Desert Ramblings

As we slowly sailed up the Nile propelled by gentle warm breezes, the kids had the opportunity to observe life in and around the river. Geographically Egypt is simply the desert plus the Nile. There is a drastic and sudden transition from one to the other, from fertile greenery to stark desert.

The annual rainfall is 1 mm. We witnessed a smallish sand storm from our dahabiya. It ended with a few drops of rain. This may be the entire year’s rainfall. Where there is no Nile water, there is nothing. But life around the Nile is lush and filled with water.

A few steps past where the greenery ends, we visited the sand stone quarries at Gebel el-Silsila. On both sides of the Nile, during the New Kingdom, workers armed with bronze chisels and hammers and wooden wedges chipped away at sandstone. Closely spaced chisel groves mark the efforts of workmen 3500 years ago as they painstakingly quarried the desert one block of stone at a time.

When you see a massive ancient structure like the Great Pyramid or the pylons and obelisks at the Karnak temple, you cannot help but think of the engineering that went into creating them. A few thousand years ago the available tools were ropes, pulleys, levers, logs, skids, sledges, and ramps. And humans and animals to power the whole thing.

Nearby, hollowed out rooms in the rock served as offices for accountants. Workers were paid by measuring how much less their bronze chisels weighed. More wear indicated more work. There are inscribed rules for holidays and time off for family weddings and funerals. The pharaohs visits to the quarries from their cities many miles downstream, supposedly to thank the workers for their work, are marked on temple walls. Archeologists are still uncovering burial chambers and worker villages. Burials show carefully preserved mummies along with beer and bread for the afterlife. Similar discoveries have been made in the Luxor necropolis and in Giza at the site of the Great Pyramids. Our guides went into long spiels about how the quarry workers, craftsmen, and artisans felt they were doing God’s work and were held is high regard in society and how they were well paid. There was plenty of slavery during the Pharaohs but the prevailing academic opinion is that the workers were not slaves. Here’s an excerpt from the National Geographic (

Yet these laborers, far from being slaves, were privileged civil servants, and beneficiaries of a number of enviable perks. Analyses show they enjoyed a protein-rich diet, practically unheard of among the rest of the Nile Valley’s inhabitants. Evidence that broken limbs and fractures had been set correctly strongly suggests adequate medical care was provided.

This is in direct contrast to my perception about how the Egyptians monuments were built. I picture thousands of slaves pulling and pushing giant blocks of rock while being brutally whipped by burly taskmasters who ripped away slave women’s clothing while throwing their babies in the air. An exhausted slave falls to the ground and is crushed slowly to death under a giant moving stone block. Another slave stops to comfort and grieve and he’s beaten soundly. The work goes on.

This is the Hollywood Egypt Slave Meme. It turns out that Herodotus, the Greek historian who lived a thousand years after the New Kingdom, could be the creator of the slave meme. And then there’s a certain popular book about an exodus. I have read neither Herodotus’ history book, nor the good book.

The Egyptians are trying hard to change my perception. But calling bullshit on the founding myth of an entire people is controversial.

So I googled it because that’s how you become an expert, right? Back in 2001, a Rabbi David Wolpe who is considered among the most influential Jews in the world said, in a sermon on Passover’s eve (the man had a sense of timing!) that archaeologists had not found evidence in the desert to support the biblical account of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.

Here’s an excerpt from the NYT: (

In raising this subject, Rabbi Wolpe was hardly revealing a secret about contemporary archaeology. For a decade, a growing number of Israeli archaeologists have been quite public about their work, which has generated controversy in Israel and which includes discoveries that have led to another theory, that the Israelites gradually emerged as a people from among the Bronze Age population of Canaan, rather than militarily conquering the land, as the Bible tells.

Having said that, the good rabbi had to do some fudging with words like “spiritual truth” and “historical fact”. Truth and fact apparently aren’t the same, especially in the realm of faith.

I googled some more and found this on a website called Bible Inspectors. They link 11 articles related to whether Hebrew slaves built the pyramids. Not interestingly the answer depends on your religion and your religiosity, and are neatly categorized as “Christian Answers”, “Jewish Answers”, and “Secular Answers”. I was looking for “Correct Answers” and whatever the opposite is (“Spiritual Truth”, perhaps). Here’s the website:

There are people in this world who deny the Holocaust even when the horrible facts are undeniable. So I wondered if the questioning of the story of the Exodus is like that. But I stopped googling when I started running into Egyptian slave fandom websites (you don’t have to look too hard) and other opinions from the fringe that attempt to explain African American slavery as a side effect of white people enslaved in Africa. This was too far down the google rabbit hole for my poor atheist brain.

So I’ll give up my amateur research and end with some ageless and priceless graffiti I found inscribed on the ancient sandstone cliff walls of Gebel el-Silsila, a sign of thinking men everywhere. Somethings never change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s