No, Ben Carson, the Pyramids Were Tombs, Not Grain Silos

Archaeologists counter GOP hopeful’s view that Egyptian pyramids were built by Joseph to store grain with the known facts.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson demonstrating how they packed all that grain into the pyramids, maybe, during a press conference, October 29, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson demonstrating how they packed all that grain into the pyramids, maybe, during a press conference, October 29, 2015.Credit: AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

This article was originally published November 5, 2015.

Israeli Egyptologists are snorting at Republican hopeful Ben Carson’s latest bombshell – that the ancient pyramids of Egypt weren’t built as tombs for pharaohs, but as grain silos.

Admittedly, said bombshell was dropped in 1998, while Carson was speaking at Andrews University, a school associated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to which he belongs. It’s low to trash people for things they did as kids. But Ben Carson is now 64, so he must have been about 47 then, which is old enough to know better.

Moreover, according to the Telegraph, he told CBS News last week that he still holds that opinion, based on ... well, nothing.

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” Carson said in the video, which resurfaced Wednesday on Buzzfeed.

No, they weren’t. Let us first of all define what we’re talking about. “When Egyptian pyramids are mentioned, people tend to think of the three huge pyramids of Giza, built circa 2589-2503 B.C.E. But in fact, these are the most spectacular part of a far-longer tradition of pyramid building, from ca. 2686 to ca. 2160 B.C.E., and then again from 1985 to about 1750 B.C.E.,” Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Deborah Sweeney tells Haaretz in an email response to queries about Mr. Carson’s unusual views.

“We can clearly see, from looking at the long sequence of these buildings, that pyramids were built as tombs for the king (and the smaller ones beside the larger ones as tombs for some especially favored queens or princesses),” she writes.

“Pyramids were definitely used as tombs: burial equipment, such as sarcophagi, jewelry, mummies or mummy parts were found in some of them. (The others were robbed in antiquity, or in a few cases the burial chambers are below the water table.)”

The Great Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza, Egpyt. One slight design flaw as grain silos: they were permanently sealed shut.

Further proof they were tombs, not silos, is funerary text inscriptions inside chambers built around 2375 to ca 2160 B.C.E., to help the dead king in his journey to the afterworld, says Sweeney.

Whodunit? Not ET

On the side of scientific sanity, Carson did also add he doesn’t buy the theory that aliens were behind the construction of the pyramids. “And when you look at the way that the pyramids are made, with many chambers that are hermetically sealed, they’d have to be that way for a reason. And various scientists have said, ‘Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they have special knowledge and that’s how they were’ – you know, it doesn’t require an alien being when God is with you.”

Carson also said the pyramids had been built by Joseph, the youngest of Jewish patriarch Jacob’s 12 sons, who becomes a key adviser to the pharaoh of the time.

Indeed, according to the biblical account (Genesis 41), Joseph was involved in foodstuffs and storage, advising the dream-bedeviled pharaoh that lean years would come and Egypt should prepare by storing surplus corn and grain. And so Egypt did: “And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy corn; because the famine was sore in all the earth” (Genesis 41:57).

We do, however, have some idea of how the ancient Egyptians stored grain – and it wasn’t in pyramids, whose structure is unsuitable for such use anyway, as Sweeney points out. “Pyramids are almost solid masonry: the amount of storage they offer, relative to their mass, is extremely small, which would make them a fairly poor choice for a large storage project, as would sloping corridors and (in the very latest pyramids) a series of concealed entrances to confuse potential tomb-robbers,” she wrote Haaretz, adding, “Again, the forms of sealing used in pyramids, such as blocking corridors with a series of large stone blocks, might not necessarily be useful for storage, since stores also need to be accessible.”

Where they did store grain was in granaries, in which the ancient Egyptians also had a well-established tradition, Sweeney writes. “These were normally dome-shaped buildings open at the top, which stood near houses and government buildings.”

Joseph who?

There is no evidence whatsoever that the pyramids were built by “Joseph” or anybody else except unhappy Egyptian farmers who, as the Nile flooded each year, had to leave their fields and would be coerced into construction projects, explains Prof. Orly Goldwasser, an Egyptologist from the Hebrew University.

Goldwasser also notes that pyramids began to be built some 5,000 years ago, and there is no record whatsoever of ancient Canaanites or Israelites or anybody but ancient Egyptians being around to do the labor. “The first mention of Israelites was in around 1200 B.C.E. – a difference of more than 1,000 years,” she says.

Nor is there any mention of “Joseph” in ancient Egyptian texts, Goldwasser clarifies. “The pyramids have no connection to the people of Israel or anything of the sort,” she concludes.

Carson is a retired neurosurgeon, which means he has scientific background. Yet this broadside against the scientific consensus, based on no evidence whatsoever, isn’t his only one. The presidential candidate, who’s vying with Donald Trump more or less at the head of the GOP pack, has spoken out against the Big Bang (the theory, not the television show), evolution and even gravity.

Back to reality, Carson simultaneously dismisses climate change as anything to worry about – it’s just weather being weather (there’s “always going to be either cooling or warming going on”) and reveals that he has a plan as the water rises around us, and we shouldn’t worry: Arks.

Modern ones, mind you. “It is important to remember that amateurs built the Ark and it was professionals that built the Titanic,” Carson tweeted. Now we know.

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