The Khufu Ship: An Ancient Solar Barque at the Pyramids of Giza

The Khufu Ship: An Ancient Solar Barque at the Pyramids of Giza

By Margaux | Updated May. 4, 2023

At the site of the Pyramids of Giza, next to the biggest one, the Great Pyramid or Khufu Pyramid, ancient ships were found buried. The main one, now referred to as the Khufu ship, is a fully intact solar barque, and is one of the best preserved and largest vessels dating back millennia.

We highly recommend visiting the Solar Barque at the Grand Egyptian Museum to learn more about the importance of funerary rights in ancient Egypt, as well as how advanced ancient Egyptian society was when it came to shipbuilding techniques.

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What is a Solar Barque, and What Was it Used For?

Paintings of the Egyptian God Ra and MaatPaintings of the Egyptian God Ra and Maat

A solar barque is believed to be a vessel used by the sun god Ra as seen in ancient Egyptian mythology. According to this, Ra was said to use a vessel to travel through the sky in the underworld. Each twelfth of his journey referred to one of the twelve Egyptian hours of the day, each represented by a gate overseen by one of twelve protective deities. Ra was said to travel through these fighting off monsters that were looking to destroy him, in what symbolized his daily growth.

Given that the pharaoh was the real-life representation of god on earth, it is no surprise that the pharaoh would be buried alongside a solar barque to use during his own journey into the afterlife and underworld. While this is just a theory, this is the most likely theory put together by experts given the information available. The Khufu ship is the most famous example of a funerary fleet from ancient Egypt, and is well worth a visit, even just to see how advanced boat building techniques were in ancient Egypt.

Suggested reading: The Top 7 Ancient Wonders of Egypt That Are Worth a Visit

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Who Built the Solar Barque?

Details of the Solar BarqueDetails of the Solar Barque

The solar barque was found sealed in a pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which was built around 2500 BC during the Fourth Dynasty of the ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom. Khufu ascended to the throne in his 20s, at which point he started building the Great Pyramid of Giza as his tomb. The ship made up part of the grave goods included in the burial of Khufu, meant to aid him in his journey in the afterlife, and was likely built by his vizier and staff.

The Solar Barque spans almost 44 meters (142 feet) long, and is almost 6 meters (19 feet) wide, making it the largest in-tact antique ship in the whole world that could likely sail today if it were put on a body of water. It is huge, weighing in at a total of 20 tonnes.

The material used to build the ship was cedar that probably came from Lebanon. Egypt does not have a lot of trees of its own apart from acacia and tamarisk, and it's likely that cedar used to build the ship was imported from the eastern Mediterranean region at the time.

Relative reading:  The Top 10 Egyptian Monuments (From Pyramids to Temples)

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Where and When the Solar Barque was Discovered

Khufu Solar ShipKhufu Solar Ship

The ship was discovered in 1954 by Kamal el-Mallakh alongside another ship. Archaeologists found what seemed to be a wall made out of limestone after they were finishing off cleaning the area around the Great Pyramid, which is what initially lead to the incredible discovery.

The ship was buried at the foot of the pyramid, completely sealed and undisturbed since being buried there. It had fallen apart, but the wood was still intact since it had been completely sealed off in a chamber. Approximately 1,224 fragments were excavated over 20 months following the discovery.

There have been some disagreements about whether or not the ship had been used. Some argue that it is clear that there were some signs that the solar barque had been used, and it is possible that the boat was either used to carry the pharaoh from Memphis to his resting place in Giza after his passing, or that he used it during his life. Others argue that there were wood shavings found in the pit, showing that the boat was built right there to be buried without ever having been used on the water.

Suggested reading: Where are the Pyramids of Giza? Ways to Get There from Cairo

Following its discovery, it took years for the boat to be reassembled, which was done by well-known chief restorer Ahmed Youssef Moustafa from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. He studied reliefs on walls and tombs for years before gaining the knowledge to put the barque back together according to ancient Egyptian shipbuilding techniques.

Other boat pits that were also discovered around the Great Pyramid of Giza as well as the nearby queens' pyramids were empty. It is likely that the pits did also hold boats at some point, but it is unclear what happened to them and when.

Relative reading: How to Visit the Pyramids of Giza: Top 10 Travel Tips

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Where to See the Khufu Ship

The pavillion with Khufu ship outside of pyramid of KhufuThe pavillion with Khufu ship outside of pyramid of Khufu in Great pyramids complex

The Khufu ship was originally found at a separate museum, the Giza Solar Boat Museum, which was on site at the pyramids. It had been on display there since being reassembled in 1982. However, it was recently moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum, also in Giza, which is planned to be opened in November 2022. At the time of writing (October 2022), this opening is still going ahead as planned, but there have been various delays in this due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move of the boat was a huge spectacle, as it was transported in a shock-absorbing metal container and carried by a remote-controlled vehicle especially imported for this purpose. The journey was slow to avoid damage to the ship, and took approximately 10 hours to travel just 8 kilometers (5 miles).

As well as the boat, you'll also be able to see walls of the pit in which inscriptions and marks were found that were likely left there by builders of the pit or of the boat itself. Some of these marks have contributed to other theories about the owners and builders of the boats, but there is not much other evidence to support these theories.

Intrior view of the main hall of The Grand Egyptian MuseumIntrior view of the main hall of The Grand Egyptian Museum

The Grand Egyptian Museum will also house other incredible artifacts from around Egypt, making it the largest archaeological museum in the entire world. Some of the most well-known items you'll be able to see there include the complete Tutankhamun collection, which includes some items that have never been on display before.

This museum is set to be one of the most incredible in the world given the sheer amount of artefacts on display, and you'll likely need an entire day to make the most of it. Inside you'll be able to find various shops, restaurants, and cafes, as well as activities for kids.

Tickets for the Grand Egyptian Museum are planned to be sold at 200 Egyptian pounds for the main hall (10.2 US dollars), 400 Egyptian pounds for the special Tutankhamun Hall (20.4 US dollars), or 500 Egyptian pounds for an all-inclusive ticket (approximately 25.5 US dollars).

Further reading: The Great Sphinx of Giza: Uncover Its History and Facts You Didn't Know

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