Giza pyramids introduction

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Most people today consider the Giza pyramids as the ultimately useless products of an autocratic state – tombs for vainglorious kings. This may be true, yet few will deny the technical achievement – at the dawn of history men raised these mountains of cut stone using methods of which we still remain ignorant, in spite of a great deal of speculation. Below is a sketch showing the quantity of stone used to build the Egyptian pyramids through time –

The amount of stone used to build the Egyptian pyramids accumulates to several millions of cubic meters, peaking over 3 million cubic meters between 4000 - 5000 years BCE.
A graph representing the quantity of stone used to build the Egyptian pyramids over time.

– there are three ‘humps’ in the graph, representing the Old, Middle, and New kingdoms of Egypt – these being separated by two ‘Intermediate’ periods, in the first of which society broke down.

Clearly something extraordinary happened in the Old kingdom, particularly in the IVth dynasty. In addition to the great mass of stone moved, the almost fanatic attention to detail – especially in Khufu’s ‘Great Pyramid’ – demonstrates great dedication on the part of architects and masons.

The building of impressive monuments was not confined to Egypt – disparate cultures at their inception also saw surges in building activity. This was the result of the stratification of society into class systems – elites defined themselves as different from ordinary people, incestuously marrying into their own class, even achieving godlike status, and building large tombs sometimes including sacrificed retainers. So were Egyptian pyramids created just to massage a king’s ego?

Most writing surviving from the Old kingdom is in the form of inscriptions on royal tombs, names and titles. There are no historical documents so the history of this period must be inferred. One can be doubtful of the popular view whereby kings competed with each other to build impressive pyramids. The priesthoods that administered the state, controlled all learning and religious matters. And kings, assuming their piety exceeded their vainglory, will have relied on priestly advice in the creation and design of ‘their’ pyramids.

Whatever the case Egyptian pyramids are particularly characterized by their geometric designs. Unfortunately many pyramid surveys are somewhat wanting and require resurvey. By contrast we have Petrie’s meticulous survey of Giza, which forms the basis of the analyses on this website.

The results of geometric analysis strongly indicate that these pyramids were rather more than tombs, nothing less than the expression of a mathematical philosophy. The overall layout plan that emerges defines the positions of all three pyramids and can only have been conceived by Khufu’s architects – in a word the plan was ‘multigenerational’.  In contrast to the exoteric symbolism of pyramids to the populace, and the public display of the heavenly myth played out in the stars above, the Giza layout plan may have been esoteric, the subtle geometric relations to be hidden for all time in tombs. 

To create this website I have drawn on the findings and propositions of other authors, and to whose websites I provide links in the references section, so that readers can confirm the data presented here. This page introduces and describes the objects of study.

Ancient Egypt

A map of the ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt was organised in the name of religion and the figurehead of pharaoh, the ‘living god’, represented a focus of contact with the divine for the whole population. Reverence for the gods was paramount and life regulated according to an unceasing round of religious duties – periodic rituals, the building of temples, the construction of tombs and elaborate preparations for the afterlife, as well as the establishment of bodies of priests to maintain these institutions in perpetuity.

Local geographical conditions were imagined to be mirrored in the sky, across which the gods travelled in their celestial boats to set in the west – the land of the dead. The western desert border therefore became the natural site for cemeteries, so that what remains of this ancient civilisation is largely a record of the rituals of death, the living historical event buried beneath the rising silt of the Nile.

In this a highly organised theocracy all things in heaven and on earth were imbued with religious significance and this was most particularly true of funerary architecture. Pyramid tombs were seemingly designed to launch kings to an afterlife among the stars. The Pyramid Texts on the walls of later pyramids have been analysed to show that they were inscribed for the benefit of the king, to guide him in passing through various challenges on his way to immortality. (The sarcophagus represented Nut, the sky – his mother). So pyramid designs may represent the expression of the death and rebirth narrative in architectonic form.

Egyptians were very superstitious and believed in the existence of a number of’spiritual bodies’. The deceased relied upon ‘tomb-equipment’ – offerings and models of workers – to provide him with sustenance after death; hieroglyphic signs were ‘erased’ or part-completed apparently in order to destroy their magic power. But alongside this superstition it seems that we are dealing with a pragmatic state religion in which the social function was paramount, and whose structure, myths, tenets, and rituals acted to impress upon the citizen that he lived in an environment self-evidently ordained by the gods.

Some pyramids are indeed named after stars. ‘The Horizon of Khufu’ is a translation of ‘Akhet Khufu’, the Egyptian name of the site – the place where Khufu became an ‘Akh’ (a sort of realised spiritual body) and joined the celestial procession of gods. It can be shown with convincing probability that the azimuths of key stars setting on the western horizon decided the location of pyramid groups, as well as suggesting a much wider vision of the mythical landscape.

But such stellar correlations do not fully explain pyramid design. Besides, other meanings have been given to the pyramids – in one mythological tradition the pyramid was conceived as ‘the primeval mound rising from the waters of chaos’ upon which the mythical phoenix (the ‘Akh’) alighted. The original mound or pillar, called the ‘benben’, was situated at Heliopolis, city of the sun.

Further difficulties are encountered in trying to explain pyramid meaning – some kings are associated with more than one pyramid, only one of which could have been a tomb.

Earlier archaeologists were somewhat cavalier with their measurements, meaning many pyramids await resurvey using modern methods. Hamilton describes the situation well, in a series of papers addressing what is currently known (or not) about the architecture of the major pyramids. A highly recommended source for anyone wishing to learn more about the state of pyramids today

The development of the pyramid tomb

A map around Memphis, the capital of Old Kingdom

Most pyramids in Egypt are clustered in groups near to the Old Kingdom capital of Memphis, just south of Cairo. Nearly all have been robbed of stone, or suffered destruction by the elements, and today have the appearance of low mounds of rubble. The exceptions are the giant structures at SAQQARA, DASHUR, and GIZA which still today dominate the western skyline of the Nile valley. These pyramids are in most cases associated with a necropolis or ‘city of tombs’.

The western horizon was the setting place of the sun and other heavenly bodies – the ‘land of Amenti’ – and so, rather than occupy valuable farming land, it was on the fringe of the western desert plateau that tombs were built, and where infiltrating Nile water would not rot the funerary equipment.

The first royal tombs, from the first and second dynasties, were low rectangular structures built of mud-brick and called by the Arabs ‘Mastabas’, a word meaning ‘bench’. Such tombs continued to be built (progressively in stone) throughout the succeeding Old Kingdom dynasties. Sometimes the outer surfaces of these early mastabas were not plain but decorated with complex patterns of recessed brickwork called ‘Palace Facade Panelling’ – one of the few traits apparently imported from Mesopotamia during the early formation of the state. This panelling was richly painted in imitation of the hanging mat work which would have enclosed the prototype upon which the design of such tombs was based. Thereafter it frequently appears in tomb interiors and on the decoration of sarcophagi.

A Mastaba tomb has a chapel, a burial chamber and a tomb shaft
Mastaba tomb

The essential break with pre-dynastic practice in these tombs was the burial of the mummified body of the king in extended position, and accompanied by a rich variety of grave goods. The walls of the tomb chamber at the base of the structure, at this early period often constructed of wood, were also decorated and include depictions of gaming boards and systems of measure. One can surely understand why the excavators of these tombs, on finding such a sophisticated and representative assemblage of almost all that was to come in later periods, concluded that dynastic culture had been ‘imported’ from the outside. But there was no great influx from Mesopotamia and most Egyptian characteristics were home grown.

In succeeding dynasties the basic form of the mastaba tomb was greatly enlarged while retaining one essential feature that was to persist throughout the life of the Old Kingdom. This was an entrance passage in the northern part of the structure, and usually sloping so that it pointed towards the sky towards the circumpolar stars, the ‘stars that never die’, and the gateway to eternal life.

Polar passage

In the IIIrd dynasty there were two important developments. The mastaba was enlarged not only laterally but vertically as well, to produce the familiar form of the ‘step pyramid’ – appearing as a series of mastabas piled one above the other but actually constructed as a series of buttress-walls, one outside the other.

The second innovation was the introduction of stone as the chief building material, as exemplified in the construction of the step-pyramid complex at Saqqara. This is thought to be a copy of the nearby palace at Memphis. In the centre of the complex rises the famous step-pyramid. Unlike true pyramids its base is not square, and excavation has shown that it was enlarged a number of times, while deep beneath it there are shafts and galleries which contained vast numbers of objects (for example 30,000 stone vases) and mummified animal remains.

Djoser step pyramid at Saqqara

At the end of the IIIrd dynasty, or beginning of the IVth, fundamental changes were introduced into the design of the pyramid complex. Among the features which appear in later complexes are:

  • true pyramids with square bases oriented to the cardinal points.
  • an entrance in the north face of the pyramid opening into a descending passage which connects to a tomb chamber underneath the pyramid.
  • a so-called ‘temenos wall’ surrounding the pyramid.
  • against the east face, a mortuary temple which leads down, via a causeway, to a valley temple. These temples are also oriented to the cardinal points. (Such features were not present in IIIrd dynasty complexes)
  • beside the pyramid and causeway a number of pits containing dismantled boats – clearly symbolic of the boats upon which the gods were imagined to travel across the sky. Such boat pits are already found near Ist dynasty tombs, while later tombs contain models of boats.
  • outside the southern enclosure wall a subsidiary tomb or ‘satellite’ pyramid, usually with its own chapel.
Pyramid complex

These pyramid complexes were endowed with land and large bodies of priests served through succeeding generations to make offerings and maintain the complex. It is supposed that mummification ceremonies, and other funerary rituals, were performed in the valley temples, while one of the functions of the mortuary temples may have been to enable the priests to communicate with the spirit of the dead pharaoh – the east walls of mastaba tombs being provided with offering chapels for this purpose.

There was a change in the cult at the end of the IIIrd dynasty and the absence of written texts means that scholars can only speculate what this was. While there are clear similarities between the mastaba tombs of the IVth dynasty and the ‘mastaba tomb pyramid’ of Zoser, all of which contained remains and offerings, very little has actually been found within Old Kingdom pyramids themselves – fragments of mummified remains (some of which probably represent later ‘intrusive’ burials), and empty coffers (The burial of IIIrd dynasty pharaoh Sekhemkhet was found intact – a wreath of flowers still lay upon the sealed alabaster sarcophagus. When it was opened it was found to be empty – something other than a body had been ritually entombed).

The massive granite ‘box’, with a sealed lid and built into the bottom of the pit, at Zawiyet el Aryan was also empty but for the residue of some kind of liquid (it was not analyzed by the excavator), and in the case of the Meidum and Dashur pyramids, no coffers at all. Considering that in addition often two ‘tombs’ were ascribed to the king, in conformity with the ‘two lands’ symbolism of the Egyptian state, it is by no means certain that pharaohs were actually buried inside the pyramids with which their names were associated. This is especially so in the case of Sneferu who built at least two pyramids, one presumably being some kind of cenotaph.

Sneferu Bent pyramid south Dashur
Sneferu Red pyramid north Dashur
The Meidum pyramid

Sneferu stands at the beginning of the IVth dynnasty and his two giant pyramids were constructed at DASHUR, one of these being the famous ‘Bent pyramid’ – so-called because of the change of slope-angle at about half the height. It is the only pyramid to have retained most of its casing substantially intact, and within it contains a most curious arrangement of passages and chambers, including uniquely a shaft leading to an opening in its western face. It is often claimed that its irregular ‘bent’ shape resulted from a change of plan by the builders – it is suggested that this pyramid was being built at the same time as the MEIDUM pyramid and that the latter collapsed, so persuading the Dashur builders to change to a safer lower angle in order to avoid a similar catastrophe. But this interpretation has not been universally accepted.

Meidum and earlier pyramids were initially built as a series of one-sided masonry walls (called steps or buttresses) whereas later IVth dynasty pyramids were built with blocks in horizontal layers. The current interpretation is that Meidum was built at the end of the IIIrd dynasty but made into a ‘true pyramid’ by Sneferu towards the end of his reign, and the pyramid then became the favoured target of tomb robbers – no-one really knows. The Egyptians themselves appear to have believed it was built by Sneferu. This king was certainly prolific and built a series of smaller ‘dummy’ pyramids elsewhere in Egypt whose purpose is unknown.

After Dashur work began on the great complex at Giza – the subject of this website. It began with the building of Khufu’s unparalleled monument (known to all as the Great Pyramid) and continued through succeeding generations until three pyramids of similar design and layout stood commanding the edge of the desert plateau at the junction of the ‘two lands’ of Egypt (north and south). However, these pyramids were not built by consecutive kings.

After Meidum each new pyramid was built further towards the north – Sneferu at Dashur, then Khufu at Giza, and finally Djedefre (Khufu’s successor) began building at ABU RAWASH. The next in line, Khafre, returned to Giza while his successor (thought to be Khnemka) commenced building at ZAWIYET EL ARYAN further to the south, followed by Menkaure who built the third Giza pyramid.

The three members of the Giza group are of similar ‘classic’ form, but the interior layouts of the pyramids at Abu Rawash and Zawiyet el Aryan, which are intermediate in date to Khufu-Khafre-Menkaure, share an altogether different arrangement.

The pyramid of Zawiyet El Aryan is very curious indeed (if it was really intended as a pyramid – today only the substructure remains). Barsanti, the original excavator, found an enormous pit 25 m long by 14 m wide, and 22 m deep, approached by a sloping stairway 110 m long and 8.5 m wide. The bottom of this pit was filled with granite blocks weighing around 9 tons each (one block weighed 45 tons) and in the centre was set a large oval granite sarcophagus which was found to be empty when the lid was lifted. At one moment in the excavation the pit filled with water and then, just as suddenly drained away, suggesting the existence of further undiscovered passages.

While some scholars believe that this pyramid is IIIrd dynasty others point to the use of large blocks as characteristic of the IVth dynasty.  No one knows. The name of Djedefre was actually found on a large block of stone here. Unfortunately the site cannot be visited today having become part of a military site and abandoned.

Djedefre Abu Rawash / Zawiyet el Aryan compared

The substructure of Djedefre’s pyramid at Abu Rawash was built on a broadly similar plan to Zawiyet el Aryan – in each case a massive sarcophagus was built into the bottom of an enormous pit, approached through an open trench. While Abu Rawash was certainly robbed of much of its stone it neverthess appears to have been completed and with dimensions similar those Menkaure. It was built on top of a cliff which required a mile-long causeway to be constructed and its apex level is the same as that of the two large Giza pyramids, which is food for thought…

The building of the pyramid of Menkaure was apparently interrupted, its satellite pyramids uncompleted, its temples finished in mud-brick. The last king of the IVth dynasty of whom we have any knowledge, Shepseskhaf, left Giza and built his tomb at Saqqara in the form of a giant sarcophagus. (Nevertheless the substructure remains broadly faithful to pyramid designs).


Whatever happened at this time, the unparalleled building effort of the IVth dynasty was followed by a dramatic decline, and the pyramids built during the remainder of the Old Kingdom (at Saqqara and Abusir) are all quite smaller and frequently built of mud-brick cased in limestone. They were built according to the same classic and by now somewhat ‘standardised’ plan – in most cases the angle of slope is based upon the 345 Pythagorean triangle (like Khafre’s pyramid at Giza).

They contain a descending passage, vestibule, three granite portcullises, an ante-chamber, a three-niche ‘Serdab’ to the east (generally thought to be for the ‘Ka’ statues), and a tomb chamber to the west, as well as what are quite probably the remains of original burials – fragments of coffins and mummy wrappings, bones, and even small pieces of jewellery. These dynasties also saw the construction of many tombs for officials, often decorated with exquisite reliefs. But most importantly these pyramids contain the Pyramid Texts, which tell of the heavenly destiny of the king.

These texts introduce the figure of Osiris whose cult eventually became the core of the Egyptian death ritual. But after Menkare, Shepseskhaf reverted to Saqqara, implying some change in the cult that had produced the great pyramids. Despite this Giza was still held in great respect – the majority of mastabas there belong to the Vth and VIth dynasties.

Then came a gradual decline which ended the Old Kingdom. Whether this represents evidence of the waning of royal power which some have speculated led to a split-up into petty states, war, revolution, and the ending of the Old Kingdom – or, as alternatively suggested, the decline was triggered by climatic factors (sand was beginning to engulf Giza cemeteries at this time), with the fall monument building ceased.

Following the First Intermediate Period pyramid building revived in the region of EL LISHT, near the capital of the time. But these pyramids, although larger than those of the Vth and VIth dynasties, were built of shoddy materials – chiefly mud brick and sand with limestone casing – and all have crumbled away. In the pyramid of Amenemhet I at Lisht re-used blocks from the mortuary complex of Khufu were found. The demolition of Giza would therefore appear already to have started in the Middle Kingdom. (So much for ‘living forever’).

In these Middle Kingdom pyramids the design was changed and the entrance moved from the north – a modification which in this case suggests the sacrifice of symbolism in the interests of pragmatism. These pyramids have intricate passage systems replete with portcullises, blind passages, and other devices, all apparently attempts to foil tomb robbers. This says something about the lack of confidence possessed by Middle Kingdom rulers and this tends to be confirmed by the tenor of the extant literature from the time. Nevertheless the architects of the Middle Kingdom remained capable of building grand monuments such as the great tomb cut into the cliffs at DEIR EL BAHARI.

In the New kingdom pyramid building ceased. Pharaohs were buried in rock cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes, pyramids transformed into obelisks, and energies devoted to the building of great temples. At the very end of the civilisation a revival of ‘pyramid building’ took place in Nubia far to the south but these are essentially small, pyramid-shaped sepulchres and, to all intents and purposes, pyramid building had come to an end.

Different pyramids compared to the Giza
Pyramids to scale

Description of the Giza Plateau

Panoramic view of the Giza pyramids, enlarges when clicked
A panoramic view of the Giza pyramids (click to enlarge)

The monuments at Giza are constructed from the local, yellow, fossiliferous limestone. Originally the pyramids were cased with finer, white limestone obtained from the vast Tura caves, to the east across the Nile valley (1). From other parts of Egypt white alabaster, black basalt, and red granite were brought to Giza and used to ‘case’ other parts of the monuments (2). So, bearing in mind that the climate was different and the site free from sand (3), at the time of its construction Giza presented a different aspect from the one we see today (4). There must too have been extensive construction in perishable materials.

The Giza Plateau

Giza quarries
Giza quarries

The so-called ‘Giza plateau’, some 45 metres above the level of the Nile delta and 60 metres above the level of the Mediterranean, constitutes a small part of the edge of the African continental plate. To the west the Western Desert stretches some 4000 kilometres to the Atlantic while to the north and east the plateau is bounded by an irregular scarp or slope that descends to the valley floor. To the south the plateau has been dissected by ancient wadis and considerably altered by the hand of man.

Originally the plateau presented the aspect of a shallow dome of weathered rock the highest point of which was approximatey one kilometre west of the Great Pyramid. The rock strata dip down gently to the southeast and the strike runs from northeast to southwest. Faults and cracks in the bedrock generally run from southeast to northwest.

The limestone of Giza, of Eocene age, is stratified into layers by thin seams of clay (a feature which may have simplified quarrying activity) and contains large numbers of the disc-shaped fossil Nummulites. To the north the overlying stratum of hard grey limestone remains, but to the south this has been eroded in a shallow valley and quarried away, and the exposed underlying limestone is softer and yellow.

The core blocks for the pyramids and temples are of local-origin and such large quantities of stone were removed that it is not possible to be absolutely sure what the area looked like before work started. The main quarry appears to have occupied the eastern part of the plateau – the dome of rock was quarried away in terraces rising to the west and terminating in low cliffs. If a supply ramp was used in the building then it most probably ascended the plateau from a point to the southeast, making use of the gentlest gradient. The quarry area ascends to the southeast of the third pyramid.

The vast quantity of stone chippings which were produced as the pyramid blocks were cut and dressed still lie in deep drifts where they were dumped over the northern scarp of the plateau. Another dump has been found to the south of the site.

The exteriors of Giza pyramids

Pyramids of Giza
Pyramids of Giza

The 10 pyramids of Giza, and the tombs and temples, have been given code numbers (by Reisner, 1942). I shall use Egyptian names for kings thought to have commissioned the work. (The Greek names for these kings which appear in popular books are given in brackets). The pyramids are numbered as follows –

  • GI a b c – the Great Pyramid of KHUFU (Cheops) and its 3 subsidiary pyramids. (Recently a small pyramid GId was discovered under rubble at the south east corner of the main pyramid.)
  • GII a – the pyramid of KHAFRE (Chephren) and its single subsidiary.
  • GIII a b c – the pyramid of MENKAURE (Mycerinus) and its 3 subsidiaries.

It has already been stated that the strike of the bedrock at Giza runs from northeast to southwest and, partly in order to make the best use of level ground, the pyramids were built along this line – Khufu in the extreme northeast, Khafre in the centre of the plateau, and Menkaure to the southwest.

Cad model of Giza
Cad model of major built structures

Giza construction features

The first job of the builders was to survey and prepare the site. The limestone bedrock was levelled where the sides of the pyramids were to be laid out. In the case of Khafre this actually required building up a foundation using large blocks of limestone where the bedrock fell away to the east. These blocks are about 3 metres square and 3 metres thick (5) and are finely-jointed together – they are well seen at the southeast corner of Khafre. On the north and west sides of the pyramid deep cuttings through the bedrock were required to produce a level baseline.

Around the bases of pyramids Khufu and Khafre, where bedrock is visible, there are various holes. Some of these are shallow rectangular pits about 40 cms. square and, at many other places, there are circular holes with diameters around 30 cms. Lines of such holes run parallel to the bases of the two large pyramids – those around Khufu are 7 royal cubits apart and around Khafre are spaced at 10 royal cubits. These holes were evidently used during construction – probably for levelling. However, this levelling did not extend over the entire base area of the pyramid but the central bedrock ‘core’ was terraced into steps to correspond with the layers of stone to be laid upon it. Such steps are visible at a number of places, in particular at the northeast corner of Khufu and the northwest corner of Khafre.

Stepped rock core

The pyramids were surrounded by pavements and the bedrock underlying them was recessed to receive the paving slabs. However, whereas Khafre pavement was laid around the casing blocks of the finished pyramid (6) (as seems to have been the usual Egyptian practice when fitting paving) the pavement of GI (or more precisely the ‘socle’ – the narrow, clearly-defined section of pavement running around the pyramid base) underlies the casing blocks and must have been laid first. This pavement is well preserved and it was obviously prepared with care – the cubit-thick slabs fit closely together and the top surface was found by Petrie to have been carefully levelled (within 3 cms. over a distance of 230 metres).

Pavement differences

The next stage of building was to lay the core-masonry, of roughly-squared blocks, on the terraced-core – but before this was done the lower parts of the interior passage systems were cut into the bedrock. As the core-masonry was laid it was carefully arranged to fit the slopes of such passages and interior chambers.

It needs to be mentioned here that earlier pyramids, such as that at Meidum, were not built as a simple ‘pile of stones’ but had a layered structure – they were built as a series of ‘towers’, one outside the other, and before being finished presented a stepped appearance. At Giza, although the subsidiary-pyramids present this ‘stepped’ external appearance, it is clear that the method of building was rather different. A deep excavation made into the fabric of Menkaure reveals a stepped core of massive blocks rather than a layered structure. There was little risk of slip – the core blocks were very large and well-squared and at many places the pinkish mortar used to pack them is visible. Some of these core blocks have rough quarry-marks painted on them.

Construction differences

The courses of the pyramids are not of equal thickness but graded in series of groups diminishing in thickness from bottom to top (this may reflect the quarrying of bedrock which was stratified into unequal layers). Some courses are especially prominent, in particular the thirty fifth course of Khufu (at this level the pyramid is divided into two equal volumes).

The surviving casing stones of Khufu are of limestone and laid directly on the pavement, and are beautifully finished and fitted together.

Khufu surviving casing stones
Casing stone joint
Plan of remaining casing on north side of Khufu

It is logical to assume that the casing-stones were fitted from the bottom up and rose with the core-masonry but there are indications that this approach was not used by the builders, rather a stepped core was first built and in a second phase the steps were ‘filled in’. Such a technique would give the builders a much better way of controlling the shape of the rising structure but the idea is not popular with those who believe giant ramps were used. Many different answers to how pyramids were constructed have been offered but we remain essentially ignorant.
In earlier pyramids casing stones were laid sloping inwards but a change was made at Dashur to lay them in flat courses. Sometimes as the casing rose the top surface of the adjacent core-masonry was cut to receive each casing-stone, as we see at Menkaure. And shallow rebates in the core-masonry of Khufu suggest that successive corner-stones were set alternately in each face. The corner stones of Khufu sat in shallow rebates in the bedrock, as is the case with some of the satellite pyramids. And stones near the apex of Khafre were mortised and tenoned.

Mortised casing stones at the summit of Khafre
Granite casing of Menkaure
Menkaure fallen casing stone

An interesting difference between the two large pyramids is that the presently exposed core blocks of Khufu lay immediately behind the casing, whereas in the case of Khafre there appears to be an inner ‘nucleus’ of core blocks (exposed in the upper part of Khafre just below the intact casing) separated from the casing by ‘packing blocks’ that we see exposed in the lower part of the pyramid.

Khafre casing and core layers
Khafre casing anchored in backing block
Originally Khafre granite casing was as smooth as glass
Khafre fallen casing stone

The lowest course of Khafre, the lowest courses of Menkaure were cased in granite. The remaining granite casing-stones of Khafre were originally beautifully polished on their outer sufaces, but the granite-casing of Menkaure is undressed except for small areas in the centres of the faces. On one of these flat areas, near the entrance, a worn inscription includes the name MENKAURE. The two westernmost subsidiaries of Menkaure (b and c) were apparently never finished, at least as true pyramids, and present a ‘steplike’ structure composed of blocks of core-masonry. The easternmost subsidiary pyramid was apparently sheathed in red granite.

Menkaure subsidiary pyramid

The faces of Khafre were flat, as is shown by the still-intact casing near the apex, but the core-masonry faces of Khufu (and to a lesser extent those of Menkaure) appear to have a marked ‘concavity’, shown by aerial photographs (7). If the core-masonry faces of Khfu were originally bisected vertically into two parts Pochan estimates that each part was angled-in at just less than half a degree to this central line. On the other hand, examination of detached casing-block fragments has revealed small differences of face-angle which may mean that faces of the casing were curved (Maragioglio) (8). Also some of these fragments show traces of paint and Pochan (9) believes that this bears out Arab statements that the pyramid was painted with heiroglyphs. The few remaining casing-stones in-situ (10) show no traces of paint.

Pyramid interiors

At Giza, as at most Old Kingdom pyramid sites, the pyramid entrance is in the north-face and opens into a narrow, sloping, ‘polar’ passage which points in the general direction of the north celestial pole. This leads down into a chamber beneath the base of the pyramid. In some cases this chamber contains an empty stone coffer.

This basic plan can be seen in the seven subsidiary pyramids (11) and similar arrangements exist in some of the ‘mastaba’ tombs in the surrounding cemeteries. However the interior arrangements of the three large pyramids, although conforming to the basic pattern, are more complex.


Menkaure north face
The lower part of Menkaure was cased in granite

The entrance to this pyramid is in the north face, equidistant from the corners and in the fifth masonry course – so that it is several metres above the level of the pyramid-pavement, now largely hidden under mounds of rubble and dislodged blocks. The polar passage is rectangular in cross-section and, because it is only 1.2 metres in vertical height, one is forced to ‘bow low’ when entering. This passage is granite-lined to the point where it enters the bedrock and then, after proceeding a short distance, the sloping passage terminates in a sort of ‘ante-chamber’ the walls of which are decorated with typical Old-Kingdom ‘palace-facade’ panelling. (This feature is applied to the exteriors of many tombs of earlier dynasties and is thought to represent in stone the appearance of Egyptian buildings of the time).

At the far (southern) end of this ante-chamber there are three portcullises made from thin slabs of granite and now in a raised position. After passing under these the height of the passage increases to 1.8 metres (one and a half times the height of the polar passage) and becomes ‘horizontal’ (actually the floor slopes down to the south at an angle of 4°) and, after arriving at a point below the centre of the pyramid, opens into a ‘large apartment’.

Menkaure rock-cut chambers

This apartment extends towards the west and has been cut out from the living rock – there are three exits. The first lies immediately above the entrance to the apartment and leads to a passage (having the same cross-section as the polar-passage) which slopes back up towards the north-face. This second sloping passage is ‘blind’ and terminates within the masonry, and this has led scholars to conclude that there was a ‘change of plan’ in the construction of this pyramid. It is at least certain that this ‘blind passage’ was constructed first because tool-marks in the horizontal passage show that this was constructed from the ‘inside-outwards’ – therefore the lower passage system was designed and cut before the major bulk of the pyramid was built.

The second exit from the large apartment leads to a chamber to the west with a very low ceiling – this is evidently a ‘construction-chamber’ because the floor is composed of beams of granite tightly fitted together and actually comprising the roof of the ‘sepulchral-chamber’ below. How these massive granite beams were manhandled in this confined space is a mystery.

To enter the ‘sepulchral-chamber’ one passes through the third exit, situated in the middle of the floor of the large apartment. A short sloping passage leads into a chamber lined with granite and the roof beams, mentioned above, have been cut in a curve on their undersides so that the ceiling has the appearance of being vaulted. This chamber contained, at the date of its discovery, a basalt sarcophagus decorated with palace-facade panelling but this was lost at sea when it was being shipped off to Britain – whether this coffer was original we shall probably never know.

The lost sarcophagus of Menkaure

There is one last feature of the passage-system which appears almost to have been added as an afterthought. In the passage to the ‘sepulchral-chamber’ there is a short side passage, with uneven steps, which branches off to a rough-hewn chamber at a lower level. In the walls of this chamber there are six deep niches, all empty.

In conclusion, if this pyramid ever contained any original remains – mummy-wrappings, stone, pottery, or wooden objects and so on – then all evidence of them must have been removed very carefully. (Actually some coffin-boards inscribed with the name ‘MENKAURE’ were found within the pyramid but on examination these turned out to be part of an ‘intrusive-burial’ of late date).


Khafre east face
Khafre meridian cross section

The lowest course is composed of granite – originally finely polished. The plane of the passage-system of Khafre does not bisect the pyramid but is displaced some metres to the east of centre. This pyramid has two gabled chambers and two entrances – one in the north face 11.5 metres above pavement-level, and the other in the pavement just in front of the pyramid.

Upper descending passage looking north

The upper passage, of similar cross-section and angle of slope to the polar passages in the other two pyramids, is lined with granite along its whole length, including the lower portion which descends a few metres into the bedrock. At the end there is a single granite-leaved portcullis from which point begins a horizontal passage (in which a man can stand upright, as in the similar horizontal passage in Menkaure) which leads to the ‘tomb-chamber’, just north of the centre of the pyramid.

Portcullises in Khafre

The lower unlined entrance-passage descends from the pavement to a single portcullis. Then follows a horizontal section – in the middle of this, opposite a recess (similar to that found in many Egyptian tombs and which were cut to enable coffers to be turned in confined spaces), a short passage slopes down to the west and leads to an empty gabled chamber.

At the south end of the horizontal section an ascending passage, with the same cross-section as the entrance passage, leads up to join the long horizontal passage which leads to the tomb chamber. (All these lower passages were originally filled with limestone blocking, since removed, and the lower entrance was probably covered by the pyramid pavement).

Gabled roof blocks

The tomb-chamber of Khafre is cut almost entirely from bedrock with the exception of the gabled-roof, which is built of obliquely-laid blocks. The west side of this chamber lies just short of the centre of the pyramid – so that the whole passage and chamber system lies in the north-east quadrant of the pyramid . This has led some scholars to conclude that there was a ‘change of plan’ during the construction of this pyramid and that the pyramid was ‘enlarged’ towards the west. However, the passage system of Khufu is also displaced towards the east .

Khafre sarcophagus

At the western end of the ‘tomb-chamber’ there is an empty, roughly polished, granite sarcophagus partly sunk into the floor and with limestone blocks packed around it. This was originally sealed with a recessed-lid which is now broken into the two parts lying nearby. Near the top of both north and south chamber-walls may be seen small rectangular cavities. It has been suggested that these correspond to the narrow shafts similarly situated in the King’s Chamber of Khufu.

On the south wall of the chamber there is an inscription in Arabic (just visible through the numerous other graffiti that cover the walls) which records that ‘Mohammed the Master, the son of Achmed the stonemason’ first opened the pyramid in the presence of certain other persons. This forced entry may have been made in the Middle Ages when the outer casings of the pyramids were despoiled.


Khufu from the Great Wall

In the preceding accounts of the interior arrangements of Khafre and Menkaure attention was drawn to aspects of design and construction which are common to all three pyramids, but certain features of the design of Khufu are without architectural parallel. This pyramid was more carefully built than the other two and is also the only one to have been surveyed in great detail.

The pyramid entrance originally emerged in the north face, its floor at the level of the base of the nineteenth masonry course (12), and as in Khafre the plane of the passage system is east of centre. Within the core-masonry (and visible today because the casing is missing) are a series of massive gabled blocks above the entrance. Being near the surface of the pyramid the weight of superincumbent masonry above these blocks was negligible – they appear to signify the entrance to the pyramid and probably roofed a small antechamber at the beginning of the descending polar passage. According to the Roman writer Strabo there was a hinged stone ‘flap’ at the entrance. (Traces of such a hinged stone door are still visible today inside the lower entrance to the bent pyramid of Dashur). The descending passage, although of the same general angle and cross-section as in the other pyramids, has been constructed with much more care. The actual floor of the passage is formed by a sheet of limestone, passing beneath the walls of the passage, which goes down at the same angle until the passage pierces the bedrock (13).

This CAD model may help to visualise the rather complex system of passages and chambers within Khufu (as we presently know them) –

There are 3 major passages leading to 3 chambers – the Subterranean Chamber below, the gabled Queen’s chamber in the centre, and the King’s Chamber at the top with its complex ceiling. A ‘Well Shaft’ connects the bottom of the Descending Passage to the beginning of the large sloping Grand Gallery. From the 2 upper chambers small shafts lead off towards the surface of the pyramid.

The polar passage ends just a few metres north of the east-west plane of the pyramid and a short horizontal section of slightly smaller dimensions leads to a chamber hewn from the rock and called the ‘subterranean chamber’. The floor of this chamber is quite irregular – thought to be the consequence of abandoned work (14).

Some way before the descending passage pierces the bedrock, an ascending passage of the same cross-section branches upwards from it at a similar but opposite angle. The mouth of this passage (in the roof of the descending passage) is blocked by three granite ‘plug-blocks’ but a way has been forced around them – through the surrounding core-masonry (15). Proceeding upwards (16) another junction is reached where the ascending passage doubles in width and shoots up in height to form a vast corbelled-vault – the famous ‘Grand Gallery’. From this junction two other ways lead off.

The first is a horizontal passage which runs south below the Grand Gallery and ends in a gabled chamber called the ‘Queen’s Chamber’. The ridge of this chamber is exactly in the east-west plane of the pyramid. In the east wall there is a corbelled niche, while to the north and south, small shafts of rectangular cross-section extend upwards towards the surface of the pyramid. (These shafts did not originally pierce the chamber walls, the membranes of stone covering their positions having been broken through in modern times). (17) These shafts are not cut through the pyramid masonry but constructed with great care using stone-conduits and polgonal packing bocks. The north shaft has not been fully-explored, being obstructed by iron rods put there by vandals. The south shaft stops some 10 metres short of the surface of the pyramid. Some metres before the termination of the shaft the masonry becomes finely-worked and the exit is blocked by what appears to be a sliding portcullis block. (A laser probe passed beneath this block). Mounted on the surface of the block are a pair of copper (or possibly bronze) fixtures very much resembling characteristic Egyptian doorbolts. Obviously these features point to some special significance in this termination. A few years ago the block was drilled through to reveal another block.

The upper passages and chambers

The mouth of the horizontal passage (the ‘Queen’s Chamber Passage’) seems to have been covered by ‘bridging-slabs’ joining the ascending passage to the Grand Gallery since there are five holes in the passage walls at this point which may have been used for supporting beams (18).

Central passage junction

The second way leading from the junction is at the bottom of the Grand Gallery – an opening on the west leads to a vertical so-called ‘wellshaft’ whose lower part is winding and irregular, and which finds its exit in the lower end of the descending passage. Where this shaft pierces the bedrock an irregular cavity or ‘grotto’ has been excavated in a layer or pocket of conglomerate which exists at this point. This grotto contains a worked-granite block and the walls of the wellshaft where it passes through the conglomerate have been lined with limestone blocks (19). The purpose of the wellshaft is unknown. Some sections of it may have been used during construction and it has been suggested that it was further extended to allow ‘inspection access’. (Parts of the internal structure of the Great Pyramid were at some time ruptured, by an earthquake or some other cause – all the granite beams above the King’s Chamber are cracked through).

The walls of the Grand Gallery are formed by seven overlapping corbels, the top one of which is notched to receive 40 transverse roofing slabs. The masonry work here is superb and the stones are set parallel to the slope with hairline joints. Along the bottom of the walls and running the whole length of the Gallery there are ‘banquettes’. The floor of the Gallery ends in a ‘Great Step’, the face of which lies exactly in the east-west plane of the pyramid. In the top surfaces of the banquettes and Great Step there are 56 rectangular holes (One has been lost by the opening to the well-shaft). Above most of these holes there are inset stones and incised depressions in the Gallery walls – the arrangement will be clear from the illustrations (20). A shallow groove has been cut along the length of the middle corbel on both walls – this shows rough chisel marks along its top edges for the length of the gallery up to the Great Step. Some believe this groove had a practical function – supporting a ‘temporary floor’ to hold plugging blocks or the like, but the groove is far too shallow to provide any useful support. More likely this groove held something of value. All these features so far lack explanation, save for those who support the idea that the Grand Gallery had a constructional purpose (it can be viewed as an enormous internal ramp and a device for raising the particularly massive granite blocks used to construct the King’s Chamber complex; however this still leaves the problem of raising these blocks to form the ‘relieving’ chambers).

Chipping along the groove in the grand gallery
The Antechamber

At the top of the Gallery a small horizontal passage leads from the Great Step to an ‘Ante-Chamber’ faced with granite and cut with four vertical slots on both east and west walls. These slots originally held portcullis-slabs. The only one of these slots which actually holds granite slabs (or ‘leaves’) does not extend to the floor and so could never have functioned as a portcullis (21). At the centre of the upper granite ‘leaf’ a small projection has been left – some believe that this ‘granite boss’ is in some way symbolic and others that it was left to assist in moving the stone. The south wall of the Ante-Chamber is cut with four vertical grooves.

The King’s Chamber complex

From the Ante-Chamber a further short passage leads into the ‘King’s Chamber’ – a large rectangular room constructed entirely from red granite and containing an empty granite sarcophagus which once had a sliding lid like that in Khafre (the lid was secured by 3 locking dowels, the holes for which are still visible along the edge of the coffer). This coffer is too large to pass through the lower end of the Ascending Passage and so must have been ‘built-in’. The western part of the chamber is intersected by the north-south plane of the pyramid – the coffer has apparently been displaced but was probably positioned parallel to this plane.

The King’s chamber

In the side walls of the chamber small, rectangular shafts, similar to those in the Queen’s Chamber, lead upwards and outwards to the pyramid surface, and in doing so take a number of bends. When these shafts were cleared of debris, ventilation dramatically improved in the King’s Chamber, leading some to suggest that the shafts had been built for this purposes. These shafts were constructed in the same general manner as the passages – the blocks have been laid at the same angle as the line of the shaft, polygonal blocks then being placed to integrate the shaft within the horizontal pyramid masonry. Unlike the Queen’s Chamber shafts, the King’s Chamber shafts have probably always been open at their lower ends. The outer exit of the north shaft has been destroyed by later intrusive tunnelling. The south shaft was originally terminated by an iron plate built into the pyramid masonry. This plate appears not to be composed of meteoritic iron and may represent the earliest-known worked iron in Egypt.

Plans of passages and shafts

The King’s Chamber is roofed with massive granite beams and 19th century tunnelling revealed a succession of ‘construction’ chambers, built with such beams, above the King’s Chamber. The roof beams of all these chambers are laid north-south and so are supported on the north and south walls of the King’s Chamber below. (It is supposed by some that this was a practical device intended to relieve the stresses of settling – hence the name ‘relieving chambers’. If so the attempt was unsuccessful for all the beams have cracked (22)). More significant is the fact that the undersides of all these beams have been dressed flat, thus forming a series of five ‘ceilings’ to the chamber. In these ‘hidden’ chambers the stones retain their reference markings for building crews – marks which include the word KHUFU.

Principal chambers of Khufu

The Replica Passages

Replica passages in plan and section

100 metres to the east of Khufu an arrangement of passages has been cut into the rock – these are called ‘replica passages’ because of the very close similarity, particularly in dimensioning, to the passage-system of the pyramid (Petrie called them the ‘trial passages’ because he believed they had been cut for practice). Vyse and Perring thought that these passages were prepared as the substructure of an unfinished subsidiary of Khufu (35). The descending and ascending passages, the grand gallery, the Queens Chamber passage, and the well shaft are all represented ; even the narrowing of the ascending passage to hold the granite plug blocks is indicated.

Khufu and replica passages compared

The existence of these passages argues against a ‘change of plan’ in the building of GI, and study of passage alignments (by Lehner,1985) leads to the conclusion that passage-junctions in the main pyramid were planned at the outset of building because they line up with the replica passages. Today the passages are filled in but the visitor will be able to recognize the mouths of the ‘descending passage and grand gallery’ in the bedrock beside the causeway.

Khufu mortuary temple, causeway, and satellite pyramid. To the left the replica passages (R) and trench (T)

The Temples

It was Egyptian practice to provide an offering-chapel at the east side of a tomb facing the Nile, and so too at Giza each pyramid is flanked to the east by the remains of a ‘mortuary’ temple. These temples were not built against the faces of the pyramids but abutted enclosure or ‘peribolus’ walls which surrounded the pyramids. Access to the pyramid courts could therefore only be gained through the temples. These walls have vanished but their positions may be traced in a few places – particularly to the east of Khufu and to the west and south of Khafre. Various other ‘separating walls’ composed of rubble were constructed at Giza while beneath the sand to the west of Khafre are the remains of about 100 barrack-like store rooms. All these features are best seen in the early morning or evening when shadows are long (23).

The ‘barracks’ running north of Menkaure

The temples at Giza were built using very large blocks of local limestone without mortar. This ‘core-masonry’ was then faced with finer stone, often red granite. The roofs of temples were formed from slabs of stone (termed ‘architraves’) which have now mostly vanished. They were supported on monolithic beams and pillars, some of which still stand. Floors were generally paved with alabaster slabs, laid always in irregular patterns (but Khufu mortuary temple was paved with sawn basalt blocks). Although there is some evidence that some soft stone facings may have been decorated with reliefs, the style of the architecture was in general massive and severe.

Access to the mortuary temples was provided by long causeways that led up to them from ‘valley temples’ at their lower ends. Only the valley temple of Khafre still stands today – beside and in alignment with the temple in front of the famous Sphinx.

g2 causeway

Alongside the walls of some temples, and beside the peribolus walls of the pyramids are pits cut in the bedrock – these pits contained or represented boats.

Khufu Temple Complex

The mortuary temple of Khufu has all but disappeared and today’s visitor will be unable to trace the plan. The floor of this temple was composed of finely-sawn basalt but, since the ‘underflooring’ on which it was laid was of high quality limestone suitable for burning, it been partly ripped-up.

The plan of the temple (determined during excavation) is fairly simple – an open court was surrounded by square columns. At the rear of the temple and in line with the peribolus wall there is a large depression where an offering chapel is supposed to have stood. At the edge of this depression excavators found a deep hole which probably represents an unfinished late-period tomb (24).

The causeway of Khufu has vanished too but the visitor can follow the line of it to the edge of the plateau. Standing here, and looking out across the village of Nazlett-el-Samman and the plain beyond, it will be realised how large a structure it must have been before being dismantled. This ‘dismantling’ may not have taken place very long ago – Pococke, writing in 1743 (in Vyse 1840), remarks that in his time the causeway was ’20 feet in width and 1000 yards in length’ and turned to the ‘west’ and passed over two bridges. But was this the original causeway?

Goyon excavated the remains of the causeway at the foot of the plateau (confirming Herodotus’ statement that it had a width of 18.5 metres) and also excavated in the village and found what appeared to be the remains or foundation of the valley temple. This was 336 metres from the escarpment making the gradient of the causeway up to the edge of the plateau 1 in 10. Whether this really was the valley temple has not been confirmed but the estimate of gradient seems quite reasonable. From this it could be calculated that the causeway contained about 140,000 cubic metres of stone. This tends to bear out Herodotus’ assertion that the causeway was a splendid work, said to be decorated with reliefs along its length.

Perhaps the remains of the causeway were adapted by the Arabs and linked to their road network which would have made communications easier during the inundation. The original causeway runs eastward from the mortuary temple at an azimuth of just over 14° north of east – corresponding to an offset of 1 in 4. This is the same offset as Khafre causeway, except that in this case the azimuth is south of east. Civil works in the urbanisation now surrounding the plateau have chanced upon evidence showing that the line of Khufu causeway diverts to the northeast, and the possible remains of Khufu’s valley temple.

Khafre Temple Complex

The temple complex of Khafre is the most complete at Giza and is associated with the famous Sphinx. For millennia these monuments were buried in sand and debris but today these many-metre deep deposits have been removed and the visitor approaching Giza from the east, through the present day village, will see the temples laid out before him – much as did his ancient counterpart.

This complex comprises –

  • the mortuary temple immediately in front of the pyramid.
  • the causeway leading down to the valley.
  • the valley temple proper and
  • beside it the temple of the Sphinx and
  • behind this the famous Sphinx.

These temples were faced with granite inside but on the exteriors of the buildings only the first course of masonry was faced with granite like the pyramid. This desirable granite was later robbed wherever possible and what remains today in the valley temple probably owes its preservation to burial under the mounds of debris referred to above – by contrast the more exposed mortuary temple has been stripped almost clean.

The Temple of The Sphinx

Viewed from the east the Sphinx is fronted by two temples. Immediately in front of the monument is the temple of the Sphinx, flanked by Khafre valley temple. Both temples are in north/south alignment. The bedrock here was cut down so that temple floors lie at the lowest level of the plateau.

Sphinx temple looking south

The Sphinx temple has two symmetrically-disposed entrances. Entry to this temple is restricted but the arrangement of the interior may be seen by walking a little way up the road to the right of the Sphinx. The temple is constructed of large blocks of local limestone which was originally faced with granite. The main feature of this temple is a large open court (25) around which were probably displayed ten statues – the recesses cut into the bedrock to receive the bases are still visible. From the same point on the road will be noticed a doorway, directed towards the head of the Sphinx, which belongs to a later temple built by AMENHOTEP II. This small mudbrick structure is built partly on the remains of the Sphinx Temple, which for many years was covered by ancient sands,a platform, and flight of steps dating at least to Roman times and associated with a later ‘cult of the Sphinx’.

GII Valley Temple

Khafre valley temple

This temple stands to the south of the Sphinx Temple and is similar to it in size and in having two entrances. It is constructed of fairly large blocks of local limestone and still retains a number of granite casing stones along the eastern facade. Two of these, one north of each door, still bear traces of inscriptions (26).

By studying stone fragments it has been shown that the walls were not vertical but had a slope, or ‘batter’, of 1 in 7 and the wall-capping fragments that have been found mean that the original appearance of the temple can be reconstructed with a reasonable degree of certainty. The doors were probably of typical Egyptian form and about six metres high (the sockets for these are plainly visible) and each entrance was probably flanked by Sphinxes – fragments of these were found inside the temple and marks on the pavement suggest that they were about eight metres long.

This temple too must have spent a large part of its history buried under debris because New Kingdom houses were built beside and over it. This is one reason why the temple still retains its granite lining and because of this it is sometimes referred to as the ‘granite temple’. The temple had no open courts but was roofed over and complex ventilation slots were built into the edges of the roof with the apparent intention of excluding as much light as possible, rather as the narrow slit – running along the roofs of the causeways – permitted only an intense beam of sunlight to illuminate the reliefs which decorated causeway walls.

The monolithic granite columns and beams that supported the roof still stand and at the edge of the roof there are massive granite gutters protruding through the walls to carry off rainwater. Old kingdom Egypt was not free of flash floods and storms. The vestibule of this temple is accurately aligned north-south, the flanking walls casting no shadow at local noon.

Vestibule of Khafre valley temple

The floor of the temple is made up of a large number of alabaster slabs laid in a ‘crazy paving’ pattern. Under this paving, in the vestibule, a pit was found containing the famous diorite statue of KHAFRE now in the Cairo museum (27). From traces in the floor it can be surmised that 23 such statues were arranged around the hall of the temple which, in contrast to the open courts of the Sphinx Temple and GII Mortuary Temple, must have been a gloomy place. Even gloomier were the narrow blind corridors which are found in these temples and which scholars believe were either statue niches or storerooms.

Eastern end of Khafre causeway

The causeway leads off from the northwest corner of the temple at an azimuth of about 14° north of west (corresponding to an offset of 1 in 4) and leads up a gentle slope for almost 500 metres at a gradient of 1 in 11 before reaching the entrance to the mortuary temple. Today, apart from the remains of walls and paving stones near the exit from the valley temple, only bare rock remains. It may however be reasonably surmised (on the basis of evidence from other causeways) that not only was the causeway roofed but also pierced by a longitudinal slit along its length so that the sun would illuminate the reliefs which probably lined the interior walls (28).

Khafre Mortuary Temple

Khafre mortuary temple

Khafre Mortuary Temple is in a very ruined state – it occupies an exposed position and has been a natural target for stone robbers. It has nevertheless been possible to reconstruct the appearance of this temple and to show that it too was lined with granite. This temple was the largest at Giza and in its design displays a number of curious similarities with both the valley temple and temple of the Sphinx – the forepart, built with massive masonry, includes a columned-hall complex similar in design and proportions to that in the valley temple, and the central part contains a large open court flanked with 12 statue bases and similar in style and arrangement to the court of the temple of the Sphinx. To the rear of the temple there are a number of niches and corridors and an exit to the pyramid courtyard near the northwest corner, while flanking the temple there are four pits sculpted into the shapes of boats.

Khafre Mortuary temple combines the plans of both Valley and Sphinx temples into one monument. The Sphinx Temple was never finished externally (blocks intended for the walls still lie on the floor of the also abandoned Sphinx excavation) and its granite-lining was stripped at an early date (as shown by excavation). The building and demolition of this part of the complex was determined by factors of which we are so far ignorant.

The Sphinx

The Sphinx

The monument is 70 metres long and 20 metres high and was carved from the natural rock. This required excavating an ‘amphitheatre’ around the sculpture and it appears that, as part of this excavation, the lower and western parts of the two adjoining temples were cut at the same time. The rock from which the Sphinx is carved is layered – the head is cut from a harder stratum while the rock forming the body is softer and has weathered badly. The lower parts of the sides of the Sphinx, and the paws, are covered with stone blocks. Study of the Sphinx stonework (see Lehner, 1980) revealed that a layer of small blocks, most noticeable on the front paws, covers an older layer of large blocks. Some small blocks on the paws bear traces of red paint – as does the face of the monument.

The face of the Sphinx

The head of the Sphinx we see today has been repaired and surfaced with cement and the sides of the head-dress supported on added blocks. The damage to the face is said to have been caused some hundreds of years ago by a man ‘who wished to remedy religious matters’. The Sphinx wears a typical Egyptian head-dress and the pleats in this can still be seen. The head was carved from a hard knoll of rock but the body has eroded badly, being carved from softer strata. At Giza rocks are greatly variable in their erosion characteristics as a glance at the paving-stones in front of the entrance to Khufu will verify, and even the harder rocks have been eroded badly in certain situations, like the remaining casing stones on the west side of Khufu which have been subjected to low-level turbulent winds. (29).

Built against the south side of the Sphinx there is an offering chapel (30) while between the paws there is an altar of granite the superstructure of which has disappeared since excavation, and a large granite stela erected by THOTHMES IV of the XVIIIth dynasty. This stela, which is actually a re-used architrave from the GII valley temple, records the clearing of sand from the monument and represents the first evidence for the excavation of the Sphinx from the deep sand. The cult of the Sphinx was certainly not flourishing before this king’s reign. In addition to clearing the sand THOTHMES surrounded the monument with three mud-brick retaining walls spaced at 10 metre intervals. But the invading sands must have covered the monument many times in the succeeding centuries and Herodotus makes no mention of it.

A little to the northeast of the Sphinx are the remains of a temple erected by THOTHMES’ predecessor AMENHOTEP II. This temple was built partly upon the Old Kingdom Sphinx Temple which must have been completely hidden by sand at this time – and later in classical times, when the cult of the Sphinx flourished, the ancient temple was completely covered by a flight of steps.

The AMENHOTEP temple contained a limestone stela and numerous other stelae were found by excavators nearer to the Sphinx. Of 51 stelae bearing representations of the Sphinx 19 are damaged, crudely made, or lack detail. The remainder show the Sphinx on a pedestal and some stelae show doors in this pedestal. (One even shows the pyramids ‘in perspective’). This ‘pedestal’ is probably a representation of the Sphinx Temple. Since however this temple was buried at the time most of the stelae were inscribed, the scenes shown on them must be traditional copies of older representations. Some of the scenes show the Sphinx wearing a floral collar and head-dress and the hole in the Sphinx’s head could have held an attached crown. It is possible that collar and plumage were ‘added decorations’ in perishable materials which would at the same time have disguised the eroded state of the monument.

It is particularly noteworthy in these stela scenes that in almost every case the offerings to the Sphinx are vegetarian – flowers, fruit, etc. but never meat. This is peculiar considering that the Sphinx is essentially a lion, with the head of a man. Other hybrids are found in Egyptian art, for instance the griffon, and Sphinxes are known from other Asiatic cultures, but these are generally later in date than the Egyptian equivalents so we must return to Giza to consider the earliest known and by far the largest representation of this hybrid.

The Sphinx lies in a cut depression with the plateau rising on either side and, as Lehner has pointed out, when looking from the east towards the Sphinx flanked by the two great pyramids Khufu and Khafre at the moment of the midsummer sunset, the scene calls to mind the heiroglyph of ‘the horizon’ – the disc of the sun lying between two ‘hills’. This heiroglyph was sometimes shown supported on the backs of two lions who represented ‘today and tomorrow’. However in the pyramid age a different sign was used for ‘horizon’.

The heiroglyph of a lion had the consonantal value ‘R’ and was used in the Vth dynasty ‘pyramid texts’ to write the name ‘RUTI’, which some say refers to the Sphinx. We know that New Kingdom Egyptians called the Sphinx ‘HORAKHTY’ or ‘HOREMAKHET’ meaning ‘Horus who dwells in the horizon’ and sometimes this name was linked to the names of the sun-god in his different daily aspects – morning, midday, evening or ‘KHEPERE-RE-ATUM’. (This concept appears ultimately to have found its way into the Greek myth of Oedipus. In the famous riddle the Sphinx was said to have come from ‘Ethiopia’).

The Giza Sphinx is a lion and even in later Egypt was seldom the winged, often female, harpy-like creature of classical times. It is generally supposed that the face of the Sphinx is a portrait of KHAFRE and indeed the remaining inscription on the THOTHMES stela mentions ‘Khafre, the statue made for Atum-HoremAkhet’. However, the face of the Sphinx is no more similar to the surviving portrait-busts of Khafre than it is to Djedefre, Khufu’s successor. The most that can be said is that details of hair, eyes, and style of head covering are IVth dynasty forms.

The Sphinx at sunrise

Menkaure Temple Complex

Menkaure mortuary temple looking east

In the same way that two of the Menkaure subsidiary pyramids were not finished as ‘true’ pyramids but left as stepped structures so it would seem that the temples too were not finished as had been planned. The mortuary temple walls were constructed of the usual megalithic masonry and on these core-blocks may still be seen parallel, horizontal lines spaced one Royal cubit apart which may have been for the use of masons laying the casing. In fact only a few black granite casing stones were laid and the remains of this facing are best seen on the north side of the temple. The rest of the temple was cased in mud-brick and the narrow corridors were roofed with palm-logs. The floor of the temple was alabaster and the sunken-recesses for the individual paving slabs may be seen today.

Just to the north of the main pyramid can be seen the sub-structure of another small temple or chapel.

The causeway was built on a massive foundation of stone blocks (visible in an exposure some way down to the valley) but this too was finished in mud-brick. The valley temple was – in its original form – composed almost entirely of mud-brick (the foundations and several wall-courses are composed of limestone). This temple was built in a very vulnerable position on a shingle bank and part of the structure was undermined and washed away by water draining from the plateau. The temple was rebuilt and modified a number of times and at present lies covered by the drift sands of the desert, since its excavation half a century ago. Many interesting objects were found in this temple during excavation – stone vessels and pottery, maceheads and copper tools, pieces of furniture and personal possessions, sets of magical instruments used in mummification ceremonies and, most interestingly, many objects from earlier times – some of them bearing the cartouche of KHUFU. Also recovered was a rich haul of statuary, including the famous triads of MENKAURE.

It is generally thought that the Menkaure complex was finished in haste because the pyramid casing stones were undressed except for the small areas in the middle of each face, and the temples and causeway were finished in mud-brick. On the other hand it is difficult to understand why the pyramid and temple-wall core-blocks are some of the largest at Giza and provide a very firm foundation while the valley temple was intentionally sited in the worst possible place at the foot of the main Wadi.

The Boat Pits

Beside the eastern peribolus wall of Khufu, the causeway, and the mortuary temple (as well as beside some subsidiary tombs), there are pits cut into the bedrock. These pits contained, or represented, boats.

One of the two eastern boat pits of Khufu

In the religious mythology boats figured as metaphors for transport and it was in a ‘solar-barque’ that the sun god was said to make his journey, while both Osiris/Orion and Isis/Sirius are shown in their celestial boats. The boats of the Nile derive from reed floats and these are shown in pairs in heiroglyphic inscriptions. There were two solar barques – one for the day journey and one for the night.

In pictorial inscriptions the sun god might be represented as a man, a hawk’s head, or as the ‘eye of RE’ – the left eye in the day boat and the right eye in the night boat. Selim Hassan discusses a small pyramidion from the XIXth or XXth dynasty which illustrates these correspondences. The inscriptions on the four faces read as follows:

  • EAST – ‘RE at his rising’.
  • SOUTH – ‘KHEPERE who is in his boat, the great god’.
  • WEST – ‘RE the great god, who lives life as MAAT’ (‘truth’).
  • NORTH – ‘RE at his setting’.

As a consequence of these ideas the inner shrines of temples contained solar boats, tombs contained model boats, and at tomb sites boats were buried in boat pits (two such boats were recovered from the pyramid site at Dashur). Sometimes it was the pit itself that was sculpted to represent the form of a boat.

Some of the boat pits at Giza are very large – for example the pit south of Khufu mortuary temple is over 50 metres long and 7 metres wide. This pit was originally lined with limestone blocks. The similar pit north of the temple is now filled in but there is another open pit just beside the line of the causeway – in this pit Reisner discoverd cordage and pieces of gilded wood.

The boat pits of Khafre are interesting in that the ‘pairs are paired’ (recalling the paired pairs of doorways to valley and Sphinx temples) and each pair is arranged prow to prow – the western ‘pits in the form of boats’ are roofed with limestone slabs and correspond to the night boats while the eastern pits are not so well preserved – they correspond to the day boats and have always been open to the elements.

The boat pits of Menkaure may be under the debris still surrounding this monument. There is also a chance of finding another boat in association with the KHENT KAWES complex – the pit at the south west corner of this tomb was probably roofed (31) and would correspond to the night boat.

The hope of finding more pits and boats is quite reasonable – in 1954 two boat pits were discovered just to the south of GI. The boat from the pit to the east has been reassembled and is now in a prominent building near the pit. The western pit contains a similar dissembled boat but not so well preserved.

The east pit is 32.5 metres long and roofed with 40 limestone slabs each weighing 15 tons, the whole being sealed with liquid plaster. The boat, when re-assembled, measured 43.4 metres long with a beam of 5.9 metres. It was constructed from interlocking pieces of acacia and cedar wood tied together. This boat is now on display in a museum near the pit. The oars found with it appear far too heavy for actual use.

Khufu boat

The Necropolis

Around and among the pyramids there are ‘cemetery fields’ containing an estimated 200 rectangular tombs called mastabas. The first tombs belonged to the families of the kings and these were laid out in regular rows. Today the area is literally peppered with tombs, the result of many centuries during which tombs were built beside, between, and even into the original structures. In addition numerous tombs were cut into the rock-scarps to the east of each of the three pyramids and also into the sides of the cutting on the west side of GII. There are also shaft-tombs in the hills to the south of the necropolis.

Tombs cut into the quarry wall. The tomb of Khentkawes to the left

There are five principal cemetery fields:

  1. Western – west of Khufu. The nucleus cemetery was laid out in regular north-south rows. The field is bounded on the east and south by walls.
  2. Eastern – east of Khufu. This comprises somewhat larger tombs which once again were laid out in north-south rows.
  3. The row of tombs south of Khufu.
  4. The quarry area south east of Khafre.
  5. The quarry area south east of Menkaure.

Excavations have shown that sand invaded these cemetery fields quite soon after the end of the Old Kingdom.

A mastaba tomb

The essential form of tomb in the Egyptian Old Kingdom was the ‘Mastaba’ – an Arabic word meaning ‘bench’ which describes the shape of such a tomb rather well. Although the mastaba-tomb underwent many modifications (many of which can be seen at Giza) the essential structure was oblong, cased with limestone blocks, and filled with rubble. A square shaft (sometimes two) (32) descends vertically from the top of the mastaba and is lined with stone blocks where it passes through the body of the structure, and pierces the bedrock to end in a rectangular tomb-chamber lying to the south of the shaft. Most of these mastabas were robbed in antiquity but some contain remains, for example of food offerings, and occasionally wooden coffins.

Rows of mastabas to the west of Khufu

Against the eastern wall of the tomb, usually towards the south, there is built a chapel containing an offering-stela built into the eastern wall of the body of the structure. Sometimes this is of a ‘false-door’ form – at Giza it is often of the simpler ‘slab-stela’ form.

‘False door’ of KhufuAnkh

Some of the finer mastabas contain stone sarcophagi and so-called ‘reserve heads’ (busts of the tomb owner) facing the bottom of the tomb shaft, and the finest mastabas – for men like HEMIUNU and ANKHAF who were related to the king – include small chambers on their eastern sides which contained a bust or statue of the tomb owner (33). Who the owner was of the largest mastaba of all (G2000 in the Western cemetery) remains a mystery.

A form of tomb somewhat resembling the mastaba is exemplified by the tomb of KHENTKAWES which lies 250 metres southwest of the Sphinx. Like the latter, the core of this ‘pillow shaped’ structure (originally having the form of a type of Egyptian sarcophagus) has been carved from an isolated knoll of rock. Because of this tomb’s unusual form some scholars call it a pyramid – the base of the tomb being cut out from natural rock and the superstructure built of the usual megalithic masonry, and the chapel of the tomb (some call it a mortuary temple) cut out of the core of the base, while the short causeway and ‘pyramid city’ are one. At the same time the sub-structure resembles other rock tomb since the three rooms of the chapel lead directly to a tomb chamber. The entrance to the chapel is flanked by two jambs of red granite two metres high and inscribed with the names and titles of the Queen.

The rock-cut tombs all vary in size and arrangement, a two room plan being common. Sometimes figures of the tomb owner were carved into the back wall and two fine such examples can be seen in the VIth dynasty tombs of QAR and IDU just to the east of GIa in the eastern cemetery.

Figure in rock-cut tomb

Giza served as a cemetery until late times and some of these late period tombs were rather peculiar. One was excavated by Vyse and named by him ‘Campbell’s Tomb’ – it is about 100 metres southeast of GI and northwest of the Sphinx. A large shaft lined with masonry, measuring 8 by 9 metres, descends 16 metres into the plateau. At the bottom there was a free-standing chamber with the roof constructed as a true arch, and this chamber contained a stone sarcophagus and a burial. The shaft was filled with sand to foil tomb-robbers.

To date no undisturbed Old Kingdom burial has been found at Giza and finds of rich objects have been all but absent. The pyramids themselves were all empty except for a few later intrusive burials encountered in the course of excavation, and there does not exist even the smallest traces of the ‘mundane’ objects that would have accompanied the supposed original burials, and which could have held little interest for tomb-robbers.

Some excitement was therefore caused when the only ‘unplundered’ Old Kingdon tomb ever found at Giza was discovered east of GI. A 30 metre deep shaft, filled with limestone blocks, ended in a chamber containing the funerary equipment of Queen Hetepheres, including exquisite toilet objects, jewellery, and furniture – the quality displayed in these surviving IVth dynasty objects was not to be surpassed. The sarcophagus was empty (34).

Other Remains of interest at Giza

The temples of the pyramids (and also the ceremonial area to the east of the prominent tomb of Queen Khentkawes) display the remains of basins and drains which are thought to have been parts of what are called the ‘washing tents and embalming houses’ – the sites of mummification rituals. The remains of these structures at Giza are so fragmentary that it is impossible to say anything very definite about them – at each location their plans are different and some of these basins and drains appear to have been added as afterthoughts.

The embalming house of Khufu was north of the mortuary temple and appears to have been a structure supported on pillars with drains leading to the north and south.

The embalming house of Khafre was within the mortuary temple in the great court and a drain ran under the wall to a gully outside the temple. It is perhaps significant that, presumably to create the basin, large paving blocks were removed to form a recess in the floor.

In the case of the Menkaure mortuary temple the basin was just north of a peculiar raised gangway running through the centre of the court – there is a similar basin in the court of the temple abutting GIIIa. Northeast of Menkaure valley temple there was a mud-brick bench cut with drains.

Khentkawes had a court and basin to the northeast of the tomb.

Most authorities would associate the ‘washing tent’ with the valley temple and indeed there is a basin in the middle of the court of Menkaure valley temple with a drain leading to the west – but why is there nothing like this in either the grand valley temple of Khafre or the temple of the Sphinx? There are holes (for a tent?) in the terrace of the valley temple and a small drain and basin, but the temple itself clearly served a quite different function – some scholars see it simply as a large gateway. In sum it is unreasonable to conclude from this evidence that these basins and drains were definitely used for mummification ceremonies – at most we can only say that they served unknown ritual purposes.

The pyramid temples of Giza, like those at other sites, were endowed with land and bodies of priests were motivated to perpetuate offering-rituals by being granted what was in effect ‘tax-relief’. As a consequence there grew up to the east of each pyramid a ‘pyramid town’ where these priests and others lived. To the east of the Giza site a canal existed, running north-south (now overlain by the tourist arrangement). Its extension to the north is unknown (the area is occupied by the village of Nazlett-el-Samman (36) at the foot of the plateau). To the south the site is bounded by the Great wall. This massive structures is about 180 metres long and runs approximately east-west (37). Its width is 7.5 metres. Midway along the wall there is an opening or gate, 3 metres wide. Goyon suggested that this wall represents the southern limit of a ‘harbour’ linking the pyramid sites to a canal-network (38). In recent years excavations south of the great wall have revealed a small settlement. This has provided evidence of how the workers lived. Much more information is available on the AERA website.

The pyramid site was itself surrounded by large cemeteries and these were added to through the succeeding centuries. In later times Giza became a cult centre and a cult formed around HORAKHTY the Sphinx, and the remains of a Graeco-Roman town possibly linked with this cult can be seen to the southeast of Menkaure.


The Great Pyramid in particular is covered in graffiti and not even the granite of the King’s Chamber has deterred those wishing to leave their marks (they may be examined using slanted torch-light). Piazzi-Smyth showed that there are no graffiti of Roman date or earlier in the upper passages which means that these passages were probably not visited before Arab times. There is a very interesting graffiti cut into the ‘sign of the horizon’ above the entrance to GI in a kind of ‘quasi-Greek’. Perhaps the ultimate graffiti is that cut into the rock opposite the north face of Khafre by RAMESSES II. According to Hassan it reads :

‘The Builder of the Temple, ‘Ramses-shines-in-the-House-of-the-Prince’, May, the Justified, the son of the Director of Works, Bakenamon of Thebes.’

A similar but smaller inscription can be seen in the rock opposite the west face of Khafre :

‘The Director of the Works of the House of RE, May.’

New Discoveries

Statue shrine

Some metres to the west of the remains of the small subsidiary pyramid GIIa, a small passage was discovered cut into the bedrock and filled with limestone plug-blocks. When these were removed a dismantled, and apparently ‘ceremonially-broken’, wooden statue-canopy was discovered. Recalling the discovery of the Khufu boat pits and remembering that parts of Giza have never been cleaned or excavated, it is likely that there are further finds to be made.

Recently clearance of the rubble at the south east corner of Khufu revealed the remains of a pyramid, the smallest at Giza, of unknown significance. Another important discovery was made at Wadi al Jarf on the Red Sea – papyrii from the time of Khafre tallying the transport of building blocks to Giza.

Some of the modern geophysical techniques which can be adapted to archaeology and used in this search include – aerial photography including the use of stereo pairs and infra-red, ground-penetrating radar, seismic sounding, electrical resistivity measurement, microgravimetry, high-resolution magnetometry, metal detection, induction probing, and the use of borehole probes and ‘downhole television’. Some of these have been tried out at Giza and a number of anomalies found using the resistivity and seismic techniques. While some of these anomalies correspond to known remains (tomb-chambers and the like), and others appear to be caused by natural geological features, some still await ‘ground truth confirmation’. These are some of the discoveries which have been made :

  • Sphinx – a possible tunnel aligned northwest/southeast under the rear paws, a possible vertical shaft at the middle of the south side, and two anomalies in front of the monument at a depth of ten metres.
  • Khafre – anomalies at a depth of five metres at the northwest corner, and at the southeast corner similar anomalies plus deeper ones at 14 and 50 metres. There also appears to be a tunnel which passes under the centre of the east face. Inside the pyramid there is an anomaly below the horizontal passage, and large cavities 21 and 33 metres below the central chamber as well as to the north of this chamber.
  • Khufu – a void between the King’s and Queen’s chamber at about the level of the 35th course. In addition the most recent investigations point to a cavity behind the back-wall of the Queen’s Chamber and a tunnel extending below the east side of the pyramid.

French (1986) and Japanese (1987) teams have used such methods to probe for cavities. The French reported cavities on the west side of the Queen’s Chamber passage, while the Japanese reported a cavity in the same general area. The Japanese also report cavities around the base of the Sphinx.

The most striking discovery was that made by Gantenbrink in 1993, at the termination of the south shaft of the Queen’s Chamber – a block bearing two copper rings rather like the Egyptian depiction of door bolts. Subsequently a similar block was found terminating the north shaft but of poorer quality limestone. Subsequently the lower shafts were resurveyed using a different robot but no useful survey results have yet been published (see ‘Astronomy’ pages).

Heit-el-Ghurab. This is the name of settlement built to the south of the Great Wall (sometimes called ‘the worker’s town’, or hyped up as ‘The Lost City of the Pyramid Builders’). It appears to have been an administrative centre housing architects and craftsmen.
Reports of ongoing work here may be found online at Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) –

This settlement was sited in a bad place at the lowest part of the plateau, below the main wadi, and was repeatedly destroyed by flash floods during the reigns of Khafre and Menkaure, particularly the latter. The situation is not dissimilar at Menkaure valley temple, discussed here –

Rather more recently a sensation was caused by the announcement that a cavity of some kind had been detected above The Grand Gallery – a hidden chamber? a relieving system above the Grand Gallery? a spurious result? We must wait and see.


(1) Davidovits (1986) claims that samples of GI pyramid casing blocks are less dense than samples of Giza bedrock. He believes that these blocks were moulded from crushed rock, as a form of cold-setting ‘concrete’, thus eliminating problems of moving large masses. In order to account for the unusual assemblage of trace elements in casing-stone material it is suggested that this material did not come from Tura but from an ‘unknown’ quarry. Alternatively it was the ‘binder’ (for the crushed stone) which was taken from many different places in Egypt.

I have examined the remaining casing carefully and in one place where the underside of a casing block is visible (where the pavement has been removed) fine striations can be seen, suggesting that this was a worked surface. The blocks of granite were the heaviest stones in the pyramids and these were certainly lifted into place. The stones of the Grand Gallery, in even closer contact, would presumably also be made of ‘concrete’. It is difficult to understand why the Egyptians would have used this ‘concrete’ on such a limited scale for they certainly used vast quantities of cut stone.

Exploration of the vast Tura caves only began in World War II when they were used as an arms dump.

(2) In Egyptological writings the word ‘alabaster’ is used to refer to calcite or very fine limestone, and the ‘basalt’ is more of a dolerite. For statuary at Giza diorite and schist or ‘greywacke’ were used (the latter is sometimes referred to as ‘basalt’). A small quantity of dark-grey granite is associated with the red, also from Aswan.

(3) Excavations have shown that sand invaded the Giza cemeteries at the end of the Old Kingdom. The climate was therefore different before this time.

(4) To gain some idea what Giza was like in the past it is necessary to study the ancient authors. Accounts of classical authors are collected in Greaves (1736). Vyse (1840) gives the accounts of Arab and European writers. (Pochan (1971) gives a good selection of these).

(5) Borescope examination by the 1977 SRI team showed that foundation blocks are 3 metres thick (see Lambert, 1977). Some stones were even larger – Hassan mentions one stone which measures 6 metres by 5 metres and is 5 metres deep.

(6) Menkaure is still surrounded by piles of debris but where the edge of the casing is visible it appears that the pavement was never fitted and the ‘foot’ of the granite casing blocks has been left in the rough. There is nevertheless a clear intention to fit the pavement to the casing.

(7) The visitor may notice this ‘hollowing’ when the sun is due east or west. Clarke and Engelbach (1930) say (p.128) – ‘a large depression in the packing blocks runs down the middle of each face, implying a line of extra thick casing here’. On the contrary, aerial photographs appear to show the face of the core blocks bisected into two planes.

Pochan thought that the reason that the entrance to Khufu was offset was to prevent rainwater pouring into the descending passage – he assumed that the hollowing would have acted as an enormous drain. But the core-masonry faces of Menkaure also appear to be ‘hollow’ and here the entrance is in the middle of the north face, while the casing of Khafre appears to be flat yet here the entrance is offset.

Others suggest that the hollowing was a device to signal the equinoxes. Something like this:

Hypothetical use of hollowing to indicate

– however it seems the hollowing did not extend to the outer casing. If it had classical authors would surely have commented upon such a singular phenomenon.

(8) The line of the junction of the upper and lower parts of the casing of the ‘bent’ pyramid of Dashur is not straight but slightly curved, therefore the faces are slightly convex – Lauer (1974). Some authors believe that each face of Khufu had a slightly different slope – given the assymetric plan of the pyramid base this would of course be the case if the pyramid faces met in a point. More likely these very small discrepancies can be attributed to laying out errors.

(9) The face of the Sphinx was also painted red. Pochan (1971) quotes Pliny (book 36:58) – ‘Maltha is prepared from freshly calcined lime, a lump of which is slaked in wine and then pounded together with pork fat and figs, both of which are softening agents. Maltha is the most adhesive of substances and grows harder than stone. Anything that is treated with it is first rubbed thoroughly with olive oil’. Davidovits (1986) recently analysed the red coating found on casing blocks and claims that it is undoubtedly a man-made material (what he calls a ‘geopolymer’).

(10) AbdAllatif (born 557 AH), the most sober of the Arab authors, states positively that the two large pyramids were covered in inscriptions. He says that in his account he confines himself to what he himself has seen. William de Baldensel, travelling in the early XIVth century, reports that he saw inscriptions. This was about the time when the major depredations were taking place.

(11) The size and position of the tomb chamber within the subsidiaries does however vary. GIIa is due south of GII and GIIIa is due south of GIII and both have ‘T-shaped’ passage plans – perhaps this is significant?

(12) Today the visitor enters through the forced-tunnel known as ‘Al Mamun’s hole’ – this caliph having first forced open the pyramid according to Arab authors.

(13) Some of the fissures in the bedrock visible in the walls of the descending passage are large enough to contain a man.

(14) This chamber is preceded by a small ‘ante-chamber’ the ceiling of which is quite irregular. Clarke and Engelbach (1930) say (p.195) – ‘in Egypt such unfinished work is constantly encountered, especially in tombs, and is most difficult to explain satisfactorily’. This unfinished work is often explained as being due to the premature death of the tomb owner but at Giza the usual explanation is ‘change of plan’.

(15) Some writers would have these plug-blocks ‘slid’ down the ascending passage from the Grand Gallery above. Tompkins (1973) provides a comprehensive and entertaining account of the various theories. The mouth of the passage is smaller than the dimensions of the blocks.

(16) The ascending passage is cut through monolithic blocks spaced at intervals of 10 Royal cubits (5.24 metres). Some authors believe that these blocks indicate the positions of internal ‘buttress walls’, like those to be seen in the ruined pyramid of Meidum – but the blocks forming these ‘retaining walls’ could hardly be more massive than those comprising the core-masonry.

Of the arguments which show that these so-called ‘girdle blocks’ are not merely the outer faces or ‘accretion faces’ of a succession of ‘towers’ we should mention that the number of such faces would have been much higher than in any other pyramid built in this way, and then the rising joints are vertical whereas all other known examples of accretion faces have an outside slope or batter. The present forced entrance to the pyramid, ‘Al Mamun’s hole’, reveals no such walls.

(17) The limestone at Giza contains salt. I noticed on a site visit (before the recent cleaning) that the walls of the Queen’s Chamber appeared to be particularly thickly-encrusted.

(18) These bridging slabs would have had to be very thin yet support the weight of plug blocks which some believe were stored in the Grand Gallery until allowed to slide down to block the Ascending Passage after the exit of an imagined funeral cortege. I believe that the bridging slab is part of the ‘suite of blockings’ symbolically isolating the Queen’s Chamber and its shafts.It should be noticed from the illustration that one of the holes is not cut at the passage slope-angle (?).

(19) The modern tendency has been to consider that the Well shaft was built as an afterthought, a means of providing air to the workers excavating the subterranean chamber, and so it is often referred to as the ‘service-shaft’.

Only two sections of the wellshaft were constructed in masonry:

  • a shaft in the bedrock (which, because the core of the pyramid is terraced, is 7 metres higher than the pyramid pavement) and a short built section above this. Leading off from this is the famous ‘Grotto’ – a rough excavation in a ferruginous pocket above the bedrock.
  • a short section built into the masonry just to the west of the ascending passage/Grand Gallery junction.

The remainder of the wellshaft was made later through the intervening masonry and rock. Lehner (1985) showed that since the built sections align with passage junctions in both the main pyramid and replica passages the whole passage system was probably planned from the start (which is of course confirmed by the geometry). He believes that these shafts were used during construction to check the positions of passage junctions. Some scholars suggest that the wellshaft is an ‘afterthought’ – it was perhaps created (making use of the existing built sections) to allow inspection access to the upper passages, perhaps after an earthquake.

(20) There are 28 holes or ‘slots’ on each side (including one pair in the Great Step) of which the one at the bottom of the gallery, to the west, has been broken away to form the wellshaft opening. All except the lowest two pairs and the two in the Great Step have a stone ‘plaque’ let into the wall of the Gallery immediately above the slot. Of the 25 remaining pairs the third pair from the north do not have transverse ‘depressions’ above them. 

Lepre (1990) reports that all the inset stones on the east wall bar the 26th are slightly slanted; on the west wall all are vertical except the 13th which is slanted. The north faces of the slots are perpendicular to the slope but the south faces are vertical. Going up the Gallery the slots are alternately ‘long’ and ‘short’, their lengths averaging 59 centimetres and 52 centimetres (so that a long slot equals the diagonal of a double square of side one cubit, or one short slot). These slots are rather roughly cut out and are about 14 centimetres wide and 18 centimetres deep. Pochan mentions the signs of hammering activity above the slots.

Particularly noticeable are the signs of frenzied activity along the whole length of the shallow groove running just above the third corbel – something has been chiselled out.

(21) The slots extend below the floor and the slots in the western wall have roughly semi-circular rebates cut out at the top. Some have speculated that there was a triple portcullis here with ropes passing over ‘tree trunks’ lodged in the rebates. According to Lepre (1990) four pieces of granite have been found in the pyramid (on a ledge in the pit in the subterranean chamber, at the bottom of the descending passage, in the grotto, and outside the pyramid on the 13th course). The dimensions and shapes of these blocks suggest that they are fragments of the missing portcullises.

(22) As well as cracking and tearing out the roof beams the stones of the whole chamber have been dislodged by small amounts, as if by an earthquake.

(23) These rooms had walls of rough stone and floors of mud-plaster. Each measured approximately 27 m long, 3 m wide, and was 2 m high, with vaulted roofs and no windows. Because there was no settlement debris (ash, bones, debris, and so forth), and because many small fragments of hard stone and flint tools littered the area, Lehner concluded that the rooms had been associated with craft production.

(24) At the back of the temple two large bays were indicated by recesses but otherwise there was little for the excavators to go on in reconstructing the temple. Of the granite pillars, only the lower end of the one in the southeast corner was found still to be in place.

(25) Ricke (1970) says that the court was widened beyond the line of columns in a second building stage.

(26) The remaining inscriptions north of the north door read ‘Beloved of Bastet, living forever’ and north of the south door ‘Beloved of Hathor’. Bastet was associated with the Old Kingdom site of Tel Basta in the delta. Hathor, often included in the titles of women buried in the Giza plateau, was associated with Denderah in Upper Egypt. From this it can be concluded that the two entrances related to the Two Lands of Egypt.

(27) The statue was upside-down and the pit in which it was found has not been scientifically investigated. Diorite is a very tough rock (it was used for tools) and the missing left knee is hardly likely to be the accidental result of damage in transit, more probably it was removed by an intentional heavy blow. Fragments of smaller statues of KHAFRE were found in the temple and also some grey granite baboons which represented THOTH.

(28) The story of a door and tunnel leading from the Sphinx and leading up to the pyramid of Khafre, repeated in mystical works and drawn from accounts by Arab authors, is probably based on a lingering memory of the roofed causeway.

(29) J.A. West, following up a suggestion made by R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, has recently enlisted the aid of R. Schock, a geologist, to investigate the contention that the weathering seen on the body of the Sphinx (and on the sides of the Sphinx excavation) is the result of water runoff, and not wind erosion. Giza was certainly wetter 4500 years ago (Massive granite gutters emerge from nearby temple walls), and post-glacial rainfall seems to have declined around 2000 BC. West believes that a much longer period of time would need to elapse to account for the extent of the weathering and this has been seized upon by those anxious to prove that the Sphinx dates back to fabled Atlantis. However other geologists contend Schock’s findings and dating, pointing to salt weathering as the major factor. Besides, blocks extracted while carving the Sphinx were used to build the temple in front of the monument, in a style is similar to the other temples at Giza

(30) The XXIst dynasty ‘Inventory Stela’ describes how Khufu ordered a temple built alongside the Sphinx thus implying that the Sphinx was already old in Khufu’s time.

(31) The boat pit roofing slabs bear the name of Djedefre the successor of Khufu.

(32) The majority of the large tombs at Giza contain ‘false shafts’ which were perhaps intended for the ‘spiritual bodies’.

(33) The largest mastabas were assigned to the family of KHUFU. Hasan (1960, vol.X) reports that buried in mastabas in the Eastern Cemetery were KAWAB, son or grandson; HORDEDEF, another son; KHNUMBAEF, son or grandson; Queen MERESANKH II, daughter; Queen MERESANKH III, grand-daughter; SEKHEMANKH, DEDEFMIN, KHAEFMIN, HORBAEF, and KAEMSEKHEM, sons; Queen MERTET-TEFES, wife of SNEFERU and KHUFU (and possibly the latter’s sister); and various officials including ANKHAF who was a vizier Khufu or Khafre

In the Western Cemetery were buried HEMIUNU another vizier, either the brother or uncle of KHUFU; MERIB, a son; and Princess NEN-SEDR-KA, a grand-daughter. There are also many tombs of royal ladies, officials, and priests. It is not known who was buried in the largest mastaba of all – in the northwest corner of this cemetery.

As to the satellite pyramids of Khufu the northernmost is ascribed to Queen MERITITOTES, the centre to Prince HOTPHERES, and the southernmost to Queen HENUTSEN. It must be said that IVth dynasty relations remain confused – DJEDEFRE reigned between KHUFU and KHAFRE, then another king (KHNEMKA?) between KHAFRE and MENKAURE. Yet KHAFRE appears to be KHUFU’s brother, because texts cite MENKAURE as declaring them as brother and uncle.

(34) It was originally thought that the HETEPHERES material represents a hasty reburial of material from a plundered tomb. Lehner (1985) shows that this is unlikely and that the shaft occupies the position of the entrance chapel to a planned subsidiary pyramid (represented by an abandoned shaft cutting). He believes that the Queen’s body was removed and buried with new tomb furniture in a relocated subsidiary. What appears to be a small pyramid ascribed to Hetepheres was discovered in 1984 by a Czech expedition working at Abusir.

(35) Vyse and Perring (1840) thought that these passages represent the first stages in the construction of a subsidiary pyramid. Lehner (1985) believes that a subsidiary was planned similar in size to the existing GI subsidiaries, with a base measuring 89 Royal cubits (the ‘ascending passage’ in the replica is approximately one fifth the length of its counterpart in GI). In order to explain why this subsidiary was abandoned Lehner speculates that the Eastern Cemetery and GI Mortuary Temple were planned after work on the pyramids had begun and that there was no longer room for it.

Whether this is true or not there are some interesting points of correspondence between the replica passages and GI. Parallel to the passages a trench has been cut in the bedrock and in north/south alignment with the existing GI subsidiaries. The distance between the trench and the passages is 7.055 metres which is comparable to the displacement of the passages in the main pyramid. In fact the replica passages are in east/west alignment with the passages in the main pyramid, taking as reference point the beginning of the Grand Gallery. Lehner further notes that the northern limit of the Eastern cemetery passes through the shaft tomb of HETEPHERES and this limit moreover is a projection of the east/west axis of the King’s Chamber inside GI. There exists a precedent for layout based on ‘zones’ and ‘axes’ – in the ZOSER step pyramid complex the burial chamber in the subsidiary mastaba is in line with the burial chamber in the main pyramid.

(36) The name of the village is sometimes spelt ‘Nazzlit-es-Semman’ (In classical times it was called ‘Busiris’). The village was named after a Sufi Sheikh who lived in a nearby ancient tomb, and whose name was Hamad Al Samman. Once a year collective marriages are celebrated in his honour.

(37) The living quarters for the site workers were probably situated to the south of the Great Wall – traces of habitation were discovered here by Hassan and later by Kramer and more recently a small town was revealed. Details may be found in a series of reports on the AERA website.

(38) In 1980 core-drillings were made some tens of metres to the east of the Sphinx temple and a 15 metre ‘drop’ in the bedrock was discovered. I have also been told that an Egyptian water-survey team sunk boreholes in front of the Sphinx temple to determine the depth of the bedrock surface and at a depth of 16 metres struck red granite. These preliminary results suggest that the harbour was deep and capable of accomodating heavily-laden barges.