(The Ancient Egyptians Didn’t Hate Themselves)
It’s long been a common misconception (first spread by Herodotus) that the Egyptians used slaves to build the Pyramids of Giza. But the archeological and historical evidence suggests that these massive building projects were led by skilled craftsmen and paid laborers. The more you learn about the breathtaking precision of their construction (which easily rivals anything built today), the more this makes sense. As historian Paul Johnson writes, “The Great Pyramid was a triumph of the stonemason’s art; it was also a miracle of labour-organization, and labour cannot be effectively organized over long periods if it is ill-treated.”
Why does the myth persist? Perhaps it’s a bit of “cope:” It’s not that we couldn’t pull off such an incredible feat of civic engineering; it’s that we’re too “enlightened” to do so. But what about the other, less tangible resources Ancient Egypt drew upon to build a prosperous and stable society lasting almost 30 centuries? It takes a certain self-confidence and shared vision to approach eternity. To see the Pyramids in person, as my family and I recently did, is to experience genuine awe. It’s also to look at our own technological gifts and wonder if we’ll ever again manage to direct them towards something as inspiring.
In a fascinating recent paper economist Dan Sichel points out that in the early days of our country construction nails accounted for 0.4 percent of GDP – equivalent to what American households now spend on computers.
Today we import most of our nails, but discerning contractors can still buy from a few domestic producers. Leading the way is Peru, Illinois-based Maze Nails, our country’s biggest and oldest nail manufacturer. Their slogan, “Building America One Nail At a Time,” is a good reminder of the impact a humble low-tech yet high-quality product can have on a nation.
It’s unlikely that many of the contemporary structures in which we live and work today will endure for a hundred years, let alone a thousand. Yet lasting, timeless ways of building are still passed down from generation to generation.
Anyone wishing to learn the ancient art of dry stone walling (building stone walls without mortar) will find plenty of rigorous guidance from The Stone Trust. Operating from an historic Vermont farm since 2010, the nonprofit offers regular workshops for all levels of waller.
Like many a great work of art, Robert Frost’s beloved, much-anthologized poem “Mending Wall” is deceptively simple. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” it begins, and the scene of playful, neighborly debate that follows lends itself to any number of interpretations about borders both literal and figurative.
But before we apply Frost’s poem to our preferred ideology (JFK famously recited that first line when touring the newly-built Berlin Wall), we should take a moment to appreciate the elegance of its construction: there’s a good reason “Mending Wall” is so pleasurable to read, especially aloud. Like the men in his poem, Frost uses humble, ubiquitous materials to create an edifice of lasting beauty.
Ancient Egypt’s earliest monuments generally only memorialize the Kings who commissioned them. A rare exception is King Djoser’s huge funeral complex at Sakkara. Here we also find a tribute to its designer, the legendary polymath Imhotep. In Imhotep’s day, Egyptian craftsmen were already quite skilled at making vases from stone; it was his innovation (when not practicing and writing on medicine) to harness this expertise for construction. He did so with stunning ambition and success, creating not only the world’s first stone building and first pyramid, but arguably the first work of architecture.