The Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in Egypt, The Pyramid Proper, Part II: Internal and Substructure

The Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in Egypt

The Pyramid Proper, Part II: Internal and Substructure

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

>>Pyramid Index / Giza

Overall view of the substructure and internal structure layout in the Great Pyramid of Khufu

One of the most controversial aspects of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza in Egypt is its internal structure and substructure. Here, we find for the first time a series of upper passageways and chambers that exist within the body of the pyramid, along with elements that are unique in the development of Egypt's pyramids, and at the same time, remarkable architectural achievements.However, it should be pointed out that the walls of the internal structure have almost no decorations, save for various graffiti. Most of Egypt's royal pyramids varied to some degree in respect to their chambers. Some of this was due to evolutionary structural development, religious innovations, security innovations and early experimentation. In the case of Khufu's pyramid, particularly the internal structure has caused both scholars and layman to speculate about the pyramid's function and purpose, for there are indeed elements of the internal structure that are unique to this one pyramid.

Pyramid Entrance and Descending Corridor

The original vaulted entrance to the Great Pyramid of Khufu

Today, the pyramid is entered through an opening that tradition tells us was cut through the masonry in the ninth century by Caliph al-Ma'mun. Arab historians report that he managed to get in, and at the end of the tunnel found a large key together with some gold coins. The sum was exactly enough to pay for the cost of the operation. Most think that he found nothing, but may have placed enough gold in the tunnel to pay his workmen. The original descending entrance corridor, surmounted by a double vault and offset by 7.29 meters (24 feet) east from the center axis about 16.76 meters (55 feet) high on the level of the thirteenth pier, first passes through the core masonry and then through the rock underlying it. The descending corridor is about 345 feet in length and slopes downward at an angle of 36o 31' 23'. The corridor, which is about 1.2 meters high, at a distance of about 18 meters splits into two parts. One corridor descends while the other ascends. The ascending passage, the first seen in a major pyramid, is accessed through a hole in the ceiling of the descending passage.

The Subterranean Chamber

The subterranean Chamber below the Great Pyramid of Khufu

However, continuing down the descending corridor however, a little over thirty meters under the base of the pyramid it turns into a horizontal passage that runs for 29 feet, before passing an unfinished niche an then into chamber, the purpose of which is unclear. It was never finished, and there is no protective blocking at its entrance. We believe that it never held a stone sarcophagus, which could not have passed through the narrow entrance. However, this is the classic pyramid substructure, consisting of a corridor descending to a chamber at or below ground level. Here though, for the first time, the chamber was carved

out of the solid bedrock.

Pit in the subterranean chamber of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

From the south wall of the subterranean chamber, an unfinished, dead-end corridor leads south for a distance of 16.15 meters (53 feet). Along the east wall, halfway between the north and south walls, is a square cut shaft that has a depth of 15 ft. The bottom of this shaft is filled with rubble and debris and one account mentions that when cleared the shaft has a depth of almost 60 feet. The passageway from the subterranean chamber is actually one of the real puzzles associated with this chamber. If it was meant to lead to another room, then the Subterranean Chamber could not have been planned for the king's burial,

because the burial chamber was always the last of a series.

The Blind passage out of the subterranean chamber of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

Some scholars believe that this chamber was originally intended as a backup in the event that the pharaoh died before the true burial chamber in the upper part of the pyramid was completed. However, Stadelmann believed that the underground chamber represented the symbolic cavern of the death god, Sokar, whose major and possibly even original place of worship was near modern Giza. He thought that the ancient Egyptians believed that the dead pharaoh was supposed to merge symbolically with Sokar.

The Grand Gallery

From the descending entrance corridor, the ascending passage mentioned above, originally sealed with three, seven ton blocks of pink granite which are still in place, branches off. It runs for a length of 129 feet, rising at a gradient of 26230. Ma'mun's tunnel originally skirted this

The Grand Gallery in the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

passageway. Currently, one enters the ascending passageway through a hole that was hewn around these slabs from Ma'mun's tunnel. The ascending passageway leads to the Grand Gallery. One unique and ingenious feature of this passage is that it is supported by a series of four single stones which were hollowed out. Through these the corridor was laid. They have become known as the girdle stones. There are also 3 half girdles which are actually two stones combined for the same purpose. There is a seamless transition from this passage to the Great or Grand Gallery, an architectonic masterpiece. Its ceiling consists of a corbel vault built of seven layers of enormous limestone blocks, each of which projects about seven and a half centimeters.The chamber is 47 meters long and 8.48 meters high. Low ramps run along both sides of the gallery. On their surfaces, twenty-seven large and small square openings alternate at regular intervals, corresponding to the right-angled niches in the side walls. Their significance has been a matter of debate for some time, yet none of the explanations seem completely satisfactory. Perhaps the most widely accepted is Borchardt's. He believed that a structure of wooden beams and planks was anchored in these openings. Could it have been used to transport building materials or perhaps support blocks while building the corbel vault? So far scholars have been unable to find a reliable answer to such questions, though Mark Lehner seems to believe that these were actually holes for large beams which held blocks that roofed the horizontal passage into the Queen's Chamber, and provided a continuous floor for the Grand Gallery to the Ascending passage.

The Escape Shaft

At the lower end of the Great Gallery is a small opening in the west wall just above the door. This is where a narrow passage known as the service or escape shaft (which has also been termed a well shaft or grotto) opens. It is about 28 inches square throughout its course, and it leads to a corridor deep under the pyramid, near the entrance to the underground chambers. In places along the shaft, there appear to be rough footholes. Petrie thought that this was indeed an escape route for the men who were to lower the granite blocks into the ascending corridor when the burial ritual was over. However, his view has been challenged because it would have not been difficult to fill in the shaft from above once the burial was complete. Other scholars believe that the shaft simply provided fresh air for the workers who were digging the underground chamber out of the rock, but this view has also been challenged. It assumes that the underground chambers and the shaft were built after the Great Gallery, while the current assumption is that they were the first stage in the construction of the Great Pyramid's substructure.

The Middle, or Queen's Chamber

The Queen's Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

The entrance to the so-called Queen's Chamber, misnamed by Arab explorers and certainly not intended for a queen, is through a horizontal passageway that also begins at the lower end of the Great Gallery between the ramps and leads in a southerly direction for 45.72 meters (150 feet). Here, not long ago a French team carried out geophysical investigations. About five meters from the end of the passage, there is a step, and the passage then slopes downward about sixty centimeters to the floor level of the Queen's Chamber. This is at least a minor mystery. Some scholars think that the pink granite flooring began there and reached into the Queen's Chamber, before it was taken away by thieves. Others believe that the construction plan was altered to make an even more sumptuous burial chamber. The Queen's Chamber, which is entirely made of limestone blocks and almost completely finished, is located at the 25th course of masonry and is situated very precisely on the pyramid's east-west axis. It is 18 feet, 10 inches by 17 feet, 2 inches by 15 feet high. Like elsewhere in this pyramid, the walls are bare and uninscribed. It includes a gabled ceiling and there is a niche built about four and a half meters up in its east wall with a ceiling built as a corbel vault. Though its purpose is not entirely clear, it is very possible that a statue of the king or his

ka (soul) might have stood in it.

Note that in Mark Lehner's opinion, the Queen's Chamber would have been roofed over and therefore totally closed off, a characteristic of a serdab. A serdab was a room for the king's ka (the king's spiritual double) statue, which are found in a number of other pyramid structures.

The Queen's Chamber Shafts

The Niche, probably for a statue of the king, in the Queen's Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

Certainly unclear in significance, but today one of the primary focuses of continuing investigation in the Pyramid's internal structure, are the two narrow shafts, averaging about twenty by twenty centimeters, that begin in the north and south walls of the chamber and climb steeply upwards. These shafts are not entirely straight, as some might believe. For example the north shaft in the Queen's Chamber bends after about seventeen meters. Some experts think that these are ventilation shafts, while others would see an astronomical function. The north shaft is aligned with the the circumpolar stars Minoris, Ursa and Beta, while the south shaft is aligned with Sirius. Still other people think they may have served some unknown religious purpose. The openings of the shafts in the Queen's chamber were originally bricked up and even camouflaged. They were only discovered in 1872 by Dixon, who opened them. Similar

One of the doors discovered in the Queen's chamber shafts made of fine white Tura limestone with two copper handles

shafts can also be found in the King's Chamber. In the first part of 1993, as part of a project sponsored by the German Archaeological Institute, the engineer Rudolf Gantenbrick used a robot called UPUAUT 2 (Wepwawet), which he had equipped with a camera, to video the inner walls of the queens chamber shafts. The video shows that the southern shaft ended with a small limestone slab in which two heavily corroded pieces of copper had been inserted. Later investigations showed this door to be about six centimeters thick. Considerable speculation followed, with some believing even that behind the entrance there might be a chamber with a statue of the king. However, given the size of the shaft, this was unlikely, and moreover, the end of it is only about six meters from the outer surface of the pyramid.Nevertheless, one very interesting aspect of this shaft is, near the door, it is lined with what appears to be fine white Tura

limestone. Prior to this, the walls of the shaft are fairly

UPUAUT 2 entering a shaft in the Queen's chamber in the Great Pyramid of Khufu

uneven. UPUAUT 2 also attempted to explore the northern shaft, but was unable to venture beyond its bend. On September 17, 2002, a National Geographic robot Pyramid Rover), specially designed to traverse the southern shaft to the blocking stone, inserted a miniature fiber-optic camera into a three-quarter-of-an-inch hole to reveal the rough-hewn blocking stone lying 21 centimeters beyond the original southern shaft door. It is not similar to the first in that it looks as if it is screening or covering something. There were also cracks all over the surface. A few day's later, the robot built by iRobot of Boston was also sent up the length of the north shaft, which had more bends and twists than the southern shaft, discovering at its end a door very similar to that of the southern shaft. The doors are equidistant at about 65 meters (208 feet)

A copper object discovered in the southern shaft of the Queen's Chamber

from the queen's chamber.

The shaft became even more interesting when three objects were rediscovered not long ago in the British Museum's depository. They were items Dixon had originally taken from the north shaft in the Queen's Chamber, and included a stone (granite) sphere or ball, a wooden slat and a copper object in the form of a swallow's tail which is now usually referred to as a hook. (Actually, only the ball and hook were rediscovered in the British Museum) These objects, along with the robots' discoveries prompted Stadelmann, who was head of the German Archaeological Institute at the time of the Robot exploration, to conclude that the shafts were in fact model corridors, through which the king's soul could rise to the "stars that never are extinguished", that is, the circumpolar stars in the northern sky as well as the "land of light" in the southern sky". In other words, he reasoned that the shafts were built for the dead king's journey up to heaven. Of course, various questions remain. Other pyramids lack these shafts, and moreover, the use of false doors, believed to allow the deceased access to his or her offerings, needed not have physical openings. Also, why do the shafts exist in both the Queen's and King's chambers?

Passage leading either to the Grand Gallery or to the Queen's Chamber at the beginning of the Grand Gallery

It is not impossible that the Queen's Chamber was intended to serve as a backup burial chamber in the event of the pharaoh's sudden death. Perhaps that is why the shafts in the Queen's Chamber were later ritually sealed. It is worth noting that the "stopper" recorded by the robot revealed in the south shaft of the Queen's Chamber is located at about the level of the vertex of the gabled ceiling of the highest relieve chamber over the King's Chamber. Nevertheless, this still does not explain the function of the shafts. It would seem that the most popular theory among scholars has been that they did indeed serve some sort of ventilation function, but this view seems to be changing. Certainly the circulation of air is made difficult by the location of this chamber, and the King's Chamber, over the level of the pyramid's entrance, which could have made breathing difficult for workmen and during the burial rites. It should also be noted that the dominate winds were from the North, so the alignment of the shafts, while pointing to certain stars in the northern and southern hemisphere, was not unusual in itself. They could have played both a practical and a religious aspect, but their existence in only this pyramid seems to perhaps be their dominate function, since it is also the only such structure where the burial chamber is located above the entrance.Again, however, Egyptologists seem to be moving away from the ventilation theory in favor of a more symbolic role for these shafts. Next year, a new robot designed in Singapore will further explore the shafts. Interestingly, in several publications, Dr. Hawass is quoted as saying that: "It is impossible that these doors are only symbolic or were just built for King Khufu... Behind these doors are secrets that the robot can uncover," However, in is recent book, The Treasures of the Pyramids, Hawass explains that: "During recent examinations of the southern shaft in the middle chamber (Queen's Chamber), a small limestone block obstructing the end of the shaft was discovered that shows two copper fittings on its well-polished surface. These fitting were most probably hieroglyphic signs (as opposed to handles), symbols of magic power which enable the soul of the king to pass through the blockage. In the newest investigations, an opening was drilled through this small limestone block and an endoscopic camera inserted. The first pictures show a narrow empty space behind the first blocking and another less smooth limestone that shows faint quarry marks on its surface, which means that this stone is from the core of the pyramid. This would definitely confirm the theory developed after our first examination in 1992 that these shafts are model corridors sealed with model blocking stones. The first well-polished stone might well be a model portcullis stone (as opposed to a door). The examination of the model corridor leading out from the north side of the chamber presented more or less the same results. The corridor ends in front of a white limestone block. On its smooth surface, the traces of two copper fittings of the same kind as those on the southern blocking or porticullis stone are visible. These are surely not handles, but magic hieroglyphic signs for the soul of the king. On the surface, faint traces of quarry marks are detectable, the sign of the work-gang wadi ('the green ones'). and probably the hieroglyph prjj, 'to come out' (of the tomb). One can be absolutely sure that these corridors served only the ascent of the soul of the dead king to the northern and southern sky and that there were definitely no hidden chambers behind these blocks." Hence, the saga continues, but one may ask, why a new robot project if other possibilities do not exist.

The Upper or King's Chamber

Drawing of the King's Chamber and the relief chambers above it in the Great Pyramid at Giza

Within the short passageway between the upper end of the Great Gallery and the Queen's Chamber, there is the last plugging block preventing access to the pharaoh's burial chamber. It consists of three pink granite monoliths that were originally held vertical by means of ropes and a pulley and then lowered to form a barrier Beyond it, in the King's Chamber in the 50th course of masonry, Khufu was probably buried, This chamber, which measures 10.45 meters long, 5.20 meters wide and 5.80 meters high, is truly a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian architecture, made entirely of pink granite. It had to be built to resist an enormous amount of pressure. Its flat ceiling is composed of nine huge blocks with a combined weight of over four hundred tons. Above it are no less than five, carefully designed relief chambers which, in modern times, were discovered by the crude act of using dynamite to create an intrusive passageway. So well designed is this structure that, over the past four and a half millennia, there has only been one small crack develop in the ceiling slabs near the south wall. Here too are shafts, very similar to those in the Queen's chamber, which lead out to the two sides of the pyramid at heights of 71 and 53 meters.The northern

The pink granite monoliths originally held vertical by means of ropes and a pulley

channel is only 5" high x 7" wide and ascends at an angle of approximately 31and is 235' in length. The southern channel measures about 8" high x 12" wide, rises at an angle of 45 and is 175' in length. Presently there is a ventilation fan fitted into the southern shaft and this regulates the moisture in the chamber, minimizing the damage caused by the moisture produced by the breath and sweat of visitors. The relief chambers are low, each only a few feet high, and their flat upper covering consists of huge, roughly cut blocks of pink granite. Only the highest of the chambers have saddle ceilings. Their side walls are made of limestone and granite. Here, on the walls of these chambers, many builders marks were preserved, along with the graffiti of modern visitors. Petrie claims to have found a cattle census of the seventeenth year, which would have, if proven, be the latest dating of Khufu's reign.It should be noted that the markings in the relief chambers, which were never meant to be entered, provide us with the most

A view of several of the Relief Chambers in the Great Pyramid at Giza

compelling evidence of the ownership of the pyramid. The present entrance to the chambers is located in the south wall of the Great Gallery, under the ceiling, at the upper end. The lowest of the relieve chambers was visited in the eighteenth century by Nathanial Davison, and English diplomat. Today it bears his name, while the lower chambers were later named after England's Lord nelson, Duke Wellington and Lady Ann Arbuthnot. The largest was named after the Scottish diplomat and amateur archaeologist, Patrick Campbell. This whole structure, from the bottom of the King's Chamber to the top of the Campbell Chamber, is about twenty-one meters high. In the King's Chamber, situated near the west wall, is what we believe to be Khufu's pink granite sarcophagus, oriented north-south. It is 2.24 meters long and .96 meters wide. The cover of the sarcophagus, which would have weight about two tons, is missing, and neither it nor the king's mummy have ever been found (or at least identified). The sarcophagus is very large, weighing about 3.75 tons, and so it was almost certainly installed during the construction of the chamber, rather than having been moved to this location afterwards. Interestingly, considering the sophistication, splendor and meticulous construction of the pyramid as a whole, the sarcophagus is rather plan and modest. Some scholars believe that it was a substitute sarcophagus, hastily prepared after something happened to the original, perhaps on the

The sarcophagus believed to be that of Khufu in the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid at Giza

way from the quarries at Aswan. However, legends exist, which were recounted by Diodorus Siculus, that Khufu ultimately was not even buried in his pyramid. Medieval Arab historians mention the existence of a mummy-shaped coffin and the king's body, but do not say where they lay. However, this really means very little, as traditions can certainly become distorted over time and one wonders how the Medieval Arabs might have known it to be Khufu's remains. Nevertheless, this fits in with the claims of a Polish architect named Kozinski, who believes that the crack in the ceiling slabs of the King's Chamber had considerably greater consequences than we might at first believe. He suggests that the crack appeared even before the pyramid was finished, accompanied by an ear-splitting noise that must have been audible all about the construction site. If so, this event could have led to the construction of a new burial chamber.

Questions and more Questions

There are numerous questions that remain about the internal structure, particularly of the superstructure, and debate continues to rage both amongst scholars and laymen alike. Most scholarly thinking can be divided into those who believe that the pyramids internal structure was developed in stages, and those who believe it was all done according to a unified plan. The first group's view is probably best represented by Borchardt, who believed that it was built in three stages. Many Egyptologists have long accepted his suggestion that the pyramid's three chambers represent three different phases in its construction. Borchardt's view is that the location of the burial chamber in particular gradually changed. During the first phase, the burial chamber was planned for the subterranean chamber, but when the superstructure reached a height of about thirteen meters, the builders decided to create instead an internal chamber (the Queen's Chamber, second phase). Then, apparently the Queen's Chamber was abandoned and in the third stage, the builders constructed the Great Gallery and the King's Chamber, as well as the service or escape shaft. One must keep in mind that, at this point, pyramid building was still a relatively young art, and no building of this size had apparently ever been attempted, so it would not be out of the question to have construction changes.

Another plan of the internal and substructure of the Great Pyramid at Giza

However, Mark Lehner Old Kingdom pyramids. Specifically, Maragioglio and Rinaldi offered some very persuasive arguments against Borchardt's theory. They believe that the final internal structure was always planned as we find it today. They think that the underground chamber was a backup burial site to be used in case the king met an unexpected death. They also see the slight narrowing of the lower end of the ascending corridor as evidence that the Great Gallery was already included in the construction plans during this phase, in which the blocks needed to seal the corridor must have been put in place. Furthermore, they believe that the Queen's Chamber was never intended as a burial chamber, and that the niche in the east wall indicates that it had some special, though at this point, unknown function. Stadelmann is basically in agreement with them, seeing also a unified plan, but according to his theory, the significance of the Queen's Chamber corresponds to that of the second antechamber in the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, which was built by Khufu's father. Gantenbrink's measurements and calculations led him to the same conclusion. Most of the debate around the Great Pyramid of Khufu centers around these internal structures. Certainly, mostly laymen debate and will continue to debate the purpose of the pyramid, as well as who built it, but for Egyptologists, there remains enough serious questions about the internal structure probably to keep them busy for many more years to come. Back Home Next See Also

points out, for example, that three chambers seem to have been the rule for

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