Khafre Enthroned

By Jeffrey Newman, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles.

Date: Old Kingdom, Fourth Dynasty, Reign of Khafre (ca. 2575- 2465 BCE)

Provenance: Giza Pyramid Complex of Khafre

Material: Anorthosite Gneiss

Current Location: Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt. INV.No.JE 10062= CG14

This statue, often referred to as “Khafre Enthroned,” is one of the most important and iconic surviving sculptures from ancient Egypt. It depicts the Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2500 BCE) pharaoh Khafre slightly larger-than-life and seated upon a lion-pawed throne. The sides of the throne are decorated with the sema-tawy hieroglyph, meant to represent the king’s duty to literally “bind” the constituent parts of Egypt together under one authority. The pharaoh sits atop this, expressing at once a sense of determination and serenity; looking above and beyond the viewer while gesturing a similar message with a clenched fist and opened hand. On his head, the pharaoh is depicted with two kinds of divine protection. He wears the nemes headdress with a uraeus, or cobra, representing Wadjet, the protective goddess of Lower Egypt. A falcon extends its wings to embrace the back of the king’s headdress, emblematic of the god Horus, another protective deity often directly associated with the living king, whose cult centered in Upper Egypt. 

The statue is made of anorthosite gneiss, an especially hard, green stone with distinctive ripples of white inclusions that made it technically challenging to carve. This stone is only found in remote stretches of the Sahara Desert in Nubia, west of the Second Cataract of the Nile. By the end of the Old Kingdom, we know that the Egyptians referred to this region by the terms Wawat, Irtjet and Setju, even mentioning a ruler who joined these lands together. It was transported some 1200 km to its final emplacement, within the Valley Temple of Khafre’s pyramid complex at Giza. Thus, the material itself was sought after by Khafre to project an aura of economic reach, access to luxury materials and ultimately, power over Egypt’s neighbors. The shimmering green stone also undoubtably referenced a hope for rejuvenation in the afterlife, a color association that has roots deep in the Predynastic past. In 1860 CE, Auguste Mariette, the first director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, found the statue buried in a pit dug under the floor of Khafre’s Valley Temple. The statue was registered as the 14th object in the Cairo Museum’s Catalogue Général (CG 14). Though the exact circumstances of its deposition are unknown, subsequent excavations of the temple suggest it was originally one of about 23 seated statues of the pharaoh, estimated from the numerous fragments of similar statues found within the temple. The bases of some of these statues still exist in the Valley Temple today. Overall, Khafre’s pyramid complex at Giza contained over 300 statues of the king, far more examples than any other pharaoh from the Old Kingdom. Examples like “Khafre Enthroned” show that this pharaoh’s reign marked not only a peak in manufacturing ability, but also in technical prowess, blending idealism and naturalism in a variety of stones, the extremely hard gneiss in this example, but also in quartzite, limestone and greywacke. Khafre’s statuary continued to influence royal images for the remainder of the Old Kingdom and beyond. 

Yet as far as we can tell, this statue was somewhat unique even among its counterparts, especially regarding its portrayal of the connection between pharaoh and the divine. To better understand this question, it is important to consider the statue in its original context. It was placed against a wall of the Valley temple, separated from the main access-route by large red-granite pillars. The viewer would likely first encounter the statue at an angle, offering a profile view and exposing the god Horus in the midst of his embrace of the pharaoh’s head. However, as the viewer approached the statue head-on, Horus becomes completely obscured behind the nemes headdress of the pharaoh, owing to the slightly upturned angle of his head. This optical illusion is an intentional expression of the nature of the pharaoh: surrounded and protected by the gods, yet to a certain degree, a god himself. The blurred lines between these two categories are meant to become one in the person of the pharaoh as the viewer ambulates around the statue. 

Another similar expression can be found when viewing not just the head of the statue, but the statue as a whole. The pharaoh sits above the union of Upper and Lower Egypt, on a throne supported by a lion’s paws, all serving as strong metaphors for the natural world over which he maintains power. Above him lies the uraeus on his brow and Horus-falcon, rather clear symbols of divine association. Between this all sits the pharaoh, in another expression of his unique access to these two spheres of social power. In the case of Khafre, he and his sculptors managed to express their vision of kingship visually, and in many ways more succinctly than could be done in words alone. 

Who was the intended recipient of this message? Perhaps it was intended for no one, simply meant to reenact Khafre’s vision of kingship within his cult for eternity. Another option is that it was meant to impress this vision of kingship upon the priesthood and members of the elite who participated in the pharaoh’s mortuary cult. A final consideration is the nature of the Valley Temple itself. “Valley” refers to its location at the edge of the floodplain, not secluded atop the Giza Plateau like the rest of the pyramid complex. This location at least suggests a higher degree of access to worshipers of the pharaoh’s cult. 

Model courtesy of David Anderson, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse ( and