Who Built the Pyramids? Part 1: The Lost City of the Pyramid Builders

In the first part of January the media began breaking the news that the old yarn about slaves having built the pyramids had finally been dispelled.  Dr. Zahi Hawass of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities announced that three large tombs had been newly discovered very close to the pyramid itself.  As the final resting place of some of the overseers of the workforce, both the structure and location of the tombs made it clear that these were no slaves.

Dr. Hawass’ statement that “These tombs were built beside the king’s pyramid, which indicates that these people were not by any means slaves” (source) was widely repeated in the press under headlines announcing that the belief that slaves had built the pyramids could now be retired.  But Egyptologists have long known that the Slave Hypothesis was pure Hollywood. 

Along with Hawass, Egyptologist Mark Lehner began uncovering the truth of the pyramid builders more than 20 years ago.  Lehner was consumed with the question of where such a large workforce could have lived.  After conducting the first detailed “to scale” survey of the Giza Plateau, he narrowed his focus to the area around the enigmatic Wall of the Crow, a colossal wall with no apparent related structures.

Lehner hit pay dirt, and his dogged pursuit of these ancient builders led to the excavation of the very city where they lived and worked—a large complex of barracks and permanent housing, distribution centers, industrial sites, and scribal workshops.  The recently discovered tombs tell us something of the status of the workers, but the Lost City of the Pyramid Builders gives us the everyday details of their lives.

Most of Em Hotep’s readers will be familiar with Dr. Lehner and his work.  But if you are not, then his total absence from the recent news stories may have left you with an incomplete picture of just how strong the case against the Slavery Hypothesis really is.  In this three-part series we will take a look at what Lehner discovered about the pyramid builders.  We will examine the evidence that the workforce had a surprisingly modern division of labor, followed by a tour of the city itself.



The headlines said it all

Egyptian Tomb Find Suggests Pyramid Builders Weren’t Slaves” (Bloomberg).  “Egypt tombs suggest free men built pyramids, not slaves” (BBC).  The Times Live snarkily distinguished that “Great pyramid builders were wage slaves.” And speaking with sonorous authority, Al-Ahram Weekly declared “Building on facts:  A new discovery at Giza plateau has finally debunked Herodotus’ assertion that the Pyramids were built by slaves.”

Some sources at least acknowledged that this news wasn’t so new after all.  Discover Magazine announced “Egypt Finds Tombs of Pyramid Builders, And More Evidence They Were Free Men.”  The Canadian Press stated “Egypt says newly discovered tombs provide more evidence slaves did not build pyramids” [article no longer online].  JWeekly.com summarized “Egypt unveils more proof that Jews did not build pyramids.”

The headlines said it all, but the articles, unfortunately, did not.    

Egyptologist Dr. Mark Lehner (Courtesy of PBS, from the documentary “This Old Pyramid”)

Egyptologist Dr. Mark Lehner (Courtesy of PBS, from the documentary “This Old Pyramid”)

Thanks to an oversight, Mark Lehner’s name was excluded from the original press release and official blog report by Zahi Hawass regarding the recent discovery.  To be clear, Dr. Lehner was not directly involved in the discovery of the new tombs.  But to leave him out of any discussion of the debunking of the Slave Hypothesis is like a history of the Theory of Evolution that fails to mention Charles Darwin.



Tombs of the workers overlooking Pyramid City (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

Tombs of the workers overlooking Pyramid City (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

Fortunately Dr. Hawass has amended his blog entry to mention Dr. Lehner by name, but the presses have rolled on to new headlines.  Again to be clear, the importance of the tombs of the overseers cannot be overstated.  They provide corroborative evidence of how the labor was organized, and their proximity to the king’s final resting place removes any question of their status—they were not slaves.


But this discovery is hardly the straw that broke the Slave Hypothesis’ back, as suggested by the media coverage.  It could be argued that while the overseers themselves were not slaves, the laborers were.  After all, not all of the workers who toiled on the pyramids were buried in cemeteries surrounding the pharaohs.  A feasible alternative hypothesis is that this privilege was reserved for freemen, while the rest of the laborers were slaves.

To really know about the pyramid builders we have to look beyond where they were buried to where they lived.  Does the archaeological record point to the presence of a large slave population on the Giza Plateau

First let’s set the parameters of the discussion:  what constitutes slave labor and what does not?


The Slave Hypothesis

the slave hypothesisThe Slave Hypothesis is actually pretty simple:  the pyramids and other structures were built by slaves, usually depicted as being Semitic.  This latter part is easily dismissed.  Semitic people do not begin to appear in Egypt in great numbers until the Middle Kingdom Period, particularly during the Twelfth Dynasty. Of this much we can be certain—whether the pyramids were built by slaves or freemen, they were not built by Israelites, or proto-Israelites, or anyone else connected with the Moses of the Bible.  It just didn’t happen.

We owe this myth in part to a loose reading of the Book of Exodus, which gives the account of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage.  Although there have been Semitic slaves and kings alike in Egypt (see the Hyksos Dynasty), there is no actual archaeological or historical evidence for the Exodus accounts, even when stripped of its more supernatural elements.

Charlton Heston as Moses and Yule Brenner as Ramesses II

Charlton Heston as Moses

But the Exodus account doesn’t even name the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and makes no mention of the pyramids.  For this we can blame Hollywood.  Movies such as Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” burned the image of Hebrew slaves into the pop culture psyche.  In large part, the Slave Hypothesis is based on a Hollywood fiction.


So what about the first part of the Slave Hypothesis?  Could the pyramids have been built by slaves if we toss out the Moses part?


Slaves in Egypt

There were many forms of servitude in ancient Egypt, and to a certain extent everyone was owned by the Pharaoh.  As we shall see below, there was also a type of feudalism which bound all Egyptians to a debt of labor to their superiors.  But what about an army of whip-driven state-owned slaves, as often depicted dragging blocks up the pyramid ramps?

To be sure, there were slaves in ancient Egypt.  Most slaves were a product of warfare, with victorious Egyptian armies returning from foreign campaigns with hundreds, or even thousands, of slaves in tow.  Such human booty became the property of the pharaoh to use and distribute as he saw fit.

Some of the slaves would serve directly as a part of the king’s estate, while others would be distributed to temples and work camps.  The king might also grant slaves to individuals as rewards for service or loyalty.  Slave labor was considered to be a resource which, like any other, was sent where it was needed.

Nubian Slaves at Abu Simbel

Most of the slaves would have been civilians who were captured, but many would also have been soldiers who had surrendered.  Some of these individuals would have been highly skilled and their talents were put to use.  Slaves could be found performing service ranging from grunt labor to any vocation not restricted to freemen.

Not all slaves were foreigners.  An Egyptian who was caught in criminal activity could find himself, and his entire family, enslaved as punishment.  Egyptians could also sell themselves into slavery to settle a debt.  Others sold themselves simply to improve their lot in life, finding the life of a slave more stable and secure than trying to get by on their own.  

At least some slaves were clearly treated as property in ancient Egypt.  The pharaoh might grant slaves, land, and cattle to a temple or an individual.  Wealthy Egyptians also included slaves in transactions among themselves. These contracts seem to have been conducted between individuals or with the state, but there were no slave markets as we see in other times and places.

So the question is, how common were such slaves in the Old Kingdom Period?  Could the pharaoh have mobilized an army of slaves to build the monumental structures of the Giza Plateau?  Obviously there were huge workforces of some sort involved, and this undoubtedly involved servitude, but what was the nature of that service?  In his article Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Egypt, writer Jimmy Dunn observes:

For ancient Egypt, a better, or at least more precise definition of a slave might be a “person owned by a master, as was any other chattel, used as the master pleased, to the extent of being disposed of by inheritance, gift sale and so forth”. In reality, such slavery seems to have been fairly rare in Egypt prior to the Greek Period, progressing over time.

Dunn goes on to point out that huge slave populations do not really begin to appear in Egypt’s history until the great conquests of the New Kingdom Period.  As noted above, even when the pharaoh acquired slaves they tended to be distributed throughout the kingdom.  Egypt simply did not have the means to control a huge population of thousands of slaves in one location.

There were slave work camps, but these were smaller localized projects.  Slaves were used in the construction of some temples and other structures, but a project the scale of the Giza Pyramids required thousands of workers.  The archaeological evidence from the Giza Plateau simply does not support the notion of a slave camp of that size. 

But there were thousands of somebodies working on the plateau. 


The Bak Hypothesis

One way or another, pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure were able to mobilize huge workforces numbering in the thousands to build the pyramids.  At least 2,000 and as many as 4,000 workers were fed, housed, managed and motivated within an easy walk of these great monuments (the 10,000 figure postulated by Hawass in his blog post is generally considered to be way too high).  Regardless of how you cut it, these were clearly very expensive undertakings.  How could such a project be funded if not performed by slave labor?

One type of organizational structure that could generate a large free-but-obligated workforce would be feudalism.  In a feudal system everybody owes some sort of service to the social rank immediately above them.  Kings appoint nobles, nobles appoint vassals, vassals organize knights, knights build armies, and armies conscript soldiers.  By requiring goods and service in exchange for land, status, and other privileges, the king could mobilize his entire kingdom through delegation.

the bak hypothesisLehner proposes that the pyramids, as well as other national construction projects, were organized the same way.  The Egyptian system of vassalage was called bak, and everybody owed bak to somebody above them (not to be confused with baksheesh, which is what tourists and travelers seem to owe to every Egyptian!). 

Priests owed bak.  Scribes owed bak.  Potters owed bak.  Farmers owed bak.  Through this system of obligatory servitude every citizen of the Old Kingdom could be called upon to do his or her shift of work on the pyramid projects.  Simply put, the Bak Hypothesis says that the pyramids were built by a rotating workforce of laborers who were serving their allotted shift to their lords.  (See Harvard Magazine:  “Who Built the Pyramids,” by Jonathan Shaw)

The bak system solves several problems involved in pyramid building.  First, it keeps the overhead low because the labor is essentially free.  Unskilled labor requires little training and the workers are interchangeable.  Similarly, skilled labor is easily rotated because the workers are assigned to duties that take best advantage of their skill set.  By obliging every citizen to invest their skills for a certain amount of time, a huge workforce of skilled and unskilled labor could be employed for very little cost.

Second, the bak system absorbs the cost of supplying the workforce.  Raw materials such as grain and livestock are supplied through taxes and bak, and the workforce required to turn them into hot meals is at least partly composed of citizens serving their bak debt.  We shall see in Part 2 that the Pyramid City included a permanent workforce who made their living off of the building projects.  But even their wages would have come from the bak supplied by others.

Third, the bak system of conscription was actually good for morale.  As we have seen in the wars of the last century, a drafted soldier may not like the idea of going to war, but the esprit de corps he forms with his fellow draftees compel him to give 100% to the effort.  Dr. Lehner and others have found archaeological evidence of this sort of camaraderie around the building projects of the Giza Plateau, which we will look at in Part 2.

So the Bak Hypothesis gives an alternate model of how the pyramids may have been built.  Unlike the Slavery Hypothesis, for which we have no archaeological evidence, Lehner has been able to paint a very detailed picture of the lives of the permanent and rotating citizens of the Lost City of the Pyramid Builders.

In Part 2:  Pyramid City, Inc., we will look at the evidence for how the workforce was organized, and how the evidence supports Lehner’s hypothesis while contradicting the Slave Hypothesis.  We will close the series with Part 3:  A Guided Tour of the Pyramid City, a trip through the Great Western Gate of the Wall of the Crow for a street-level look at how the denizens of the Pyramid City worked and lived.

The Great Western Gate of the Wall of the Crow (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

The Great Western Gate of the Wall of the Crow (Photo by Jon Bodsworth)

Note:  Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), the organization founded by Dr. Lehner to excavate and analyze the Pyramid City, refers to the site in its official literature as the Lost City of the Pyramid Builders.  For the sake of brevity, these articles will simply refer to the site as the Pyramid City, but we are talking about the same place.


Copyright by Keith Payne, 2010.  All rights reserved.

Photograph “mark.png” from “This Old Pyramid,” courtesy of PBS.org, all rights reserved.  Photographs “plateau_14.png” and “plateau_16” by Jon Bodsworth, are copyright free.  Photograph “Nubian Slaves” is in the public domain and is copyright free.  Still from the movie “The Ten Commandments” courtesy of Paramount Pictures, all rights reserved.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 at 6:24 pm and is filed under Egypt in the News, Old Kingdom, The Giza Plateau. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 comments so far


Hi Keith.

A great detailed article as always! Looking forward to part II.


February 9th, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Hello Shemsu Sesen

Very enjoyable article! The answer to this question will always start with Dr. Lehner regardless of who gives him credit.

The pyramids like the temples of ancient Egypt are too well constructed to be the work of slaves who by their very nature are inclined to sabotage their work creating shoddy constructions that would have fallen apart by now.

I think that slaves were certainly the ones creating and hauling the blocks but that is probably all as the bak hypothesis points out many educated men including the artists and craftsmen would have taken charge of the project for a living and as a means of repaying taxation to the king.

It is within the interest of free workers to do the best job they can do and these are indeed the people found by Dr. Lehner and those truly responsible for the high quality monuments of the kings of the fourth dynasty.

Live Free and Prosper!

February 10th, 2010 at 1:08 am
Jean-Pierre Houdin

Hi Keith,
Once again you did a great job !
History can’t be written from emotional assertions but from facts and evidences.
Very informative…for me too !

February 10th, 2010 at 6:56 am

Many thanks to everyone for their feedback and encouragement!

I should mention that the seed for this article was planted during a conversation I had with Vincent on his site, Talking Pyramids. I would encourage my readers to visit Vincent’s site daily. Not only are the articles informative and timely, but the discussions between Vincent and his readers are smart and lively, and you never know who might drop by.

Another daily read is Tim Reid’s The Egyptians. Tim covers all of the most recent news related to Egyptology with links and thoughtful commentary and his book reviews are especially helpful. Both Tim and Vincent provide critical analysis on their websites which readers of all levels of expertise will find useful in cutting through the (ahem) rare instances of dogma and ego associated with Egyptological scholarship.

And knowing that Jean-Pierre is reading is always an incentive to put my best foot forward! M. Houdin’s work with Khufu’s Pyramid continues to gain momentum, and I can say that so far we have only seen the tip of the iceberg, or in this case, pyramidion.

To him that hath an ear, hear ye well.. You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!

February 11th, 2010 at 9:56 am

The introduction of this article is rather flawed, in my opinion. How does the status of the tombs of the overseers of the workforce, tell us whether or not that workforce was composed of slaves? If we made a similar judgement based on the mansion of a C17th plantation owner in the West Indies, we’d conclude slaves didn’t work on the plantations.

The rest of the article is very interesting, and the hypothesis of pyramid-builders being in indentured servitude rather than slavery (a fine line, but an important one) seems compelling. But given, as the article says, that Egypt had slaves and that they were put to work where needed, it would be sheer folly to say that there weren’t a few thousand slaves among the workforce.

August 1st, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Hi GS,

Thank you for reading and especially thank you for your input. You make a fair observation, and I am not sure that the response I can give at the time will be up to the standard you raise! My head is elsewhere in Egypt now… But I will take a stab at it off the top of my head at first, and hopefully either someone else more informed will chime in, or I will come back to it later when I have a chance to confirm my suspicions.

But my suspicions are that the burial conventions of the Old Kingdom, especially during Khufu’s very regimented reign, would have precluded slaves being buried in such close proximity of the Overseers, which many of the laborers were. Also, forensic evidence from these laborers show that they were fed extremely well, with a high protein diet rich in meat, had experienced medical care such as the setting of broken bones, and so forth. So clearly the majority of these laborers were Egyptians, and the long rows of temporary lodging discovered by Mark Lehner in excavating the builders’ village shows that there was a large rotating workforce active at Giza during the building of these great monuments.

I would dare say that the forensic evidence from a C17th West Indies plantation would turn up evidence of a different sort of workforce, burial locations notwithstanding. Now another fair observation that could be made at this point is that there is a world of difference in how slaves were treated in ancient Egypt, compared to the “civilized” West, in that the West Indies would have been a terribly more cruel institution. So we would expect to find Egyptian slaves living in better conditions that the later Western counterpart, but we would not expect them to be living in barracks, but eating and drinking like nobility, which they most certainly did as evidenced by the waste heaps where they deposited the evidence.

I think you are right to observe that it is folly to say that there were NO slaves involved in these construction projects, and I need to go back and see if that is actually what I said. If so, I need to correct it. Obviously there would be household slaves involved at every corner, and some of the menial labor would have gone to slaves where appropriate. But the vision of slaves toiling under the yoke of whip-snapping overseers is just not supported by anything predating Hollywood.

Again, thank you very much for your observations, and maybe someone else will see this and get in on the discussion. I know just from interacting with some of my readers via Facebook that there are some pretty informed people checking in, so anyone want to add to the picture?


August 12th, 2012 at 10:56 am

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