Was the Great Pyramid of Giza the Work of a Tyrant?

Khufu not only built the biggest Egyptian pyramid, he is also known for his allegedly cruel and totalitarian reign. Explore the secrets of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

May 23, 2022By Sebastian Maydana, PhD History, MA Archaeological Studies, BA History

pyramid of giza with statue khufu


Very little is known about Khufu (Cheops in Greek), the builder of the largest pyramid in the world. Herodotus depicts him as a cruel, evil ruler, who made human sacrifices and enslaved the population of his country. Is there any truth behind this account? In this article we will take a look at Khufu and his Egyptian pyramid at Giza, a marvel of ancient architecture that is to this date one of the most visited monuments in the world.


1. Who Built the Largest Egyptian Pyramid?

statuette khufu
Statuette of King Khufu, 4th Dynasty (c. 2613-2494 BCE), via the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism


One of the few things we know for a fact about Khufu is that he was the second pharaoh of the 4th Dynasty, succeeding his father Sneferu to the throne of Egypt. He not only inherited his kingship, he also inherited a passion for pyramid building. His most important monument is the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the seven Wonders of the Ancient World. However, most of his reign remains obscure, more so thanks to the unflattering (and mostly false) portrait Herodotus made of him, two millennia after his death. There is only one complete image of Khufu that has survived to our days, and it is a small ivory statuette found in Abydos in 1903. Today, it is held in the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo.


Especially confusing is the length of his reign, which varies widely from source to source. For example, the Royal Canon of Turin acknowledges a total of 23 years for this king, while Herodotus gives an estimate of 50 years. Another ancient historian, Manetho, credits Khufu with 63 years.


2. Is Any Press Really Good Press?

marble bust herodotus
Marble bust of Herodotus, 2nd century CE, via the Met Museum


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Speaking of Herodotus, the great Greek historian had a decidedly negative opinion on Khufu, which in turn influenced how later historians regarded the king. In his words, Khufu was a cruel and evil tyrant. He forced a considerable part of the Egyptian populace into slavery, and made them work for him carrying heavy stones across the country. Herodotus claims that the building of his Egyptian pyramid in Giza demanded a workforce of 100,000 men every three months.


According to the Greek historian, again, 20 years passed before the Great Pyramid was finished. Given that Herodotus claimed the pyramid was 800 feet tall, which is almost double its real height, there are grounds to believe his other claims may also be exaggerated. His account of the construction itself, however, seems to be quite accurate, claiming that it was built by stacking stone bases one on top of the other, and then using wooden scaffoldings to lift smaller stones to fill the steps, giving it a smooth finishing.


egyptian tools new kingdom period
Ancient Egyptian tools, New Kingdom Period, via the British Museum


Herodotus also tells a tale about how his informant, an unnamed priest, read for him a hieroglyphic inscription where details on the costs and materials of the pyramid were detailed. After stating exactly how many radishes and onions were needed to feed the workers, the document allegedly explained how the king was able to afford this monument: 


“And so evil a man was Kheops that, needing money, he put his own daughter in a brothel and made her charge a fee (how much, they did not say). She did as her father told her, but was disposed to leave a memorial of her own, and asked of each coming to her that he give one stone.”
(Historiae, II, 126, 1)


According to Herodotus, Khufu’s daughter was able to build a small pyramid of her own thanks to the surplus stones she earned in the brothel. Modern historians were not able to find the sources Herodotus claims to have found, and none of his views surrounding Khufu and his daughter are supported by factual evidence.


3. What Happened During the 4th Dynasty?

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The So-Called Palermo Stone, 5th Dynasty (c. 2500-2350 BCE), via the Egyptian Museum in Milan


The 4th Dynasty has rightly been called the “Golden Age of Pyramids” by Historians. The Egyptian state finally settled and achieved peace along the Nile by the 3rd Dynasty, allowing future kings time for building an empire instead of waging war on every border. The most prolific pyramid experimenter was without a doubt Pharaoh Sneferu, Khufu’s father. Every Old Kingdom ruler after him, except for Shepseskaf, built at least one Egyptian pyramid. Many of them chose the ideal Giza plateau to place their funerary monuments.


The so-called Old Kingdom comprised Dynasties 3 to 6 and was characterized by the concentration and specialization of the government, the organization of religion, and massive territorial expansion. During the 4th Dynasty, Egyptian pharaohs ruled over Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, and a good part of Nubia, to the south. The worship of the sun-god Re became commonplace and expanded to all territories. Pharaohs, in order to be closer upon death to the sky and to the gods, began building ever higher structures where their remains would safely rest forever.


4. Building the Largest Egyptian Pyramid

model egyptian pyramid workers ramp
Possible reconstruction of how the pyramids were built, via the Canadian Museum of History


There is no doubt that building the Great Egyptian Pyramid of Giza was the most important architectural achievement humanity had accomplished until then. The fact that it is still standing almost six thousand years later only stresses the precision and dedication which were put into its making. As we have mentioned before, while the duration of Khufu’s reign is disputed, it is clear that it can never be shorter than the time it took to build his pyramid. Egyptologists have calculated that the pyramid demanded around 27 years before it was finished.


When it was initially built, it stood at 146.5 meters, or 481 feet, and it remained the tallest man-made structure on earth for almost 4 millennia.


Over time, the outer limestone casing deteriorated, lowering the height of the pyramid to almost 140 meters (460ft). Construction workers took advantage of an existing hillock, so they could save materials. Considering that the calculated volume of this Egyptian pyramid amounts to roughly 2,600,00 cubic meters, or 92,000,000 cubic feet, this strategy proved essential to considerably lower the costs.


egyptian pyramids at giza osama elsayed
Pyramids at Giza, photo by Osama Elsayed, via Unsplash


Construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza demanded an estimated 2.3 million large stone blocks, weighing 6 million tonnes in total. Most of them were quarried at a local limestone deposit in the Giza plateau, but the outer casing and some blocks used in the King’s Chamber, were loaded into barges and brought downstream from Aswan, roughly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) to the south. Inside the pyramid, there are two additional chambers, but one of them was never finished. The King’s and the Queen’s chamber once contained their granite sarcophagi. The Egyptian pyramid of Khufu was part of a huge funerary complex consisting of the pyramid, two mortuary temples, some subsidiary tombs belonging to the family of the king and his court, four smaller satellite pyramids, and a burial place where solar barges were found.


Regarding the actual construction of this pyramid, no written records have survived, sometimes prompting the erroneous assumption that there was something odd about such an architectural feat. However, Egyptologists have developed several models, mainly involving ramps and the rolling of logs below the stone blocks, that show how perfectly possible it was to build a pyramid at the time. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of huge, temporary accommodation for workers called “pyramid towns,” that housed thousands of people at a time, while they were working on the pyramid. One thing is certain. The Egyptian pyramid of Giza was not built by slaves, as there were no slaves in Egypt before the Ptolemaic Period.


5. Joseph’s Granaries

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Joseph Gathering Corn, anonymous mosaic in the Atrium of the San Marco Church, Venice, Italy, 13th Century CE, via the Boston College


There are many legends surrounding the Egyptian Pyramids of Giza. Perhaps the most famous of them involved Napoleon Bonaparte, who was said to have slept inside the Great Egyptian Pyramid of Giza during his 1798 military campaign. He was convinced that it was the resting place of a king, and it was only right for him to follow suit. During late antiquity, however, this was not common knowledge. A (mis)interpretation of the pyramids as huge stores for grain gained popularity, thanks to the tales and stories brought back to Europe by religious pilgrims. Many of them claimed that the pyramids were the actual Joseph’s granaries, as mentioned in the Bible.


During the Roman rule of Egypt, especially after the Empire adopted Christianity under Constantine the Great, pilgrims flocked to the Holy Places, and almost always went through Alexandria in Egypt. Ascetic monks on their way back from Jerusalem confirmed that the pyramids were indeed the granaries where Joseph stored corn, just before the years of famine when it was badly needed by the Jewish people. In the 6th century CE, a priest by the name Stephanos of Byzantium posited the theory that the word pyramid came from the Greek πυρός (pyros), which meant wheat. This was partly true, as it is now believed that the word pyramid comes from a Greek word used to describe a kind of wheat cake, which was allegedly pyramidal in form. Only in the 16th century CE was the word pyramid used in its modern, geometrical sense. Around this time, too, it was finally proven that the Egyptian pyramids were actually funerary monuments, and ancient kings were buried inside.


6. Khufu’s Boats

boat cedar giza plateau solar barque
Khufu’s Boat, 4th Dynasty (c. 2.613-2.494 BCE), via the Archaeological Institute of America


An impressive discovery was made in 1954 when explorers unearthed a perfectly preserved full-size solar barque from a pit near the Great Egyptian pyramid. While it was not the only boat to have been found buried in the area, the fact that it was intact helped researchers learn valuable information about ancient Egyptian religion. As it was, Khufu’s boat was intended to help the pharaoh navigate his way in the Underworld, able to sail for all eternity. Solar boats were intended to represent that of the sun-god Re, with which he journeyed daily across the sky.


Khufu’s boat is 43.4 meters long, or 142 feet, and 5.9 meters (19ft) wide. Some scholars have calculated that if it was tossed into the River Nile, it would be perfectly capable of sailing. This goes to show the impressive craftmanship ancient Egyptians were capable of. A museum was built right next to the Great Pyramid to house the ship, and it remained inside it until August 2021, when it was relocated to the new Grand Egyptian Museum.


7. The Truth About the Great Egyptian Pyramid of Giza

egyptian pyramids giza satellite image
Aerial view of the Giza Pyramids, Satellite Image, via NASA


We should end this article by addressing the elephant in the room. As the reader is certainly aware, there are any number of esoteric theories about the Great Egyptian Pyramids at Giza. Theories which involve aliens, impossible astronomic calculations, ancient lost civilizations, etc. This is the product of a double underestimation: On the one hand, of the capabilities of our ancestors; and on the other hand, of the seriousness and erudition of modern-day Egyptologists.


Paradoxically, most of these theories tend to exaggerate the “perfection” of the pyramid. In reality, not one of its millions of stone blocks is perfectly cubical, and the traces of chisels and other human tools are there for everyone to see in each one of them. Many later graffiti present in ostraca found in the pyramid towns show the signatures of gangs of workmen who claim to have built these monuments. All in all, the Great Giza Pyramid is the result of human engineering and innovation. By learning more about the pyramids and the kings who built them, one can begin to appreciate the power and ingenuity of those who preceded us on this earth.

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By Sebastian MaydanaPhD History, MA Archaeological Studies, BA HistorySebastian F. Maydana holds a PhD in History from the University of Buenos Aires, and is an assistant teacher at the Institute of Ancient Near Eastern History (UBA). His main interests are early Egyptian mythology and visual culture, especially petroglyphs and other forms of art. He has participated in fieldwork in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Sebastian is also interested in the different forms in which myths and symbols from the past are received and repurposed by our modern-age societies, for instance in film and science fiction.