Guardian's Egypt

The Great Pyramid of Khufu
Khufu Belongs to the Horizon
Original Height: 146.6 m (480.96 ft)
Current Height: 138.75 m (455.21 ft)
Length of Side: 230.37 (755.8 ft)
Angle: 51º 50’ 40”
Estimated Volume: 2,521,000 cu m

Statue of Khufu - now at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Considered to represent the pinnacle of the Pyramid Age, the Great Pyramid is the epitome of the knowledge and experience of all previous pyramids. Khufu had every advantage in growing up in an atmosphere of the several pyramid building projects of his father Sneferu. In light of this it becomes easier to understand that Khufu was more than qualified to oversee and organize the grand task of building the monument that is the only surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the World. So much uninformed speculation abounds as to the origin, engineering and construction of the Great Pyramid, though we have a wealth of archaeological evidence to piece together much of the accomplishment. Recently, remnants of ramps have been found by Dr. Zahi Hawass on the south side of the pyramid that attest that some type of ramping was indeed used in the construction of this monument. The attribution of the pyramid to King Khufu is supported by workman’s markings that were found in the pyramid in small chambers that were never intended to be opened.

The precision with which the pyramid was executed is often the source of marvel and speculation. It is likely that the attention to this precision was related to the many structural problems encountered in previous pyramids. To minimize many of the previous errors, the attention to precision produced a pyramid whose base is level within 2.1 cm (less than 1 inch!), with the only difference in the length of the sides being 4.4 cm (1.75 in). The base covers an area of 13 ½ acres. The blocks used in the pyramid are large, with a commonly stated average of 2.5 tons. Many blocks are indeed smaller than this, the blocks toward the top decrease in size. Some of the casing stones at the base are very large, weighing as much as 15 tons. The heaviest blocks are the granite blocks used to roof the kings chambers and the weight relieving chambers above the king’s chamber. These are estimated to weigh from 50 to 80 tons each!!

New Features Since Previous Pyramids

The Great Pyramid has an internal arrangement that is more elaborate than most of the other pyramids. Here, for the first time  we see a series of upper passageway and chambers that exist within the body of the pyramid. A unique ascending passageway leads to a magnificent corbelled gallery, know as the Grand Gallery. While it is tempting for people to think that this gallery looks to be ceremonial in appearance, the function of the gallery is more likely a holding place for large blocks which were to seal off the upper chambers after the burial of the king, in order to secure his sacred burial.

The main burial chamber has two small shafts in the north and south walls which extend through the substance of the pyramid to the surface. The northern channel is only 5" high x 7" wide and ascends at an angle of approximately 31°and is 235' in length. The southern channel measures about 8" high x 12" wide, rises at an angle of 45° and is 175' in length. The middle chamber, the so-called Queen's chamber, has an even more peculiar feature. It also has similar small shafts, though these end with a closing plug and do not appear to pierce through to the outer surface of the pyramid.



The Passageways and Chambers

The pyramid has three main chambers. The original entrance of the pyramid is located 7.29 m (24 ft) east of the center of the pyramid on the north face, at a height of 16.76 m (55 ft) above ground level.

The Subterranean Chamber
This leads to a descending passageway which is about 345 ft in length and slopes downward at an angle of 26°31’23” first through the superstructure of the pyramid and then down through the bedrock. The end of this passage levels off for 29 feet, has an unfinished niche, and then leads to a subterranean chamber. This curious chamber is only roughly hewn out of the bedrock and looks almost as though it is a quarry. In the south wall, opposite the entrance, is a blind passageway that runs for a distance of  16.15m (53 ft). It is possible that this passageway was originally intended to lead to a second subterranean chamber,  the idea of which for some reason was abandoned. Along the east wall, halfway between the north and south walls, is a square cut shaft that has a depth of 15 ft. The bottom of this shaft is filled with rubble and debris and one account mentions that when cleared the shaft has a depth of almost 60 ft!

 The Ascending Passageway

 At a distance of approximately 60 ft from the entrance there is a hole through the masonry roof of the descending passageway which leads to the first ascending passageway seen in a major pyramid. This passage is 129 feet in length and rises at a gradient of 26°2’30”. Its lower end was plugged with three 7-ton granite slabs, which are still in place. Currently, one enters the ascending passageway through a hole that was hewn around these slabs from an intrusive entrance. The ascending passageway leads to the Grand Gallery. One unique and ingenious feature of this passage is that it is supported by a series of four single stones which were hollowed out. Through these the corridor was laid, these have become known as the “girdle stones”. There are also 3 “half girdles” which are actually two stones combined for the same purpose. At the point where the Grand gallery is first entered there is a level landing which leads straight to the middle chamber.


 The Middle Chamber
The passageway that leads from the Grand Gallery to the middle chamber is 45.72 m (150 ft) in length. This chamber is called the “Queen’s Chamber” in modern time, though this is truly a misnomer. The chamber is located at the 25th course of masonry. The chamber is made of limestone and has a pointed roof and a niche in its east wall that probably originally housed a statue of the king. It is sometimes suggested that this room served as serdab. It has been assumed by some that this chamber was never finished, 


the evidence proposed to support this theory include the fact that the floor appears to be only roughly finished. Also, there are small rectangular apertures, in the north and south walls which lead to small shafts which appear to have been prematurely discontinued. Similar shafts in the upper chamber pierce through the surface of the pyramid. The southern shaft  of this chamber has been determined by robotic exploration to abruptly end with a plugging block. The northern shaft has yet to be explored, but no exit aperture has been found outside the pyramid.

The Antechamber

 At the south end of the Grand Gallery there is an entrance that leads to an antechamber between the grand gallery and the main chamber. It has a configuration that housed large portcullis blocking slabs which were designed to be lowered to seal the chamber after the burial of the king.

The Main Chamber

The main chamber, known as the King’s Chamber, is a remarkable chamber built entirely of rose granite. It is situated at the 50th course of masonry. The stones used to construct this chamber are the heaviest known stones in the entire pyramid. There are 21 stones comprising the floor alone. The walls are comprised of 101 stones and there are 9 huge beams forming the ceiling. This chamber contains the granite sarcophagus and also has small apertures leading to shafts on the north and south walls. Unlike similar shafts in the Queen’s Chamber, these pierce through the outer surface of the pyramids. Presently there is a ventilation fan fitted into the southern shaft and this regulates the moisture in the chamber, minimizing the damage caused by the moisture produced by the breath and sweat of visitors. As with all other exposed surfaces in this pyramid, there are no inscriptions or carved reliefs on the chamber walls.

The coffer is no longer has it’s lid and the southeast upper corner has been broken away. It is also made from a single block of rose granite weighing about 3.75 tons. Its western edge sports three drilled pinion holes that were used to hold the lid in place after the interment. The lid would have weighed over 2 tons and was slid into place within angled grooves. The size of the coffer necessitates that the chamber was built with the coffin already in place – it would not have fit through the entrance, nor would it have fit through the lower section of the ascending passageway. 

The Relieving Chambers
When blocks were cut at the various quarries they were organized and cataloged in order to prepare them for transportation to the site and final placement during assembly. The blocks were marked in red ink to fulfill this purpose and these markings would include the placements information and often also the name of the work-gang that would be directly working with the blocks. When the blocks were placed the markings were rubbed off of any surface that would be showing. Fortunately, they often did NOT remove these markings on surfaces which were not intended to be exposed. This has left us with some examples of these markings which can be seen on many sites. We will see many examples of these types of markings.

In the Great Pyramid, chambers were discovered by blasting with dynamite that are located above the main burial chamber. These are commonly referred to as “relieving chambers” as they appear to have been included to relieve the weight of the blocks above the main chamber to preserve that chamber from collapse. Evidence that these chambers were never meant to be entered can be seen by the presence of workman’s markings in red ink. As an added bonus, the markings in these small chambers  provide us with both the name of the work-gang responsible for those blocks, but also with the name of the king that built the pyramid, King Khufu. This is the most compelling evidence of the ownership of the pyramid that we see in any pyramid until the Pyramid of Unas in the 5th Dynasty.

The Well Shaft

 Another unusual feature if the Great Pyramid is the Well Shaft and grotto.

This well shaft is a roughly cut passage that connects the lower portion of the Grand Gallery with the lower portion of the descending passageway. It is about 28“ square throughout its course and in places there are rough footholes. It is believed that this obscure passageway was cut to act as an escape route for the workers that would slide the large portcullis blocks into place sealing the burial. Portcullis blocks were lowered into place in the antechamber sealing off the main burial chamber and then three other 7-ton granite plug stones were slid into the ascending passageway sealing off the entire array of upper chambers. The workers responsible for the plugging would be trapped in the Grand Gallery and so it is theorized that the well shaft was cut to allow for their escape. In hearing of this passage one may think that it defeats the entire purpose of the plugging blocks, but this passage is tortuous and extremely dangerous to climb through. The Grotto is a small cavity located where the pyramid masonry meets the core, though this is  25 feet higher than the pyramids base as this is an area in the bedrock where there was an outcropping rise in the central pyramid plateau that was used to full advantage in the pyramid core, alleviating the need for filling material in this section. It is thought that the Grotto may have originally been a small natural cavity in the bedrock that was enlarged during the tunneling of the well shaft. Mysteriously, there is a large granite block in the grotto, and it is unclear as to how this stone got here or why it was left here. The most likely explanation, as evidenced by its mere dimensions, is that this granite block is one of the portcullis stones that originally blocked the antechamber.

 After the escape of the workers, the opening at the bottom of the well shaft was probably sealed with a block of limestone that was designed to completely camouflage the passageway.

The Khufu Pyramid Complex
The Mortuary Temple

All that remains of the Mortuary temple of Khufu are the remnants of the floor which was paved with black basalt. The floor plan is much larger than the chapels associated with the Pyramid at Meidum and the Bent Pyramid. The temple is very different from Mortuary temples that preceded it or followed it. Sockets are evident in the floor which would have held the granite pillars that comprised the colonnade that surrounded an open court. At the western end of the temple is a recess thought to be a sanctuary and signs of an outer wall. This is flanked by two vestibules. The interior walls were made of limestone and were carved with fine reliefs. There are no sign that there were any niches in this temple. This temple is the first known temple to make use of limestone, granite and basalt.  

The Valley Temple of Khufu

The Valley Temple of Khufu has not yet been found though it is assumed that it existed and lies at the end of the causeway. Presently, this leads to under the present day village of Nazlet el-Saman, and has yet to be uncovered and explored.

The Boat Pits

Five boats pits have been discovered in the immediate area around Khufu’s pyramid. Two are on the southern side of the main pyramid, two are on its eastern side flanking the Mortuary temple and the last is to the north of the causeway. In the southeastern pit the first intact boat was found dismantled in the pit. This was reassembled and now resides in a special climate controlled museum on the south side of the main pyramid. The southwestern pit has been found to contain yet another boat which still remains in situ.

The Satellite Pyramids of Khufu

The Great Pyramid has three smaller so-called satellite pyramids on its north side. These are often referred to as the Queen’s Pyramids, referring to three queens that were associated with these pyramids. The northern-most pyramid is known as the Pyramid of Hetepheres (known to Egyptologists as GI-a), the next the Pyramid of Meritetes (GI-b), and the southern is known as the Pyramid of Henutsen (GI-c)

Each of these smaller pyramids consist of  a sloping descending passageway that leads from the opening to a main chamber after taking a short right angle turn. These chambers are subterranean and their interiors are carved into the bedrock of the plateau. The exteriors are badly damaged with pyramid GI-c being the most intact. There is evidence that all three pyramids had an adjoining chapel, similar to the Mortuary temple on the larger pyramids.

The northernmost pyramid (GI-a) was probably originally intended to be built slightly east of its present location. This is evidenced by the leveling of the rock at that original location and the beginnings of a substructure. This apparently would have interfered with a shaft cut for the reburial of Queen Heterpheres and so the pyramid was moved slightly west.

Within the last few years, Dr. Zahi Hawass has discovered the probable satellite pyramid of Khufu north of  the GI-c and south of the GI-b pyramid between these and the great pyramid. The only remains of this include a T-shaped trench, including small descending passage and chamber. The sides of the chamber are inwardly inclined which is similar to those of the galleries under the east side of the Djoser Step Pyramid. The possible pyramidion for this pyramid was also found in fragments and now stands reassembled at the site.

This is an excerpt from the book,
Guardian's Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Primer,
available soon.

Copyright © 2000-2005 Andrew Bayuk
All Rights Reserved

Credits for Illustrations

The Great Pyramid – diagrams - Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt, Alberto Siliotti
Copyright © 1997 All Rights Reserved

The Grand Gallery in the Great Pyramid - The Pyramids of Egypt – I. E. S. Edwards

Illustration of the Subterranean Chamber of the Great Pyramid -
The Egyptian Pyramids - J.P. Lepre

Illustration of the girdle stones in the Ascending Passageway of the Great Pyramid -
The Egyptian Pyramids - J.P. Lepre

Illustration of Queen’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid – P. Smyth

The Antechamber of the Great Pyramid showing Portcullis blocks - The Complete Pyramids – Mark Lehner
Copyright © 1997 All Rights Reserved


Illustration of the rose granite coffer of Khufu - The Egyptian Pyramids – J.P. Lepre


The Relieving Chambers – J & M Edgar

Plan of the Well Shaft and Grotto of the Great Pyramid – J & M Edgar

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

 Edwards, I.E.S. The Pyramids of Egypt. New York and London, Penguin Books, 1985

 Fakhry, A. The Pyramids. Chicago and London, 1969

Hawass, Zahi, The Pyramids of Ancient Egypt. Pittsburgh. 1990

Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. London. 1997

Lepre, J.P. The Egyptian Pyramids. North Carolina. 1990

Mendelssohn, K. Riddle of the Pyramids. New York. 1974

Petrie, W. M. F. The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh. London. 1883

Siliotti, Alberto. Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt, Cairo, 1997

Andreu, Guillemette, Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids. Ithaca and London. 1997

Weeks, John. The Pyramids. Cambridge, 1971


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