By Khaled Diab
The world isn't short on wacky theories about Egypt's greatest monuments. The reality is less fun, but more illuminating.
The quack theories about my country's history can be very entertaining, with the all-time classic being that only aliens could have constructed something as magnificent and precise as the pyramids. Astoundingly, up to 45% of people who took part in a recent survey believed that the pyramids (and Stonehenge) were physical evidence of alien life. Of course, this poll appeared in the Sun, the same newspaper which reported on an ‘alien army' that had been spotted over England and Wales. Some UFOlogists even claim that civilisation itself was an alien import.
One man of the cloth has come up with an ingenious solution to the mystery of the pyramids which also ‘disproves' evolution. Maltese evangelist pastor Vince Fenech believes that dinosaurs helped build the pyramids, presumably after being domesticated. There is a certain eccentric beauty to this ‘Flintstones' theory: the ancient Egyptians didn't have any mechanical heavy-lifting equipment that we know of, so let's give them a biological variety.
But even when human agency behind the pyramids is acknowledged, the credit for them is disputed. The most famous alternative theory is that Israelite slaves built these colossal structures. The late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin stirred up a furore in Egypt when he claimed, prior to arriving for the first official visit by an Israeli leader to Cairo, that his ancestors built the pyramids.
Of course, no archaeologist takes this theory seriously, since the pyramids were already pretty ancient when the Israelites are presumed to have been in Egypt and it is now generally accepted that slaves did not work on the project.
There is also no biblical evidence that the Israelites worked on the pyramids. Baruch Brandel, the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority library, notes that: “The Torah only mentions that the Israelites built Pithom and Ramses during the New Kingdom period.”
So, where does this legend come from? Scotland, actually. Charles Piazzi Smyth believed that the mysterious Hyksos – who may have invaded, or simply migrated, to Egypt nearly a millennium after the pyramids were built – were the Hebrew people, and that they built the Great Pyramid.
Some Jews began to prescribe to this far-fetched theory to draw pride amid discrimination, just as the 19th century Afrocentric movement in the United States extended the period of Kushite (modern-day Nubia) rule for two centuries during the Third Intermediate Period to all of Egyptian history in order to claim that ancient Egypt was “black African”.
This flies in the face of all the evidence that points to the fact that Egypt – an integral part of the Fertile Crescent and sitting on the northeastern edge of Africa – was always a multiracial society but that the basic make-up of the population has not changed much since ancient times. Besides, skin colour did not mean anything beyond the physical to the Egyptians, who were more interested in whether you were culturally Egyptian or not. This is reflected in the fact that both free people and slaves in Egyptian wall paintings were of various colours and races.
This includes the Biblical Israelites. But identifying who exactly this wandering people were is fraught with difficulty, as no non-biblical evidence exists that identifies their presence in Egypt conclusively.
Israeli archaeologist Ze'ev Herzog says that the available evidence points to the fact that: “The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.”
So, why create these myths? Egypt was the mega-power of the region and the Levant was part of the Egyptian empire for centuries. Perhaps once a group of vassal rulers managed to shake off Egyptian hegemony, they needed to create a heroic back-story which, at once, demonised the Egyptians and borrowed from their grandeur. In addition, there is plenty of historical evidence of Canaanite tribes settling in Egypt in times of famine and some became slaves, and the stories of their sporadic return could have been amalgamated into one epic legend.
In addition, the idea that the Israelites were originally not monotheists, but practised monolatry, i.e. the worship of a local god as the top god while recognising the existence of other gods, does not sit comfortably with the Abrahamic traditions.
Despite Egypt's polytheistic reputation, monotheism was actually invented in Egypt, as far as historians can ascertain. Amenhotep IV (renamed Akhenaten) began the worship of Aten as the one god, probably for political reasons, because he wanted to clip the wings of the powerful priesthood of the supreme god Amun-Ra. Akhenaten's iconoclasm did not survive him, and the old priesthoods re-formed after his mysterious death.
Moreover, Egyptian themes are found throughout the Abrahamic faiths, and not just in the explicit mentions of Egypt in the holy scriptures. The idea of the ‘messiah', which means the anointed one, bears a striking resemblance to the identity of pharaoh, who was also the anointed one and god's representative on earth, while the Virgin and Child story seems to be a rehashing of the Osiris-Isis-Horus myth. In some ways, a rationalised form of polytheism is actually alive and well, if we consider God as Osiris and the devil as a sort of Seth, while the angels are equivalent to the legion of minor deities.
Naturally, the Middle East is not ready for this shock to the system: not only are these biblical legends crucial to Zionism's historic claim, they also form the bedrock of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths in a highly religious region of the world.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 18 August 2008. Read the related discussion.
This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest