Dispelling Some Myths: Who built the pyramids?
One of the more enduring popular ‘myths’ is the idea that the great pyramids at Giza in northern Egypt were constructed (c. 2575 - c. 2465 BC) by a vast army of maltreated slaves. How this falsehood has flourished for centuries and even transformed popular perceptions of a historical event can be laid firmly at the feet of Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484 - c. 420 BC). Although considered to be the ‘father of history’, Herodotus was responsible for passing on a number of dubious ‘facts’. The ‘pyramids built by slaves’ is one such.
Herodotus’ tale In Book II of his Histories, Herodotus tells us that in building the Great Pyramid the pharaoh Khufu (called Cheops by the Greeks) ‘brought the people to utter misery’ having ‘compelled all the Egyptians to work for him…in gangs of a hundred thousand men, each gang for three months’ to build a pyramid ‘20 years in the making’ (Histories, Book II, 124). While it is true that slavery certainly existed in Pharaonic Egypt, as it has in nearly all cultures and civilisations both ancient and modern, its study has been complicated by the terminology the ancient Egyptians themselves used in referring to different classes of servitude throughout Egypt’s long history. However, by interpreting the evidence from just the commonly used words suggests there was three types of enslavement in ancient Egypt: chattel slavery, bonded labour, and forced labour. Even so, Egyptologists believe nearly all pyramid builders were drawn from a mix of 4,000 to 5,000 permanent skilled workers and some 20,000 temporary labourers working in some form of co-operative effort. These free men arrived from their villages at the building site to assist for a few months at a time, probably during the annual Nile floods when agricultural work was suspended. These workers were typically paid in graded notional rations of bread and beer that were tradeable for other goods and services. This is not to say slaves were not involved in some way, just that they were clearly not the majority of the builders. Moreover, it was also not unheard of for work parties to compete against each other in building tasks. A work gang from a particular village who moved a block of limestone the furthest in one day might be rewarded with extra rations of food, drink , or even make-up.
Make-up? One thing the ordinary man or woman living 4,000 years ago would not be seen in public without is make-up. Imagine going off to build a pyramid, your skin covered in moisturising oil, possibly perfumed, and your eyes lined with kohl, a black make-up similar to mascara. It may not sound particularly manly - not the sort of thing you would expect builders to do today, but the moisturising oil protected the skin from sunburn. With the sun blazing down, reflecting off the desert and rocks, the kohl eye-liner was needed to cut down the sun’s glare and protect your eyesight. We see such tricks used by American football players or cricketers today. So, for manual labourers working beneath the hot, bright Egyptian sun, make-up was essential. In fact, one day in 1170 BC some tomb workers went on strike because they had run out of make-up. They claimed they wanted more moisturising oil and clothes, vegetables and fish. While the workers held a peaceful sit in, local bureaucrats tried to get them back to work eventually offering the workers a month’s worth of supplies. It was to no avail, however, the strikers held out until they received two months of make-up and food.
The myth evolves As in so many things, the truth did not get in the way of a good story and thus Herodotus’ account took root. His version of how the Great Pyramid came to be was repeated by later ancient writers. Some, like the Jewish historian Josephus (AD 37 - 100), conflated the builders with those people of Israel reputedly held in slavery in Egypt according to the Old Testament book of Exodus. Yet even this ‘fact’ remains stubbornly uncorroborated by any dateable archaeological evidence. If we ignore the questionable historicity of the biblical narratives, however, today’s historians cautiously date the supposed events described in Exodus to the 13th century BC. Rather inconveniently this is 1,000 years after the pyramids of Giza were built.
All the same, Herodotus’ account was combined with the assumed truth ascribed to the biblical texts and this ensured the more salacious story survived to influence 18th and 19th century antiquarians, historians and artists. Then in the first half of the 20th century, Hollywood epic movies, for example 1955’s ‘Land of the Pharaohs’, cemented ‘slave-builders’ in popular culture. It most likely that the popular myth is based on a longstanding misunderstanding of how the ancient world worked.
Blackmore, R., (2022), ‘Think Piece: Why we need to get our facts straight’, BBC History Magazine November 2022, p. 44.
1. Beer and bread were staples of the ancient Egyptian diet. Indeed, one might argue their entire culture was based on these two ingredients, which are laden with calories needed to provide energy for work. The bread may have been quite greasy, like a paratha, but of a lighter texture. Providing an amazing amount of energy, it would be fair to say that the pyramids were built on bread. Indeed, archaeologists have excavated huge bakeries capable of suppling the vast quantities of bread needed and eaten by the workers at Giza. In addition, we know ancient Egyptians also ate:
Onions to go in a salad or eaten with bread.
Wild fowl - ducks and geese - hunted by the river. Egyptians particularly enjoyed crispy roast duck basted in honey.
Meat and fish could also be salted and hung up to dry. Many tomb and temple scenes show butchery, the preparation of meat and birds hanging from hooks in shops.
Dried fish also featured in ancient Egyptian diets.