The Egypt portrayed in the Exodus story is a land of despotism and idolatry, arrogance and oppression. But the Bible actually offers a far more textured, and in some places even flattering, portrait of Egypt. Genesis, for instance, is a veritable hymn to its glories. Egypt is the perennial refuge for those seeking to escape the frequent bouts of famine in the Middle East.
Indeed, it is these later stories of the Israelites' bitter toil and of the hard-hearted pharaoh that dominate our impressions of the country. This is equally true in Muslim tradition. In the Koran, Pharaoh is described as an evil tyrant, the oppressor of Musa and Harun (Moses and Aaron), and stories present pharaohs both before and after Moses as equally unsavory characters.
Seeking to redress this balance, recent Egyptian governments have used the country's pharaonic past as a way to glorify the pharaohs and, by extension, themselves as their modern incarnation.
At the same time, Egyptian authorities are less enthusiastic when it comes to Exodus. In the Cairo Museum, the bastion of Egypt's official version of its past, Exodus is a taboo subject.
Zahi Hawass, the official keeper of the pyramids, is the modern-day pharaoh of Giza.
"No one wants to acknowledge that we built the pyramids," Hawass says. In his years in charge, he has heard every possible explanation accounting for them, including aliens from outer space. But one theory that disturbs him even more is the suggestion that the Israelites were responsible for their construction. The Bible never actually mentions the word "pyramid." It reports that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and that they built for Pharaoh granaries in the royal cities of Pithom and Ramses. It is true that forced laborers, including foreigners, were conscripted by Ramses II for work on the construction of his capital city, Pi Ramesse, and other massive building projects. But Ramses didn't actually build the Giza pyramids, which were completed more than 1,000 years before his rule, although he did sponsor a major restoration effort there for which he also needed large numbers of conscripted workers.
It was the work of later historians, such as the Greek Herodotus and the Jewish Josephus, and 19th-century biblical scholarship, that reinforced the image later immortalized by Hollywood of slaves cringing under the Egyptian whip. Until recently, virtually nothing was known about the people who built what are among the best-known sights in the world, the three pyramids raised to house the tombs of the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, and the Sphinx. These monuments were erected around 2500 B.C.E., and the combined time it took to build the pyramids alone is estimated at about 70 years. From hieroglyphic inscriptions, ancient graffiti, and mason marks left by the laborers, scholars assumed that skilled craftsmen probably lived and worked all year round at the pyramid construction site. Still, most research focused primarily on the treasures found inside royal tombs--such as the one belonging to Tutankhamen--rather than on the workforce that might have constructed them.
Then in 1990 an American tourist riding a horse at Giza was thrown from the animal when its hoof plunged through a previously undiscovered mud-brick wall. The wall later turned out to be part of a tomb, with a long vaulted chamber and two false doors through which the builders thought the dead could make contact with the living and receive gifts and offerings. In the months that followed Hawass and his staff found hundreds of graves in the same area, only a few miles south of the Sphinx. It was determined that this was a cemetery of the workers who built the pyramids.
The cemetery is divided into two main sections, 60 large tombs for overseers and about 650 smaller graves, which were further divided by rank. The lowest level of the cemetery was for the poorest workmen, the ones who moved the giant limestone blocks that make up the pyramids and who ended up buried in small graves. The next level was for the higher class of artists and craftsmen. The overseers' tombs featured carved hieroglyphic inscriptions that preserve their official titles: the director of building tombs, the inspector of building tomb, director for the king's work, along with many others. Their final resting places were filled with small statues, engravings, and elaborate hieroglyphic decorations on the walls--all of which were indications of their high status, Hawass contends.