cooler months of winter, and this was followed by the onset of summer, which ripened the grain and allowed harvesting to take place in ideal conditions, before the inundation arrived to start the annual cycle over again. In such a favorable environment, it was relatively easy to produce a surplus; easy, too, for the state to siphon off a significant percentage of agricultural production, by way of taxation, to fund its own projects. The end product of all this economic activity is illustrated in reliefs from the Dahshur valley temple. In a frieze around the walls, a line of female offering bearers, each personifying a different royal estate, is shown bringing supplies for the royal cult. The king was letting it be known that his pyramid was a national enterprise, involving the whole country—whether the populace liked it or not.

The Bent Pyramid at Dahshur  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

Sneferu may have been able to command his people and their livelihoods, but he could not control the forces of nature. As his massive pyramid at Dahshur reached the halfway point, geology rudely intervened. Cracks started appearing in the outer casing, the telltale signs of subsidence. The underlying sands and shales were simply not strong enough to support the vast weight of the growing pyramid, and the ground had begun to give way. As an emergency measure, extra blocks of stone were laid around the base of the pyramid, reducing the angle of the sides to 54 degrees, but it was too little, too late. Fissures started to open up in the internal corridors and chambers. The architects tried everything from plaster repairs to a new stone lining. They even used expensive imported logs to shore up the ceilings (an entry on the Palermo Stone records the arrival of forty ships from Kebny, laden with coniferous timber), but to no avail. Finally in a desperate attempt to salvage the pyramid—and their own careers—from complete ruin, the architects implemented a radical change of plan. For the upper half of the pyramid, the angle of incline was reduced still further, to 43 degrees. Smaller blocks of stone were employed, and they were laid in horizontal courses, rather than the inward-sloping courses used previously, which had unintentionally contributed to the stresses and strains at the base. The result would be a completed pyramid, but a seriously botched job. Though it would ultimately reach 346 feet in height, the “Bent Pyramid” was hardly fit to serve as the eternal resting place of the perfect god. Exhausted and humiliated, Sneferu’s engineers, architects, and builders were left in no doubt about what they had to do—start again from scratch.

Work continued on the Bent Pyramid—although now useless, it nevertheless had to be completed. An unfinished disaster would be the ultimate disgrace. Eventually the focus of attention and activity shifted toward preparations for a third great monument. This time, the lessons learned from bitter experience were rigorously applied. A site was chosen with stable underlying geology; the monument was planned, from the outset, with a reduced angle of slope (the same 43 degrees used for the upper part of the Bent Pyramid); and the stone blocks would all be laid in horizontal courses. Resources and manpower were mobilized as never before, for the only commodity in short supply was time. Sneferu had already been king for twenty years, and his monument for eternity had to be finished before he died. As an insurance policy, the royal builders returned to Meidum to convert the king’s eight-stepped pyramid into a true pyramid by casing it with additonal masonry. For a time, major construction work was taking place on three different monuments simultaneously, an unprecedented commitment of manpower and resources.

The accelerating pace of construction was extraordinary. In the first decade of Sneferu’s reign, during initial work at Meidum, his builders had laid around 46,000 cubic yards of stone per year. In the second decade, as the Bent Pyramid was taking shape, the rate was increased to 105,000 cubic yards per year. In the king’s third decade on the throne, with work taking place on three fronts, between 130,000 and 200,000 cubic yards of stone were laid each year. It is unlikely that this work rate was ever surpassed, even a generation later during the construction of Khufu’s Great Pyramid at Giza. Remarkably, it has been calculated that Sneferu’s third pyramid, known today as the Red Pyramid (from the color of its core limestone blocks), could have been built in as few as ten and a half years. The extra effort involved in hauling blocks higher and higher up the pyramid was compensated for by the sharply reducing volume of the monument toward its apex. The first eleven courses of masonry (out of 157) accounted for 20 percent of the pyramid’s total volume. By the time the builders laid the sixty-sixth course (less than halfway up), they had accomplished 80 percent of the work by volume. In such a way, with an unrelenting pace and enormous effort, the Red Pyramid was finished in good time. The greatest pyramid builder in Egyptian history finally had a monument worthy of the name. (Indeed, the name Appearance was transferred to the Red Pyramid while the Bent Pyramid was rather embarrassingly renamed Southern Appearance.) Not only was it perfect in outward form, but its interior chambers also showed a new sophistication of design, with elegantly corbeled roofs producing pyramid-shaped spaces to reflect the building as a whole. Two of the rooms stood at ground level, but the third, perhaps destined to be the king’s burial chamber, was placed higher up in the body of the pyramid. In death as in life, the king would be elevated above the mundane, closer to heaven than to earth.


IF THE ART OF PYRAMID BUILDING WAS GRADUALLY PERFECTED UNDER Sneferu, it was taken to new heights by his son. Virtually nothing is known about Khufu the man, and the events of his reign are sketchy. But it seems likely that he grew up in his father’s shadow, his young life shaped by the court’s obsession with pyramid building, and that he resolved to outdo even Sneferu by commissioning the ultimate in funerary monuments. The Great Pyramid at Giza marks the zenith not just of ancient Egyptian kingship but of the universal tendency for absolute power to project itself in grandiose architecture. At its most stark, the structure represents the untrammeled exercise of political and economic control; at its most inspirational, it represents a unique episode in human history. It is this combination of the sinister and the dazzling that gives Khufu’s monument its enduring fascination.

From the outset, it was designed to set new standards that would remain unsurpassed. Khufu chose the site carefully, the Giza plateau (like Dahshur) being visible from Saqqara, yet virgin ground. The underlying geology—a strong seam of limestone called the Mokattam Formation—was ideally suited to bear the weight of a gigantic monument. The local availability of building material in vast quantities was a further advantage, and during the inundation, boats could reach the base of the plateau, facilitating deliveries to the construction site from all over Egypt.

The king also chose wisely when appointing the man who would oversee the entire project. For most of the Fourth Dynasty, the highest offices of state were reserved exclusively for senior male members of the royal family, in what seems to have been a deliberate policy to concentrate all power in the hands of the king. For the greatest undertaking of his reign, therefore, Khufu chose a trusted royal relative. Hemiunu was probably the king’s nephew. His membership in the king’s inner circle undoubtedly gave him opportunities for advancement, but he must have possessed innate ability as well, for his rise to a position of great eminence was rapid. In his prime, he held a combination of courtly, religious, and administrative offices, ranging from elder of the palace to high priest of Thoth (the god of writing and wisdom). The unusual title “director of music of the south and the north” may reflect one of Hemiunu’s private interests, but the offices that conferred the greatest responsibility were those directly connected with the business of government: overseer of royal scribes (in other words, head of the civil service) and overseer of all construction projects of the king. Of all Khufu’s construction projects, none was more important than his Great Pyramid, and Hemiunu was responsible for the entire operation, from provisioning and organizing the workforce to quarrying and transporting the stone, from building and maintaining the construction ramps to marshaling the surveyors, architects, and supervisors. Hemiunu’s life-size statue from his tomb at Giza shows a man in full enjoyment of the benefits of high office, his pronounced corpulence emphasizing his wealth and privilege. With an aquiline nose and strong jaw, his facial features project an air of self-confidence and determination. Notwithstanding his impeccable royal connections, these were qualities he would have needed in large measure as he stood on the Giza plateau for the first time, at the beginning of his uncle’s reign, contemplating the immense challenge that lay before him.

The first—and in many ways the most crucial—stage of building a pyramid involved laying out and preparing the site. The extraordinary precision with which the Great Pyramid is aligned to the points of the compass indicates that a method of orientation involving the stars must have been used. Solar methods are simply not accurate enough. The precise technique that the Egyptians used is not certain, but it may well have involved a pair of stars that circle the celestial north pole; when the two are in a direct vertical alignment (easily checked with a simple plumb line), the line of sight toward them marks true north. We may imagine this alignment ceremony being carried out with great solemnity, in the presence of priests, with Hemiunu and perhaps the king himself looking on, for the efficacy of the pyramid as a means of resurrecting the king after his death depended on the accuracy of its orientation—as we shall see later.


Once the site had been laid out, and the ground cleared and leveled—probably by using channels cut into the surface of the rock and filled with water—it was time for the construction itself to begin. The scale of the project seems almost overwhelming today, but to the government machine of Khufu’s reign, with the benefit of a generation’s experience in the construction of vast pyramids, it may have appeared less daunting. The ancient Egyptian approach to any large-scale undertaking was to divide it up into a series of more manageable units. When it came to pyramid building and the organization of a vast workforce, this proved both efficient and highly effective. The basic unit of the workforce was probably a team of twenty men, each with its own team leader. This kind of organization would have produced a team spirit, and a sense of friendly rivalry between teams would have encouraged each to try and outdo the others. This was certainly the case with larger units of the workforce, as surviving inscriptions testify. Ten teams formed a two-hundred-strong division, known today by the Greek term “phyle.” Five phyles, each with its own leader and identity, made up a gang of a thousand workers. And two gangs, again with distinctive and often jokey names (such as “the king’s drunkards”), made a crew, the largest unit of men. The pyramid-shaped structure of the workforce reflected the monument itself. Like the regiments, battalions, and companies of an army, the organizational arrangement engendered a strong sense of corporate identity and pride at different levels of the system. Team vied with team, phyle with phyle, and gang with gang to be the best and to win recognition. This structure was a simple and ingenious solution to a massive task, and it ensured that motivation was maintained.

It needed to be. Throughout the two decades it took to build the Great Pyramid, the construction work was hot, unrelenting, exhausting, and dangerous. The conditions must have been particularly unpleasant down in the main quarry, a few hundred yards south of the pyramid itself. Choking clouds of limestone dust, the blinding glare of the quarry face, the constant din of chisels, swarms of flies, and the stench of sweated labor: it was not a pleasant environment. The rawest of recruits had to serve their time here, earnestly hoping for promotion—and working hard to achieve it. Not that the alternative was any less strenuous. Hauling the vast stone blocks from quarry face to construction site was backbreaking work. Each block, weighing a ton or more, had to be levered onto a wooden sledge, then dragged by ropes along a carefully prepared track. At the end of its journey, it had to be taken off the sledge and moved carefully into position, ready for shaping and finishing. And all this at the pace of one block every two minutes, for ten hours a day.

Despite its superhuman scale, Khufu’s monument was nevertheless a profoundly human achievement, and well within the capacity of the ancient Egyptians. Calculations and practical experiments have shown that just two crews, or four thousand men, would have been sufficient to quarry, haul, and set in place the more than two million stone blocks used to build the pyramid. Perhaps the same size of workforce again would have been required to construct and maintain the vast ramps leading from the main quarry to the pyramid and up the sides of the monument as it grew steadily in height. Another army of workers toiled behind the scenes to keep the whole operation going: carpenters to make the sledges for dragging huge blocks of stone; water carriers to lubricate the passage of the sledges along wood and mud tracks; potters to make the jars for the water carriers as well as the day-to-day ware for storage, cooking, and eating; smiths to forge and repair copper chisels for the quarrymen; bakers, brewers, and cooks to supply the entire workforce. Even so, the number of people employed at any one time on the Great Pyramid project may not have risen much beyond ten thousand.

Only a relatively small contingent of specialist quarrymen, surveyors, engineers, and craftsmen, together with their wives and children, lived at the pyramid site year-round. The majority of the workers were temporary employees, serving for a period of a few months before returning to their families in towns and villages throughout Egypt. The pyramid town in which these ordinary workmen were quartered reveals fascinating details of their daily lives. During the construction of the Great Pyramid, the main settlement, called Gerget Khufu (“settlement of Khufu”), was located near the cultivation, close to Khufu’s valley temple. Large quantities of broken pottery, charcoal, ash, and animal bones indicate a hive of activity, focused primarily on feeding the thousands of workers. Farther south, at the edge of the Giza plateau, an even larger pyramid town flourished during subsequent reigns. The town illuminates the meticulous organization and planning that went into pyramid building. Separated from the sacred necropolis by a massive stone wall, thirty feet high and thirty feet thick at the base, the town was carefully laid out. Its various components all point to a rigidly hierarchical arrangement mirroring and reinforcing the management pyramid of the workforce.

The men slept in fairly primitive conditions, on rough earth beds ranged along the walls of barrack blocks. Each long, narrow unit could have housed two teams of twenty workers. At the back of each unit, more spacious living quarters were probably reserved for the team supervisors. The overseer in charge of the entire operation—not an individual of Hemiunu’s rank but the official who supervised day-to-day activity at the construction site—lived in even greater comfort in a large detached villa. Directly opposite, a columned hall could have served as a communal dining facility. Eating together would certainly have helped to reinforce bonds of community and friendship among the workforce. The hard manual labor of pyramid building demanded a diet rich in protein, and up to eleven cattle and thirty sheep and goats were slaughtered every day in the town, providing meat to supplement the abundant rations of dried fish. At the same time, dozens of bakeries were kept busy producing the ancient Egyptian staples of bread and beer. As the most important dietary ingredient, grain was carefully rationed and its distribution was kept under close supervision. The silos and granaries were situated within a royal administrative complex, set within its own double enclosure wall at the edge of the town for added security. Despite the friendly camaraderie among the workforce, there was no forgetting whom they served.

Perhaps the most intriguing question surrounding Khufu’s monumental construction project related to its purpose. What inspired such a feat of architecture, engineering, and sheer administrative effort? Why would ten thousand men toil for twenty years to build an artificial mountain of stone? The easy answer, favored by Egyptologists, cites the ideology of divine kingship—the notion that the monarch was the sole arbiter between the people and the gods, the defender of created order and the guarantor of Egypt’s continued stability and prosperity. In such a system, the population would surely have labored willingly on a vast royal project in order to honor and maintain the covenant between them and their ruler. Perhaps. But even if pyramid building was a form of social security, providing employment for a large proportion of the population, especially during the months of the inundation when the fields were underwater; even if the workers were reasonably well housed and fed, not the slaves of popular myth; even if the overseers impressed upon their recruits the noble nature of the task at hand—the fact remains that the conditions were uncomfortable (at best) and the work compulsory. When royal officials came to a village to draft its men for state service, there is unlikely to have been much rejoicing. Workers sustained frequent injuries on the Giza plateau, their skeletons showing evidence of broken bones, severe lower back stress, and painful arthritic joints. Accidents must have been frequent, often resulting in fatalities. The official record is predictably silent about how many died building the Great Pyramid.

So, if the pyramid was not exactly a national project in which the whole country could take part and feel pride, what was it? The uncomfortable answer is that it was the ultimate projection of absolute power. Despots throughout history have been attracted to colossal buildings, from Nicolae Ceaus¸escu’s Palace of the People in Bucharest to tin-pot dictator Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s vast (and ridiculous) basilica in the jungles of Ivory Coast. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is merely the most audacious and enduring of such folies de grandeur. Little wonder that its royal builder gained a posthumous reputation as a megalomaniac tyrant with scant regard for human life. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fourth century B.C., declared that Khufu “brought the country into all sorts of misery. He closed all the temples, then, not content with excluding his subjects from the practice of their religion, compelled them without exception to labour as slaves for his own advantage.” Herodotus added that “the Egyptians can hardly bring themselves to mention [him], so great is their hatred.”2 The symbolism of the Great Pyramid has not been lost on more recent dictators. After his invasion of Egypt in A.D. 1798, Napoléon Bonaparte made straight for Giza and camped his soldiers at the foot of the plateau, before rallying them with the words “Soldiers of France, forty centuries gaze down upon you.”

The Great Pyramid is not only the epitome of monumentality and indestructibility. What makes it unique are its unparalleled accuracy and complexity. Its precise orientation to true north has already been commented upon. Most extraordinary of all are the narrow shafts that lead upward and outward from the burial chamber (and the chamber below it), through the solid masonry, to the outer edge of the pyramid, stopping just short of the world beyond. Erroneously dubbed air shafts, they had a purpose that was altogether loftier and more transcendent, for they pointed to the stars—more specifically to the culminations of Sirius (the dog star), a star in the constellation Orion, and two of the circumpolar stars that rotate around the celestial north pole. The ancient Egyptians were accomplished astronomers, and stars played an important part in state religion, especially in beliefs about the king’s afterlife. The circumpolar stars were a particular source of fascination. They alone remained permanently visible in the night sky, never setting, and were thus the perfect metaphor for the king’s eternal destiny—a place in the great cosmic order of the universe that would endure forever. Khufu’s pyramid was nothing less than a way of uniting heaven and earth for the everlasting well-being of the king.


THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA ARE AN APPROPRIATE SYMBOL OF ANCIENT Egyptian society in the Fourth Dynasty (2575–2450). Just as the tombs of courtiers and workmen clustered around the king’s own funerary monument (or as close as the tomb’s owner’s status allowed), so the country at large showed a similar dependence on royal power. Members of the ruling class chose to have themselves depicted as lowly scribes, emphasizing their service to the king. Autobiographical inscriptions written on tomb walls further reinforced this culture of servitude. It is no coincidence that one of the longest lasting of all ancient Egyptian funerary formulae first appeared in the early Fourth Dynasty. Written in tomb chapels, on offering tables, and later on coffins, it expressed the notion that all provisions for the tomb and the owner’s mortuary cult depended upon royal largesse, constituting “an offering which the king gives.” The elevation of the king found further expression in the appearance and growing popularity of personal names where the name of a god was replaced with the name of the reigning monarch. Children given names such as Khufu-khaf, “Khufu, he appears,” might well have grown up wondering if there was any practical difference between the king and the sun god. The conscious modeling of the royal mortuary temple on the shrines of the gods further blurred the distinction.

This profound change in the relationship between the king and his subjects reflected an aggrandizement of monarchy that is seen not just at Giza, the epicenter of royal authority, but in the furthest reaches of the Egyptian realm. Inscriptions among the inhospitable mountains of Sinai, to the northeast, and on an isolated rocky outcrop in the southwestern desert bear witness to the state-sponsored expeditions sent by Khufu and his successors to the remotest corners of Egypt. The purpose of the expeditions was to bring back precious stones for the royal workshops, materials that could be transformed into statues, jewelry, and other costly objects to project and enhance the king’s authority. The opulence—even decadence—of Khufu’s court is most evident in two tombs excavated close to the Great Pyramid. One belonged to a dwarf called Perniankhu, whose job was to entertain the king and members of the royal family, perhaps by dancing and singing—the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a medieval court jester. We may imagine the scenes of feasting and revelry that took place in the royal palace, while the king’s subjects bedded down in their cramped barracks at the end of yet another day of toil on the Giza plateau.

The second tomb contained equipment prepared for the king’s own mother, and it provides revealing insights into the lifestyle of Fourth Dynasty royalty. Hetepheres was the wife of one great pyramid builder (Sneferu), the mother of another, and very probably a king’s daughter to boot. As befitted her exalted status, she lived a life of luxury and ease, borne from place to place in a gilded carrying chair with ebony panels. Its gold inlaid hieroglyphs spelled out her many titles: mother of the dual king; follower of Horus; director of the ruler; the gracious one, whose every utterance is done for her. If these epithets are to be believed, it seems that Khufu took orders from only one person, and that was his mother. The impression of a peripatetic royal family, moving from one palace to another, is reinforced by the other items in He-tepheres’s tomb equipment, which included a bed with a separate canopy and two low chairs. The furniture was lightweight and highly portable, easily dismantled and reerected. Its simplicity and elegance of design, combining exemplary craftsmanship and sumptuous materials, encapsulates the self-confidence and restrained opulence of the Fourth Dynasty. Hetepheres’s most treasured possessions were her jewelry boxes, one of which was specially designed to hold twenty silver bracelets. A figure of the queen on her carrying chair shows her wearing fourteen of these bracelets at once, all along her right arm. At this period of Egyptian history, silver (which had to be imported from distant lands) was much more valuable than gold, and the bracelets were further enhanced by inlaid decoration in turquoise, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. All in all, Hetepheres must have presented a dazzling spectacle of an African queen, appropriate for the mother of an all-powerful king.

But even Khufu could not defy mortality. Around 2525 he died, and was buried with proper pomp and solemnity in his Great Pyramid, the funeral ceremonies presided over by his son and heir, Djedefra. The new king seems not to have inherited his father’s penchant for lavish monuments; he built a much smaller pyramid in an entirely new site on the northernmost edge of the great Memphite necropolis. Perhaps he realized he could not compete at Giza. A more symbolic reason for the novel choice of location was that it faced the town of Iunu, principal cult center of the sun god Ra. Djedefra was clearly fascinated by the solar deity, and the sun’s life-giving brilliance presented an eminently suitable metaphor for an omnipotent, resplendent monarchy. Djedefra decided to harness this symbolism, to forge a bond between king and god that would achieve, in theological terms, what his father had achieved through monumental architecture. Djedefra’s very name, meaning “Ra, he speaks,” was a public statement of the sun god’s supreme authority. The king went further, adding a new title to the royal collection by calling himself “son of Ra.” It was a decisive break with earlier tradition, which had emphasized the primacy of the celestial falcon god Horus, and it underlined the Fourth Dynasty’s independence from the past, their determination to establish a new model for kingship. Under royal patronage, the cult of Ra rapidly became the most powerful in the land, and the god himself rose to a position of unassailability in the Egyptian pantheon.

The twin strands of Fourth Dynasty royal ideology—pyramid building on a massive scale and a close association with the sun god—came together in the reign of Djedefra’s successor and younger brother, Khafra (beginning circa 2500). For his funerary monument he returned to Giza, siting his pyramid next to Khufu’s, but he cleverly chose a slightly more elevated spot. This meant that, even though the pyramid was not quite as high as its neighbor (474 feet as opposed to 482 feet), it appeared bigger—an inspired combination of deference and self-assertion. An impressive causeway led down the plateau to the valley temple, which was sheathed in polished slabs of red granite, a stone with strong solar connotations. Around the temple’s inner hall, which was paved with dazzling white calcite (symbolic of purification), stood twenty-three life-size statues of Khafra. They showed the king enthroned in majesty with the falcon god and traditional patron of kingship, Horus, perched behind his head, offering him protection. Each statue was carved from a single block of gneiss, a spectacular banded black-and-white stone brought hundreds of miles from a remote quarry in the Western Desert. The total effect, enhanced by carefully controlled light levels, must have been mesmerizing. Had there ever been a more imposing representation of kingship? But Khafra had not finished. His coup de grâce was to order the transformation of an imposing knoll of rock that rose from the ground next to his valley temple. Under the masons’ chisels, it was transmogrified into a giant recumbent lion, its human head bearing a royal countenance. The Great Sphinx symbolized nothing less than Khafra’s unification with the sun god. Guardian of the Giza necropolis, it reoriented the whole site around Khafra’s own monument. Khufu’s second son had not only trumped the Great Pyramid; he had effectively appropriated it as well.

Three generations of huge investment—human, material, and administrative—in pyramid building transformed Egypt but proved an unsustainable drain on its resources. Khafra’s successor, Menkaura, was the last king to build a pyramid at Giza, and it was on a much reduced scale, reaching only 216 feet in height and only one-tenth of the volume of the Great Pyramid. The architects tried hard to compensate with an extravagant use of red granite, brought by barge all the way from the first cataract region, and by an enlarged pyramid temple, where Menkaura’s funerary cult continued to be celebrated for centuries after his death. But the era of massive pyramids was over. Later kings would have to find new ways of projecting their power.

An Arabic proverb states “man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.” The Great Pyramid was perhaps the most ambitious construction project of the ancient world. Its royal builder bestrode his era like a colossus. Yet—in one of the greatest ironies of archaeology—the only certain image of Khufu to have survived from his own time is a tiny thumb-size statuette of ivory. Discovered in the ruins of the temple at Abdju, it measures just three inches high. The regalia of kingship are clear enough in the statuette—the king is shown enthroned, wearing the red crown and holding the royal flail—but the scale is diminutive. An autocrat during his lifetime and a tyrant in later tradition, history has finally cut Khufu down to size.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!