Despite it’s rather clichéd image, there is so much more to ancient Egypt than temples, tombs and Tutankhamun. As the world’s first nation-state, predating the civilisations of Greece and Rome by several millennia, Egypt was responsible for some of the most important achievements in human history – it was where writing was invented, the first stone monuments erected and an entire culture set in place, which remained largely unchanged for thousands of years.
All this was made possible by the Nile River, which brought life to this virtually rainless land. In contrast to the vast barren ‘red land’ of desert that the Egyptians called deshret, the narrow river banks were known as kemet (black land), named after the rich silt deposited by the river’s annual floods. The abundant harvests grown in this rich earth were then gathered as taxes by a highly organised bureaucracy working on behalf of the king (pharaoh). They redirected this wealth to run the administration and to fund ambitious building projects designed to enhance royal status.
Although such structures have come to symbolise ancient Egypt, the survival of so many pyramids, temples and tombs have created a misleading impression of the Egyptians as a morbid bunch obsessed with religion and death, when they simply loved life so much that they went to enormous lengths to ensure it continued f or eternity. The depth of this conviction suffused every aspect of the ancient Egyptians’ lives, and gave their culture its incredible coherence and conservatism.
They believed they had their gods to take care of them, and each pharaoh was regarded as the gods’ representative on earth, ruling by divine approval. Absolute monarchy was integral to Egyptian culture, and the country’s history was shaped around the lengths of each pharaoh’s reign. Thirty royal dynasties ruled over a 3000-year period, now divided into the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms separated by intermittent periods of unrest (Intermediate periods) when the country split into north (Lower Egypt) and south (Upper Egypt).
When this split finally became permanent at the end of the New Kingdom (around 1069 BC), foreign powers were gradually able to take control of the government. Yet even then, Egyptian culture was so deeply rooted that the successive invaders could not escape its influence, and Libyans, Nubians and Persians all came to adopt traditional Egyptian ways. The Greeks were so impressed with the ancient culture that they regarded Egypt as the ‘cradle of civilisation’, and even the occupying Romans adopted the country’s ancient gods and traditions.
It was only at the end of the 4th century AD, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, that ancient Egypt finally died; their gods were taken from them, their temples were closed down, and all knowledge of the ‘pagan’ hieroglyphs that transmitted their culture was lost for some 1400 years.
Egypt’s Pharaonic history is based on the regnal years of each king, or pharaoh, a word derived from per-aa (great house), meaning palace. Among the many hundreds of pharaohs who ruled Egypt over a 3000-year period, the following are some of the names found most frequently around the a ncient sites.
Narmer c 3100 BC First king of a united Egypt after he conquered the north (Lower) Egypt, Narmer from south (Upper) Egypt is portrayed as victorious on the famous Narmer Palette in the Egyptian Museum.
He is perhaps to be identified with the semimythical King Menes, founder of Egypt’s ancient capital city Memphis.
Zoser (Djoser) c 2667–2648 BC As second king of the 3rd dynasty, Zoser was buried in Egypt’s first pyramid, the world’s oldest monumental stone building, designed by the architect Imhotep. Zoser’s statue in the foyer of the Egyptian Museum shows a long-haired king with a slight moustache, dressed in a tight-fitting robe and striped nemes (headcloth).
Sneferu c 2613–2589 BC The first king of the 4th dynasty, and held in the highest esteem by later generations, Sneferu was Egypt’s greatest pyramid builder. He was responsible for four such structures, and his final resting place, the Red (Northern) Pyramid at Dahshur, was Egypt’s first true pyramid and a model for the more famous pyramids at Giza. See a lso p210 . Khufu (Cheops) c 2589–2566 BC As Sneferu’s son and successor, Khufu was second king of the 4th dynasty.
Best known for Egypt’s largest pyramid, the Great Pyramid at Giza, his only surviving likeness is Egypt’s smallest royal sculpture, a 7.5cm-high figurine in the Egyptian Museum. The gold furniture of his mother Hetepheres is also in the museum.
Khafre (Khephren, Chephren) c 2558–2532 BC Khafre was a younger son of Khufu who succeeded his half-brother to become fourth king of the 4th dynasty. He built the second of Giza’s famous pyramids and although he is best known as the model for the face of the Great Sphinx, his diorite statue in the Egyptian Museum is equally stunning.
Menkaure (Mycerinus) c 2532–2503 BC As the son of Khafre and fifth king of the 4th dynasty, Menkaure built the smallest of Giza’s three huge pyramids. He is also well represented by a series of superb sculptures in the Egyptian Museum, which show him with the goddess Hathor and deities representing various regions (nomes) of Egypt.
Pepi II c 2278–2184 BC As fifth king of the 6th dynasty, Pepi II was a child at his accession; his delight with a dancing pygmy was recorded in the Aswan tomb of his official Harkhuf. As one of the world’s longest-reigning monarchs (96 years), Pepi contributed to the decline of the Pyramid Age.
Montuhotep II c 2055–2004 BC As overlord of Thebes, Montuhotep II reunited Egypt and his reign began the Middle Kingdom. He was the first king to build a funerary temple at Deir al-Bahri, in which he was buried with five of his wives and a daughter, with further wives and courtiers buried in the surrounding area.
Sesostris III (Senwosret, Senusret) c 1874–1855 BC The fifth king of the 12th dynasty, Sesostris III reorganised the administration by taking power from the provincial governors (nomarchs). He strengthened Egypt’s frontiers and occupied Nubia with a chain of fortresses, and is recognisable by the stern, ‘careworn’ faces of his statues. His female relatives were buried with spectacular jewellery.
Amenhotep I c 1525–1504 BC As second king of the 18th dynasty, Amenhotep I ruled for a time with his mother Ahmose-Nofretari. They founded the village of Deir el-Medina for the workers who built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and Amenhotep I may have been the first king to be buried there.
Hatshepsut c 1473–1458 BC As the most famous of Egypt’s female pharaohs, Hatshepsut took power at the death of her brother-husband Tuthmosis II and initially ruled jointly with her nephewstepson Tuthmosis III. After taking complete control, she undertook ambitious building schemes, including obelisks at Karnak Temple and her own spectacular funerary temple at Deir al-Bahri.
Tuthmosis III c 1479–1425 BC As sixth king of the 18th dynasty, Tuthmosis III (the Napoleon of ancient Egypt) expanded Egypt’s empire with a series of foreign campaigns into Syria. He built extensively at Karnak, added a chapel at Deir al-Bahri and his tomb was the first in the Valley of the Kings to be decorated.
Amenhotep III c 1390–1352 BC As ninth king of the 18th dynasty, Amenhotep III’s reign marks the zenith of Egypt’s culture and power. Creator of Luxor Temple and the largest ever funerary temple marked by the Colossi of Memnon, his many innovations, including Aten worship, are usually credited to his son and successor Amenhotep IV (later ‘Akhenaten’).
Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) c 1352–1336 BC Changing his name from Amenhotep to distance himself from the state god Amun, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti relocated the royal capital to Amarna. While many still regard him as a monotheist and benign revolutionary, the evidence suggests he was a dictator whose reforms were political rather than religious.
Nefertiti c 1338–1336 BC (?) Famous for her painted bust in Berlin, Nefertiti ruled with her husband Akhenaten, and while the identity of his successor remains controversial, this may have been Nefertiti herself, using the throne name ‘Smenkhkare’. Equally controversial is the suggested identification of her mummy in tomb KV 35 in the Valley of the Kings.
Tutankhamun c 1336–1327 BC As the 11th king of the 18th dynasty, Tutankhamun’s fame is based on the great quantities of treasure discovered in his tomb in 1922. Most likely the son of Akhenaten by minor wife Kiya, Tutankhamun reopened the traditional temples and restored Egypt’s fortunes after the disastrous reign of his father.
Horemheb c 1323–1295 BC As a military general, Horemheb restored Egypt’s empire under Tutankhamun and after the brief reign of Ay eventually became king himself. Married to Nefertiti’s sister Mutnodjmet, his tomb at Saqqara was abandoned in favour of a royal burial in a superbly decorated tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
Seti I c 1294–1279 BC The second king of the 19th dynasty, Seti I continued to consolidate Egypt’s empire with foreign campaigns. Best known for building Karnak’s Hypostyle Hall, a superb temple at Abydos and a huge tomb in the Valley of the Kings, his mummy in the Egyptian Museum is one of the best preserved examples.
Ramses II c 1279–1213 BC As son and successor of Seti I, Ramses II fought the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh and built temples including Abu Simbel and the Ramesseum, once adorned with the statue that inspired poet PB Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. The vast tomb of his children was rediscovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1995.
Ramses III c 1184–1153 BC As second king of the 20th dynasty, Ramses III was the last of the warrior kings, repelling several attempted invasions portrayed in scenes at his funerary temple Medinat Habu. Buried in a finely decorated tomb in the Valley of the Kings, his mummy was the inspiration for Boris Karloff’s The Mummy.
Taharka 690–664 BC As fourth king of the 25th dynasty, Taharka was one of Egypt’s Nubian pharaohs and his daughter Amenirdis II high priestess at Karnak where Taharka undertook building work. A fine sculpted head of the king is in Aswan’s Nubian Museum, and he was buried in a pyramid at Nuri in southern Nubia.
Alexander the Great 332–323 BC During his conquest of the Persian Empire, the Macedonian king Alexander invaded Egypt in 332 BC. Crowned pharaoh at Memphis, he founded Alexandria, visited Amun’s temple at Siwa Oasis to confirm his divinity and after his untimely death in Babylon in 323 BC his mummy was eventually buried in Alexandria.
Ptolemy I 323–283 BC As Alexander’s general and rumoured half-brother, Ptolemy seized Egypt at Alexander’s death and established the Ptolemaic line of pharaohs. Ruling in traditional style for 300 years, they made Alexandria the greatest capital of the ancient world and built many of the temples standing today, including Edfu, Philae and Dendera.
Cleopatra VII 51–30 BC As the 19th ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra VII ruled with her brothers Ptolemy XIII then Ptolemy XIV before taking power herself. A brilliant politician who restored Egypt’s former glories, she married Julius Caesar then Mark Antony, whose defeat at Actium in 31 BC led to the couple’s suicide.
With ancient Egypt’s history focused on its royals, the part played by the rest of the ancient population is frequently ignored. The great emphasis on written history also excludes the 99% of the ancient population who were unable to write, and it can often seem as if the only people who lived in ancient Egypt were pharaohs, priests and scribes.
The silent majority are often dismissed as little more than illiterate peasants, although these were the very people who built the monuments and produced the wealth on which the culture w as based.
Fortunately Egypt’s climate, at least, is democratic, and has preserved the remains of people throughout society, from the mummies of the wealthy in their grand tombs to the remains of the poorest individuals buried in hollows in the sand.
The worldly goods buried with them for use in the afterlife can give valuable details about everyday life and how it was lived, be it in the bustling, cosmopolitan capital Memphis or in the small rural settlements scattered along the banks of the Nile.
In Egypt’s dry climate, houses were traditionally built of mud brick, whether they were the back-to-back homes of workers or the sprawling palaces of the royals. The main differences were the number of rooms and the quality of fixtures and fittings.
The villas of the wealthy often incorporated walled gardens with stone drainage systems for small pools, and some even had en-suite bathroom facilities – look out for the limestone toilet seat found at Amarna and now hanging in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Just like the mud-brick houses in rural Egypt today, ancient homes were warm in winter and cool in summer. Small, high-set windows reduced the sun’s heat but allowed breezes to blow through, and stairs gave access to the flat roof where the family could relax or sleep.
Often whitewashed on the outside to deflect the heat, interiors were usually painted in bright colours, the walls and floors of wealthier homes further enhanced with gilding and inlaid tiles.
Although the furniture of most homes would have been quite sparse – little more than a mud-brick bench, a couple of stools and a few sleeping mats – the wealthy could afford beautiful furniture, including inlaid chairs and footstools, storage chests, beds with linen sheets and feather-stuffed cushions.
Most homes also had small shrines for household deities and busts of family ancestors, and a small raised area seems to have been reserved for women i n childbirth. The home was very much a female domain.
The most common title for women of all social classes was nebet per (lady of the house), emphasising their control over most aspects of domestic life. Although there is little evidence of marriage ceremonies, monogamy was standard practice for the majority, with divorce and remarriage relatively common and initiated by either sex.
With the same legal rights as men, women were responsible for running the home, and although there were male launderers, cleaners and cooks, it was mainly women who cared for the children, cleaned the house, made clothing and prepared food in small open-air kitchens adjoining the home.
The staple food was bread, produced in many varieties, including the dense calorie-laden loaves mass-produced for those working on government building schemes. Onions, leeks, garlic and pulses were eaten in great quantities along with dates, figs, pomegranates and grapes. Grapes were also used, along with honey, as sweeteners. Spices, herbs, nuts and seeds were also added to food, along with oil extracted from native plants and imported almonds and olives.
Although cows provided milk for drinking and making butter and cheese, meat was only eaten regularly by the wealthy and by priests allowed to eat temple offerings once the gods had been satisfied. This was mostly beef, although sheep, goats and pigs were also eaten, as were game and wild fowl. Fish was generally dried and salted, and because of its importance in workers’ diets, a fish-processing plant existed at the pyramid builders’ settlement at Giza.
Although the wealthy enjoyed wine (with the best produced in the vineyards of the Delta and western oases, or imported from Syria), the standard beverage was rather soupy barley beer, which was drunk throughout society by everyone, including children.
The ancient Egyptians’ secret to a contented life is summed up by the words of one of their poems: ‘it is good to drink beer with happy hearts, when one is clothed in c lean robes’.
The majority of ancient Egyptians were farmers, whose lives were based around the annual cycle of the Nile. This formed the basis of their calendar with its three seasons – akhet (inundation), peret (spring planting) and shemu (summer harvest).
As the flood waters covering the valley floor receded by October, farmers planted their crops in the silt left behind, using irrigation canals to distribute the flood waters where needed and to water their crops until harvest time i n April. Agriculture was so fundamental to life in both this world and the next that it was one of the main themes in tomb scenes.
The standard repertoire of ploughing, sowing and reaping is often interspersed with officials checking field boundaries or calculating the grain to be paid as tax in this pre-coinage economy. The officials are often accompanied by scribes busily recording all transactions, with hieroglyphs first developed c 3250 BC as a means of recording produce.
A huge civil service of scribes worked on the pharaoh’s behalf to record taxes and organise workers, and in a society where less than 1% were literate, scribes were regarded as wise and were much admired. Taught to read and write in the schools attached to temples where written texts were stored and studied, the great majority of scribes were male. However, some women are also shown with documents, and literacy would have been necessary to undertake roles they are known to have held, including overseer, steward, teacher, doctor, high priestess, vizier and even pharaoh on at least s ix occasions.
Closely related to the scribe’s profession were the artists and sculptors who produced the stunning artefacts synonymous with ancient Egypt. From colossal statues to delicate jewellery, all were fashioned using simple tools and n atural materials. Building stone was hewn by teams of labourers supplemented by prisoners, with granite obtained from Aswan, sandstone from Gebel Silsila, alabaster from Hatnub near Amarna and limestone from Tura near modern Cairo. Gold came from mines in the Eastern Desert and Nubia, and both copper and turquoise were mined in the Sinai.
With such precious commodities being transported large distances, trade routes and border areas were patrolled by guards, police (known as medjay) and the army, when not out on campaign. Men also plied their trade as potters, carpenters, builders, metalworkers, jewellers, weavers, fishermen and butchers, with many of these professions handed down from father to son. (This is especially well portrayed in the tomb scenes of Rekhmire.
There were also itinerant workers such as barbers, dancers and midwives, and those employed for their skills as magicians. Men worked alongside women as servants in wealthy homes, performing standard household duties, and thousands of people were employed in the temples, which formed the heart of every settlement as a combination of town hall, college, library and medical centre.
As well as a hierarchy of priests and priestesses, temples employed their own scribes, butchers, gardeners, florists, perfume makers, musicians and dancers, many of whom worked on a p art-time basis.
Most Egyptians seem to have bathed regularly and used moisturising oils to protect their skin from the drying effects of the sun. These oils were sometimes perfumed with flowers, herbs and spices, and Egyptian perfumes were famous throughout the ancient world for their strength and quality.
Perfume ingredients are listed in ancient texts, along with recipes for face creams and beauty preparations, and cosmetics were also used to enhance the appearance. Responsible for the familiar elongated eye shape, eye-paint also had a practical use, acting like sunglasses by reducing the glare of bright sunlight and explaining why builders are shown having their eyes made up during work.
Both green malachite and black galena (kohl) were used in crushed form, mixed with water or oil and stored ready for use in small pots. Red ochre prepared in a similar fashion was used by women to shade their lips and cheeks.
Some Egyptians were also trained to apply cosmetics and perform manicures and pedicures. Although most people kept their cosmetic equipment in small baskets or boxes, the wealthy had beautifully decorated chests with multiple compartments, pull-out drawers and polished metal mirrors with which they could inspect their carefully designed appearance.
Personal appearance was clearly important to the Egyptians, with wigs, jewellery, cosmetics and perfumes worn by men and women alike. Garments were generally linen, made from the flax plant before the introduction of cotton in Ptolemaic times.
Status was reflected in the fineness and quantity of the linen, but as it was expensive, surviving clothes show frequent patching and darning. Laundry marks are also found; male launderers were employed by the wealthy, and even a few ancient laundry lists have survived, listing the types of garments they had to wash in the course of their work.
The most common garment was the loincloth, worn like underpants beneath other clothes. Men also wore a linen kilt, sometimes pleated, and both men and women wore the bag-tunic made from a rectangle of linen folded in half and sewn up each side. The most common female garments were dresses, most wrapped sari-like around the body, although there were also V-neck designs cut to shape, and detachable sleeves for easy cleaning.
Linen leggings have also been found, as well as socks with a gap between the toes for wearing with sandals made of vegetable fibre or leather. Royal footwear also featured gold sequins, embroidery and beading, with enemies painted on the soles to be c rushed underfoot. Plain headscarves were worn to protect the head from the sun or during messy work; the striped headcloth (nemes) was only worn by the pharaoh, who also had numerous crowns and diadems for ceremonial o ccasions.
Jewellery was worn by men and women throughout society for both aesthetic and magical purposes. It was made of various materials, from gold to glazed pottery, and included collars, necklaces, hair ornaments, bracelets, anklets, belts, earrings and finger rings.
Wigs and hair extensions were also popular and date back to c 3400 BC, as does the hair dye henna (Lawsonia inermis). Many people shaved or cropped their hair for cleanliness and to prevent head lice (which have even been found in the hair of pharaohs).
The clergy had to shave their heads for ritual purity, and children’s heads were partially shaved to leave only a side lock of hair as a symbol of their youth.
Initially representing aspects of the natural world, Egypt’s gods and goddesses grew more complex through time.
As they began to blend together and adopt each other’s characteristics, they started to become difficult to identify, although their distinctive headgear and clothing can provide clues as to who they are.
The following brief descriptions should help travellers spot at least a few of the many hundreds who appear on monuments and in museums.
Amun The local god of Thebes (Luxor) who absorbed the war god Montu and fertility god Min and combined with the sun god to create Amun-Ra, King of the Gods. He is generally portrayed as a man with a double-plumed crown and sometimes the horns of his s acred ram.
Anubis God of mummification, patron of embalmers and guardian of cemeteries, Anubis is generally depicted as a black jackal or a jackal-headed man.
Apophis The huge snake embodying darkness and chaos was the enemy of the sun god Ra and tried to destroy him every night and prevent him reaching the dawn.
Aten The solar disc whose rays end in outstretched hands, first appearing c 1900 BC and becoming chief deity during the Amarna Period c 1360– 1335 BC.
Atum Creator god of Heliopolis who rose from the primeval waters and ejaculated (or sneezed depending on the myth) to create gods and humans. Generally depicted as a man wearing the double crown, Atum represented the setting sun.
Bastet Cat goddess whose cult centre was Bubastis; ferocious when defending her father Ra the sun god, she was often shown as a friendly deity, personified by the domestic cat.
Bes Grotesque yet benign dwarf god fond of music and dancing; he kept evil from the home and protected women in childbirth by waving his knife and sticking out his tongue.
Geb God of the earth generally depicted as a green man lying beneath his sister-wife Nut the sky goddess, supported by their father Shu, god of air.
Hapy God of the Nile flood and the plump embodiment of fertility shown as an androgynous figure with a headdress of aquatic p lants.
Hathor Goddess of love and pleasure represented as a cow or a woman with a crown of horns and sun’s disc in her guise as the sun god’s daughter. Patron of music and dancing whose cult centre was Dendara, she was known as ‘she of the beautiful hair’ and ‘lady o f drunkenness’.
Horus Falcon god of the sky and son of Isis and Osiris, he avenged his father to rule on earth and was personified by the ruling king. He can appear as a falcon or a man with a falcon’s head, and his eye (wedjat) was a powerful amulet.
Isis Goddess of magic and protector of her brother-husband Osiris and their son Horus, she and her sister Nephthys also protected the dead. As symbolic mother of the king she appears as a woman with a throne-shaped crown, or sometimes has Hathor’s c ow horns.
Khepri God of the rising sun represented by the scarab beetle, whose habit of rolling balls of dirt was likened to the sun’s journey across the sky.
Khnum Ram-headed god who created life on a potter’s wheel; he also controlled the waters of the Nile flood from his cave at Elephantine and his cult centre w as Esna.
Khons Young god of the moon and son of Amun and Mut. He is generally depicted in human form wearing a crescent moon crown and the ‘sidelock of youth’ h airstyle.
Maat Goddess of cosmic order, truth and justice, depicted as a woman wearing an ostrich feather on her head, or sometimes by the feather a lone.
Mut Amun’s consort and one of the symbolic mothers of the king; her name means both ‘mother’ and ‘vulture’ and she is generally shown as woman with a vulture headdress.
Nekhbet Vulture goddess of Upper Egypt worshipped at el-Kab; she often appears with her sistergoddess Wadjet the cobra, protecting the p haraoh.
Nut Sky goddess usually portrayed as a woman whose star-spangled body arches across tomb and temple ceilings. She swallows the sun each evening to give birth to it each m orning.
Osiris God of regeneration portrayed in human form and worshipped mainly at Abydos. As the first mummy created, he was magically revived by Isis to produce their son Horus, who took over the earthly kingship while Osiris became ruler of the underworld and symbol of eternal life.
Ptah Creator god of Memphis who thought the world into being. He is patron of craftsmen, wears a skullcap and usually clutches a tall sceptre (resembling a 1950s m icrophone).
Ra Supreme sun god generally shown as a man with a falcon’s head topped by a sun disc, although he can take many forms (eg Aten, Khepri) and other gods merge with him to enhance
Their powers (eg Amun-Ra, Ra-Atum). Ra travelled through the skies in a boat, sinking down into the underworld each night before re-emerging at dawn to b ring light.
Sekhmet Lioness goddess of Memphis whose name means ‘the powerful one’. As a daughter of sun god Ra she was capable of great destruction and was the bringer of pestilence; her priests functioned as doctors. Seth God of chaos personified by a mythological, composite animal. After murdering his brother Osiris he was defeated by Horus, and his great physical strength was harnessed to defend Ra in the underworld.
Sobek Crocodile god representing Pharaonic might, he was worshipped at Kom Ombo and the Fayuum.
Taweret Hippopotamus goddess who often appears upright to scare evil from the home and protect women in c hildbirth.
Thoth God of wisdom and writing, and patron of scribes. He is portrayed as an ibis or baboon and his cult centre was Hermopolis.
Although many gods had their own cult centers, they were also worshipped at temples throughout Egypt. Built on sites considered sacred, existing temples were added to by successive pharaohs to demonstrate their piety. This is best seen at the enormous complex of Karnak (p 243) , the culmination of 2000 years of reconstruction.
Surrounded by huge enclosure walls of mud brick, the stone temples within were regarded as houses of the gods where daily rituals were performed on behalf of the pharaoh. As the intermediary between gods and humans, the pharaoh was high priest of every temple, although in practice these powers were delegated to each temple’s high priest.
As well as the temples housing the gods (cult temples), there were also funerary (mortuary) temples where each pharaoh was worshipped after death. Eventually sited away from their tombs for security reasons, the best examples are on Luxor’s West Bank, where pharaohs buried in the Valley of the Kings had huge funerary temples built closer to the river.
These include Ramses III’s temple at Medinat Habu, Amenhotep III’s once-vast temple marked by the Colossi of Memnon and the best known example built by Hatshepsut into the cliffs of Deir al-Bahri.
Tombs initially,tombs were created to differentiate the burials of the elite from the majority, whose bodies continued to be placed directly into the desert sand. By around 3100 BC the mound of sand heaped over a grave was replaced by a more permanent structure of mud brick, whose characteristic bench-shape is known as a mastaba after the Arabic word f or bench. A s stone replaced mud brick, the addition of further levels to increase height created the pyramid, the first built at Saqqara for King Zoser. Its stepped sides soon evolved into the familiar smooth-sided structure, with the Pyramids of Giza, the most f amous examples. Pyramids are generally surrounded by the mastaba tombs of officials wanting burial close to their pharaoh in order to share in an afterlife which was still the prerogative of royalty, Tomb of Akhethotep & Ptahhotep, Mastaba of Ti and Tombs of Mereruka & Ankhmahor.
It was only when the power of the monarchy broke down at the end of the Old Kingdom that the afterlife became increasingly accessible to those outside the royal family, and as officials became increasingly independent they began to opt for burial in their home towns. With little room for grand superstructures along many of the narrow stretches beside the Nile, an alternative type of tomb developed; cut tunnel-fashion into the cliffs that border the river.
Most were built on the west bank, the traditional place of burial where the sun was seen to sink down into the underworld each evening. These simple rock-cut tombs consisting of a single chamber gradually developed into more elaborate structures complete with an open courtyard, offering a chapel and entrance façade carved out of the rock, with a shaft leading down into a burial chamber; see Tomb of Kheti, Tomb of Baqet, Tomb of Khnumhotep (p 224) and Tombs of the Nobles.
The most impressive rock-cut tombs were those built for the kings of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC), who relocated the royal burial ground south to the religious capital Thebes (modern Luxor) to a remote desert valley on the west bank, now known as the Valley of the Kings.
With new evidence suggesting the first tomb (KV 39) here may have been built by Amenhotep I, the tomb of his successor Tuthmosis I was built by royal architect Ineni, whose biographical inscription states that he supervised its construction alone, ‘with no-one seeing, no-one hearing’.
In a radical departure from tradition, the offering chapels that were once part of the tomb’s layout were now replaced by funerary (mortuary) temples built some distance away to preserve the tomb’s secret location.
The tombs themselves were designed with a long corridor descending to a network of chambers decorated with scenes to help the deceased reach the next world. Many of these were extracts from the Book of the Dead, the modern term for works including The Book of Amduat (literally, ‘that which is in the underworld’), The Book of Gates and The Litany of Ra.
These describe the sun god’s nightly journey through the darkness of the underworld, the realm of Osiris, with each hour of the night regarded as a separate region guarded by demigods. In order for Ra and the dead souls who accompanied him to pass through on their way to rebirth at dawn, it was essential that they knew the demigods’ names in order to get past them. Since knowledge was power in the Egyptian afterlife, the funerary texts give ‘Knowledge of the power of those in the underworld, knowledge of the hidden forces, knowing each hour and each god, knowing the gates where the great god must pass and knowing how the powerful can b e destroyed’.
Although mummification was used by many ancient cultures across the world, the Egyptians were the ultimate practitioners of this highly complex procedure, which they refined over 4 000 years. Their preservation of the dead can be traced back to the very earliest times, when bodies were simply buried in the desert away from the limited areas of cultivation.
In direct contact with the sand, the hot, dry conditions allowed body fluids to drain away while preserving the skin, hair and nails intact. Accidentally uncovering such bodies must have had a profound effect upon those able to recognise people who had died y ears before. As society developed, those who would once have been buried in a hole in the ground demanded tombs befitting their status.
But as the bodies were no longer in direct contact with the sand, they rapidly decomposed. An alternative means of preservation was therefore required. After a long process of experimentation, and a good deal of trial and error, the Egyptians seem to have finally cracked it around 2600 BC when they started to remove the internal organs, where putrefaction begins.
As the process became increasingly elaborate, all the organs were removed except the kidneys, which were hard to reach, and the heart, considered to be the source of intelligence. The brain was removed by inserting a metal probe up the nose and whisking until it had liquefied sufficiently to be drained down the nose. All the rest – lungs, liver, stomach and intestines – were removed through an opening cut in the left flank.
Then the body and its separate organs were covered with natron salt (a combination of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate) and left to dry out for 40 days, after which they were washed, purified and anointed with a range of oils, spices and resins.
All were then wrapped in layers of linen, with the appropriate amulets set in place over the various parts of the body as priests recited the n ecessary incantations. With each of the internal organs placed inside its own burial container (one of four Canopic jars), the wrapped body with its funerary mask was placed inside its coffin.
It was then ready for the funeral procession to the tomb, where the vital Opening of the Mouth ceremony reanimated the soul and restored its senses. Offerings could then be given and the deceased wished ‘a thousand of every good and pure thing for your soul and all kinds of offerings’.
The Egyptians also used their mummification skills to preserve animals, both much-loved pets and creatures presented in huge numbers as votive offerings to the gods with which they were associated. Everything from huge bulls to tiny shrews were mummified, with cats, hawks and ibis preserved in their millions by Graeco-Roman times.
With average life expectancy around 35 years, the ancient Egyptians took health care seriously, and used a blend of medicine and magic to treat problems caused mainly by the environment. Wind-blown sand damaged eyes, teeth and lungs; snakes and scorpions were a common danger; parasitic worms lurked in infected water; and flies spread diseases.
Medicines prescribed for such problems were largely plant- or mineral-based, and included honey (now known to be an effective antibacterial) and ‘bread in mouldy condition’ – as described in the ancient medical texts – which provided a source of penicillin. By 2650 BC there were dentists and doctors, with specialists in surgery, gynaecology, osteopathy and even veterinary practice trained in the temple medical schools.
The pyramid builders’ town at Giza had medical facilities capable of treating fractures and performing successful surgical amputations. Magic was also used to combat illness or injury, and spells were recited and amulets worn to promote recovery. Most popular was the wedjat-eye of Horus, representing health and completeness, while amulets of the household deities Bes and Taweret were worn during the difficult time of childbirth.
Mixtures of honey, sour milk and crocodile dung were recommended as contraceptives, and pregnancy tests involving barley were used to foretell the sex of the unborn child. Magic was also used extensively during childhood, with the great mother goddess Isis and her son Horus often referred to in spells to cure a variety of childhood ailments.
Ancient Egyptian art is instantly recognisable, and its distinctive style remained largely unchanged for more than three millennia. With its basic characteristics already in place at the beginning of the Pharaonic period c 3100 BC, the motif of the king smiting his enemies on the Narmer Palette, was still used in Roman times.
Despite being described in modern terms as ‘works of art’, the reasons for the production of art in ancient Egypt are still very much misunderstood. Whereas most cultures create art for purely decorative purposes, Egyptian art was primarily functional. This idea is best conveyed when gazing at the most famous and perhaps most beautiful of all Egyptian images, Tutankhamun’s death mask, which was quite literally made to be buried in a hole in the ground.
The majority of artifacts were produced for religious and funerary purposes, and despite their breathtaking beauty would have been hidden away from public gaze, either within a temple’s dark interior or, like Tut’s mask, buried in a tomb with the dead. This only makes the objects – and those who made them – even more remarkable.
Artists regarded the things they made as pieces of equipment to do a job rather than works of art to be displayed and admired, and only once or twice in 3000 years did an artist actually sign their work. This concept also explains the appearance of carved and painted wall scenes, whose deceptively simple appearance and lack of perspective reinforces their functional purpose.
The Egyptians believed it was essential that the things they portrayed had every relevant feature shown as clearly as possible. Then when they were magically reanimated through the correct rituals they would be able to function as effectively as possible, protecting and sustaining the unseen spirits of both the gods and the dead.
Figures needed a clear outline, with a profile of nose and mouth to let them breathe, and the eye shown whole as if seen from the front, to allow the figure to see. This explains why eyes were often painted on the sides of coffins to allow the dead to see out, and why hieroglyphs such as snakes or enemy figures were sometimes shown in two halves to prevent them causing damage when re-activated.
The vast quantities of food and drink offered in temples and tombs were duplicated on surrounding walls to ensure a constant supply for eternity. The offerings are shown piled up in layers, sometimes appearing to float in that air if the artist took this practice too far. In the same way, objects otherwise hidden from view if portrayed realistically, appear to balance on top of the boxes that actually c ontained them.
While working within such restrictive conventions, the ancient artists still managed to capture a feeling of vitality. Inspired by the natural world around them, they selected images to reflect the concept of life and rebirth, as embodied by the scarab beetles and tilapia fish thought capable of self-generation. Since images were also believed to be able to transmit the life-force they contained, fluttering birds, gambolling cattle and the speeding quarry of huntsmen were all favourite motifs.
The life-giving properties of plants are also much in evidence, with wheat, grapes, onions and figs stacked side by side with the flowers the Egyptians loved so much. Particularly common are the lotus (water lily) and papyrus, the heraldic symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt often shown entwined to symbolise a k ingdom united. Colour was also used as a means of reinforcing an object’s function, with bright primary shades achieved with natural pigments selected for their specific qualities.
Egypt was represented politically by the White Crown of Upper Egypt and the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, fitted together in the dual crown to represent the two lands brought together. The country could also be represented in environmental terms by the colours red and black, the red desert wastes of deshret contrasting with the fertile black land of kemet.
For the Egyptians, black was the colour of life, which also explains the choice of black in representations of Osiris, god of fertility and resurrection in contrast to the redness associated with his brother Seth, god of chaos. Colour does not indicate ethnic origins, however, since Osiris is also shown with green skin, the colour of vegetation and new life. Some of his fellow gods are blue to echo the ethereal blue of the sky, and the golden-yellow of the sun is regularly employed for its protective qualities.
Even human figures were initially represented with different coloured skin tones, the red-brown of men contrasting with the paler, yellowed tones of women, and although this has been interpreted as indicating that men spent most of the time working outdoors whereas women led a more sheltered existence, changes in artistic convention meant everyone was eventually shown with the same red-brown s kin tone.
The choice of material was also an important way of enhancing an object’s purpose. Sculptors worked in a variety of different mediums, with stone often chosen for its colour – white limestone and alabaster (calcite), golden sandstone, green schist (slate), brown quartzite and both black and red granite. Smaller items could be made of red or yellow jasper, orange carnelian or blue lapis-lazuli, metals such as copper, gold or silver, or less costly materials such as wood or highly glazed blue faïence pottery.
All these materials were used to produce a wide range of statuary for temples and tombs, from 20m-high stone colossi to gold figurines a few centimetres tall. Regardless of their dimensions, each figure was thought capable of containing the spirit of the individual they represented – useful insurance should anything happen to the mummy.
Amulets and jewellery were another means of ensuring the security of the dead, and while their beauty would enhance the appearance of the living, each piece was also carefully designed as a protective talisman or a means of communicating status.
Even when creating such small-scale masterpieces, the same principles employed in larger-scale works of art applied, and little of the work that the ancient craftsmen produced was either accidental or frivolous. There was also a standard repertoire of funerary scenes, from the colourful images that adorn the walls of tombs to the highly detailed vignettes illuminating funerary texts. Every single image, whether carved on stone or painted on papyrus, was designed to serve and protect the deceased on their journey into the afterlife.
Initially the afterlife was restricted to royalty, and the texts meant to guide the pharaohs towards eternity were inscribed on the walls of their burial chambers. Since the rulers of the Old Kingdom were buried in pyramids, the accompanying funerary writings are known as the Pyramid Texts, Pyramid of Teti and South Saqqara.
In the hope of sharing in the royal afterlife, Old Kingdom officials built their tombs close to the pyramids until the pharaohs lost power at the end of the Old Kingdom. No longer reliant on the pharaoh’s favour, the officials began to use the royal funerary texts for themselves.
Inscribed on their coffins, they are known as Coffin Texts – a Middle Kingdom version of the earlier Pyramid Texts, adapted for n onroyal use. This ‘democratisation’ of the afterlife evolved even further when the Coffin Texts were literally brought out in paperback, inscribed on papyrus and made available to the masses during the New Kingdom.
Referred to by the modern term The Book of the Dead, the Egyptians knew this as The Book of Coming Forth by Day, with sections entitled ‘Spell for not dying a second time’, ‘Spell not to rot and not to do work in the land of the dead’ and ‘Spell for not having your magic taken away’.
The texts also give various visions of paradise, from joining the sun god Ra in his journey across the sky, joining Osiris in the underworld or rising up to become one of the Imperishable Stars, the variety of final destinations reflecting the ancient Egyptians’ multifaceted belief system.
These spells and instructions acted as a kind of guidebook to the afterlife, with some of the texts accompanied by maps, and images of some of the gods and demons that would be encountered en route together with the correct way to address them.
The same scenes were also portrayed on tomb walls; the New Kingdom royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings (p 258) are decorated with highly formal scenes showing the pharaoh in the company of the gods and all the forces of darkness defeated. Since the pharaoh was always pharaoh, even in death, there was no room for the informality and scenes of daily life that can be found in the tombs of lesser mortals.
This explains the big difference between the formal scenes in royal tombs and the much more relaxed, almost eclectic nature of nonroyal tomb scenes, which feature everything from eating and drinking to dancing and hairdressing.
Yet even here these apparently random scenes of daily life carry the same message found throughout Egyptian art – the eternal continuity of life and the triumph of order over chaos. As the pharaoh is shown smiting the enemy and restoring peace to the land, his subjects contribute to this continual battle of opposites in which order must always triumph for life to continue.
In one of the most common nonroyal tomb scenes, the tomb owner hunts on the river. Although generally interpreted on a simplistic level as the deceased enjoying a day out boating with his family, the scene is far more complex than it first appears. The tomb owner, shown in a central position in the prime of life, strikes a formal pose as he restores order amid the chaos of nature all around him.
In his task he is supported by the female members of his family, from his small daughter to the wife standing serenely beside him. Dressed far too impractically for a hunting trip on the river, his wife wears an outfit more in keeping with a priestess of Hathor, goddess of love and sensual pleasure. Yet Hathor is also the protector of the dead, and capable of great violence as defender of her father, the sun god Ra, in his eternal struggle against the chaotic forces of darkness.
Some versions of this riverside hunting scene also feature a cat. Often described as a kind of ‘retriever’ (whoever heard of a retriever cat?), the cat is one of the creatures who was believed to defend the sun god on his nightly journey through the underworld. Similarly, the river’s teeming fish were regarded as pilots for the sun god’s boat and were themselves potent symbols of rebirth.
Even the abundant lotus flowers are significant since the lotus, whose petals open each morning, is the flower that symbolised rebirth. Once the coded meaning of ancient Egyptian art is understood, such previously silent images almost scream out the idea of ‘life’.
Another common tomb scene is the banquet at which guests enjoy generous quantities of food and drink.
Although no doubt reflecting some of the pleasures the deceased had enjoyed in life, the food portrayed was also meant to sustain their souls, as would the accompanying scenes of bountiful harvests which would ensure supplies never ran out.
Even the music and dance performed at these banquets indicate much more than a party in full swing – the lively proceedings were another way of reviving the deceased by awakening their senses.
The culmination of this idea can be found in the all-important Opening of the Mouth ceremony, performed by the deceased’s heir, either the next king or the eldest son. The ceremony was designed to reanimate the soul (ka), which could then go on to enjoy eternal life once all its senses had been restored. Noise and movement were believed to reactivate hearing and sight, while the sense of smell was restored with incense and flowers.
The essential offerings of food and drink then sustained the soul that resided within the mummy as it was finally laid to rest inside the tomb.
A-8 days in Egypt, including a Nile River cruise and professional, private guides, will cost approximately $1,500 per person. Not bad considering this estimate also includes private guides for all of the sites and attractions.
A-There is no FCO advice against travel to Cairo, Alexandria, the tourist areas along the Nile, and the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada. The section of the country between the Nile and the Red Sea is also considered mostly safe.
A-If weather is your primary concern, the best time to visit Egypt is during the northern hemisphere fall, winter or early spring (October to April), when temperatures are lower. To avoid the crowds at ancient sites like the Pyramids of Giza, Luxor, and Abu Simbel, try to avoid peak season (December and January).
A- An Egypt visa is required for most travelers including American and British passport holders. Americans and citizens fro 40 other countries can obtain an Egypt visa on arrival at the Cairo International airport at the bank kiosks before the immigration counters for $25 USD and are valid for visits up to 30 days.
A-Pants, Capris, Leggings, and Shorts...Basically, as long as your knees are covered, you are good. So whether you choose pants or capris, you will feel comfortable and remain respectful. Local women wear long pants or skirts.
A-On our Egypt tours that travel south to Aswan, include 3 or 4 night Nile cruise as standard. There is always the option to upgrade to a 5 star Luxury Nile cruise, which offers well–appointed and outward facing cabins.
A-The fixed deposit amount is 25% of the tours total price Except for Egypt Christmas tours, new years and other peak seasons where the deposit goes up to 50%.