Pyramids – crackpot theories

If you want an Egyptian to blow a fuse, tell him that the Jews built the 100 plus pyramids peppered around his country. At least, that’s what happened when the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was visiting the National Museum in Cairo and announced, “We built the pyramids!” Egyptian historians and archeologists were infuriated. Last year, something similar happened when an Egyptian tourism brochure encouraged Israeli tourists to come and witness the giant “handcraft” of their ancestors. None other than Dr. Zahi Hawass,  secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities took the time to point out that recently discovered tombs of pyramid builders included no Jewish names.

In fact, Hawiss and his colleague, Egypt’s Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosny, took things even further, seeming to regard the claim that Jews built the pyramids as part of a wider Jewish conspiracy. During an interview with the Associated Foreign Press they stated that, “Israeli allegations that they built the Pyramids abound, and we must face up to this even if it triggers a crisis with Israel! This is piracy! Our history and our civilization must be respected but the Israelis want to take over everything! We must counterattack with full strength because this is how they took Palestine. They think Palestine belongs to them and now they are saying the same with the Pyramids.” Today the pyramids, tomorrow the world!

Regarding the non-contribution of the Jews to the pyramids, Hawass has a point since nowadays it is generally conceded that by the time Yosef arrived in Egypt in 2216/1545 BCE the pyramids were already an ancient fixture of the Egyptian landscape. By then, most of them had been gathering desert dust for a thousand years, although a handful had been built only three or four centuries previously, since pyramid building mania ranged over a period of about 800 years from the reign of Pharaoh Djoser who started the fad in about 1131/2630 BCE, until the reign of Anamenhat III in about 1901/1860 BCE. In addition, the Torah speaks of the Jews building towns in Pisom and Rameses, towns generally not identified with the locations of Egypt’s pyramids.

So who is responsible for the persistent rumor that the Jews hauled up the massive blocks of Egypt’s pyramids on their aching backs? One culprit is Josephus who mentions them in his litany of the Jews’ labors in Mitzrayim, writing that “…they became very abusive to the Israelites and devised many ways of afflicting them; for they ordered them to cut a great number of channels for the river, and to build walls for their cities and ramparts, that they might restrain the river, and hinder its waters from stagnating, upon its running over its own banks: they set them also to build pyramids…”

By the way, it is instructive to take notice of the note appended to this passage by William Whistler who translated Josephus’s Antiquities from Latin to English in the first half of the eighteenth century. He writes, “Of this building of the pyramids of Egypt by the Israelites, see Perizonius Orig. Aegyptiac, Ch. 21. It is not impossible they might build one or more of the small ones; but the larger ones seem much later.”

In other words, in Whistler’s times the scientific viewpoint was that most of the pyramids were built after the Jews left Egypt, whereas nowadays archeologists believe the exact opposite and say that the Jews arrived too late to have had a hand in their construction. Who knows what scientists will be saying in another hundred years!

Be that as it may, Josephus is not the main culprit for imprinting a Jewish pyramid link onto world consciousness. The main proponents of this link were two Englishmen of the nineteenth century, one of them a bit of a crackpot and the other a distinguished astronomer. For centuries, everyone craning their necks up at the giant pyramids had been astounded at how human brain and muscle could conceive and build these towering megaliths, until these two men came along with the daring suggestion that at least some of the pyramids were really gigantic codebooks built in stone.

In his 5619/1859 work, The Great Pyramid; Why was it Built: & Who Built It, the scholarly, but eccentric, John Taylor paid particular attention to the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, arguing that the chief purpose of its building had been to preserve a Divine metrological system. It must have been Noach who built the ark, he added, since “he who built the ark was, of all men, the most competent to direct the building of the great Pyramid.”

After all, it would have required a wealth of talent to build something that encoded not only the exact value of Pi but also a special Divine unit of measure, the “Pyramid inch,” which, except for one thousandth of an inch, was identical to the British inch! Taylor claimed that measured from pole to pole, the radius of earth constituted exactly 500 million of these pyramid inches, which constituted the “perfect and just measure” that G-d later urged on the Jewish people.

This strange idea, that the Gizeh Pyramid was a Divinely inspired suppository of secret knowledge was originally conjured up during the sixteenth century by Girolamo Cardona, a Milanese mathematician who was a friend of the famous Da Vinci. Later, during the seventeenth century, an Oxford professor of astronomy, Thomas Greaves had taken up the idea, concluding that, “The Standards in the Pyramid so nearly agreeing with our present English Measures, and with those of the ancient Persians, Greeks, and Romans, deserve the Consideration of the Learned…”

Two centuries later, Taylor adopted this theory with a vengeance, catapulting a virulent campaign opposed to ousting the British imperial weights and measures in favor of the French metric system. Backed by the famous British astronomer Sir John Hershel, Taylor argued that it would be almost sacrilegious to ditch the Divinely inspired British inch in favor of the artificial French centimeter. It was of vital importance to save England “from the introduction of the French meter, and from the admission of its superiority to our own measures, which, there is reason to believe, have been preserved, without any deviation from the standard, for about four thousand years.”

In the US, a special journal dedicated to the issue expressed the above sentiments in doggerel rhyme: “Then down with every ‘metric’ scheme taught by the foreign school. We’ll worship still our Father’s God and keep our Father’s ‘rule!’ A perfect inch, a perfect pint, the Anglo’s honest pound; shall hold their place upon the earth, till time’s last trump shall sound!”

After Taylor’s passing in 5624/1864, this mania may well have faded into oblivion were it not for the efforts of another Britisher, Charles Piazza Smyth, who had a list of credentials as long as your arm: Astronomer- Royal for Scotland, Professor of Practical Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh. He too believed that the pyramid measurements “embodied in cipher form prophesies relating to events that would later form the body of the Old Testament…,” and that the number of pyramid inches between one point and another indicated the date and fruition of Biblical events.” He believed that Malkitzedek had built these ancient edifi ces with the help of Hebrew laborers.

To verify his theory, Piazza Smyth spent four months at the Great Pyramid of Gizeh exhaustively checking the dimensions of its stones and walls. This resulted in his three volume “Life and Work at the Great Pyramid” and other books, in which he warned that if the British nation “does allow its hereditary weights and measures to be abolished in favour of the recent French inventions, it will richly deserve to be driven forth from its ancient land, like the Jews of old, and made a homeless and abhorred race.”

Many Englishmen accepted these ideas avidly since a popular idea of the time formulated in about 5640/1840 held that the British were direct descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. For this, spurious proofs were offered such as the word “British” being constructed of the words Brit Ish, man of the covenant, and Isaiah the prophet explicitly writing (Yeshaya 24:15) that Israel would one day inhabit the isles of the sea.

These enthusiasts believed, as one of them put it, that “the British people are the House of Israel, the descendants and heirs of those Ten Tribes (altogether distinct from the Jews) who disappeared from history about the Christian Era on the western verge of Asia, came into Europe with the huge Scythic migrations, slowly traveled still westward by different routes under different names, Danaan, Saxons, Normans, and fi nally re-united here in the ‘Isles of the West,’ to send forth their legions after a while to girdle the World with ‘great circles’ of empire.”

For a couple of decades, Piazza Smyth’s pyramid helped fuel both this absurd notion and the battle against adopting the metric system. Then the tide turned. During the 1880s, the “Pyramid Religion” was replaced by more scientifically based ideas, particularly after the great Egyptologist, William Petrie, personally traveled to Egypt, made his own measurements, and concluded that, “There is no authentic example, that will bear examination, of the use or existence of any such measure as a ‘Pyramid inch,’ or of a cubit of 25.025 British inches.”

Destroyed by Petrie’s ugly facts, the amazing pyramids of Taylor and Piazza Smyth shrunk into what they always had been – shells of rock, the repositories of dead kings’ bones. So long as no one claims the Jews built them, the Egyptians prefer it that way.

(Partial source: Reisenauer, Eric Michael. “The Battle of the Standards: Great Pyramid Metrology and British Identity: 1859-1890.” The Historian. Vol. 65, 2003.)

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