Inside the Great Pyramid

The sheer scale of Khufu’s Great Pyramid is breathtaking, but there is more to this audacious monument than immediately meets the eye, as Matthew Symonds recalls.

The pyramids at Giza. Of the three large pyramids, that closest to us is Menkaure’s, beyond that is Khafre’s, with Khufu’s – the largest – furthest from the viewer. [Image: Feili Chen/Dreamstime]

It is not unknown for children to try to outdo their parents. When it comes to tombs, though, pharaoh Khufu must have thought he was on safe ground. Everything about the vital statistics of the funerary monument he raised at Giza in the 3rd millennium BC is awesome. It had a footprint of 5.3ha, an original height of roughly 146.6m, and contained approximately 2.3 million stone blocks. The result was the largest standing pyramid ever raised, which we know appropriately enough as the Great Pyramid. To the ancient Egyptians, this soaring edifice was the Akhet Khufu or ‘horizon of Khufu’. It proved a prophetic name for a monument that over 4,000 years later forms part of one of the most recognisable skylines on the planet. Khufu might be less than amused to discover, though, that his monumental tomb is often popularly confused with that of the neighbouring pyramid, which was raised by Khafre, Khufu’s second son.

In part, the prominence of Khafre’s pyramid is simply an accident of survival. The upper portion is still clad in fine limestone casing, gifting it a distinctive appearance evocative of a snow-capped peak. Even so, in photographs of Giza, Khafre’s pyramid tends to dominate the scene. This is due not so muchto its 143.5m height, as the builders’ canny decision to place it on bedrock 10m higher than that under Khufu’s pyramid. The effect was sharpened by having the sides of Khafre’s pyramid rise at a steeper angle than those of his father. That the impression created by this architectural sleight of hand was no coincidence can be deduced from the ancient name for the Khafre pyramid: Khafre Wer or ‘Khafre is great’. As Egyptologists Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass have memorably remarked, Khafre’s grand design ‘shows hints of pyramid envy’.

Pyramid scheme

If Khafre’s pyramid overshadows his father’s in panoramas of the Giza plateau, though, it is a different story inside their respective edifices. The passage leading into Khafre’s pyramid descends before levelling off to approach a burial chamber that was created by cutting into the bedrock and then roofing it over. A second chamber and descending passage were also created, perhaps reflecting a change of plan while the complex was being constructed. It would be fair to say that the interior of Khufu’s pyramid is rather more elaborate. It contains three chambers, one sunk deep into the bedrock, another – apocryphally known as the ‘Queen’s Chamber’ – within the body of the pyramid, and a third placed even higher within the superstructure, where Khufu’s sarcophagus still resides. It is unclear what purpose the other two chambers served, but they may be a legacy of changing ideas about where precisely the burial chamber should go. These chambers are connected by a network of passages, part of which is unexpectedly impressive.

Modern visitors enter the Great Pyramid via a breach reputedly burrowed through the masonry on the orders of a 9th-century caliph, Mamun. As it turned out, this forced opening was just a little below the obscured original Egyptian entrance, and Mamun’s exploratory tunnel encountered an ancient passage leading towards the upper chambers. This cramped passage rises at an angle of 26° and is just over a metre high, forcing visitors to ascend in a stooped posture. It is tough on the calf muscles, and sends an unmistakeable message that the pyramid’s innards were not designed to make things easy for the living. After almost 40m, though, the passage undergoes a transformation that is as surprising as it is dramatic. The ceiling abruptly rises to a height of over 8m, creating a tall, slender space known as the Grand Gallery, a mesmerising example of ancient Egyptian architecture.

The Grand Gallery commences at the point where a passage leads off towards the ‘Queen’s Chamber’. The gallery itself, though, continues upwards for almost 50m. Its side walls feature elegantly stepped masonry, while the walkway is sandwiched between two raised stone sides. What the Grand Gallery was for, though, remains something of a mystery. Some suspect that stone plugs used to seal the pyramid passages were held here until they could be released after the pharaoh’s funeral. Whatever the intention, the Grand Gallery unquestionably provides a dramatic approach to Khufu’s rather more austere burial chamber and antechamber.

The Grand Gallery, an architectural highlight within the Great Pyramid. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Keith Adler]

One reason why Khufu’s sarcophagus remains in place is presumably because it is too big to manoeuvre in or out of the pyramid via the access passages. Instead, it must have been inserted while the pyramid was being built, and before the roof was added to the burial chamber. Placing it so high in the superstructure seems to have occasioned some anxiety, though, as above the tomb a series of five relieving chambers were installed. Within, graffiti painted by Egyptian work parties and naming Khufu still survive. It has been observed that adopting such measures indicates an awareness that one of the greatest threats to Khufu’s mortal remains was a collapse of the very monument intended to protect them. Perhaps the structural problems created by inserting Khufu’s burial chamber high in his pyramid explain why Khafre’s burial place was cut into the bedrock at the base of his monument. If so, while Khafre seemingly sought to upstage his father, he was also wise enough to learn from Khufu’s experience.

Further reading
M Lehner and Z Hawass (2017) Giza and the Pyramids, Thames & Hudson.
J-P Corteggiani (2007) The Pyramids of Giza: facts, legends, and mysteries, Thames & Hudson.

This is article appeared in issue 105 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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