2016-06-30
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Adapted by permission from "The View From Nebo: How Archaeology is Rewriting the Bible and Reshaping the Middle East."

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.

Inscriptions on the tombs revealed that one worker at Giza, named Mehi, had served as a witness for the sales contract of a house, a role slaves were barred from fulfilling. From such details Hawass has concluded that the workers weren't slaves but rather skilled craftsmen helped seasonally by peasants who labored as a corvee when flooding made agricultural work impossible.

Mansour Radwan has overall responsibility for all the digs under way at Giza, but he decided to personally run the cemetery excavation out of curiosity about what kind of life ancient Egyptians led. For him, the most interesting point is how closely the workers attempted to imitate the official burial ground of the kings when they were building their own graves. They constructed their tombs of dried brick and leftover building materials from the royal temples and pyramids, including pieces of granite, limestone, and basalt. The tombs came in varied stylesand were complete with tiny courtyards, stone false doors, and curses to discourage thieves.

Radwan shared Hawass's idea that the men were not slaves, but he brought to it a different perspective. The skeletal remains in the cemetery were sent for forensic examination to Egypt's National Research Centre, and the results revealed the costs to lives spent performing backbreaking labor. Many of the men had died between the ages of 30 and 35 and showed signs of degenerative arthritis in their vertebral column and knees. The skeletons of both men and women, particularly those from the cemeteries reserved for lower-class workers, had multiple fractures, most frequently in the upper arms and lower leg bones. Evidently, though, the workers had received high-quality medical treatment: Most of the fractures had healed completely, having been set with splints; there were even two cases that suggested a limb had been amputated.

On a table outside his office, Radwan opened up containers and showed me some of the smaller finds from the site, things, he said, that moved him even more than the pyramids. There was a stone, split in two, with graffiti marks written in black, probably the plan for a grave. There was a clay statuette found in a small niche in one of the tombs, used in the hope of warding off thieves and evil spirits..

At the far edge of the site was a passageway leading from the workers' community to the site of the pyramids and through which the archaeologists had driven to work every day without giving its design much thought. Later digging revealed that most of the structure was still buried in the sand, and that it was part of a huge wall that once stood 30 feet above the desert. Radwan and other archaeologists speculate that this wall is what separated the sacred area from the secular, the pyramids and tombs built for the afterlife from the mud-brick structures of everyday life. Many of the people who worked here probably did believe that they were laboring to build the tombs of gods. Hawass mused that it must have been inspiring to walk out from the dim passageway, through the mammoth gate, and into the alabaster luminous light of the pyramids. While it wasn't unreasonable to argue that the workers hadn't been slaves, the huge gateway was placed there for a reason, and it almost certainly functioned as more than just a religious marker. It also served as a reminder to the workers not to question their place in a system where a small group enjoyed unparalleled wealth while the rest built their own graves from the scraps of their daily toils.

In the heart of the graveyard, a worker at the dig uncovered a skeleton that was going to be removed after lunch. Others, wearing long white robes and head coverings twisted like turbans, sat inside the tombs, eating a meal of cucumbers and bread in the cool shadows. Wandering around the cemetery, Radwan stopped for a moment in front of a tomb shaped like a giant mud beehive, one of his favorites. While in so many ways the workers had strived to copy the upper classes in their funerary design, this structure was unique. The archaeologists had searched but had found no parallels for this tomb on the other side of the gate. Here from beyond the grave was finally the still, hushed voice of individuality, an echo against the power and might of the pyramids that loomed above. "They labored for what?" mused Radwan, his hand briefly touching the tomb. "To protect the bodies of kings. And then what they had left protect themselves was these poor small graves."

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