AP®︎/College Art History
- Ancient Egypt, an introduction
- Ancient Egyptian art
- Palette of King Narmer
- Seated Scribe
- The Great Pyramids of Giza
- Pyramid of Khufu
- Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Sphinx
- Pyramid of Menkaure
- King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen
- Temple of Amun-Re and the Hypostyle Hall, Karnak
- Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut and Large Kneeling Statue, New Kingdom, Egypt
- Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis (UNESCO/TBS)
- Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Three Daughters
- Tutankhamun’s tomb (innermost coffin and death mask)
- Last Judgement of Hunefer, from his tomb
- Hunefer, Book of the Dead
Pyramid of Khufu
by Dr. Amy Calvert
Pyramid of Khufu, c. 2551–2528 B.C.E. (photo: Hungarian Snow, CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Great Pyramid, the largest of the three main pyramids at Giza, was built by Khufu and rises to a height of 146 meters (481 feet). Humans constructed nothing taller than the Great Pyramid until 1221 C.E., when the steeple of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral was built in London and, at 149 meters (489 feet), surpassed it—at least until the steeple collapsed less than 350 years later.
It’s not just the height that is impressive, but also the precision with which the Great Pyramid was designed and executed. With a base length of more than 230 meters (750 feet) per side, the greatest difference in length among the four sides of the pyramid is a mere 4.4 cm (1 ¾ inches) and the base is level within 2.1 cm (less than an inch). This is an astonishing accomplishment that would be a challenge to replicate today even with modern equipment.
Construction: inner core stones, and outer casing stones
Detail of core blocks of Khufu's pyramid, c. 2551-2528 B.C.E. (photo: Vincent Brown, CC BY 2.0)
The pyramid contains an estimated 2,300,000 blocks, some of which are upwards of 50 tons. Like the pyramids built by his predecessor Snefru and those that followed on the Giza plateau, Khufu’s pyramid is constructed of inner, rough-hewn, locally quarried core stones (which is all that we see today) and angled, outer casing blocks laid in even horizontal courses with spaces filled with gypsum plaster.
The fine outer casing stones, which have long since been removed, were laid with great precision. These blocks of white Tura limestone would have given the pyramid a smooth surface and been quite bright and reflective. At the very top of the pyramid would have sat a capstone, known as a pyramidion, that may have been covered in gold. This dazzling point, shining in the intense sunlight, would have been visible for a great distance.
The interior chambers and passageways of Khufu’s pyramid are unique and include a number of enigmatic features. There is an unfinished subterranean chamber whose function is mysterious as well as a number of so-called ‘air shafts’ that radiate out from the upper chambers.
Entrance, Pyramid of Khufu (Photo: Olaf Tausch)
These have been explored using small robots, but a series of blocking stones have obscured the passages. When entering the pyramid, one has to crawl up a cramped ascending chamber that opens suddenly into a stunning space known as the Grand Gallery. This corbelled passage soars to a height of 8.74 meters (26 feet) and leads up to the King’s Chamber, which is constructed entirely from red granite brought from the southern quarries at Aswan.
Diagram of the interior of the Pyramid of Khufu
Above the King’s Chamber are five stress-relieving chambers of massive granite blocks topped with immense cantilevered slabs forming a pent roof to distribute the weight of the mountain of masonry above it. The king’s sarcophagus, also carved from red granite, sits empty at the exact central axis of the pyramid. This burial chamber was sealed with a series of massive granite blocks and the entrance to the shaft filled with limestone in an effort to obscure the opening.
Boats for the afterlife
Khufu’s mortuary complex also included seven large boat pits. Five of these are located to the east of the pyramid and were a sort of model; these brick-lined boat shaped elements were probably intended for use in the Afterlife to transport the king to stellar destinations. Boat burials of this type had a long history in royal mortuary contexts—a fleet of 14 such pits, with actual wooden boats averaging 18-19 meters (60 feet) in length encased inside, were discovered at a Dynasty 1 mortuary enclosure in Abydos, cemetery of Egypt’s earliest kings. Often, however, as with Khufu, the pits were simply boat shaped models rather than containing actual boats.
Reconstructed funerary boat of Khufu (Photo: Dr. Amy Calvert)
In addition to his boat pits, however, on the south side of the pyramid Khufu had two massive, rectangular stone-lined pits that contained completely disassembled boats. One of these has been removed and reconstructed. This cedar boat measures 43.3 meters (142 feet) in length and was constructed of 1,224 separate pieces stitched together with ropes. These boats appear to have been used for the the last earthly voyage of the king—his funerary procession—before being dismantled and interred.
Mark Lehner, The Complete Pyramids (Thames and Hudson, 2008).
David O'Connor, Abydos: Egypt's First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris (Thames and Hudson, 2011).
Essay by Dr. Amy Calvert
Want to join the conversation?
- Are there any pictures of what the pyramids would have looked like with the smooth limestone surface and capstone? It sounds amazing.(12 votes)
- Though not a scholarly reference, if you'd like to see an artist's rendition of the pyramid as it might have looked at its inception, do a Google search for the Earth Wind and Fire album "All 'N All". It's actually a composite of Egyptian sculpture (the bottom being from Abu Simbel, and the top being the Great Pyramid of Khufu as it might have looked when it was new).(12 votes)
- I always see the same type of figure used to illustrate the interior of the great pyramid. It's always flat and shows a profile of the pyramid. Was the pyramid bisected by a complex of chambers, leaving either side of the chamber complex nothing but hundreds of feet (and tons) of solid rock?(11 votes)
- This has a 3D version of what is normally the 2D image you were speaking of, and it doesn't look like they are showing any other passages.(1 vote)
- Why was there a gallery in the pyramid of Khufu?(8 votes)
- The grand gallery of the pyramid of Khufu refers to the original meaning of the word gallery, a hall or passageway. If you hang pictures in a hall, you have a picture gallery or simply a gallery as we often now use the term in a kind of short hand. I am assuming this was the issue at the heart of your question.(10 votes)
- Many cultures have used elephants and still do, why didn’t they use elephants to move the giant stones?(4 votes)
- The ancient people of the Sahara imported domesticated animals from Asia between 6000 and 4000 BCE. In Nabta Playa by the end of the 7th millennium BCE, prehistoric Egyptians had imported goats and sheep from Southwest Asia. wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_trade(3 votes)
- Was there any other type of wood used for the boats?(4 votes)
- why was the kings and queens chamber not together ?(2 votes)
- LONG after the end of the Ancient Egyptian civilazation, women were still considered less than men. It's only very resently that most of the world has decided to give women equal status with men.
Think about this:
How likely is it that the King and Queen of Egypt die even within the same month? Who knows! But I'm sure they didn't. So when one died, they would need their own chamber to be sealed in. You can't leave the tomb open, I'm sure that would be against Egyptian beliefs. So, they burry each royalty seperate, but in the same mighty pyramid. That was probably enough honor right there!(3 votes)
- how to solve this question An Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh wishes to build his burial place. He wants the base to have four equal sides, each measuring 8 meters. The structure should rise to a single point at a height of 14 meters. What space will be available in his burial structure?(1 vote)
- That sounds more like math homework than art history, but luckily Khan Academy has plenty of math resources! You might find this article helpful in solving your problem: https://www.khanacademy.org/math/geometry/hs-geo-solids/xff63fac4:hs-geo-cavalieri-s-principle/a/volume-of-a-pyramid-or-cone
You can also use the search feature to look for other articles or videos.(4 votes)
- Is limestone very sturdy? Then why couldn't they have used other rocks?(2 votes)
- It is sturdy. It is also more workable and available than granite.(2 votes)
- How close are the corner angles of the base of the pyramid to right angles? This is harder to get right than linear dimensions.(2 votes)
- Close but not. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pApWhW7ZH5c(2 votes)
- Why is the subterranean chamber unfinished if Khufu survived until the end of the pyramid's construction?(2 votes)
- It is believed that the subterranean chamber of Pharaoh Khufu was unfinished because Khufu suddenly wanted it higher up in the pyramid, therefore telling his workers to stop building the under layer.(2 votes)