10 things you (probably) didn't know about ancient Egypt
The land of the pharaohs is famous for its huge pyramids, its bandaged mummies and its golden treasures. But how much do you really know about ancient Egypt? Was the Great Pyramid built by slaves? How did mummification work? Here, Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley shares 10 lesser-known facts...
They did not ride camels
The camel was not used regularly in Egypt until the very end of the dynastic age. Instead, the Egyptians used donkeys as beasts of burden, and boats as a highly convenient means of transport.
The River Nile flowed through the centre of their fertile land, creating a natural highway (and sewer!). The current helped those who needed to row from south to north, while the wind made life easy for those who wished to sail in the opposite direction. The river was linked to settlements, quarries and building sites by canals. Huge wooden barges were used to transport grain and heavy stone blocks; light papyrus boats ferried people about their daily business. And every day, high above the river, the sun god Ra was believed to sail across the sky in his solar boat.
Not everyone was mummified
The mummy – an eviscerated, dried and bandaged corpse – has become a defining Egyptian artefact. Yet mummification was an expensive and time-consuming process, reserved for the more wealthy members of society. The vast majority of Egypt’s dead were buried in simple pits in the desert.
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So why did the elite feel the need to mummify their dead? They believed that it was possible to live again after death, but only if the body retained a recognisable human form. Ironically, this could have been achieved quite easily by burying the dead in direct contact with the hot and sterile desert sand; a natural desiccation would then have occurred. But the elite wanted to be buried in coffins within tombs, and this meant that their corpses, no longer in direct contact with the sand, started to rot. The twin requirements of elaborate burial equipment plus a recognisable body led to the science of artificial mummification.
The living shared food with the dead
The tomb was designed as an eternal home for the mummified body and the ka spirit that lived beside it. An accessible tomb-chapel allowed families, well-wishers and priests to visit the deceased and leave the regular offerings that the ka required, while a hidden burial chamber protected the mummy from harm.
Within the tomb-chapel, food and drink were offered on a regular basis. Having been spiritually consumed by the ka, they were then physically consumed by the living. During the ‘feast of the valley’, an annual festival of death and renewal, many families spent the night in the tomb-chapels of their ancestors. The hours of darkness were spent drinking and feasting by torchlight as the living celebrated their reunion with the dead.
Egyptian women had equal rights with men
In Egypt, men and women of equivalent social status were treated as equals in the eyes of the law. This meant that women could own, earn, buy, sell and inherit property. They could live unprotected by male guardians and, if widowed or divorced, could raise their own children. They could bring cases before, and be punished by, the law courts. And they were expected to deputise for an absent husband in matters of business.
Everyone in ancient Egypt was expected to marry, with husbands and wives being allocated complementary but opposite roles within the marriage. The wife, the ‘mistress of the house’, was responsible for all internal, domestic matters. She raised the children and ran the household while her husband, the dominant partner in the marriage, played the external, wage-earning role.
Scribes rarely wrote in hieroglyphs
Hieroglyphic writing - a script consisting of many hundreds of intricate images – was beautiful to look at, but time-consuming to create. It was therefore reserved for the most important texts; the writings decorating tomb and temple walls, and texts recording royal achievements.
As they went about their daily business, Egypt’s scribes routinely used hieratic – a simplified or shorthand form of hieroglyphic writing. Towards the end of the dynastic period they used demotic, an even more simplified version of hieratic. All three scripts were used to write the same ancient Egyptian language.
Few of the ancients would have been able to read either hieroglyphs or hieratic: it is estimated that no more than 10 per cent (and perhaps considerably less) of the population was literate.
The king of Egypt could be a woman
Ideally the king of Egypt would be the son of the previous king. But this was not always possible, and the coronation ceremony had the power to convert the most unlikely candidate into an unassailable king.
On at least three occasions women took the throne, ruling in their own right as female kings and using the full king’s titulary. The most successful of these female rulers, Hatshepsut, ruled Egypt for more than 20 prosperous years.
In the English language, where ‘king’ is gender-specific, we might classify Sobeknefru, Hatshepsut and Tausret as queens regnant. In Egyptian, however, the phrase that we conventionally translate as ‘queen’ literally means ‘king’s wife’, and is entirely inappropriate for these women.
Few Egyptian men married their sisters
Some of Egypt’s kings married their sisters or half-sisters. These incestuous marriages ensured that the queen was trained in her duties from birth, and that she remained entirely loyal to her husband and their children. They provided appropriate husbands for princesses who might otherwise remain unwed, while restricting the number of potential claimants for the throne. They even provided a link with the gods, several of whom (like Isis and Osiris) enjoyed incestuous unions. However, brother-sister marriages were never compulsory, and some of Egypt’s most prominent queens – including Nefertiti – were of non-royal birth.
Incestuous marriages were not common outside the royal family until the very end of the dynastic age. The restricted Egyptian kingship terminology (‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ being the only terms used), and the tendency to apply these words loosely so that ‘sister’ could with equal validity describe an actual sister, a wife or a lover, has led to a lot of confusion over this issue.
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Not all pharaohs built pyramids
Almost all the pharaohs of the Old Kingdom (c2686–2125 BC) and Middle Kingdom (c2055–1650 BC) built pyramid-tombs in Egypt’s northern deserts. These highly conspicuous monuments linked the kings with the sun god Ra while replicating the mound of creation that emerged from the waters of chaos at the beginning of time.
But by the start of the New Kingdom (c1550 BC) pyramid building was out of fashion. Kings would now build two entirely separate funerary monuments. Their mummies would be buried in hidden rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile at the southern city of Thebes, while a highly visible memorial temple, situated on the border between the cultivated land (home of the living), and the sterile desert (home of the dead), would serve as the focus of the royal mortuary cult.
Following the collapse of the New Kingdom, subsequent kings were buried in tombs in northern Egypt: some of their burials have never been discovered.
The Great Pyramid was not built by slaves
The classical historian Herodotus believed that the Great Pyramid had been built by 100,000 slaves. His image of men, women and children desperately toiling in the harshest of conditions has proved remarkably popular with modern film producers. It is, however, wrong.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Great Pyramid was in fact built by a workforce of 5,000 permanent, salaried employees and up to 20,000 temporary workers. These workers were free men, summoned under the corvée system of national service to put in a three- or four-month shift on the building site before returning home. They were housed in a temporary camp near the pyramid, where they received payment in the form of food, drink, medical attention and, for those who died on duty, burial in the nearby cemetery.
Cleopatra may not have been beautiful
Cleopatra VII, last queen of ancient Egypt, won the hearts of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of Rome’s most important men. Surely, then, she must have been an outstanding beauty?
Her coins suggest that this was probably not the case. All show her in profile with a prominent nose, pronounced chin and deep-set eyes. Of course, Cleopatra’s coins reflect the skills of their makers, and it is entirely possible that the queen did not want to appear too feminine on the tokens that represented her sovereignty within and outside Egypt.
Unfortunately we have no eyewitness description of the queen. However the classical historian Plutarch – who never actually met Cleopatra – tells us that her charm lay in her demeanour, and in her beautiful voice.
Joyce Tyldesley, senior lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Manchester, is the author of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt (Allen Lane 2010) and Tutankhamen’s Curse: the developing history of an Egyptian king (Profile 2012). You can follow Joyce on Twitter @JoyceTyldesley
This article was first published on History Extra in January 2016