The Boat of Cheops

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Khufu or Cheops’s dismantled boat was found buried near the Great Pyramid in 1954. The boat was reassembled and stored in the Boat Museum, next to the Great Pyramid. Model testing of Cheops’s boat has revealed some interesting details regarding the boat and the burial.

The Boat Museum is located right next to the Pyramid of Giza.
The Boat Museum, next to the Pyramid of Giza, which hosts Cheops’s boat.
(Image: Lexan/Shutterstock)

Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, is also known as Cheops. His Egyptian name was Khufu but the Greeks called him Cheops.

Khufu didn’t just build the pyramid. He did other things, too. He also built a huge boat next to his pyramid. In 1954, one of the oldest and biggest boats was found buried near the Great Pyramid. It was buried in a pit dug into the bedrock, a big pit, 170-foot pit. It was buried into the bedrock and covered over with limestone blocks; hence, it remained hidden until its discovery in 1954. The boat was dismantled. It was like a kit. It wasn’t complete, but it was virtually complete in all its pieces—1,500 pieces.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Reassembling Cheops’s Boat

Reassembling Cheops' Boat took more than decade.
The reassembled Cheops’s boat, hosted in the Boat Museum of Giza. (Image: Berthold Werner/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

It took more than a decade to reassemble this boat. The wood was still in good enough condition. It contained enough moisture since the pit had been virtually airtight. The wood was not brittle so the entire boat could be reconstructed. It took more than a decade, but we can see it today. It’s in the boat museum, a glass museum right next to the Great Pyramid.

It’s absolutely spectacular. It has huge oars and beautiful, graceful lines. It’s 150 feet long. It’s a big boat, and it’s made of cedars of Lebanon: the cedars that Sneferu, Khufu’s father, brought back from his trading expeditions.

But there are a couple of questions about this boat. What was it used for? For example, there is no place for a mast or a sail in this boat. So it wasn’t really a sailing vessel. The oars of this boat don’t really look like they could function properly either.

Learn more about the rise of the Old Kingdom.

Model Testing for Cheops’ Boat

There was great curiosity about this boat. People wanted to know, what was it used for? What were its properties? So a student of mine carved a seven-foot-long model of this boat.

The model was tested at the Webb Institute for Naval Architecture, where it was hooked with various electrodes and put into the water, feeding data back to the computers. All kinds of conditions were simulated: Nile conditions, Mediterranean conditions. It was tested with waves; it was tested with pitch—to see all that it could do.

A carved model of Cheops' boat.
The carved model of Cheops’s Boat is used to test and identify the properties of the original vessel. (Image: WLU/Public domain)

It was already known that the boat didn’t sail because there was no place for a mast. But the boat had wonderful river properties. It glided through the water beautifully. But one of the analyses showed that the oars, attached to it, could not possibly propel a boat that size. It didn’t have a mast either, so the wind didn’t propel it.

So, what was it used for? There are two possibilities. One is that it’s a symbolic boat: a ritual boat that was supposed to take the pharaoh to the next world. For the long haul, people went by boat anytime they wanted to travel a great distance in ancient Egypt. The pharaoh was going to go to the next world, which was in the west, across the sky, and this could have been the boat that was going to take Sneferu’s son, Khufu, to the next world.

The other possibility is that the boat was used but only once. It was the boat that, on his last journey, took Khufu from the east bank of the Nile, which is where the living stayed, to the west bank, which is where the pyramids were and the dead were buried.

This may have been a boat that was a barge that was towed across the Nile with Khufu’s body on it. Once on the other side of the Nile, the mummy was placed inside the Great Pyramid, and the boat was disassembled and placed in the pit, where it remained for nearly 5,000 years.

There is an interesting construction technique used in this boat. It’s not nailed together. The Egyptians didn’t have nails. When they had to do something with wood, they pegged it. But this boat wasn’t pegged, either. It’s what we call a sewn boat.

The planks of the boat, which are up to 70 feet long, are tied together, but it’s still river worthy. What would happen is that the wood would swell and the ropes would shrink, making it watertight.

Common Questions about the Boat of Cheops

Q: How old is Khufu’s boat?

It has been 65 years since archaeologists stumbled across the vessel inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. This Cheops’ Boat is 4,600 years old; reportedly, it was so well-designed that it could still sail if launched back onto the Nile today.

Q: When was Khufu’s boat built?

Khufu or Cheops’ boat was one of the two vessels discovered in 1954 by the Egyptian archaeologist Kamal el-Mallakh. It was buried at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which had stood still since around 2500 B.C.

Q: Where is the pharaoh’s boat buried?

Khufu or Cheops’ boat was found in a pit next to the Great Pyramid at Giza. It was buried to transport Pharaoh Khufu’s spirit to the heavens.

Q: Is Khufu a God?

Pharaohs were considered as gods, but Khufu’s full name was Khnum-Khufwy, which means Khnum(the god) protect me. Khufu is known for building the Great Pyramid at Giza.

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