Mark Lehner (l) and Owain
Roberts (r) examine the Solar Barque of Khufu.
The Solar Barque
by Peter Tyson
March 6, 1999
The Egyptian excavator Hag Ahmed Youssef Moustafa died two weeks ago at age
86. His death marked one end of a story that began 4,600 years ago here on
the Giza Plateau, a story that bears in its way on how the ancient Egyptians
achieved such monumental engineering feats as quarrying, moving, and raising
Our NOVA team, which coalesced in Giza last night, was immersed in that
story today as we examined and filmed the famous Solar Barque of Khufu. The
world's oldest boat of such size and sophistication, the barque was first
built in the 26th century B.C. It was built a second time in the 20th
century A.D., when workmen reconstructed it under the guidance of Hag Ahmed.
The modern tale of the Solar Barque begins in 1954. That year, the
Egyptologist Kamal el Mallakh, acting on a hunch, got permission to look
beneath a wall that paralleled the Great Pyramid on its southern flank.
Mallakh thought he might find a boat pit there to match the ones already
known from the pyramid's east side. We saw one of them today: It was a long,
narrow hole in the ground, chiseled out of the solid rock of the plateau in
the shape of a boat. Scholars believe the ancients may have built these
recessed "boats" to transport the pharaoh in the afterlife.
Digging beneath the wall, Mallakh came upon a row of enormous limestone
blocks. Long fascinated by boat pits, Mallakh's heart must have raced at the
discovery. On one of the blocks, he made out the cartouche of Djedefre,
Khufu's son and successor. Then his heart must have beat even faster. It
took a painfully long time to convince the authorities to let him excavate,
but finally permission was granted. Breaking a small hole between the
blocks, Mallakh was immediately hit by the odor of wood.
This afternoon, as our team stood in the blinding sun by one of the Khufu
boat pits, Dr. Zahi Hawass, Director of the Pyramids, remembered chatting
with Mallakh about six months before he died. "He told me that when he
hole, he could smell history."
In a scene that must have recalled the day in 1922 when Howard Carter first
opened the tomb of Tutankhamen, Mallakh used a mirror to shine a shaft of
sunlight down into the hole. His eyes fell on a wooden oar. He had found the
Solar Barque of Khufu.
The Solar Barque's rigging
The boat had been carefully buried in 1,224 pieces. Since its pit is
rectangular rather than boat-shaped, scholars debate whether the ancient
Egyptians buried the boat to serve the pharaoh in the next world or simply
to retire the vessel used to transport the great king's body. They also
wonder whether it ever floated or was solely ceremonial. What is not open to
debate, however, is how well preserved the boat is: 95 percent of its
In the years after Mallakh's astonishing discovery, workers carefully
removed, restored, and reconstructed the vessel. Today it is housed in a
boat-shaped museum built over the pit where it was found.
"My jaw dropped when I first saw it," Owain Roberts recalled today as he
stood near the boat's stern. The same can be said of my own, and it has
stayed dropped since I first visited the museum in January to help shoot a
composite portrait of the boat. There's something about the fact that
it's made of wood—wood that came from trees that were alive during
Khufu's reign - that carries you back to that half-mythical age even more
effectively than the Pyramids or Sphinx can. It's as if, in standing before
it, you are one step away from the pharaohs themselves. As if the faint
aroma arising from the cedarwood planking is matched by a faint echo of
workmen's adzes shaping the vessel's timbers, of the whispered voices of
high priests directing the pharaoh's pallbearers on its smooth-planked deck.
The boat has presence. Like the Lincoln Memorial, it is at once massive and
graceful, daunting and delicate.
It is also a marvel of engineering. "They knew all the tricks," our
Welsh-born boatbuilder Roberts told me this afternoon, shaking his head in
silent appreciation. Those tricks included lashing planks so tightly
together with ropes of halfa grass that they remained watertight without
caulking, and locking timbers together with wooden battens so they wouldn't
move relative to one another. The 144-foot-long craft has some planks a full
76 feet long, which the Egyptian builders had to bend to match the curve of
the hull, and scholars estimate its total dead weight at 150 tons.
Despite its solidity, the Solar Barque could not have carried an obelisk.
That's not why we paid it a visit. We did so because, as Mark Lehner
noted, "it represents an outstanding example of the thinking about complex construction
in that period." It set the stage for later obelisk barges, like the one
pictured in relief that we'll visit at Hatshepsut's temple in Luxor, not to
mention other feats of engineering skill. The Solar Barque, in short, is one
crumb on the trail of the obelisk-makers.
Tomorrow we head to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to search for other
examples of supreme workmanship.