Little Bits of History

Sailing to Oblivion

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 26, 2011

Model of Khufu's solar barque, from the boat museum at the base of the Great Pyramid. (photo by WLU)

May 26, 1954: A ship is discovered in a pit near the Great Pyramid of Giza. The full-size ship was constructed for Pharaoh Khufu or Cheops. It was placed here in order to help transport the Pharaoh’s soul to heaven and so was built from sacred materials. The sycamore and cedar wood ship was sealed in a pit next to the pyramid used to house the great ruler after his death. The ship was found by Kamal el-Malakh, the director of archaeological work for Giza and lower Egypt. Amazingly, it had not been plundered by tomb robbers during the 4,600 years since it had been placed.

The well-preserved vessel was 143 feet long and 19.5 feet wide. It had a flat bottom without an actual keel. A rudder sweep along with a dozen oars and coils of linen rope were in place aboard ship, ready to sail. The ship was built using unpegged tenons and the planks and frame were held together using Halfah grass. The boat’s 1,224 components were transported out and needed to be rebuilt into the magnificent barge once again. The reconstructed ship used modern rope to lash it together and 95% of the wood are the original timbers used for the Pharaoh.

The ship is known as a “solar barge” or a ritual vessel used at the time to carry the king after his resurrection. He would be joined by the sun god, Ra, as they traveled across the heavens. This particular ship shows some evidence of having seen some time in actual water and may have been used to carry Khufu’s embalmed body from Memphis to Giza. It is also possible the Pharaoh could have used it as a “pilgrimage ship” to visit revered sites and so it was blessed and buried with him to use in the afterlife.

The rebuilt ship is housed in a museum built over the pit where it was discovered. The Khufu Boat Museum is alongside the Great Pyramid, the oldest and the largest of the Pyramids of Giza. It is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence. It is believed to have taken 20 years to build and was completed in 2560 BC. It remained the tallest manmade structure for over 3,800 years until it was surpassed by the Lincoln Cathedral in England. There are three known chambers inside the pyramid with the lowest one cut into the bedrock. There are several theories about how the pyramids were built, but we have no definitive answer.

“Cheops’ Law: Nothing ever gets built on schedule or within budget.” – Robert A. Heinlein

“On the pyramid it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen, and if I rightly remember that which the interpreter said in reading to me this inscription, a sum of one thousand six hundred talents of silver was spent.” – The Greek historian Herodotus likely being duped by a tour guide, 5th century BC

“They say the Pharaohs built the pyramids Do you think one Pharaoh dropped one bead of sweat? We built the pyramids for the Pharaohs and we’re building for them yet.” – Anna Louise Strong

“Far from being a curse, it might be lucky to disturb a pharaoh’s tomb. These people beat the life span expectation for those days by about a year.” – James Randi

Also on this day:
Who Was That? – In 1828 a strange teenager is found on the streets.
Complex Napoleon – In 1805, Napoleon was crowned King of Italy.

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