Who built the pyramids? Slaves, as Hollywood’s version would have it? Jewish slaves, as an Israeli prime minister famously remarked?
Neither, say Egyptian archaeologists, who this week presented further evidence to reinforce what they and other experts have long maintained: The Great Pyramids were built by free men – paid laborers who worked out of reverence for the pharaohs and were rewarded with burial near the ancient monuments, in graves discovered last week.
The latest findings come from a dozen skeletons in newly discovered pits more than 4,000 years old, perfectly preserved by dry desert sand, along with jars that had once contained beer and bread to feed the dead in the afterlife.
The mud-brick tombs, each three meters (nine feet) deep, were found last week beyond a larger burial site first discovered near the pyramids in 1990 and dating to the 4th Dynasty (2575 B.C. to 2467 B.C.), when the giant structures were built at Giza, on the fringes of modern-day Cairo.
The previously discovered graves already pointed to their occupants being pyramid-builders, and the latest findings reinforced the paid-laborer theory, according to Egypt’s archaeology chief, Zahi Hawass.
They are the first to be found containing supplies for the afterlife, indicating how respected the workers were, and one tomb was found containing a limestone piece with an inscription identifying its occupant as Idu, a supervisor of a group of builders.
Herodotus, the Greek historian of the ancient world, described the pyramid-builders as slaves. Hollywood films and an offhand remark by the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin put forth the idea that those slaves were ancient Israelites.
The Jewish angle did not come up at Hawass’ presentation to reporters Monday, but it has long rankled Egyptians, for whom the pyramids are a source of national pride. Even as Egypt was negotiating peace with the Jewish state in the late 1970s, the argument flared anew with Begin’s remarks during a visit here.
Archaeologists, Jewish and other, generally agree that the Jewish role is a myth.
“No Jews built the pyramids because Jews didn’t exist at the period when the pyramids were built,” said Amihai Mazar, professor at the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“If the Hebrews built anything, then it was the city of Ramses as mentioned in Exodus,” said Mazar.
Dorothy Resig, an editor of Biblical Archaeology Review in Washington D.C., said the idea probably arose from the Old Testament Book of Exodus, which says, “So the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with backbreaking labor’’ and the Pharaoh put them to work building ancient cities such as Ramses.
Menachem Friedman, professor emeritus at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv who specializes in religious identity in society, said few Jews believe “this fantasy that their ancestors built the pyramids.”
“Most Jews believe the ancient Hebrews were made to do forced labor in Egypt like the other slaves of the period,” he told The Associated Press.
Dieter Wildung, a former director of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, said centuries separate the construction of the pyramids and the story of the Israelites in Egypt.
“The myth of the slaves building pyramids is only the stuff of tabloids and Hollywood,” Wildung said in a telephone interview. “The world simply could not believe the pyramids were built without oppression and forced labor, but out of loyalty to the pharaohs.”
Hawass said the builders came from poor Egyptian families and were so respected for their work that those who died on the job were honored with a burial near the sacred pyramids and preparation for the afterlife.
The tombs survived grave robbers because they contained no valuables, and the bodies were not mummified. The skeletons lay in a fetal position, head pointing west and feet east according to ancient Egyptian beliefs, surrounded by the jars once filled with supplies for afterlife.
Hawass said some 10,000 laborers – not the 100,000 chronicled by Herodotus – worked in three-month shifts, and ate 21 cattle and 23 sheep sent to them daily from farms.
Because the bodies were not mummified, there is no likelihood of finding DNA evidence in the bones, said Adel Okasha, supervisor of the excavation.
But from their arthritis and lower vertebrae, “their bones tell us the story of how hard they worked,” he said, and Wildung agreed.
They were free men and ordinary citizens, Wildung said, “but let’s not exaggerate here; they lived a short life and … suffered from bad health, very much likely because of how hard their work was.”