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Sailing into eternity
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 31 - 07 - 2008

Visitors to the Giza Plateau will be able to view Khufu's second solar boat through a tiny camera 4,500 years after it was buried to ferry the king to eternity. Nevine El-Aref takes a look
On the southern side of Khufu's Great Pyramid, a hundred journalists, photographers, cameramen and television presenters gathered inside a five-metre-long metal hanger padded with black fabric. Inside the hanger were 10 leather chairs and an LCD screen showing scenes of Khufu's solar boat in situ. From last Saturday, Khufu's second solar boat is on show to the public for the first time since its discovery by Egyptian architect and archaeologist Kamal El-Mallakh with Zaki Nour in 1954.
At that time El-Mallakh and Nour found two boat pits during routine cleaning at the southern side of the Great Pyramid. The first pit was found under a roof of 41 limestone slabs, each weighing almost 20 tonnes, with the three westernmost of the slabs being much smaller than the others leading them to be interpreted as keystones. On removing one of the slabs El-Mallakh and Nour saw a cedar boat, completely dismantled but arranged in the semblance of its finished form. Also inside the pit were layers of mats, ropes, instruments made of flint and some small pieces of white plaster along with 12 oars, 58 poles, three cylindrical columns and five doors.
The boat was removed piece by piece under the supervision of the master of restorers Ahmed Youssef, who spent more than 20 years restoring and reassembling the boat. The task resembled the fitting together of a giant jigsaw puzzle, and the completed boat is now on display at Khufu's Solar Boat Museum on the Giza Plateau. The cedar timbers of its curved hull are lashed together with hemp rope in a technique used until recent times by traditional shipbuilders on the shores of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
The boat's prow and stern are in the form of papyrus stalks, with the one on the stern bent over. It is therefore essentially a replica of a type of papyrus reed boat, perhaps dating back to the predynastic period. It is not difficult to find many objects of a similar style made in the Old Kingdom in more durable material. It has a cabin or inner shrine, which is enclosed within a reed-mat structure with poles in the same papyrus type. It also has a small forward cabin that was probably for the captain. Propulsion was by means of 10 oars, and it was steered using two large oar rudders located in the stern. There was no mast and therefore no sail, and the general design of the boat would have not allowed it to be used other than for river travel.
On the walls of the pit were several builders' marks and inscriptions, including some 18 cartouches containing the name of Khufu's son Djedefre. This suggests to many Egyptologists that some parts of his tomb complex were not completed until after Khufu's death. One scholar, Dobrev, has theorised that the two boat pits on the south side of the Great Pyramid were built by Djedefre as a gesture of piety connected with the establishment of the local divine cult of his father and founder of the royal necropolis in Giza. However, if the boats were used at the funeral of Khufu, it would be natural for Djedefre to have buried them with his cartouches.
In the neighbouring pit, the boat remained sealed in its pit up until 1987 when it was examined by the American National Geographic Society in association with the Egyptian office for historical monuments. They bore a hole into the limestone beams covering it and inserted a micro camera and measuring equipment. The void space over the boat was photographed and air measurements made, after which the pit was sealed again. It was thought that the pit had been so well sealed that the air inside would be as it had been since ancient Egyptian times, but sadly this has not been the case, as natural air leaked into the pit and mixed with the air inside it. This has allowed insect to thrive and affect some parts of the wooden beams.
In 1992, in collaboration with the Japanese government, a Japanese scientific and archaeological team from Waseda University headed by Sakuji Yoshimura offered a grant of $10 millions to remove the boat from the pit, restore and reassemble it and put it on show to the public. They cleaned the pit of insects but Yoshimura told reporters that water had leaked from the nearby museum which housed the first solar boat. This had affected a small part of the wood, hence the necessity quickly to finish the studies and restore the wood.
Completion of the studies is expected to last for about another five years, but meanwhile the Japanese team has inserted a camera through a hole in the chamber's limestone ceiling to transmit video images of the boat onto a small TV monitor on the site.
Images are screened showing layers of wooden beams and timbers of cedar and acacia, as well as ropes, mats and remains of limestone blocks and small pieces of white plaster.
"Now we can smell the past," says Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
"This is the first time this technology has been used to look at buried antiquities," Hawass says. He adds that state-of-the-art technology is now in the service of science and archaeology. "CT scan examination was used to know the reason for the mysterious death of Tutankhamun, as well as identifying some royal mummies such as the mummy of Queen Hatshepsut and the diseases they suffered from," he says.
Hawass says the camera will allow an assessment of the boat's condition and a look at the possibility of restoring it and taking it, along with the neighbouring boat, to the planned Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza Plateau. However, if studies reveal that the boats will suffer adverse effects from the move they will be left in situ.
Five boat pits have been discovered in the pyramid complex of Khufu; three boat-shaped pits with narrow prows and sterns at the east side of the pyramid, and other two on the southern side that are rectangular in shape and were cut to house full-size wooden boats that had been dismantled.
Two of the boat pits on the east side are now empty. Their walls were probably surfaced with limestone slabs, which reduced their width and simplified construction of a roof to cover them. The British archaeologist Flinders Petrie found some roofing blocks covering the end of the southern trench, but some scholars think that they were never covered, since pillars would have been needed to help span their width. The third boat pit, which is also empty, is located on the upper north edge of the causeway, and therefore at the very threshold of the mortuary temple. It has a convex floor and is accessible by way of an ancient staircase with 18 steps. Though these pits probably did at one time hold boats, some scholars have also speculated that they could themselves have simulated boats, rather than containing real ones. However, George Resiner found cordage and pieces of gilded wood inside the third pit along the causeway, indicating that a boat had once been present.
The two pits on the south contained intact boats. According to MarkLehner, the boat pits on the southern side of the complex differ from the others in one important aspect. They are long, narrow and rectangular, rather than boat shaped, and they contain the disassembled parts of real boats. That the pits were built no later than the end of the Fourth Dynasty is demonstrated by the fact that they lie partially under the pyramid's southern enclosure wall, which is dated to the end of that dynasty.
According to Egyptologist John Darnell of Yale University, new research into the second boat could fill in some blanks about the significance of the vessels and help determine whether they ever actually plied River Nile waterways or were of purely spiritual importance.
"In Egypt, almost everything real had its counterpart meaning or significance in the spiritual world. But there's a lot of debate as to whether these vessels were ever used or not," Darnell said.
In fact, there are three main schools of thought concerning the function of Khufu's pits and the boats they contained. The first, propounded by Jaroslav Cerny, is that four of them were ritual boats for carrying the king to the four cardinal points and that the fifth was the boat in which the body of the king was transported to Giza.
The second school, originally expressed by Walter Emery in reference to the first-dynasty mastaba at Saqqara and then adopted by Egyptologist Selim Hassan, holds that they were solar boats and thus carried the king to visit the sun god Re, or accompanied him in his voyage across the sky. The third concept, expounded principally by Abdel-Moneim Abu Bakr, suggests that all the boats were originally used in the king's lifetime for pilgrimages and other ceremonies.
Some Egyptologists argue that Khufu's boats may have touched water, pointing to rope marks on the wood that could have been caused by the rope becoming wet and then shrinking as it dried.
However, Hawass believes that these were symbolic vessels, not funerary boats, and were not used to bring Khufu's embalmed remains up the Nile from the ancient capital of Memphis for burial in the Great Pyramid, the oldest and largest of Giza's Pyramids. He says solar symbols found inside the second pit offer more evidence that those who disassembled and buried the boats believed Khufu's soul would travel from his tomb in the pyramid through a connecting air shaft to the boat chambers, and that he would use the boats to circle the heavens, like the sun god, taking one boat by day and the other by night.


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