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Book Summary: Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw

Ancient Egypt (2021) is a succinct introduction to the history and culture of one of humanity’s oldest civilizations. It touches on different aspects of Ancient Egyptian society and covers topics such as religion and mythology, the hieroglyphic writing system, and Egyptian ideas about death and mummification.

Book Summary: Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw

Content Summary

Who is it for?
What’s in it for me? Immerse yourself in the colorful and fascinating world of an ancient civilization.
Ancient Egypt was a civilization in Northeast Africa that lasted for thousands of years.
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were an early form of writing used mainly for ceremonial purposes.
Ancient Egyptian kingship was intertwined with the civilization’s cosmological worldview.
Ancient Egyptian identity was probably based largely on culture and language.
The cult of Osiris promoted elaborate funerary practices to ensure entrance into the afterlife.
Religious practice in Ancient Egypt was based on the concealment and revelation of sacred idols.
The pyramids have been a focal point of wild speculation for centuries.
Summary
About the author

Who is it for?

  • Students of archeology or Egyptology looking for a primer on Ancient Egypt
  • Museumgoers who want to learn more about the culture behind the exhibits
  • History buffs who just can’t get enough of the Land of the Pharaohs

What’s in it for me? Immerse yourself in the colorful and fascinating world of an ancient civilization.

We’re all familiar with Ancient Egypt. Popular culture is brimming with motifs from this period. We’ve all heard stories about archeologists killed by curses, mummies coming back from the dead, pyramids pointing to extraterrestrial life.

For decades, Ancient Egypt has been nourishing our collective imagination. But how much do you really know about one of humanity’s oldest civilizations? Unless you’re a trained Egyptologist, the answer is probably not much.

Well, not to worry. These blinks distill the latest scientific evidence to give you the most up-to-date picture of this unique civilization.

In these blinks, you’ll learn

  • why the superstitious Egyptians avoided drawing bird legs in their tombs;
  • how the “royal beard” came to be an official part of pharaonic regalia; and
  • what you have to look forward to in the afterlife, assuming you get mummified.

Ancient Egypt was a civilization in Northeast Africa that lasted for thousands of years.

In 1898, two British Egyptologists, James Quibell and Frederick Green, discovered something that would change our understanding of Ancient Egypt forever.

In the ruins of a six-thousand-year-old temple, they unearthed an artifact that we now call the Narmer Palette, a two-sided slab of stone teeming with images. It’s notable for being one of the earliest examples of hieroglyphic writing that we have.

The front of the Palette depicts two lions with long, intertwined necks. This image is thought to represent the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt – a common theme in Egyptian art. Above the lions stands a king. He appears to be reviewing the decapitated and castrated bodies of his enemies.

On the flip side of the stone is a much larger image of the king, identified as Narmer. Here, he’s shown holding a captive by the hair. Narmer is about to strike the man with a pear-shaped mace.

The Narmer palette is so rich in information that it’s treated by Egyptologists as a prism for Ancient Egyptian culture as a whole. It’s proof that key elements of this culture began to emerge as early as the fourth millennium BC.

The key message here is: Ancient Egypt was a civilization in Northeast Africa that lasted for thousands of years.

We’ll focus on the so-called pharaonic period of Ancient Egypt. It spanned three millennia, from around 3100 BC all the way to the year 332 BC. This period was, perhaps, the zenith of that civilization. But the history of Egypt reaches much farther back.

Early hominids – our common ancestors – were already living in Northeast Africa 400,000 years ago. We know this from the discovery of stone tools in the eastern Sahara desert. But the earliest actual human remains we have are from 55,000 years ago.

Those humans led predominantly nomadic lifestyles. Permanent settlements did not appear until about 6000 BC, when Egypt’s climate began to get wetter. These settlements lined the Nile River, and, from around 4000 BC onward, a sophisticated culture began to emerge.

Rain was – and still is – infrequent throughout Egypt. So, to grow crops, residents of those ancient villages depended on the annual flooding of the Nile. Floodwaters nourished the riverbanks by depositing layers of fertile silt. The Nile is undoubtedly the single most important geographical factor in the development of Egyptian society.

The arid climate, combined with the Egyptians’ penchant for elaborate funerary arrangements, has preserved a wealth of artifacts, such as tombs, temples, and inscriptions.

From them, we’ve been able to piece together the story of this fascinating nation.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were an early form of writing used mainly for ceremonial purposes.

In a temple to the goddess of Isis built on the island of Philae, you’ll find a hieroglyphic inscription carved into one of the walls. This inscription is significant because it was written in 394 AD. And that is significant because that’s the last known date that the hieroglyphic script was still in use.

After that, humanity all but forgot it. For more than one and a half thousand years, we had no idea how to read hieroglyphics. Until, that is, Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the Egyptian script in 1822. His discovery ended Egyptology’s dark age.

No longer were scientists forced to rely on second-hand sources, such as Greek and Roman records or a few stories from the Bible. No longer were we limited to the outsiders’ view of Egypt.

With the hieroglyphs deciphered, we could finally study the Egyptians’ real, inner lives.

Here’s the key message: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were an early form of writing used mainly for ceremonial purposes.

There are three kinds of hieroglyphs. First, we have the ideograms – signs that look like the thing they’re meant to represent. For example, the word man is represented by an image of a man. Then, there are phonetic hieroglyphs, which represent the sound of a spoken word or syllable. And, finally, the Egyptians had so-called determinatives. Their only job was to determine the meaning of the hieroglyphs next to them. For example, when a word ends in a pair of walking legs, that indicates that the word is related to movement.

Little wonder, then, that Egyptian inscriptions are so hard to interpret. It isn’t always clear whether pictures are just pictures, or you’re supposed to “read” them like a text.

If that’s not enough confusion, there’s also the debate over the origins of hieroglyphs. The general consensus is that they emerged primarily to serve ceremonial purposes.

One of the main pieces of evidence for this is that Egyptians thought that language had real, physical power. For example, in many tombs, the Egyptians deliberately avoided using the symbol for movement. They even erased the legs from images of birds. Why? Because they thought this would incapacitate any malevolent entity that tried to get in.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions tell us a lot about Egyptian culture. But it’s important to remember that texts only tell part of the story. Writing – especially ritualistic writing – is usually the product of the elite, not society as a whole. So we need other sources of information to understand what it was like to be an ordinary Egyptian in the pharaonic era.

Ancient Egyptian kingship was intertwined with the civilization’s cosmological worldview.

We began our story with the Narmer Palette, which illustrates many of the ways ancient Egyptians depicted their rulers. You’ll remember that the palette’s dominant scene is a king smiting his enemy with a mace. Well, the royal smiting scene is actually a recurring theme in Egyptian art. It’s emblematic of the pharaoh’s power to maintain harmony in the universe by overcoming the forces of chaos.

In the top right-hand corner of the palette, the falcon-god Horus stands atop the king’s dead adversaries. It’s important to note that king and god share the same space. This mixture of divine and kingly elements is another convention in Egyptian art. It reflects the king’s divine legitimacy.

Needless to say, there was no division of religion and state in Ancient Egypt.

The key message is this: Ancient Egyptian kingship was intertwined with the civilization’s cosmological worldview.

Egyptians certainly weren’t the only people to portray their rulers as god-like beings, not mere humans. Like European monarchs millennia later, Egyptian kings may have used art to communicate their power and legitimacy.

If this is true, then Egyptian artworks might be thought of as a kind of propaganda. Indeed, some Egyptologists argue that state-controlled religion served one key purpose: maintaining the power of the king.

Consider the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. She was one of only five women to have ruled ancient Egypt. It was so rare for a woman to be pharaoh that she was actually portrayed for most of her reign as though she were male – beard and all.

Hatshepsut may have been particularly anxious to display her divine credentials. That would explain why she went to great lengths to depict her birth as the result of intercourse between the god Amun and her human mother.

But this is speculation. It’s also possible that the reason kings wanted to represent themselves as gods was that they really believed they were gods.

They may have thought that every king was simply the next incarnation of the god Horus. Which would mean that each king was related to the deities who’d created the entire cosmos. In other words, the king was literally the center of the Egyptian cosmological worldview, holding it all together.

The curious thing about Egyptology, something that distinguishes it from other historical disciplines, is that many of the mummified bodies of Egyptian pharaohs have actually survived to this day. That means that, in addition to studying texts and artifacts from their reign, we’re also in the unusual position of being able to look them directly in the face.

Ancient Egyptian identity was probably based largely on culture and language.

So far, we’ve taken it for granted that there was such a thing as “Ancient Egyptians,” who were somehow distinct from their neighbors elsewhere in Africa and in the Near East. But this label is relatively modern, and applying it to people who lived millennia ago can be misleading.

The diverse groups of people who inhabited pharaonic Egypt probably didn’t feel part of a single nation.

So how did they identify themselves? Was it through language and culture? Through appearance? Perhaps through a connection to a geographical area?

We can glean some answers to this question from Egyptian art. Clues lie in how Egyptians represented themselves – compared to their depictions of foreigners.

The key message here is: Ancient Egyptian identity was probably based largely on culture and language.

Let’s start with the theory that being an Egyptian meant having certain physical or racial characteristics. This approach is alluringly straightforward. But it’s not helpful, because the drive to categorize people into distinct racial types based on physical characteristics is a relatively modern invention.

But, besides that, we have scientific evidence that Egyptians actually didn’t constitute a distinct racial group.

In 2017, scientists analyzed DNA taken from over 150 Egyptian mummies. These bodies possessed a range of genotypes, linking them both to Near-Eastern peoples and to sub-Saharan Africans.

This kind of diversity is also evident in the civilization’s art. Thousands of Egyptian portraits have survived to this day. They show a range of physical and ethnic characteristics, including skin tone, dress, and hairstyles.

So, then, physical appearance probably didn’t play a major role in Egyptian identity. It is far more likely that ancient Egyptians distinguished themselves from others mainly through culture.

This culture embraced racial and physical diversity, and it was probably quite open to different sexual preferences, too. Allusions to heterosexual relationships are common in Egyptian sources. But it seems that homosexual partnerships were also tolerated, though the evidence for that is much sparser.

For example, in Saqqara, there’s a Fifth-Dynasty tomb belonging to a pair of royal manicurists. These men share the same burial chamber, and paintings on the walls show them embracing and touching noses, as though about to kiss.

Our modern world is embroiled in various identity crises. Little wonder, then, that issues of ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality in Ancient Egypt are among the most fascinating areas of contemporary Egyptological research.

The cult of Osiris promoted elaborate funerary practices to ensure entrance into the afterlife.

A cliché about the Egyptians is that they were gloomy people obsessed with death. In truth, the evidence suggests that Egyptians were actually quite fond of life. Many Egyptian tombs contain joyful scenes, with people making wine, playing music, dancing, feasting – in other words, having fun.

So why do we associate the Egyptians with death? Well, it’s probably because most of our archaeological evidence comes from their well-preserved tombs. Remnants of their other activities are much rarer.

Still, it’s not entirely wrong to think that Egyptians spent more time thinking about death than we modern folk might consider healthy. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than among the followers of the cult of Osiris.

Here’s the key message: The cult of Osiris promoted elaborate funerary practices to ensure entrance into the afterlife.

Osiris was the god of death and resurrection, and he was one of the oldest members of the Egyptian pantheon.

He hadn’t always been a god, though. According to myth, Osiris started life as a king. But he got himself into trouble by committing adultery with the wife of his evil brother, Seth. Seth became understandably enraged and killed Osiris.

The king’s body was dismembered, and its pieces scattered throughout Egypt. Later, Osiris’s wife, Isis, recovered the pieces and reassembled them. The result was the very first mummy.

The cult of Osiris provided a mythological foundation for the practice of mummification. Preserving the body after death was considered essential. Egyptians believed that the spirit needed a physical body to reach the afterlife.

How did mummification actually work? Luckily, we have a contemporaneous description of this process, and it comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.

According to his account, it took two people to mummify a body. One was called the “slitter” and the other the “pickler.” The slitter’s job was to cut open the body and remove internal organs. The pickler collected and dried the organs, packed them into jars, and then wrapped them all up with the rest of the body.

The result was a mummy, a human package that – as we now know – could survive for millennia.

Assuming the slitters and picklers did a good job of wrapping you up, what did you have to look forward to in the afterlife?

Accounts differ, but in one scenario, humans are said to be transformed into stars. Other people seemed to believe that the afterlife was not much different from what we’re all used to – except it happened in another world, called the field of reeds.

Religious practice in Ancient Egypt was based on the concealment and revelation of sacred idols.

When we think of Ancient Egyptian religion, the first things that come to mind are usually images of animal-headed deities, like the jackal-headed Anubis or the falcon-headed Horus.

If we take these images at face value, it would be reasonable to conclude that ancient Egyptians didn’t really differentiate between the natural and the supernatural. Portrayals of ancient deities show gods and humans interacting on the same physical plane.

But we don’t really know how the Egyptians interpreted their own artwork. For example, when Egyptians saw an image of the Jackal-headed Anubis, did they see an accurate depiction of the god himself? Or did they see a man wearing a jackal mask and merely representing Anubis?

The answer, obviously, has huge ramifications for our understanding of Egyptian beliefs.

The key message is this: Religious practice in Ancient Egypt was based on the concealment and revelation of sacred idols.

Egyptologists argue about many things, and one point of contention is the extent to which ordinary Egyptians understood their own religion.

Access to temples was restricted: As a commoner, you weren’t allowed farther than the outer courtyard. An exception was made on festival days, when priests opened their temples and carried idols from one shrine to another. This was probably the only time the public could see images of deities.

This has led many Egyptologists to conclude that the Egyptian religion was a secretive one that restricted access to sacred icons.

Temples, then, were not just places of worship. Their main function was to enable the ritual movement of objects. Offerings to the gods could be moved into the temple, and cult idols could occasionally be moved out for festivals before being hidden away again.

A common feature of these cult images represents another frequent point of controversy among Egyptologists – phallocentrism. The Egyptians almost never depicted sexual acts in their art, but they had no qualms about depicting the erect penis. It was, for instance, a persistent attribute of the fertility god Min.

The Egyptian preoccupation with the phallus probably stems directly from their creation myths. In one tale, the god Atum is said to have begotten the next generation of deities through an act of masturbation, without the need for a goddess.

While it’s made Egyptologists blush for centuries, the depiction of the phallus was actually one of the most prominent and enduring facets of Egyptian religious life for millennia. So we can’t just sweep it under the rug.

The pyramids have been a focal point of wild speculation for centuries.

For better or for worse, Ancient Egypt isn’t the sole preserve of academics – it very much belongs to popular culture. As a result, there are a lot of alternative interpretations of Egypt floating around out there.

These alternative Egypts have been created by journalists, film producers, advertising executives, and, of course, conspiracy theorists. At this point, the popular perception of ancient Egypt is just a mishmash of mummy mysteries, Hollywood blockbusters, and Halloween costumes.

Among all this fiction are a few real artifacts that have become iconic, such as the bust of Nefertiti. But even they have been severed from their original context and now float in a postmodern vacuum, open to every interpretation imaginable.

So far, these blinks have been firmly based on evidence. But, to end our story, let’s put reason and evidence aside for once, and indulge some of the more colorful theories about Ancient Egypt.

The key message here is: The pyramids have been a focal point of wild speculation for centuries.

For many wannabe Egyptologists, there’s really only one topic worth talking about – the pyramids. How were they built? What were they for? Why do they look the way they do?

Some theories about the pyramids are probably the most unhinged of all the conjectures about Ancient Egypt. They range from the somewhat plausible to the completely out-of-this-world.

For centuries, they had a biblical flavor. In the fifth century AD, the Roman author Julius Honorius suggested the pyramids were ancient granaries that belonged to none other than the biblical Joseph, the man in whose family Jesus grew up. During the Middle Ages, Arab scholars suggested that Egyptians may have erected the pyramids to protect their scientific knowledge from the ravages of Noah’s flood.

And in modern times, some believe the pyramids were built by a mysterious super-advanced civilization that – allegedly – predated the Egyptians. And, yes, there are even people who point to the potential involvement of aliens from outer space.

Of course, these are just fantasies. Not only are these theories plain wrong, they are also actually quite sinister. They are emblematic of the rather racist tendency to assume that an African people couldn’t possibly have created such a sophisticated civilization.

The most straightforward interpretation is that it was the Egyptians who built the pyramids. And the buildings’ unique shape was probably chosen simply because it is the most structurally sound way of creating a monument that’s both tall and long-lasting.

Of course, for some people, the most straightforward answers just aren’t sufficiently satisfying. So, even while mainstream Egyptology is constantly making headway in bringing Ancient Egypt into the realm of fact, there will always be people who’d rather keep it in the realm of fantasy.

Summary

The key message in these blinks is that:

Ancient Egypt was a unique civilization that will no doubt continue to inspire awe and fascination for generations to come. In many respects, Ancient Egyptians were just like us. They sought to acquire and maintain power, they feared death and looked for ways to escape it, and they struggled with the same philosophical questions with which we grapple. But the solutions they came up with – death cults, mummification, and the celebration of the phallus – are so idiosyncratic, so foreign to our view of the world, that it’s easy to imagine Ancient Egypt as an unreal and otherworldly place. Whether we recognize ourselves in the Egyptians or we find them totally alien, we’ll never truly know what it was like to be an Egyptian. We will only ever be outsiders looking in.

About the author

Ian Shaw works as a research fellow in Egyptian archaeology at the University of Liverpool and is one of the foremost authorities on Ancient Egypt working today. He has excavated and surveyed numerous archeological sites in Egypt. He has worked at the ancient city of Amarna, in the Valley of the Kings, and at several ancient mining sites. He is the author of many other works, including The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, and The Oxford Handbook of Egyptology.

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