great pyramid of khufu

This is the Great Pyramid of King Khufu.  Everybody knows the Great Pyramid of King Khufu, but you probably don’t know about the Shit Pyramids of his father, King Sneferu.  This is a shame, because they are amazing.

When King Sneferu came to the throne of Egypt, the cool thing that all the pharaohs had was a Step Pyramid, like the original one built by King Djoser and designed by Imhotep (not the mummy).  King Sneferu could easily have had one one because his predecessor King Huni had died before his could be finished. All Sneferu had to do was step in and put the last few blocks on.

But King Sneferu had a vision.  He didn’t want any old Step Pyramid.  He was going to build Egypt’s first smooth-sided pyramid, and make King Huni’s pyramid way taller in the bargain.  It didn’t work.  The core of Huni’s pyramid couldn’t handle the modifications and nowadays the Step Pyramid at Meidum looks like this:

It’s not on a hill - that’s the outer layers of the pyramid that have fallen down all around it.  The name of the structure in Arabic is Heram el-Kaddaab, which means something like The Sort-Of Pyramid.

Anyway, King Sneferu was understandably disappointed and made his pyramid-builders start over from scratch at a different site.  Apparently having learned nothing about the Big Fat Nowhere that hubristic pyramid ambition was going to get him, this pyramid was designed to be even taller and pointier than the last effort!  Too tall and pointy, in fact - the bedrock proved to be less stable than he might have hoped, and by the time the pyramid was half-finished stuff was already moving and cracking inside of it.  There are ceilings in this pyramid that are to this day partially held up by wooden beams.

The builders seem to have panicked and decided that the only way to finish the pyramid without another disaster was to make the top half lighter than the bottom half.  They did this by changing the angle of the slope, ending up with a pyramid that looks like this:

Egyptologists call this one the Bent Pyramid for fairly obvious reasons.  Uniquely among Egyptian Pyramids, it has most of its smooth outer blocks intact, rather than having them all stolen to build other stuff (most of medieval Cairo is built from the skin of the Giza pyramids).  I’m guessing this is because nobody dared touch the thing for fear the whole structure would come down like a giant limestone game of Jenga.

I’m sure the pyramid-builders were very proud of this solution.  Sneferu appears to have been less so.  He had them move over about half a mile and start over.  Again.  Why only half a mile when he had them move 34 miles between the Sort-of Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid is a mystery.  I think he wanted to keep them in sight of the Bent Pyramid so they could look at it and feel ashamed every once in a while.

And there they built Sneferu’s third pyramid, which is called the Red Pyramid.  As pyramids go, it’s a very cautious one - it’s got the shallowest slope rise of any Egyptian pyramid, and while it’s the same height as the Bent Pyramid it spreads its weight over a much greater base area, making it far more stable.  Sneferu seems to have been happy with this one, because he was buried in it.  Either that, or after a forty-eight-year reign he just finally died and that was the pyramid they used because it was the nicest of the three.

These three pyramids together actually contain substantially more stone than the Great Pyramid of Sneferu’s son Khufu.  By the time Sneferu died, his workforce had honed themselves into a lean, mean pyramid-building machine.  They had already made every possible pyramid mistake.  So when Khufu announced that he didn’t just want a great pyramid, but The Great Pyramid, these guys built him a pyramid so fucking great that we now think aliens must have done it.

It was as true in Ancient Egypt as it is now.

Favourite Historical Periods; Old Kingdom Egypt 8/?

Old Kingdom Egypt, specifically the ‘Pyramid Age’ (2650-2125) consisted of Dynasties 3-8 and is responsible for one of the most recognisable structures and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; the Pyramids.  Khufu’s Great Pyramid in Cairo is a testament to Ancient Egyptian culture and society and an everlasting symbol of the Old Kingdom

Apparently I’m not doing enough art this summer so here’s some art. In fact, it’s my first digital painting I’ve made since I got my tablet. Wish I would have done this sooner, it was fun. The video for it will be on Youtube later this week. Hope you guys enjoy the art…

Monuments of Egypt

At some point in the future, in that festive pantheon of great builders from the ancient world, there will be a steel-cage deathmatch amongst all of the creators of massive structures.  The Incans will be there, the Greeks, the Romans, the Mayans, the Minoans, the Chinese, the Vegasans…but they will all have their asses completely kicked by the Ancient Egyptians.  When we were hiking the Inca trail to Macchu Pichu, our guide had a saying every time we saw something completely over the top - “crazy Inca - too much coca”.

I don’t know what the right phrase is for the Egyptians, but clearly they were past coca, meth, and pan-galactic gargleblasters.  Because those Egyptians were crazy, crazy, crazy.

This post is about the monuments of ancient Egypt - we spent the day doing a little tour of history, starting with the the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops, to the ancient Greek).

The Giza Necropolis

Words fail me as I try to convey the sheer size of this thing.  I mean, I’ve certainly been next to buildings which are bigger - pulling up to the Aria in City Center, Vegas, is impressive, for example.  But this thing carries the weight of ages and the heft of solid rock.  Over two million blocks of limestone, stacked 146m high, with a margin of error (along the base) of under 5cm…the tallest and most accurate structure in the world for over 3,800 years.

My ancestors were not much past poking around the fire with sticks and rooting around for grubs while the Egyptians were organizing workers on the scale necessary to erect monuments of stone that put most civilizations to shame.  This thing is steep - it’s hard to tell from far away, but when you get up close, it looks like it goes up forever.  And it’s built from ENORMOUS bricks.  Imagine, if you will…organizing something like 35,000 people for twenty or thirty years, every day for four months out of the year (farmers, who are unable to work while the Nile is flooded), to carve blocks of stone out of the outcroppings in the desert, shape them, dress them, haul them to the site, and stack them up with geometric precision unheard of.

Khufu’s main man, Hemon, was probably the main architect of the place.  He must have been one hell of a project manager.  He learned his trade at the knee of Inhotep, no doubt (more on him later).  The Egyptians didn’t have the wheel or block-and-tackle, so that required a lot of manpower, amazing ropes, logs, wedges…who knows, maybe they used magic?  Check this stone bridge near the Sphinx:

That stone on the left wall is dressed really well, and it looks like Inca stonework…but done 4,000 years early, more or less.  The stones have prongs and slots that interlock and hold them together.  Many of the ruins we saw are in fantastic shape; the limestone and granite was all originally polished to a mirror-like sheen, and some of the better-preserved still have stones that haven’t lose their shine.  It turns out being buried int he desert that long will keep things nice and shiny.

The red granite, used in a few select places, was actually cut in a quarry in Aswan - 470km away.  The largest granite stones used to make the roof of Khufu’s central chamber in the pyramid weigh more than 80 tons.  These are rocks that were cut from the quarry, dressed, carried to the Nile, loaded into boats, floated down the river, dragged up from the river to the site, lifted up on the pyramid, and put in place.


Most of the monuments all held together just fine during the 1992 earthquake (although one stone got dislodged and rolled down the face of the Great Pyramid), unlike much of Cairo.  Somehow I’m not surprised.

The Sphinx itself, alas, is in far worse shape.  It’s built from a relatively soft limestone, and a lot of water from the ground has been seeping into the structure, causing it to erode very rapidly once it was excavated.  There’s been a lot of reconstruction work done on it (of varying degrees of success) but I suspect it’s not going to last for another 4,000 years at this rate.

It turns out that the Sphinx shouldn’t even have been built.  The original design of the pyramid structures from that time had the giant pyramid (always built on the west bank of the Nile), and next to the pyramids (looking towards the Nile) was a funerary temple, and then further east (in a perfect line), the valley temple, where the mummification ritual for the pharaoh would be taking place.  No Sphinx was in those plans.

Unfortunately, when the works started the excavations for the valley temple associated with the Khufu’s pyramid, they found a rock so large that even they could not move it.  So, they did what any self-respecting engineer would do - they made it into a Sphinx!  Apparently, it started a bit a fad for future pharaohs, and down near Luxor you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a sphinx somewhere.

The pyramids are a major tourist attraction, but due to all of the “issues” popping up in Egypt these days, the place is practically deserted.  We got there early, around 8:00 in the morning, and it was cold.  Freezing…about 8C, with nasty winds.  Alas, it wasn’t cold enough to drive away all of the people trying to sell us tickets, knick-knacks, camel rides, and all that crap.  I feel kinda bad about the situation…these people really have no job other than trying to get tourists to part from the money.  But after a while it just gets so maddening you want to start punching them in the face when they come up to you.

We did decide to get a camel ride for about $50:

Even Jen got on board.  I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and I just walked along side.  We didn’t take the one-hour ride, but just a little 15-minute jaunt with a few photos. Camels are BIG, much bigger than most horses:

Here’s the obligatory money shot, looking back towards the pyramids.  You can see three small pyramids, which were set aside for wives.  There are three main pyramids at the complex - the Great pyramid (which is the 7th and only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World), and the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure.  The pyramid of Khafre generally looks to be the biggest in most pictures, mostly because of how it’s situated on the mesa.  It’s also the only one with any of the original limestone cladding left on.  It’s hard to imagine what they all looked like with the cladding - these pyramids were polished limestone, perfectly smooth.  It must have been stunning.

One thing that I don’t think most people realize about all of the monuments in Egypt is that these were built as necropolises - cities of the dead.  We have almost nothing from the daily lives of the Egyptians because they just didn’t built with much permanence.  It’s hard to believe, given the durability of the monuments that have survived, but all of their regular houses and palaces are all gone, being built out of adobe or other materials that didn’t last.

To the Egyptians, the afterlife was much more important then the current one.  They believed that you moved on as a pharaoh, vizier, farmer, whatever and more or less lived the same way.  So the bulk of their effort was to prepare these grand cities for the pharaohs so they would have everything they need.  These mighty fortresses of stone, plazas, chambers, all were built during the lifetime of their leader, and then basically abandoned.  The building of the Giza plateau and all of the pyramids and associated temples, tombs, and support facilities bankrupted the Fourth Dynasty and caused serious issues until the economy had a chance to recover.

Hollywood would like us to think that the pyramids were built with slave labor.  Alas, it seems as though the workers were paid, and took pride in their work.  A nearby tomb was discovered not too long ago with the bodies of many workers.  Although they were not mummified, like the pharaoh, they were buried with bread and beer to support them in the afterlife.


In some ways, Saqqara is much more impressive than the Giza Plateau.  In the first place, it’s a drive from Cairo, so a lot fewer tourists visit.  It’s older - but there’s a lot more really cool stuff there, even if it’s smaller.  Saqqara dates from around 2648 BC vs. 2560 BC for the Giza pyramids.  It’s the site of the first worked stone monuments of any size, including the first real attempt at a pyramid - the Step Pyramid of Djoser:

This pyramid was built by the amazing architect Imhotep, who clearly had his act together.  Although it looks like it was built all in one go, it was actually built in sections, where side pieces were added on to allow the pyramid to have multiple “steps” on it, as opposed to a single flat step.  This was the first time they went up when building the monument.  Closer to the sun…closer to heaven…easier for the looters to find.

All of the tombs have been looted, of course.  Pretty much everything was gone - from Khufu, we only have two artifacts - the Great Pyramid itself, and a tiny little statue of him that was missed by the looters and found during an excavation.  It’s sitting in the Egyptian Museum as his only other monument.  As hard as the Egyptians tried, they were never able to figure out how to keep the looters away.  Loose lips sink ships, and open tombs.  I think that the succeeding pharaohs just used the previous tombs as easy places to get stone, gold, silver, and other goodies when preparing their tombs.

Some of the first known columns showed up here…you can see where the Greek’s got the idea.  Imhotep didn’t make them free-standing (they were attached to walls, probably because he wasn’t sure if they’d stand up!):

In any case, the excavation of the necropolis shows large plazas with amazing reliefs, including this row of cobras on one ledge:

On the inside of one of the side temples, there’s a ton of beautiful reliefs that have been painstakingly carved into the stone and dyed with organic and mineral colors.  In some cases, these seem to provide some of the first indications of daily life, along with what appears to be a depiction of the offerings and other goodies being brought to the tomb:

Believe it or not, the pyramids and various tombs in the region have been tourist sites for thousands of years.  People came to visit them from all over, it seems.  On a visit in the 18th dynasty, about 1580 BC, the treasury scribe Hednakht and the vizier’s scribe, Panakht scrawled some demotic script on the side of one of the tombs, saying how impressive the whole complex was.


The last necropolis we visited is even further out of the way - but it contains two of the best preserved and most interesting pyramid, including the very unique and amazing  Bent Pyramid, the Red Pyramid (the first true pyramid), and the Black Pyramid.  The Bent and Red Pyramids were built by Pharaoh Sneferu, who was Khufu’s father.  The Bent Pyramid got it’s name from an obvious feature:

This was the first time anyone had attempt to clad a pyramid, and it seems as though they started out a little too steep.  At some point, the structure may have gotten unstable, or perhaps they couldn’t drag stones up the ramps they were making (or the ramps were too difficult to manage), but in any case, they adjusted the angle from the ridiculous 54 degrees to a more reasonable 43 degrees.  It also has a significant amount of cladding remaining - you can imagine how the pyramid would look even more incredible when it was completely covered with flat, polished limestone, amidst an immaculate carved complex.

The Red Pyramid, also built by Sneferu, is the first time a completed, perfect pyramid was built, with that same 43 degree angle:

We got to go inside this one and see the interior burial chambers.

[ Side note - Raiders of the Lost Ark just came on Star TV.  I get to finish this blog while watching the greatest adventure movie EVER.  And so apropos! ]

To get in, we climbed about halfway up the pyramid, to an entry which is “guarded” by a local worker.  The “gift” - or “baksheesh” - for going in was about 20 pounds:

Once we stepped through the portal, we were faced with a long, steep passage, down into the bowels of the pyramid:

At some point, a wooden floor with metal slats to hold your feet and two handrails had been put in, but try climbing down 60m, in the dark, down a steep slanted passage with damp, foetid air, getting hotter and hotter…wow!  Must have been a lot of fun going up and down when it was just stone.

When we got to the bottom, it opened up into three connected burial chambers, and the air was really foul, reeking of ammonia.  An air pipe had been run all the way from the top down to the inside, but it was broken in several places, and no fan was installed to pump any air around anyway.  From the second chamber, the roof soared up almost five meters, and a staircase led into the final, interior room where the sarcophagus once lay:

We were trying not to think of the millions of tons of stone we were buried under.  It’s truly impressive that they could create these little rooms, perfectly built and positioned in the middle of the pyramid.  Those of you who are the wondering sort will consider that tiny passage leading into the chamber.  How did they get a giant stone sarcophagus all the way down into that final chamber?  The implication, of course, is that the sarcophagi and anything big had to be built, placed into the pyramid, and then the rest of the pyramid was completed on top of it!

Pharaohs planned for the death the moment they assumed the throne - in some cases, even before, when another king or queen started the process.  At some point, pyramids fell out of style, in the hopes that the tombs would be less obvious, but that mostly failed as well.  Only one tomb has been found that was largely undisturbed - that of King Tutankhamen.  That one survived only through luck - it was thought that he died earlier than expected, and ended up in the tomb planned for another.  The erection of other buildings and monuments on top of his tomb ended up hiding it until Howard Carter stumbled across it in 1922.

Not every creation of the Egyptians has been as durable.  The Black Pyramid, of Amenemhat III, was built of mud bricks, rather than stone, and low elevation and myriad of hallways, rooms, and chambers led to collapse.  It’s now nothing more than a mound of rubble:

If one ever gets the opportunity to go to Cairo, this day-long tour with a guide is a great opportunity to see a great cross section of ancient history.

I seem to be two or three blogs behind.  I can’t type these out fast enough!  I’ll see if I get to Aswan and the camel market, or skip right to Dar es Salaam.  In any case, enjoy.


The small ivory statue of Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) is the only Khufu’s portrait discovered so far. 

Next to the Great Pyramid, the 7.5 cm (3 inch) statue is the only physical evidence of Khufu’s two decade-long reign. It was found by the famed English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie at the ancient necropolis of Abydos, south of the Temple of Osiris. Petrie’s team, however, had a problem. They uncovered the statue without its head. Luckily, they managed to find the missing head and the builder of the Great Pyramid finally got a face. 

Khufu’s statue is today housed in the Cairo museum.