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Journeys of the Pyramid Builders

The story of the highly skilled workers who helped build Egypt’s Great Pyramid is emerging from a papyrus cache unearthed at the world’s oldest harbor

July/August 2022

Egypt Giza PyramidsOn a summer afternoon around 4,600 years ago, near the end of the reign of the pharaoh Khufu, a boat crewed by some 40 workers headed downstream on the Nile toward the Giza Plateau. The vessel, whose prow was emblazoned with a uraeus, the stylized image of an upright cobra worn by pharaohs as a head ornament, was laden with large limestone blocks being transported from the Tura quarries on the eastern side of the Nile. Under the direction of their overseer, known as Inspector Merer, the team steered the boat west toward the plateau, passing through a gateway between a pair of raised mounds called the Ro-She Khufu, the Entrance to the Lake of Khufu. This lake was part of a network of artificial waterways and canals that had been dredged to allow boats to bring supplies right up to the plateau’s edge.


Egypt MapAs the boatmen approached their docking station, they could see Khufu’s Great Pyramid, called Akhet Khufu, or the Horizon of Khufu, soaring into the sky. At this point in Khufu’s reign (r. ca. 2633–2605 B.C.), the pyramid would have been essentially complete, encased in gleaming white limestone blocks of the sort the boat carried. At the edge of the water, perched on a massive limestone foundation, loomed Khufu’s valley temple, known as Ankhu Khufu, or Khufu Lives, which was connected to the pyramid by a half-mile-long causeway. When the pharaoh died, his body would be taken to the valley temple and then carried to the pyramid for burial. Nearby stood a royal palace, archives, granary, and workers’ barracks.


After offloading their cargo, the men anchored their boat in the lake alongside dozens—if not hundreds—of other boats and barges that had brought a variety of materials necessary to complete construction of the pyramid complex: granite beams from Aswan, gypsum and basalt from the Fayum, and timber from Lebanon. Also arriving by boat were workers from across Egypt and cattle from the Nile Delta to feed them. As the sun set and twilight deepened, hearth fires twinkled on land and on many of the boats. Merer and his men settled in for a night’s sleep, after which they would head back to the quarries to pick up another load of limestone blocks. They would make two or three such round trips in the next 10 days.


Egypt Giza Basalt Saw MarksThe Great Pyramid originally measured some 481 feet tall and 755 feet on a side. It was composed of an astounding 91 million cubic feet of stone—roughly the amount it would take to fill a football stadium to the top tier of seats. Although nowhere to be seen in the finished product, massive amounts of copper were essential to building the monument. Copper picks were used to quarry the stone. Copper saws were used to cut it, and experiments have shown that an inch of metal was lost from blades for every one to four inches of stone cut. While preparing the stone blocks for use in the pyramid, workers smoothed their surfaces with copper chisels the width of an index finger. The immense quantity of copper consumed by the construction project—not to mention the other pyramids and monumental buildings that preceded and followed it—led to an urgent search for sources of the metal.

Giza Maritime Infrastructure
Giza's Layout