Herodotus Tells Tales From Egypt’s Hoary Past! Today’s installment: Cheops and the Pyramids!
We’re ready to move on from Remphis, though first I should point out that Herodotus heard this story about how he went into the underworld and played dice with Persephone, the Queen of Hades, and won a golden napkin. Our man H. doesn’t make any bones as to the accuracy of the tale; he’s just repeating what he was told.
The next ancient king of Egypt Herodotus is ready to tell us about is Cheops, he of the Great Pyramid. Herodotus places him as a successor of the successor of the successor of Rameses II, which is kind of funny inasmuch as Cheops reigned around twelve hundred years before Rameses II. Also, Cheops is not the same guy as the clever thief from the last story, even though H. explicitly identified both men as the successors of Remphis.
According to H., Cheops came to power at the end of a long silver age of peace and prosperity, no doubt caused by the former king supplementing the national treasury with magical golden Hades-napkins. Cheops wasted no time in running Egypt into the ground! First he closed all the temples so that peasants wouldn’t waste time praying and would have more time to spend laboring (there is no historical record of Cheops doing this but who are you going to believe, Herodotus or modern archaeology?). Then he put a hundred thousand people to work digging giant stones, for building the Pyramids with, and another hundred thousand people to work building a roadway to drag the stones from the quarry to the construction site.
Herodotus claims to have seen this road, and calls it as mighty an achievement as the Pyramids themselves: a half-mile long! Sixty feet wide! Built on a causeway as much as forty-eight feet high! Beautifully engraved with lovely carvings! Took ten years to build!
As for the Great Pyramid itself, Herodotus says it took twenty years to build, and he lists off some dimensions for it which are incorrect now and were incorrect in 400 BC, too, but only by ten percent or so.
H. assumes you have a lot of questions about how the Pyramids were constructed, and he lays out a theory that big stones were laid out first, one layer on another, building up a sort of stepped pyramid, and then smaller stones were placed around them to create the straight sides. This is probably an accurate description of how the Pyramids were constructed. Less plausible alternatives: they built a little pyramid first and made it bigger gradually over time by adding layers; they made rickety wooden towers by jamming logs underneath the edges of the big stone blocks, lifting the stones up to the level of the top of the pyramid and piling them from the top down; they built half the pyramid one way and the other half the other way.
Herodotus claims that his tour guide showed him an inscription on one of the Pyramids, detailing the amount of money spent on onions and garlic for the workmen during its construction (about fifty tons of silver). Herodotus cites this figure as indicative of the tremendous expense of the Pyramids (as the onion/garlic costs would be only a fraction of the total overhead). Historians for centuries have argued as to whether H. made this up, or misunderstood his translator, or what; there’s no such inscription anywhere near any of the Pyramids, and the hieroglyph for pharaoh and the one for onion were, apparently, similar enough to be confused, and maybe H.’s native guide was making a joke or pun Herodotus misunderstood? There’s no way to know.
Cheops also had a daughter, and H. wants you to know Cheops was a wicked man. How wicked was he? So wicked that he forced his daughter into prostitution to fund his Pyramid-building mania! This is the second consecutive story in which an Egyptian princess becomes a prostitute, I don’t know what’s up with that. This princess charged, in addition to the money that she passed along to her father, one giant block of stone per client. She used the stones she obtained in this way to construct her own pyramid (one which H. points out is 150′ on a side).
Cheops’s brother Chephren succeeded him; together the brothers ruled Egypt for 106 years, during which all the Pyramids got built and all the Egyptians were really miserable because they were forced to built the Pyramids all day.