The Solar Boat Museum
In 1950, Kamal el-Mallakh an architect and archaeologist, was working as an Antiquities Inspector at Giza, when he first noticed a thin line of mortar which delineated the edge of a pair of long narrow pits, end to end, on the south side of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. At the time the area was being cleared for a tourist road and when the men dug further they uncovered 41 huge slabs of limestone in the eastern pit (the western one contained 40 slabs) and a mason’s mark with a cartouche of Djedefre, Khufu’s successor. The stonework was at first thought to be of little interest and it took Kamal el-Mallakh four years to persuade his superiors that the slabs should be further investigated.
On May 26 1954, the team began to dig and eventually Mr el-Mallakh was lowered into a hole in one of the blocks. His first sensation was the sweet smell of cedarwood and a great sense of fulfilment – then with the use of a torch and a mirror he caught sight of the large oar of a full-sized dismantled boat. The pit had been airtight and the boat seemed to be in a remarkable state of preservation, arranged in thirteen neatly piled layers, complete with ropes for rigging and pieces of matting.
The boat was laboriously removed from its pit, in pieces, following preliminary consolidation of the cloth and matting which covered it and in 1958 reconstruction of the boat, by Hag Ahmed Youssef Moustafa the Antiquities Service’s principal restorer, was able to begin. This consisted of re-assembling the 1224 individual pieces of cedar, acacia and other elements in a painstaking operation rather like putting together a jig-saw puzzle without a picture. The ancient builders had helpfully indicated on some of the pieces which parts of the craft they had come from, but the work still took over ten years to complete and was finally fully re-assembled in 1968. No nails were used in the construction and the planking was assembled through an ingenious system of stitching through holes with ropes of vegetable fibres. When the wood was swollen by water the ropes would tighten and make the boat watertight.
The solar boat measures 43.3m long, 5.9m wide, has a draft of 1.48m and an estimated displacement of around 45 tons. It resembles paintings and models of boats which have survived since ancient times, with a large central panelled cabin, 9m long, an open canopy supported by poles and a smaller one at the fore which was probably for the captain’s use. It was steered by five pairs of oars plus one pair at the stern to act as a rudder. It’s stem and stern were fashioned in the form of papyrus stalks, as though intended to represent the type of papyrus boat used throughout ancient Egyptian history.
The significance of the buried boat is still debated. The Pyramid Texts clearly state that at the end of the pharaoh’s life on Earth, his soul ascends to the heavens in the solar barque to join his father Re. The arguments are about whether this boat was purely symbolic – part of the burial goods – or whether it was actually used in the funeral procession to transport the body of the king by river to his pyramid complex. While some scholars claim that there is evidence that the boat has been in water, Zahi Hawass points out that shavings of cedar and acacia found in the pit during excavation, indicate that it was probably built close to where it was buried. While the boat is of the right dimensions to be suitable as a river craft, no mast was found with the components.
Other ancient wooden boats and their emplacements have been discovered in Egypt. In 1893 Jaques de Morgan discovered six boats near the Middle Kingdom pyramid of Senwosret III at Dashur. More recently, in 1987, the western boat pit at the Great Pyramid was examined by a microprobe inserted through a hole drilled into the pit, confirming the presence of a second wooden boat similar to the first. It has been decided that the second boat will remain in its pit, in conditions which make its preservation near perfect.
In 1991 American archaeologist David O’Connor discovered twelve boat pits near Khasekhemwy’s Dynasty II funerary enclosure at Abydos (Shunet el-Zebib), although it has been recently established by experts that the boats had been placed in the pits long before the enclosure was built. Each of the pits was found to contain remains of a wooden boat, though not as well-preserved as Khufu’s. Interestingly, the boats were filled in with mudbricks, each one itself boat-shaped. In a period when wood is believed to have been a rare and precious commodity in Egypt, it is hoped that this exciting discovery will provide many insights into power and foreign relationships at the beginning of Egyptian history. Two more boats were discovered at Abydos in the year 2000, making a total of fourteen boats thought to predate those of Khufu by at least 300 years.
Khufu’s solar boat remains the most spectacular of all Egyptian boats found to date. It is now on display in its own specially-built museum just a few metres from where it was found on the southern side of the monument, an imposing legacy from the builder of the Great Pyramid.
Tickets to the Solar Boat Museum cost EGP 50.