Who built the pyramids of Giza?

Pyramids of Giza
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    Written by: Meshack Masibo

    During the last 4,500 years, the pyramids have drawn huge amounts of admiration and interest, ranging in ancient times from religious worship to grave robbery, and, in the modern times, from claims for the pyramids possessing healing power to pseudoscientific searches by some archaeologists seeking hidden chambers or signs of alien visitations to Earth. The question of who labored to build them, and why, has long been part of the fascination. What is rooted firmly in the popular imagination is the idea that the pyramids were built by slaves serving a merciless pharaoh. This notion of a vast slave class in Egypt originated in Judeo-Christian tradition and has been popularized by Hollywood movies like The Ten Commandments, in which a captive people labor in the scorching sun beneath the whips of pharaoh’s overseers. However, graffiti from inside the Giza monuments themselves have long suggested something very different.

    Egyptologist Mark Lehner, an associate of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, who lived a life grounded in archaeological study of the Giza plateau and its monuments made the most convincing  proposition as to who exactly built the pyramids. During his regular mapping of the area, Lehner’s close scrutiny of the Egyptian’s Sphinx’s worn and patched surface led him to wonder what archaeological secrets it might divulge. He said that he discovered that the ancient Egyptians, having already quarried materials for other pyramids for generations were probably good geologists in their own right and the actual builders of the pyramids. They knew how to line up all three of the massive examples at Giza precisely on the strike of the plateau’s slope.

    This goes to show the complexity by which the ancient Egyptian society organized itself around the task of large-scale pyramid building. Construction of the immense Giza monuments, thought to have been built for three successive pharaohs in a kind of experimental gigantism, must have required a lot of contribution from the existing social apparatus. It is believed that the colossal marshaling of resources required to build the three pyramids at Giza—which dwarf all other pyramids before or since—must have shaped the civilization itself.

    The Egyptologist concluded that the pyramids were built by a city of about 20,000 people, on a scale with the earliest major urban centers of Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C. In searching for remains of the city, archaeologists discovered that there was something missing. There were not enough houses for all the people. Generations of scholars have painstakingly calculated how many laborers would have been needed to quarry, transport, and position the stones of the great pyramids. Estimates have ranged widely—from the 100,000 cited by Herodotus to just the few thousand suggested by recent assessments that allow for decades of construction time..

    Archaeologists further discovered institutional-looking buildings. One was used for working copper—the hardest metal known to the ancient Egyptians, and critical for quarrying and dressing stones. On the floor of another, the excavators found what at first looked like ears of wheat, suggesting another bakery. But these turned out to be fish gills. The site was littered with them, and with fish fins and cranial parts; it turned out to be a place for processing or consuming fish. For a city with few residents, someone seemed to be eating a lot of loaves and fishes.

    The archaeologist also discovered 40 large and sprawling galleries, which are like rental apartments in modern day Kenya. Each gallery included the elements of a typical Egyptian house—a pillared, more public area, a domicile, and a rear cooking area—stretched out and replicated on a massive scale. They also identified tremendous quantities of cattle, sheep, and goat bone, which would be enough to feed several thousand people, even if they ate meat every day. This shows evidence of many people—presumably not slaves or common laborers, but skilled workers—feasting on prime beef, the best meat available.

    There were slaves in Egypt, but the discovery that pyramid workers were fed like royalty buttresses other evidence that they were not slaves at all, at least in the modern sense of the word. Harvard’s George Reisner found workers’ graffiti early in the twentieth century that revealed that the pyramid builders were organized into labor units with names like “Friends of Khufu” or “Drunkards of Menkaure.” Many Egyptologists therefore believe that the pyramids were also built by a rotating labor force in a modular, team-based kind of organization.

    If not slaves, then who were these workers? Why would anyone choose to perform such hard labor? The answer lies in understanding obligatory labor in the premodern world. People were not atomized, separate, individuals with the political and economic freedom that we take for granted. Obligatory labor ranges from slavery all the way up. Therefore if you were a young man in a traditional setting like that, you may not have had a choice but to work on the pyramids.

    Egyptian society was organized somewhat like a feudal system, in which almost everyone owed service to a master above them. The Egyptians called this “bak.” Everybody owed bak of some kind to people above them in the social hierarchy even the highest officials. Slaves or not, as the last season of his dig began, for a period of time archaeologists still did not know where all the workers slept. With a household model in mind, Egyptologists had been looking for large “manor houses” where lords could board their laborers for the pharoah. Instead, he had found whole blocks, 170 meters long, of precocious, sleek, modern-looking nondomestic galleries, albeit with elements of a typical Egyptian home. The enigmatic rows of long galleries as barracks housing for a rotating labor force, perhaps as large as 1,600 to 2,000 workers. This is why there are scores of bakeries flanking the galleries, as well as an abundance of bones.

    This means that the ancient Egyptians were even more advanced in their social organization at this period than previously supposed. Perhaps the Old Kingdom’s pharaohs did indeed preside over something more like a nation than a fiefdom. What was arguably humanity’s first great civilization may have been even greater, at an earlier date, than we have ever supposed.



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