Joseph and the Pyramids

Joseph and the Pyramids

Myth: The pyramids of Egypt were storehouses for grain

In St. Mark’s cathedral in Venice, you’ll find a series of murals, dating back to 1204, that depict scenes from the biblical book of Genesis. One of the images shows Joseph with the three pyramids of Giza in the background, with holes near the top, the purpose of which apparently is to pour in grain. The assumption reflected in the image is that the pyramids acted as granaries in the time of Joseph.

Mural of Joseph’s granaries at St. Mark’s Cathedral

The idea goes a lot further back than 1204. The murals in the cathedral appear to be based on the illustrated Cotton Genesis, which was written in the fifth century. Unfortunately, although a few of the murals match Cotton’s images quite closely, the current extant editions of Cotton’s Genesis are incomplete and do not contain the images of the pyramids, so we cannot say for certain that the granary idea can be traced to Cotton.

Another Christian writer of the fifth century Rufinus of Aquleia may also have indicated that the pyramids were granaries for Joseph in the second book of his supplement to the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius. The problem is that, although some writers claimed Rufinus said this, no modern editions of Rufinus’ books contain the passage.

The first explicit reference to which we can point that describes the pyramids as Joseph’s granaries in in the Cosmographia of Julius Honorius, written around 500. Honorius claims the pyramids were called “the storehouses of Joseph,” thus indicating a current belief, though he elaborates no further.

Around the same time a similar statement occurs in the biblical commentaries of an anonymous writer we refer to simply as Pseudo-Nonnus.

Gregory the bishop of Tours, who wrote The History of the Franks in the late sixth century, describes the pyramids briefly, saying, “They are wide at the base and narrow at the top in order that the wheat might be cast into them through a tiny opening, and these granaries are to be seen to the present day.” Clearly he had never seen the pyramids.

Occasional references to the pyramids as grain storehouses can be seen through the years after that, including in the work of the monk Dicuil in 825 (Liber de Mensua Orbis Terrae 6.13), and the commentaries of Nicetas of Heraclea (11th century). A popular 14th century travel memoir written by John Mandeville also refers to “Joseph’s Granaries, which he had made to store the wheat for hard times.”

The idea was not limited to European Christians. We find the same conclusions drawn in the 12th century Byzantine source Etymologicum magnum, in which we are told that the word “pyramid” derives from the Greek word for “grain.” And in an Islamic text written in the 12th century, The History of the Pyramids by Al-Idrisi, we find the claim as well. The belief, however, was not as popular in the Eastern world as it was in the West.

So the question I wish to pose is: Is it possible that the stories are true, that the pyramids were used to store grain? Is this myth or history?

The story is indeed a myth. The pyramids cannot have been storehouses for grain for several reasons:

1. The pyramids do not have the capacity to store grain. They are largely solid all the way through, with only a few small claustrophobic rooms and narrow passageways inside them. But for the most part, the pyramids are not hollow. Those holes on the top, which are said in the legends to have been the place where grain was poured in, do not exist. Mind you, this is not to say that grain has not been found in any pyramids. Sometimes wooden trays with grain planted in them were left inside of the pyramids with the expectation that they would germinate and grow later, but clearly this was not done for purposes of storage. I’ll get to the real purpose later.

A painted wooden model of a granary discovered in Egypt (c. 2200 BCE).

2. We have already discovered ancient Egyptian storehouses, and they aren’t pyramids. The Egyptians built dome-shaped structures with an opening at the top, which stood next to government buildings or other houses, in which to store their grain. We have found the remains of some of these, and even models of them in their art.

3. Not a single document from ancient Egypt indicates that the pyramids were used as granaries. As you can see from what we showed above, the earliest reference to the pyramids as granaries comes from the 5th century, some 3,000 years after the Egyptian Old Kingdom when the greatest pyramids were constructed. Nothing ever found in Egypt supports the granary theory.

But what about the Bible itself? If these Christian authors connected the pyramids to the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, surely there is something in the Bible that gave them such an idea. Well, no, not really. The story of Joseph and the famine is told in Genesis 41, in which it is said that Joseph with the help of God predicted a seven-year famine for Egypt. He advises the pharaoh to collect grain from the surplus in preparation for the famine, and the pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of the process. No pyramids, however, are mentioned. We read in Genesis 41:26 that Joseph puts the grain in storehouses in each city. Pyramids generally were not located within Egyptian cities. The storehouses that we have evidence for did exist in the cities.

So what were the pyramids, then? You may have heard other theories, such as that the pyramids were water pumps, or even that they were electric power stations (yes, some people actually believe that). But Egyptologists—those with the most broad and thorough understanding of ancient Egyptian society today—are quite certain that the pyramids were tombs. How do they know this?

4. The ancient Egyptians tell us the pyramids were tombs. Documents that have survived until today refer to the pyramids as the tombs of the pharaohs. For example, in the Harper’s Song of Antef (probably from around the 1st Intermediate Period), a verse mentioned “the gods (i.e., kings) who existed before, who rest in their pyramids, and the blessed nobles, likewise buried in their pyramids.” The Abbot Papyrus of the 20th Dynasty (c. 1100 BCE) documents robberies of many of the kings’ and queens’ tombs, many of which are clearly stated to be pyramids.

5. Funerary text inscriptions have been found on the walls inside some of the pyramids. The “pyramid texts,” as they are often called, were discovered in the remains of pyramids from the late 5th and 6th Dynasties, and they contain spells, encouragement, and instructions for the kings on their journey into the afterlife. The kings are even named in the texts. That these texts would be placed in tombs makes sense. In fact, in later times these texts were written on papyrus, first as the Coffin Texts and finally the Book of the Dead, and placed with deceased Egyptians. We have found them in tombs.

6. The pyramids are located within necropolises. A necropolis (“city of the dead”) is a huge cemetery. In other words, the pyramid did not exist as an isolated structure. It represented only one element (the most important) of a grand complex, which included a satellite pyramid, other small pyramids for queens, a mortuary temple, a valley temple, and a causeway between them, and also offering shrines, and mastaba tombs for other family members and nobles. King Menkaure of the 5th Dynasty ordered a tomb to be built for his courtier Debehen and placed near Menkaure’s own pyramid at Giza. This suggests that Giza was a place for the dead to be interred. A typical pyramid complex in turn was surrounded by a wall and around that was the larger necropolis. Thus, its location is another indication that the pyramid was intended as a tomb.

Mortuary temple of Khafre at Giza

7. Mortuary temples were placed next to the pyramids. Priests officiated at these temples, where offerings were given to a dead king, next to the pyramid made in his name. It would make sense that the king would be buried nearby. In fact, private tombs were indeed set up this way: a chapel made for presenting offerings for the dead were built right next to their tombs. The Abusir papyri, which were written in the Old Kingdom (5th dynasty), name priests who worked in the mortuary temples next to the pyramids.

8. There is evidence that pyramids evolved from mastaba tombs. Pyramids did not just pop up suddenly in history. This Egyptians started with mastabas, which clearly are tombs, because they have burials in them, and gradually they improved these tombs until they took on the pyramid shape. The step pyramid of Djoser (3rd Dynasty) is the first-ever pyramid, and it clearly is a super-developed mastaba tomb. It contains art that depicts King Djoser performing rituals, and more importantly, there is a clear burial vault beneath the pyramid. Sneferu of the 4th Dynasty experimented further with pyramid designs and finally was able to perfect the smooth-sided pyramid. This evidence thus suggests that pyramids can trace their ancestry back to mastaba tombs.

9. Burial equipment has been found in pyramids. Specifically, I refer to sarcophagi and coffins. For example, in the center satellite pyramid of Menkaure at Giza, a sarcophagus was found with a skeleton inside of it, and part of a wooden coffin was found in the main pyramid of Menkaure. The presence of this equipment suggests a mortuary purpose.

10. Remains of human bodies have been found in pyramids. Sometimes you will hear someone make the claim that no mummies have ever been found in a pyramid and therefore we cannot say for certain they were used as tombs. But the fact is, although no complete mummies have been discovered in pyramids, parts of mummies have. A mummified foot was found in Djoser’s pyramid, a right arm, some pieces of skull, and other bones were found in the pyramid of Unas, an arm and a shoulder in Teti’s pyramid, a skull, pelvis, legs and parts of a torso in the recently-discovered pyramid of one of Teti’s wives, fragments of a mummy in the pyramid of Pepi I, some mummy wrappings in the pyramid of Pepi II, mummy fragments in the coffin in Menkaure’s pyramid, and burnt bones in Amenhemet III’s pyramid. Among these assorted remains may be pieces of the original royal bodies.

Those who deny that the pyramids were meant to be tombs argue that the human remains and burial equipment are not original to the structures and were added intrusively some time after robbers had broken in. In other words, they may have been used as tombs later, but that was not their original use. Unless the body of an actual verifiable king is found inside of one, they won’t accept the tomb theory. It is true that, because the pyramids had all been robbed by the time of the 26th Dynasty, new bodies were sometimes placed in some pyramids, so indeed, the remains that have been found are not necessarily original. However, DNA analysis may be possible on the mummy remains found in the pyramid of Teti’s wife Seshseshet, and if her identity can be confirmed, this would demonstrate further that in her time (6th dynasty), the Egyptians were burying royal bodies in pyramids.

11. Some of the pyramids that were robbed had coffins inscribed for the original kings reinterred in them. The practice of entombing new coffins into the pyramids was a way to continue honoring the pharaohs despite the desecration of the pyramids. But the practice suggests an effort to restore a king’s tomb, not use the pyramid for a different purpose than originally intended.

12. Private burials of the New Kingdom period had pyramids. Kings weren’t buried in pyramids during the New Kingdom—by this time they were being placed in the Valley of the Kings—but private individuals would often be buried beneath the ground with a chapel above them, where visitors could leave offerings. A pyramid would be placed above the chapel. Even though the dead were not placed inside the pyramids, this nevertheless shows the association of pyramids and burials.

No one knows for certain how the belief that the pyramids were storehouses got started. Perhaps it had something to do with a desire to tie the great wonders of the world into biblical stories. One theory points out that early Christian writers like Rufinus and Tertullian testify to the belief that Joseph was identified with the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis, because he was a giver of grain. And since Serapis was also associated with death, and the pyramids too were associated with death, people linked the pyramids to Serapis and therefore Joseph. Maybe. The belief tended to die out during the Renaissance, but today you still sometimes hear it repeated (and this is why I chose to address it here). But hopefully you can see now a bit more clearly why the storehouse belief is myth, not history.

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