The Pharaoh Khufu built the most audacious and sublime monument in history, the Great Pyramid of Egypt. So, what do we know about this legendary king from the Fourth Dynasty? Surprisingly, testament to his life, let alone pyramid is conspicuously scant, casting doubt over his true identity. Nevertheless, there are several viable candidates for the figure known as Khufu, including the traditional attribution championed by most orthodox academics, for evidence suggests that the oft-maligned field of Egyptology may, in fact, be right. But there are others, one being that Khufu’s real name was confused with the ‘oath of protection’ bestowed by his parents, while another, albeit controversial, possibility is that the celebrated king was actually a woman.
The sole surviving statue of Khufu. Does it portray the builder of the Great Pyramid?
For an era that produced the spectacular pyramids of Meidum, Dashour, Giza and Abu Roash, embodying the pinnacle of Egyptian building prowess, the Fourth Dynasty (circa BCE 2575 – 2465) remains veiled in anonymity. Take, for instance, the five-volume, 1500-page ‘Ancient Records of Egypt’ (1922) by J.H. Breasted, which is indexed by Dynasty and Pharaoh and includes texts transcribed from ancient documents and artefacts, yet includes only 13 pages on the prodigious pyramid builders of the Fourth Dynasty. This is but one of many other examples, particularly in regards to Khufu, the second king of the period known as the Egyptian Old Kingdom.
Fourth Dynasty grandeur: the pyramids of Dashour, Giza and Meidum
Khufu was one of several children born to King Sneferu and Queen Hetepheres and had fifteen daughters and nine sons of his own, including his successor, Radjedef. According to the Turin King List, Khufu reigned for 23 years. Other sources ascribe varying lengths: Manetho 65 years; Herodotus 50. Regardless of the differences, one thing is certain; history does not remember Khufu kindly. In fact, for a man of his apparent renown, it hardly remembers him at all.
Khufu’s name, as it appears in the Kings Lists
Khufu’s father, Sneferu, was the first pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, an accomplished builder in his own right, who constructed two impressive pyramids at Dashour and a third at Meidum. American Egyptologist, Mark Lerner, comments on Khufu’s achievement relative to his father’s, in his authoritative work, ‘The Complete Pyramids’: “If Khufu did not equal the total mass of his father’s monuments, he came close in his single pyramid and far surpassed his father’s pyramids in size and accuracy.” So Khufu literally built upon his father’s legacy and succeeded in creating the grandest pyramid of them all - the Great Pyramid, which, we are told, he referred to as the “House of Isis”, a peculiar detail that we shall return to shortly.
Pharaoh Sneferu, Khufu’s father
While Sneferu, the ‘Good King’, was remembered as a kind and benevolent ruler, Khufu’s legacy is quite the opposite. This is reinforced in many tales, including the writings of the Fifth Century BCE historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt two thousand years after Khufu and recorded an account that portrays the pharaoh as an oppressive tyrant, despised by his people; a heartless man who let his own daughter work in a brothel in order to fund the construction of her pyramid. Herodotus recounts:
“Kheops [the Ancient Greek name for Khufu] brought the country into all kinds of misery. He closed the temples, forbade his subjects to offer sacrifices, and compelled them without exception to labor upon his works. The Egyptians can hardly bring themselves to mentionKheopsso great is their hatred."
A bust of Herodotus, the ‘first historian’, who shaped our image of Khufu
Two thousand years after Herodotus, we find that history is less critical, yet more quizzical, of Khufu’s legacy, as Egyptology authority Joyce Tyldesley recounts in her 2003 book, ‘Pyramids: The Real Story Behind Egypt’s Most Ancient Monuments’: “In fact, there is no contemporary evidence to suggest that Khufu ever opposed his people, but then, leaving his prodigious building achievements aside, there is virtually no evidence of his reign, good or bad.”
Still others, such as William R. Fix, question the validity of the Fourth Dynasty as a whole, in his 1978 book, ‘Pyramid Odyssey’:
“There are just not enough historical markers for anyone to describe that era. There is no clear and solid evidence of any kind that there was a pyramid building 4th Dynasty King called Khufu…The entire pattern of evidence suggests, on the contrary, that if there ever was a King Khufu he lived long after the Pyramid was built and was named after the pyramid – not the other way around.”
So, it appears that the Fourth Dynasty is historically ambiguous, especially as it pertains to the elusive pharaoh, Khufu. Might his real identity not be as iron-clad as previously thought? While speculation to this effect is in order, there is ample evidence to suggest that Khufu was the king we thought he was. For a start, the Giza plateau is speckled with his name, as catalogued by the American Egyptologist George Andrew Reisner (1867 – 1942) during the early part of the last century, as are lands further afield, such as the Dakhla Oasis in the Sahara, where an inscription bears evidence of the duration of Khufu’s reign.
Khufu's name enclosed in a serekh, as found in the distant Dakhla Oasis
Cults of Khufu appear shortly after his death and succeeding Dynasties paid homage to him for 2,500 years. As a result of the adoration bestowed upon the king, it is believed that his relics, i.e. statues and reliefs, were looted or relocated and are now lost from history. If true, this would explain the conspicuous lack of artefacts that have survived and help answer the burning question; where is the physical evidence of Khufu’s legacy?
The belief that Khufu is who we think he is remains the favoured theory, and justifiably so, for Occams Razor - the adage that the simplest explanation is most likely correct - suggests he was a Fourth Dynasty king. While this is entirely reasonable, I believe there are other possibilities that deserve consideration, especially in light of the evidence or, should I say, lack thereof?
The 13th century Franciscan Friar and Philosopher, William Ockham
Egyptologists tell us that Khufu’s full name was "Khnum-Khufu", meaning "the god Khnum protects me.” The phrase is intriguing, for it sounds less like a name and more like a spell or oath of protection. In reality, it is both; a theophoric name, Greek for "bearing a deity”, or the practice of embedding a god in a child’s name in order to secure protection from the deity. Egyptologist, Wallis Budge, discusses the Khnum quandary in Volume II of his 1912 book, ‘The Gods of The Egyptians’: ‘The name of Khnemu is connected with the root Khnem, “to join, to unite,” and with Khnem, “to build”; astronomically the name refers to the “conjunction” of the sun and moon at stated times of the year, and we know from the texts of all periods that Khnemu was the “builder” of the gods of men.” Serendipitously, Budge’s analysis seems eerily appropriate for a king who ‘created’ the greatest monument in history.
The representation of Khufu’s Royal Name, meaning ‘Protected by Khnum’
So, who exactly was Khnum? As god of the source of the River Nile, Khnum was one of the earliest Egyptian deities and, by definition, a god of the south, where he was associated with Amun and Osiris. The Osiris association is not surprising, for Khnum is depicted with a ram’s head, which sometimes resembles the head of a bull, and each were potent symbols of procreation in ancient times, as was Osiris. Khnum was the creator god, and afforded each new life a fixed number of years, called ‘that which is ordained’, giving rise to the modern notion of ‘Fate’.
The Ram-headed god, Khnum
Khnum’s many titles included ‘Divine Potter’ and ‘Lord of Created Things from Himself’, due to the fact that he used a potter’s wheel to construct children’s bodies from clay. Khnum’s work was considered complementary with that of the Memphite God Ptah, who similarly sported ram horns and fashioned new bodies for the souls of the dead in the underworld; each was believed to be carrying out the orders of the god, Thoth. His primary cult was centred on the ancient island of Abu, known today as Elephantine - site of the first city, according to Egyptian mythology - and it was here that he formed a triad with his wife, the goddesses Satis, and their daughter Anuket.
Satis was an early deity of war, hunting, and fertility, as well as the goddess of the inundation of the River Nile. Her daughter, Anuket, was known as the goddess of the River Nile itself and became known as the ‘Eye of RA’, which later evolved into the ‘Eye of Horus’. Curiously, Satis is also associated with the planet Sirus, whose heliacal rising signaled the annual flooding of the River Nile, an event that is entirely consistent with the roles of Khnum, Satis and Anuket; a trinity that appears to have been worshipped long before the Fourth Dynasty, possibly back to pre-dynastic times.
It is also interesting that at Elephantine we have the famous 'Famine Stele', which contains instructions for the construction of pyramids, given by Khnum, in a dream by the Third Dynasty King Zoser, who commissioned his official Imhotep to build the first Egyptian pyramid, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. The stele depicts the trinity of Khnum, Satis and Anuket receiving offerings from Zoser, who has been informed that Khnum is angry and has inhibited the flow of the River Nile. Upon learning this, Zoser commissions offerings to Khnum and re-establishes Khnum's temple at Elephantine and then dreams that Khnum will end the drought. The story is fascinating, for it confirms the importance of Khnum as early as the Third Dynasty, as well as how he is associated with the construction of sacred structures, such as pyramids.
Temple of Khnum at Elephantine, where his cult originated and detail from the Famine Stele on Elephantine; proof of Khnum’s importance prior to Khufu
Over time, Khnum grew tired of his procreation responsibilities and placed a potter’s wheel in each woman’s womb, so they may bear children without his help, thus allowing him to focus on maintaining the energy life force, not creating it. Still, Khnum created all other deities, and was an extremely important god within the Egyptian pantheon. Barbara Watterson reflects on Khnum in her 1984 book, ‘Gods of Ancient Egypt’: “The most famous scene of Khnum in this role is found in the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahri, where he is shown modelling the queen and her ka on his potter’s wheel.” We will return to Hatshepsut and her association with Khnum shortly, for it is important to our understanding of Khufu’s possible identity.
Khnum at his potters wheel © www.ultimateutopia.co.uk
Khufu appears to have been worshipped throughout Egypt, not just at Giza. For instance, his cartouche is found on a relief in the pyramid of Amenemhat I, the first ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty. This period is known as the Middle Kingdom (2040 BC and 1640 BCE) and the cult of Khnum-Khufu dedicated its most famous sanctuary at Esna, built by the Romans in the first century AD! The question remains; why was a pharaoh whom Herodotus found to be loathed, venerated at all, let alone 2,000 years after his death?
Clearly, the custom of paying homage to the god who creates life and watches over young children was not unique to the Fourth Dynasty, and this is understandable, for naming a child after Khnum would have been a sensible precaution; an honour that parents bestow to the powerful deity in exchange for the child’s protection and well-being. So, why would this tradition cease or be short lived? On the contrary, one would expect it to endure, if not strengthen, over the years. In ancient Egypt, children were often named ‘Khnum-khufwy’, meaning ‘Khnum is my Protector’. Might Khufu have been an oath of protection bestowed by Sneferu on his favoured child, and, if so, has that child’s real name been obscured over time? And might Khufu’s poor standing with the people of Egypt, as recounted by Herodotus, be attributed to the deeds performed by the god Khnum, rather than a historical figure whose identity has, at best, blurred over time?
French physicist and mathematician, Andre Pochan, discusses the association of Khufu and Khnum Khufu in his 1968 book, ‘Chronology of Egypt’, and takes the notion further, adding that the Great Pyramid was the ‘Solar Temple of Khnum’, and that the re-occurrence of ‘Khufu’ alongside ‘Khnum-Khufu’ is reflective of a battle between rival religious factions, with ‘Khufu’ being the usurper and Khnum-Khufu being the choice of the traditionalists. The argument is interesting, and supports the notion that the cult of Khufu ‘the god’ is what is being honoured at Giza, and elsewhere, not an individual.
Where the name Khufu has been etched in the archaeological record, we often find Khnum-Khufu and this has given rise to considerable debate amongst scholars. A possible explanation is that the concept of a cartouche, or the oblong enclosure containing the hieroglyphic representation of a royal name, had only been introduced by Sneferu, at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty. As far as I am aware, there are no earlier references to Khnum-Khufu and Khufu before the Fourth Dynasty. Might the practice of including a god’s name in a cartouche have been an early rendition of the evolving cartouche protocol?
Egyptologist, James P Allen, offers an intriguing and relevant insight in his book, ‘Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs’ (2000): “Of the five royal titularies it was the throne name, also referred to as prenomen, and the "Son of Re" titulary, the so-called nomen, i.e., the name given at birth, which were enclosed by a cartouche.” The ‘name given at birth’; in the early Fourth Dynasty, might that have included the name of the creator god, Khnum? This prompts the question, could the precursor to the cartouche - the ‘Horus Name’, or the incarnation of god on earth - shed further light on Khufu’s true identity?
For the pharaoh who constructed the most famous monument of the ancient world, few - if any - images remain. Conventional thinking suggests they were looted or removed out of reverence and then lost, or reused elsewhere; or, alternatively, they never existed in the first place. The most convincing evidence for their existence was found in Khufu’s Mortuary Temple. Here, Reisner discovered what appeared to be ruined statues of Khufu, albeit with only the feet remaining, while other damaged reliefs bearing Khufu’s name only serve to portray fragmented images of a faceless king. These tantalising, incomplete carvings do nothing to divulge the personality of the king, and while today we can stare into the eyes of Khafre in the form of his famous diorite statue, in Khufu's case we have no defining image and his identity seems instead to be shrouded in mystery and intrigue.
Mortuary Temples were standard components of all large scale pyramids and were used to commemorate the deceased pharaoh, and it is in these temples that that statues of other Fourth Dynasty pharaoh's have been discovered, suggesting that Reisner may have correctly identified the remnants of a once equally grand statue of Khufu that was irrevocably damaged in antiquity.
Regal statues of King Khafre (left) – builder of the 2nd pyramid at Giza, and Menkaure (with his Queen) – builder of the 3rd pyramid at Giza. Did similar statues of Khufu ever exist or were they destroyed - as damaged reliefs and statue bases discovered by Reisner in the ruins of the Great Pyramid's Mortuary Temple may suggest?
Bizarrely, the sole surviving statuette of the king is a miniature, 3-inch ivory figurine, discovered in Abydos in 1903 by the famed English Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie. And even that is shrouded in controversy, for the body of the statue, which bears Khufu’s ‘Horus Name’, was discovered without its head, prompting Petrie to stop all excavations until it was discovered in the rubble a few weeks later.
Just why it took an entire team of workers several weeks to sift through the sand to locate the head has never really made sense, and only Petrie’s stellar reputation prevented further speculation on the authenticity of the hugely significant find. Petrie would have, undoubtedly, been aware of the significance of his discovery; he had uncovered the world’s first - and to this day only - statue of the king who built the Great Pyramid.
William Matthew Flinders Petrie: ‘The Father of Egyptian Archaeology'
However, upon closer inspection, Khufu’s faded Horus Name looks indistinguishable from the Horus Names of other pharaohs. Of equal concern is the fact that Horus Names were only used as the primary identifier of royalty in the First, Second and Third Dynasties (and again in the early Eleventh Dynasty) before being transformed into the cartouche in the Fourth Dynasty by Sneferu, Khufu’s father. Although Horus Names continued to be used in conjunction with other naming conventions, by the time of Khufu, the cartouche had become the primary identifier of the pharaoh.
In reality there were five primary names for a king: (1) the Horus Name: the oldest naming convention, depicting the king’s name inside a niche façade of the palace, representing the god’s name on earth; (2) the Nebty Name: the name representing the “two Ladies" or goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt; (3) the Golden Horus Name: the two golden falcons, unframed, like the Horus Name, believed to represent the king’s initiation name; (4) the Throne Name: Khnum-Khufu in the case of Khufu, written inside a cartouche and represented with an ideogram of a Bee; and (5) the Nomen, or Birth Name: (Knhum)-Khufu in the case of Khufu, preceded by the phrase ‘son of Ra’. The incarnations of the king’s royal name are confusing, as is the fact that Manetho refers to Khufu as Suphis, and the Kings Lists show Khufu or Khufuf, while Khufu’s alternative names down through history include Khuf, Chufu, Khoufou, Cheops and Kheops.
The Horus Name of Khufu
With such complexity, one must be careful in drawing conclusions. However, it is fair to inquire why, by the onset of the Fourth Dynasty, and especially by the time of Khufu – its 2nd pharaoh – a Horus Name and not a cartouche would have been used to portray the royal name of the most important king of the Dynasty? And lastly, Abydos, the location where the statue was discovered, only really became a cult centre of Osiris and Isis from the end of the Old Kingdom (not its beginning, which Khufu’s reign represents), so the likelihood of an effigy of the king being found there, although entirely plausible given Abydos’s special status as a religious centre, is not as tidy as it might otherwise be.
The 3-inch statue of Khufu discovered headless by Petrie in Abydos
Remarkably, the 3-inch ivory statue is all that remains of an Egyptian king who ruled for over two decades and who built the greatest monument of his or any other day. Other images have been thought to represent the great king, such as a giant head, now in the Brooklyn Museum, and a miniature head in a museum in Munich. However, all that links these images with Khufu is their stylistic similarity to the headless statue Petrie found in Abydos; no cartouche, Horus Name or identifier suggests Khufu. So, the evidence is rather underwhelming, to say the least. Are there lost Khufu artefacts waiting to be discovered? One thing for certain is that the evidence, like our understanding, needs re-examining.
Other, non-image bearing objects have been attributed to Khufu, such as an artefact known as the "Ring of Cheops", which was thought to have belonged to the king, as it bears his cartouche, but is now believed to have been the possession of a priest from a 25th Dynasty (760 BC to 656 BC) cult that worshipped Khufu at Giza. This raises the question: was this cult venerating the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid, or the god of the River Nile, the bringer of the life-giving inundation, who was also the protector of children? Disappointingly, even objects that contain the King’s cartouche do not bring us closer to understanding his true identity. So where does that leave us?
Miniature remains of a statue head that is believed to resemble Petrie’s Khufu statue – and the Ring of Cheops. Does either portray the king who built the Great Pyramid?
If the 3-inch ivory statue from Abydos is the most famous image of Khufu in existence, then the most famous cartouche - and the king’s strongest link with the Great Pyramid - is scribed in red masons’ marks in the relieving chambers of the Great Pyramid. The ‘quarry marks’, as they are known, were discovered by Major-General Sir Richard William Howard Vyse in 1837, after deploying gun powder to gain entrance to the previously sealed chamber. To this day, Vyse’s discovery represents the only hieroglyphics discovered inside the Great Pyramid. Not surprisingly, Vyse found references not only to Khufu, but to Khnem-Khufu, as well.
The relative location of the Quarry Marks and details of the inscriptions discovered. © www.khufu.dk
Vyse’s discovery has undergone much scrutiny, and many have accused him of forging the cartouches in order to lay claim to the proof that Khufu built the Great Pyramid; after all, masons’ marks were painted, not etched, and could be easily recreated. However, while the quarry marks match others at Giza and appear to be authentic, the silver bullet that exonerates Vyse is the fact that Khufu’s cartouche actually spans the side of a wedged pyramid block, and thus could not have been added after the pyramid’s construction. So, why was a cartouche of Khufu painted in such an invisible place? Clearly, the only plausible explanation is that the marks were painted before the stone was mobilized. The matter remains a mystery, but of more relevance to our discussion is the presence of Khufu’s cartouche next to that of Khnem-Khufu inside the Great Pyramid.
The two names appear together over and over again – as far away as the Sinai - and the dilemma perplexed even the likes of Petrie, whose comments on the situation reflect his own uneasiness about the implications:
'The only great royal inscription (of Khufu) is on the rocks of Sinai. There are two tablets: one with the name and titles of Khufu, the other with the king smiting an enemy, and the name Khnum-khufu. The name is found in five places. The two names being placed in succession in one inscription cannot be mere chance variants of the same. Either they must be two distinct and independent names of one king, or else two separate kings. If they were separate kings, Khnum-khufu must have been the most important.'
Petrie’s conclusion that Khnum-Khufu was the more important of the two is interesting, for the name does not appear on any Kings Lists. So, what are we to conclude? If Khufu was a ‘nick-name’ or blessing given to Sneferu’s child in exchange for the protection of the god, Khnum, why then is the god’s name presented in a cartouche? Surely, if it was the name of a co-regent, and not a god, then it would appear on a Kings List somewhere.