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Herodotus And The Pyramids

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This is an elaborated postscript to my last post on Herodotus. The real impact of Herodotus' Histories only dawned on me after reading an article on the Dutch Kunstvensters called Where is the burial chamber of Cheops? a few days ago. Cheops'—or, as Herodotus called the Egyptian monarch, Khufu’s—biggest pyramid in Gizeh is also the most well-known and only still standing wonder of the Ancient World1. In 2017, archeologists discovered two new secret rooms: a bigger hollow room not far from the King’s room and a small one just above the entrance, presumably to help carry the enormous weight of the slabs.

I know very little about history but the more I read about it, the more interested I get. According to Wikipedia, several researchers have attempted to stamp a date on the Great Pyramid of Giza using both historical evidence and radiocarbon dating. In 1646, we thought it was erected in 1266 BC, while in 1849, that was pushed back to 3124 BC. The latest estimate is between 2613 and 2577 BC. That’s Before Christ, obviously.

For me, that was not so obvious. Of course I know what BC means, but I didn’t especially register that fact when reading Herodotus' Book II. Herodotus wrote Histories 2450 years ago. And in it, he wrote about Khufu’s pyramid, that was built more than 2100 years ago before Herodotus. That means I read an ancient text about a then already ancient artifact that is still standing in 2023. That’s simply unbelievable and incredibly hard for my mind to grasp! These facts span 4550 years. Unbelievable.

A close-up of the pyramid site in Gizeh. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Herodotus was one of the first to write about the pyramid, and although he correctly attributed it to Khufu, the estimated period of his reign was off by a sloppy 1000 years, whoops! Even in Ancient Greece, the construction of these pyramids took place so long ago that exact dates and time periods were becoming impossible to pin down. We learn that most of his Egyptian knowledge comes from priests he interviewed. Fun fact: Herodotus describes an inscription near the entrance of the pyramid, which according to him described an amount of radishes, garlic, and onions that the workers would have eaten during the build. Researchers now agree that this is just one of the priests toying with Herodotus' gullibility: most probably, nobody could read the hieroglyphics and just gave him false information.

Creating a historical chronology is a very daunting task if the sources are off. Herodotus claims that 100,000 slaves worked in shifts of months during twenty years, of which the first ten years a causeway was erected to help move the extremely heavy slabs2, that “was as impressive of the construction of the pyramids themselves”. Whether or not it was twenty years we’ll never know. Every history book cites a work that cites a work that … eventually derived from Herodotus.

I keep on thinking about those 4550 years and can’t quite wrap my head around it. Herodotus clearly couldn’t wrap his head around something that happened 2000 years ago so why should I be able to?

This reminds me of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, where Pinker does his best to soothe our depressed minds by proving that in our modern age, things are looking up: illiteracy, child death, and global hunger rates have gone down dramatically in the last two hundred years. Yet we fail to acknowledge this and stick to the belief that in The Good Old Days, things used to be better. Most people, myself included, can’t look beyond a few generations or decades, and for most of us, in this decade, things are worse than in the previous decade. We’re absorbed in our own day to day worries, making it difficult to relate to the evolution well past our own lives and environment.

Perhaps that’s a reason why I didn’t like history in high school. Who cares, right? We’re living now, not a couple of thousand years ago!

Yet while reading Herodotus and other ancient more philosophical works, I can’t quite shake the feeling that we happily ignore large chunks of past knowledge and keep on making the same mistakes as those very same people who roamed the earth a couple of thousand years ago.

Let’s circle back to Kunstvensters' question: Where is the burial chamber of Cheops? We still don’t know. Khufu’s tomb was never found. The pyramid was supposedly looted during the construction of the Valley of the Kings, another site that reeks of delusions of grandeur, in Luxor, seven hundred hundred kilometers upstream the Nile. The excavation period lasted 500 years and took place a rough 900 years after Khufu’s reign. No mention of this site by Herodotus, though.

Four thousand years of opportunistic looting, violent wars, and politic instabilities later, the Great Pyramids of Giza itself still stands. I guess relocating a massive limestone slab is a bit of a hassle.

  1. Herodotus also describes the Hanging Gardens of Babylon but it’s very vague and clearly based on word of mouth. ↩︎

  2. It was estimated that the whole thing weighs 6 million tonnes in total! ↩︎

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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