June 2009

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?

Lifting the Veil on the Fourth Dynasty

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
© http://www.fjexpeditions.com

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?

Khufu and the Man Behind the Oath of Protection

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?

Khufu in the Archaeological Record

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
© www.khufu.dk

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.

Radjedef and the Solar Boat at Giza

Radjedef (also known as Djedefre) was the son and successor of Khufu and the first king to assume the title “Son of Ra”, as reflected in his name, meaning, “Enduring like Re” (Ra and Re being the same god). The conventional belief is that Radjedef’s adoption of ‘Re’ was due to the ever-increasing influence of the cult of the solar god, Re. And sure enough, Radjedef was succeeded on the throne by Khafre and Menkaure; kings and builders of the 2nd and 3rd pyramids at Giza, each of which reflected the god Re in their name. Unlike Khafre and Menkaure, Radjedef / Djedefre had no pyramid of his own at Giza. This is curious, as is the fact that Khufu contains no reference to ‘Ra’, even though his ‘solar boat pit’ appears to be an extension of the solar cult.

An interesting aside with respect to the influence and/or origins of the solar cult of Ra, is the notion proposed by John Ivimy in his 1974 book, ‘The Sphinx and the Megaliths’: ‘In the ancient Egyptian myth, RA the sun god himself was born anew every morning from an egg.” Ivimy argues that the hundreds of egg-shaped stone circles in the United Kingdom, which appear to date from the same period as the cult of Ra, may represent the spread – or origin – of the god known as Ra; a god synonymous with Khnum. What makes the theory intriguing is the fact that Khnum is frequently portrayed with an egg; fitting imagery for a creator god, indeed.

Radjedef’s mother is unknown, but suspected to be one of Khufu’s minor wives, as it is believed he was required to marry his half-sister, Hetepheres II, in order to lay claim to the throne. Radjedef is said to have ruled 8 years, according to the Turin Kings List, and 11, according to a cattle count inscribed on a masonry block that covered Khufu’s southern boat pits. This is an extremely important discovery, and one that those responsible for framing our understanding of Egyptian history were not privy to, for Khufu’s solar boat pit was not discovered until 1954, and, by this time, Khufu had been irrefutably linked with the pyramid, without the insight that this new evidence provides.

Miroslav Verner, a Czech Egyptologist and author of the respected book, ‘The Pyramids, comments on the significance of the solar boat discovery: “In this context, the attribution of just a single inscription and what is more, the only one with a date on all the blocks from the boat pit to somebody other than Djedefra does not seem very plausible.” So what does this tell us?  The 43-metre long cedar wood ship was found dismantled in 650 parts in a huge pit, and nowhere did it reference Khufu; only Radjedef. Again we ask, how would this information have shaped the thinking of the formative researchers of the day – Petrie, Vyse, Resiner, Budge and others – if it had been uncovered before the quarry marks were discovered in the obscure reaches of the Great Pyramid and before Petrie found the headless statue in Abydos?

Khufu’s reconstructed Solar Boat – Giza


Radjedef is not attributed with a pyramid at Giza, although he is credited with building one at Abu Roash, five miles to the north. Interestingly, the pyramid is now thought to have risen higher than all others (although its size was comparable to the third pyramid at Giza), due to the elevated location where it was constructed. Today, the pyramid lies in ruins, and until recently was believed to have been abandoned – unfinished, as it were. However, recent work by a Franco-Swiss team of Egyptologists, as cited by Verner, confirms that the pyramid was, in fact, fully finished, albeit severely plundered in antiquity. Its association with Radjedef, however, is every bit as tenuous as Khufu’s link with the Great Pyramid.

The remains of what some believe to be Radjedef’s burial chamber at Abu Roash © Andrew Gough

Egyptologist, Mark Lehner, studied Radjedef’s pyramid at Abu Roash in his book, ‘The Complete Pyramids’, and concluded that pyramids of the older ‘Djoser’ style (i.e. the Third Dynasty King who built what is now regarded as the prototype to all subsequent Egyptian pyramids; the step pyramid at Sakarra) were orientated north-south, and, from the time of the later Meidum Pyramid onward (which is attributed to Radjedef’s grandfather, Sneferu), were aligned east-west. Lehner and others believe that Radjedef departed from the style of the day and returned to an earlier blueprint when he constructed his pyramid at Abu Roash, for it clearly has a north-south alignment.

The layout of Radjedef’s Pyramid at Abu Roash
© www.norrispeery.com

Further, Lehner states: “From Sneferu to Khufu we have seen a continual striving to build chambers higher in the pyramid body. Djeddfre returned to the earlier concept and began his substructure as a colossal pit in the ground.” Why would a king, whose adoption of Re was a departure in religious philosophy and one which was embraced by his successors, each of whom adopted the pyramid conventions of the day, return to an earlier blueprint of pyramid design?

I believe that the answer to this question has to do with the fact that there is no real proof that any Fourth Dynasty pharaoh built anything more than mastabas or small satellite pyramids that served as adjuncts to existing pyramids. In my opinion, the Fourth Dynasty pharaohs were simply restoring them. How else could Sneferu, for instance, have constructed three gargantuan pyramids in his lifetime? Why would Khufu refer to the Great Pyramid as the “House of Isis”, if it was really his pyramid, and why, in the Westcar Papyrus, does he continually ask for help in locating various treasures buried at Giza if, in fact, its monuments were founded in the Fourth Dynasty – his era?

One has to also ask why Shepseskaf, the last pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, would be buried in a mastaba and not a pyramid like other pharaohs, or at least according to Egyptologists. And then there is the brother of Radjedef, Prince Chufu Chaf, the heir to the throne, who built a mastaba while his brother was king. After Radjedef’s death, the Prince changed his name to Khafra, and the second pyramid at Giza is attributed to him. So, why was he building a mastaba for himself if he knew, or even suspected, that he could ascend to the throne and build such an enormous pyramid?

The reality is that mastaba building was at its peak in the Fourth Dynasty, and the highest concentration was found in and around Giza, as if the royals and dignitaries buried in them were seeking eternal glory by associating themselves with the majesty that existed since before they were born; pyramids that were built by their ancestors.

Concentration of Mastabas at Giza; real tombs occupied by real royalty

Another fascinating element of Khufu’s reign is the Inventory Stela, which was found in a Giza temple dedicated to one of his daughters. The stela unequivocally states that Khufu was aware that the nemes (head) of the sphinx had been badly damaged by lightning in the past, as well as the fact that he was building his own temple near to the ‘house of the sphinx’, thus reinforcing the fact that the sphinx was already there, and that the head of the sphinx had been damaged, and, by all indications, was in need of restoration.

This brings up an interesting question; might the repaired head of the sphinx be that of Radjedef? The resemblance has been noted by many, including a New York detective who specializes in identification techniques and who, in 1966, reported that the head did not resemble Khufu (not that he had much to go on), but did, in fact, bear a striking resemblance to Radjedef. The head of Radjedef may or may not resemble the face of the sphinx. What we do know is that Radjedef was ambitious, as indicated by the belief that he murdered his own brother and stole his wife, in order to gain ascension to the throne, and then broke from tradition and solidified the emergent solar cult of Ra. Might he also have re-carved the damaged sphinx in his image?

The head of Radjedef (discovered at Abu Roash) and the head of the sphinx


I believe the evidence for Khufu and his association with the Great Pyramid is inconclusive and would not stand up in a modern court of law. So, what conclusions can we draw? There are several alluring possibilities, in addition to those already stated. For instance, Khufu’s reign varies from 23 years (Turin Kings List) to 63 years (Manetho), while his successor, Radjedef, reigned for only 8 years (Turin Kings List), or 11, according to the cattle count discovered in Khufu’s solar boat pit. Could the two men have been one and the same person? What if Khufu / Khnum-Khufu were merely an oath of protection granted to Sneferu’s son and his real name was misconstrued by later generations? What if that child was Radjedef, the overseer of the Fourth Dynasty pyramid restoration (not construction) at Giza and at nearby Abu Roash? And what if he, at or around the time of his 30-year Sed Festival – or the symbolic death of the existing king and celebration of his continued reign – confirmed the veneration of Re by having the sphinx re-carved in his image and by stepping out of the title of Khufu?

Khufu is the Fourth Dynasty king who has generated the strongest legacy over time – not Radjedef – even if he is remembered as a tyrant. Why might this be? If we consider for a moment that Khufu is a variant of Khnum-Khufu, and that Khnum was the god of the River Nile, responsible for the yearly inundation and the well-being of children, then would ‘Khufu’ not be remembered as a tyrant if, as a god (i.e. Khnum), he had forsaken his people with drought and plague? Might such confusion have arisen over hundreds – and in the case of Herodotus, thousands – of years, especially since Giza was once governed by a Dynasty that introduced the veneration of the god, Khnum? Serendipitously, the name of the Great Pyramid, when written in a cartouche, is Aakhu-t Khufu, meaning ‘The Horizon of Khufu’, and what could be a more appropriate name for a pyramid that looks out over the River Nile and the domain of the god, Khnum / Khufu.

Was Khufu a Woman?

There is another candidate for the historical Khufu; a woman. As incredible as it sounds, the Cairo museum contains a statue, which unambiguously depicts Khufu as a young girl, yet nobody seems to take notice of this peculiar detail. The image in question is that of the dwarf, Seneb, and his wife, the Princess Sentyotes: an influential office-holder of established royal blood; an esteemed lady of the court and priestess. Dwarfs were revered in Dynastic Egypt, as they were believed to have been the result of inbreeding performed to propagate a royal bloodline; a condition known as achondroplasia dwarfism.

Few dwarfs were as revered as much as Seneb, an official who, by convention, dates from the Sixth, or even the Fifth Dynasty, although his exact date is uncertain, and, I will argue, possibly earlier. Seneb’s tomb was discovered near the western cemetery at Giza – not far from the Great Pyramid – by German Egyptologist, Herman Junker, who noted Seneb’s many titles, including prophet of Khufu, overseer of the palace dwarfs, chief of the royal wardrobe and priest of Khufu and Radjedef’s funerary cults. In other words, he was the death priest of two Fourth Dynasty pharaohs: Khufu and his successor, Radjedef. Seneb’s importance is also reflected in a relief from his tomb that depicts him being carried in a palanquin, a carried chair that is reserved for important officials. Additionally, we also learn that he owned 10,105 oxen, 10,000 cows, 12,017 jackasses, 10,200 she-asses, 10,205 rams and 10,013 sheep; another indication of his exalted status in Egyptian society.

Seneb, his wife and children – Cairo Museum

The exquisitely carved statue depicts Seneb sitting cross-legged next to his wife, with two children positioned where his adult-size legs would be, had he not been a dwarf. The children are identified by vertical, not horizontal, cartouches, a convention used to indicate that the individuals named in the cartouche were alive, not deceased, at the time. In this instance, the cartouches reveal that the children are none other than Khufu and his son and successor, Radjedef. However, what is curious, and I believe largely unaccounted for, is that as young children, Radjedef is clearly depicted with a penis, while Khufu is shown with a vagina. This is frequently explained by the theory that Seneb was honouring the two Fourth Dynasty pharaohs by naming his children after them. Although the statue was inscribed with “One known by the King”, and depicts Seneb in the ‘great palace’, what precedent would have enabled the offspring of a dwarf – no matter how revered – to be depicted in a cartouche, for this was a privilege reserved for royalty?

A close-up of the sculpted genitalia of Radjedef (left) and Khufu (right)

Intriguingly, on Seneb’s right leg is the inscription, “He who pleases his majesty everyday”. Might Seneb have lived in the Fourth Dynasty, as his titles suggest, and not two Dynasties later, as a high official of the Sixth Dynasty King, Pepi II; a king who ruled for 94 years, longer than any known monarch in history? References to Pepi II in Seneb’s tomb have led to speculation that Seneb was of his court. Might Pepi II have been venerating Khufu, as part of the popular Cult of Khufu that had formed, and might his interest in Seneb have come from his own fascination with dwarfs? Might the ‘majesty’ referred to on Seneb’s inscription have been Khufu?

This possibility is reinforced by a letter that the young Pepi II wrote to one of his court, an explorer called Harkhuf, who had discovered a dwarf in a land called Lyam. The letter clearly reflects Pepi II’s enthusiasm for dwarfs:

“Come north to the Palace at once! Drop everything – hurry and bring that pygmy you have brought, alive, happy and well, for the divine dances, to gladden the heart, to delight the heart of the king who lives for ever! When he goes down with you onto the boat, get trusty men to stand around him on the gangplank – don’t let him fall in the water! When he goes to bed at night, get trusty men to lie all round him in his hammock. Inspect him ten times a night! My Majesty longs to see this pygmy more than all the treasures of Sinai and Punt!”

Might Pepi II’s curiosity with dwarfs stem from the cult of Khufu and the important role that Seneb had in Khufu’s court?

What conclusions can we draw from the fact that the alleged builder of the Great Pyramid is depicted with a vagina and not a penis? Returning to Occam’s Razor, would we not conclude that Khufu may have been a woman? Further evidence of this hypothesis is suggested by Khnum’s most celebrated scene at the temple of Egypt’s famed king, the female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt from 1479 to 1458 BCE. A 2009 National Geographic article by historian, Chip Brown, comments:

In reliefs at Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, she spun a fable of her accession as the fulfilment of a divine plan and declared that her father, Thutmose I, not only intended her to be king but also was able to attend her coronation. In the panels the great god Amun is shown appearing before Hatshepsut’s mother disguised as Thutmose I. He commands Khnum, the ram-headed god of creation, who models the clay of mankind on his potter’s wheel: “Go, to fashion her better than all gods; shape for me, this my daughter, whom I have begotten.” Unlike most contractors, Khnum gets right to work, replying: “Her form shall be more exalted than the gods, in her great dignity of King.” On Khnum’s potter’s wheel, little Hatshepsut is depicted unmistakably as a boy.”

So, here we have a king, proven by archaeology to be a woman, yet portrayed in temple reliefs as a boy, and a male king in Khufu, who is depicted as a young girl. Interestingly, Khnum appears to represent a form of male / female dualism, for the source of the River Nile that he represents is feminine by nature. Could Khnum have represented a form of inverse dualism? A more likely explanation is that Hatshepsut was projecting a male effigy to her people out of respect for the dynastic heritage that preceded her, but what about Khufu?

Linguistically, there are some interesting occurrences of the name Khufu, as well as words beginning with the letters ‘Kh’. For instance, ‘Khu’ refers to the name of the Egyptian peacock and is the symbol for a heron. Additionally, in the journey of Osiris in the sixth section of the Duat, the letters refer to ‘spirit souls’. The hieroglyphic ‘Khu’ is also the symbol of a spirit and refers to the four supports of heaven. Furthermore, William Cooper informs us in his 1991 book, ‘Behold a Pale Horse’, that: “The ancient Egyptian word for pyramid was KHUTI”, meaning ‘glorious light’.

We find several occurrences of the letters ‘Kh’ around the time of the Fourth Dynasty. Take, for instance, Khufu-Ankh, chief of the singers and flutists in the royal court, who was buried in his lavishly adorned mastaba at Giza. There was also Khentkawes, a royal lady who dates to the same period as Radjedef. Like Khufu, her name starts with ‘Kh’, which stands for ‘Sieve’, according to Egyptologist, Wallis Budge, who published the hieroglyphic symbols and their meanings in his 1910 book,; ‘Egyptian Language’. The symbol, which resembles a circle enclosed with horizontal lines, is often mistaken for the symbol ‘RA’, a circle solidly shaded, creating confusion and mistranslation in more faded inscriptions. Her peculiar stone-cut tomb is located in a place of honour near the sphinx, and a pyramid was built in her honour at Abu Sir. Khentkawes was an important lady and believed to be the mother of two kings, although their identity remains uncertain.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, our understanding of individuals and their complex relationships nearly 5 millennia ago, must be subject to a large dose of caution, and humility, especially in Egypt, where two-thirds of the country remains covered in sand and completely unexcavated, and where ninety nine percent of what we believe to be true comes from one percent of the population, royalty. And, even then, what we think we know is based on what this privileged few, mostly men, wanted us to believe, as portrayed on the walls of their temples and tombs.

Many disciplines, such as science, mathematics and physics, have developed, revised, and, in some instances, completely reinvented themselves over a span of thousands of years. Egyptology, on the other hand, is in its infancy, having existed for only two centuries. Why, then, can we not continue to evolve our understanding of its most iconic figures or, at the very least, question them; such as Khufu, the would-be author of the world’s most famous signature – the Great Pyramid?