Since its discovery in 1954 inside a sealed pit located at the southern side of the Great Pyramid on the Giza Plateau, its hull made up of 1,224 intact pieces of cedar wood, the royal boat of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu has always sparked fascination worldwide.
It is a masterpiece of the ancient craft of shipbuilding, and its discovery helped scholars to gain a better understanding of boat construction in ancient times. The boat occupied the headlines of papers worldwide as it was reassembled and put on display in a museum specially built to showcase it on the Giza Plateau.
The boat and its museum were landmarks of the plateau until late last week when the boat made its last voyage, not to eternity but to its permanent exhibition at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM).
The area surrounding the Giza Plateau and the GEM were closed to vehicles, while pedestrians and inhabitants of the neighbouring residential area tried to catch a glimpse of Khufu’s boat as it crossed the streets during its last voyage from the plateau to the GEM.
Mounted on a smart, remote-controlled vehicle, especially brought from Belgium for the task, the boat began its 7km journey. Nothing could be seen of it, as it was carefully and scientifically wrapped and packed inside a large black box decorated with a Khufu boat-shaped maquette.
Some 48 hours later, the boat had safely terminated its journey to the GEM. “It took us more than eight months of studying, planning, preparing and hard work to successfully execute one of the most important, challenging, and unique engineering and archaeological projects,” Al-Tayeb Abbas, assistant to the minister of tourism and antiquities for archaeological affairs at GEM, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“The dream finally came true,” he said, adding that the transport of Khufu’s first boat aims to preserve the biggest, oldest, and most valuable organic monument in human history and to exhibit it in a building dedicated to the two boats of Khufu at the GEM.
The 4,600-year-old boat was originally on display in a museum bearing its name at the location where it was originally discovered at the southern side of the Great Pyramid.
This museum marred the aesthetics of the Great Pyramid, however, the only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World. It was also not equipped with the necessary technological equipment to house and display this magnificent artefact.
With the development of museological techniques and the necessity to preserve the boat for future generations, the decision to transport the boat was taken.
Atef Moftah, supervisor-general of the GEM, said that many ideas had been suggested and studies proposed to transport Khufu’s first boat from its place on the Giza Plateau to the GEM. But at first it was thought that this would be more dangerous than keeping it in its original location, because the ideas were focused on dismantling, moving and reassembling the boat in its new location at the GEM.
“This was considered almost impossible engineering-wise,” he pointed out.
The idea of transporting the boat, which is 42 metres long and weighs 20 tons, in one piece was then considered, in much the same way as the statue of Ramses II had been transported from Ramses Square in Cairo to the GEM.
After the approval of the Permanent Committee of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in accordance with the antiquities protection law, said Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the SCA, preparations for the transportation of Khufu’s first boat began.
In August 2020, the boat’s old museum on the Giza Plateau was closed. Archaeological and engineering committees in collaboration with local and international scientific institutions took more than eight months to prepare the boat for its final departure.
“Protecting the boat and not exposing it to any risk during the transportation process was the top priority,” Waziri said.
The new building at the GEM is equipped with the latest scientific and exhibition technology, in addition to high-tech monitoring and measurement devices to preserve this important and unique organic monument, he added.
Boats at the GEM
The first boat is now in place at the Khufu Boats Museum at the GEM, waiting for the arrival of its twin.
The wooden beams and parts of this were unearthed from the original pit on the Giza Plateau and taken to the GEM for restoration and reconstruction in collaboration with a Japanese archaeological mission funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
Before the transportation process, a radar survey was conducted to detect the rocky ground under the old boat museum on the Giza Plateau, as well as of the road on the eastern side to ensure its ability to withstand the weight and metal tensioners used for the transportation.
A team of skilled restorers from the Conservation Centre of the GEM and the SCA carried out laser scans of the boat and professionally packed it for transportation.
Eissa Zidan, director of the conservation and transportation of artefacts at the GEM, told the Weekly that the boat was scientifically examined and a detailed report on its conservation condition was prepared. The body of the boat was mechanically cleaned and sterilised. Fragile areas were consolidated and cracks repaired, he said.
The boat was then wrapped with special paper and foam and then inserted inside a metal cage and surrounded with a special padded frame fixed to the cage in order to prevent any movement during transportation. Monitoring devices were installed to monitor minute by minute the temperature and humidity within the boat as well as the vibration during transportation.
Moftah said the metal cage had been specially designed and manufactured to surround the boat to transport it in one piece. Metal anchors and scaffolding were installed outside and inside the old museum building for consolidation, he said.
“The process of moving the boat out from its old location was challenging,” he added. But the committee from the GEM and the SCA, along with experts and engineers from consulting offices and the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University, had succeeded in solving any problems, and plans were developed to consolidate the boat and the old museum building.
Finally, smart, remote-controlled vehicles were brought from abroad to transport the boat. These were able to overcome any obstacles along the route and manoeuvre in curves and spins as well as absorb any vibration.
The smart vehicles successfully proved their ability to execute their task during simulations, taking the same trip loaded with weights simulating that of Khufu’s boat.
After months of work, Abbas said, the transportation of the boat was completed successfully, highlighting a journey that some thought it would be almost impossible to achieve.
The whole world will now be able to view the boat in its new permanent exhibition at the GEM after its opening, he said, showing that the modern Egyptians are able to prove, in every challenge they face, that they are capable of achievements like those of their great ancestors.
Khufu’s boat is the largest ancient royal vessel ever found in Egypt and one of the oldest planked vessels in the world. It was built for king Khufu, the second Pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt’s Old Kingdom.
Once all the pieces were uncovered after its initial discovery, the boat had to be assembled. Ahmed Youssef Mustafa (now Haj Ahmed Youssef), then chief restorer of the Department of Antiquities, was responsible for the boat’s reassembly and reconstruction.
In order to do so, he had to undertake meticulous study. He studied drawings on ancient Egyptian walls and tombs as well as the construction techniques of modern boats used on the Nile. Based on his research, Youssef took almost 14 years to solve the puzzle, and piece by piece he succeeded in reconstructing the boat.
The discovery of the boat created a scientific debate among scholars, as some Egyptologists saw it as a solar barque, a boat to carry the dead king of Egypt, resurrected and floating with the Sun god Re on his eternal journey across the sky.
Others proposed that it was a pilgrimage boat used by king Khufu during his lifetime, however. Archaeologists who investigated the boat’s remains also found evidence of rope markings, clearly showing that the boat had indeed been used in water.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly