According to Dr Zahi Hawass1, the Fourth Dynasty represented the Golden Age of Ancient Egypt. This was the earliest dynasty of the country's first great age, the Old Kingdom – during this time the three pyramids of the Giza plateau and the Sphinx were all constructed. The Giza pyramids, despite being among the oldest, are also the best-preserved of Egypt's pyramids and were all built within a 500 year period between about 2575 and 2134 BC. During this time, trade and the fine arts flourished, and the written language of hieroglyphics was used extensively by the elite.
Earlier Royal Burials
The earliest Egyptian royal tombs at Saqqara consisted of several underground chambers topped by rectangular mud-brick structures with sloping sides and flat roofs. The Egyptians of today call these structures mastabas, an Arabic word meaning 'benches'. The underground rooms would consist of a central burial chamber hewn out of the bedrock along with chambers to house weapons, toiletry items, musical instruments and games.
Then, during the reign of the pharaoh Djoser (around 2630 BC), tomb construction underwent a revolution. This has been credited to the employment by Djoser of an architect called Imhotep2. In order to differentiate his tomb from those who had preceded him, Djoser ordered that his tomb be built from stone, rather than mud brick. For some reason, Imhotep altered the design of the tomb several times during its construction. One theory is that the mastaba was not visible from a distance, and so he built a second mastaba on top. By the time he had finished, the construction consisted of six mastabas, of decreasing size, stacked one on top of the other. This monument is now known as the Step Pyramid, and is renowned as being the earliest stone building anywhere in the World.
Due to his superlative architectural and engineering skills, Imhotep received the adulation of his countrymen for a period exceeding 1,000 years and he himself, like the pharaoh, became a deity with temples and statues raised in his honour. Indeed, during Egyptian times, he was more famous than the pharaoh Tutankhamun! As such, he would be expected to have had an elaborate tomb himself, and one of the Holy Grails of modern Egyptology would be the locating of this tomb.
Unsurprisingly, the pharaohs who succeeded Djoser wanted a monument that equalled or preferably exceeded that built for Djoser. Snefru3 (2575 - 2551 BC) was the first ruler of the Fourth Dynasty. By all accounts he was much loved by his subjects, and archaeologists credit him with commissioning the first true pyramid, an eight-step colossus on the sands of Meidum, a necropolis about 40 miles south of Memphis and Saqqara.
At first Snefru ordered the building of a step pyramid like Djoser's, but with the steps filled with rough cut stones to create a sloping edge. Following this, the entire structure was encased with limestone to give it the smooth sides of a true pyramid. It is believed that the idea of the smooth surfaces was related to the growing importance of the Sun God in Egypt. Worshippers of Ra may have thought that this emulated the pattern that the sun's rays make as they shone down on the earth through breaks in the clouds.
Snefru then had what is now known as the Bent Pyramid built at Dahshur, a necropolis situated about halfway between Saqqara and Meidum. The pyramid is so named because each side has two slopes, the lower part of the pyramid being angled more steeply than the upper part. Scholars believe this to have been because the initial design was too ambitious. Indeed, modern investigations have revealed serious stress-cracking on the inside.
Following this, Snefru ordered the building of the North (or Red) Pyramid, this being built from reddish sandstone, also at Dahshur. Rising to heights of around 340 feet (103 metres), the Bent and North Pyramids easily surpass Djoser's Step Pyramid (204 feet or 62 metres). Snefru is thought to have been finally interred in the Red Pyramid.
Snefru is said to have been the victim of one of the oldest recorded jokes, which is recounted in the Westcar Papyrus (see below) and is along the following lines:
'How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?'.
'Sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge him to go catch a fish.'
Khufu, also known by the Greek name of Cheops, was the son of Snefru and Queen Hetepheres I. In fact, 'Khufu' was really a nickname: his real name was Khnum-Khufwy, meaning 'the god Khnum protects me'.
According to the Turin Papyrus4, Khufu ruled for 23 years after the reign of his father Snefru. Khufu had three wives who, between themselves, bore him 9 sons and 15 daughters. Of these, only his sons Djedefre and Khafre succeeded him as pharaoh.
In line with the Egyptian desire to have a tomb even more magnificent than that of his father, Khufu ordered a pyramid to be built at the Giza necropolis, a burial ground north of Memphis containing the tombs of royals dating back to the First Dynasty.
By all accounts, Khufu was a tyrant, as despotic as his father was benevolent. According to the Greek historian, Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c484 - 420 BC) in his Histories II, Khufu ordered that temples be shut down during his reign such that his subjects would focus all their efforts on the building of his pyramid. He even sent his own daughter to work as a prostitute to obtain more money.
It has been noted that the Great Pyramid is so large that five major European cathedrals could be housed within it, including Saint Peter's in Rome and Saint Paul's in London. As such, it was regarded by the ancient Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Although it has long been believed that Khufu must have used slave labour in the construction of his pyramid, evidence uncovered on-site, including the presence of bakers, brewers and evidence of complex surgical operations, all points to the fact that these were highly-skilled workmen who were paid for their work. As Khufu reigned for about 23 years, and assuming that it must have taken virtually all this time to complete his pyramid, it can be calculated that the workmen would need to lay one block every two minutes - an astounding feat!
By accounts, Khufu planned that his eldest son Kawab, by his senior wife, Merityotes, would be his heir. Kawab was a scribe and, like his grandfather, Snefru, wished to be considered by his subjects as a cultured and wise king. However, it appears that Kawab died during the reign of his father, and hence Khufu was succeeded by Djedefre and then Khafre.
Djedefre, also known as Radjedef, was a son of Khufu. His mother is unknown although some say she was a minor blonde Libyan consort of Khufu. He is an older half-brother of Khafre and was the first pharaoh to insert the name of the sun god Ra in his own cartouche.
Little is known about Djedefre's life, though according to some sources he reigned for only eight years, from 2528 - 2520 BC. Others contend that his rule might have lasted for over 22 years, this being based on the fact that eleven cattle censuses took place during his reign and, in Egypt, such censuses were conducted every other year.
For reasons that are only just becoming clear, Djedefre forsook the necropolis at Giza, preferring to build his pyramid five miles to the north at Abu Rawash on a natural hill. There had been a school of thought that Djedefre's pyramid may never even have been completed, perhaps due to the possible shortness of his reign or perhaps due to a family dispute. Among the more lurid speculations pertaining to this were that Djedefre murdered his older brother Kawab after their father died in order to seize power for himself. It has also been speculated that Khafre killed Djedefre out of revenge for the murder of their brother Kawab.
Although the location of Djedefre's pyramid has been known since the 1880s, only ruins remain today, leading some to suggest that it might have been destroyed at some point after Djedefre's death because he was so despised. Systematic investigation of the site has only become possible relatively recently due to its being at the edge of a war zone. However, this more recent evidence from the site suggests that there were no such familial problems at all. It has become clear that its destruction was not deliberate vandalism/erasure by his peers, but much more pragmatic. Unfortunately, the pyramid was a useful 'quarry' from Roman and Coptic times onwards and had been plundered for its stone. Indeed, it has been said that as recently as the 19th Century, stone was being hauled away at the rate of three hundred camel loads a day! Further evidence comes from the finding in 1955 of two dismantled wooden boats buried beneath the Great Pyramid, beneath stones bearing Djedefre's name. These boats were placed to facilitate the passage of the pharaoh through the afterlife.
Of course, Djedefre had built his pyramid on top of the hill because, once complete, its summit would be at a higher level (27 feet or just over 8 metres higher) than that of his father's Great Pyramid at Giza. It is now apparent that the lower part of the pyramid was faced with pink granite5, while the upper part was faced in white limestone. The top was possibly capped by a pyramidion6 covered with gold leaf, thus making this pyramid perhaps the most beautiful in Egypt. Djedefre probably intended that his monument would shine like the setting sun.
One of the problems that Djedefre's architects had to contend with in the construction of this pyramid was the direction of the causeway for transport of the blocks from the quarry. Traditionally, causeways were always aligned East-West but, due to the position of a sharp slope on this hill, Djedefre had no option but to accept that his causeway was going to have to be aligned North-South.
Khafre and Menkaure
It is thought that Khafre (who may be identical with Khafkhufu I), was the son of Khufu's third wife, Queen Henutsen. There is a school of thought that Queen Henutsen was also Khufu's daughter, who was prostituted by Khufu in order to raise the funds to build the great pyramid.
Khafre7 ('Son of Ra'), Djedefre's brother and successor, returned to Giza for the building of his pyramid. This was to be the last of the truly gigantic pyramids at 705 feet (215 metres) square. This was followed by his son Menkaure's pyramid that, although having temples, causeways and subsidiary tombs, was only half the size of Khafre's. There were to be no further pyramids to be built on this scale in Egypt. This was partly due to the vast expense and also because they acted as beacons to tomb robbers. Later burials of Egyptian royalty took place in the Valley of the Kings.
The Great Sphinx
The Egyptian sphinx represents a god or a divine king and was almost always portrayed as a lion's body possessing the head of a falcon, a ram or a man.
The Great Sphinx at Giza is a vast statue of a recumbent, human-headed lion, carved from the bedrock. Observed from the north, the profile of the Sphinx reveals that the head is small in proportion to the body. Because of this, some scholars believe that the Sphinx could be considerably older than the pyramids on the Giza plateau, and that the head has been re-carved.
Until recently, the head was thought to be a representation of Khafre, but is now thought more likely to represent his father, Khufu. This is because the sphinx does not possess a beard, whereas Khafre is always represented with a beard. There is only one small statue of Khufu in existence and this shows him without a beard. It is now believed that the sphinx was commissioned by Djedefre to honour his father, Khufu.
The Westcar Papyrus
The Westcar Papyrus is a fragmentary ancient Egyptian text containing a cycle of five stories about miracles and magic performed by priests. Unfortunately, the beginning of the first and the ending of the fifth stories are missing.
The papyrus is named after the British collector, Henry Westcar, who acquired the rolls in 1824 or 1825 and gave them to the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius in 1839. Lepsius was unable to decipher the text and donated them to the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin on his death.
The setting is in the Fourth Dynasty and Pharaoh Khufu's sons are amusing their father at his court by telling tales of magic. The Westcar Papyrus consists of twelve rolls and, from the style, appears to have been written in the Hyksos period (18th - 16th Century BC). However, the tales themselves appear to have originated some time in the 12th dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (c20th Century BC).
...the text does seem corrupted, if you ask me. There are lots of weirdnesses in this text which might indicate that a child was learning in school and attempting to copy it. The handwriting for one thing is puerile. There also seem to be places where the person writing it has left something out.
- Geoff Graham, Egyptologist, Yale University.
As the papyrus thus recounts events some 500 years previously, it is most likely to be a copy of a much older pro-pharaoh propaganda piece written to provide some legitimacy to the early kings of the Fifth Dynasty. The fifth story, which is incomplete, probably originally ended with Khufu and his family giving his blessing to the children as pharaohs of the next Dynasty.
The papyrus can be seen, displayed in low-light conditions, in the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin, which houses one of the most important collections of Ancient Egyptian artefacts in the World. Its most famous piece is the bust of Queen Nefertiti.