If one’s knowledge of ancient history is mainly sourced from Hollywood movies and myth, one may be of the particular belief that all Egyptians are white – or that the pyramids were constructed by slaves. Such heresies of truth are frequently repeated today, in spite of the gargantuan historical discoveries made in recent times.
Despite a series of tombs being uncovered in Giza over a decade ago, the film industry remains adamant in its desire to reshape history in the minds of millions by perpetuating specific untruths about Africa and the Middle East. The very source of the imagined slave saga of Egypt which has survived centuries is in the writings of Herodotus, who likened the pyramid builders to slaves. The number of workers ‘observed’ by Herodotus is presently believed to have been only a tenth of his estimation.
“…but that Kheops, who was the next king, brought the people to utter misery…he compelled all the Egyptians to work for him. To some, he assigned the task of dragging stones from the quarries in the Arabian mountains to the Nile; and after the stones were ferried across the river in boats, he organized others to receive and drag them to the mountains called Libyan. They worked in gangs of a hundred thousand men, each gang for three months. For ten years the people wore themselves out building the road over which the stones were dragged, work which was in my opinion not much lighter at all than the building of the pyramids…”(1)
Fifteen years ago, a horse stumbled over stones protruding the desert sand – this striking accident led to the discovery of a number of hidden shafts, safeguarding carefully lain bones preserved for centuries by the dry atmosphere. The remains belong to the pyramid builders responsible for the construction of Khufu’s resting place. To accompany each worker into the next life were jars once containing beer and bread. Further evidence garnered from records explains that workers paid and sourced from across Egypt were recruited as talented craftsmen. Records also show that the workers regularly ate meat and were sent 21 cattle and 23 sheep to feast on daily, with each group of labourers working in 3 month stints. Being buried in such close proximity to the pharaoh highlighted their value to Egypt and their leader. In order to protect the workers in their graves from prolific tomb raiders, the men were buried without treasures. Each body was traditionally put to rest, with the head facing the West and feet facing the East.
“Friends of Khufu” can be seen in graffiti on a tomb wall – an allusion to the seemingly valued relationship between the workers and their boss. Labourers were also exempt from paying taxes as their work was acknowledged as participation in a national project still paying its dividends to Egypt today. The uncovered skeletons bear clear signs of hard work in their past lives, including arthritis at the joints and back-breaking.
Egypt was not a nation that trapped individuals into the ‘class’ they were born into. A peasant or farmer could achieve any rank in society beneath the pharaoh’s bloodline if they so wished. Becoming a scribe was a common enabler of social mobility and a gateway to numerous opportunities. Families would often save money to liberate their children through education. A hierarchical society is not necessarily a tyrannical one and the hard work and mathematical genius that comprises one of the world’s greatest wonders should be neither reduced to, nor dismissed as, the fruits of brutal slavery.