Menkaure's Pyramid*

Prevailing bias considers only the Great Pyramid - the largest and most grand - as the only truly significant one in Egypt. Kurt Mendelsohn said, "Compared with the gigantic twins of Khufu and Khafre the monument is a miserable runt" about Menkaure's Pyramid. Biting back my comments about those obsessed with size, I'll just fall back on the old cliche, "Good things come in small packages".

Menkaure's Pyramid
Chefren(R) and Menkaure's(L) Pyramids bracketed by lesser pyramids
Chefren(R) and Menkaure's(L) Pyramids in Silhouette
Chefren(R) and Menkaure's(L) Pyramids at sunset

Most Egyptologists insist on underestimating the Ancient Egyptians by suggesting they lived by "bigger is better." On the contrary, it was Menkaure's pyramid that at least in part inspired Robert Bauval's work in The Orion Mystery1. The standard explanation for the relatively small size of this "runt" is simply that Menkaure didn't have the resources to build a pyramid of comparable grandeur as his predecessors; however, there is no evidence that such might be the case. Egypt at the time was peaceful and prosperous. Consequently, Bauval, an engineer by profession, was at Giza trying to determine if there were engineering / geological factors that would necessitate a smaller pyramid.

He was also struck by the fact that although the two larger pyramids, Chefren and Cheops', are perfectly aligned on the diagonal, Menkaure's is slightly offset. Clearly had there not been a significant reason to deviate, we would expect that people as precise as the Egyptians would have lined them up perfectly. Finding no plausible physical factors for their orientation, Bauval began looking for symbolic reasons that eventually led to his insight that the pyramids are aligned perfectly with the stars of the constellation Orion.

The point I'm going for is that to overlook Menkaure's pyramid simply because of its size is to greatly underestimate the ancient Egyptians and to miss out on a very powerful experience. In fact, I would say that it was this pyramid that made the strongest impression on me.

Entering the pyramid - any pyramid for that matter - is not an experience for the big-boned or or the faint at heart! It is really surprising just how tiny the entrance shafts are and how sharply downward they thrust into the center of the pyramid. Climbing down, and worse, back up, is physically grueling. I don't know how those tourists from Hong Kong made it in heels! But the effort is definitely worth it.

Interior Chamber of Menkaure's Pyramid

From my rapidly scrawled notes:

"- a few moments alone in silence - beyond belief - I would LOVE to just spend 1000 years lying in that silence, held in such a perfect state by that soft, liquid granite."

Indeed, we actually managed a few minutes completely alone in the main chamber, silent and dark. You might initially suspect that having so many tons of stone weighing down upon you would be a nerve-racking experience, but I didn't find it so even though I am prone to mild claustrophobia.

In the picture, the entrance to the chamber is vaguely visible on the left and the sarcophagus is behind us. Be sure to note the curved ceiling - it constitutes a logistical nightmare as far as construction.

The area surrounding the pyramid is also unique since many of the casing stones on the lower courses of the pyramid are still intact as is the basic layout of the mortuary temple situated on the east side. The mortuary temple, like the Valley Temple, is comprised of enormous blocks - up to 220 tons. It completely lacks inscriptions, making its attributions difficult.

Casing Stones at the base
of Menkaure's Pyramid
Menkaure's Mortuary Temple

After forcibly getting rid of a horseman, Menkaure's Pyramid offered us a rare moment of peace on the plateau. We climbed a few courses of the pyramid and sat sketching, relaxing, and absorbing the atmosphere. Now - and even then - the experience was so ... unreal ... it seems like it was a dream.

* There are two sets of names commonly used for the pharaohs to whom the pyramids are attributed: Cheops / Khufu - the Great Pyramid; Chefren / Khafre - the second largest of the three; and Mycerinus / Menkaure - the smallest. They are the Greek / Egyptian names respectively - throughout these pages I will use Cheops, Chefren, and Menkaure. I don't care about consistency - they're the names that I like, so there.

1. Bauval, Robert and Adrian Gilbert, The Orion Mystery, Random House, 1995.

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