Khufu, or Cheops, was an ancient Egyptian monarch who was the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty in the first half of the Old Kingdom period (26th century BC). Khufu succeeded his father, Sneferu as king. He is generally accepted as having commissioned the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Still, many other aspects of his reign are poorly documented.
The only completely preserved portrait of the king is a three-inch high ivory figurine found in a temple ruin of a later period at Abydos in 1903. All other reliefs and statues were found in fragments, and many buildings of Khufu were lost. Everything known about Khufu comes from inscriptions in his necropolis at Giza and later documents. For example, Khufu is the main character noted in the Westcar Papyrus from the 13th dynasty.
Most documents that mention king Khufu were written by ancient Egyptian and Greek historians around 300 BC. Pharaoh’s obituary is presented in a conflicting way. While the king enjoyed long-lasting cultural heritage preservation during the period of the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom, the ancient historians Manetho, Diodorus and Herodotus hand down a very negative depiction of Khufu’s character. Thanks to these documents, an obscure and critical picture of the pharaoh’s personality persists.
Khufu’s name was dedicated to the god Khnum, which might point to an increase in Khnum’s popularity and religious importance. Several royal and religious titles introduced at this time may point out that Egyptian pharaohs sought to accentuate their divine origin and status by dedicating their official cartouche names to specific deities. Khufu may have viewed himself as a divine creator, a role already given to Khnum, the god of creation and growth. As a consequence, the king connected Khnum’s name with his own. Pharaoh’s full name (Khnum-Khufu) means “Khnum protect me”. While modern Egyptological pronunciation renders his name as Khufu, at the time of his reign, his name was probably pronounced as Kha(w)yafwi(y), and during the Hellenized era, Khewaf(w).
The pharaoh officially used two versions of his birth name: Khnum-khuf and Khufu. The first (complete) version exhibits Khufu’s religious loyalty to Khnum, but the second (shorter) version does not. It is unknown why the king would use a shortened name version since it hides the name of Khnum and the king’s name connection to this god. It might be possible, though, that the short title was not meant to be connected to any god at all.
Khufu is well-known under his Hellenized name Χέοψ, Khéops or Cheops (/ˈkiːɒps/, KEE-ops, by Diodorus and Herodotus) and less well-known under another Hellenized name, Σοῦφις, Súphis (/ˈsuːfɪs/, SOO-fis, by Manetho). A rare version of the name of the pharaoh, used by Josephus, is Σόφε, Sofe (/ˈsɒfi/, SOF-ee). Arab historians, who wrote mystic stories about Khufu and the Giza pyramids, called him Saurid (Arabic: سوريد) or Salhuk (سلهوق).
Egyptologists believe Sneferu was Khufu’s father, but only because later historians revealed that the eldest son or a selected descendant would inherit the throne. In 1925 the tomb of queen Hetepheres I, G 7000x, was found east of Khufu’s pyramid. It contained many precious grave goods, and several inscriptions give her the title Mut-nesut (meaning “mother of a king”), together with the name of king Sneferu. Therefore, it seemed clear at first that Hetepheres was the wife of Sneferu and that they were Khufu’s parents. More recently, however, some have doubted this theory because Hetepheres is not known to have borne the title Hemet-nesut (meaning “king’s wife”), a title indispensable to confirm a queen’s royal status. Instead of the spouse’s title, Hetepheres bore only the title Sat-netjer-khetef (verbatim: “daughter of his divine body”; symbolically: “king’s bodily daughter”), a title mentioned for the first time. As a result, researchers now think Khufu may not have been Sneferu‘s biological son but that Sneferu legitimised Khufu’s rank and familial position by marriage. Khufu’s new status was secured by apotheosising his mother as the daughter of a living god. The circumstance may support this theory that Khufu’s mother was buried close to her son and not in the necropolis of her husband, as was to be expected.
The following list presents family members who can be assigned to Khufu with certainty.
- Sneferu: Most possibly his father, maybe just stepfather. Famous pharaoh and builder of three pyramids.
- Hetepheres I: Most possibly his mother. Wife of king Sneferu and well known for her precious grave goods found at Giza.
- Meritites I: First wife of Khufu.
- Henutsen: Second wife of Khufu. She is mentioned on the famous Inventory Stela.
- Brothers and Sisters:
- Hetepheres: Wife of Ankhhaf.
- Ankhhaf: The eldest brother. His nephew would later become pharaoh Khafra.
- Nefermaat: Half-brother; buried at Meidum, and owner of the famous “mastaba of the geese”.
- Rahotep: Elder brother or half-brother. Owner of a life-size double statue portraying him and his wife Nofret, displayed in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo.
Sons of Khufu:
- Kawab: Most possibly the eldest son and crown prince, he died before Khufu’s end of the reign and thus did not follow Khufu on the throne.
- Djedefra: Also known as Radjedef and Ratoises. Became the first throne successor.
- Khafre: Most possibly second throne successor.
- Djedefhor: Also known as Hordjedef, mentioned in Papyrus Westcar.
- Baufra: Possibly a son of Khufu, but neither archaeologically nor contemporarily attested and only known from two much later documents.
- Babaef I: Also known as Khnum-baef I.
- Khufukhaf I: Also known as Kaefkhufu I.
- Minkhaf I.
- Nefertiabet: Known for her beautiful slab stelae.
- Hetepheres II: Wife of prince Kawab, later married to pharaoh Djedefra.
- Meresankh II.
- Meritites II: Married to Akhethotep.
- Khamerernebty I: Wife of king Khafra and mother of Menkaura.
- Duaenhor: Son of Kawab and possibly eldest grandchild.
- Kaemsekhem: Second son of Kawab.
- Mindjedef: Also known as Djedefmin.
- Djaty: Son of Horbaef.
- Iunmin I: Son of Khafre.
Nephews and nieces:
- Hemiunu: Director of the building of Khufu’s great pyramid.
- Nefertkau III: Daughter of Meresankh II.
- Djedi: Son of Rahotep and Nofret
- Itu: Son of Rahotep and Nofret
- Neferkau: Son of Rahotep and Nofret
- Mereret: Daughter of Rahotep and Nofret
- Nedjemib: Daughter of Rahotep and Nofret
- Sethtet: Daughter of Rahotep and Nofret
It is still unclear how long Khufu ruled over Egypt because historically, later documents contradict each other, and contemporary sources are scarce. However, the Royal Canon of Turin from the 19th Dynasty gives 23 years of rulership for Khufu. The ancient historian Herodotus gives 50 years, and the ancient historian Manetho even credits him with 63 years of reign. These figures are now considered an exaggeration or a misinterpretation of antiquated sources.
Sources contemporary to Khufu’s time give three vital pieces of information: One of them was found at the Dakhla Oasis in the Libyan Desert. Khufu’s serekh name is carved in a rock inscription reporting the “Mefat-travelling in the year after the 13th cattle count under Hor-Medjedu”. The second source can be found in the relieving chambers inside Khufu’s pyramid above the burial chamber. One of these inscriptions, according to Flinders Petrie, mentions a workmen’s crew named “friends of Khufu” alongside the note “in the year of the 17th cattle count”, but it is questioned if the number of years points to a biennial cattle count, or if the number must be taken verbatim. Though Zahi Hawass has reported locating the inscription of the date given by Petrie, there is also some debate whether Petrie may have mistakenly relied on other sources as the inscription has not yet been found. However, new evidence from Wadi al-Jarf gives a third clue about the proper length of reign: Several papyrus fragments contain handwritten reports from a royal harbour at modern-day Wadi al-Jarf. The inscriptions describe the arrival of royal boats with precious ore and turquoise in the “year after the 13th cattle count under Hor-Medjedw”. Therefore, Khufu’s highest known and specific preserved date are the “Year after the 13th cattle count”.
The cattle count as an economic event that served the tax collection in Egypt. To solve the riddle around Khufu’s actual length of rulership, modern Egyptologists point to Sneferu’s reign, when the cattle count was held every second year of a king’s rulership. A newer evaluation of contemporary documents and the Palermo stone inscription strengthens the theory that the cattle count under Khufu was performed biennially, not annually, as previously thought.
Egyptologists such as Thomas Schneider, Michael Haase, and Rainer Stadelmann wonder if the Turin Canon compiler accounted for the cattle count performed biennially during the first half of the Old Kingdom period, whilst tax collection during the 19th Dynasty was held every year. In sum, these documents would prove that Khufu ruled for at least 26 or 27 years and possibly over 34 years if the inscription in the relieving chambers points to a biennial cattle count. Indeed, if the Turin Canon compiler did not consider a biennial cattle count, it could even mean that Khufu ruled for 46 years.
There are only a few hints about Khufu’s political activities within and outside Egypt. Within Egypt, Khufu is documented in several building inscriptions and statues. Khufu’s name appears in inscriptions at Elkab and Elephantine and in local quarries at Hatnub and Wadi Hammamat. At Saqqara, two terracotta figures of the goddess Bastet were found, on which, at their bases, the Horus name of Khufu is incised. They were deposited at Saqqara during the Middle Kingdom, but their creation can be dated back to Khufu’s reign.
A rock inscription at Wadi Maghareh in the Sinai depicts Khufu with the double crown. Khufu sent several expeditions in an attempt to find turquoise and copper mines. Like other kings, Sekhemkhet, Sneferu and Sahure, depicted in impressive reliefs, he was looking for those two precious materials. Khufu also entertained contacts with Byblos. He sent several expeditions to Byblos in an attempt to trade copper tools and weapons for precious Lebanon cedar wood. This kind of wood was essential for building large and stable funerary boats; indeed, the boats discovered at the Great Pyramid were made of it.
New evidence regarding political activities under Khufu’s reign has recently been found at the site of the ancient port of Wadi al-Jarf on the Red Sea coast in the east of Egypt. The first traces of such a harbour were excavated in 1823 by John Gardner Wilkinson and James Burton, but the site was quickly abandoned and then forgotten over time. In 1954, French scholars François Bissey and René Chabot-Morisseau re-excavated the harbour, but their works were ended by the Suez Crisis in 1956. In June 2011, an archaeological team led by French Egyptologists Pierre Tallet and Gregory Marouard, organised by the French Institute of Oriental Archeology (IFAO), restarted work at the site. Among other material, a collection of hundreds of papyrus fragments were found in 2013, dating back 4500 years. The Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass called this ancient papyrus “the greatest discovery in Egypt in the 21st century.” The papyrus is currently exhibited at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Ten of these papyri are very well preserved. These papyri are the earliest examples of imprinted papyri ever found in Egypt. Most of these documents date to the 27th year of Khufu’s reign and describe how the central administration sent food and supplies to the sailors and wharf workers. The dating of these important documents is secured by phrases typical for the Old Kingdom period, as well as the fact that the letters are addressed to the king himself, using his Horus name. This was typical when the king in question was still alive; when the ruler was dead, he was addressed by his cartouche name or birth name. One document is of particular interest: the diary of Merer, an official involved in building the Great Pyramid. Using the journal, researchers could reconstruct three months of his life, providing new insight into the everyday lives of the people of the Fourth Dynasty. Another inscription, located on the limestone walls of the harbour, mentions the head of the royal scribes controlling the exchange of goods: Idu.
Khufu’s cartouche name is also inscribed on some of the heavy limestone blocks at the site. The harbour was of strategic and economic importance to Khufu because ships brought precious materials, such as turquoise, copper and ore, from the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula. The papyri fragments show several storage lists naming the delivered goods. The papyri also mention a particular harbour on the opposite coast of Wadi al-Jarf, on the western shore of the Sinai Peninsula. The ancient fortress Tell Ras Budran was excavated in 1960 by Gregory Mumford. The papyri and the defence reveal an explicit sailing route across the Red Sea for the first time in history. It is the oldest archaeologically detected sailing route of Ancient Egypt. According to Tallet, the harbour could also have been one of Ancient Egypt‘s legendary high sea harbours, from where expeditions to the infamous gold land Punt had started.
Monuments and statues
The only three-dimensional depiction of Khufu that has survived time nearly completely is a small and well-restored ivory figurine known as Khufu Statuette. It shows the king with the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. The king is seated on a throne with a short backrest. On the left side of his knees, the Horus-name Medjedu is preserved; on the right side, a fragment of the lower part of the cartouche named Khnum-Khuf is visible. Khufu holds a flail in his left hand, and his right-hand rests with his lower arm on his right upper leg. The artefact was found in 1903 by Flinders Petrie at Kom el-Sultan near Abydos. The figurine was found headless; according to Petrie, it was caused by an accident while digging. When Petrie recognised the importance of the find, he stopped all other work and offered a reward to any workman who could find the head. Three weeks later, the head was found after intense sifting in a deeper level of the room rubble.
Today the little statue is restored and on display in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo in room 32 under its inventory number JE 36143. Most Egyptologists believe the statuette is contemporary, but some scholars, such as Zahi Hawass, think it was an artistic reproduction of the 26th dynasty. He argues that no building that dates to the Fourth Dynasty was ever excavated at Kom el-Sultan, Abydos. Furthermore, he points out that the face of Khufu is unusually squat and chubby and shows no emotional expression. Hawass compared the facial stylistics with statues of contemporary kings, such as Sneferu, Khaefra and Menkaura. The faces of these three kings are of even beauty, slender, and with a kindly expression – the apparent result of idealistic motivations; they are not based on reality. The appearance of Khufu on the ivory statue instead looks like the artist did not care very much about professionalism or diligence. He believes Khufu would never have allowed such a comparatively sloppy work to display. And finally, Hawass also argues that the sort of throne the figurine sits on does not match the artistic styles of any Old Kingdom artefact. Old Kingdom thrones had a backrest reaching up to the king’s neck. But the ultimate proof that convinces Hawass about the statue being a reproduction of a much later time is the Nehenekh flail in Khufu’s left hand. Depictions of a king with such a flail as a ceremonial insignia appear no earlier than in the Middle Kingdom. Zahi Hawass, therefore, concludes that the figurine was possibly made as an amulet or lucky charm to sell to pious citizens. Deitrich Wildung has examined the representation of Nubian features in Egyptian iconography since the predynastic era and has argued that Khufu had these specific Nubian features represented in his statues.
It is often said that the small figurine is the only preserved statue of Khufu. This is not entirely correct. Excavations at Saqqara in 2001 and 2003 revealed a pair of terracotta statues depicting a lion goddess (possibly Bastet or Sekhmet). On her feet, two figures of childlike kings are preserved. While the correct figurine can be identified as king Khufu by his Horus name, the left one depicts king Pepy I of the 6th dynasty, called by his birth name. The figurines of Pepy were added to the statue groups later because they were placed separately and at a distance from the deity. This is inconsistent with a specific statue group of the Old Kingdom — typically, all statue groups were built as an artistic unit. The two statue groups are similar in size and scale but differ in that one lion goddess holds a sceptre. The excavators highlighted that the statues were restored during the Middle Kingdom after they were broken apart. However, it seems that the reason for the restoration lay more in interest in the goddess than in a royal cult around the king figures: their names were covered with gypsum.
The Palermo Stone reports on its fragment C-2 the creation of two oversize standing statues for the king; one is said to have been made of copper, the other of pure gold.
Furthermore, several alabasters and travertine fragments of seated statues, which George Reisner found during his excavations at Giza, were once inscribed with Khufu’s full royal titulary. Today, the complete or partially preserved cartouches with the name Khufu or Khnum-Khuf remain. One of the fragments, that of a small seated statue, shows the legs and feet of a sitting king from the knuckles downward. To their right, the name (…fu) in a cartouche is visible, and it can easily be reconstructed as the cartouche name Khufu.
Two further objects are on display at the Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim. These are also made of alabaster. One shows the head of a cat goddess (most probably Bastet or Sekhmet). The position of her right arm suggests that the bust once belonged to a statue group similar to the well-known triad of Mycerinus.
Several statue heads might have belonged to Khufu. One is the so-called “Brooklyn head” of the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. It is 54,3 cm large and made of pink granite. Because of its chubby cheeks, the head is assigned to Khufu and King Huni. A similar object is displayed at the State Collection of Egyptian Art in Munich. The statue head is made of limestone and is comparatively small at only 5,7 cm.
Khufu is depicted in several relief fragments scattered in his necropolis and elsewhere. All reliefs were made of finely polished limestone. Some of them originate from the ruined pyramid temple and the destroyed causeway, where they once covered the walls completely. Others were found re-used in the pyramid necropolis of king Amenemhet I at Lisht and Tanis and Bubastis. One of the relief fragments shows the cartouche of Khufu with the phrase: “Building of the sanctuaries of the gods”. Another shows a row of fat oxen decorated with flowers – they were prepared as sacrifices during an offering procession. The guiding inscription calls them “the surroundings of Tefef serve Khufu”, “beautiful bulls of Khufu”, and “bawling for Khufu”. A third one shows the earliest known depiction of royal warfare: the scene is called “archers prepare” since it shows archers drawing their bows. And a fourth example illustrates the king with the double crown impaling a hippopotamus.
At the Wadi Maghareh in Sinai, a rock inscription contains Khufu’s names, titles, and reports: “Hor-Medjedu, Khnum-Khuf, Bikuj-Nebu, the great god and smiter of the troglodytes, all protection and life are with him”. The work-off of the relief is similar to that of king Snefru. In one scene king, Khufu wears the double crown; nearby, the depiction of the god Thoth is visible. In another scene, close by, Khufu wears the Atef crown while smiting an enemy. In this scene, the god Wepwawet is present.
None of the numerous relief fragments shows king Khufu offering to a god. This is remarkable since reliefs of Sneferu and those of all kings from Menkaura onward show the king offering to a deity. It is possible that the lack of this exceptional depiction influenced later ancient Greek historians in their assumptions that Khufu could have closed all temples and prohibited any sacrifice.
The pyramid complex of Khufu was erected in the northeastern section of the plateau of Giza. It is possible that the lack of building space, the lack of local limestone quarries and the loosened ground at Dahshur forced Khufu to move north, away from the pyramid of his predecessor Sneferu. Khufu chose the high end of a natural plateau so that his future pyramid would be widely visible. Khufu decided to call his pyramid Akhet-Khufu (meaning “horizon of Khufu”).
The Great Pyramid has a base measurement of ca. 750 x 750 ft (≙ 230.4 x 230.4 m) and today has a height of 455.2 ft (138.7 m). Once, it had been 481 ft (147 m) high, but the pyramidion and the limestone casing were lost entirely due to stone robbery. The lack of a case allows a full view of the inner core of the pyramid. It was erected in small steps by more or less roughly hewn blocks of dark limestone. The casing was made of nearly white limestone. The outer surface of the casing stones was finely polished, so the pyramid shimmered in bright, natural lime-white when new. The pyramidion might have been covered in electrum, but no archaeological proof exists. The inner corridors and chambers have walls and ceilings made of polished granite, one of the hardest stones known in Khufu’s time. The mortar used a mixture of gypsum, sand, pulverised limestone and water.
The original entrance to the pyramid is on the northern side. Inside the pyramid are three chambers: at the top is the burial chamber of the king (the king’s chamber), in the middle is the statue chamber (erroneously called the queen’s chamber), and under the foundation is an unfinished subterranean chamber (underworld chamber). Whilst the burial chamber is identified by its large sarcophagus made of granite, the use of the “queen’s chamber” is still disputed – it might have been the serdab of the Ka statue of Khufu. The subterranean chamber remains mysterious as it was left unfinished. A tight corridor heading south at the western end of the chamber and an unfinished shaft at the eastern middle might indicate that the subterranean chamber was the oldest of the three chambers and that the original building plan contained a simple chamber complex with several rooms and corridors. But for unknown reasons, the works were stopped, and two other chambers were built inside the pyramid. The so-called Grand Gallery leading to the king’s chamber is remarkable: It has a corbelled arch ceiling and measures 28.7 ft (8.7 m) in height and 151.3 ft (46.1 m) in length. The gallery has an essential static function; it diverts the weight of the stone mass above the king’s chamber into the surrounding pyramid core.
Khufu’s pyramid was surrounded by an enclosure wall, with each segment 33 ft (10 m) in the distance from the pyramid. On the eastern side, directly in front of the pyramid, Khufu’s mortuary temple was built. Its foundation was made of black basalt, a significant part of which is still preserved. Pillars and portals were made of red granite, and the ceiling stones were made of white limestone. Today nothing remains but the foundation. From the mortuary temple, a causeway 0.43 miles long once connected to the valley temple. The valley temple was possibly made of the same stones as the mortuary temple, but since the foundation is not preserved, the original form and size of the valley temple remain unknown.
Three small satellite pyramids belonging to the queens Hetepheres (G1-a), Meritites I (G1-b) and possibly Henutsen (G1-c) were erected at the southeast corner of Khufu’s pyramid. Close behind the queens’ pyramids G1-b and G1-c, the cult pyramid of Khufu was found in 2005. On the eastern side of the pyramid lies the East Cemetery of the Khufu necropolis, containing the mastabas of princes and princesses. On the southern side of the Great Pyramid lie some further mastabas and the pits of the funerary boats of Khufu. On the western side lies the West Cemetery, where the highest officials and priests were interred.
The famous Great Sphinx of Giza is a possible part of Khufu’s funerary complex. It’s a 241 ft × 66.6 ft (73.5 m × 20.3 m) giant limestone statue in the shape of a recumbent lion with the head of a human, decorated with a royal Nemes headdress. The Sphinx was directly hewn out of the plateau of Giza and originally painted with red, ochre, green and black. To this day, it is passionately disputed who exactly gave the order to build it: the most probable candidates are Khufu, his elder son Djedefra and his younger son Khafra. One of the difficulties of a correct attribution lies in the lack of any perfectly preserved portrait of Khufu. The faces of Djedefre and Khaefra are similar to that of the Sphinx, but they do not match perfectly. Another riddle is the original cultic and symbolic function of the Sphinx. Much later, it was called Heru-im-Akhet (Hârmachís; “Horus at the horizon”) by the Egyptians and Abu el-Hὀl (“father of terror”) by the Arabians. It might be that the Sphinx, as an allegoric and mystified representation of the king, guarded the sacred cemetery of Giza.
Khufu in later Egyptian traditions
Khufu possessed an extensive mortuary cult during the Old Kingdom. At the end of the 6th dynasty, at least 67 mortuary priests and six independent high officials serving at the necropolis are archaeologically attested. Ten were already serving during the late 4th dynasty (seven were royal family members), 28 performed during the 5th dynasty, and 29 were during the 6th dynasty. This is remarkable: Khufu’s famous (step-)father Sneferu enjoyed “only” 18 mortuary priesthoods during the same period. Even Djedefra enjoyed only eight, and Khaefra enjoyed 28. Such mortuary cults were very important for the state’s economy because particular domains had to be established for the oblations. Many domains’ names are attested to the time of Khufu’s reign. However, by the end of the 6th dynasty, the number of fields abated quickly. With the beginning of the 7th dynasty, no domain name was handed down anymore.
At Wadi Hammamat, a rock inscription dates back to the 12th dynasty. It lists five cartouche names: Khufu, Djedefra, Khafra, Baufra and Djedefhor. Because all royal names are written inside cartouches, it was often believed that Baufra and Djedefhor once had ruled for a short time. Still, contemporary sources entitle them as mere princes. Khufu’s attendance roll call in this list might indicate that he and his followers were worshipped as patron saints. This theory is promoted by findings such as alabaster vessels with Khufu’s name found at Koptos, the pilgrimage destination of Wadi Hammamat travellers.
A literary masterpiece from the 13th dynasty talking about Khufu is the famous Papyrus Westcar, where king Khufu witnesses a magical wonder and receives a prophecy from a magician named Dedi. Within the story, Khufu is characterised in a difficult-to-assess way. On the one hand, he is depicted as ruthless when deciding to have a condemned prisoner decapitated to test the alleged magical powers of Dedi. On the other hand, Khufu is displayed as inquisitive, reasonable and generous: He accepts Dedi’s outrage and his subsequent alternative offer for the prisoner, questions the circumstances and contents of Dedi’s prophecy and rewards the magician generously after all. The contradictory depiction of Khufu is the object of great dispute between Egyptologists and historians today. Especially earlier Egyptologists and historians such as Adolf Erman, Kurt Heinrich Sethe and Wolfgang Helck evaluated Khufu’s character as heartless and sacrilegious. They leaned on the ancient Greek traditions of Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, who described an exaggerated negative character image of Khufu, ignoring the paradoxical (because positive) traditions the Egyptians had always taught.
But other Egyptologists, such as Dietrich Wildung, see Khufu’s order as an act of mercy: the prisoner would have received his life back if Dedi had performed his magical trick. Wildung thinks that Dedi’s refusal was an allusion to Egyptians’ respect for human life. The ancient Egyptians believed human life should not be misused for dark magic or similar evil things. Verena Lepper and Miriam Lichtheim suspect that a difficult-to-assess depiction of Khufu was precisely what the author had planned. He wanted to create a mysterious character.
During the New Kingdom, the necropolis of Khufu and the local mortuary cults were reorganised, and Giza became an essential economic and cultic destination again. During the Eighteenth Dynasty king, Amenhotep II erected a memorial temple and a royal fame stele close to the Great Sphinx. His son and throne follower Thutmose IV freed the Sphinx from sand and placed a memorial stele – known as the “Dream Stele” – between its front paws. The two steles’ inscriptions are similar in their narrative contents, but neither gives specific information about the actual builder of the Great Sphinx.
At the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, a temple for the goddess Isis was built at the satellite pyramid G1-c (that of queen Henutsen) at Khufu’s necropolis. During the Twenty-first Dynasty, the temple got extended; during the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, the extensions continued. From this period, several “priests of Isis” (Hem-netjer-Iset), who were also “priests of Khufu” (Hem-netjer-Khufu), worked there. From the same dynasty, a golden seal ring with the name of a priest Neferibrê was found at Giza.
During the Late Period, enormous numbers of Khufu scarabs were sold to the citizens, possibly as lucky charms. More than 30 scarabs are preserved. At Isis’ temple, a family tree of the Isis priests is displayed, which lists the names of priests from 670 to 488 BC. From the same period comes the famous Inventory Stela, Khufu and his wife, Henutsen. However, modern Egyptologists question whether Khufu was still personally adored as a royal ancestor at this time; they think it more likely that Khufu was already seen as a mere symbolic foundation figure for the history of the Isis temple.
Khufu in ancient Greek traditions
The later Egyptian historian Manetho called Khufu “Sûphis” and credited him with a rulership of 63 years. He also mentions that Khufu built the Great Pyramid, and then he claims that his contemporary Herodotus says that the pyramid was created by a king, “Khéops”. Manetho thought “Khéops” and “Sûphis” were two different kings. Manetho also says that Khufu received contempt against the gods, that he had written a sacred book about that, and that he (Manetho) received that book during his travel through Egypt. The story about the alleged “Sacred Book” is questioned by modern Egyptologists, for it would be highly unusual that a pharaoh wrote books and that such a precious document could be sold away quickly.
The Greek historian Herodotus instead depicts Khufu as a heretic and cruel tyrant. In his literary work Historiae, Book II, chapters 124–126, he writes: “As long as Rhámpsinîtos was king, as they told me, there was nothing but orderly rule in Egypt, and the land prospered greatly. But after him, Khéops became king over them and brought them to every kind of suffering: He closed all the temples; after this, he kept the priests from sacrificing there and forced all the Egyptians to work for him. So some were ordered to draw stones from the stone quarries in the Arabian mountains to the Nile, and others were forced to receive the stones after they had been carried over the river in boats and draw them to those called the Libyan mountains. And they worked by 100,000 men at a time, every three months. Of this oppression, there passed ten years while the causeway was made by which they drew the stones, which causeway they built, and it is a work not much less, as it appears to me than the pyramid. Its length is 5 furlongs and the breadth 10 fathoms, and the height, where it is highest, 8 fathoms, and it is made of polished stone with figures carved upon it. For this, they said, ten years were spent, and for the underground chambers on the hill upon which the pyramids stand, which he caused to be made as sepulchral chambers for himself in an island, having conducted thither a channel from the Nile.
For the making of the pyramid itself, there passed 20 years, and the pyramid is square, each side measuring 800 feet, and its height is the same. It is built of stone smoothed and fitted together perfectly, not one of the stones being less than 30 feet in length. This pyramid was made after the manner of steps, which some call ‘rows’ and others ‘bases’: When they had first made it thus, they raised the remaining stones with devices made of short pieces of timber, lifting them first from the ground to the first stage of the steps, and when the stone got up to this it was placed upon another machine standing on the first stage, and so from this, it was drawn to the second upon another machine; for as many, as were the courses of the steps, so many machines there were also, or perhaps they transferred the same machine, made so as easily to be carried, to each stage successively, so that they might take up the stones; for letting it be told in both ways, according to as it is reported. However, that may be, the highest parts of it were finished first, and afterwards, they proceeded to finish that which came next to them, and lastly, they finished the details of it near the ground and the lowest ranges.
On the pyramid, it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workers. If I remember correctly what the interpreter said while reading this inscription for me, a sum of 1600 silver talents was spent. Kheops came to such a pitch of evilness that, being in want of money, he sent his daughter to a brothel and ordered her to obtain from those who came a certain amount of money (how much it was, they did not tell me). But she not only received the sum appointed by her father, but she also formed a design for herself privately to leave behind her a memorial: She requested each man who came to her to give her one stone for her building project. And of these stones, they told me, the pyramid was built which stands in front of the great pyramid in the middle of the three, each side being 150 feet long.”
The same goes for the story about king Khafre. He is depicted as the direct follower of Khufu and as likewise evil, and he ruled for 56 years. In chapters 127–128, Herodotus writes: “After Khéops was dead, his brother Khéphrên succeeded to the royal throne. This king followed the same manner as the other … and ruled for 56 years. Here they reckon altogether 106 years, during which they say there was nothing but evil for the Egyptians, and the temples were kept closed and not opened during that time”.
Herodotus closes the story of the evil kings in chapter 128 with the words: “These kings the Egyptians (because of their hate against them) are not very willing to say their names. What’s more, they even call the pyramids after the name of Philítîs the shepherd, who at that time pastured flocks in those regions.”
Diodorus of Sicily
The ancient historian Diodorus claims that Khufu was so abhorred by his people in later times that the mortuary priests secretly brought the royal sarcophagus, together with the corpse of Khufu, to another hidden grave. With this narration, he strengthens and confirms the view of the Greek scholars that Khufu’s pyramid (and the other two) must have been the result of slavery. However, at the same time, Diodorus distances himself from Herodotus and argues that Herodotus “only tells fairy tales and entertaining fiction”. Diodorus claims that the Egyptians of his life could not tell him with certainty who built the pyramids. He also states that he didn’t trust the interpreters and that the true builder might have been someone different: the Khufu pyramid was (according to him) built by a king named Harmais. The Khafre pyramid was thought to be built by king Amasis II, and the Menkaura pyramid was allegedly the work of king Inaros I.
Diodorus states that the Khufu pyramid was beautifully covered in white, but the top was said to be capped. The pyramid, therefore, already had no pyramidion anymore. He also thinks that the pyramid was built with ramps removed while finishing the limestone shell. Diodorus estimates that the total number of workers was 300,000 and that the building works lasted for 20 years.
Khufu in Arabic traditions
In 642 AD, the Arabs conquered Egypt. Upon arriving at the Giza pyramids, they searched for explanations for who could have built these monuments. By this time, no inhabitant of Egypt was able to tell, and no one could translate the Egyptian hieroglyphs anymore. Consequently, the Arab historians wrote down their theories and stories.
The best-known story about Khufu and his pyramid can be found in the book Hitat (completely: al-Mawāʿiẓ wa-’l-iʿtibār fī ḏikr al-ḫiṭaṭ wa-’l-ʾāṯār), written in 1430 by Muhammad al-Maqrizi (1364–1442). This book contains several collected theories and myths about Khufu, especially about the Great Pyramid. Though King Khufu himself is seldom mentioned, many Arab writers were convinced that the Great Pyramid (and the others, too) were built by the god Hermes (named Idris by the Arabs).
Al-Maqrizi notes that Khufu was named Saurid, Salhuk and Sarjak by the biblical Amalekites. Then he writes that Khufu built the pyramids after repeated nightmares in which the earth turned upside-down, the stars fell, and people screamed in terror. Another nightmare showed the stars falling from heaven, kidnapping humans, and putting them beneath two large mountains. King Khufu then received a warning from his prophets about a devastating deluge that would come and destroy Egypt. To protect his treasures and books of wisdom, Khufu built the three pyramids of Giza.
Modern egyptological evaluations
Over time, Egyptologists examined possible motives and reasons as to how Khufu’s reputation changed over time. Closer examinations of and comparisons between contemporary documents, later documents and Greek and Coptic readings reveal that Khufu’s reputation changed slowly and that the positive views about the king still prevailed during the Greek and Ptolemaic era. Alan B. Lloyd, for example, points to documents and inscriptions from the 6th dynasty listing an important town called Menat-Khufu, meaning “nurse of Khufu”. This town was still held in high esteem during the Middle Kingdom period. Lloyd is convinced that such a heart-warming name wouldn’t have been chosen to honour a king with a bad (or, at least, questionable) reputation. Furthermore, he points to the overwhelming number of places where mortuary cults for Khufu were practised, even outside Giza. These mortuary cults were still practised even in the Saitic and Persian periods.
The famous Lamentation Texts from the First Intermediate Period reveal some interesting views about the monumental tombs from the past; they were seen as proof of vanity at that time. However, they give no hint of the negative reputation of the kings themselves, and thus they do not negatively judge Khufu.
Modern Egyptologists evaluate Herodotus’s and Diodorus’s stories as some defamation, based on both authors’ contemporary philosophy. They call for caution against the credibility of the ancient traditions. They argue that the classical authors lived around 2000 years after Khufu, and the sources available in their lifetimes were indeed antiquated. Additionally, some Egyptologists point out that the philosophies of the ancient Egyptians had changed since the Old Kingdom. Large tombs such as the Giza pyramids must have appalled the Greeks and even the later priests of the New Kingdom because they remembered the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten and his megalomaniac building projects. This negative picture was presumably projected onto Khufu and his pyramid. The view was possibly promoted by the fact that during Khufu’s lifetime, permission to create oversized statues made of precious stone and display them publicly was limited to the king. In their era, the Greek authors, mortuary priests, and temple priests could only explain the impressive monuments and statues of Khufu as the result of a megalomaniac. These negative evaluations were applied to Khufu.
Furthermore, several Egyptologists point out that Roman historians such as Pliny the Elder and Frontinus (both around 70 A.D.) equally do not hesitate to ridicule the pyramids of Giza: Frontinus calls them “idle pyramids, containing the indispensable structures likewise to some of our abandoned aqueducts at Rome” and Pliny describes them as “the idle and foolish ostentation of royal wealth”. Egyptologists see politically and socially motivated intentions in these criticisms, and it seems paradoxical that the use of these monuments was forgotten, but the names of their builders remained immortalized.
Another hint to Khufu’s bad reputation among the Greek and Roman folk might be hidden in the Coptic reading of Khufu’s name. The Egyptian hieroglyphs forming the word “Khufu” are read in Coptic as “Shêfet”, which actually would mean “bad luck” or “sinful” in their language. The Coptic reading derives from a later pronunciation of Khufu as “Shufu”, leading to the Greek reading “Suphis”. Possibly the sinister meaning of the Coptic reading of “Khufu” was unconsciously copied by the Greek and Roman authors.
On the other hand, some Egyptologists think that the ancient historians received the material for their stories not only from priests but from the citizens living close to the time of the building of the necropolis. Among the “simple folk”, hostile or critical views about the pyramids might have been handed down, and the mortuary cult of the priests was undoubtedly part of the tradition. Additionally, a long-standing literary tradition does not prove popular. Even if Khufu’s name survived within the literary traditions for so long, different cultural circles unquestionably fostered different views about Khufu’s character and historical deeds. The narrations of Diodorus, for example, are credited with more trust than those of Herodotus because Diodorus collected the tales with much more scepsis. The fact that Diodorus credits the Giza pyramid to Greek kings might be reasoned in legends of his lifetimes and that the pyramids were demonstrably reused in late periods by Greek and Roman kings and noblemen.
Modern Egyptologists and historians also caution about the Arabian stories’ credibility. They point out that the strict Islamic belief guided medieval Arabs that only one God existed and that no other gods were allowed to be mentioned. Consequently, they transferred Egyptian kings and gods into biblical prophets and kings. For example, the Egyptian god Thoth, named Hermes by the Greeks, was named after the prophet Henoch. King Khufu, as already mentioned, was named “Saurid”, “Salhuk”, and “Sarjak” and was often replaced in other stories by a prophet named Šaddād bīn ‘Âd.
Furthermore, scholars point to several contradictions which can be found in Al-Maqrizi’s book. For example, in the first chapter of the Hitat, the Copts are said to have denied any intrusion of the Amalekites in Egypt and the pyramids were erected as the tomb of Šaddād bīn ‘Âd. But some chapters later, Al-Maqrizi claims that the Copts call Saurid the builder of the pyramids.