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King Khufu: Builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza

The Great Pyramid of Giza.

Khufu was the second king in ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom’s Fourth Dynasty. Egyptologists believe Khufu reigned for around twenty-three years based on the evidence contained in the Turin Kings List. In contrast, Herodotus claimed he ruled for fifty years while Manetho a Ptolemaic priest credits him with a staggering reign of sixty-three years!

Facts About Khufu

  • Second king in the Old Kingdom’s Fourth Dynasty
  • History has not been kind to Khufu. He is frequently criticised as a cruel leader and portrayed as obsessed with personal power and the continuity of his family’s rule
  • Achieved architectural immortality by commissioning Giza’s Great Pyramid
  • Khufu’s mummy has never been found
  • The only statue of Khufu is a 50 centimetre (3-inch) high ivory statue unearthed at Abydos
  • An ancient Egyptian cult continued to worship Khufu as a god nearly 2,000 years after his death
  • Khufu’s barque measures 43.5 metres (143 feet) long and nearly 6 metres (20 feet) wide and is still seaworthy today.

Khufu’s Lineage

Khufu is believed to be the son of the Pharaoh Snefru and Queen Hetepheres I. Khufu produced nine sons by his three wives including his heir Djedefre and Djedefre’s successor Khafre together with fifteen daughters. Khufu’s official full name was Khnum-Khufwy, which translates roughly as ‘Khnum protect me.’ The Greeks knew him as Cheops.

Military And Economic Accomplishments

Egyptologists point to some evidence that Khufu effectively expanded Egypt’s borders to include the Sinai region. He is also believed to have maintained a strong ongoing military presence in the Sinai and Nubia. Unlike other regimes, Khufu’s Egypt does not seem to have been under significant external military threats to the kingdom during his rule.

Khufu’s significant economic contribution to Egypt’s economy came in the form of extensive turquoise mining operations at Wadi Maghara, diorite mining in the vast Nubian Desert and quarrying red granite near Aswan.

Khufu’s Reputation

History and his critics have not been kind to Khufu. The pharaoh is frequently criticised as a cruel leader in contemporary documents. Hence, in contrast to his father Khufu was not widely described as a beneficent ruler. By the time of the Middle Kingdom, Khufu is portrayed as being obsessed with magnifying his personal power and entrenching the continuity of his family’s rule. However, despite these sharp descriptions, Khufu is not cast as particularly cruel pharaoh.

Manetho is thought to have been an Egyptian priest living in Sebennytus during Egypt’s Ptolemaic era in the early 3rd century BC. He describes

Khufu as being contemptuous of the Gods in his early years on the throne who later went on to repent and draft a series of sacred books.

While later sources describing the pharaohs of the age of pyramid construction fail to mention these books, the notion of Khufu as a harsh ruler is raised by several of these sources. Some scholars even go so far as to assert the reason so few images of the Khufu have survived is because they were destroyed soon after his death as revenge for his despotic rule.

Herodotus is the ancient source responsible for the allegation that Khufu forced slaves to build the Great Pyramid of Giza. Since Herodotus first wrote his account, numerous historians and Egyptologists have used it as a credible source. Yet today, we have clear evidence the Great Pyramid was constructed by a labour force of skilled craftsmen. Examination of their surviving skeletons shows signs of heavy manual work. Farmers performed much of the seasonal labour when their fields were inundated during the Nile’s annual floods.

Similarly, Herodotus also claimed Khufu shut down Egypt’s temples and prostituted his daughter to help pay for the Great Pyramid’s construction. No credible evidence for either of these claims has ever been discovered.

One surviving source, which sheds light on Khufu’s reign, is the Westcar Papyrus. This manuscript presents Khufu as a traditional Egyptian king, amiable to his subjects, good-natured and interested in magic and its effects on our nature and human existence.

Amongst the extensive archaeology left behind by Khufu’s workers, artisans or nobles during his lifetime, there is nothing to show any of them despised Khufu.

Despite Herodotus claiming Khufu’s Egyptian subjects refused to speak his name, he was worshipped as a god after his death. Moreover, Khufu’s cult continued well into Egypt’s 26th Dynasty in the Late Period. Khufu continued to be popular well into the Roman Period.

Enduring Monuments: The Great Pyramid Of Giza

Khufu achieved enduring renown as the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. However, no evidence has ever been discovered that the Great Pyramid was ever used for its intended purpose. An empty sarcophagus was found in the pyramids King’s Chamber; however, Khufu’s mummy has yet to be discovered.

Khufu who came to the throne in his twenties appears to have started construction work on the Great Pyramid shortly after assuming the throne. Egypt’s Old Kingdom rulers governed from Memphis and Djoser‘s pyramid complex already overshadowed the nearby necropolis of Saqqara. Sneferu had used an alternate site at Dashur. An older neighbouring necropolis was Giza. Giza was the burial site of Khufu’s mother, Hetepheres I (c. 2566 BCE) and no other monuments graced the plateau so Khufu selected Giza as the site for his monumental pyramid.

Construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza is believed to have taken around 23 years to complete. Building the Great Pyramid involved cutting, transporting and assembling 2,300,000 stone blocks, weighing an average of 2.5 tons each. Khufu’s nephew Hemiunu was elevated to the post of head of construction for the Great Pyramid. The sheer scale of Khufu monumental achievement bears testament to his talent for sourcing and organizing the material and labour force across Egypt.

Several satellite burials were subsequently constructed around the Great Pyramid including those of two of his wives. A network of mastabas for some of Khufu’s sons and their wives were also built in the area. Nestling beside the Great Pyramid, are the sites of two enormous “boat pits” containing huge disassembled cedar ships.

Despite the enormous dimension of the Great Pyramid, only a single miniature ivory sculpture has been definitively confirmed as portraying Khufu. Ironically, Khufu’s master builder, Hemon, bequeathed a larger statue to history. A large granite head has also been discovered on the site. However, while some of its features bear a close resemblance to those of Khufu some Egyptologists argue it represents the Third Dynasty pharaoh Huni.

A fragment of a small limestone bust, which could represent Khufu wearing Upper Egypt’s white crown has also been found on the site.

Reflecting On The Past

Think of the sheer scale of the Great Pyramid of Giza and its testimony to Khufu’s skills in commanding Egypt’s full scope of material and human resources over the 23 years it took to complete its construction.

Header image courtesy: Nina at the Norwegian bokmål language Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "King Khufu: Builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza," Give Me History, March 13, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/khufu.

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