The Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in Egypt, Other Standard Pyramid Elements

The Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in Egypt

The Pyramid Proper, Part III: Other Standard Pyramid Elements

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

>>Pyramid Index / Giza

The Great Pyramid of Khufu elements

Many imaginative people would like to wish an extraordinary builder or builders upon the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza, just outside of Cairo. Indeed, the builders were extraordinary, but not alien or Atlantian. They were the ancient Egyptians who probably built the first stone structures, as well as over one hundred other pyramids. The Great Pyramid, though larger than any other, and having a somewhat different internal structure, nevertheless possesses in its complex all of the common elements found in earlier and particularly later pyramid complexes. These structures consist of a valley temple, a causeway leading from it to a mortuary temple, which is situated next to the pyramid, an enclosure wall, a courtyard between the enclosure wall and the primary pyramid and a smaller cult pyramid. Of course, like many other pyramids in Egypt, other elements do exist, including boats and boat pits, subsidiary pyramid tombs, and probably even a worker's village, but these do not seem to have been as common to all pyramid complexes.

A view of the ruined Mortuary temple and Causeway of the Pyramid of Khufu

Unfortunately, these primary elements, valley temple, causeway, enclosure wall, mortuary temple and cult pyramid, are mostly, if not entirely in ruin.

The ruins of the valley temple lie northeast of the pyramid, at the edge of the desert, partly just below the village of Nazlet es-Simman. It was probably already in ruins during very ancient times. Late in the 1980s, a consortium called AMBREC, engaged in sewerage installation for the Cairo suburbs to the east of the Plateau, came across basalt pavement on the valley floor. Not very long afterwards (1990), Dr. Zahi Hawass made the connection between the remains of basalt pavement at this location and Khufu's Valley Temple. At its end, mudbrick walls eight meters thick, suggesting that a pyramid town may have originally existed near the valley temple. However, the temple plan itself is unknown.

Ground Plan of the Mortuary Temple

Interestingly, considering the effort to probe every nook and cranny of the pyramid itself, the causeway leading from the valley temple to the main part of the pyramid complex has never been completely examined. Its total length was originally about 825 meters, according to Dr. Hawass (810 meters by some other estimates). At a distance of about 125 meters from the valley temple, it turned toward the southwest. Herodotus tells us that the causeway was about a kilometer long, but this account is strongly contested by modern Egyptologists. Lehner tells us that, based on Herodotus' account, and the discovery of a few carved pieces, it must have been covered with fine relief carvings. Lehner also believes that the foundation rose to an astonishing height of more than 40 meters in order to carry the corridor from the edge of the plateau down to the valley temple. It apparently connected directly with the mortuary temple.

Little of the mortuary temple remains. It originally stood somewhat to the side of the foot of the east wall of the pyramid. All that remains amounts to no more than a few bits of reliefs, some black paving basalt pavement, sockets for the granite pillars of the surrounding colonnade and western recessed bay, and the bedrock cuttings for the outer walls. So little of it is left because its destruction began as early as the Old Kingdom, and therefore it is very difficult to reconstruct its original architecture today. Very few fragments of the mortuary temple's ornamentation have ever been found. However, Hassan's expedition discovered a few of them, and other fragments were reused in building the step-wall of the medieval tower, Bab el-Futuh in Cairo. What they reveal are scenes of the sed festival, of the white hippopotamus festival, and other motifs. It is though that some blocks used as building material in Amenemhet I's pyramid complex in Lisht might have been part of the original decoration of Khufu's mortuary temple in Giza. However, the head of the archaeological team of the New York Metropolitan Museum working in Lisht, Arnold, thinks that the material may have come from another of Khufu's temples that stood near Lisht. If so, the temple would have already fallen into ruins at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom.

Isometric view of the Mortuary Temple

While the reconstruction of the mortuary temple is difficult and really hypothetical we believe that it had a rectangular plan some 52.50 meters wide. Hence, it was much larger than the small chapels associated with the earlier Meidum and Bent pyramids. The walls were of fine limestone carved in relief. This is the first time that we find granite and basalt combined to construct a truly large temple. It appears to have had a vast, open, pillared courtyard which was covered with basalt paving stones. In its center there was probably an altar. There were also the remains of a drainage system, intended to carry off rainwater, which was unearthed in the floor of the courtyard. West of the courtyard, toward the pyramid, were apparently three tapering rows of pillars which led to the portico, almost certainly adorned with bas-reliefs and perhaps supported by square section granite columns of the main cult site. It, of course, it thought to have had an inner sanctuary, along with various storage annexes. Lauer thought that the cult site contained false doors, while Ricke believed there were five niches containing statues of the king. Lauer, in his reconstruction, located an Upper Egyptian chapel in the southwest corner of the courtyard and a Lower Egyptian chapel in the northeast corner.

Another view of the location of the Mortuary Temple of the Great Pyramid of Khuf at Giza

A huge perimeter wall, about eight meters high (three high by some other estimates), and made of Turah limestone, completely surrounded the pyramid. It was situated only ten meters (10.2) from the pyramid, so that the courtyard between them, which was paved in limestone, was fairly small. We believe that access to the court could only be gained by way of the valley temple, through the causeway and then the mortuary temple. During the reign of Djedefre, it was probably extended.Originally, it would seem that much of the pyramid complex lay outside of the enclosure wall.

Plan of the Pyramid Complex of Khufu at Giza

Another very recent (1991) and important find by Dr. Hawass was the cult pyramid, discovered under a mound of sand during cleanup work and now designated G 1d. This is a tiny structure about 25.5 meters southeast of the corner of Khufu's pyramid, covering an area of approximately 24 square meters. The remains include fine, Tura quality limestone blocks from the pyramids outer casing and perimeter foundation, some of which remain in situ, large blocks of cruder limestone and debris that filled the core of the pyramid, and a T shaped substructure. The original baseline, marking the foot of the lowest course of casing blocks, is preserved on five foundation slabs on the east side and seven on the south side. No remains of the original baseline was found on the north side, where most of the foundation slaps were missing. On the west side, there is only one foundation block in situ that carried the baseline. However, an estimate was made of the base length of a site at 21.74 meters. The average slope of the preserved faces is 52.4 degrees.

A view of the cult pyramid (foreground) at the Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

Also discovered was the cult pyramid's pyramidion, the pyramid shaped stone that caps its top. It is a single piece of fine limestone, and is the second oldest pyramidion ever found.

The substructure of the cult pyramid consists of a sloping entrance passage about one meter wide originating from the north side of the structure, which lead down for 5.35 meters to a rectangular chamber oriented east west and measuring about eight meters by three and a half meters. There is a cutting in the floor of the rectangular chamber about one meter wide, immediately in front of its entrance from the descending corridor. The walls of the chamber stand 2.85 meters high, and slope slightly inward as they go up.

At the west end of the chamber there are four small holes, a pair on each of the north and south walls. They appear to be sockets for wood cross beams, perhaps used to lower or cover an object in the west end of the chamber.

The cult pyramid has been partially restored. Some of the fallen blocks and restored parts of the structure were replaced with new masonry. The apex of the pyramid, incorporating the pyramidion and the trapezoidal block from the third course down has been reconstructed using new blocks.

His discovery put an end both to doubts that such a cult pyramid existed in the Khufu complex, and to speculations about its identification with the so-called test passageway. The "test passageways" were corridors cut into the underlying rock that imitated on a smaller scale (about 1:5) part of the Great Pyramid's substructure, consisting of the descending and ascending corridors, the lower part of the Great Gallery, and even by implication the horizontal passageway that leads to the Queen's Chamber. Scholars suggested that this was a model used by the builders of the Great Pyramid to test their methods of blocking passageways but some had associated it with a cult structure.

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Reference Number

Ancient Egypt The Great Discoveries (A Year-by-Year Chronicle)

Reeves, Nicholas


Thmes & Hudson, Ltd

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Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


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Lehner, Mark


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Wilkinson, Richard H.


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