One of the major tourist attractions in modern Egypt is the Giza Plateau, near the city of Cairo. Here tourists can see three large pyramids which were constructed as tombs for the kings (pharaohs) of the Old Kingdom. The largest of these, sometimes known as the Great Pyramid, was built for Khufu and was for several millennia the largest human-made structure in the world. Slightly smaller is the pyramid for his son Khafra. Finally, the smallest pyramid on the Giza Plateau is that of Menkaure, the son of Khafra and grandson of Khufu, who ruled Egypt for about 16 years.
Shown above is a map of the pyramid complexes at Giza.
The Old Kingdom pyramids, such as those found on the Giza Plateau, are not solitary structures, but are a part of a larger temple complex in which the pyramid is enclosed by a wall and has a chapel near the northern entrance to the burial chamber. The complex also includes a mortuary temple and a valley temple. Menkaure’s pyramid complex includes three smaller pyramids which were presumably constructed for three of his queens. These three subsidiary pyramids are labeled G-IIIa (East subsidiary pyramid), G-IIIb (Middle subsidiary pyramid) and G-IIIc (West subsidiary pyramid).
Menkaure’s pyramid was called Netjer-er-Menkaure which means "Menkaure is Divine.” The name Menkaure means “Eternal Like the Souls of Re.”
Shown above are some likenesses of Menkaure.
The smallest of the three Pharaoh’s pyramids at Giza, Menkaure’s pyramid was originally 65.5 meters (218 feet) in height. Today it is only 61 meters (204 feet) tall’/. Its square base measures 108.5 meters on each side. Its angle of incline is approximately 51°20′25″. The first16 courses of the exterior were made from granite and the upper portion of the pyramid was cased with Tura limestone.
While Menkaure’s pyramid is smaller than those of his father and grandfather, it is more complex. Inside are a series of rooms on staggered levels. There is also a corridor that leads nowhere. This corridor was probably abandoned following a change of plan during construction.
Part of the granite in the pyramid was left rough which suggests that Menkaure died before the tomb was fully completed. In addition, none of the three satellite pyramids seems to have been completed. The largest of these pyramids was constructed partly in granite and construction of the other two does not appear to have progressed beyond construction of the inner core.
In 1837 an English army officer and an engineer did some excavations at the pyramid. In the main burial chamber they found a large stone sarcophagus (8 feet long, 3 feet wide, and nearly 3 feet high). The sarcophagus was decorated in the style of a palace facade but did not have any hieroglyphs on it. They removed the sarcophagus and sent it by ship to the British Museum in London. The ship carrying the sarcophagus, however, sank and the sarcophagus was lost.
The English excavators also found wooden fragments of a coffin adjacent to the burial chamber. The coffin had been inscribed with the name Menkaure. They also found a partial skeleton wrapped in course cloth. These materials were also sent to the British Museum, but in a different ship so they survived. More recent analysis of them shows that they are several millennia younger than the pyramid.
The mortuary temple associated with Menkaure’s pyramid has foundations and an inner core made from local limestone. Some of the blocks of local stone used in the mortuary temple weighed as much as 220 tons. The construction of the floors was started with granite and some granite facings were added to the walls. The granite was quarried in Aswan far upstream on the Nile River. Some of these blocks weighed 30 tons.
The mortuary temple and the valley temple were finished with crude bricks, more evidence that Menkaure died before the complex was finished. It appears that the complex was quickly completed by his son and successor Shepseskaf. Within the temples were several statues of Menkaure carved in the naturalistic style of the Old Kingdom.
Menkaure’s pyramid complex was dedicated to the gods Re, Hathor, and Horus. The statues found at the temples show that his relationship with these gods was essential to his kingship.
The Egyptian pyramid complex was more than just a grave: it was intended and used as a religious center. The temples of Menkaure’s Pyramid continued to be used for centuries which suggests that the cult of Menkaure was very important and perhaps differed from the cults of his father and grandfather.
During his reign high-ranking officials had more privileges than in previous reigns. Menkaure also opened his palace to the children of his high officials. They were educated and raised with his own children. Unlike the earlier Pharaohs, his palace was not located in Memphis, but was near his pyramid complex.
While the three small pyramids in Menkaure’s pyramid complex are presumed to be the tombs of his wives, the identities of only two of these wives is currently known. Queen Khamerenebty II was his main queen and was the mother of Menkaure’s son Khuene.
Menkaure’s other known wife is Queen Rekhetre, the daughter of Khafra. This was probably the wife that legitimized his pharaohship. In Egypt the right to the throne was passed through the female line and a man, whether the eldest son of the previous pharaoh or commoner, became pharaoh through his relationship to the queen. It was, therefore, fairly common for the pharaoh to be married to his sister or half-sister as a way of establishing this relationship.
Menkaure and one of his queens is shown above.
One of the common misconceptions about Egyptian pyramids is that they were constructed with slave labor. The workers who built them were not slaves. The archaeological excavations around Menkaure’s pyramid complex has provided some insights into the lives of the workers. Archaeologists have uncovered a large number of ovens capable of producing vast quantities of bread, and long low benches on which tones of fish were prepared. For the workers, bread and fish, washed down by beer, formed their basic diet.