The World’s Oldest Papyrus and What It Can Tell Us About the Great Pyramids

Ancient Egyptians leveraged a massive shipping, mining and farming economy to propel their civilization forward

David Degner / Getty Reportage

Following notes written by an English traveler in the early 19th century and two French pilots in the 1950s, Pierre Tallet made a stunning discovery: a set of 30 caves honeycombed into limestone hills but sealed up and hidden from view in a remote part of the Egyptian desert, a few miles inland from the Red Sea, far from any city, ancient or modern. During his first digging season, in 2011, he established that the caves had served as a kind of boat storage depot during the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, about 4,600 years ago. Then, in 2013, during his third digging season, he came upon something quite unexpected: entire rolls of papyrus, some a few feet long and still relatively intact, written in hieroglyphics as well as hieratic, the cursive script the ancient Egyptians used for everyday communication. Tallet realized that he was dealing with the oldest known papyri in the world.

Astonishingly, the papyri were written by men who participated in the building of the Great Pyramid, the tomb of the Pharaoh Khufu, the first and largest of the three colossal pyramids at Giza just outside modern Cairo. Among the papyri was the journal of a previously unknown official named Merer, who led a crew of some 200 men who traveled from one end of Egypt to the other picking up and delivering goods of one kind or another. Merer, who accounted for his time in half-day increments, mentions stopping at Tura, a town along the Nile famous for its limestone quarry, filling his boat with stone and taking it up the Nile River to Giza. In fact, Merer mentions reporting to “the noble Ankh-haf,” who was known to be the half-brother of the Pharaoh Khufu and now, for the first time, was definitively identified as overseeing some of the construction of the Great Pyramid. And since the pharaohs used the Tura limestone for the pyramids’ outer casing, and Merer’s journal chronicles the last known year of Khufu’s reign, the entries provide a never-before-seen snapshot of the ancients putting finishing touches on the Great Pyramid.

Experts are thrilled by this trove of papyri. Mark Lehner, the head of Ancient Egypt Research Associates, who has worked on the pyramids and the Sphinx for 40 years, has said it may be as close as he is likely to get to time-traveling back to the age of the pyramid builders. Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian archaeologist, and formerly the chief inspector of the pyramid site and minister of antiquities, says that it is “the greatest discovery in Egypt in the 21st century.”

Tallet himself is careful to speak in more measured terms. “The century is at the beginning,” he says at one of his digs along the Red Sea. “One must not enlarge this kind of find.” Was he very emotional when he came upon the cache of papyri? “You know, when you are working like that all the day for one month you cannot realize at once what happens.”

Tallet has been toiling quietly on the periphery of the ancient Egyptian Empire—from the Libyan Desert to the Sinai and the Red Sea—for more than 20 years without attracting much notice, until now. He finds it both amusing and mildly annoying that his discoveries are suddenly attracting attention in the scholarly press and popular media. “It’s because the papyri are speaking of the Pyramid of Khufu,” he says.

We are standing in an encampment in a desert valley a couple of hundred yards from the Red Sea near the modern Egyptian resort town called Ayn Soukhna. Tallet and his crew—part French, part Egyptian—sleep in rows of tents set up near the archaeological site. Above the tents is a steep sandstone hillside into which the ancient Egyptians carved deep caves, or galleries, in which they stored their boats. Tallet leads us up the hillside and clambers on a rocky trail along the cliff face. You can see the outlines of a set of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs carved delicately into the stone. There is the royal seal of Mentuhotep IV, a little-known pharaoh who ruled for just two years in about 2,000 B.C. And right below there are three lines of a hieroglyphic inscription proclaiming the achievements of the pharaoh, which Tallet translates: “In year one of the king, they sent a troop of 3,000 men to fetch copper, turquoise and all the good products of the desert.”

On a clear day you can see the Sinai Desert about 40 miles away across the Red Sea from where we stand. Before these recent excavations, the ancient Egyptians were not widely known to be notable sea travelers, and were thought to confine themselves to moving up and down the Nile or hugging the Mediterranean coast. The work that Tallet and others have done in the last two decades has shown that the ancient Egyptian Empire was as ambitious in its outward reach as it was in building upward in its colossal monuments at Giza.

Pierre Tallet at the Red Sea port of Ayn Soukhna David Degner / Getty Reportage
Archaeologists are still excavating housing structures found a few hundred yards behind the pyramids and the Sphinx. David Degner / Getty Reportage
A papyrus Tallet found at Wadi al-Jarf from 2,600 B.C., the world’s oldest, refers to the “horizon of Khufu,” or the Great Pyramid at Giza. Courtesy of Pierre Tallet
An antiquities ministry employee points to where a causeway used for transporting material led up to a pyramid at Saqqarah. David Degner / Getty Reportage
Sculpted in place from limestone, the Sphinx, according to Mark Lehner and others, was most likely built for Khufu’s son, Pharaoh Khafre. His pyramid is visible in the background. David Degner / Getty Reportage
Excavators at Ayn Soukhna uncovered dwellings, a copper workshop, ships’ remains and stone inscriptions. One cited an “inspector of carpenters”—a sign of a busy port thousands of years ago. David Degner / Getty Reportage
The Saqqara complex is a vast burial site near Giza that predates the Great Pyramid. David Degner / Getty Reportage
Many generations of the same families dig at archaeological sites. This excavating team comes mainly from the village of Qurna, near Luxor. David Degner / Getty Reportage
The Saqqara complex held a stone inscription depicting the transport of large columns by boat—rare evidence of the actual building methods used by ancient Egyptians. David Degner / Getty Reportage
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics carved delicately in stone draw visitors back to the time of the pharaohs. David Degner / Getty Reportage
David Degner / Getty Reportage

Tallet, a short, almost bald man of 49, wears wire-rimmed glasses and, on this day, a tan wool sweater vest. He looks like someone you would be more likely to encounter in a Paris library or office than in a desert camp. Indeed he is soft-spoken, choosing his words with scholarly scruple and carefully citing the contributions of other scholars, and he likes working in remote locations far from the hubbub at the monumental sites, royal tombs and palaces and necropolises that have generally captured the world’s attention. “What I love are desert places,” he says. “I would not like to excavate places like Giza and Saqqara.” (Saqqara is where early Egyptian pharaohs built some of their tombs before beginning the pyramid complex at Giza.) “I am not so fond of excavating graves. I like natural landscapes.” At the same time, he has professional reasons for preferring remote sites over famous monuments. “Most new evidence is found in the periphery,” he says.

Tallet’s taste for the periphery goes back to the beginning of his career. Tallet grew up in Bordeaux, the son of a high-school French teacher (his father) and a professor of English literature (his mother). After studying at Paris’ famous École Normale Supérieure, Tallet went to Egypt to do an alternative military service by teaching in an Egyptian high school; he stayed on to work at the French Institute, where he began his archaeological work. He scoured the edges of the Egyptian world—the Libyan desert on one end, the Sinai Desert on the other—looking for, and finding, previously unknown Egyptian rock inscriptions. “I love rock inscriptions, they give you a page of history without excavating,” he says. In the Sinai he also found abundant evidence that the ancient Egyptians mined turquoise and copper, the latter essential for making weapons as well as tools. This, in turn, fit with his discovery of the harbor at Ayn Soukhna that the Egyptians would have used to reach the Sinai. “You see,” he says, “there is a logic in things.”

The area was not recognized as an ancient Egyptian site until 1997 when the cliffside hieroglyphs were noted by an Egyptian archaeologist. Ayn Soukhna has gradually become a popular weekend destination, and since the construction of a larger, faster highway about ten years ago, it is now only about a two-hour drive from Cairo. Across the road from Tallet’s site is an older Egyptian hotel closed for renovation, which allows his crew to work in peace, sifting through the area between the boat galleries up in the hillside and the sea. They are finding the remains of ovens for smelting copper and preparing food as well as quotidian objects such as mats and storage pots.

Sixty-two miles south of Ayn Soukhna, along the Red Sea coast, is Tallet’s second archaeological site, at Wadi al-Jarf, and it’s even more obscure. Among the only landmarks in the vicinity is the Monastery of Saint Paul the Anchorite, a Coptic Orthodox outpost founded in the fifth century near the cave, which had been inhabited by their hermitic patron saint. The area is almost the definition of the middle of nowhere, which is probably why it long failed to attract the attention of either archaeologists or looters. The remoteness also helps explain why the papyri left in the desert there survived for thousands of years. Precisely because administrative centers like Memphis and Giza were occupied and reused for centuries—and then picked over or looted repeatedly in the intervening millennia—the survival rate of fragile papyri from the early dynasties there has been close to zero.

Among the few people to take note of the place before Tallet was the British explorer John Gardner Wilkinson, who passed by in 1823 and described it in his travel notes: “Near the ruins is a small knoll containing eighteen excavated chambers, beside, perhaps, many others, the entrance of which are no longer visible. We went into those where the doors were the least obstructed by the sand or decayed rock, and found them to be catacombs; they are well cut and vary from about 80 to 24 feet, by 5; their height may be from 6 to 8 feet.”

Perhaps associating the area with the monastery, Wilkinson took the gallery complex to be a series of catacombs. But the description of this series of carefully cut chambers carved into the rock sounded to Tallet exactly like the boat storage galleries he was busy excavating at Ayn Soukhna. (They also looked like the galleries at another ancient port, Mersa Gawasis, then being excavated by Kathryn A. Bard of Boston University and Rodolfo Fattovich of the University of Naples L’Orientale.) Moreover, two French pilots who were based in the Suez Gulf in the mid-1950s had noted the site, but didn’t associate it with the harbor. Tallet tracked down one of the pilots and, using his notes, Wilkinson’s description and GPS technology, figured out the location. It was two years later that Tallet and his crew began clearing out a small passageway at the entrance to the boat galleries, between two large stone blocks that had been used to seal the caves. Here they found entire papyrus scrolls, including Merer’s journal. The ancients, Tallet says, “threw all the papyri inside, some of them were still tied with a rope, probably as they were closing the site.”

Wadi al-Jarf lies where the Sinai is a mere 35 miles away, so close you can see the mountains in the Sinai that were the entry to the mining district. The Egyptian site has yielded many revelations along with the trove of papyri. In the harbor, Tallet and his team found an ancient L-shaped stone jetty more than 600 feet long that was built to create a safe harbor for boats. They found some 130 anchors—nearly quadrupling the number of ancient Egyptian anchors located. The 30 gallery-caves carefully dug into the mountainside—ranging from 50 to more than 100 feet in length—were triple the number of boat galleries at Ayn Soukhna. For a harbor constructed 4,600 years ago, this was an enterprise on a truly grand scale.

Yet it was used for a very short time. All the evidence that Tallet and his colleagues have gathered indicates that the harbor was active in the fourth dynasty, concentrated during the reign of one pharaoh, Khufu. What emerges clearly from Tallet’s excavation is that the port was crucial to the pyramid-building project. The Egyptians needed massive amounts of copper—the hardest metal then available—with which to cut the pyramid stones. The principal source of copper was the mines in the Sinai just opposite Wadi al-Jarf. The reason that the ancients abandoned the harbor in favor of Ayn Soukhna would appear to be logistical: Ayn Soukhna is only about 75 miles from the capital of ancient Egypt. Reaching Wadi al-Jarf involved a considerably longer overland trip, even though it was closer to the Sinai mining district.

After visiting Wadi al-Jarf, Lehner, the American Egyptologist, was bowled over by the connections between Giza and this distant harbor. “The power and purity of the site is so Khufu,” he said. “The scale and ambition and sophistication of it—the size of these galleries cut out of rock like the Amtrak train garages, these huge hammers made out of hard black diorite they found, the scale of the harbor, the clear and orderly writing of the hieroglyphs of the papyri, which are like Excel spreadsheets of the ancient world—all of it has the clarity, power and sophistication of the pyramids, all the characteristics of Khufu and the early fourth dynasty.”

Tallet is convinced that harbors such as Wadi al-Jarf and Ayn Soukhna served mainly as supply hubs. Since there were few sources of food in the Sinai, Merer and other managers were responsible for getting food from Egypt’s rich agricultural lands along the Nile to the thousands of men working in the Sinai mine fields, as well as retrieving the copper and turquoise from the Sinai. In all likelihood, they operated the harbor only during the spring and summer when the Red Sea was relatively calm. They then dragged the boats up to the rock face and stored them in the galleries for safekeeping until the next spring.

Ancient Egypt’s maritime activities also served political and symbolic purposes, Tallet argues. It was important for the Egyptian kings to demonstrate their presence and control over the whole national territory, especially its more remote parts, in order to assert the essential unity of Egypt. “Sinai had great symbolic importance for them as it was one of the farthest points they could reach,” Tallet says. “In the Sinai the inscriptions are explaining the mightiness of the king, the wealth of the king, how the king is governing its country. On the outer limits of the Egyptian universe you have a need to show the power of the king.”

In fact, their control of the periphery was rather fragile. Distant and inhospitable Sinai, with its barren landscape and hostile Bedouin inhabitants, represented a challenge for the pharaohs; one inscription records an Egyptian expedition massacred by Bedouin warriors, Tallet says. Nor were the Egyptians always able to hold on to their camps along the Red Sea. “We have evidence from Ayn Soukhna that the site was destroyed several times. There was a big fire in one of the galleries....It was probably difficult for them to control the area.”

Apparently all parts of Egypt were involved in the great building project at Giza. Granite came from Aswan far to the south, food from the delta in the north near the Mediterranean, and limestone from Tura, about 12 miles south of Cairo on the Nile. The burst of maritime activity was also driven by the monumental undertaking. “It is certain that the shipbuilding was made necessary by the gigantism of the royal building projects,” Tallet writes in a recent essay, “and that the great majority of the boats were intended for the navigation of the Nile and the transport of materials along the river, but the development of Wadi al-Jarf exactly in the same period allows us to see without doubt the logical extension, this time toward the Red Sea, of this project of the Egyptian state.”

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Working on the royal boats, it seems, was a source of prestige. According to the papyri found at Wadi al-Jarf, the laborers ate well, and were provisioned with meat, poultry, fish and beer. And among the inscriptions that Tallet and his team have found at the Wadi al-Jarf gallery complex is one, on a large jar fashioned there, hinting at ties to the pharaoh; it mentions “Those Who Are Known of Two Falcons of Gold,” a reference to Khufu. “You have all sorts of private inscriptions, of officials who were involved in these mining expeditions to the Sinai,” Tallet says. “I think it was a way to associate themselves to something that was very important to the king and this was a reason to be preserved for eternity for the individuals.” Clearly these workers were valued servants of the state.

The discovery of the papyri at such a distant location is significant, Tallet says: “It is not very logical that [the writings] should have ended up at Wadi al-Jarf. Of course [the managers] would have always traveled with their archives because they were expected always to account for their time. I think the reason we found [the papyri] there is that this was the last mission of the team, I imagine because of the death of the king. I think they just stopped everything and closed up the galleries and then as they were leaving buried the archives in the area between the two large stones used to seal the complex. The date on the papyri seems to be the last date we have for the reign of Khufu, the 27th year of his reign.”

The work that Tallet and his colleagues have done along the Red Sea connects with Lehner’s work at Giza. In the late 1980s, Lehner began a full-scale excavation of what has turned out to be a residential area a few hundred yards from the pyramids and the Sphinx. For centuries, travelers had contemplated these amazing monuments in splendid isolation—man-made mountains and one of the world’s great sculptures sitting seemingly alone in the desert. The paucity of evidence of the substantial number of people needed to undertake this massive project gave rise to many bizarre alternative theories about the pyramids (they were built by space aliens, by the people from Atlantis and so forth). But in 1999, Lehner began uncovering apartment blocks that might have housed as many as 20,000 people.

And many of the Giza residents, like the boatmen at the Red Sea, appear to have been well-fed. Judging by remains at the site, they were eating a great deal of beef, some of it choice cuts. Beef cattle were mostly raised in rural estates and then perhaps taken by boat to the royal settlements at Memphis and Giza, where they were slaughtered. Pigs, by contrast, tended to be eaten by the people who produced the food. Archaeologists study the “cattle to pig” ratio as an indication of the extent to which workers were supplied by the central authority or by their own devices—and the higher the ratio, the more elite the occupants. At Lehner’s “Lost City of the Pyramids” (as he sometimes calls it), “the ratio of cattle to pig for the entire site stands at 6:1, and for certain areas 16:1,” he writes of those well-stocked areas. Other, rather exotic items such as leopard’s teeth (perhaps from a priest’s robe), hippopotamus bones (carved by craftsmen) and olive branches (evidence of trade with the Levant) have also turned up in some of the same places, suggesting that the people who populated Lehner’s working village were prized specialists.

Sailors may have figured among the visitors to the pyramid town, according to Merer’s papyrus journal. It mentions carrying stone both up to the lake or basin of Khufu and to the “horizon of Khufu,” generally understood to refer to the Great Pyramid. How did Merer get his boat close enough to the pyramids to unload his cargo of stone? Currently, the Nile is several miles from Giza. But the papyri offer important support for a hypothesis that Lehner had been developing for several years—that the ancient Egyptians, masters of canal building, irrigation and otherwise redirecting the Nile to suit their needs, built a major harbor or port near the pyramid complex at Giza. Accordingly, Merer transported the limestone from Tura all the way to Giza by boat. “I think the Egyptians intervened in the flood plain as dramatically as they did on the Giza Plateau,” Lehner says, adding: “The Wadi al-Jarf papyri are a major piece in the overall puzzle of the Great Pyramid.”

Tallet, characteristically, is more cautious. “I really don’t want to be involved in any polemics on the building of the pyramids at Giza—it’s not my job,” he says. “Of course it’s interesting to have this kind of information, it will deserve a lot of study.”

Tallet believes that the Lake of Khufu, to which Merer refers, was more likely located at Abusir, another important royal site about ten miles south of Giza. “If it is too close to Giza,” Tallet says, “one does not understand why it takes Merer a full day to sail from this site to the pyramid.” But Tallet has been persuaded by Lehner’s evidence of a major port at Giza. It makes perfect sense, he says, that the Egyptians would have found a way to transport construction materials and food by boat rather than dragging them across the desert. “I am not sure it would have been possible at all times of the year,” he said. “They had to wait for the flooding, and could have existed for perhaps six months a year.” By his estimate the ports along the Red Sea were only working for a few months a year—as it happens, roughly when Nile floods would have filled the harbor at Giza. “It all fits very nicely.”

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