By Brian Lancaster
Did Charlton Heston really build the Great Pyramids of Giza while shirtless, glistening, and getting whipped? The Ten Commandments movie (1956) was set during the reign of Ramses II, long after the pyramids were built. The slaves weren’t building the pyramids in the movie, but the film has certainly contributed to the unfounded myth that the pyramids were built by Jewish slaves. Herodotus, the Greek historian, also suggested that the builders of the pyramids were slaves.
The Bible doesn’t mention anything about pyramids or Ramses II, but Genesis and Exodus both describe how the Hebrews (possibly the historical Habiru) escaped slavery on the Nile Delta, then wandered the wilderness of Sinai for three months, getting high and talking to burning plants. There is no archaeological evidence for this outside the Bible, and the exact people and time period that the Old Testament was referring to has been much debated.
Ramses II was called Ozymandias by the Greeks. Percy Shelley’s poem calls him the “king of kings”, ironically contrasted by the remains of his statue:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
There is no mention of Ramses II in the Bible, only that the Hebrews were slaves somewhere in the Nile Delta at some point in time. Moses probably lived 200 years before the reign of Ramses II. Bottom line here: don’t believe everything 1950s Hollywood puts in their movies.
The discovery of workers’ quarters and tombs back in 2010 would indicate that the laborers who built the first pyramid of Giza were well-paid artisans, not slaves. The level of craftsmanship alone would suggest that the workers were not uneducated slaves working under the threat of torture. Slavery is not a very efficient method of getting stuff done, as it turns out, probably the main reason the Confederacy lost in 1865.
The tombs of these workers date from the 4th dynasty, during the construction of the oldest and largest pyramid of Giza, the pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops if you want to be Greek about it). They contain the skeletons of workers who lived with their families, consumed quality beef, bread, and beer, and were apparently rotated out, so they had vacation time. Workers’ graffiti has been found saying “Friends of Khufu” and “Drunkards of Menkaure” (Khufu’s grandson). Mark Lehner, a leading archaeologist on the builders of the pyramids, believes that Egyptian society during the 4th Dynasty (2613 to 2494 BC) was a feudal system, everyone owing a service to a lord. This is different than the brutal slavery depicted in the Charlton Heston movie. Whipping the people who are building your skyscraper tomb is not going to get you a good skyscraper tomb. In fact, the workers building the pyramids may well have been some of the most well-fed craftsman in the world at the time.
But it’s still work, damn it, so LET MY PEOPLE GO!