The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only surviving wonder of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Still standing since around 2500 BCE with the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaura and the Great Sphinx of Giza, it is still ancient and still a wonder. The tallest human-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years, the Great Pyramid was built with an estimated 2.3 million large blocks of stone weighing 6 million tons in total. One of the many ‘wonders’ people wonder about to this day about the last Great Wonder is, “I wonder how they moved all those two-ton stones from the Nile River to the site 5 miles (8 km) away?” Well, we may have moved away from wonder and a little closer to fact recently as a new study using sediment cores taken from deep holes around the Giza site found evidence that they may have been floated on a river, a tributary of the Nile, that began drying up soon after the construction was finished and disappeared completely around 600 BCE. Has one part of the mystery of the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza finally been solved?
“The pyramids of Giza originally overlooked a now defunct arm of the Nile. This fluvial channel, the Khufu branch, enabled navigation to the Pyramid Harbor complex but its precise environmental history is unclear.”
In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from France, China and Egypt address the challenge of proving the existence of the long-rumored “Khufu branch” of the Nile that would have made easier the task of moving the two-ton stones from the quarry down the Nile to the Giza construction site. The tributary was named for Khufu or Cheops, the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty who is believed to have commissioned the Great Pyramid. While the Khufu branch was known to have existed, its route and proximity to the Great Pyramid was not, so many theories of how the stones were brought to the pyramids centered on thousands of slaves, servants or conscripted workers dragging them on logs or some other fashion.
The theory of a transport canal or river running from the Nile gained strength in 2013 with the discovery of the Diary of Merer – a set of 4,500-year-old papyrus logbooks written by Merer, who appears to have been an inspector for the transport phase during the pyramid construction and in charge of a crew of workers. The logbooks were found buried in front of man-made caves that served to store the boats at Egypt’s Wadi al-Jarf on the Red Sea – the oldest known manmade harbor. That’s fitting since the logbooks are the oldest known papyrus texts and the hieroglyphs list the daily activities of Merer and his crew as they moved limestone blocks from the Tura quarries to Giza by boat. The Great Pyramid is mentioned by its original name Akhet Khufu and it lists the final destinations of the stones as She Akhet-Khufu ("the pool of the pyramid Horizon of Khufu") and Ro-She Khufu (“the entrance to the pool of Khufu”). That inspired Hader Sheisha, an environmental geographer at the European Center for Research and Teaching in Environmental Geoscience and a co-author of the study, to further support the Diary of Mere by finding the exact location of the Khufu branch of the Nile.
Sheisha and her team obtained core sediment samples from holes more than 30 feet deep dug in the desert near the Giza harbor site and along the route that they believed the Khufu Branch followed. Those sediment cores contained a record of activities in Giza dating back 8,000 years. That record showed both the route of the branch and its depth at various times until it disappeared and gave the team their first “Ah ha!” moment – it showed that the levels of the branch 4,000 years ago were high enough that it nearly all the way to Giza when the three pyramids of Khufu, Menkaure and Khafre were built.
The second “Ah ha!” moment came when the researchers dug though the sediment layers for samples of pollen from various times and locations. They found 61 species of plants which showed how the local ecosystem had changed over thousands of years -- Christophe Morhange, a geomorphologist at Aix-Marseille University in France and another co-author, told The New York Times that pollen from cattails and papyrus showed when the river was high and lined with marshes, while pollen from drought-resistant plants like grasses showed when the water level was low. About 8,000 years ago, during the African Humid Period, the region around Giza was underwater. As northern Africa dried out, the Khufu Branch retained around 40 percent of its water, making it the perfect waterway because it was deep enough for stone-laden rafts yet shallow enough that it didn’t flood the surrounding area where the workers lived.
As we know, the Khufu branch no longer exists. According to Sheisha, the drop in its water level contributed to the end of pyramid building in the Giza area. It was very low by the reign of King Tutankhamen beginning in 1350 BCE – a pharaoh who probably would have wanted a pyramid. By the time Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BCE, the area where the Khufu branch once flowed was now a cemetery … for both people and a dead river.
“Knowing more about the environment can solve part of the enigma of the pyramids’ construction.”
Sheisha told The New York Times that the end of the study is not the end of the quest to solve the other mysteries in the construction of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and its ancient but not so wondrous fellow pyramids. What else might they find in these and other sediment core samples taken from the Giza area? Did they check for signs of alien spaceship exhaust fumes or strange foods consumed by the extraterrestrials that many believe helped humans build the pyramids?
It never hurts to look.