The Pyramid Builders, Book 6: Khufu

The Pyramid Builders, Book 6: Khufu by Max Overton

The third dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt saw an extraordinary development of building techniques, from the simple structures of mud brick at the end of the second dynasty to the towering pyramids of the fourth dynasty. Just how these massive structures were built has long been a matter of conjecture, but history is made up of the lives and actions of individuals; kings and architects, scribes and priests, soldiers and artisans, even common labourers, and so the story of the Pyramid Builders unfolded over the course of more than a century. This is that story…

The Pyramid Builders, Book 6: Khufu 2 covers

Khufu is excited by the pyramids of his father Sneferu and wants to build a great one that will eclipse everything else ever built. The Great Pyramid presents unique challenges that must be overcome if the pyramid is to be built. Architect Hemiunu finds solutions, but even he relies on help from Rait, a woman of great talent. She must battle prejudice even from her own father if she is to achieve ultimate success.

The sons of Khufu vie for power. Their actions will lead to wars between nations, and call into question who has the right to sit on the throne of Egypt. Meanwhile, the family of Den have taken to sailing and trade and find the fabled land of Punt where discoveries will affect the lives of kings yet unborn.

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Continue the series:

The Pyramid Builders, Book 1: Djoser continue the seriesThe Pyramid Builders, Book 2: Sekhemkhet continue the seriesThe Pyramid Builders, Book 3: Khaba continue the seriesThe Pyramid Builders, Book 4: Huni continue the seriesThe Pyramid Builders, Book 5: Sneferu continue the seriesThe Pyramid Builders, Book 6: Khufu Continue the SeriesThe Pyramid Builders, Book 7: Djedefre continue the series The Pyramid Builders, Book 8: Khafre continue the series


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Chapter 1


Khufu, the Twice Golden Falcon, He who Crushes the enemies of the Two Ladies, He who Crushes the enemies for Heru, Lord of the Two Kingdoms, and undisputed King of all Kemet, sat on his throne and regarded the people standing before him. He quietly accepted the adulation of the assembled notables of the court, the deference of the priests who spoke for the gods, and representatives of the people of Inebu-hedj and of Kemet, before rising and walking with measured tread into the privacy of his suite of rooms in the palace. Here, he bathed and donned fresh apparel, ate a light meal, and rested for an hour while contemplating how far he had risen in the last few years. Not so long ago, he had had three half-brothers between him and the throne, but thanks to the intervention of the gods, he was the one they had chosen. They needed some help in making their choice, he admitted, but his success spoke for itself. Clearly, he was destined to achieve great things in Kemet. Rousing himself, he called for his Tjaty, Kaemre son of Kagemni, and issued the first order of his reign.

“Send for my architects,” he declared. “I have matters of great importance to discuss with them.”

Kaemre bowed and sent servants to summon the renowned scribes and architects responsible for the incredible building projects ordered by the king’s father, Sneferu. In a very short time, both men, father and son, stood before the king and made obeisance.

“You built the tomb of my father, ‘Sneferu Shines’, so you will build mine also.”

Khepankh had been hoping to retire after the successful completion of Sneferu’s tomb, and briefly considered asking if he could be excused this dubious honour, but that would leave his son Djer alone to face the considerable task, and he knew he could not do that to him.

“We would be honoured, my lord king.”

Djer added his murmured thanks and dared to pose a question of the king.

“What is the nature of contemplated House of Eternity, my lord? Will it be a per-djet or a mer like that of your great father?”

“I desire a mer,” Khufu said. “A great mer that will declare the greatness of Kemet and its king. My tomb will lie high up within this mer, so that my earthly body will be closer to the sun god Re.”

“We have the plans for ‘Sneferu Shines’, my lord…”

“That will be your starting point. Go away and draw up plans that will leave no doubt in the minds of men as to who is the greater king.”

The two architects bowed and departed from the presence of their king, their minds already wrestling with the idea of a mer that would overshadow ‘Sneferu Shines’.

“I do not see how it can be done,” Khepankh moaned. “The king has no concept of how difficult that last mer was to construct. Now he wants a bigger one?”

“On the other hand, consider what was accomplished in Sneferu’s reign,” Djer said. “Grandfather and you built two huge meru before the third one which he used as his tomb. If we put all that effort into just one…”

“One of those three fell down, and another incorporated a major mistake before it was corrected,” Khepankh said.

“But we all learned valuable lessons from those mistakes, father. We will not make them again.”

“No, we will make a whole lot of new ones.”

Djer stood and contemplated the ageing architect. “You are nearly seventy years old, father, and I know you wanted to retire. Make your excuses to the king and let me tackle this new project. I will hire fresh new minds and design a mer that will satisfy the king’s ambition.”

“New minds that are inexperienced and have no concept of the difficulties you will face? No, I will stay on and act as the man of reason, if nothing else.”

Dyer grinned. “Then let us get down to it and design a mer that is pleasing to Khufu.”

Since the completion of ‘Sneferu Shines’, Khepankh and Djer had brought all the plans and calculations, the scores of scrolls containing the details of that great project, back to Inebu-hedj. It was to this storeroom that they now repaired and set out an array of scrolls on the large worktable there. They contemplated the drawings of the finished mer, with the many annotations added to it concerning dimensions and quantities required for each stage of construction.

“We could do this again easily, knowing what we did last time,” Khepankh observed.

“The king said this should be our starting point, not the finished design,” Djer said. “He wants a mer that will show him to be a greater king than his father. To my mind, that means it must be larger.”

“Why must kings always want to be greater than those who went before?” Khepankh grumbled.

“He would not be the king unless he had ambition, I suppose. Now he wants to express that ambition by creating the largest tomb ever built.”

Khepankh looked at the drawings. “I do not suppose it has to be much larger; only enough to be visibly bigger.”

Djer nodded, frowning thoughtfully. “It would be easy to make it taller, without increasing the amount of stone needed, if we increased the angle; made the sides steeper.”

“I do not think that is a good idea. Look what happened with ‘South Shining’ where we had to reduce the angle halfway. The collapsed mer too; that was too steep.”

“There were reasons for that, though. Laying the blocks horizontally instead of inclined inward makes them more stable.”

“But we know it does not,” Khepankh said.

“Unless the blocks are bigger,” Djer replied. “Look, we know that brick-sized blocks need to be inclined to be properly supported, but the upper half of ‘South Shining’ was laid horizontally, as was the whole of ‘Sneferu Shines’. All we had to do was increase the size of the blocks. Well, what if we made them larger still? We could increase the size of the mer, build at a steeper angle, and satisfy the king.”

“Larger blocks are harder to move.”

“But not impossible,” Djer said.

“Depends on how large the blocks were you planned to move.”

Djer sighed. “We have a problem of expressing weights for building purposes,” he said. “We talk in terms of a deben weight when it concerns copper or gold…or even grain, I suppose…but limestone blocks are far larger and heavier than a finger of gold or a basket of grain, and we do not have a word for it. Look, one of the larger mud bricks we used weighs about a thousand deben, and limestone ones a little more, so why don’t we call that ‘one block’ in weight? I am considering the use of building units that weigh a hundred…two hundred even.”

“Two hundred blocks in weight?” Khepankh asked. “Two hundred thousand deben?”

Djer nodded. “Maybe even larger.”

“How would you move them?”

“The same way grandfather moved the granite slabs from Abu–on a sled.”

“You would need a hundred men to move each one.”

“Maybe not; I have not fully worked out the details yet.”

“And that would be on a level surface,” Khepankh went on. “You would need to drag these blocks a hundred mehi high or more to build a big mer. How is that going to happen?”

Djer shrugged and smiled ruefully. “I did not say it would be easy, but I think it is possible. We need to sit down and do a lot of calculations.”

“Months of calculations, and we do not even know that it will be possible at the end of it.” The old man shook his head. “We would be better off convincing the king to go with a mer like ‘Sneferu Shines’.”

“You are probably right,” Djer admitted, “but wouldn’t it be wonderful to build something even bigger? Just to see if we can?”

“Those are the dreams of young men,” Khepankh said. “I just want to retire so I can sit in the sun, drink wine, and play with my grandchildren before I rest in my tomb.”

“But first we do this?” Djer asked with a grin. “Does the thought not stir your blood; make your mind buzz with the possibilities?”

“It makes my head spin,” Khepankh grumbled. “Look, you do what you have to do, but I will try and persuade the king to go with a mer like his father’s.”

They worked apart; Khepankh drawing up fresh plans that slightly enlarged the ones for ‘Sneferu Shines’, while Djer sat in thought, drawing together pieces of information and ideas that had occurred to him while building Sneferu’s last mer. He needed some new ideas, he knew, so considered who might be suitable to join him in this great adventure.

“Because that is what it is,’ he murmured. “An adventure that will lead to whole new ways of building.”

Not for the first time, he wished he had a son to follow him as an architect. He immediately felt guilty; his daughter Itet was all one could wish as a child and she had grown up to marry Prince Nefermaat. The prince might even have become king, were it not for an unfortunate accident. However, Nefermaat’s son–his own grandson–had gone on to become not the heir he might have been, but a skilled scribe and apprentice architect. Hemiunu would join him as a builder of Khufu’s mer.

“Tjaty Kaemre too, if he can spare the time from his other duties.”

Djer wished there were other family members to call upon–family was always best. One could rely upon them…usually. Unfortunately, his brother Khawy had died early, and his sons had sought out business profits rather than civil service. He was just lucky that Hemiunu and Kaemre were related. In time, Hemiunu would marry and have sons, no doubt, but that was all in the future, and he needed help now.

“What to do? What to do?”

The brothers of Kaemre were also scribes, but Horemre had gone off to become a priest, while Nebre plodded along as a scribe in the palace. Hemiunu had brothers, but none of them had become scribes, so they were useless to him, despite being his grandsons. He would have to look outside the family for scribes with the ability to become architects. Two names pushed themselves to the forefront of his mind–Menkauhor and Isesi–both young men of common birth who had shown a talent for writing. Born in Abu and Waset, respectively, they had sought employment in the capital, and had actually worked for his father recently. He considered what he knew of them and reached a decision, sending a servant to bring them both to him, and another to search out Hemiunu.

The young men bowed in the presence of Djer, the famed architect responsible for ‘Sneferu Shines’, and Djer told them he was considering training them up as apprentice architects for the new king’s mer.

“I am deeply honoured,” Menkauhor said.

“And I,” Isesi said.

“You will not have the specialised knowledge needed for a full appreciation of what is required, but I hope that young minds, unencumbered by what is considered possible, might be able to provide insights.”

Hemiunu joined them, and Djer outlined what the king required. He told them that his father, Khepankh, would be presenting the plans for a mer akin to the last one built for King Sneferu, but that the king was likely to want more.

“It is up to us to give the king what he wants.”

“What exactly is it that he wants?” Isesi asked.

“I do not think the king himself knows the answer to that,” Djer said with a smile. “Bigger and better would sum up his desires.”

Menkauhor frowned. “Then how are we to interpret his desires if they are that vague?”

“We design something larger, that we know can be built,” Hemiunu said. “The mer known as ‘Sneferu Shines’ is two hundred mehi in height, so we must design a bigger one. What do you think, Architect Djer? Two hundred and fifty or three hundred? Or more?”

“Let us not commit ourselves to anything outrageously large,” Djer said. “I was thinking perhaps higher by twenty mehi. Enough that it is visibly bigger but does not add too many extra years to the building.”

Hemiunu made a few quick calculations. “Even that would add a fifth as many extra stone blocks, and that is without taking into account the problems of raising the blocks that high.”

“We could build at a steeper angle than was used with ‘Sneferu Shines’,” Djer countered. “That would cut down the number.”

“Would that be as stable?” Menkauhor asked. “Forgive me, honoured sir, I do not mean to criticise, but I read the account your grandfather wrote and… and…” The young scribe’s voice died away.

“No, you are right to raise such questions,” Djer said. “Stability is an issue but becomes irrelevant if the size of the block is large enough. I believe we could build at a steeper angle by using larger blocks of stone.”

Hemiunu had been doing some more scribbling while the others talked and now looked up. “We could build at a steeper angle and go twenty mehi higher without having to increase the size of the base at all. Of course, we might have a problem raising blocks that high. We used a ramp with the last ones, but the amount of stone needed just to build the ramp is a sizeable fraction of the stone needed for the actual mer.”

“Is a ramp the only way of raising blocks?” Isesi asked.

Djer smiled at the young scribe. “If you can think of another way, I would be interested in hearing it. Every mer built so far has used a ramp, and building them has always been a drain on resources. I have to admit, I cannot conceive of a way of raising blocks that does not involve dragging blocks along a sloping ramp.”

“How long a ramp is needed, sir?” Menkauhor asked. “I mean, a shorter ramp uses less material and takes less time to build.”

Djer nodded. “The shorter the ramp, the steeper the slope, and the harder it is to drag a block up it. If we use the size of blocks we need to make the structure stable, the slope has to be slight, and the length greater.” He smiled. “No way around it, I am afraid.”

“Where is it going to be built?” Isesi asked.

“A good question. I hope it will be at the site of ‘Sneferu Shines’ as we have everything set up there. It makes sense, but…well…kings do not always think as others do.”

“Very tactfully put,” Hemiunu murmured.

“Our first step must be to get a general agreement from the king as to the size of the mer, and the site,” Djer said. “Once we have that, we can start designing in earnest. I propose offering a plan of a mer that resembles the one in which his father is buried, but twenty mehi higher, also to be constructed at that site. With that in mind, I will set you each tasks so that I can quickly submit our ideas for the king’s approval.”

Under the guidance of Djer and Hemiunu, the two young scribes took on the tasks set them, and with the two architects drawing up basic plans, only half a month passed before Djer was ready to submit his ideas for Khufu’s perusal. Khepankh talked to his son before the audience, warning him that the king had rejected the idea of a copy of ‘Sneferu Shines’.

“Not grand enough,” he said. “He reiterated the idea of something much larger.”

“Well, hopefully this will satisfy him,” Djer said. “It is a good twenty mehi taller.”

Khepankh shook his head. “I do not think that will be enough.”

Khufu and Tjaty Kaemre examined the plans together, but the king swiftly swept the drawings off the table.

“This is just more of the same. I want something that will make men look at my tomb and say, ‘Never was there such a king in all the ages of the earth’. Your plan here is little more than the tomb that houses my father’s earthly body.”

Djer bowed low, disappointed that the king had rejected his plans so readily. He knew that if he lost the trust of the king he would be dismissed from the project and another architect appointed. That was not to be countenanced, so he had to come up with another idea.

“My lord king, you have only to tell me what you want and I will build it for you. Speak to me of the image that lies within your mind, and I will turn it into stone for your glory.”

“That is better,” Khufu said, slightly mollified. “I want a mer that is twice the size of my father’s, built of the finest quality stone, and its capstone made of gold.”

Djer quailed at the expense of such an enterprise, but he had asked the question and the king had answered. Still, it might be possible to modify the king’s demands in a way that would make it easier to fulfil.

“When you say twice the size, my lord king, do you mean twice the volume, twice as many blocks, twice as high, or twice as broad across the base?”

Khufu frowned. “Are they not all the same? What other meaning is there of the word ‘twice’?”

“No, my lord king; these things are not all the same to an architect.”

The king shrugged. “Then make it twice the height of my father’s mer.”

Djer could see that Khufu was visibly losing interest, so he bowed and went away to consider a mer twice as high as anything that had ever been built.

“It cannot be done,” Djer told Hemiunu morosely, after doing some initial calculations.

“Anything can be done,” Hemiunu said. “It is just a matter of working out the details.”

“Work them out then.”

Hemiunu shrugged and got to work, and after several hours shoved his clay tablets aside with a look of satisfaction. “See, I told you it could be done.”

Djer examined his calculations, nodding soberly as he verified his assistant’s work. “We have never shifted blocks this size,” he pointed out.

“That is only the basal layers. They will get smaller as we rise higher.”

“How long is all this going to take?” Djer asked. “Have you worked that out?”

Hemiunu pulled his tablets toward him and made notes on a fresh one. After a few minutes, he frowned. “I must have made a mistake somewhere.”

“How long?”

“This is obviously wrong.”

“How long?”

“A hundred years.”

“Do you think the king is going to live that long?”

“Obviously not.” Hemiunu threw the tablets onto the floor, scowling at the mess the fragments made. “I was so sure.”

“I had made similar calculations before,” Djer said. “Kings always want something bigger than is reasonable. It is our job to convince them that something less than their ambition is still good.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Twice as high is not possible unless we have a hundred years in which to build it, and we know we can build one the size of ‘Sneferu Shines’ in about ten years. So, let us imagine a larger mer that can be built in twenty years. King Sneferu reigned for that long, perhaps King Khufu will too.”

Another day of calculations led them to believe that a mer between two hundred and fifty and three hundred mehi high was possible within the time frame allowed, depending on problems encountered and the internal anatomy of the structure.

“Presumably, the internal structure will be similar to the last one?” Hemiunu asked.

Djer grunted, not wanting to commit to that design. He had experimented with passages and burial chambers in the small mer he had built near the ‘South Shining’, and he hoped he might be able to experiment with this new mer.

Djer took their tentative plans to Tjaty Kaemre for his opinions, and Kaemre said something that worried Djer.

“Do not breathe a word of this,” Kaemre cautioned. “I am only telling you because it has a bearing on the construction of the king’s tomb.” The Tjaty hesitated and looked around to see if they could be overheard. “The king is not well,” he continued in a low voice.

“I had no idea. He seems healthy enough.”

“He was sick as an infant; so much so there were doubts he would live. He got better and seemed strong enough, but he has had trouble breathing at times, and coughs a lot, though he tries to hide it.”

Djer looked thoughtful. “How does that affect my work?” he asked.

“It is uncertain how long he will live. Whatever the king decides upon as the final design, you should be aware that you might have to finish off his tomb in a hurry.”

“How?” Djer groaned. “Any good design is for a finished product. You cannot just leave a mer half built.”

“I will leave that for you to work out,” Kaemre said, “but if I were you, I would not delay too long. You might need all the building time you can get.”

Djer had to tell Hemiunu the news, but stressed that they had to keep it secret.

“How do we design a mer so that it can be quickly finished no matter what stage it is at?” he asked. “The only thing I can think of is to build two meru at the same time–one large and one small–so that one is finished long before the other.”

“I cannot see the king agreeing to that,” Hemiunu said. “It would be an open admission of his sickness.” He thought for a few moments. “How about if we design more than one burial chamber–one low down in the mer, the other higher up? Then if he dies early, we can finish off the structure as a simple per-djet, but if he lives long enough, he has a complete mer.

The two architects, using their assistants Menkauhor and Isesi, drew up plans for a great mer that would tower nearly three hundred mehi high. They left the details of construction aside for the time being, content to lay out the broad ideas for the king’s approval. Djer and Hemiunu took the design to Tjaty Kaemre for his comments, pointing out the salient features of their design. Three burial chambers were drawn in: the first would be underground with a descending passage connecting it to a mortuary temple. Djer estimated they could have the chamber and a large, low per-djet constructed over it within five years.

“If he dies soon, then this chamber will suffice,” he said.

“And if he lives?” Kaemre asked.

“Then we have this second chamber high up within the body of the growing mer,” Djer said. “We could have this finished by the tenth year. The structure would look a little strange if it was finished off at this point, but still impressive.”

“And this one?” Kaemre asked, pointing to a third chamber even higher within the mass of stone.

“The planned-for burial chamber,” Djer said. “This could be complete by the fifteenth year, and the whole mer complete by the twentieth.” He looked anxiously at the Tjaty. “What do you think? Can we take this to the king?”

Kaemre pursed his lips and considered the sketches. “It makes sense, given the king’s ill health. However, I think I had better be the one to present it. He is troubled by his illness and concerned that he will appear weak if it becomes public knowledge. I will assure him that only the two principal architects know… that is true, isn’t it?”

Djer nodded. “Nobody else, my lord.”

“Good. See that it stays that way. I will talk to the king about this design and let you know when you can draw up more detailed plans.”


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