The Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in Egypt, Khufu's Boats and Boat Pits

The Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in Egypt

The Pyramid Proper, Part IV: Khufu's Boats and Boat Pits

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

>>Pyramid Index / Giza

Plan of Khufu's pyramid complex showing the location of boat pits

When I think of Khufu's complex at Giza near Cairo, I am often reminded of a poster that hung for years in a friend's house. It depicted a five car garage, filled with some of the most expensive automobiles in the world. The caption read, "The Benefits of Higher Education". Of course, the five pits that once all may have held boats surrounding Khufu's pyramid complex would have to be "The Benefits of Being Pharaoh".

It should be pointed out that there are actually seven boat pits in the whole complex of Khufu at Giza, but two of the boat pits are associated with the smaller so-called Queen's Pyramids.

The boat pit next to the causeway with stairs leading into it at the pyramid complex of Khufu at Giza

Two of the boat pits on the east side are now empty. Their walls were probably surfaced with limestone slabs, which reduced their width and simplified construction of a roof over them. Petrie found some roofing blocks covering the end of the southern trench, but some scholars think that they were never covered, since pillars would have been needed to help span their width. They are very large. The southern pit, for example, is 51.5 meters long, seven meters wide at its midpoint and eight meters deep. A third boat pit is on the upper north edge of the causeway, and therefore at the very threshold of the mortuary temple. It measures 45.4 meters in length and 3.75 meters at its widest point. It has a convex floor, and is accessible by way of an ancient staircase with 18 steps. It too was empty. Though these pits likely did at one time hold boats, some scholars have also speculated that they could have simulated boats themselves, rather than containing real ones.However, George Resiner found cordage and pieces of gilded wood inside the third pit along the causeway, indicating that a boat had once been present.

Ahmed Youssef with the resorted boat of Khufu in its museum at Giza

The remaining two pits, in which intact boats were found, are on the south side of the pyramid. According to Lehner, the boat pits on the southern side of the complex differ from the others in one important aspect. They are long, narrow and rectangular, rather than boat shaped, and they contain the disassembled parts of real boats.That the pits were built no later than the end of the 4th Dynasty is demonstrated by the fat that they lie partially under the pyramid's southern enclosure wall, which is dated to the end of that dynasty.

The assembly work on Khufu's boat

The two southern boat pits were discovered in 1954, during cleaning work, by the young Egyptian architect and archeologist Kamal el-Mallakh and inspector Zaki Nur. The eastern pit was covered by a roof of forty-one huge limestone slabs weighing between 17 and 20 tons each. The largest is about 4.8 meters long. The three westernmost of these stones were much smaller than the others and have been interpreted as keystones. The pit measures about 32.5 meters in length. When one of the slabs was raised from the eastern pit, the planking of the great boat was seen, completely dismantled, but arranged in the semblance of its finished form.

The cedar boat now on display was originally dismantled into 1,224 individual parts. On top of the wood was a layer of mats and ropes, an instrument made of flint, and some small pieces of white plaster. The prow of the boat, a wooden column topped by a round wooden disk, was found at the western end of the pit. This column was connected to two long wooden pieces that extended along the bottom of the pit. Most of the wooden parts had been tied together with ropes. Also found inside the pit were many other items, such as twelve oars, each mad from a single piece of wood, fifty-eight poles, three cylindrical columns and five doors. In total, there were thirteen layers of materials consisting of 651 artifacts ranging in size from 10 centimeters to 23 meters.

Another view of Khufu's boat being reconstructed

The boat was removed, piece by piece, under the supervision of Ahmed Youssef Mustafa, the master restorer who worked on Hetephere's funerary furniture. It is 43.3 meters (142 feet) long and made of Lebanese cedar wood and some acacia. Its displacement was 45 tons. The maximum draft is 1.48 meters (5 feet). It is 5.9 meters wide. The separate parts of the boat had numerous U-shaped holes so that the boat could be 'stitched' together using ropes made of vegetable fibers. Interestingly many of the boats planks were marked with signs for prow, stern, port and starboard. Nevertheless it took Mustafa some ten years to completely reassemble the boat. That work was not completed until 1968.

Blocks covering the boat pit from which the restored boat was removed at Giza

The boat's prow and stern are in the form of papyrus talks, with the stern one bent over. Therefore, it is essentially a replica of a type of papyrus reed boat, perhaps dating back to the Predynastic Period. During the Old Kingdom, it is not difficult to find many objects simulating the Egyptian's earlier construction material in more durable material. It has a cabin, or inner shrine, which is enclosed within a reed-mat structure with poles of the same papyrus-but form that we see in the canopy of Hetepheres. It also has a small forward cabin that probably was for the captain. Propulsion was by means of ten oars, and it was steered using two large oar rudders locate din the stern. There was no mast, and therefore no sail, and the general design of the boat would have not allowed it to be used other than for river travel.

On the walls of the pit in which the boat now displayed in a special museum was found, there were many builders' marks and inscriptions, including some eighteen cartouches containing the name of King Djedefre. This suggests to many Egyptologists that some parts of his tomb complex were not completed until after his death. One scholar, Dobrev, has theorized that the two boat pits on the south side of the Great Pyramid were built by Djedefre as a gesture of piety connected with the establishment of the local divine cult of his father and founder of the royal necropolis in Giza. However, if the boats were used in the funeral of Khufu, it would be natural for Djedefre to have buried them with his cartouches.

It took a number of years to reassemble the boat, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, so that it could be displayed in its own boat museum next tot he pyramid.

A side view of Khufu's famous boat at Giza

A side view of Khufu's famous boat at Giza

In the neighboring pit on the west, the boat remains sealed up with the original twenty covering blocks. In 1987, the American National Geographic Society, in association with the Egyptian office for historical monuments, examined this pit by boring a hole into the limestone beams covering it and inserting a micro camera and measuring equipment. The space was photographed and air measurements made, after which the pit was sealed again. It was hoped that the pit had been so well sealed hat the air inside would have last been breathed by the ancient Egyptians, but there were obvious signs that this was not the case. Within, the parts of the disassembled boat were again arranged in their correct relative positions, though the pit was shorter than the fully assembled boat would have been.

Signs showing the prow, stern, port and starboard of Khufu's boat

Signs showing the prow, stern, port and starboard of Khufu's boat

Composit photo of the second boat in the unopened pit on the south side of Khufu's pyramid Complex at Giza

Few inscriptions relative to Khufu's complex at Giza have ever been found, so controversy surrounds many of its elements, including his boats. Scholars continue to speculate about the purpose and meaning of the boats and boat pits at the Great Pyramid, as well as at other royal tombs in Egypt. According to Jaroslav Cerny, the four boats buried near the east and south walls of the Great Pyramid were intended for the king's use in traveling into the netherworld in all four cardinal directions. The fifth pit near the approach causeway was thought by him to contain the boat on which the king's mummy was transported to the burial site. Other experts, in particular Walter Emery and Selim Hassan, think that the boat is a sun bark used to transport the king over the heavenly ocean following the sun god Re.

Abdel Moneim Youssef Abu Bakr maintained that all the boats buried near the Great Pyramid were originally used to carry the pharaoh to Egypt's holy places on pilgrimages and other ceremonial occasions. Dr. Hawass, now head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), disagrees. According to him, traces of shavings found about the boat pit which contained the reassembled boat show that they were built right next to the pyramid. Furthermore, there were traces of white color on the surface of some pieces of the boat, and a complete absence of water marks on the hull, indicating to Hawass that the boat never entered the water. According to Dr. Hawass, the boats to the south fo the pyramid are solar boats in which the soul of the king symbolically traveled through the heavens with the sun god. The boats in the pits by the upper temple were used by the king as Horus to travel throughout Egypt and maintain order in his ream. The pit that lies parallel to the causeway might have contained the funerary boat which was used to bring the king's body to its final resting place, or might have been used symbolically by the goddess Hathor.

A view of Khufu's boat in its Museum at Giza

According to Lehner, the southern boat pits do not seem to have been a part of the symbolic layout of the whole Khufu complex, but rather are a deliberate, ritual disposal. Both of these pits are rectangular, rather than boat-shaped, and are too small to have contained the fully assembled boats, even though the builders could have easily achieved this if they had wished to do so. Hence, it appears that the boats were intended to be dismantled and buried.

A view of Khufu's boat in its Museum at Giza

Lehner therefore believes that the boats might have been intended to transport the king to the heavens, westward with the setting sun and eastward with the rising sun, but he thinks the evidence points to a different use. Items connected with the royal funeral were considered in some sense highly charged. To neutralize them, they were dismantled and buried separately, close to but out-side of the funerary precinct (these pits are outside of the enclosure wall). The wood canopy for transporting a statue, found ritually disassembled in an extra shaft outside Khafre's satellite pyramid would be another example. To Lehner, it seems probable that these complete, but wholly disassembled boats were connected with Khufu's final earthly voyage to his pyramid. It should also be pointed out that there are impressions ont he tightly fitting ropes, still visible on some of the logs, which would have assured the water tightness of the boat, indicating that at some time, it could have been set afloat.

So even with the boats of Khufu, many mysteries which may, or may never be answered remain.In this regard, the remaining unexcavated boat is of interest, and may someday lead us to a few of the answers we seek.

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See Also (Related to Khufu's Boat):

See Also (Related to the Great Pyramid of Khufu):

See Also: (Related to Egyptian Boats in General):






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