Egypt, 2589 BC. Here we find ourselves at the beginning of the reign of Khufu (2589–2566 BC), the second pharaoh of the IV dynasty of the Ancient Egyptian Kingdom, whose full name was Khnum-khufu, meaning: “The god Khnum protects me.” Khnum was the local god of Elephantine, near the first cataract of the Nile, but the reason behind the king’s name is unknown.
However, we owe the name we currently know this pharaoh by (Cheops) to Herodotus, who became interested in the history of the Great Pyramid while in Egypt.
The priests told Herodotus that the Great Pyramid had been built by a king named Khufu, which he then translated to the more “Greek-sounding” Cheops—a name with which we are more familiar.
Son of Pharaoh Sneferu and Queen Hetepheres I, Khufu is believed to have reigned over Egypt between 2589 and 2566 BC. He had two wives, Meritites I and Henutsen, who are both buried in small pyramids next to his own.
Khufu began construction on his tomb immediately, at the very beginning of his reign.
The Great Pyramid is the culmination of a tradition that began with the multiple mastabas, or stepped pyramid of Djoser (Zoser), that would trigger a race in which each pharaoh had to build similar tombs, but each time more grandiose and larger than the others. This led to a national obsession and the construction of tombs of gigantic proportions.
It is also partly for this reason that architectural techniques had to evolve over time to respond to the needs arising from this obsession. The ancient Egyptians learned to handle large rocks simply using harrows, rollers, huge amounts of oil to reduce the friction, and, of course, a mass of labor.
They learned that the larger the stones used, the shorter the time required to place them.
Information about the reign and the king himself is remarkably meager. When Khufu ascended the throne, he must have been a middle-aged man, but this did not affect his plans for his grandiose funerary monument and the Great Pyramid of Giza, which has a square plan of 230 meters on each side and a height of 146.5 meters. It is the largest pyramid in Egypt.
Ultimately responsible for the completion of the project before the end of Khufu’s twenty-three-year reign was the vizier Hemiunu, buried in an immense mastaba in the cemetery to the west of the pyramid of his lord.
Hemiunu’s father, Prince Nefermaat, was King Sneferu’s vizier and may have organized the pyramid’s construction for his ruler. The two-family lines, that of the kings and that of the viziers, run parallel for at least two generations.
Khufu chose rocky terrain on a plateau a few kilometers north of Saqqara for his pyramid. Approximately 2,300,000 stone blocks with an average weight of 2.5 tons per block (some weigh up to sixty tons) were used in its construction, which were brought on barges from quarries near the First Cataract down the Nile.
The Great Pyramid was originally covered by some 27,000 polished white limestone blocks weighing several tons each. It maintained this appearance until the beginning of the 14th century, when an earthquake loosened part of the limestone coating.
Its original height was 146.61 m (currently 136.86 m) and until the mid-19th century it was the tallest stone structure built by man. It is estimated that it was completed between 2550–2570 BC and is the logical conclusion of the path in funerary architecture. The mastaba was the starting point of such architecture, which evolved until it oversaw the construction of the most perfect pyramid of all despite only a century between the two.