Although Memphis was probably the most populous city in Egypt throughout the dynastic period, and Heliopolis a significant religious centre for a similar period, these were far from being the only towns or cities in the Memphite region, especially during the Old Kingdom. To us it appears that royal pyramid building was the central activity of the state, especially during the 4th Dynasty when the building activities of Sneferu, Khufu and Khafre required huge resources to build their monumental tombs. A large proportion of those resources was human labour, and so the housing of a relatively small number of specialist craftsmen and a much larger pool of unskilled manual labourers was one of the great logistical feats in pyramid building.
Archaeologists have identified ‘pyramid towns’ associated with a number of Old and Middle Kingdom pyramids. The best known of these is Kahun, associated with the pyramid of Senwosret II, which housed a permanent community whose major function was to ensure the continued operation of cult ceremonies at the pyramid. Towns that housed similar communities are known from other pyramid sites such as Dahshur, or the priestly community that came to occupy the valley temple of the pyramid of Menkaure at Giza. These ‘priest’s towns’ are rather different from the short-term accommodation required for the workers who toiled on the construction of the pyramid complex itself. Workers would be conscripted as corvée labourers – people who paid tax obligations through manual labour – brought to the pyramid site from all over Egypt to work for a given period of time on this national project. These people needed to be both housed and fed by the state.
Reconstruction plan, based on Mark Lehner’s excavations of the Giza Pyramid Town, showing the different areas of the site excavated to date, and the relationship of the town to the pyramids of Khafre (left) and Khufu (right). © 2013 Ancient Egypt Research Associates.
The excavated Gallery III from the Giza Pyramid Town. © 2013 Ancient Egypt Research Associates.
The Giza Pyramid Town
The best known, and apparently by far the most substantial, of these towns for pyramid workers is at Giza, just off the plateau itself, c. 400 metres (c. 1,300 feet) east of the valley temple of Menkaure. The town was separated from the monumental area of the pyramid complexes of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure by a massive wall (200 metres long by 10 metres thick and 10 metres in height; 656 by 33 by 33 feet), known popularly today as the ‘Wall of the Crow’ (Heit el-Ghurab). The site has been excavated by American Egyptologist Mark Lehner since 1988, and the work of his multi-disciplinary team has produced many important insights into the logistics of housing a large pyramid-building workforce.
The northern district of the town was dominated by a series of long, narrow mudbrick galleries, organized into four ‘sets’, separated by streets, together covering an area of 150 by 75 metres (492 by 246 feet). Each ‘set’ contained eight galleries, which were usually 34.5 metres long by 4.7 metres wide (113 by 15½ feet). The centre of each gallery had a raised central ‘bench’ into which were set column-bases for roof-supporting columns, while along both sides of this ‘bench’ were sleeping platforms, making these galleries substantial dormitories, which could house somewhere between 40 and 80 men, depending on whether the galleries contained a second storey, which may be suggested by the thickness of their walls. The total population of this huge dormitory block might therefore have been between 1,500 and 3,200 temporary labourers. Evidence suggests that baking took place in and around these dormitory blocks and, more surprisingly, the consumption of significant quantities of meat from sheep or goats and cattle.
A reconstruction drawing of how this gallery might have looked when it was in use. © 2013 Ancient Egypt Research Associates.
The town included a structure that the excavators have called the Royal Administrative Building, mainly on the basis of large numbers of mud sealings stamped with the names of Khafre and Menkaure. Since this structure contained a series of large grain silos it seems likely that this was a central depot for the distribution of food staples to the workmen. It has also been suggested that this building represents part of a significant royal administrative centre for Egypt as a whole during the 4th Dynasty, and that the dormitories contained not labourers, but a royal guards’ regiment. The town, as excavated to date, also contained two other major areas. The ‘Eastern Town’ was largely made up of small residential units, which may have housed a permanent population of modest means, rather different from the temporary workers housed in the dormitories of the gallery area. The ‘Western Town’ contained some larger houses, which may have been occupied by higher-ranking individuals and their families, somewhat like the ‘urban estates’ at Kahun.
The Giza Pyramid Town seems to have been abandoned after the reign of Menkaure because the major focus for royal pyramid construction moved away from Giza to other sites, especially Abusir and Saqqara in the 5th and 6th Dynasties.
One of the exciting aspects of the work at the Giza Pyramid Town has been the discovery of archaeological material relating to storage and food production, even though the function of some of these is still obscure, such as the ‘Pedestal Building’ in the northern part of the Western Town. © 2013 Ancient Egypt Research Associates.
A distinctive, cone-shaped loaf, known by the Egyptians as ‘bedja’, was an important staple of the workers’ diet, produced using large thick-walled moulds in specialized bakeries. © 2013 Ancient Egypt Research Associates.