The truth about ancient Egypt

Tyrannical god-kings, feudal divisions, poisonings, treason – many of our
 long-held beliefs about ancient Egypt are based on misunderstandings 
and skewed interpretations. John Romer, author of a new book exploring 1,000 years of Egyptian history from the construction of the Great Pyramid to the collapse of the Middle Kingdom, talks to Matt Elton about why we need to rethink how we view the world’s first nation state

This interview was first published in the February/March issue of BBC World Histories Magazine, on sale now

A tomb relief from Egypt’s 5th dynasty depicts the collection of tithes.
A tomb relief from Egypt’s 5th dynasty depicts the collection of tithes.

 

How have we misunderstood this period of 
Egyptian history?

I think virtually all of ancient Egypt has been misunderstood. Fundamentally, our understanding has been based on four 
key influences: the Bible; the ancient Greeks; the work of 19th-century French scholar Jean-François Champollion; 
and then, into the 20th century, German historians. 

Champollion laid down the terms with which we discuss ancient Egypt – kings, country, courtiers, nobles, peasants, priests and soldiers – at a time when Europeans had a very strong idea about what those terms meant. It was a time of revolution in Europe, when ‘nation’ was a hot topic in France, but the fact that Champollion and some of his contemporaries translated it back to ancient Egypt was barking mad. After all, ancient Egypt wasn’t a place but, instead, a culture – in the same way that tribal peoples don’t have a dotted line around the edge of their land.

Worse than Champollion were the ‘great geniuses’ that interpreted the grammar and logic of the Egyptian language. They were a bunch of what we would call hard-rightwingers: not all of them were Nazis, but many were very active in that movement. They thought history was a science and, therefore, pure – but anyone who thinks history writing is a science is crazy. Those researchers wrote many of the books still used in modern western universities, which are full of their prejudices.

 

How are those prejudices manifested?

The idea that pharaohs were worshipped as all-powerful gods, for instance, is just plain silly. Translated ancient Egyptian letters show us that the relationship between a pharaoh and 
his courtiers was very far from that between a god and his worshippers. But the idea of an all-powerful god was very common at the time that these books were written in the early 20th century, so it became an important concept when this history was being laid down. 

The problems extend beyond that, too, to ideas of conflict inside ancient Egypt between priests, farmers and soldiers – 
the three divisions of classical European society. It’s yet to be established that such a feudal division actually existed in pharaoh-land, and there was no military cult in ancient Egypt at all. The whole thing is very wrong, and gave politicians an easy exemplar of society for their own horrid purposes.

Most histories of the Old Kingdom [in the third millennium BC] assume that the ancient Egyptians never changed. They took parallels from one period and dumped it back to another 1,000 years earlier or later. And we know virtually nothing at all about the personalities of ancient Egyptians. 
The only way we understand their personalities is as seen through the eyes of the ancient Greeks, a bunch of old Nazis, and a lot of dreadful popular television in which people run around with blazing torches setting fire to each other.


A pharaoh is depicted alongside the tree of life in an ancient relief in the Great Hypostyle Hall of the temple of Karnak near Luxor. “The idea that pharaohs were worshipped as all-powerful gods is just plain silly,” argues John Romer. (Getty Images)

 

There was a gap in the construction of monuments 
in the period between the building of the pyramids 
and temples at Thebes (now Luxor), wasn’t there?

There was indeed a remarkable period, a kind of hiatus, during which the ancient Egyptians stopped building monuments. 
It’s been described as a time of murder and starvation, but we know that wasn’t the case because the graveyards of the period show a people who were just as fit and well as at any other time. Graves had actually become richer, because people no longer had to build monuments for their king.

 

So what caused that hiatus?

Most other histories extract information from largely irrelevant things, such as bits of literature or poetry, and pretend that they’re history. I don’t: I go for facts on the ground. What those show is that, during the Old Kingdom, around 2500 BC, 
after the four great pyramids had been built, the kings laid back a bit. All of the resources that had previously gone into building truly colossal pyramids at Giza and Dahshur were used instead to build more modest royal pyramids, along 
with hundreds of splendid tombs for governors and courtiers with mortuary cults of their own. So, about 300 years after the Great Pyramids were finished, not only were pyramids still being built by the court but it also had centuries of funerary cults to support. A large number of families were connected to each of these monuments, so the court had become very big.

At the same time, the level of the Nile was gradually dropping. It happened so slowly that it wouldn’t have been noticeable in a single lifespan, but modern archaeology shows the river level fell by several metres over the course of centuries. That meant the amount of crops grown also decreased. 

Those factors combined and a tipping point was reached: ancient Egyptian society no longer had the resources to make such great monuments. That doesn’t mean that people were starving, or poor, or fighting – simply that they didn’t have 
the resources to build huge pyramids.


This inscribed papyrus, found near the Red Sea and the oldest known example of its kind, details the building of Khufu’s Great Pyramid. (Alamy)

 

What happened next?

From around 2150 BC, the kingdom was gradually reborn – and it really was a renaissance. A group of local governors from Thebes took control of Egypt; we don’t know how or why, but they remade the pharaonic state in a new way. It was the most beautiful period in all of Egyptian history, and the first time the ancient Egyptians looked back at what they’d done, picked the elements they wanted, and used them to rebuild the state. 

One of the most touching and remarkable things that has been uncovered during recent research is the tremendous effort to which the ancient Egyptians went to do this, sending expeditions across the Sahara and boats down to Ethiopia. These forays often weren’t ordered for practical purposes, but instead for things wanted for the rituals of the court. That was what the state was essentially all about – ritual and ceremony, and it shows us the character of ancient Egypt. 

 

Why has there been such a wealth of discoveries about the periods of the Old and Middle Kingdom recently, and what have we learned?

An important factor is that, in the past 30 years, Egyptologists have been able to leave the Nile valley and work in other parts of Egypt where they couldn’t before due to security concerns. 

Wonderful sites have been found on or near the Red Sea coast. One, at Wadi al-Jarf, dates from the time of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid. It may be the oldest port in the world, with a harbour and anchors and who knows what else. Before its discovery nobody even knew that ancient Egyptians 
of the time had sea-going boats. And when researchers started 
to look into the hills behind the port, they found caves that had been excavated for use as chandleries by the ancient Egyptians. 

These caves are full of extraordinary things, but even more amazing is that the ancient Egyptians had sealed the doors with big blocks of stone – similar to those used in the Great Pyramid. This site provides the only example of how such blocks were moved to make that pyramid: they were slid along using beams of wood on slick mud. That is a remarkable thing in itself.

More than that, when the researchers moved two of these blocks apart, a great wad of papyrus fell out from between them – nothing less than the oldest inscribed papyrus in 
the world, bearing the name of Khufu. It’s perfectly written: the guy who wrote it had obviously composed thousands of such documents. It’s a list of stone deliveries made to the Great Pyramid at Giza by a boat captain named Merer, who was delivering stone from one side of the Nile to the other. They were at the Red Sea because it was part of the same supply system. The port was used to ship copper from Sinai across 
the Red Sea and then on across the desert to the Nile valley. 

Not only does this document give an exact list of how 
many stones this captain supplied, but it also tells us that quite a famous man, Ankh-haf, whose tomb is at Giza, was in charge at this harbour. This is amazing because it’s the first time he’s been identified as being in charge of aspects of the Great Pyramid’s construction. Suddenly, we know something about how it was made that we never knew before. It’s all real stuff – not just fairy tales from slightly dubious history books.


The ‘Khufu  ship’ 
found at Giza. Ancient Egyptians travelled across the Levant to obtain goods for rituals. (Photo by Elizabeth Romer)

 

How did ancient Egypt influence the wider world?

The entire western world is touched by ancient Egypt. It was what we would now call a religious state, although they wouldn’t have understood that definition. And it continues to be influential to this day – in the way in which taxes in the United Kingdom are collected in the name of the queen, for instance, or in how, when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, he was honoured with tradition and ceremony to show that a different aura had descended upon him. The idea of sacredness in the ceremony of leaders is essentially what was happening in the Middle Kingdom. 

 

How did these influences continue into later centuries?

A few years ago I was investigating the Byzantine civilisation, reading about the elaborate rituals with which its emperors were put on the throne. The ceremonies sounded just like 
those of the pharaohs of Egypt, which I thought was weird – 
until I realised that the obvious connection was the Bible. 

What you read there about Moses and the pharaoh, or the idea of the court and the sacredness of God, is what connects ancient Egypt to the Bible, and then to the modern west. 

Take the coronation ceremony in the UK, for instance: 
the new monarch is wrapped in a cloak and anointed with oil. This is basically what the princes of the Lebanon did to show their fealty to the pharaohs. Indeed, at a dig in Lebanon, researchers found a little cask that had held some oil from the pharaohs and a sceptre with which the leaders were invested. So the aura of sacredness is the same – although of course, the ritual was reinvented in the 19th century to include references to an area of land and a flag, and relabelled ‘patriotism’. 

 

How should your book change people’s views 
of ancient Egyptian culture?

I’d like it to act as a bridge between the fascination that people have for ancient Egypt and the rubbish histories of war and poisonings and treason that we read and watch so often 
today. I’d like to open readers’ eyes to the real stories behind the beautiful things made by the people of that culture. 
People look into the eyes of Tutankhamun’s golden mask, 
for instance, and have this idea of a people cowering under 
the lash of wicked pharaohs. I would like those people to 
have more of an understanding of what ancient Egyptian 
art actually tells us: that on the whole they were peaceable, highly talented people who were 
well satisfied with their lot. 

 

John Romer is an Egyptologist, broadcaster 
and writer. His latest book is A History of Ancient Egypt, Volume 2: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom (Allen Lane, 2016)

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