The Great Pyramid of Giza is one of the most recognisable landmarks on Earth. As the crowning glory of the Giza necropolis, it was the first pyramid to be built at the site and stood as the tallest man-made structure on the planet for over 3,800 years
But who was the pharaoh who built it? Here are 10 facts about Khufu, the man behind the marvel.
1. Khufu belonged to the ruling family of the Fourth Dynasty
Born in the 3rd millennia BC, Khufu (also known as Cheops) belonged the large royal family that ruled Egypt during the Fourth Dynasty.
His mother is thought to be Queen Hetepheres I and his father King Sneferu, the founder of the Fourth Dynasty, though some researchers suggest he may have been his stepfather.
As the daughter of Huni, the last pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, Hetepheres’ marriage to Sneferu joined two great royal bloodlines and helped to solidify his position as pharaoh of a new dynasty, as well as secure Khufu’s place in the line of succession.
2. Khufu was named after an early Egyptian god
Though he is often known by the shortened version, Khufu’s full name was Khnum-khufwy. This was after the god Khnum, one of the earliest-known deities in ancient Egyptian history.
Khnum was the guardian of the source of the river Nile and the creator of human children. As his prominence grew, ancient Egyptian parents began to give their children theophoric names relating to him. As such, the young Khufu’s full name means: “Khnum is my Protector”.
3. The exact length of his reign is unknown
Khufu’s reign is generally dated at 23 years between 2589-2566 BC, though its exact length is unknown. The few dated sources from Khufu’s reign all surround a common yet perplexing ancient Egyptian custom: the cattle count.
Serving as the tax collection for the whole of Egypt, this was often used to measure time, e.g. “in the year of the 17th cattle count”.
Historians are unsure whether cattle counts were held annually or biannually during Khufu’s reign, making it difficult to place the timeframes measured. From the evidence, he may have reigned for at least 26 or 27 years, possibly over 34 years, or as many as 46.
4. Khufu had at least 2 wives
In the ancient Egyptian tradition, Khufu’s first wife was his half-sister Meritites I, who appears to have been highly favoured by both Khufu and Sneferu. She was the mother of Khufu’s eldest son Crown Prince Kawab, and possibly his second son and first successor Djedefre.
His second wife was Henutsen, who may have also been his half-sister, though little is known about her life. She was the mother of at least two princes, Khufukhaf and Minkhaf, and both queens are thought to be buried in the Queen’s Pyramid complex
5. Khufu traded outside of Egypt
Intriguingly, it is known Khufu traded with Byblos in modern-day Lebanon, where he acquired the highly prized Lebanon cedar wood.
This was essential for crafting strong and sturdy funerary boats, many of which were found inside the Great Pyramid.
6. He developed Egypt’s mining industry
Prizing both construction materials and precious materials like copper and turquoise, Khufu developed the mining industry in Egypt. At the site of Wadi Maghareh, known to the ancient Egyptians as the ‘Terraces of Turquoise’, impressive reliefs of the pharaoh have been found.
His name also features in inscriptions at quarries such as Hatnub, where Egyptian alabaster was quarried, and Wadi Hammamat, where Basalts and gold-containing quartz were quarried. Limestone and granite were also quarried in vast amounts, for a rather large building project he was working on…
7. Khufu commissioned the Great Pyramid of Giza
Built over a period of around 27 years, the Great Pyramid is undoubtedly Khufu’s greatest legacy. It is the largest pyramid in Giza – and the world! – and was built as a tomb for the great pharaoh, who named it Akhet-Khufu (horizon of Khufu).
Measuring at 481 feet tall, Khufu chose a natural plateau for his vast pyramid so that it could be seen from far and wide. For nearly 4 millennia it was the tallest building on the planet – until peculiarly being surpassed by Lincoln Cathedral in 1311.
Today, it remains the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence.
8. Only one full-body depiction has been found of Khufu
Despite building one of the tallest and most striking structures on Earth, only one full-body depiction of Khufu himself has been found… and it is tiny!
Discovered in 1903 in Abydos, Egypt, the Khufu Statuette is around 7.5cm high and features the pharaoh in a seated position, wearing the Red crown of Lower Egypt. This may have been used by a mortuary cult to the king or as a votive offering in later years.
9. He had 14 children, including 2 future pharaohs
Khufu’s children include 9 sons and 6 daughters, including Djedefra and Khafre, who would both become pharaohs following his death.
The second largest pyramid in Giza belongs to Khafre, and the smallest to his son and Khufu’s grandson, Menkaure.
10. Khufu’s legacy is mixed
Following his death a vast mortuary cult grew at Khufu’s necropolis, which was notably still followed by the 26th Dynasty, 2,000 years later.
He did not enjoy such reverence everywhere however. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was a particular critic, depicting Khufu as a vicious tyrant who used slaves to build his Great Pyramid.
Many Egyptologists believe these claims to be merely defamatory, guided by the Greek viewpoint that such structures could only be built through greed and misery.
Little evidence supports this image of Khufu however, and recent discoveries suggest his magnificent monument was built not by slaves, but thousands of conscripted labourers.