Egypt and Egyptology

The western world owes much of its fundamental character to ancient Egypt. Egypt provided the idea and the example for alphabetic writing, for realistic portraiture, for colonnaded halls, for the calendar, and for many religious practices. The transmission of these concepts cannot be documented, but the Egyptian examples are much earlier, Egypt interacted strongly with all the cultures around the eastern Mediterranean, notably Phoenicia and Greece, all of the concepts were taken over, and tradition besides points to an Egyptian origin in many cases. It may be easy to see similarities between Mayan temple painting and Egyptian temple painting, but the ideas are totally different, and the Mayans took over none of the other characteristics. Any similarities in such cases must be ascribed to convergent evolution, not to transmission in any fashion. There is no evidence that the Egyptians had help from extraterrestrials, and absolutely nothing proves that the Egyptians acquired anything from any external source, such as the contemporaneous Mesopotamian cultures. Egyptians built magnificent structures and hydraulic works, but possessed no scientific or engineering secrets. Their science and mathematics were empirical and limited, nothing at all like the Greek ideas that are at the root of modern science. They had a flat earth surrounded by ocean, with an underworld beneath it where the Sun went at night to light the departed. Nevertheless, geometry could well have been inspired by an Egyptian model (as tradition relates).

Knowledge of ancient Egypt died when it was suppressed by Christianity with fire and sword. Hieroglyphs were still being written on tomb walls after the time of Augustus, obelisks could still be read, papyrus records were still extant, and the language yet survived. After the Arab conquest, all of this had been lost and forgotten, and old Egypt had become a deep mystery, which to a certain degree it still is, giving scope to the creation of a great amount of nonsense. It is a fascinating and worthy task to try to recreate as much of this lost world as possible, and to make evident yet another Egyptian contribution to western culture: humanity.

Classical authors, mainly in Greek (even when written by Romans, of course), were the only sources of knowledge of ancient Egypt until Champollion and Young deciphered the Rosetta Stone, after 1798, making it possible to read the tomb and temple inscriptions of Upper Egypt, and stelae recording important events. Of the classical authors, only Herodotus was an eyewitness, visiting Egypt during the Persian occupation less than a century after the end of the XXVI dynasty, when all the monuments and cities were whole, and society largely unchanged. The flavor of pharaonic Egypt was carefully preserved through the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, and the country remained of great fascination to travellers then, as it is even today. What little remains is impressive, glorious and evocative.

Egyptology, the study of ancient Egypt, began with Athanasius Kircher, S.J. (1603-1682), who made the first good attempts to understand hieroglyphs. In classical times, they were still understood and used. In fact, the names of Roman Emperors, such as Hadrian, appear on late obelisks. No valid works on hieroglyphs survived the introduction of Christianity, so what they meant was completely unknown, except as erroneously reported, at the time of the Renaissance. Champollion began working on the problem after Bonaparte's excursion to Egypt and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1798. He not only used the stone, but also an obelisk from Philae, inscriptions from Abu Simbel, Coptic, and Greek, to show the nature of hieroglyphs and assemble a dictionary, which was published in 1827. The Rosetta stone did not, by itself unlock hierglyphs, which required ingenious analysis. The start was given by recognizing proper names. Hieroglyphs, which previously had been though to express mystic and esoteric knowledge, were now known to express ordinary things, and permitted a more accurate history of Egypt to be written. Archaeology, stimulated by the Egyptian discoveries, added its suppositions and extrapolations derived from physical remains to the stewpot, and modern Egyptology was born. It is very important to ask oneself: "How could this possibly be known?" when reading about ancient Egypt, as well as to understand what sources are available, and their nature.

Egypt was a country of adobe dwellings and cities; even the palaces were adobe, and the pyramids had cores of adobe faced with limestone. All of this has perished, covered by later occupation or weathered into anonymity. This includes all palaces and homes. The ground plan of one village, Deir el-Medina (Deir The Town) has been determined by excavation. This site was permanently abandoned in haste, and then quickly became covered with sand, preserving it. Sites of constant occupation provide no trace of early conditions, only formless mounds of earth. Limestone sheathing was stripped from pyramids and other structures, and crushed for agricultural use.

Temples, tombs, and monumental sculpture were, in contrast, made of hard and durable rock, often the igneous rock of Elephantine, usually called granite, or else hard quartzite, or other suitable rock. Many of these structures that did remain were later quarried by the Arabs and Turks for building material and agricultural lime. In arid Upper Egypt, away from heavy population and commerce, sacred buildings remained, more or less ruined, but with hieroglyphic inscriptions clearly readable that told of those acts of the dedicator that he or she wished to be remembered. Inscriptions on the interior walls of tombs contained similar information, but mainly traditional magic formulas and other assistance for the dead. These inscriptions contain most of what makes up a history of Egypt today, and Egyptology consists mainly of arguing about what they meant for the state of the country and society, which they very poorly explain. Knowledge is severely biased towards tombs and temples.

A few scraps of papyrus, exceptionally preserved in the dry climate of Egypt, and a few clay tablets with cuneiform writing that can survive anything, are the only other source of literary information, and are as extremely rare as they are extremely valuable. Papyrus was one of the most excellent discoveries of the Egyptians. It made writing light and portable, and was easily stored in rolls of sheets glued together. It was written upon by black or colored ink (India ink: carbon, water, binder) with a reed pen, or later by metal pens or a quill. The writing, if done with the proper kind of ink, could be erased simply by scraping and rubbing it off, and the page reused. The Egyptians produced enormous quantities of papyrus records, which would give us an intimate picture of the society, but they are all lost, except for the isolated scraps. Papyrus made possible widespread literacy and the publishing of books in Roman times, and all was imported from Egypt. Papyrus is made from the flattened pith of the marsh plant of that name, glued and sized to make a good writing surface. Of course, the word paper comes from papyrus, and is a quite similar product. When available from Egypt, it was much cheaper than parchment.

The information we have on ancient Egypt is, therefore, very incomplete, strongly biased by source and location, and often not easy to interpret and correlate. There is no information on how the monuments were constructed, only conjecture founded on the few illustrations of construction in wall inscriptions. We do not know, for example, if rollers were used in the moving of heavy blocks. The probability is that they were not, since timber was rare and expensive in Egypt, and the rollers would disintegrate under the heavy load rather rapidly, or else sink into the ground. The idea probably would have occurred to someone; it was just not practical. Incidentally, heavy obelisks were slid on lubricated slides as late as 1836, which was probably the Egyptian method. Not a great deal is known of daily life: apart from Herodotus's report, furniture, diet, cooking, illumination, and clothing are deduced, probably inaccurately, from wall inscriptions and a few archeological remains. In fact, Herodotus gives the best clue to illumination. Recognizable lamps were never found in the diggings, and this baffled archaeologists, since the Egyptians were known to have a festival of lamps. Wall inscriptions are mute on nearly all of the things affecting common people that we would be interested in. Egyptians made excellent textiles -- but how? What was the fuel for cooking and baking? Egyptology fills the gaps by speculation.

Egypt was simply the Nile and its Delta. The weather was hot, dry, and healthy, though there were gnats. There was no timber, olive trees, or silver, just rich black soil, left by the annual flood. The river rose around the time of the summer solstice, at one time when Sirius rose with the Sun, and was high for 100 days or so. The river was clear when low, turning green as the flood approached. At the height of the flood it was red with silt. A high flood meant plenty; a low flood meant dearth. Precession of the equinoxes changed the relation of Sirius's heliacal rising and the flood through millennia. Good times depended on a good flood, from July to October, that left black silt on the land, and reserves of water for irrigation. After the autumn fertility festivals, grain was planted, to be harvested in the spring. Egypt produced barley, wheat, spelt, linen, papyrus, salt, and fine handicrafts. Gold, ivory, and aromatics were obtained from mines in the deserts and by trade with the south as far as Punt and Ethiopia. Timber, silver, copper, tin, oil, and precious stones were obtained by trade on the Mediterranean, purchased with gold and ivory. Egyptians were peaceful, superstitious, cheerful, drank beer, enjoyed jokes and tall tales, and were of disparate racial origins. Lake Moeris, in the Fayyum, was not artificial, as Herodotus was told and believed, although the channels to the Nile and the works to store and release water indeed were. Transport was by boat, and by burro away from the Nile. The only wheels were on war chariots, which were introduced from Assyria, along with iron weapons. There were no long roads, for obvious reasons, but there were many canals and ferries.

The two main mouths of the Nile are now the Rosetta and the Damietta. A canal diverts the Rosetta channel to Alexandria, which was close to the old Canobic mouth. In ancient times, there were probably more active channels, perhaps as many as five, but they were always modified artificially, and canals were cut parallel to or joining them. A bar forms to seaward of any active mouth as the water drops its load, which is a hazard to navigation. The Bitter Lakes between the Delta and Sinai may have been higher in ancient times; their names show they are drying up. The Mediterranean and the Red Sea cannot have very different levels, so a water level canal between the Nile and the Red Sea would not flood the Delta, as was sometimes believed in ancient and modern times. Such a canal actually existed, though probably not continuously. Herodotus certainly implies that one existed in his time, and was of significant dimensions.

Egypt, called the Black Land from its soil, consisted of the broad countries of the Delta, north of Heliopolis, and the Fayyum, southwest of Heliopolis, which were traditionally called Lower Egypt, and the narrow country of the Nile's flood plain between bluffs, called Upper Egypt, from Heliopolis to Elephantine at the first cataract, originally an ivory market, but later better known as a quarrying region for hard, flawless igneous rock. It was divided into 42 provinces, or nomes, each with a capital and governor, and its local bureaucracy. The crown of Lower Egypt was red, and its symbol the lotus. The crown of Upper Egypt was white, and its symbol the bee. A large part of the land was owned and worked for the benefit of the state, most of the rest by temples or nobles. There was a small upper class, a more numerous middle class of artisans and managers liable to military duty, and a large number of serfs and slaves to do the manual labor of farming, building, mining, rope-making, and oar-pulling, of which there was a great deal to be done.

The god Ammon (Amun) of Thebes has contributed some familiar words to our language. Ammonia comes from sal ammoniac, ammonium chloride, that was made from dung near his temple. This may have been used in embalming. Ammonites are extinct cephalopods whose shells resemble Ammon's sheep horns. Ammon, identified with Zeus, was often pictured with a ram's head. Egyptian art and architecture had great influence on Greek and other art and architecture. The festival of Osiris gave us Halloween and Masonic ritual. The crowned hawk in the title sketch represents Horus, son of Osiris, and king. Every pharaoh was a living Horus. The word pharaoh ultimately derives from the Egyptian for the royal court.

The Egyptian year consisted of exactly 365 days, so it began one day earlier with respect to the equinoxes every four years, and moved completely through the seasons in 1459 years. The equinoxes themselves move westward with respect to the stars, including Sirius, through one zodiacal sign in about 2200 years, so Sirius now rises with the sun after the solstice rather than before it, so the heliacal rising no longer coincides with the flood. These changes can be used to fix dates approximately when the calendar dates of events scheduled by the equinoxes are compared. They were used in the correction of the calendar by the addition of leap years in 30 BC, to establish the Julian calendar, which is (more or less) fixed to the year, so that seasonal festivals occur on the same date every year. The Egyptian solar year was unique; all other early civilizations used lunar calendars. The Egyptian months were: Thoth, Paopi, Hathor, Khoiak, Tobi, Mekhir, Phamenoth, Pharmuthi, Pakhon, Paoni, Epep, and Mesore (with help from Coptic). Thoth began on 29 August, it is said, but the year cannot have begun on the same day of the proleptic Julian or Gregorian calendar. There were three seasons of four months each, Sat, of end of inundation and sowing, Pert, of growing, and Semut, of harvest and start of inundation. The five supernumerary days at the end of the year were devoted to festivities.

The references that I have recommended in connection with my article The Story of Pharaoh Ahmose II on Book II of Herodotus include three by good authors, and any of them will give you their version of what is known about Egypt. Such books usually include a list of dynasties at the end, with dates and names. This concept arose from Manetho, a Ptolemaic author, who tried to organize the kings of Egypt into some kind of order. Herodotus had a similar list available to him, which he used to sketch a history of Egypt that was not very accurate. The concept of dynasties is not Egyptian, nor does it reflect the complexities of actual history. Even the names comprising the early dynasties are not certain, and many of the later dynasties overlapped or were simultaneous, since Egypt was alternately unified and disintegrated politically.

Comparing the dynastic lists of Breasted (1912) and Manley (1996) seems a good way to get an idea of the progress of Egyptology in the 20th century. They are very closely the same, especially during settled periods of unity. Breasted's dates before the XII dynasty are considerably earlier than Manley's. He assumes the I dynasty began in 3400 BC, while Manley claims 2900 BC, a difference of 500 years. The difference decreases as the XII dynasty is approached, when an astronomical check on the dates is possible. For the beginning of dynasty XII, Breasted offers 2000 BC, Manley 1937 BC. After this, there is not enough difference between the two lists to matter. Both authors clearly state the approximate nature of the dates, of course. Breasted actually worked his out from original sources, using the method of Herodotus, which is, in fact, the method always used, pinned down here and there by astronomical checks. Herodotus thought all the names ruled consecutively, and for normal lengths of time, so he got an extremely bloated time scale.

I believe that comparison of the three authors shows that Egyptology was, in all important respects, mature when Breasted wrote, and only rather minor opinions have changed since then, and probably will continue to change in future. Continued excavation results generally in the same kinds of things. Since Breasted wrote, Tuthankamun's tomb was discovered (1922), additional wall inscriptions have been uncovered and deciphered, and a few more relics have been unearthed. Minoan frescoes have been found at Avaris in the delta. These all seem to be just more of the same, extending knowledge of details, but not shedding light on any of the central questions. A source I have not yet investigated, the Cambridge Ancient History, will probably not modify this conclusion. There probably has been more progress in reading hieroglyphs.

Although the history does not change much, the three authors show changes in point of view and academic prejudices quite interestingly. Breasted incidentally mentions race and heredity, considered important at his time, ludicrously spells vigourously, but exhibits judicious wisdom and insight in his interpretations; Mertz, trained and employed in the department Breasted founded at Chicago, analyzes the psychology and motivation of the pharaohs, with personal accounts of her fascination with hieroglyphs. Manley never mentions race, concludes that slavery could never produce a noble monument, and emphasizes the role of women. All of these personal proclivities are valuable to the reader.

Manley's book is one of a series of three published by Penguin covering Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They are called atlases, but are mainly brief historical descriptions. The maps are attractively presented and provided with arrows and colors to illustrate the geographical basis of various developments, but contain no new insights, and are not well detailed. None of the books has a good general map on a large scale of the region of interest. The most extraordinary aspect of these books is the unorthodox spelling of Greek and Egyptian names, that is certain to confuse the general reader. These changes probably reflect an attempt to simulate progress, or express a sophomoric revolt against authority, and I hope it is just a fad. Some discussion is necessary here, lest the reader think that these liberties represent something substantial.

The spelling of Greek words in English has been that used in Latin since classical times. The Latin alphabet even added two extra letters at the end to help this process, and certain Greek letters are represented by two Latin letters, such as ph, ps, and ch. k is represented by c, u by y, h by a or e, ou by u, ai by ae, and oi by oe. The result sounds like Greek when pronounced as Latin, and the Greek spelling can be approximated from the Latin. If the result is pronounced as in English, the correct sound may be lost, for example when c or g precedes e or i. Whether one agrees with this or not, it is uniformly the way it has been done for a couple of millennia, and is adequate. The authors of the Penguin atlases have inconsistently introduced k's for c's, ai's for ae's, oi's for oe's, and os's for us's. Actually, classical authors would have kept the os, as it is a perfectly good if archaic Latin ending, but the 'us' was more regular. We find Kyrene but not Kupros or Mykenae; Boiotia but not Euboia, Plataiai but not Thebai or Athenai, Thrace not Thrake, all on the same map. In one place, we even see an h inserted after a g to harden it before an i, as in Aighina = Aegina. The spelling Perikles even adds a little humor, inviting a mispronunciation hinted at by the k, which, when used in English in this way, is jocular. Pericles is pronounced exactly the same way. Kleopatra appears, but not Kappadokia. There is no thought behind this philokappan tirade. I think I know what is behind it, but I will not say it here. If the philokappans want to extend their revolution, they could always replace s's by c's, so we would have Periklec and Democthenec, Cparta and Calamic, which would be even more cryptic and useless, though closer to Greek orthography.

Egyptian writing (like Arabic and Hebrew) does not clearly express vowel sounds, and the pronunciation of ancient Egyptian is quite unknown. There is only analogy with Coptic and Semitic languages to go on. Greek equivalents are often used when known, and when there are not, the consonants are separated by e's or other inoffensive vowels. Herodotus, it should be realized, actually heard Egyptian, and tried to express it in Greek. Breasted is traditional in this, Manley radical, and Mertz in between. The changes in spelling are devoid of meaning or content, expressing nothing except independence or conformity. In Egyptian, Re and Ra are obviously the same, as are Amon, Ammon, Amun and Amen,, and Aton and Aten. However, Mentuhotep has become Monjuhotep, and Intef is now Intyotef. These only reflect some change in arbitrary transliteration. Sesostris is now Senusret (which feels feminine). Ramses becomes Ramesses. Psamtik is Psamtek (but not consistently in the three volumes). Merneptah became Merenptah, for which there may be a simpler explanation. There are enough strange names anyway, and using these new spellings without comment certainly amazes the innocent reader. Academically, this pointless exercise probably demonstrates clique membership or archness. Egyptian priests no doubt practiced similarly before the amazed multitude. There were various glottal stops in Egyptian, and this could be the next exercise of pure invention in respelling. Egypt, Greece, and Rome are for all of us to enjoy, not the property of any arrogant, pushy or intellectually challenged academics.

All three authors present about the same illustrations (which says something). In Manley, they are in attractive color, which is an excellent feature, and refreshingly, do not include the funerary mask of Tuntankhamun, which must be the most well-known Egyptian image beside the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza (Ghiza, Gizeh, etc.). Although his book is called an atlas, and does have a number of maps, it is mainly a series of short chapters, somewhat disorganized at the end, and there is no general reference map of ancient Egypt (apparently a fold-out was not on). A good map should have been placed at the beginning, with a brief physical description of the country. English versions of Arabic names are widely used (not the official transliterations, thankfully), and this is no help to the reader. For some reason, we have Faiyum, not Fayum, or Arabic al-Fayyum. There is no indication of whether the base map reflects the ancient state of the delta and river, or its modern condition. It looks much like the modern Delta, except for the absence of the Suez Canal. Elephantine spends a lot of time on the eastern bank, but winds up on the western eventually. Syene is never shown, nor Aswan, just a place called Abu, and not the Egyptian On. The designers of the book are responsible for the use of a shiny paper that makes reading difficult when your light is in front, and for extending maps across the gutter, and inexcusably putting type on a background of hieratic script. On the positive side, there was only one typo, buliding, which shows unusual care in proofreading, for a modern edition.

Three of the most interesting questions of Egyptian history can be briefly mentioned here. First is naturally the origin of a unified Egypt, which occurred traditionally through the union of Lower and Upper Egypt at the beginning of the I dynasty by king Menes. The true story is probably much more complicated, and nothing much is known about it. The traditional story is the one the Egyptians believed. The dynastic era seems to have begun about 3000 BC, preceded by neolithic communities. A second is the dark Hyksos period (less dark now than it once was), a time of disunity and dynastic chaos. Any period of Egyptian history becomes dark when its only monuments would have been in the Delta. The Hyksos were first identified as foreign 'shepherd kings' from the fanciful etymology of an unreliable source (Josephus after Manetho), and, in fact, were said to be Assyrians. Breasted demolishes this view and gives an argument for Syrians or Palestinians, but these could not be definitely located, nor their empire discovered. Currently, Hyksos seem to be native Egyptians, or Asiatics, involved in the general governmental chaos, ruling from Avaris in the northeastern part of the Delta, in conflict with the authorities in Thebes. The third question is the connection of Egypt with the Bible. Bible stories (from the Pentateuch) give no factual information on Egypt, and Egyptian sources hardly mention Israel, if indeed they do at all. The 'Israel' stela of Merneptah (about 1220 BC) says "Israel is desolated, and has no seed" in an account of a Libyan war, and an inscription of Shesonk I (about 930 BC) at Karnak mentions the name Abram as a place name. These may be mistranslations, of course, and may not refer to Hebrews at all. A mention of Hebrews in another inscription says no more than a group supplied tribute labor, among other groups that did so. That is all there is. All the Exodus stories were apparently created from legend and myth to provide a new kingdom with ancestors and hoary rules for a new religion. Egyptology provides not the faintest support, a great disappointment to many. Curiously, the Nile runs red during the peak flood, which may have been interpreted as blood by someone who only heard about it. No frogs or dead cattle everywhere, or drowned Pharaohs, or murdered firstborn, are ever mentioned. The later accounts of contemporary events, in Kings and later, were evidently protests at Egypt's failure to support their Palestinian allies against the Assyrians and Babylonians after Rameses III. Even these stories cannot be precisely correlated with Egyptian events. The long reign of Rameses II, often called the "pharaoh of the Bible," is rather well known, and Hebrews do not appear anywhere in it. Many hopes have been dashed by these stark facts.


Ian Shaw, ed., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). A good recent history based more on fact than on imagination.

James Henry Breasted, A History of Egypt, 2nd. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912), a classic.

Barbara Mertz, Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs (New York, Coward-McCann, 1964).

Bill Manley, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin, 1996) is well illustrated and currently available.

Collier and Manley, Reading Hieroglyphs (Berkeley, CA: U. of Cal. Press, 1998) is highly recommended as an introduction.

Return to Pharaoh

Composed by J. B. Calvert, 1999
Last revised 28 July 2002