Pyramid of Khufu

The era of the Old Kingdom is the brightest in the history of Egypt, which the ancient Egyptians themselves called the “golden age” of their civilization. The pharaohs of this time went down in history thanks to their gigantic pyramids, which became their tombs. In this article, let’s talk about the largest of them – the pyramid of Pharaoh Cheops (Khufu) – the most famous sight in Egypt.

The pyramids were closed briefly during the lockdown at the start of the pandemic, but reopened quickly (effective July 1, 2020). Now there are no restrictions on the number of visitors. There is no need to buy or book tickets in advance. Unfortunately, tickets have risen in price, details in this article.

The biggest misconception

Let’s start with the most important thing: which of the three pyramids on the Giza plateau – Cheops? Knowing that it is the tallest of all, 90% of tourists visually choose the largest and believe that this is it.

In the photo on the right, we marked which of the three is the Cheops pyramid. Remember that the structure in the center is the Khafre pyramid. Pharaoh Khafren (Khafra) was the son of Cheops, although there is an alternative version that he was his brother.

Visually, the pyramid of Khafre looks the highest, although it is 3 meters lower than the pyramid of Cheops. Pharaoh Khafren cheated a little. He built his tomb in the place where the Giza plateau itself is 10 meters higher. Hence the effect.

Such confusion arises not only among tourists, but also at a higher level. It would seem that Google corporation supplies the whole world with information, and it is the most popular search engine in the world. But, and they are wrong. Here is a screenshot from google when prompted for the phrase “Cheops pyramid”. As you can see, google shows us a large photo of the Khafre pyramid. What can you say? Gone up!

Patriots, rejoice. The Russian search engine Yandex shows everything correctly. Here’s a screenshot. Hopefully the google staff will correct this misunderstanding by the time you read this article.



Is she really Cheops?

The Pyramid of Cheops is a rare case in Egyptology when we can be sure who the monument belongs to. Often the ancient monuments of Egypt were appropriated by later rulers. The technology of appropriation was very simple – the name of the pharaoh-builder (cartouche) simply got lost with the inscriptions in the temple or in the tomb, and another name was knocked out.

This phenomenon was very common. Take, for example, the famous Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Until 1922, when archaeologist Howard Carter dug up Tut’s tomb, Egyptologists doubted the existence of this ruler. There was almost no written evidence about him, everything was destroyed by subsequent pharaohs.

In the 19th century, archaeologists often used very barbaric research methods. In the pyramid of Cheops, explosions of gunpowder were used to search for secret rooms. You can still see traces of such methods on the surfaces of structures (see photo on the left).

During such research, small chambers were found above the main burial chamber. Explorers rushed there in hopes of finding treasures, but of course there was nothing but dust.

These rooms were only 1 meter high and had a purely technical purpose. These are unloading chambers, they protect the ceiling of the burial chamber from collapse, remove mechanical stress. But it was on the walls of these unloading chambers that scientists discovered inscriptions made by ancient builders.

These were block markings. As we now put a label on the product, so the ancient Egyptian foremen marked the blocks: “Block such and such for the pyramid of Khufu, produced then, laid then and then.” These inscriptions cannot be fake, they prove that this structure was built by Cheops.

A little about Pharaoh Cheops

In the last paragraph we used the name “Khufu”. This is the official Egyptian name for this pharaoh. Cheops is the Greek interpretation of his name, and not the most common one. Other pronunciations of “Cheops” or “Kiops” are more common.

The name “Khufu” is more widespread in the world. If you are going on an excursion to Giza with a Russian-speaking guide, then there will be no problems, he will be aware of this phonetic difference. But, if you communicate with locals or tourists from other countries, we recommend using the name “Khufu”.

Although Pharaoh Khufu is one of the most famous Egyptians, it will not be possible to write much about him. We know very little about him.

In addition to the fact that this pyramid was built, we know that Khufu organized expeditions to develop useful resources on the Sinai Peninsula. That’s all. To this day, only two artifacts have survived from Khufu – a giant pyramid with a height of 137 meters and a small ivory figurine with a height of only 7.5 centimeters (pictured on the right).

Pharaoh Cheops remained in the people’s memory as a tyrant ruler who forced people to work on grandiose construction. We can read about this in the works of the Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt and recorded the stories of the priests.

Surprisingly, his father Pharaoh Sneferu remained in the people’s memory as a very kind ruler, although he built two whole pyramids (Broken and Pink) and overextended the country twice as much as Cheops.



Interesting numbers

Now the height of the Cheops pyramid is just over 137 meters, although it was originally 147 meters high. Over the past 4600 years, it has lost 10 meters of its height. There are many reasons for this, we will talk about them a little later.

Herodotus writes that the construction of the pyramid took about 30 years. At the same time, 10 years were spent not on the construction of the structure itself, but on the construction of a road, digging a canal and other infrastructural work. Modern models, reconstructions and calculations confirm the version of Herodotus.

Herodotus also writes that it was built by 100,000 people. This is where the opinions of modern science and the famous Greek historian diverge. Models and restorations show that 20,000 is the maximum number of workers that could fit on a construction site.

Previously, it was believed that Egyptian monuments were built by thousands of slaves, and Hollywood and popular culture were particularly active in this idea.

There were simply not so many slaves in Egypt then. And where did they come from? There were no populated areas near Egypt where slaves could be taken. However, the topic was quickly “picked up” in Hollywood, and it still does not leave popular culture. Even in the comedy animated series “Futurama” they managed to beat her in one of the episodes (see the picture on the right).

The pyramids were built by hired workers from Egypt itself. Of course, they had overseers to make sure that no one was “messing around”.

However, Cheops himself managed to “cheat”. Its pyramid is located on a natural hill that occupies about a quarter of the structure’s interior space. Thanks to the hill, the builders saved materials and man-hours.

The main material of the ancient Egyptian architects was limestone. It was mined right here – on the Giza plateau. The version that the stones were transported here along the Nile River is both true and false at the same time. The stones were indeed transported, but they were not building blocks, but facing material.



How the pyramid of Cheops looked like in ancient times

The ancient Egyptians never called it a pyramid, they said: “Khufu horizon”. The structure received this name because of its shining brilliance, but now you will not see this brilliance.

The outer surface was not stepped as it is now, but was covered with facing stone. Two types of stone were used – white limestone from Tura and red Aswan granite. Granite was a more expensive solution, since it is 900 kilometers to sail from Giza to Aswan. Delivery cost astronomical money. Pharaoh Cheops could only afford white limestone.

The cladding was polished to a mirror finish, and the pyramid shone in the sun like a lighthouse. This is where the expression “Khufu’s horizon” came from. In the photo on the left, you can see this cladding in the place where it has survived to our time.

Now the facing on the tomb of Cheops is absent; it was removed by the Arabs and used as a building material.

The guides say: “What a pity that we cannot see this cladding in our time.” Why can’t we? Can! Walk around the ancient mosques of Cairo, they are all made of this facing stone. Moreover, this is not an assumption, this fact has been proven by scientific methods.

We have already said that the Cheops pyramid has lost 10 meters of its height over the past 4600 years. Loss of cladding is one of the reasons. The second reason is that it flattens naturally due to its weight. The third reason is that there used to be a large stone at the top of the pyramid, which was called “pyramidon” or “benben”.

According to Egyptian ideas, the whole world was created by the god Atum. All religious myths about the creation of the world by the creator god contain a contradiction: if the world was created by the creator god, then where did he come from?

The Egyptians resolved this contradiction in a very extravagant way. According to their legend, the god Atum created himself. A byproduct of this creation was the Benben pyramidal hill – the only one sticking out of the endless world ocean “Nuna”. Atum sat down on the hill and began to think about how and whom to create next.

It is believed that all large pyramids had tops imitating this stone. They were called “benben”, but now we call them the word “pyramidon”. The pyramidons were covered with gold and inscriptions.

Not a single pyramidon from the tops of large pyramids has survived to this day, although we have pyramidons from small objects. They are also not described in written sources, and modern Egyptology cannot give 100% guarantees that they existed at all.



Now let’s think, what impression did the Cheops pyramid make on ancient people? Even now, it amazes tourists, although we can see huge buildings – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Shanghai Tower in China or the skyscrapers of Moscow City. They have never seen buildings more than 10 meters high in their lives, but here is a 147-meter colossus.

What the pyramid looks like now and what to see for tourists

First, it is worth looking at the pyramid itself from the outside, imbued with its grandeur. Tourists can even climb several tiers up. It is forbidden to climb to the top, the guards are watching for this.

Many tourists get the wrong impression. The blocks of the lower tier are huge – they are more than a meter high. It seems to visitors that the whole pyramid consists of such gigantic blocks, but this is not so.

The higher the tier, the smaller the blocks. The blocks at the top seem to be quite small. Maybe because of this, visitors are not allowed upstairs – they do not want to spoil the impressions of travelers.

The tomb of Cheops is open to tourists. Entrance costs 400 Egyptian pounds. The tour is boring enough. You enter through the “predatory entrance”, go down a narrow corridor, then go up the “large gallery” and find yourself in the tomb of the pharaoh, where you will see the remains of the outer sarcophagus.

Why do we call the tour boring? First, tourists expect to see bas-reliefs or graffiti frescoes inside. But there is nothing of the kind here. During the 4th dynasty, there was still no tradition of covering walls with inscriptions; it appeared later during the 5th dynasty.

Inside there are lighting and wooden platforms to make it easy for tourists to climb. The lighting is dim, although there is not much point in bright lighting, there is not much to watch.

Of course, inside you will find many inscriptions “Vasya was here” and similar ones made by tourists in different languages. For several years now, the Egyptian authorities have expressed their intention to close the Cheops pyramid and clean the walls from these inscriptions.

There is one thing inside that is worth paying attention to. Moreover, none of the tourists notices it. This is the masonry in the “great gallery” – that large corridor that leads upstairs to the tomb.



In many books and articles, you can read that, supposedly, the blocks in the Cheops pyramid are so well arranged that a razor blade cannot be inserted between them. When tourists approach the pyramid itself, they find that both a blade and a knife pass through the gap. You can put your finger in some of the crevices, and in some of the leg. A reasonable question arises: where is the truth?

The only place where there really is such precise masonry is the “big gallery”. This is where you can try to insert the blade between the blocks and make sure that it does not go through.

The blocks were sanded before laying to obtain this effect. This is the creation of human hands, and the reality of such work was confirmed during historical reconstructions. There is no “smell” of aliens here. Only it is not clear for whom it was done and why?

No photo or video can be taken inside. Considering all of the above facts, it is difficult to say whether the hike inside the Cheops pyramid is worth its 400 pounds. Many tourists leave there with a feeling of oppressive dissatisfaction and the realization that they have wasted their money. Nearby there is a small pyramid in which, presumably, the mother of Cheops rested. They are allowed to enter this tomb completely free of charge.

Naturally, there are no treasures inside the pyramid, and you will not find them in museums either.

When and how the pyramid of Cheops was opened

When Napoleon Bonaparte entered the pyramid in 1798, it was already empty – no treasures, no Pharaoh’s mummy.

Up to this point, the Arabs entered the pyramid under the leadership of the Caliph al-Mamun. It was the Arabs who made the passage through which tourists now get inside, called the “predatory entrance”. They did it in a very barbaric way – with picks and vinegar. The Caliph’s soldiers checked all the premises, but found nothing of value inside.

There is a legend that Alexander the Great entered the pyramid, spent the night there, but nothing of value was already there.

Probably, the pyramid was entered dozens of times in antiquity, and everyone saw it empty. We have written evidence of the Middle Kingdom era (beginning of the 2nd millennium BC), which says that “the pyramids are empty, and their owners were thrown out.”

That is, the pyramids were robbed at the time of the “first transition period” in the history of Egypt. This happened about 4000 years ago, and the Pharaoh Cheops himself lay in his tomb for only 500 or 600 years.

Tourists are allowed only into the main gallery and the tomb, but there are many other rooms in the Cheops pyramid that are worth describing in detail.



What’s inside

The configuration of the interior of the Cheops pyramid is very different from the rest of the Great Pyramids of Giza. Inside the pyramids of Khafre and Mikerin, everything is quite simple, there is only one burial chamber, and it is located underground.

There are three burial chambers in the Cheops pyramid: one underground, and the other two above the surface. Why are there three? Egyptologists are still arguing.

We know for sure that Pharaoh Khufu himself was buried in the upper chamber. The second chamber is called “the queen’s chamber,” but that’s just that name. The wives of the pharaohs were buried in small structures nearby. Presumably, this chamber contained vessels with organs of the pharaoh, which were called “canopes”.

The biggest mystery is the lower chamber. It is clearly unfinished, and its purpose is not clear to scientists. There are several reasonable hypotheses in this regard.

The first one says that it was originally planned to make the lower chamber the pharaoh’s tomb, but Pharaoh Cheops did not like this idea, and he ordered the construction of two upper chambers – one for the sarcophagus, the second for the canopy.

This is a very realistic version. It has no evidence, but it also contains no contradictions. The main thing is unclear: why did Cheops prefer the burial chamber above the surface? After all, his descendants Khefren and Mikerin preferred underground chambers.

There is an alternative version. Let’s think, no one knew exactly when Pharaoh would die. There are no guarantees that he will live to see the completion of the construction of his tomb.

For this reason, the pyramids were built in several stages. It was necessary to ensure a worthy burial of the pharaoh even in the event of sudden death.

According to this hypothesis, the lower chamber was a backup just for such a case. When it became clear that the pharaoh would live to see the construction of his main burial chamber, the lower chamber was abandoned.

This version is also not without flaws. It is not clear why there are no upper burial chambers in the rest of the pyramids, but they are in the Cheops pyramid. For example, Pharaoh Khafren ruled for at least 24 years, he would have had time to make an aboveground burial chamber.

There is no generally accepted hypothesis on this score, you can put forward your own version.



From the burial chambers to the outside there are long corridors, which are called “ventilation shafts”. Their purpose has not been precisely established. The main version is the tunnels through which the soul of the pharaoh was supposed to go into the sky to meet the gods.

According to alternative versions, they were actually used for ventilation or for astronomical observations.

An interesting point is that the tunnels from the “king’s chamber” come out to the surface, but the tunnels from the “queen’s chamber” do not. This fact supports the hypothesis of a tunnel for the flight of the soul.

Scientists let a miniature robot go there, which drove through this tunnel and came across a valve with copper handles. The flap was drilled, behind it there was another cavity and another flap.

Scientists want to drill this second shutter too; we are waiting for permission from the Egyptian authorities for this operation. We hope we will see something interesting behind it.

The dimensions of these tunnels are only 20×20 centimeters. A person cannot get through them, and versions about their transport purpose can be safely discarded. You can see these tunnels with your own eyes if you pay 400 pounds and go to the Cheops pyramid.

Interesting and useful to know

– Tourist information: how to get to Giza to the pyramids, how much is a ticket, opening hours.

– If during the trip you decided to definitely see the pyramids, then we advise you to take a closer look at the resort of Ain Sokhna, which is close to Cairo;

– We strongly advise against trying to chop off a piece of the pyramid and take it home as a souvenir. If you come under a spot check, if the customs officers find it, then big troubles are guaranteed – up to and including imprisonment.