Elections

Carson theory on pyramids around - and wrong - for centuries

In this April 9, 2015, file photo, tourists ride camels at the historical site of the Giza Pyramids in Giza, near Cairo, Egypt. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson says its still his belief the great pyramids Egypt were built by the Biblical figure Joseph to store grain, and not as tombs for pharaohs.
In this April 9, 2015, file photo, tourists ride camels at the historical site of the Giza Pyramids in Giza, near Cairo, Egypt. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson says its still his belief the great pyramids Egypt were built by the Biblical figure Joseph to store grain, and not as tombs for pharaohs. AP

Is there another mystery of the pyramids that needs to be solved?

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is standing by a speech he’d made years before that the pyramids of ancient Egypt, known as elaborate tombs for the pharaohs, were built to store grain. “It’s still my belief, yes,” he told CBS last week.

It’s not true, experts say. But it’s also not something Carson made up.

What he said

Carson’s belief first surfaced when Buzzfeed located the videotape of a 1998 commencement speech Carson gave at Andrews University, a Seventh Day Adventist institution. Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist himself.

“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Now all the archeologists 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.”

Where did he get that?

Joseph is a Biblical figure from the Book of Genesis, a Hebrew sold into slavery by his brothers who rose to become one of the most powerful figures in Egypt. Interpreting a dream, Joseph convinced the pharaoh to store grain for a famine that was to last seven years.

The story of the pyramids as the storage place for that grain gained some popularity in the account of a monk, Bernard the Wise, a pilgrim to Egypt in 870 A.D. The monk, seeing the pyramids, wrote that they were “the remains of seven granaries,” according to Robert Ritner, a professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

“Mr. Carson’s education comes from ideas that were circulating before the Renaissance,” he said.

The facts

Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist and while the church believes in the story of Joseph, the pyramids as a storage unit “is not a church belief” a church representative who could only speak on background as a matter of policy told McClatchy.

Egyptologists scoff at Carson’s interpretation of the pyramids as anything but tombs.

“The suggestion by Mr. Carson is not a new suggestion about the pyramids but it simply represents a remarkable lapse of education,” said Ritner.

The pyramids, which date to 2500 B.C., have been known since ancient times to be the pharaohs’ tombs. “This was common knowledge to Egyptians and outsiders,” said Ritner.

Believe me, it’s a tomb.

Leo Depuydt, professor of Egyptology, Brown University

“We know what they are” from written accounts from the time and from the structures themselves, cataloged by Westerners in the 19th century. The pyramids contain small rooms with the sarcophagus and treasures for the after-life. “You could not imagine a less likely granary,” said Ritner.

There were structures for grain storage in ancient times. But they were designed for easy access, not like the solidly built pyramids.

“This theory has been around for centuries” said Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University. “It is completely baseless. The theory is a complete and utter falsehood. ... The hieroglyphs were only deciphered in 1822 and excavations began around 1850. That prevented the theory from being pulverized into subatomic particles and laughed off the stage until the nineteenth century.”

Matthew Douglas Adams, Senior Research Scholar at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, said, “I can state unequivocally that there is no basis whatsoever for the notion that pyramids in Egypt were used for grain storage. The archaeological and textual evidence as to their purpose – to serve as the burial places of Egypt’s kings – is overwhelming and not a matter of debate among scholars.”

Harvard University scholar Peter Der Manuelian agreed with his colleagues: “The Egyptians tell us in their Pyramid Texts what the Pyramids are for: they are parts of royal tomb complexes.”

Bottom line

Carson’s theory is wrong

Note: This version cleans up garble in the first paragraph.

Maria Recio: 202-383-6103, @maria_e_recio

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