Ladders to Heaven: Who Built the Ancient Pyramids of Egypt?

Archaeological evidence from the Lost City of the Pyramid Builders doesn't point toward Israelite slaves, but to forced labor battalions who lived pretty high on the hog.

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The pyramids in ancient Egypt have fascinated Western scholars for centuries. Starting in the 1600s Western scholars have been exploring every nook and cranny, literal and scholarly, of these millennia-old old tombs of Egypt’s ancient kings. Napoleon Bonaparte’s mystic revelation in the King’s Chamber of the Cheops Pyramid, the largest of the three pyramids of Giza, became a byword for the unfathomable powers these tombs seemed to wield. Going by their extreme popularity on Internet search engines, people seem to believe they can channel their mysterious energies even through their computer monitor.

The name of Egypt’s second oldest newspaper, Al-Ahram, means “The Pyramids.” Whoever thought up the name was doing more than giving these, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World, their patriotic due. They were recognizing that once and forever, these monuments shout a message from their precisely stylized, symbolic mountain peaks. And with the help of archaeology, many of the mysteries surrounding these magnificent edifices are being unraveled.

Who built the pyramids? Not us

For many Bible lovers, the pyramids have a special attraction, albeit that is based on a false premise.

“Every Passover people ask me if we built the pyramids and seem disappointed when I tell them we did not,” says Hebrew University Egyptologist Dr. Arlette David. Indeed, there’s nothing in the biblical account of Israelite slavery to indicate that “we” –the Jews – built these towering triangular tombs.

It was “too early for us,” David explains. Meaning? The earliest pyramids date back to around 2700 BCE. The first reference to “Israelites” would not be for another 1,500 years, on the Merneptah Stele.

David believes the attraction of the pyramids is what she calls “the charm of the enigma.” How did this ancient culture, which existed even before the invention of the wheel – manage to build these structures? The statistics are staggering.

The first astonishing statistic is the sheer survival of some 138 of the rock edifices. There are pyramids that predate them, such as the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, but those were made out of mud brick and have mostly eroded away.

Then there's the technological challenge.

“You can’t ignore it, we still don’t know exactly how they were built,” David says. “We know they used sledges to transport the blocks, and that they built ramps to put the blocks in place. But how did they get the blocks –- there are monoliths that weigh 40–70 tons – up higher than the burial room, which is 40 meters off the ground? How did they know how to leave empty spaces in the structure to take the weight off the burial room so it wouldn’t collapse? It’s fantastic,” David says.

Research shows that the Cheops Pyramid would have taken about 25 years to build, with 3,000 people working at least one season a year, David says. “There are 2 million blocks of stone, the smaller ones weighing at least 2.5 tons. It’s 145 meters high, its slopes are a precise 53 degrees, and the length of each side 230 meters,” she recites.

But the allure is much more than about the what, how and the when of the pyramids stones; it’s about who. As David puts it, it is about “the faith people have in the power of human beings to create something of this magnitude.”

Meals on not-wheels

It is that organizational aspect that fascinates David the most - How were the builders fed and housed? How were their sick cared for? In recent years, the discovery by Drs. Mark Lehrner and Richard Redding and their team of the so-called Lost City of the Pyramid Builders just south of the Giza pyramids near Cairo has been providing answers.

Ancient inscriptions left by men working on other major Egyptian projects, such as the turquoise mines of Sinai, allude to how workers were hired.
“We know that they drafted young workers for many forced labor battalions, for temporary work, and they received payment in food for them and probably their families. We know where they slept and skeletal remains show that they ate better than others, including meat and fish,” says David.

That wages were probably paid in kind is borne out in an inscription in the funerary chapel of Heterpherakhet, a high-ranking court official who lived in around 2400 BCE, according to which his construction crew was amply rewarded: “They have made this tomb for me for the sake of bread, beer, clothing, oils and grain in great amounts.”

Animal bones reveal the workers’ diet. A recently reported study by Redding cites the finding of 175,000 animal bones found at the Giza Pyramids, mostly of sheep, goats and cattle. But how did this meaty menu get from “stable to table?” The flocks would have to be purchased (or expropriated) from local farmers, driven from the Nile Delta to Giza near Cairo (the area in which most of the pyramids are to be found), slaughtered and distributed – more evidence of a concerted effort difficult to imagine even today. We can’t even call it “meals on wheels,” considering, as David points out, that the wheel hadn’t been invented at the time.

Skeletal remains show that life on the construction crew was anything but easy, at least for regular working stiffs according to the ancient historian Diodorus. But even “the masses” – his term – had their moments during the off-season: “Being relieved of their labors during the entire season of inundation, they turned to feasting, all the while and enjoying without hindrance every device of pleasure.” Now that’s a union perk even the Ashdod Port workers’ committee hasn’t thought of.

As for the expedition leaders – the architects, foremen, artists and artisans – they had the privilege of building their own tombs with leftover materials from the royal tombs, and are often small replicas of those tombs, says David. An examination of the remains of these higher-ups, David says, shows that they had fewer injuries and lived longer than others.

Apparently, if you wanted a job in the pyramid-overseer industry, you’d place your water navigation kills high up on your CV. If you were a ship captain, all the better, as tomb artwork shows. That's because after dragging the stones from their quarries (mainly by donkey) – the stones for the Cheops Pyramid, for example, which came from Aswan, some 900 kilometers from Giza they – the highway was the Nile.

Menkaure wuz here

Besides tomb artwork, inscriptions hint at the men behind the monuments, in the form of masons’ marks on the stones.

Some of the estimated 10,000 workers who built the Menkaure Pyramid, the smallest of Giza’s great three (“only” 65 meters, or about 20 stories, high), left such marks. They show that the masons were divided into crews, choosing their own colorful names.

For example, one, crew, referring to another name for their king Menkaure, chose an apparently endearing aspect of their ruler as part of their mason’s park identity – they were known as the “Mycerinus-is- drunk” crew.

What captures the imagination of an expert like David, steeped in the minutia of the engineering, architecture and artwork of these immortal structures?

“I stood in front of one of the entrances to the Cheops Pyramid and I finally realized, standing below, that I can’t see the top. That gives proportion of the smallness of a human being in relation to such a project. When I show this to students I tell them – you can’t fully realize the impact what it means until you stand below and you can’t see the top. And you can’t even imagine the impact of the polished limestone in its day gleaming as bright as the sun from a distance. It was a tomb but it was a status symbol. And above all, the pyramidal form has symbolism – A hill? A ray of light? A ladder to heaven? that still touches us."

Who will buy the pieces of these pyramids? Aspiring pharaohs may emerge.Credit: AP

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