Probably no monument of ancient Egypt has been so intensively poked, prodded, explored, researched, and published as the Great Pyramid. Similarly, among fringe circles, no monument of ancient Egypt has suffered so many bizarre speculations as the Great Pyramid: from the landing site of alien spacecraft championed by Zecharia Sitchin (1980) to a giant psi-org energy plant posited by Moustafa Gadalla (2003). Other decidedly odd fringe arguments for the Great Pyramid include a colossal water pump and nuclear reactor. Fringe themes range far and wide, but in the end none of them stands up to scrutiny.
Among many in the fringe camp, the Great Pyramid is stated emphatically not to have been a tomb. Fringe adherents will put forth numerous examples for why this is so, but such arguments also fall in the face of scrutiny. One of the chief problems with the fringe position is the tendency to pull the Great Pyramid out of context, as though it somehow stands alone, unrelated, in the span and breadth of pharaonic Egypt. This dooms the fringe stance from the start.
I would like to relate some points in the orthodox position that makes it clear the Great Pyramid was a tomb. This article is not about how the pyramid was built, which is another debate altogether. I will discuss evidence relating only to the pyramid’s purpose as a royal burial.
Provenance & Attestation
To begin, we need to establish a couple of things: when the Great Pyramid was built and for whom it was built. Both points are often called into question by fringe adherents. A common fringe theme is that the Great Pyramid was built by a lost civilization on the order of 10,000 or more years ago. However, on two separate occasions, in 1984 and 1995, numerous monuments dating to the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom were subjected to extensive carbon dating; more than 450 organic samples were extracted for analysis (Bonani et al 2001: 1297). More than forty samples were extracted from the Great Pyramid alone–principally from mortar in many different spots all over the monument. The orthodox date for the Great Pyramid is generally 2500 BCE, and the carbon dating has established that the Great Pyramid might have been erected a little earlier (c. 2604 BCE) but no more than around 150 years earlier than conventionally thought (ibid: 1315).
Naturally, when presented with this science, fringe adherents typically resort to such statements as: “Well, the dating is wrong because C14 is not reliable.” This statement itself is wrong. By this point in time C14 dating has become a highly accurate and reliable method for dating most anything organic up to about 50,000 years old. Indeed, all such a statement shows is the fringe’s inability to learn about the science or to deal with it in realistic terms.
As mentioned, also questioned by the fringe is the fact that the Great Pyramid was erected for King Khufu, in Dynasty 4 (conventionally spanning 2597-2471 BCE). Khufu is believed to have reigned between 2547 to 2524 BCE. The carbon dating might be telling us he lived somewhat earlier, but the fringe camp argues that the Great Pyramid bears no inscriptions proving the pyramid was built for Khufu. This is incorrect. There is ample graffiti in the sets of relieving chambers above the King’s Chamber that prove the Great Pyramid was built for Khufu.
I’d like to return to the workmen’s graffiti a little later, but provenance and attestation are established: the Great Pyramid was built in the Early Bronze Age, during Dynasty 4 of pharaonic Egypt, and it was built for Khufu.
The Pyramid in Cultural Development
Many fringe arguments are very misleading, either on deliberate grounds or simply due to a lack of familiarity with the known facts of pharaonic Egypt. For instance, you will often see a fringe argument stating in wonder how the Great Pyramid seemed to have popped up out of nowhere, with no observable cultural or architectural antecedents; indeed, this is often stated of the dynastic civilization in general. It is patently false. Egypt became a kingdom around 3100 BCE, some 600 years before the Great Pyramid was erected, and there is ample evidence in the archaeological and material record for the dynasties preceding Khufu’s time.
The earliest kings of Egypt came from the south or upper valley; in the current literature this is sometimes referred to as Dynasty 0, more often as Dynasty 1 of the Early Dynastic Period, and also often by the designation Naqada IIIc; again, this was around 3100 BCE. These kings were buried in tombs at an ancient cemetery at the site of Abydos (ancient Abdju). Specifically, they were buried in Cemetery B, known by the modern Arabic name Umm el Qaab. Nearby is an even older site known as Cemetery U, where powerful regional rulers had been interred in the times soon before state formation; in Cemetery U was found the tomb designated Uj, from which was excavated the oldest-yet known hieroglyphs, dating to around 3200 or 3300 BCE. About a mile to the north of the tombs at Umm el Qaab, these kings erected large enclosures of mud brick. The largest that survives is that of Khasekhemwy, last king of Dynasty 2. It goes by the name Shunet el Zebib today. The precise purpose for the enclosures is uncertain, but there is consensus among scholars that some sort of cult for the deceased king took place in them (O’Connor 2009: 159-163). This pattern will be seen in pyramid complexes, which I’ll discuss below.
Several royal tombs dating to Dynasty 2 were built in Saqqara, revealing that the siting of the royal necropolis was moved from ancient Abydos to the area of the new administrative capital of Memphis (ancient Mennefer), in the north. These tombs are poorly understood because the pyramid complex of King Djoser, to be discussed presently, was built over a couple of them and the superstructures were obliterated (Verner 2001: 122). The same is true for a couple of other Dynasty 2 royal tombs just to the south, which were obliterated by the pyramid complex of King Unis in Dynasty 5. In fact, while the subterranean spaces of these Abydos and Saqqara royal tombs are fairly well preserved, their superstructures are not. It’s not clear what form the above-ground portions took. It’s evident at Abydos that the royal tombs were topped by a large, landscaped mound, at least over the areas of the burial chambers, and this was likely the genesis of the mastaba tomb, which would be a common means of burial for elite individuals throughout the Old Kingdom.
A powerful king named Netjerikhet came to the throne around 2663 BCE, at the start of Dynasty 3. Netjerikhet was most likely the son of Khasekhemwy, mentioned above. Netjerikhet is more commonly known today by the name Djoser, which may have been an alternate name for him but this much is unclear. The name Djoser appears in graffiti dating much later, but this is the name I’ll use because it’s more familiar to the general reader. Djoser’s principal claim to fame is his magnificent Step Pyramid complex in Saqqara. Rightly so. This complex represents not only many innovations in stone architecture by ancient Egyptian craftsmen, but features as its focal point the first pyramid built by mankind. It is actually a series of stepped mastabas, one atop the other, and careful analysis of the monument has revealed that it underwent a number of architectural revisions before it was completed. This was the first royal tomb also to bring the various elements into one place: the tomb in which the king was buried, and the cultic buildings wherein his soul was venerated and sustained (recall the Abydos tombs and their temple-like enclosures a mile to the north). Djoser’s complex includes structures for the eternal celebration of his Sed-festival, a ceremony of renewal forever guaranteeing the existence of the deified king (ibid: 129).
So we can see through these examinations how the royal tomb developed from Dynasty 1 to Dynasty 3 into a pyramid. Several unfinished pyramids date to after the reign of Djoser, and the next great king to come to the throne was Sneferu at the start of Dynasty 4, who reigned 2597-2547 BCE. Sneferu was the greatest builder of the entire Old Kingdom and erected three different pyramids during his reign: his first pyramid at Meidum and then the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid, both at Dashur. The Medium pyramid, also known as the Tower Pyramid from the exposed core due to the outer casing stones collapsing in ancient times, is sometimes argued to have been built by Huni, last king of Dynasty 3. Most scholars today, however, agree that it was Sneferu’s first pyramid. The significance with Sneferu is that he was the first to perfect the true pyramid. This was actually the Bent Pyramid, despite its odd shape. The Meidum pyramid began as a stepped structure and analysis has shown that it was converted to a true pyramid later in Sneferu’s reign. And in these three pyramids of Sneferu we see design and architectural elements that were perfected in the Great Pyramid (ibid: 176-177), such as the corbelled ceiling.
Sneferu’s son and successor was none other than Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid. Thus far, then, we can trace the history of royal-tomb building all the way back to Dynasty 1, if not even farther. We can see how the pyramid evolved in royal mortuary architecture, and how it developed from stepped to true form. This brings us to the Great Pyramid.
The Egyptians called the Great Pyramid Akhet Khufu, the “Horizon of Khufu.” This king took the throne around 2547 BCE (I continue to use conventional dates, although reminding the reader that the carbon-dating analyses might be pushing us a little farther back in time). The sites discussed so far–specifically Abydos, Saqqara, Meidum, and Dashur–were royal necropoli. Cemeteries for kings, in other words. At these sites were interred family members of these kings as well as noblemen and other officials who served in the courts of these kings. The same is true for Giza, which Khufu established as a new royal necropolis when he ascended to the throne. These were not farm fields or sites of industry but cemeteries, exclusively. They were cities for the dead.
The carbon dating establishes that the orthodox timeline is essentially correct for the Great Pyramid, and the above-mentioned workmen’s graffiti establishes that the Great Pyramid was built for King Khufu. I’d like to spend a moment discussing this graffiti now. It’s important to understand that this graffiti was written within relieving chambers designed to lessen the stress on the King’s Chamber, given the enormous mass of masonry existing above the King’s Chamber. These relieving chambers were sealed and entirely unknown to us until an explorer named Colonel Richard Howard Vyse blasted his way into them in March 1837. The lowest chamber actually had been found by Nathaniel Davison in 1765 but contained no graffiti; Vyse speculated there may have been more chambers above this one. His method of getting into the upper chambers was certainly reckless, but he was correct. It was in these chambers that the graffiti was found.
Fringe adherents have tried to argue that the graffiti was a hoax on the part of Vyse. This was strenuously argued by Stichin in The Stairway to Heaven (1980), but his argument and all subsequent arguments built along these lines have been absurd. There is no question the graffiti is authentic. Some of it disappears between massive blocks of masonry, and can be seen but not accessed in loose joins. In other words, some of this graffiti had to have been painted onto the stones before they were put into position inside the relieving chambers. The graffiti is without question contemporary to the time of the building of this pyramid. It’s also quite interesting.
Deciphering the linear glyphs was arguably not fully possible in the time of Colonel Vyse, but it is fairly well understood today. The earliest such graffiti is actually found on the Meidum pyramid of Sneferu and records the names of phyles (work crews) that had labored there (Roth 1991: 125); the graffiti in the relieving chambers of the Great Pyramid contain even more information. The names of three different phyles are extant, all based on permutations of Khufu’s name (ibid):
- Seven blocks of masonry with the king’s Horus name, Medjedu (Hr-mDdw)
- Ten blocks of masonry with the king’s full name, Khnum-Khuf (Xnmw-xwf)
- Two blocks of masonry with the king’s abbreviated name, Khufu (xwfw)
In fact, the spatial arrangement of the graffiti allows us to determine which crews were responsible for specific parts of the relieving chambers as they were being built (ibid: 127). These phyles left us no doubt the great monument they were building was for their king, Khufu.
Although the Great Pyramid has several architectural features and arrangements that make it stand out a bit from other pyramids before and after, it is not so different that we have license to pull it out of context and separate it from pharaonic Egypt altogether. It belongs in the development of royal tomb architecture and it is but the largest pyramid built for the interment of a king. Also clarifying the purpose of burial is the granite sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber. This is one of the earliest sacrophagi of granite the Egyptians ever attempted, but to the point, sarcophagi in pharaonic Egypt served one purpose and one purpose only: the interment of a body. It is strictly a form of burial equipment. In my own experience, I have never seen a fringe adherent adequately provide an alternative explanation for this sarcophagus.
No Egyptian pyramid stands alone. In every case where one was built, it was part of a wider complex. This is so with Khufu’s, and it is another reflection of the development of royal burial cults. The pyramid was the structure in which the king’s body was interred and from which his soul would ascend to the heavens, but adjoining the pyramid was a temple connected to another temple via a stone-built causeway. The temple adjoining the pyramid, usually on the east face as is the case with Khufu’s, is typically referred to as the mortuary temple. At the other end of the causeway was the structure typically called the valley temple. In Khufu’s case only a small portion of the valley temple has been found because nearly all of it lies under the modern suburban sprawl of Cairo. The causeway itself is in ruined condition. All that one sees of the mortuary temple today, against the east face of the pyramid, are the basalt paving stones. However, careful archaeology of the site over the years has enabled us to get a working idea of what it might have originally looked like.
Archaeology has also recovered fragments of inscribed masonry once adorning the walls of the mortuary temple, causeway, and theoretically the valley temple. These fragments have been excavated from the Giza site itself (example here), and others have been recovered from the Dynasty 12 pyramid of a Middle Kingdom king named Amenemhat I (1994-1964 BCE); his pyramid is at Lisht. It was common for kings throughout pharaonic history to incorporate bits and pieces of monuments from the reigns of earlier kings, particularly kings who were remembered as great in their time. These inscribed fragments from Giza and Lisht show typical mortuary scenes such as personified estates, male and female, bringing offerings to sustain the soul and the cult of the deceased king (Hawass 2006: 69). Numerous instances of Khufu’s titulary are also extent in the fragments. Other fragments bear scenes of the Sed-festival (ibid: 72), stressing the renewal of Khufu just as Djoser had done for himself in his complex at Saqqara. Khufu’s fragments further preserve an unusual scene depicting the canid god Wepwawet (ibid). The name of this god means “Opener of the Ways” and he is seen in numerous examples of iconography dating all the way back to Dynasty 1 (Wilkinson 2000: 297-298). Although Wepwawet served functions to the king’s cult in life, he was a primary underworld deity who guided the king into his afterlife.
Other fragments preserve scenes of the king with foreigners, in some instances receiving them and in others subduing them in typical pharaonic combat posture. These fragments are believed to have come from the valley temple or along the early portions of the causeway, based on extant examples in other pyramid complexes. Altogether, these fragments reveal the traditional purpose for the temples and pyramid: the site where the king’s soul would ascend to the heavens, and where he would forever be venerated and sustained. Moreover, the cemetery that grew around the Great Pyramid, much of which was probably being planned and laid out at the same time as the pyramid itself, contains the burials of family members to the east and high court officials to the west. Included among the former is Khufu’s mother, Hetepheres; a prince named Kawab; another prince named Djedefhor who would end up succeeding Khufu under the name Djedefre (he would build a pyramid at Abu Rawash); and yet another prince named Khafkhufu who would succeed Djedefre under the name Khafre (he would return to Giza, where he built the second pyramid) (Hawass 2006:95-96). And of course there were the three small queens’ pyramids outside the east face of the Great Pyramid.
All of these structures–Great Pyramid, mortuary temple, causeway, valley temple, neighboring tombs–were built at about the same time. There is no doubt the entire complex was funerary in nature.
A frequent argument put forth by fringe adherents is that no body was found in the Great Pyramid, so it cannot have been a tomb. This is one of the weakest arguments of all. There were more than three thousand years of kings in pharaonic Egypt, and with but a scant handful of exceptions–the tomb of Tutankhamun and a couple of royal tombs from a later period, at the site of Tanis–no royal tomb has yet been found unviolated. Indeed, it’s safe to say that of all of the tombs in general which archaeologists have excavated, the vast majority had experienced tomb robbing at some point in ancient times. It is extremely rare for archaeologists to find an intact or mostly intact tomb. Pharaonic Egypt experienced numerous periods of decline and destabilization–especially during the three intermediate periods–and in each of these periods, the breakdown of state authority was matched by the influx of tomb raiding.
Giza was no different. The first instance of the breakdown of state authority began around 2200 BCE, at the end of Dynasty 6. This marks the close of the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the First Intermediate Period. This period lasted at most about 200 years but was particularly marked by destabilization and civil war. The Giza necropolis bears ample evidence of plundering during the First Intermediate Period (Kákosy 1989: 145). It’s not so easy to say that the Great Pyramid was violated at this time, however. In fact, it’s unlikely that it was, although its attendant temples and neighboring tombs probably were. Exactly when the Great Pyramid was raided has long been debated, although Strabo records a movable stone in the face of the monument that led to a sloping passage; Arab accounts in the early Islamic period mention numerous mummies found within the pyramid (ibid: 159, 161), suggesting intrusive burials from later pharaonic periods. Based on available evidence, the lower corridors and chambers were raided first and the upper ones at a later time. In all probability Khufu’s monument could’ve been raided in the later Persian Period, prior to the conquest of Alexander the Great, although raiding could’ve occurred as late as the time of Caliph Al-Ma’mun, in the ninth century CE. (ibid: 162).
The point is, at some point in time the Great Pyramid was raided. All Egyptian pyramids were. Almost nothing contemporary to the time of a pyramid has been found in that pyramid by archaeologists. In only a couple of cases have human remains of a king been found in the burial chamber. Tomb robbers were thorough, and tomb robbing occurred in the same tombs down through time until literally nothing worth taking was left.
An argument based on the absence of a body is, quite honestly, pointless.
This is the last evidentiary point I wish to make. I usually shy away from arguments employing the Pyramid Texts in relation to the Great Pyramid because no know example of the Texts exists from the time of Khufu. The earliest Pyramid Texts we have are those inscribed inside the pyramid of King Unis (2385-2355 BCE), who reigned at the end of Dynasty 5. This was roughly 150 years after the time of Khufu.
Still, it can be useful to turn for a moment to the Pyramid Texts, which is the oldest religious corpus in the world. These were funerary spells devised to aid the soul of the deceased king in its journey up into the heavens. That they existed prior to the time of Unis is generally agreed by scholars; earlier examples were probably written and kept on papyrus and did not survive. The language of the Texts is written in a form antiquated even by the time of Unis; the language evidences phonological and grammatical differences from other inscriptions of the Old Kingdom, and it’s clear the orthography was still in the process of development (Hornung 1999: 5). Changes in pronoun usage suggest the Texts were undergoing different applications of a funerary nature through time (ibid: 4).
The spells that comprise the Texts make it abundantly clear that they were used for the dead. They are replete with references to the pyramid as a tomb. Many of them were probably read aloud during the funeral, and their permanent inscription onto the stone masonry made them available to the soul of the king forever. The spells were inscribed in such a way that an order is observable. They start in the burial chamber and continue in a logical sequence past the antechamber and down the corridors to the exit of the pyramid: in other words, the direction in which the soul of the king was meant to travel. The burial chamber corresponds to the underworld, from which the soul of the king would arise to rejoin his mummy; the antechamber represents Akhet, the horizon, where the soul of the king became an akh, or “effective spirit;” the corridor leading from there to the exit represents the passage by which the king’s soul would arise into the heavens. All of the spells inscribed into the walls make this clear.
Khufu’s pyramid may not have Pyramid Texts, but bear in mind Unis’ pyramid was built only around 150 years later. The Pyramid Texts in his burial and in all of the pyramids down to the end of Dynasty 6 reveal that the pyramid was regarded as a tomb. It would be highly illogical to suspect that the purpose of a pyramid fundamentally changed between the time of Khufu and Unis.
The pyramid was a tomb. In the above article I have attempted to explain some of the highlights whereby orthodox research has made this clear to us. And as long as this article is, trust me, I have provided but a summary of evidence. I could fill a book, as many professional historians have–and much abler than I have. The Great Pyramid cannot be viewed out of context. It does not exist in a vacuum. When viewed in its proper context, there can be no other conclusion than that it was built for King Khufu and was specifically for the burial of this great monarch of Dynasty 4.
Allen, James P. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. 2005
Bonani, Georges et al. “Radiocarbon Dating of Old and Middle Kingdom Monuments in Egypt.” 2001
Hawass, Zahi. Mountains of the Pharaohs. 2006
Hornung, Erik. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. 1999
Kákosy, László. “The Plundering of the Great Pyramid.” 1989
O’Connor, David. Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris. 2009
Roth, Ann Macy. Egyptian Phyles in the Old Kingdom. 1991
Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids. 2001
Wilkinson, Toby. Early Dynastic Egypt. 2000