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Volume 31, Number 1January/February 1980

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The Smell of Time

In the shadow of the Great Pyramid, they clipped away at the gypsum seal....

Written by Nancy Jenkins
Photographed by John G. Ross

Outside Cairo, the oldest boat in the world sits in a dusty, glass-walled museum next to the largest of the three pyramids on the Giza plateau. Built as part of the funerary equipment of King Cheops, second ruler of the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt's Old Kingdom, the boat, just over 142 feet long, is a majestic curve of age-darkened cedar, its aroma still pungent some 46 centuries after it was buried in a pit near the great pyramid.

One of the most exciting archeological finds of all time, the boat was discovered in 1954 when workmen from the Egyptian antiquities department were clearing a great mound of wind-blown debris from the south side of the pyramid thought to be the burial place of Cheops. Beneath the debris they found an ancient wall and, beneath the wall, 41 massive stone blocks, each weighing more than 15 tons, set side by side into the bedrock of the plateau and chinked with a hard gypsum plaster.

To the man in charge of clearing the debris, Kamal al-Mallakh - now an editor in Cairo, but then a young and enthusiastic architect-archeologist—the discovery of the stone blocks demanded a closer look. Years before, archeologists had found three empty "boat pits" on the east side of the same pyramid - one of them with fragments of gilded wood in the bottom—and believed that ceremonial boats had been buried in them in ancient times. But until the workmen found the limestone blocks at the Cheops pyramid - and then another 40 blocks adjacent to the first lot - few archeologists really hoped to find an actual boat. In archeology, time and vandals often get there first.

Al-Mallakh, however, was certain that the pits contained boats. Aligned so that the rocky partition in the bedrock separating them fell precisely along the axis of the Great Pyramid's south face, the great blocks, he says, immediately suggested the supremely confident stonework of the Fourth Dynasty. And the untouched plaster chinking suggested that - possibly - there might still be boats, or the remnants of boats, in the pit beneath the great blocks.

Whether the pits actually contained boats, however, and, if they did, what their condition would be after 46 centuries, were questions that could only be answered by opening them. Despite some initial resistance, therefore, al-Mallakh received permission to open a hole in the middle of the easternmost row of blocks and in the spring of 1954, near the end of the archeological season, his workmen began to chisel into the stone.

The workmen proceeded slowly and cautiously at first, al-Mallakh said, because there was no way of knowing how thick the stone was or what damage might be inflicted by a falling fragment on whatever was concealed inside. Eventually, though, on May 26,1954, they reached the shelf, nearly six feet down, on which the megalith rested.

It was towards noon, al-Mallakh recalled recently, a time when the white desert light glares on the Giza plateau and the dense volumes of the pyramids seem to shimmer in the nearly intolerable heat. As they were only inches away from their goal, al-Mallakh took over the chisel himself, until, finally, the last fragment fell away, leaving a small black hole, its darkness a sharp contrast to the glare outside.

"I closed my eyes..." al-Mallakh said, "like a cat. And then, with my eyes closed, I smelled incense, a very holy, holy, holy smell. I smelled time. I smelled centuries. I smelled history. And then I was sure the boat was there."

It was. Minutes later, using his own shaving mirror as a reflector, al-Mallakh flashed a beam of sunlight into the darkness of the pit; with incredible good fortune it fell precisely on the tip of a blade, one of a pair of great steering oars or rudders, each more than eight feet long and carved, shaft and blade alike, from a single piece of Lebanese cedar, each lying just where it had been placed by the workmen of the king Djedefre, the son of Cheops, 4,600 years before.

It was, obviously, an important discovery and the Department of Antiquities, quick to realize it, immediately appointed a commission to oversee the excavation of the pit - and the adjacent pit where, they assumed, there was a sister ship. The commission, in turn, quickly set to work removing the huge 15-ton blocks of limestone that covered the pit, a job that took 18 months. Finally, though, the pit was open and the boat was exposed to the Egyptian sunlight for the first time in 46 centuries, its timbers, according to one witness, "as hard and new as if they had been buried a year ago."

Although the Cheops Boat was intact, however, her timbers had been dismantled and were carefully laid out -1,224 pieces - like a giant do-it-yourself kit. The next project, therefore, was to reassemble the boat. But as this do-it-yourself kit, unfortunately, came without instructions, the antiquities department had to turn to Hag Ahmed Youssef, one of Egypt's masters in the difficult field of restoration.

One of a rare breed of restorers, Hag Ahmed has not only skill and technology at his command, but also an instinctive feel for the material and the period in which he is working. Hag Ahmed, indeed, concentrates so intensely on his work that, he himself admits, he sometimes identifies totally with a 12th-Dynasty sculptor or a Ramesside goldsmith and is startled when he leaves his labors to find himself in the modern world.

Nevertheless, the reconstruction of the Cheops Boat was to be his most difficult assignment. Before he even picked up a fragment of wood from the boat, however, he had to become an expert on the almost unknown subject of ancient Egyptian boat-building.

There were, to be sure, some clues. From the reliefs carved on walls and tombs, and from hundreds of little wooden models found in tombs, he could get a pretty clear idea of what a finished boat looked like. But as there was almost no information available on the construction process, Hag Ahmed, hoping that modern shipwrights might have retained methods that would suggest how the ancients had built their craft, visited the Nile boatyards of Old Cairo and Ma'adi and went to Alexandria, where wooden river boats were still being made. Then, when he found that the differences between ancient and modern boat building - in Egypt, at least - were perhaps greater than the similarities, he investigated the work of shipwrights who built in a different tradition.

What he found is that modern boats are "frame-built" boats; the keel and ribs are built first and the outer "skin" of hull planks is attached later, whereas, in the older tradition, called "shell construction," the hull planking, or shell, is put together first, after which the frames, or ribs, are inserted to give strength and rigidity. The hull timbers are attached to each other, but the strengthening members are independent of the overall construction. And this, it turns out, is the method by which the ancients built the Cheops Boat and, archeologists now believe, most ancient boats.

During his research, Hag Ahmed found another difference in boat-building that would not become apparent until the Cheops Boat timbers were excavated; the hull timbers were literally stitched together with yards and yards of hemp rope, an ancient tradition maintained until very recently by shipwrights on the coasts of the Arabian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

This technique - used to build the Arab merchantmen that sailed to China in the seventh and eighth centuries (See Aramco World, July-August 1975) - seems flimsy, but the construction, in fact, is sound. In the water the wood swells, the cords shrink and a watertight, yet flexible, hull is achieved - precisely the way, Hag Ahmed learned, the shipwrights of the Fourth Dynasty built the funerary boat of King Cheops.

Having made himself an expert in both ancient and modern boat-building techniques, Hag Ahmed was at last ready for the task of lifting the timbers and fragments from the pit. As the pieces varied in size from a few inches to 66-foot sections of the hull - and as they were buried in 13 well-defined layers - it was an exacting task. Each of the 1,224 pieces, for example, had to be photographed, drawn and catalogued. In addition, Dr. Zaki Iskander, then head of the antiquities department's chemical laboratories, had to treat each piece of wood with polyvinyl acetate, a plastic preservative, and, in some cases, treat the pieces with insecticide and fungicide as a protection against insects and mold.

Altogether, the first restoration took four years, but since then Hag Ahmed, a devout Muslim and a man of intelligence and humor, has taken the ship apart and put it together three more times as authorities changed plans for the site of the museum. And despite the problems - of research on ancient boat-building and in constructing it directly without a completed model - experts agree that it was a masterly job which, in the process of reconstruction, revealed much new information about ancient boats as well as the ancient society that built them.

On completion, the boat measured 142 feet long with a beam of 18 feet and a maximum draft of nearly five feet. Called a "papyriform boat" by Egyptologists, it is an imitation in wood of the early papyrus reed rafts in which, the ancient Egyptians believed, the Egyptian sun-god voyaged across the heavens daily.

Because of its shape, the boat is called the "Solar Boat" and many have assumed, as a result, that its purpose was to provide Cheops with transport in accompanying the sun-god. Others, however, disagree. Indeed, the use of the Cheops Boat has been a subject of spirited controversy since it was discovered. Hag Ahmed, for example, categorically rejects the official designation of the "Solar Boat".

Although in ancient Egypt, it is true, the deified king was said to accompany the sun-god on his eternal rounds, Hag Ahmed has pointed out that the dead king would not need a separate boat of his own; he would have joined the sun-god in the god's own barge.

Hag Ahmed, with the authority of his 25 years' association with the boat, says firmly that the boat was used to transport the king's embalmed body from Memphis - then the capital of Upper and Lower Egypt - to the Giza plateau for burial beneath the pyramid. This, he says, would have taken place at the time of the Nile flood.

Others, however, state flatly that the boat was never used at all. The boat, they say, was built, dismantled and laid in the pit all at the same time for the king's use in any voyage he might make in the after-life. And if the adjacent pit is ever opened, they add, it will probably hold a boat that has sails rather than oars, so that the dead king would be able to sail upstream with the prevailing north wind, as well as travel downstream in the oared boat.

There is no certainty, of course, that there is a boat in the second boat pit, and although the second pit seems to be as well sealed with gypsum plaster as the first - suggesting that there is a boat in it – the Egyptians have wisely decided not to open the pit until the question of the first boat’s preservation is settled - a question that has distressed all archeologists, and Hag Ahmed in particular, since the museum was built.

The question is actually quite simple: will the boat, now housed in a specially-designed, glass-walled museum, survive or deteriorate? Because installation of temperature controls in the museum was never finished, some archeologists, and Hag Ahmed, think the fluctuating temperatures of the area may eventually destroy what is unquestionably one of the greatest archeological finds of all time and one of the world's irreplaceable treasures. If so, the second boat, if there is one, would be much safer left where it is: the first boat, after all, suffered less in 4,600 years in the boat pit than in the few years it has been in the museum.

Meanwhile, the museum has been closed, and except for an occasional glimpse through the dusty windows, virtually no one sees the boat any more except, occasionally, the worried Hag Ahmed - who still hopes a solution can be found before it is too late.

Nancy Jenkins, a Rome-based correspondent for Aramco World, has recently completed a book on the famous Cheops Boat, with photographs by Ross. The book, The Boat Beneath the Pyramids, will be published this fall by Holt Rinehart and Winston.

This article appeared on pages 12-17 of the January/February 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1980 images.