Pyramid Dreams, Pyramid Schemes

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Egypt was doubly fortunate and doubtless owed to this its fabled
wealth, in that it possessed two activities, namely pyramid
building as well as the search for precious metals, the fruits
of which, since they could not serve the needs of man by being
consumed, did not stale with abundance. The Middle Ages built
cathedrals and sang dirges. Two pyramids, two masses for the dead,
are twice as good as one; but not so two railways from London
to York.

John Maynard Keynes

Keynes's daffy paean to the power of pyramids has been something
of an embarrassment to his followers, but, far from being uncharacteristic
of his thought, this passage actually goes right to its heart. It
is after all just another way of Keynes saying: "I never met
a government expenditure I didn't like." The Egyptian pyramids
do indeed provide an anticipatory image of the sort of large-scale
public works projects that government after government built in
the twentieth century in Keynes's name. And Keynes is right –
no free market would ever produce a pyramid – unless, as in
Las Vegas, it housed a profitable hotel and an even more profitable
casino. The free market has an annoying habit of producing goods
that people actually desire and want to consume. It might even produce
two railways from London to York if there were sufficient demand
to justify the investment – and lower the price for travelers
as a result of the competition. But Keynes wouldn't want something
like that to happen. He prefers to turn matters over to the
government and let it produce things that nobody wants – and
at as extravagant a cost as possible. Keynes's preference for pyramids
over railways is emblematic of statist thinking in general –
he values the static over the dynamic; he champions monuments to
state power over enterprises that might actually get ordinary people
where they want to go.

as much as I myself admire the Egyptian pyramids – I never miss the
latest Discovery or History Channel special on Imhotep – I get nervous
when someone starts praising the society that produced them. If
Keynes liked the pyramids, there had to be something wrong with
them, and indeed there seems to be a connection between liking the
pyramids and liking Big Government. Just think of how many government
activities take the form of pyramid schemes: Social Security, the
National Debt, the Federal Reserve System (and let's not forget
that pyramid in the Great Seal of the United States and hence on
the back of the dollar bill).

suspicion of the pyramids was confirmed when the Fox Network aired
on September 16 a National Geographic special entitled "Pyramids
Live: Secret Chambers Revealed." With a burst of advance publicity,
this program promised to solve a number of age-old mysteries surrounding
the pyramids live on camera right before our eyes ("tape-delayed
in some areas," the TV Guide ad cautioned). In the culminating
moment of this two-hour special, a robotic probe, called "the
pyramid rover," was supposed to penetrate what appeared to
be a sealed shaft in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Employing a fiber
optic camera, the rover was to broadcast live to a worldwide audience
whatever mysteries had lain concealed for 4500 years behind the
blocked passage. Experts speculated on what the rover might find:
perhaps the hidden treasure of King Khufu or ancient documents that
might shed light on how the pyramids were built. Viewers should
have been warned, however, by a statement that appeared on
in a preview of the show. Zahi Hawass, an official of the Egyptian
Higher Council of Antiquities, was quoted as saying: "To find
out what is behind the door – if there is something, it will
be great. If there is nothing? It will be great."

love that statement. It captures perfectly the attitude of government
bureaucrats everywhere. "Results? You want results from what
we do? Forget about it. Whether we produce anything or not, it's
the job of you people out there to think that whatever we do is
great." King Khufu himself couldn't have put it any better.
I can just picture him if the poor laborers slaving away at building
his pyramid had had the nerve to ask whether anything worthwhile
would result from their efforts. His reply too would have been:
"If there is something, it will be great. If there is nothing?
It will be great." All hail King Khufu the Great.

those who may not watch as many TV documentaries as I do, I should
explain that Zahi Hawass appears to be the Egyptian official in
charge of the pyramid excavations at Giza. Over the past few years
he has emerged as the chief PR man for the Egyptian pharaohs. Thus
it fell to Hawass to put the best spin possible on events when the
robotic probe managed to penetrate the blocked passage and revealed
behind it – another blocked passage. Without betraying the
slightest sign of disappointment, Hawass hailed this momentous discovery
and broadly hinted that in a year or so, he and National Geographic
might be back to have a go at the new blocked passage. As we have
been told many times, there are a lot of blocks in the Great Pyramid.

wonders if the TV executives back at Fox headquarters were as pleased
as Hawass seemed to be with the outcome of this show. Reviewers
were merciless, panning the program as the biggest disappointment
on live TV since 1986, when in another Fox special, Geraldo Rivera
opened the secret vault of a modern-day Pharaoh – Al Capone – and
found – not another vault but a pile of dirt. But Hawass actually
had reason to be pleased with the Fox special, even though its outcome
was a trifle anticlimactic by King Tut standards. For several years
he has been using his position as the resident expert on the pyramids
to pursue an ideological agenda in the many Egypt documentaries
in which he appears. However admirable the pyramids are as architectural
achievements, they have long served as emblems of government oppression.
The Bible itself takes a dim view of Egyptian taskmasters, and for
millennia people have assumed that the pyramids were the product
of slave labor. Contemporary Egyptians are understandably unhappy
with the idea of their ancestral land serving as a byword for slavery.
Hence Hawass, along with others, has seized upon recent archaeological
finds to try to reverse the interpretation of the pyramids as monuments
to a slave culture. In several specials on the pyramids, Hawass
has used the opportunity to proclaim that the pyramids were in fact
built by free and well-rewarded laborers, and thus should be viewed
as monuments to the greatness of the ancient Egyptian nation.

key to Hawass' reinterpretation of the pyramids was provided by
excavations at a nearby site, which appears to be the village or
encampment where the people who worked to build the pyramids lived.
Evidence from this site suggests that the living conditions of the
pyramid laborers were better than many people had assumed. They
evidently had their families with them, their diet was more varied
than had been expected, and there are even signs that they were
provided with medical care. Thus, Hawass and others argue, the pyramid
laborers cannot have been slaves – their living conditions were too
good for slaves. With one stroke, the Egyptian pharaohs are thus
cleared of millennia of libelous charges. Far from being slavemasters,
they were noble leaders of a grateful people. In this most recent
special, Hawass and others conjured up images of dedicated pyramid
workers organizing themselves into teams, cheerfully competing to
see who could move the great blocks of stone faster. Though there
was occasional talk of people being conscripted into the job, one
almost got the feeling that the pyramids were built by willing volunteers,
in some early form of community service, perhaps called Habitat
for Pharaohs.

am not an Egyptologist, and thus I would not presume to enter into
a debate involving the serious examination of archaeological data.
But as an amateur, I can detect signs of someone having an ideological
axe to grind in interpreting this data. All we now know is that
the people who worked on the pyramids were fed and to some extent
cared for. But that is pretty much true of all human beings who
do not die on the spot. As evil as slavemasters are, they have an
interest in seeing to it that their slaves are adequately fed and
generally fit to work on the tasks to which they have been assigned.
Only careful comparative studies could help determine if the pyramid
builders were slaves or not. Were their working conditions demonstrably
better than those we find in cultures we know to be slave-holding?
How did their working conditions compare with those of people we
know to have been free among their contemporaries in ancient Egypt?
Merely posing these questions suggests how far we are from knowing
the exact socioeconomic status of the pyramid laborers just because
some fishbones have been found in the ruins of their village. Maybe
when the empty bottles of Chardonnay turn up, I'll be prepared to
conclude that the pyramid builders were the yuppies of their day.

my questions point to an even more fundamental issue: is it meaningful
to speak of a distinct class of slaves within ancient Egyptian society
as a whole? It may be true that the pyramid builders were in some
sense not inferior to their contemporaries in status, but perhaps
that just means that all the ancient Egyptians were in effect
enslaved to their Pharaohs. From what I have read about the hieratic
and hierarchical ancient Egyptian society, meaningful political
freedom was not an option for anyone. Thus even to show that the
pyramid builders were treated as well as any other workers would
prove little in my eyes about their freedom. Personally I find it
hard to believe that anyone assigned to pyramid building had the
reaction: "Oh good – now there's a job I'll really enjoy."
But let's for argument's sake accept the idea that the pyramid builders
never complained about their labor, even to themselves. That to
me would be the ultimate sign of their slavery – slavery to a view
of the world that led them to believe that their lives and labor
should be sacrificed to the glory of their rulers.

reply to my line of argument appeared in an earlier Egypt special,
devoted to the original excavation of the pyramid builders' village,
in which he evoked the principle of Egyptian nationalism. However
backbreaking the labor of building the pyramids may have been, the
ancient Egyptians did not mind it because they knew that what they
were doing redounded to the greater glory of Egypt as a nation.
We see once again how celebrating the pyramids harmonizes with statist
ideology. But this kind of argument is profoundly anachronistic.
There was no Egyptian nation-state at the time the pyramids were
built. There was an Egyptian empire, but precisely because
it was an empire, the people who lived in it did not participate
in it as a community in the way that modern citizens participate
in a modern nation-state. As Martin van Creveld and other historians
have shown, today we tend to be prisoners of the idea of the nation-state,
and have trouble thinking outside that particular ideological box.
We have difficulty imagining that people were ever organized into
communities other than nation-states and we are constantly tempted
to project existing nation-states and their boundaries back into
the past – when they did not exist or may have taken very different
forms and shapes.

Egyptian nation-state in reality dates from the 1950s or at least
no earlier than the twentieth century. Well into the twentieth century,
Egypt was still technically a province of the Ottoman Empire (and
ruled by a dynasty of Albanian origin!). At various times in the
past, the area we know as Egypt has been part of the Persian Empire,
Alexander the Great's, and the Roman. A look at a historical atlas
will show how vast and complex have been the changes in the borders
of what has been called "Egypt" over the centuries and
millennia. Hawass' ideological reading of the history of the pyramids
is a perfect example of what van Creveld and others mean when they
talk about projecting the nation-state back into a pre-nationalist
past. In 2500 BC, nobody was conscious of Egypt as a nation-state.
The region was in effect the personal property of the Pharaohs who
ruled the land (and in the time of Khufu that area bore little resemblance
to the borders of modern Egypt). The poor laborers on the pyramids
may have deluded themselves into taking pride in what they were
doing for their beloved Pharaoh, but they could have no conception
of Egypt as a nation-state. The ancient Egyptians may have anticipated
modern mathematics in their pyramid calculations, but they did not
anticipate modern nationalism, which is basically a product of the
French Revolution and the Romantic Era – in short, a distinctly nineteenth-century

one who is being nationalistic therefore is Zahi Hawass. He is trying
to use the Egyptian past to shore up Egypt's image of itself in
the present. It is no doubt troubling to a modern nation to think
of its cultural heritage as one of slavemasters. The pyramids are
what put Egypt on the cultural map, and modern Egyptians would rather
not think that slaves had any part in that achievement. Hence, like
Hawass, they will seize on any shred of evidence that the men who
built the pyramids were whistling while they worked, instead of
groaning. Television documentaries, which tend to be statist in
their attitudes, are helping to propagate the new myth about the
pyramids and how they were built. Again, I don't presume to know
the historical truth about the pyramids, and it may well turn out
to be wrong that they were built by people properly described as
slaves. But I cannot help suspecting that the rehabilitation of
the reputation of the pyramid project is part of a larger cultural
effort to prop up the respectability of government in general and
the nation-state in particular. I don't know if Lord Keynes can
pick up TV signals in whatever tomb he is enshrined in – whether
pyramid-shaped or not – but I somehow feel that if he could
hear Zahi Hawass on that Fox special, he was smiling. But I wonder
if even he would think that two blocked passages are twice as good
as one.

2, 2002

Cantor [send him mail] is
Professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of
Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization

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