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Khufu Ship Mystery Continues 65 Years after Discovery Under Great Pyramid

Nancy Bilyeau
Getty Images
Getty Images

The enduring mystery of the Khufu ship was back in the news. It’s not every day that an ancient-world creation gets a shout out from Google. But on May 26th precisely that took place–it was a day to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Khufu Ship discovery, with Google on its homepage displaying a brownish papyrus-like photo of ancient Egyptian symbols, including drawings of the Great Pyramids of Giza, a ship, and the digits “1954,” referring to the year of the discovery.

“On this day in 1954, one of the oldest and largest boats on earth was found buried near Egypt’s biggest pyramid,” Google said in description of the doodle. “Today’s doodle celebrates the discovery of the Khufu Ship, which survived more than 4,600 years, although its true purpose remains mystery.”

Khufu solar boat Egypt

Khufu solar boat. Photo bykmf164 CC by 2.0

It is perhaps the mystery of the Khufu Ship that makes it such a stand out among all the other Egyptian monuments and creations. Unearthed near the Great Pyramid of Giza in an airtight vault, the ancient vessel has archaeologists puzzled over what it was originally intended for.

Khufu ship

Khufu ship. Photo by Ovedc CC BY-SA 4.0)

Khufu Ship was found buried on the south side of the Great Pyramid of Giza by archaeologist Kamal el-Mallakh. He was examining a row of massive limestone blocks covering a rectangular pit. He broke through a slab of limestone to reveal a vault beneath his feet. For the first time in 4,500 years the sun’s rays were shining on the timbers of a great papyriform ship, built and then dismantled and buried at the height of the Egyptian Old Kingdom.

Khufu ship Egypt

Khufu solar boat. Photo by Eslam M. Chalabi CC BY-SA 3.0

The slow process of reassembling the ship’s more than 1,200 pieces was overseen by Haj Ahmed Youssef, a restorer who worked for the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. He studied models found in ancient tombs and visited modern shipyards along the Nile.

Khufu solar boat

Khufu solar boat. Photo by ovedc CC by SA-4.0

More than a decade later, the ingeniously designed vessel, measuring 143 feet long and 19.6 feet wide , was fully restored without using a single nail. The ship “was reportedly so well-designed it could still sail if launched back onto the Nile today,” according to the Independent.

Khufu solar boat

Khufu ship. Photo by Bradipus Alex Lbh CC BY-SA 2.0 BE

Most experts believe that the ship was built for Pharaoh Khufu, and even that it was constructed to carry the Pharaoh into the afterlife. Historians generally accept that Khufu commissioned the 6-million-ton Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Known to the Greek world as Cheops, Khufu was the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty and ruled over 2,500 years before Jesus was born.

Khufu ship

Khufu ship. Photo by Ovedc CC BY-SA 4.0

Others speculate that the vessel holds the secret of the Pyramids’ construction. Following this argument, the asymmetrical ship was designed to be used as a floating crane capable of lifting large stone blocks. Wear and tear on the wood indicates that the boat was not just a religious symbol. Khufu Ship was designed similarly to the Sun god Ra’s so-called solar barge, known as Atet. Solar boats in ancient Egypt were mostly made of cedar wood and used in religious rituals.

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In the book The Boat Beneath the Pyramid, Nancy Jenkins wrote: “Throughout Egyptian history, the use of papyriform boats seems to have been restricted to events that had a religious or cultic significance – as pilgrimage boats, for instance, especially to the important site of Abydos, sacred to Osiris, where every Egyptian hoped to journey if not annually, at least once in his lifetime; or as funerary boats, to transport the mummy across the river to the necropolis on the west bank; or as vehicles for the transport of important gods.”

Related Article: World’s Oldest Intact Shipwreck Found – 2,400-yr-old ‘Ship of Odysseus’

Khufu Ship is currently kept in the Solar Boat Museum near the Great Pyramids of Giza.


Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com