What we can learn from Ben Carson’s Egyptian pyramids comments

On Wednesday, BuzzFeed unearthed a 17-year old video of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson talking about the pyramids.

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” the now-retired neurosurgeon said during a 1998 commencement address at Michigan’s Andrews University. “Now all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.”

Considering this theory goes against what most people learned in elementary school, the statement raised a lot of eyebrows. When reporters pressed him about it, the 2016 Oval Office aspirant stuck to his guns, arguing that the biblical patriarch constructed Egypt’s great pyramids as a place to store food.

“Some people believe in the Bible, like I do, and don’t find that to be silly at all, and believe that God created the Earth and don’t find that to be silly at all,” Carson told reporters during a public event in Miami. “The secular progressives try to ridicule it any time it comes up and they’re welcome to do that.”

John Darnell, a professor of Egyptology at Yale University’s Department of Near East Languages & Civilizations, explained that, while Carson is clearly wrong about the origin of the three great pyramids of Giza, he’s hardly the first person make that particular mistake.

Carson’s argument about the pyramids being used for grain storage has its roots in the Old Testament. In the biblical tale, Joseph’s jealous brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, where he became a trusted adviser to the pharaoh. Interpreting the pharaoh’s troubling dreams, Joseph warned of a coming famine and advised him to store grain for the lean years. Joseph’s premonition came true and the Jewish patriarch was richly rewarded.

“The idea that the Great Pyramids at Giza might be granaries is not new. In fact, if you go into the cathedral of St. Mark in Venice, you will see Byzantine-inspired representations from the Middle Ages depicting the great pyramids of Giza as the granaries of Joseph,” said Darnell. “At the time, [for] people in the Western world who had some connection with North Africa… it made sense to suppose that perhaps… [the pyramids] were perhaps physical remains of a Bible story that, along with classical authors, provided most of the information about Ancient Egypt that was available in the Western world at the time.”

By the time of the Renaissance, those theories were discarded in favor of the modern understanding of the pyramids as monuments to dead Egyptian rulers.

The first issue is timing. The great pyramids of Giza date to Egypt’s High Old Kingdom, the middle of the third millennium BCE. The era of Joseph and Jewish patriarchs of the Old Testament is most commonly pegged to the first few centuries of the second millennium BCE—leaving a temporal problem of about a thousand years.

There’s also the issue of construction. While the great pyramids of Giza can seem otherworldly, even to the modern eye, Darnell explained that both their outer construction and inner network of passageways fit squarely into the architectural history of the region’s royal mortuary monuments—both before and after the great pyramids were constructed. Grain storage facilities, on the other hand, tended to be shaped like a beehives rather than pyramids.

The other problem with Carson’s theory is that the great pyramids are enormous buildings of densely constructed stone and contain very little empty space in the middle to store pretty much anything. “If the pyramids were used to store grain… they would be some of the most remarkably inefficient structures known to man, economically speaking.”

While Darnell isn’t exactly enthused that a major historical inaccuracy has been unexpectedly thrust into that presidential contest, he does see a silver lining. 

The original purpose of the pyramids doesn’t exactly matter all the much in presidential politics, other than giving voters an idea about how a Carson administration might take certain fairly outré assumptions as axiomatic—such as when he gave advice about how to survive a mass shooting that didn’t conform to law enforcement or safety experts’ best practices on the subject.

Yet, Darnell argues that, especially when it comes to foreign policy, there’s a lot modern leaders can learn by looking at ancient Egypt.

“If you go back to the middle of the second millennium BCE in Egypt, we have evidence for the earliest wide-ranging, really complex series of diplomatic interactions,” explained Darnell, who wrote a book on the subject entitled Tutankhamun’s Armies. “People in Egypt and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean were dealing with a collapsing state in northern Mesopotamia, they were dealing with a rising, very pugnacious power in what is now Turkey, they were dealing with an political vacuum in what is now Lebanon and coastal Syria… And yet, throughout all of this, by a series of Machiavellian machinations and realpolitik military action, they all somehow to avoid a Armageddon-like catastrophe.”

The degree to which that list still rings true today is enough of a reason on its own why Carson might want to brush up on his ancient Egyptian history.

Photo via Marc Nozell/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.