Every significant historical site goes through periods of the day when the surrounding environment make a visit truly worthwhile. At the pyramids of Giza, the view at sunset can push away the claustrophobic memory of the flocks of tourists and local souvenir-sellers who dominate the site earlier in the day. In the hush of sunset, visitors can appreciate the beautiful symmetry of these ancient tombs as the half-light of dusk eradicates the imperfections of age that are evident during the day. The mathematical perfection of these monuments has puzzled archeologists for centuries. How could the civilization that existed when the pyramids were built 4,700 years ago have created this colossal necropolis?
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The answer has long been mired in confusion. So much mystery surrounds the pyramids that some have suggested that supernatural, divine or even extraterrestrial forces must have been responsible for their construction. The Bible, of course, asserts that ancient Israelite slaves performed much of the backbreaking labor in ancient Egypt, but in the modern Arab republic, this claim is widely disputed.
In the year 2007, many prominent Egyptologists in Cairo refute the idea that the pyramids were built by slaves at all. The list of scholars who align themselves with this train of thought is headed by Egypt's Chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass. In 2002, a team led by Hawass explored unopened chambers inside the pyramids using new technology, and at the end of the process a triumphant Hawass told the world press that his findings, particularly the skeleton of a fourth-century Egyptian, showed that the pyramids were "not built by slaves," but rather by the "great Egyptians."
Following the exploration, which was broadcast worldwide by National Geographic, Dr. Hawass held an interview with the Arab daily El Gomhoreya, in which he said his findings "refute the allegations reiterated by Jews and some Western countries that the Jews built the pyramids."
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post at the Egypt Museum in Cairo, Dr. Nawab Shoeab, a prominent Egyptologist, argues that claims that the Israelites were coerced into building the pyramids are not held up by historical research. She points out that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt during the 19th Dynasty, under the reign of Ramses II, around 1300 BCE. The pyramids, she notes, were built some 1,400 years earlier, during the Fourth Dynasty. This is clearly too large a space in time for claims of Israelite involvement to be plausible, she says.
The Old Kingdom which consists of the Third to Sixth Dynasties was a period in which many of Egypt's pyramids were built. The first were built at Sakkara in the step pyramid fashion by the high priest Imhotep. The next to be built were at Dahshur which are the two pyramids of Honi. The last of the Third Dynasty creations are the three pyramids at En Medum. By the Fourth Dynasty, there was a desire for a perfect creation, which became the Great Pyramid of Khufu, and then the pyramids of Khefren and Menkaure on its flanks.
The chronology doesn't seem to add up to place the Jews at the feet of these pyramids. But some, including Hawass, have taken the debate far beyond science, into a politicized modern realm deeply influenced by tensions between Egypt and Israel. Hawass and Egypt's Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosny, launched a campaign in 2002 to secure Giza's legacy for Egypt. Their campaign to "strike back" on those with different views on the subject was reported by Egyptian-born, London-based writer Ahmed Osman, who quoted Hosny in an interview with the Associated Foreign Press as vowing to "wage a war to protect the Pyramids... from an organized campaign by Israel."
In the AFP interview, the pair were quoted as saying, "Israeli allegations that they built the Pyramids abound, and we must face up to this even if it triggers a crisis with Israel! This is piracy! Our history and our civilization must be respected but the Israelis want to take over everything! We must counterattack with full strength because this is how they took Palestine. They think Palestine belongs to them and now they are doing on saying the same with the Pyramids."
Baruch Brandel, the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority library, dismisses these claims. "The legend that the sons of Israel built the pyramids is not taken seriously by Israeli archeologists. No Israeli archeological handbook even makes the claim," he says. "The Torah only mentions that the Israelites built Pithom and Ramses during the New Kingdom period."
GIVEN THE controversy, why do some argue that one of the great wonders of the world was built by Jews? If one man truly deserves credit for advancing the claim, it is Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal of Scotland during the 1860s. Among Smyth's works is Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid, a book claiming that the complex at Giza was built by Jewish slaves who labored not under Pharaoh's chief architect, but under the direction of divine inspiration. Now, 150 years later, serious academics do not pay much credence to this theory. But when it was first published, it was highly popular among Evangelical Christians and Jews, such as the British Israelites, who were sprouting up throughout the British Empire in the 19th century.
Evidence about who built the pyramids lies scattered around Europe, thanks to the continental empires that for centuries plundered and dispersed ancient Egyptian treasures. Working with tools ranging from the Palermo Stone, a tablet taken from the Valley of the Kings outlining the chronology of the ancient kings, to the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, some Egyptologists now argue that ancient Egypt's rural population was the group that actually built the pyramids - and that it did so not in bondage, but as a more complicated form of tribute to the pharaoh.
According to Shoeab, those who contributed to the production of the pyramids were not slaves at all, but displaced persons who came to Giza during the Nile's annual flood season. Shoeab believes that the historical records found along the banks of the Nile provide the most credible theory, which says that the pharaohs provided food, shelter and sanitation in exchange for the seasonal river dwellers' work on the pyramids. The seasonal nature of the work may help to explain why the Great Pyramid of Khufu took 20 years to build.
Shoeab claims it was actually considered a great honor to work on the pyramids, which would have been one of the first great building projects to foster a sense of national identity. One should also remember that these were tombs built for gods, she says, and that in this context the pain of the task might have been understood in a similar light as the self-discipline and deprivations of Christian monastic life.
While the pyramids were looted to build Cairo's Muhammad Ali Mosque, which was commissioned by Saladin following the Crusades, people from all over the word flock to Giza on a daily basis to see the pyramids. Even though foreigners tend to picture their arrival at the pyramids after crossing the Egyptian desert on horseback, visitors to the Giza site have to make peace with the fact that great pyramids actually sit on the outskirts of one of the most populated and polluted cities on earth, only a few hundred yards from the edge of Cairo. The pyramids certainly ignite the imagination, but Shoeab insists that the "reality" of Giza must be preserved. "There are some realities that Israelis and Egyptians must accept between themselves. Israel must accept that Egyptians and not Jews built the pyramids, and Egyptians must accept that the Israeli army smashed our army in 1967. We just have to accept reality."