This week’s mini-myth tackles the idea that slaves built the ancient and famous pyramids in Egypt. This myth goes all the way back to at least the 5th Century BCE, which is a fairly reliable estimate for when the Book of Exodus, in the Bible’s Old Testament, was finalized. Exodus says that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt – and though the Bible does not mention the pyramids specifically, popular belief since ancient times has held that slaves built those famous structures of the ancient world.
Indeed, the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus (also writing in the 5th Century BCE) specifies that the pyramids were built with slave labor – 100,000 slaves, to be exact – though he does not mention Israelites at all. Even up to our own time, the image persists of famished slaves in Egypt, clad only in loincloths, forming and hauling huge bricks under the cruel whips of their Egyptian overlords.
Perhaps the most well-known depiction of this image comes from Cecil B. DeMille’s iconic 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, which famously portrays Charlton Heston as Moses, bravely standing up to a slave-driving Pharaoh (portrayed by Yul Brenner) in order to liberate his people.
The idea even seeps into politics. When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin visited Egypt’s National Museum in 1977, he caused quite a stir by sharing his belief that his forbears, not those of the Egyptians, built the pyramids.
So is it true? Did Egypt use slave labor (Israelite or otherwise) in order to build its most famous monuments? The answer, Buzzkillers, is no.
Starting in 1990, modern archaeologists began excavating sites near the Giza metropolis, which is where the most famous and dramatic pyramids still stand. They found tombs that appear to have been set aside for honored Egyptian citizens who worked on the pyramids. Many of the tombs date back to the 4th dynasty, which ruled between 2575 BCE and 2467 BCE. The nine-foot tomb shafts were fairly modest, and the bodies were not mummified, but the proximity of the tombs to the pyramids, the presence of jars full of beer and bread for the afterlife, plus the positioning of the bodies, suggests that these workers were not slaves at all.
Archaeologists now tell us that the workers who built the pyramids were recruited from poor communities in Egypt, and worked in three-month shifts. There were 10,000 of them (considerably fewer than the 100,000 reported by Herodotus) and they ate relatively well. It took 30 years to build a single pyramid.
Evidence from the workers’ bones suggests that they had hard lives and died fairly young, but they were not slaves. Rather, the nature of their tombs suggests that they were honored workers who labored in exchange for a better life in ancient Egypt, and perhaps for a better afterlife.
Alas, the pyramids were built for the pharoahs, not for the afterlife of the workers.