Merer’s diary, a 4,500-year-old papyrus detailing the construction of the Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramids of Giza have been one of the world’s greatest enigmas: how did an ancient society build such enormous monuments without the aid of modern machinery? The first and largest of these, the Cheops Pyramid, is 146 meters high and, until about 800 years ago, was the tallest man-made structure on Earth. The mystery of the pyramids may never be fully solved, but certain discoveries have helped us understand how they could have been built.

One of these discoveries occurred in 2013 at a site called Wadi al-Jarf, which was an ancient port on the Red Sea coast. While excavating some dry-stone buildings and artificial caves used to store wooden boats, archaeologists Pierre Tallet and Gregory Marouard discovered entire papyrus scrolls, some a few meters long and others in fragments.

They were written in hieroglyphics and hieratic, which was the cursive script that the ancient Egyptians used for everyday communication. Some of the papyri were even dated to the “year after the thirteenth count of cattle” of King Cheops, that is, around the 26th or 27th year of his reign. This makes them the oldest papyrus documents found so far.

Fragment of Merer’s diary | photo Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism of Egypt

Even more surprising is that the papyri were written by men who participated in the construction of the Great Pyramid. Some of them were account books, detailing the movement of bread, beer, cereals, and meat to feed the 20,000 workers scattered throughout the pyramid site, quarries, and transportation equipment. “The documents are laid out like a modern spreadsheet, showing what was needed, what had been delivered, and what was still due.”

Others were diaries detailing daily activities. Among them was one written by an “inspector” named Merer, who led a gang of about 200 men who traveled from one end of Egypt to the other picking up and delivering merchandise of one kind or another. Their main job was to transport limestone blocks from the “Ro-Au” (Tura) quarries to the Giza site, some 15 to 20 kilometers away.

We already know that the pharaohs used limestone from Tura, a city along the Nile famous for its limestone quarrying, to provide the outer cladding for the pyramids, which has since been stripped away exposing the roughly coarse blocks of granite. carvings that are visible today. Merer’s diary chronicles the last known year of Cheops’ reign, when the ancient Egyptians were putting the finishing touches on the Great Pyramid.

Another view of the great pyramid of Cheops | photo Yasmin elkassem mohamed on Wikimedia Commons

Merer’s records describe his crew hauling stones in Tura, filling their boats with stone, and taking it up the Nile River to Giza. The trip lasted two days. The return journey without cargo only took one day. The crew made a round trip between Giza and the Tura quarries two or three times in every ten-day Egyptian week.

This could only happen at the time of the annual flood, when the high waters of the Nile made it more navigable for heavily laden ships. It has been estimated that the boats could carry a load of 70-80 tons, that is, about 30 of the 2.5-ton blocks used to line the Cheops pyramid. This means that Merer’s team would have moved about 200 blocks a month, up from 1,000 in the period when the river and canals were navigable.

Merer also mentions that he reported to the “noble Ankh-haf” (Anjaf), who acted as director of “the entrance to the Pool of Cheops”, probably an artificial lake, used as a stopping point on the journey north from Tura to the Giza plateau. Anjaf was Khufu’s stepbrother and apparently the director of the pyramid project during its completion. This was the first time that a person was identified as supervising part of the construction of the Great Pyramid. The newspaper also mentions the original name of the Great Pyramid: Akhet-Khufu, which means “Horizon of Cheops”.

Fragments from Merer’s diary | photo Mission Archéologique du Ouadi el-Jarf

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass, former chief inspector of the pyramid site and minister of antiquities, says it is “Egypt’s greatest discovery of the 21st century.”

The records of Merer and Dedi help us to flesh out the geography of lower Egypt and the network of canals and ports that allowed the transfer of stones, workers and supplies to the site of the pyramids.writes Egyptologist Dan Potter. The teams were highly skilled and versatile, not only moving material for the pyramid and temples, but also managing warehouses, the possible construction of a dock in the Delta, and participating in mining missions to Sinai..

The notebooks and account books are believed to have been left behind in Wadi al-Jarf after the team’s last mission. I imagine because of the king’s death…they just stopped everything and closed the galleries and then, when they left, they buried the archives in the area between the two large stones used to seal the complex. The date that appears on the papyri seems to be the latest we have for the reign of Cheops, the 27th year of his reign.says Pierre Tallet.

After the closure of the site, the operations of Khufu’s successor Khafre were carried out in Ain Sukhna to the north.


This article was published on Amusing Planet. Translated from English and published with permission.

Sources

Smithsonian Magazine | HistoryToday | Wikipedia