UPDATED: SEPTEMBER 2020
The ancient Egyptians considered the Sphinx the sacred guide of the solar barge.
A barge or barque is a ritual boat used to transport the resurrected king, along with the Sun God Ra, across the heavens into the afterlife. The Sphinx is believed to be the holder of the password that granted the barge passage from earthly Giza to the abode of Osiris.
KHUFU’S SOLAR BOAT
It was Kamal el-Mallakh, an antiquities inspector at Giza in 1950, who first stumbled upon several enormous limestone slabs beside Khufu’s pyramid at Giza. Some of the slabs had a mark of the cartouche (oval hieroglyphic name) of Djedefre, Khufu’s son & heir. It was clear the blocks covered chambers that likely held funerary objects.
Permission for further investigation was granted four years later and on the 26th of May 1954, they broke into the airtight chamber to the overpowering smell of cedar and were astounded to find the components of what appeared to be a wooden boat: 1224 Lebanese cedar planks arranged in thirteen neat piles along with six pairs of oars and halfah ropes for rigging. All wrapped in cloth and pieces of matting.
The debate over whether the boats were meant for the resurrected Pharaoh’s onward journey across the heavens or used to transport the royal mummy and burial equipment from Memphis to his pyramid is still on.
Painstaking restoration took ten long years, starting 1958, with the help of markings on the planks and clues drawn from funerary texts and scale models from other royal tombs. No nails were used in its construction. The planks were literally ‘threaded’ together through V shaped channels with rope made from reeds similar to that in the boat pit. The original halfah grass ropes were deemed too weak to be used for the reconstruction. The ropes apparently tighten when the wood swells in water and render the craft completely watertight.
‘Khufu’s Ship’ found a home in the modern air-conditioned museum in 1985. The museum was designed specially for it directly above the pit where it was discovered.
The slender, incredibly elegant craft is just over 43m long and 5.9m wide with a 9m long panelled deckhouse in the centre and a framed canopy in front of it. Ten oars are fitted ahead of the deck and another pair at the stern act as steering oars. The high ends are fashioned like stylised papyrus stalks.
The second boat was left unexcavated for decades. Then, in 1987, a test probe detected beetles crawling inside the pit which indicated it wasn’t airtight anymore and needed urgent attention. There were also signs of water seepage. An onsite ‘archaeological lab’ was finally set up in early 2017 to begin the restoration of Khufu’s second boat. It will eventually be exhibited along with its twin in a new Boat Museum being built alongside the Grand Egyptian Museum slated to open in Giza in 2021.
Fourteen such royal vessels have been unearthed in various stages of preservation from funerary sites across Egypt so far. By all accounts, Khufu’s 4700 year old ship is the largest and most spectacular to date.
Do not miss this museum if you are ever in Giza.
ABOUT THE SOLAR BOAT MUSEUM
The humidity-controlled building – supposed to be a modern interpretation of the hull of the solar barge – does seem a bit incongruous in its setting against the Great Pyramid, but the air conditioned interior is a welcome respite from the sweltering heat of the desert sun.
The lower floor documents the discovery of the boat and the process of restoring it. You walk directly below the boat, cleverly suspended in the multi level central space above. Three storey high walkways on all sides afford views from every angle.
Hours: Open daily 08.00-17.00 | Last entry 16.00.
Tickets: Not included in the general Giza Plateaux ticket.
Adult: EGP 100 / Student: EGP 50
All inclusive Giza Plateaux Tickets (Area entry – The Great Pyramid – Khufu’s Boat Museum): Adult: EGP 600 / Student: EGP 300.
Camera photography fee: EGP 50
Toilets are clean and can be accessed for a small fee of about EGP 5.
All visitors are expected to wear shoe covers provided at the entrance.
Note: You cannot buy tickets near the Sphinx gate. Tickets used to be sold near the museum, but appear to have been shifted to the main (Mena House) gate. Do not forget to enquire at the main counter when you pick up the area entry tickets.
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