The magnificent Boat of Khufu, Solar Boat Museum, Giza

The Great Boat of Khufu: The ‘Black Box’ to the Construction of the Pyramids

Perhaps this is not the first time that the reader will have heard of how in 1954 the Great Boat of Khufu was discovered, practically intact, at the southern face of the Kheops Pyramid, and how it is believed by the majority to have had cultic significance, although opinions vary within scientific circles. One belief was that the Sun sailed in such a vessel during the day, crossing over to another during the night hours. According to others, at one time the ship plied the Nile, and may even have taken the body of the pharaoh Kheops from the old capital of Memphis to his royal tomb at Gizeh. There are those who support the version in which the king undertook a pilgrimage in the vessel, thereby turning a means of transport into a holy relic and explaining how it came to be enclosed in a rock tomb (the airtight, closed boat pit). In all events, the ship boasts the artistic and technical levels of the Fourth Dynasty and Ancient Egypt. We are extremely fortunate in discovering the dismantled ship in perfect condition, having survived the tempestuous vicissitudes of thousands of years encased in several tons of stone blocks.

Pieces of the Puzzle

The gigantic jigsaw puzzle comprised more than 1,200 pieces, and took 12 years of restoration under the direction of Hag Ahmed YusseJ MustaJa. It was assembled in a specially-made air-conditioned pavilion at the site where it had been discovered. The conditions of the exhibition do justice to the find and provide a perfect opportunity for thorough research.

I mention here that not long after the excavation many began to describe the Great Boat of Khufu as the black box to the construction of the pyramids, and that its contents would reveal all the information that would bring us in proximity to the solution of the great mystery. With this I am in complete agreement, if only because this strange water vehicle, or I should say construction machine, plays a central role in my own theory. While I quite understand if you are somewhat mystified, I beg of you to continue on this exciting road of discovery.

Perhaps it cannot be overstated that the Great Boat of Khufu is nothing other than a water crane. In my opinion, the entire craft was specifically designed to lift objects. Its size allowed it to easily hoist stone blocks of two or three tons, and on open water it could transport these to wherever they were needed.

Why? How? I have the answer.

The Great Boat of Khufu played a crucial role in the construction of the pyramids

The Great Boat of Khufu played a crucial role in the construction of the pyramids

I have examined the perfect scale model of the vessel, which is exhibited in the Great Boat of Khufu Museum at the southern foot of the Kheops Pyramid.

I was able to examine the shape of the inside; the meshwork technique and other details which it was imperative not to neglect. And all that without having to hand over a pennyworth of baksheesh to anyone, a rare exception to the rule in Egypt.

In fact, it was knowledge gained of the finer details that gave birth to further ideas. It can be seen at first sight that the ship is asymmetrically constructed. The structure of the prow stretches out higher than the stern, giving it the ability to dip and rise approximately five metres. Evidently this is what it was designed to do.

We must therefore look upon the vessel as a two-armed lever with a variable axis of rotation. As the vessel dipped it did not sink lower in the water, because its hollow interior is shaped so that the identical elevating power is produced, though over a displaced surface of contact.

The Great Boat of Khufu was designed to dip and rise in order to lift heavy weights.

The Great Boat of Khufu was designed to dip and rise in order to lift heavy weights.

Materials of the Great Boat of Khufu

Two basic materials were used in building the Great Boat of Khufu; wood - the cedar of Lebanon which was so perfect for ship-building - and flax. It is unlikely that even in ancient times Egypt could have a supplied a wood appropriate for ship-building. It is another matter that there were vast quantities of papyrus reed which, though buoyant, could hardly have been used in producing any great ability to hoist.

The ship carpenters of the ancient world made the ship's hull - if we may refer to it in that manner - out of XXL components. The lengths of rope employed to create rigidity and the knots tied can be seen to this day displayed in the Great Boat of Khufu museum. The quality of workmanship achieved by the rope-makers of the day is simply outstanding. They vie with the best of modern rope production. Flax is itself a strong material and difficult to break. The ropes made from it show fine workmanship, not in the least rough-and-ready. Pieces of ancient rope with a diameter of twelve or thirteen centimetres have been found, capable of a strain of several tons.

A Floating Crane

The structure of the Great Boat of Khufu was similar to that of today's floating cranes. The lifting ships floated across the surface of the flooded building site to wherever they were required. They raised the stones of several tons' weight to wherever the handling personnel wanted them. There is nothing new under the sun, for to this very day the only way in which we could move such immense weights with comparable freedom would be with the aid of floating cranes. Here a good example is that of bridge-building, in which sections several tons in weight are assembled on the shore, lifted by floating cranes, floated across to the bridge site and then with the aid of anchor ropes are positioned with millimeter precision. It can't be imagined any other way. Every other piece of lifting gear working at this greatness of scale is either confined to a fixed position or can only work over a very limited area. Why should it have been beyond the ken of the culture that knew the secret of the movement of the stars, or who could calculate the date of eclipses of the sun, to know what John Smith the crane operator can tell you, shaken rudely from his dreams?

However, it would be a mistake to go to the other extreme and claim that everything was raised in this manner in the ancient world - and not just construction in Egypt. Unusually heavy weights could doubtless be hoisted through the cooperation of five or six ships, but there may, no, there surely were other methods known. It stands to reason that the monoliths could also be raised through a lock-gate system, a technology in which the weight is to all intents and purposes insignificant, at least, so long as the volume of water used allows. The essence of the lock-gate system is that if we raise the level of water in an enclosed basin, then the level of the object floating in it will also rise. From this level, the object can be raised further by leading it into a higher loch. For a twenty-five-ton load (a twenty-ton stone block and a five-ton vessel) to be raised, only twenty-five tons of water have to be displaced. Simplifying the object into a brick shape, the task can be carried out in a container ten metres long, two metres wide, and capable of providing a draught of 1·25 metres.

The Great Boat of Khufu may have functioned as a ‘floating crane’, moving across the surface of the flooded building site to wherever they were required.

The Great Boat of Khufu may have functioned as a ‘floating crane’, moving across the surface of the flooded building site to wherever they were required.

The floating crane was no cruiser

There are some, among them Graham Hancock and MoustaJa Gadalla, who consider that the Great Boat of Khufu could be used as an ocean-going craft, but this is probably an erroneous supposition. It would have been more accurate to state that the same people who were able to construct a ship equipped with such particular abilities must also have been capable of creating superb ocean-going vehicles. No-one argues the point. However, the Great Boat of Khufu (and its companions) were specifically designed as work machines. This is borne out by the lack of a mast, and thereby sails, and positions for only five pairs of oars in its enormous hull.

This would have been insufficient not only for ocean, but even for river transport. It could not have been used on the Nile against the current, whereas a sailing vessel exploiting the prevailing north wind could navigate it easily, as we can evidence in the movements of modern-day feluccas.

The Great Boat of Khufu was therefore designed for carrying out local tasks and could only be used on still water.

Just to give some force to my argument, let me cite Thor Heyerdahl, who also writes of the vessel discovered at the southern foot of the Kheops Pyramid and restored over a period of twelve years. Assembly proved no mean task for the descendants of the ship builders of the ancient world. Each phase of the restoration work was documented, and photos can be viewed at the museum.

It was at this time that Heyerdahl built his papyrus ships Ra I and Ra II in the valley at the foot of the Mykerinus Pyramid. He attempted to prove through his experimentation - and despite truly adverse conditions, was successful in doing so - that the ancient peoples, even with rudimentary technology and simple materials, were able to sail as far afield as across the Atlantic. During intervals in the ship-building he visited the restoration work on a number of occasions.

The ancient Egyptians were able to sales across the Atlantic, but it was not in the Great Boat of Khufu or its companion boats.

The ancient Egyptians were able to sales across the Atlantic, but it was not in the Great Boat of Khufu or its companion boats.

Later in his book he devoted many pages to contemplation over the seeming lack of motive for its shape. It was palpably unsuitable for sea travel. Its long prow produced no elevating power, and a stronger wave could tear it apart. At the same time the vessel was remarkably well made, built with an apparently unnecessary degree of care. This is what Heyerdahl writes of the restored Great Boat of Khufu:

"The result was a ship over 140 feet long, so perfectly streamlined and elegant that the Vikings had not built anything more graceful or larger when some millennia later they began to sail the high seas. There was only one essential difference between the two types of ship; the Viking ships were built to bear the brunt of the ocean rollers, while Cheops's ship was built for pomp and ceremony on the placid Nile. Wear and tear on the wood, where the ropes had chafed furrows, showed that Cheops's ship had been in proper use, and had not been just a 'solar ship' built solely for the Pharaoh's last voyage. Yet the streamlined hull would have collapsed on its first encounter with ocean waves. This was truly amazing. The exquisite lines of the ship were specialized to perfection for true ocean voyaging. Its gracefully curved hull, with elegantly upthrust and very high bow and stern, had all the characteristic features found only in sea-going vessels, specially designed to ride breakers and towering waves."

It is a shame that there have been few so penetrating as Heyerdahl, and even now the structure's navigational properties are overlooked. The thoughts and assistance of the Norwegian scholar do much to support my theory.

Top image: The magnificent Boat of Khufu, Solar Boat Museum, Giza ( David Berkowitz / flickr )

By István Sörös

This article is an extract from the book: ‘ Pyramids on Water, Floating Stones by Istvan Soros


Hi Istvan, this is an interesting concept. I've been looking at Minoan technologies around this time which traded with Egypt. The Minoan hulls seem to be advanced, see:

Minoans used strong mortise and tenon joints (can't tell from the reconstruction of the Khufu boat - but there aren't any holes for rope fixing, so probably did the same) and linen with pine resin to provide a watertight composite hull for long voyages, dramatically improving seaworthiness. There is probably more to this relationship, for example, they supplied architects for most of the mainland palaces around the med, they were experts in water tech (viaducts, water storage, townwide communal plumping, steam rooms, etc). The archaeology supports your theory, they used canals around the pyramids. The lifting is an interesting concept, they were using ships for transporting masonry, so will have needed a method of lifting them – not seen any examples of block and tackles around this time, so you may be right! I believe the Minoans that dominated the shipping lanes in the med may have used this technique, not for lifting, but to sink foreign vessels that resisted boarding. E.g. if they attacked with stand-off weapons (arrows and slings), drive into the foreign hull amidship, forcing the foreign hull to list, so she would take on water. The Minoan composite hulls would be lighter, faster and more manoeuvrable to achieve this.
A thought, to counterbalance the block at the front end, they could lift water ballast at the backend! Assuming a fulcrum around the 1/5th of length, they would need to lift 1/5th the weight in water at the back to balance the boat. They could use leather bladders to do this and there are blocks at the backend so they wouldn’t slide down the hull! They could then dump this ballast after delivery for the return leg to pick up the next load. I think your theory may be correct, they didn't have block and tackles for lifting and would have needed a method to load and unload blocks.

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