The image of Hebrew slaves toiling under the whip of Egyptian slave-drivers to build the pyramids is embedded into the collective visual memory of Western civilization. From the 1827 Rossini opera “Moses and Pharaoh” to the 1953 performance of “Go Down Moses” by Paul Robson in the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, the motif of an enslaved people exploited to build one of the wonders of the world and then liberated by God had been powerful for countless souls.
Mounir Mahmoud, a lecturer at Afaak Academy in Cairo and an expert on Israeli-Egyptian relations, spoke with The Jerusalem Post via phone from his office. He sighs and says that in 30 years of guiding hundreds of Israeli groups in Egypt, not a single group did not try to argue when presented with the facts that the Hebrew people had nothing to do with the construction of the pyramids at Giza. I was also one of the Israelis he guided when I visited the country in 2019.
He then proceeds to quote in Hebrew the verse from Exodus 1:11 that speaks about how the Jews were forced to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses as store cities.
“From this alone,” he says, “we learn that the Bible speaks about the Hebrews baking bricks and building cities, whereas the pyramids are made from large blocks of carved stone.
“There are 1,400 years between the Pyramids in Giza and the arrival of the Hebrews to Egypt according to the Book of Exodus,” he says.
“In my opinion,” he suggests, “the confusion originates in how powerful the pyramids are as an image. All over the world people think about one thing when they imagine Egypt, and that thing is a pyramid. It is possible that Jewish illustrators of the Haggadah simply used that as a visual short-hand and that’s how this misunderstanding came into being.”
He has a point. While pre-modern works such as the Birds’ Head Haggadah from 1300 and the 1350 Sarajevo Haggadah are beautiful, they have no pyramids. In Christian art of that time, pyramids were believed to be the granaries suggested by Joseph to Pharaoh. A mosaic at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice depicts workers storing wheat in pyramid-like structures.
Jews might have begun to draw pyramids in the Haggadah after Napoleon arrived in Egypt in 1798 and started the fashion of Egyptomania. In modern versions, such as the heart-breaking Holocaust Survivors’ Haggadah now in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the pyramids are presented above the barbed wires and guard posts of the Nazi concentration camp, mentally connecting the oppressive and brutal Nazi system to ancient Egyptian society.
Ever since Herodotus visited Egypt under Persian rule and wrote about it during the mid-fourth century BCE, people have been quick to misunderstand ancient Egypt, Prof. Bob Brier, from Long Island University, explains in his audio course “The History of Ancient Egypt” (available from the Great Course Series and at Audible.com.)
For starters, Herodotus could not speak or read Egyptian, so he believed his tour guide when he told him that on the beautiful white stone coating the pyramids, the amounts of onions given to the workers who built them are written. This might just have been a joke taken at face value.
The white stone coating had been stripped off the pyramids when the Muslims arrived and used to build mosques – showing, perhaps once again, how hard it is for us to fully appreciate what the pyramids actually looked like or how they functioned at the time.
Not only did the ancient Hebrews not build the pyramids, but no gentile slaves were involved either.
“If you ever saw movies that depict the Egyptian slave drivers whipping the slaves and you thought: ‘Gee, I wonder why the slaves don’t gang up on that guy and take away the whip and run away,’ well you’re right,” says Brier in his course.
The ancient Egyptians knew this, which is why the pyramids were built by paid workers. Very often they were farmers who couldn’t work the land when the Nile was flooding the fields, so this was a seasonal job. Far from being exploited until broken, workers were given medical care if they were injured. The social reality of work only being performed during one season of the year was one reason the construction of the pyramids took so long.
Oddly, there seems to be a tendency in the Western mind to believe in a powerful myth about the tyranny inherent to the Orient. “The beauty and grace of ancient Egypt,” this perhaps unacknowledged emotion whispers in our ears, “must have been created on the backs of slaves and over the bones of the dead. Ancient Israel may not have been able to compete with the glory of Egypt,” this emotion seems to imply, “but we had the vision of a universal moral truth to humanity.”
While the Greeks admired the Egyptians and saw them as the source of almost all wisdom, it was Rome that shaped the Western disdain toward the Orient as something that must be fiercely ruled and contained.
To this day Rome has more obelisks (eight) than any other place on Earth after Egypt. In the 1963 film Cleopatra, news of Julius Caesar having a son with the Oriental queen reaches Rome and causes a riot. The Romans refuse to be ruled by someone who is not like them. In contrast, Cleopatra herself was ethnically Greek, meaning white, and she was the last ruler of Egypt to read and speak Egyptian. The average Roman woman of the time, sadly, was illiterate.
For Egyptians, the period of British rule is marked by the black color in their flag. If the Romans exploited Egypt as the grain supplier to the empire, the British took so many mummies and ancient artifacts that they ended up grinding mummified cats and spreading them in English fields as fertilizer. To this day some of the most treasured Egyptian artifacts are held by European or American museums.
In addition to the ideas that ancient Egypt was built by slaves, or that the Egyptians of today are somehow unable to protect their cultural treasures, there is also the myth that it wasn’t the Egyptians who built the pyramids but aliens.
In some fictional depictions, such as the 1994 science fiction film Stargate, beings from other are depicted arriving to Earth in a spaceship are depicted. In other theories, ancient Egypt was actually created by people from Atlantis. To this, one can only say that life is much more rewarding when it is people, not monsters, who shape our fates.
In the library of Alexandria
In 2002, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened near the site of the ancient library, the one in which Queen Cleopatra allegedly learned Egyptian as a little Greek girl. It is a site worth visiting for anyone who loves books and learning. In it, you will also discover a gallery devoted to Egyptian film director, writer and set designer Shadi Abdel Salam. Seen as a world authority on ancient Egypt, he consulted Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz during the making of the 1966 film Pharaoh, which is based on the 1894 novel by Bolesław Prus. His epic 1969 film Al-Mummia (The Night of Counting the Years) launched his own career, and today the movie is seen as a classic Arab film as well as a classic world one. The one movie Salam wanted to make, and could never complete, was based on his deep fascination with Akhenaten, the Pharaoh who dared to close the Egyptian temples, preach a religion of a single god who cannot be seen, and refused to send his army off to fight wars. According to Prof. Brier, Akhenaten was something of the odd man out, seeing as his brother was meant to rule and not him, and something of a hippie who set off to build his own version of Burning Man, a spiritual city for him and his followers which we now know to be Amarna in upper Egypt. Hebrew civilization has a lot to be proud of, but it seems that the early origins of monotheism in the ancient Middle East can also be traced to Egypt. “Like any tourist who comes to Egypt,” explains Mahmoud, “the Israeli tourist is interested in the great things ancient Egypt had given the world such as paper, medicine and astronomy. We, of course, want to present them with the powerful relationship between Egypt and the Jewish people, beginning from the Exodus but touching on many other stops along the way, such as the Jewish community in Elephantine.” Created by Jewish mercenaries who were guarding the southern border of Egypt during the beginning of the Persian rule of that land, Elephantine was the site where a Hebrew temple existed and offerings to God were made outside of Jerusalem. It existed for roughly two centuries before it was destroyed in the fourth century BCE. The Jews of Elephantine seemed to have merged with the Jews of Alexandria, where the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, was done in the third century BCE. Today, modern Israeli novels and plays can be read in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “Up until the modern era, there were roughly 100,000 Jews living in Egypt,” Mahmoud says, “and to me, it is vital to point out that they felt Egyptian; just as the Copts or the Muslims in this land feel Egyptian; just as Cleopatra was a Greek woman who felt Egyptian; just like King Farouk, who was Albanian in his ethnicity, felt Egyptian. This is the feeling Israelis experience when they visit here and they sense in their hearts that these are not just pretty words spoken in a lecture.”One young Israeli who feels the importance of his Egyptian legacy is Eyal Sagui Bizawe. Together with director Sara Tsifroni, the two made the 2015 documentary film Arab Movie. Bizawe tells the Post that, for him, the archaeological story about who built the pyramids is not as important as the myth. “I am interested in the myth that the people of Israel were created in Egypt; that a nation is not formed in its own land but in another country,” he points out. He also points out that not only was Moses “a leader who was raised as Pharaoh and thinks he is Egyptian” but “the person who led them [the Hebrew people] to Egypt and becomes a minister there, Joseph, becomes Egyptian in the sense of his culture.”
In Arab Movie, he tells the story of the Egyptian films Israelis enjoyed seeing on their television screens every Friday, without fail, from the late 1960s until the 1990s. The film, which is available online, reveals that the movies were obtained in a slightly unusual manner, as Egypt and Israel were not on good terms at the time. The films were smuggled by Palestinians who got them via Jordan. When the Egyptians discovered this, they marked the reels to find out which of their distributors was working with Israelis. This resulted in Israeli technicians working in the country’s only television channel to remove the marked frames to ensure their sources wouldn’t get burned.“We were honest thieves,” one of them jokes, “we wanted to pay for it, but they wouldn’t let us.”Bizawe is careful to explain that the film is not about Egyptian cinema but about a unique Israeli phenomenon. “I had to expand a little on Egyptian cinema to tell about all the things we [Israelis] did not see as we watched,” he said. “We did not see Egyptian cinema as one sees films in a cinema, we used them,” meaning that Arab movies on television were not a “high” form of art such as European or American movies but slightly ridiculed. He is quick to share that different groups saw the films differently. For Jews from Arabic-speaking countries, these films were a way to return to a cultural homeland now closed to them, Palestinians also experienced them in a different way than Jewish audiences, yet both these Jews and Palestinians saw them as cinema.In the film, Bizawe also shows a few scenes with his own family, who are of Egyptian origin, and shares how he learned Arabic in the Egyptian dialect thanks to one of his grandmothers. “Every Jew from Egypt says he is related to [the Egyptian film star] Leila Murad,” he jokes, “only our family really was related to her.” The movie is not only a reflection of a unique moment in Israeli history, a time when Jews were happy to enjoy Arab movies on prime-time television, but also a sad reflection on how hard it is to actually see and understand another culture. “I am in the movie,” Bizawe said, “but the movie is not about me.” Being committed to as accurate an understanding as possible he explains why it is a mistake to “see” Egyptian-Jewish history via the lens of European-Jewish history or American-Jewish history. “The Jewish father who came to Israel from Egypt must send his son to fight the homeland he came from,” he says, “in a country which became an enemy land and lose his son.” This is a different complexity than, for example, Soviet or Polish Jews who arrive in Israel and are asked to shed their culture and become Israeli, as the IDF is not engaged in a war with these nations. As a writer who often covers Arab culture for the Hebrew press, Bizawe often writes about the need to protect the Jewish-Egyptian legacy from being seen in a poor way. He cites the current fashion to speak about the expulsion of the Jews from Egypt and speak about the Jewish Hara in Cairo as a ghetto. “The removal of Jews from Egypt in the modern era had been a horrible experience for many people,” he says, “including people who were tortured in prison, and families who lost all they had. However, to speak of it in the same words we use to speak about the expulsion of the Jews from England or Spain is wrong.” His reasons are that it leads the listener to accept a meta-historical idea that Jewish lives in diaspora must always end with a massive rejection and that, in the case of Egypt, Jews were not the only targets. Italians, Greeks and other minorities were also exiled as part of the effort to nationalize Egypt. The Venetian word ghetto, so connected now to Nazi control over much of Europe, is not a fitting way to imagine Jewish realities in Egypt, he claims. “Nothing from Arab culture ever made it into the Israeli mainstream,” he concludes, “only what you brought from home as a Jew from an Arab country or as an Arab, and then this weekly movie enters the picture, which everybody watches, and we miss that too and watch it only to feel we are better than this.” Bizawe thinks this is similar to how “we want the Arab world to accept us before we ourselves accept the idea we’re in the Middle East.”
Back to EgyptDue to the legacy of European rule, the treasures of ancient Egypt are not always easy to see. The pyramids at Giza, which were not meant to be visited by the general public at all and were built in arid lands away from the lush realm of the living, are stripped bare. The real artifacts are in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Even the bodies of the kings are there, in the museum, and not where they were meant to be.The tourist is forced to see things out of context. You crawl into a pyramid using the wrong entrance because the archaeologists who blew it up thought this was the correct opening, and you don’t see gold or the mummy – those things are in a museum. You need to invest some time and work to get to all the places and then, later, to put them together in your mind, as you too, are a grave robber, though of a different kind. Mahmoud gladly reports that construction work connecting the Cairo subway to Giza, and the transfer of the Egyptian museum there, is going strong. “We are hoping to receive thousands of tourists from all over the world,” he says. “The opening of the new Egyptian Museum is due to take place in October. The second phase will be in 2023, when the third metro line will open and a sky-cable begins to operate between the pyramids and the museum.” This will not only fix a historical blemish - the removal of the dead kings from where they were laid to rest - but will also make things a lot easier for tourists who may not be physically able to see all the things they would like to see as they are now.Tourism in Egypt is the third largest source of government revenue, at $12 billion per year, and employs millions of Egyptians, Haaretz reported in March. With the outbreak of the coronavirus, however, tourism across Egypt and in the entire world is in dire straits and faces an uncertain future. Yet, thanks to the technological means at our disposal, those who practice social distancing this Passover can enjoy reading about the wonders of Egypt, its massive importance, and perhaps make preparations to visit it once the COVID-19 crisis has ended. A passionate guide and lecturer, Mahmoud is not only a fountain of knowledge about ancient Egypt, he also invites Israelis to see the natural parks of northern Egypt, the oasis of the western desert, and to allow themselves the joy of expanding their horizons and hearts in shared freedom - when freedom of movement returns again. Mounir Mahmoud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Most of the films mentioned are available online. The Polish film Pharaoh can be seen for $5 online at easterneuropeanmovies.com. The Egyptian film Al Mummia, with English subtitles, can be watched for free at archive.org. The Israeli film Arab Movie is now also available for free online at fdoc.org.il/corona.