“The Power of the Pharaoh”
(Part I of Pyramids and the Origin of Western Civilization)
by Richard A. Koenigsberg
“The Power of the Pharaoh” appears below.
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I. The Power of the Pharaoh

Louis Mumford examines the meaning of Kingship in ancient societies such as Egypt in his classic The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (1967). He writes about the absolute power associated with Pharaohs and other kings in early Near Eastern civilizations. The king, Mumford says, was conceived as a “god in his own right.” When he uttered a command, it had to be obeyed.

Because everyone had to obey the commands of the king, therefore words coming from his mouth could “bring a world into existence.” Mumford connects the obligation to obey with the king’s capacity to create a “colossal labor machine.” The special powers that the King commanded enabled him to bring together many human beings to work on gigantic projects, such as building a pyramid.

The Great Pyramids of Giza
The Great Pyramids of Giza

The Pharaoh was conceived by the Egyptians as the living incarnation of society. The community lived and flourished vicariously through the king. By virtue of the king’s centrality, the community attained a sense of coherence or unity.  Mumford states that the king alone had the power to create a “colossal labor machine:’ the godlike power of “turning men into mechanical objects and assembling these objects into a machine.” Mumford uses the term “megamachine” to describe the gigantic labor force that the king—by virtue of his godlike status—could command and direct.

Because of the Pharaoh, Egyptian society was able to engage in building giant, collective works such as pyramids. The king gave forth commands, demanded absolute conformity, and punished even trivial disobedience. Kings demonstrated how much popular communities—once collectively organized in great mechanical units—could accomplish. By virtue of the capacity to mobilize tens-of-thousands of human beings into a great labor force, kings accomplished big things.

There was, however, a human price to be paid: absolute subjection to the king. Metaphors appearing in ancient Pyramid texts convey a kind of “unrestrained cannibal lust” dwelling on the scope and power of the divine king. The most horrendous crimes punished by civilized authority stemmed back to the “unpardonable sin” of disobedience to the sovereign.

“Murderous coercion,” Mumford says, was the royal formula for establishing authority, securing obedience, and collecting booty, tribute, and taxes. The other side of the coin of the creation of a colossal labor machine, in short, was the requirement that subjects be absolutely obedient. Mumford claims that, at bottom, every royal reign was a “reign of terror.”

The great projects brought forth by the Ancient Egyptians, then, grew out of the following dynamic: First, the belief that the king was the embodiment of a god. And secondly that—because of the king’s divine status—absolute obedience was required. The capacity of the Pharaoh to command obedience allowed him to produce a colossal labor force capable of undertaking gigantic building projects.

Building monumental structures such as a pyramid required enormous sacrifices by the populace. Soldiers, similarly, were required to be obedient to the sovereign and to perform acts of sacrifice. The capacity to generate collective sacrifice, Mumford believes, remained the identifying mark of sovereign power throughout history.

Mumford concludes that the two poles of civilization are mechanically organized work and mechanically organized destruction (or extermination). The king’s extraordinary power derived from his capacity to bring many people together into a single unit, and to command their absolute

II. “Egypt Built the Pyramids—and the Pyramids Built Egypt”

What were the pyramids? It appears they were elaborate temples or enclosures, houses and tombs, symbols of the immortality of the Pharaohs and permanence of Egyptian civilization. The Great Pyramid of Giza, built as a tomb for the Pharaoh Khufu around 1575 B.C., consisted of approximately 2,300,000 individuals blocks of stone each weighing over 2.5 tons on the average.

What motives would generate this extraordinary, monumental project? Most of us share the intuition that building pyramids revolved around the desire or quest for immortality. Pyramids were made of limestone and granite, substances not easily destroyed. Pyramids embodied the fantasy that some things could last forever.

Many of the Pyramids still stand, but the Pharaohs—in spite of mummification efforts—are long dead. Do any of us remember the name even of a single Pharaoh? Perhaps only King Tut, and perhaps because of the song Steven Martin sang on the Saturday Night Live show: “Now when he was a young man, he'd never thought he'd see, People stand in line, to see the boy king. King Tut. How'd you get so funky? Funky Tut. Did you do the monkey?”

What enormous sacrifices were required to build the pyramids! Norman O. Brown says that the ambition of civilized man is revealed in the pyramid—the hope of immortality. Death is overcome, Brown says, on condition that the real actuality of life pass into these “immortal and dead things.” Pharaohs sequestered the energies of the Egyptian people to build monumental structures that functioned in the name of denying death.

The image that many of us have of the men who built the pyramids is that of slaves: people who worked under the bidding and whip of the Pharaoh and his taskmasters. Recent archaeological findings suggests that the construction of the pyramids may have occurred more along the lines of a national project in which most of Egyptian society participated.

Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner’s reinterpretation of the pyramids is based on excavations that reveal what appears to be a village or encampment where the people who worked to build the pyramids lived. Evidence from this site suggests that the living conditions of the pyramid workers were better than many people had assumed.

Evidently they often had their families with them, their diet was more varied than had been expected, and there are signs that they were provided with medical care. Hawaas proposes that building the pyramid was the national project of Egypt—“everyone had to participate.”

Mark Lehner claims that the picture of a highly centralized bureaucracy going through the land and conscripting people for labor by force is highly doubtful. Rather, local rulers, heads of villages and estates, etc. would send laborers to the royal house. Thus, because the labor pool was a rotating force contributed by local authorities from all over Egypt, the Pyramid project may have had a “tremendously socializing effect.”

Lehner provides a sense of what may have occurred and what people may have experienced as they came from all parts Egypt to work on building the pyramid at Giza:

And so here are these stupendous, gigantic things thrust up to the sky, polished white limestone, blazing in the sunshine. And then they go on down to Giza and they come around this corner, actually the corner of the Wall of the Crow right into the harbor, and there's Khufu, the biggest thing on the planet actually in the way of a building until the turn of the century 20th century. And you see, for the first time in your life, not a few hundred, but thousands, probably, of workers and people and industries of all kinds.

And you're rotated into this experience and you serve in your respective crew, gang, phyles and division, and then you're rotated out and you go back because you have your own large household to whom you are assigned on a kind of an estate organized society. You have your own village; maybe you even have your own land that you're responsible for. So you're rotated back but you're not the same. You have seen the central principle of the first nation state in our planet's history, the pyramids, the centralization, this organization. And so they must have been powerful socializing forces.

It was a “coming together of people from throughout the land.” Working on the pyramids functioned to “socialize information” and “bound all these disparate areas and provinces into a whole.” It was, Lehner believes, the “beginnings of Egyptian unity.” The focus of Lehner’s research now, he says, is not so much how the Egyptians built the pyramids, but how the “pyramids helped to build Egypt.”

The Pyramid, Hawaas explains, was a monument that symbolized the might and power of the royal house. Every household from Upper to Lower Egypt participated in the construction of the Pharaoh’s tomb by sending food, materials and manpower. Lehner suggests that the centralization and organization generated by the project of building the pyramids brought about the “first nation-state in our planet’s history.”

The project of building the Pyramids, in short, functioned to unify the Egyptian state. One might say that the people rallied round the Pharaoh to assist him in bringing to fruition his dream of eternal life. This was a dream with which people could identify. Hawaas even suggests that the Pyramids were built by volunteers motivated by “love.”

Based on my lifelong research on Hitler and Nazism, I do not find this interpretation unreasonable. The man-in-the-street views Hitler as a dictator, but historians know that what held Germany together was the attachment of the people to Hitler and Nazi ideology. At the Nuremberg rallies, people came to a gigantic stadium from all parts of Germany. Coming together in this way—just as people came from all parts of Egypt to build the Pyramids—the German people could feel they were united as single community or political entity.

III. The Desire to Submit

The Pharaoh according to Mumford was the “living incarnation of the community.” The community lived and flourished vicariously, through the person of the king. People could share or partake of the fantasy of immortality embodied in the idea of the Pyramid. They too could imagine that it was possible to live forever.

There is a dialectical relationship between the elevation of certain human beings into the status of divine kings or totalitarian leaders, on the one hand, and submission to these political leaders on the other. It is not simply that people in power force human beings to submit. Rather, human beings create symbols of absolute power in order to give themselves the opportunity to submit.

Hitler was one of the most popular political leaders of the 20th century. We have seen films of mass-rallies in auditoriums and stadiums depicting Hitler—speaking hysterically and gesticulating widely—bringing audiences to their feet in unison, shouting “Heil Hitler.” Because people worshipped Hitler as if he was a god or divine king, they were willing to submit to him.

German soldiers upon joining the army vowed that they were prepared to offer their lives at any time to Adolf Hitler. The SS-man pledged that he would be “obedient unto death.” On September 26, 1938, Hitler spoke before a crowd of 15,000 after having given the Czechs an ultimatum. The mob interrupted every sentence of Hitler’s speech with fanatic applause, shouting and chanting, “Fuhrer command, we will follow.”

Rudolf Hess declared, “We follow Hitler’s orders and thus we prove our faith in him.” Bland terms like “obedience to authority” and “following orders” do not accurately convey reality. It is not that human beings passively go along with people in authority. Rather, there is a profound tendency to identify with people in positions of power and what they represent—to submit to them in order to partake of the omnipotence they are imagined to possess.

Human beings want to believe in the existence of powerful people like divine kings and totalitarian leaders who are not obligated to submit to ordinary rules; are permitted to do things ordinary people are not allowed to do. Kings, for example, can mobilize great armies and ask military personnel to kill people en masse.