The ancient Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (c. 2609–c. 2566 BC) envisioned his tomb as a towering limestone monument to his own greatness. The great pyramid in the desert, he hoped, would not only protect his soul during its journey to the afterlife, but also ensure that the world would never forget his twenty-three-year reign.
Sure enough, the world hasn’t forgotten. Khufu’s name is forever linked with the enormous Great Pyramid of Giza, which it took an army of laborers nearly the pharaoh’s entire lifetime to complete. The pyramid, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was the tallest man-made structure on Earth when it was completed—and it would remain so for the next 3,000 years.
Aside from his enthusiasm for pyramids, however, little is known about Khufu. He was the son of King Sneferu and the second member of ancient Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty. He became pharaoh while still in his twenties, following Sneferu’s death. Khufu may have conducted some military expeditions to Nubia, south of Egypt, and Libya, to the west.
The religious significance of the pyramids is thought to stem from Egyptians’ beliefs about the afterlife. They considered pharaohs to be living gods whose entry into heaven after their deaths on Earth was eased by pyramids. Khufu’s Great Pyramid was the first and largest such structure built at Giza. The pharaoh also built several smaller tombs for his wives and relatives, and two of his successors built their pyramids nearby. Most of the limestone used in the pyramids was quarried nearby, floated down the Nile on rafts, and then dragged up a massive ramp in enormous, three-ton blocks to the construction site. Other components were imported from as far away as Lebanon.
After his death at about age fifty, Khufu was mummified and buried in a tomb deep within the pyramid. Although the exterior layer of stonework casing was plundered over the millennia, the Great Pyramid remains largely intact, just as the pharaoh intended.
- The Great Pyramid is made of roughly 2.3 million limestone blocks, some weighing as much as fifteen tons. The whole structure weighs about 6 million tons.
- Khufu’s full name was Khnum-Khufwy, meaning “Khnum, protect me.” Khnum was the ancient Egyptian god of the Nile River, which was the lifeblood of Egyptian agriculture and commerce.
- The Great Sphinx, a huge statue of a half-man, half-lion figure that stands near the Great Pyramid, is thought to have been constructed by Khufu’s son, the pharaoh Khafra (c. 2558–2532 BC)