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The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh's Workforce

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In this engrossing detective story, Rosalie David uncovers a fascinating picture of Kahun, a pyramid workmens' town excavated in 1887. In David's hands, the Egyptian builders of the pyramids are revealed as simple people, leading ordinary lives while they are engaged in building the great tomb for a Pharaoh. They worry about their families, grumble about the quality of the food, cheat overseers, even plan a strike for better conditions. Gone are the whip-driven slaves of the popular image: in their place are skilled workers knowing the value of their labor.

South-west of Cairo, the modern capital of Egypt, on the west side of the Nile, there lies the province of Fayoum, the largest of the country’s oases, which owes its remarkable fertility both to springs of water, and to the Bahr Yusef, a channel through which the waters of the Nile flow into the famous lake of the oasis, known today as the ‘Birket El-Qarun’. In antiquity, as today, the area provided excellent hunting and fishing, and the kings and their courtiers visited the area regularly to enjoy these pastimes. The kings of the 12th Dynasty (1991–1786 BC) chose to build their capital city here, and to be buried in pyramids built nearby, on the edge of the desert. Their decision brought unprecedented activity and prosperity to the area; not only was a workforce employed to build and decorate each king’s pyramid and associated temples, but officials and overseers were brought in to supervise the work. Subsequently, priests and other personnel were employed in the pyramid temples, where the king’s mortuary cult was performed after his death and burial. Around this nucleus, the community soon developed and lawyers, doctors, scribes, craftsmen, tradesmen and all the other elements of a thriving society came together.

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