Today, we look at a cathedral and a pyramid. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 450 BC the historian
Herodotus wrote about the Great Pyramid. He'd
visited Egypt, and he'd brought back stories. The
Pyramid was, he told us, built by a hundred
thousand slaves. They'd been beaten to death as
they labored under the whip.
That picture still lingers, but it was 2000 years
off the mark even then. It fit the domination
mentality of the Classical World, just as it fits
our own darker views of humankind. But it's not how
ancient Egypt worked. Slaves didn't build the Great
Pyramid. Skilled professional craftsmen did.
Historian H.G. Wells tells us that societies take
two forms: "communities of the will" and
"communities of obedience." Ancient Israel and the
Vikings were communities of the will -- dominating
and aggressive. Their leaders were masculine, and
so were their gods. But female attributes are woven
into both the worship and the thinking of a
community of obedience. By obedience, Wells means
submission -- not to authority, but to principle.
He offers Ancient Egypt and Medieval Europe as
The Virgin Mary gave God a female face in the
medieval Church. She took up lodging in the
medieval mind and gave masons a new perspective. By
submitting themselves to a God who worked through
human hands, they cound work miracles. And they
did. Listen to a 12th-century witness tell about
Chartres Cathedral, and you'll see what Wells meant
by a community of obedience:
... when the towers seemed to be rising as if by
magic, the faithful harnessed themselves to the
carts ... and dragged them from the quarry to the
cathedral. The enthusiasm spread throughout France.
Men and women came from far away carrying ...
provisions for the workmen -- wine, oil, corn.
Among them were lords and ladies, pulling carts
with the rest. There was perfect discipline and a
most profound silence. All hearts were united and
each man forgave his enemies.
The magic of that moment grows when we
realize that Chartres Cathedral is one of the great
architectural miracles of all time.
But so was the Great Pyramid. Its builders worked
in gangs of 20 or so. On a busy day you might find
200 gangs on the site. The men proudly signed the
stones they hauled. One is marked "The Vigorous
Gang," another "The Enduring Gang." One crew,
obviously having fun, chiseled, "How drunk the King
is!" on their stone. A foreman wrote that his gang
without a single man getting exhausted, without
a man thirsting, [and at last they] came home in
good spirits, sated with bread, drunk with beer, as
if it were the beautiful festival of a god.
Our finest works reflect commitment and
ideals. Those monuments were hurled into the sky by
workers with a profound belief in their work. And if
they were drunk, it wasn't on beer or wine. It was on
the elixir of the cause to which they had submitted
themselves and the eerie power it'd given to them.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Clark, K., Civilisation. New York:
Harper & Row, 1969. (Clark makes several
references to Wells's idea and puts it into an
artistic and architectural perspective.)
Casson, L., Ancient Egypt. New York:
Time Incorporated, 1965.
Photo by John Lienhard
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Stereopticon image courtesy of
A view of the Great Pyramid in modern times
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