Egypt: Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), A Feature Tour Egypt Story

By Marie Parsons

King Khufu, known as Cheops to the Greeks, is credited with ordering the building of the Great Pyramid at Gizeh, near modern Cairo and Memphis. Unlike his grandfather Djoser Netjeriket, and his father Sneferu, both of whom were remembered as benevolent and compassionate rulers, Khufu was reported by Herodotus to have been a cruel despot.

Khufus Horus name was Medjedu, and his full birth-name was Khnum-Khufu, meaning, "the god Khnum protects me." Khnum was considered the local god of Elephantine, near the first Nile cataract, who created mankind on his "potters wheel" and was also responsible for the proper flooding of the Nile.

Khufu may have been already on in years when he took the throne. His kinsman and vizier, Hemiunu, was also the architect of the Great Pyramid. Khufus senior wife was named Merityotes, and she and his other two wives were each buried in one of the three smaller subsidiary pyramids that lie just south of the mortuary temple of the main pyramid. Khufu had several sons, among them Kawab, who would have been his heir, Khufukhaf, Minkhaf, and Djedefhor, Djedefre and Khephren or Khafre. The so-called Papyrus Westcar contains tales of some of these sons.

Though the Great Pyramid somehow represents the very essence of "ancient Egypt," the King for whom it was built as a tomb has left little recorded information of his actual reign. Khufu probably reigned for 23 or 24 years. There is evidence that he sent expeditions to the Sinai, and worked the diorite stone quarries deep in the Nubian desert, north-west of Abu Simbel. Inscriptions on the rocks at Wadi Maghara record the presence of his troops there to exploit the turquoise mines, and a very faint inscription at Elephantine indicates that he probably mined the red granite of Aswan as well.

Herodotus, who wrote his histories and commentaries on Egypt around 450 BCE, centuries after Khufu had reigned around 2585 BCE, recorded this about the King: "Kheops brought the country into all kinds of misery. He closed the temples, forbade his subjects to offer sacrifices, and compelled them without exception to labor upon his worksthe Egyptians can hardly bring themselves to mentionKheopsso great is their hatred." It was even said that Khufu set one of his daughters into a brothel so that she could raise revenue to build the pyramid, also asking each client for a block of stone so she could build her own pyramid. No evidence exists for such a story, though there are smaller pyramids which probably belonged to half-sister/wives of Khufu, and he did have at least three daughters of record.

Even prior to Herodotus, the author of the document now known as the Papyrus Westcar depicts Khufu as cruel. The text was inscribed in the Hyksos period prior to the 18th Dynasty, though its composition seems to date from the 12th Dynasty. One story, Kheops and the Magicians, relates that a magician named Djedi who can reputedly bring back the dead to life. He is presented to Khufu, who orders a prisoner brought to him, so that he may see a demonstration of the magicians talents. Khufu further orders that the prisoner should be killed, and then Djedi can bring him back to life. When Djedi objects, the King relents his initial decision, and Djedi then demonstrates his talent on a goose.

It should be noted that while Khufu has acquired this reputation, accurate or not, the years and labor that went into building his Pyramid tomb was surpassed by the three pyramids built by his father Sneferu, who was contrarily remembered as an amiable ruler.

The Great Pyramid originally stood 481 feet high complete with its original casing, but since it lost its top 30 feet, it stands only 451 feet now. It covers about 13 acres. The exterior casing was shining white limestone, laid from the top downwards. It was largely robbed in the Middle Ages to build medieval Cairo. Nothing now remains of the limestone mortuary temple, which was 171 feet by 132 feet, except its black basalt floor. The complexs valley temple has disappeared under the Arab village, though traces of this temple could be seen when new sewer systems were being laid down.

Along with the pyramid itself, the remains of a magnificent 141-foot long ship of cedar wood had also been found in a rock-cut pit close to the south side of the Great Pyramid. A second ship may also rest in a second sealed pit, though not in as good condition as this first. The ship was restored over many years, and now lies in a special museum built near the pyramid itself. The ship may have symbolized the solar journey of the deceased king with the gods, particularly the sun-god Ra.

It is ironic indeed that for all the magnificence of his pyramid, his funeral boat, and the wonders of the funerary furnishings that were discovered belonging to his mother, Queen Hetepheres, wife to Sneferu, the only portrait we have of Khufu is a tiny 3-inch high statue sculpted in ivory.

It may have been once easy to contemplate the builder of such a monument as the Great Pyramid to have virtually enslaved his people to accomplish it, and to order a royal princess to prostitute herself. Sneferu, Khufus father, had three separate pyramids built during his reign. Surely the workmen or nobles would have left some evidence of their dissatisfaction at least at the whimsicality of their sovereign if not his despotism. Yet Sneferu is remembered as amiable and pleasure-loving. And Khafre, Khufus son, left not only a pyramid but quite possibly a Sphinx as well. And history, or at least, historians, do not record Khafre is being a despot.

Continuing work at Giza is further showing that the men responsible for the building of the pyramids led normal lives. They baked bread, ate fish, made offerings to their blessed dead and the gods, and cared for their families. They left funerary stelae and tombs behind to give us an indication of how they considered their lot. It is more likely that the Greeks could less easily conceive of such a project of long-term labor as being anything but forced. Perhaps some archaeologist millennia in our own future may find rusted iron skeletons of some of our finest skyscrapers and wonder to what cruel overlords we owed the sweat of our own forced labor.


  • Monarchs of the Nile by Aidan Dodson
  • Chronicles of the Pharaohs by Peter A. Clayton
  • Literature of Ancient Egypt ed. By William Kelly