Ancient Egypt & the Pharaohs
Despite its 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 great achievements in human history – it was one of the places where writing was invented in 3200 BC, the first stone monuments were erected and an entire culture set in place, which remained largely unchanged for thousands of years.
All of Egypt's achievements were made possible by the Nile River, which brought life to this virtually rainless land. In contrast to the vast barren ‘red land’ of desert, which the Egyptians called deshret, the narrow river banks were known as kemet (black land), a reference to the rich silt deposited by the river’s annual floods. Abundant harvests grown in this red earth were then gathered as taxes by a highly organised bureaucracy working on behalf of the pharaoh. They used this wealth to run the administration and to fund ambitious building projects designed to enhance royal status.
The survival of these pyramids, temples and tombs often give the misleading impression that Egyptians were a morbid bunch obsessed with religion and death. In fact it seems they, or at least the elite, loved life so much that they went to enormous lengths to ensure the fun continued for ever.
This longing for eternity suffused almost every aspect of ancient Egyptian life and gave the culture its incredible coherence and conservatism. Egyptians believed they had to appease their gods so they would take care of them. The pharaoh, who ruled by divine approval, ensured order in a world of chaos and was the intermediary between the people and the gods. Absolute monarchy was therefore integral to Egyptian culture.
Although successive invaders took over Egypt from the end of the New Kingdom (around 1069 BC), Egypt's indigenous culture was so deeply rooted that they could not escape its influence. Libyans, Nubians and Persians all came to adopt traditional Egyptian ways, and their kings and emperors continued to build temples to the Egyptian gods, and to proclaim their divine birth on the temple walls. It was only at the end of the 4th century AD, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, that this ancient Egyptian belief system finally collapsed: their gods were taken from them, their temples were closed and all knowledge of the ‘pagan’ hieroglyphs that transmitted their culture was lost, until it was recovered in the 19th century.
The Great Monuments
Ancient Egyptians built a stunning array of monumental buildings along the Nile. They had very little wood, so they mainly used sun-baked mudbrick for their houses, fortresses and palaces. Of these, very little remains today. For their tombs and temples, however, they used quarried sandstone, limestone or granite, which in many cases have really withstood the test of time.
Many gods had their own cult centres, but they were also worshipped at various 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, the culmination of 2000 years of reconstruction.
Surrounded by huge enclosure walls of mudbrick, 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 temples to house 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.
Initially, tombs were created to differentiate the burials of the elite from the majority, whose bodies were 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 mudbrick, whose characteristic bench-shape is known as a mastaba, after the Arabic word for bench.
As stone replaced mudbrick, 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 famous 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.
When the power of the monarchy broke down at the end of the Old Kingdom, the afterlife became increasingly accessible to those outside the royal family, and as officials became more 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 facade carved out of the rock, with a shaft leading down into a burial chamber.
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. There is 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 ancient funerary 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.
Pharaonic Who’s Who
Egypt’s Pharaonic history is based on the regnal years of each pharaoh, a word derived from per-aa, 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 ancient sites.
Narmer (Menes; c 3100 BC) The first king to unite Lower and Upper 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 semi-mythical 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.
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.
Khufu (Cheops; c 2589–2566 BC) As Sneferu’s son and successor, Khufu was the 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.
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 is best known as the model for the face of the Great Sphinx.
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.
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 Al 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 nephew-stepson Tuthmosis III.
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. He is the creator of Luxor Temple and the largest ever funerary temple marked by the Colossi of Memnon, and his many innovations, including Aten worship, are usually credited to his son 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 relocated the royal capital to Amarna with his wife Nefertiti. 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, it may have been Nefertiti herself, using the throne name ‘Smenkhkare’.
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. The son of Akhenaten by one of Akhenaten’s sisters, 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, marrying 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.
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’.
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.
Taharka (690–664 BC) As fourth king of the 25th dynasty, Taharka was one of Egypt’s Nubian pharaohs and his daughter Amenirdis II was 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 (331–323 BC) Alexander invaded Egypt in 331 BC, 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.
Cleopatra VII (51–30 BC) As the 19th ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra VII ruled with her brothers Ptolemy XIII and 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.
Gods & Goddesses
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 became the state god of the New Kingdom Egypt. Originally he may have been associated with the power of the wind, and he was a creator god. Later he became closely associated with the fertility god Min and combined with the sun god to create Amun-Ra, king of the gods. He is generally portrayed seated on a throne with a double-plumed crown and sometimes the horns of his sacred ram to accentuate his procreative vigour.
Anubis The funerary god who deals with burial and afterlife. Anubis is the god of mummification, the patron of embalmers and guardian of cemeteries 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. It tried to destroy him every night during his journey through the underworld, to prevent him reaching the dawn. Seth speared the serpent, and the blood stain that was left explained the red sky at sunset and sunrise.
Aten The solar disc whose rays end in outstretched hands was worshipped as a god during the 18th dynasty, and became chief deity under the reign of Akhenaten.
Atum Creator god of Heliopolis who rose from the primeval waters and ejaculated (or sneezed, depending on the myth) to create gods and humans. He was also the god who would destroy everything at the end of times. Generally depicted as a man wearing the double crown, but sometimes also with the head of a ram or a scarab, 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, a symbol of motherhood, personified by the domestic cat.
Bes A household deity, Bes was a grotesque yet benign dwarf god fond of music and dancing; he kept evil from the home and protected women in childbirth by waving his knives and sticking out his tongue.
Geb God of the earth associated with vegetation and fertility, he is generally depicted as a green man lying beneath his sister-wife Nut, the sky goddess, supported by their father Shu, god of air. He is the father of Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephtys.
Hapy God of the Nile flood and the plump embodiment of fertility shown as an androgynous figure with sagging breasts and a swollen belly, sometimes shown with a clump of papyrus on his head.
Hathor Goddess of love, sexuality and pleasure represented as a cow or a woman with a crown of horns and sun disc in her guise as the sun god’s daughter. Patron of music and dancing whose principle cult centre was at Dendara, she was known as ‘she of the beautiful hair’ and ‘lady of drunkenness’. She was the wife of Horus.
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 pharaoh. He can appear as a falcon or a man with a falcon’s head, and his eye (wedjat) was a powerful amulet. Horus, the husband of Hathor, was closely associated with kingship and is often seen hovering as a falcon over the pharaoh's head.
Isis Goddess of magic and protector of her brother-husband Osiris and their son Horus. She represented the ideal wife, made the first mummy of Osiris' body and was a protector of the dead. As symbolic mother of the pharaoh she appears as a woman with a throne-shaped crown, or sometimes has Hathor’s cow horns. She is often seen suckling the infant Horus.
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 was 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’ hairstyle.
Maat Goddess of cosmic order, truth and justice, depicted as a woman wearing an ostrich feather on her head, or sometimes by the feather alone.
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 a woman with a vulture headdress.
Nekhbet Vulture goddess of Upper Egypt worshipped at Al Kab; she often appears with her sister-goddess Wadjet the cobra, protecting the pharaoh.
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 morning.
Osiris God of death, fertility and resurrection whose main cult centre was 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. He represented good, while his brother Seth represented evil.
Ptah Creator god of Memphis who brought the world into being by his thoughts and spoken words. He is patron of craftsmen, wears a tight-fitting robe and a skullcap, and usually clutches a tall sceptre (resembling a 1950s microphone).
Ra The supreme deity in the Egyptian pantheon, the sun god is 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). In his underworld aspect he can be shown with a ram's head. Ra travelled through the skies in a boat, sinking down into the underworld each night before re-emerging at dawn to bring 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, and her statues were erected to protect Egypt from the plague.
Seth God of chaos and confusion personified by a mythological, composite animal. In pre-Dynastic times the king was revered as the incarnation of both Horus and Seth. However, during the Old Kingdom, the myth arose that after murdering his brother Osiris he was defeated by Horus, and from then on he was regarded as evil, too dangerous to be depicted on temple walls, even as a hieroglyph.
Sobek Crocodile god representing Pharaonic might, he was worshipped at Kom Ombo and Fayyum. Both sites had sacred lakes with crocodiles.
Taweret Hippopotamus goddess who often appears upright to scare evil from the home and protect women in childbirth.
Thoth God of knowledge and writing, and patron of scribes. He is portrayed as an ibis or baboon, or most frequently as an ibis-headed man holding a scribe's palette, and his cult centre was at Hermopolis. He was closely identified with the moon, and was considered the guardian of the deceased in the underworld.
Art In Life & Death
Ancient Egyptian art is instantly recognisable, its distinctive style remaining 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.
The Purpose of Art
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. Egyptian art was primarily functional, and closely linked to religion and ideology. All ancient Egyptian art was part of a unified system of representation; there was no tradition of an individual artistic expression. To represent an object in art was to make it eternal, to give it permanence. 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. Each image, whether carved on stone or painted on papyrus, was designed to serve and protect the deceased on their journey into the afterlife.
The majority of artefacts were produced for religious and funerary purposes and, despite their breathtaking beauty, would have been hidden away from the 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.
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.
Art & Nature
While working within very 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 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 kingdom united.
The Meaning of Colour
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 unification of the two lands.
The country was also represented by the colours red and black, the red desert wastes of deshret contrasting with the fertile black land of kemet. For Egyptians, black was the colour of life, and black was the colour of choice to represent Osiris, the god of fertility and resurrection, in contrast to the redness associated with his brother Seth, god of chaos. Sometimes 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.
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 skin tone.
Romancing the Stone
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 faience 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. Amulets and jewellery were another means of ensuring the security of the dead. 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.
Texts for 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.
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 nonroyal 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. It's now referred to by the modern term the Book of the Dead, but he Egyptians knew this as the Book of Coming Forth by Day. There are 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’. 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.
Royal vs Commoner Tomb Decoration
The New Kingdom royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings 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.
The nonroyal tombs show a much more relaxed, almost eclectic nature of scenes, which feature everything from eating and drinking to dancing and hairdressing. But here again, 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.
A 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 ka (soul), 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 sustained the soul that resided within the mummy as it was finally laid to rest inside the tomb.
Hieroglyphs, meaning ‘sacred carvings’ in Greek, are the pictorial script used by the ancient Egyptians. It is generally agreed that writing was invented in Sumer, Mesopotamia. Egyptian hieroglyphs differ greatly from Mesopotamian cuneiform, but some suggest that the Egyptians took the concept of writing from the Sumerians, but developed their own script. Others believe that the Egyptians developed the world's first script. For 3500 years it remained fairly unchanged, only written by a very small literary elite, while the spoken language underwent huge changes.
The Privilege of Writing
It is very possible that the overall literacy rate in ancient Egypt was less than 1% of the entire population, but the impact of hieroglyphs on Egyptian culture cannot be overestimated, as they provided the means by which the state took shape. They were used by a civil service of scribes working on the king’s behalf to collect taxes and organise vast workforces.
During the Old Kingdom, literary works included funerary texts, letters, hymns and poems; by the early Middle Kingdom, narrative Egyptian literature was created by the growing intellectual class of scribes.
Within a few centuries, day-to-day transactions were undertaken in a shorthand version of hieroglyphs known as hieratic, whereas hieroglyphs remained the perfect medium for monumental inscriptions. Covering every available tomb and temple surface, hieroglyphs were regarded as ‘the words of Thoth’, the ibis-headed god of writing and patron deity of scribes, who, like the scribes, is often shown holding a reed pen and ink palette.
Hieroglyphs may at first appear deceptively simple, but they are best understood if divided into three categories – logograms (ideograms), determinatives and phonograms. Logograms represent the thing they depict (eg the sun sign meaning ‘sun’), while determinatives are simply placed at the ends of words to reinforce their meaning (eg the sun sign in the verb ‘to shine’). Phonograms are less straightforward and represent either one, two or three consonants.
The 26 signs usually described in simple terms as ‘the hieroglyphic alphabet’ are the single consonant signs (eg the owl pronounced ‘m’, the zig-zag water sign ‘n’). Another 100 or so signs are biconsonantal (eg the bowl sign read as ‘nb’), and a further 50 are triconsonantal signs (eg ‘nfr’ meaning good, perfect or beautiful). There are no actual vowels as such.
It can be a bit tricky to read ancient Egyptian texts. Scribes usually wrote hieroglyphs from right to left, and in columns which needed to be read from top to bottom. But sometimes they wrote from left to right. To complicate matters further, no punctuation was used. The direction human figures or animals face is usually a pointer to the way one should read the text.
What's In A Name?
The majority of hieroglyphic inscriptions are endless repetitions of the names and titles of the pharaohs and gods, surrounded by protective symbols. Names were of tremendous importance to the Egyptians and as vital to an individual’s existence as their ka, and it was sincerely believed that ‘to speak the name of the dead is to make them live’.
Royal names were also followed by epithets such as ‘life, prosperity, health’, comparable to the way in which the name of the Prophet Mohammed is always followed by the phrase ‘peace be upon him’. For further protection, royal names were written inside a rectangular fortress wall known as a serekh, which later developed into the more familiar oval-shaped cartouche (the French word for cartridge).
Although each pharaoh had five names, cartouches were used to enclose the two most important ones: the ‘prenomen’ or ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’ name assumed at the coronation and written with a bee and a sedge plant; and the ‘nomen’ or ‘Son of Ra’ name, which was given at birth and written with a goose and a sun sign.
As an example, Amenhotep III is known by his nomen or Son of Ra name ‘Amun-hotep’ (meaning Amun is content), although his prenomen or King of Upper and Lower Egypt name was Neb-maat-Re (meaning Ra, lord of truth). His grandson had the most famous of all Egyptian names, Tut-ankh-amun, which literally translates as ‘the living image of Amun’, yet he had originally been named Tut-ankh-aten, meaning ‘the living image of the Aten’ – a change in name that reflects the shifting politics of the time.
The loss of one’s name meant permanent obliteration from history, and those unfortunate enough to incur official censure included commoners and pharaohs alike. At times it even happened to the gods themselves, a fate which befell the state god Amun during the reign of the ‘heretic’ pharaoh Akhenaten, who in turn suffered the same fate together with his god Aten when Amun was later restored.
In order to prevent this kind of obliteration, names were sometimes carved so deeply into the rock it is possible to place an outstretched hand right inside each hieroglyph, as is the case of Ramses III’s name and titles at his funerary temple of Medinat Habu.
Gods were incorporated into the names of ordinary people, and as well as Amunhotep there was Rahotep (the sun god Ra is content) and Ptahhotep (the creator god Ptah is content). By changing ‘hotep’ (meaning ‘content’) to ‘mose’ (meaning ‘born of’), the names Amenmose, Ramose and Ptahmose meant that these men were ‘born of’ these gods.
In similar fashion, goddesses featured in women’s names. Hathor, goddess of love, beauty and pleasure, was a particular favourite, with names such as Sithathor (daughter of Hathor). Standard male names could also be feminised by the simple addition of ‘t’, so Nefer (good, beautiful or perfect) becomes Nefert, which could be further embellished with the addition of a verb, as in the case of the famous name Nefertiti (goodness/beauty/perfection has come).
Others were known by their place of origin, such as Panehesy (the Nubian), or could be named after flora and fauna – Miwt (cat), Debet (hippopotamus) and Seshen (lotus), which is still in use today as the name Susan.
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 was 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.
In Egypt’s dry climate, houses were traditionally built of mudbrick, whether they were the narrow 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 mudbrick 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.
While homes were 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 mudbrick 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 in childbirth.
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 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 a rather soupy barley beer, which was drunk throughout society by everyone, including children.
The majority of ancient Egyptians were farmers, whose lives were based around the annual cycle of the Nile. Agriculture was so fundamental to life in both this world and the next that it was one of the dominant 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 now known to have been first developed c 3250 BC as a means of recording produce.
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 natural 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.
Clothing & Jewellery
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.
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. Plain headscarves were worn to protect the head from the sun or during messy work; the striped nemes (headcloth) was only worn by the pharaoh, who also had numerous crowns and diadems for ceremonial occasions.
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.
Feature: How To Wrap A Mummy
Mummification was used by many ancient cultures, but the Egyptians were the masters of this highly complex procedure, which they refined over thousands of years.
At first bodies were simply buried in the desert away from cultivation. The hot, dry conditions and aridity of the sand allowed body fluids to drain away while preserving the skin, hair and nails intact.
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.
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 generally 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 necessary 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. The essential offerings of food and drink then sustained the soul of the deceased that resided within the mummy as it was finally laid to rest inside the tomb.
Feature: Chronology of the Pharaohs
|Early Dynastic Period|
|1st Dynasty||3100–2890 BC|
|Narmer (Menes)||c 3100 BC|
|2nd Dynasty||2890–2686 BC|
|3rd Dynasty||2686–2613 BC|
|Zoser (Djoser)||2667–2648 BC|
|4th Dynasty||2613–2494 BC|
|Khufu (Cheops)||2589–2566 BC|
|Khafre (Chephren)||2558–2532 BC|
|Menkaure (Mycerinus)||2532–2503 BC|
|5th Dynasty||2494–2345 BC|
|Raneferef (Neferefre)||2448–2445 BC|
|6th Dynasty||2345–2181 BC|
|Pepi I||2321–2287 BC|
|Pepi II||2278–2184 BC|
|7th–8th Dynasties||2181–2125 BC|
|First Intermediate Period|
|9th–10th Dynasties||2160–2025 BC|
|11th Dynasty||2055–1985 BC|
|Montuhotep II||2055–2004 BC|
|Montuhotep III||2004–1992 BC|
|12th Dynasty||1985–1795 BC|
|Amenemhat I||1985–1955 BC|
|Sesostris I||1965–1920 BC|
|Amenemhat II||1922–1878 BC|
|Sesostris II||1880–1874 BC|
|Sesostris III||1874–1855 BC|
|Amenemhat III||1855–1808 BC|
|Amenemhat IV||1808–1799 BC|
|13th–14th Dynasties||1795–1650 BC|
|Second Intermediate Period|
|15th–17th Dynasties||1650–1550 BC|
|18th Dynasty||1550–1290 BC|
|Amenhotep I||1525–1504 BC|
|Tuthmosis I||1504–1492 BC|
|Tuthmosis II||1492–1479 BC|
|Tuthmosis III||1479–1425 BC|
|Amenhotep II||1427–1400 BC|
|Tuthmosis IV||1400–1390 BC|
|Amenhotep III||1390–1352 BC|
|19th Dynasty||1295–1186 BC|
|Ramses I||1295–1294 BC|
|Seti I||1294–1279 BC|
|Ramses II||1279–1213 BC|
|Seti II||1200–1194 BC|
|20th Dynasty||1186–1069 BC|
|Ramses III||1184–1153 BC|
|Third Intermediate Period|
|21st Dynasty||1069–945 BC|
|Psusennes I||1039–991 BC|
|22nd–23rd Dynasties||945–712 BC|
|24th–26th Dynasties||727–525 BC|
|27th Dynasty||525–404 BC|
|28th–31st Dynasties||404–332 BC|
|Macedonian and Ptolemaic||332–30 BC|
|Alexander the Great||332–323 BC|
|Ptolemy I||305–282 BC|
|Ptolemy III||246–222 BC|
|Ptolemy VIII||170–163 and 145–116 BC|
|Cleopatra VII||51–30 BC|
|Augustus||30 BC–AD 14|
Feature: The Hunting Scene
In one of the most common nonroyal tomb scenes, the tomb owner is seen hunting on the river. On a basic level one can see this as the deceased enjoying a day out boating with his family. However, 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’ (who ever 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’.
Feature: Magic Signs
The small figures of humans, animals, birds and symbols that populate the script were believed to infuse each scene with divine power. In fact certain signs were considered so potent they were shown in two halves to prevent them causing havoc should they magically reanimate.
Yet the ancient Egyptians also liked a joke, and their language was often onomatopoeic – for example, the word for cat was 'miw' after the noise it makes, and the word for wine was 'irp', after the noise made by those who drank it.
Feature: Pharaonic Glossary
|akh||usually translated as ‘transfigured spirit’, produced when the ka (soul) and ba (spirit) united after the deceased was judged worthy enough to enter the afterlife|
|Ammut||composite monster of the underworld who was part crocodile, part lion and part hippo, and ate the hearts of the unworthy dead; her name means ‘The Devourer’|
|ba||usually translated as ‘spirit’, which appeared after death as a human-headed bird, able to fly to and from the tomb and into the afterlife|
|Book of the Dead||modern term for the collection of ancient funerary texts designed to guide the dead through the afterlife, developed at the beginning of the New Kingdom and partly based on the earlier Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts|
|Canopic jars||containers usually made of limestone or calcite to store the preserved entrails (stomach, liver, lungs and intestines) of mummified individuals|
|cartouche||the protective oval shape (the name derived from the French word for cartridge) which surrounded the names of kings and queens and occasionally gods|
|cenotaph||a memorial structure set up in memory of a deceased king or queen, separate from their tomb or funerary temple|
|Coffin Texts||funerary texts developed from the earlier Pyramid Texts, which were then written on coffins during the Middle Kingdom|
|coregency||a period of joint rule by two pharaohs, usually father and son|
|cult temple||the standard religious building(s) designed to house the spirits of the gods and accessible only to the priesthood, usually located on the Nile’s east bank|
|deshret||‘red land’, referring to barren desert|
|djed pillar||the symbolic backbone of Osiris, bestowing strength and stability and often worn as an amulet|
|false door||the means by which the soul of the deceased could enter and leave the world of the living to accept funerary offerings brought to their tomb|
|funerary (mortuary) temple||the religious structures where the souls of dead pharaohs were commemorated and sustained with offerings, usually built on the Nile’s west bank|
|Heb-Sed festival||the jubilee ceremony of royal renewal and rejuvenation, which pharaohs usually celebrated after 30 years’ rule|
|Heb-Sed race||part of the Heb-Sed festival when pharaohs undertook physical feats such as running to demonstrate their prowess and fitness to rule|
|hieratic||ancient shorthand version of hieroglyphs used for day-to-day transactions by scribes|
|hieroglyphs||Greek for ‘sacred carvings’, referring to ancient Egypt’s formal picture writing used mainly for tomb and temple walls|
|hypostyle hall||imposing section of a temple characterised by densely packed monumental columns|
|ka||usually translated as ‘soul’, this was a person’s ‘double’, which was created with them at birth and which lived on after death, sustained by offerings left by the living|
|kemet||‘black land’, referring to the fertile areas along the Nile’s banks|
|king lists||chronological lists of each king’s names kept as a means of recording history|
|lotus (water lily)||the heraldic plant of Upper (south) Egypt|
|mammisi||the Birth House attached to certain Late Period and Graeco-Roman temples and associated with the goddesses Isis and Hathor|
|mastaba||Arabic word for bench, used to describe the mudbrick tomb structures built over subterranean burial chambers and from which pyramids developed|
|name||an essential part of each individual given at birth, and spoken after their death to allow them to live again in the afterlife|
|naos||sanctuary containing the god’s statue, generally located in the centre of ancient temples|
|natron||mixture of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate used to dry out the body during mummification and used by the living to clean linen, teeth and skin|
|nemes||the yellow-and-blue striped headcloth worn by pharaohs, the most famous example found on Tutankhamun’s golden death mask|
|nomarch||local governor of each of Egypt’s 42 nomes|
|nome||Greek term for Egypt’s 42 provinces – 22 in Upper Egypt and later 20 added in Lower Egypt|
|obelisk||monolithic stone pillar tapering to a pyramidal top that was often gilded to reflect sunlight around temples and usually set in pairs|
|Opening of the Mouth ceremony||the culmination of the funeral, performed on the mummy of the deceased by their heir or funerary priest using spells and implements to restore their senses|
|Opet festival||annual celebration held at Luxor Temple to restore the powers of the pharaoh at a secret meeting with the god Amun|
|papyrus||the heraldic plant of Lower (north) Egypt whose reedlike stem was sliced and layered to create paperlike sheets for writing|
|pharaoh||term for an Egyptian king derived from the ancient Egyptian word for palace, per-aa|
|pylon||monumental gateway with sloping sides forming the entrance to temples|
|Pyramid Texts||funerary texts inscribed on the walls of late Old Kingdom pyramids and restricted to royalty|
|sacred animals||living creatures thought to represent certain gods – eg the crocodile (identified with Sobek), the cat (identified with Bastet) – and often mummified at death|
|sarcophagus||derived from the Greek for ‘flesh eating’ and referring to the large stone coffins used to house the mummy and its wooden coffin(s)|
|scarab||the sacred dung beetle believed to propel the sun’s disc through the sky in the same way the beetle pushes a ball of dung across the ground|
|serapeum||vast network of underground catacombs at Saqqara in which the Apis bulls were buried, later associated with the Ptolemaic god Serapis|
|serdab||from the Arabic word for cellar, a small room in a mastaba tomb containing a statue of the deceased to which offerings were presented|
|shabti (or ushabti)||small servant figurines placed in burials designed to undertake any manual work in the afterlife on behalf of the deceased|
|shadow||an essential part of each individual, the shadow was believed to offer protection, based on the importance of shade in an extremely hot climate|
|sidelock of youth||characteristic hairstyle of children and certain priests in which the head is shaved and a single lock of hair allowed to grow|
|solar barque||the boat in which the sun god Ra sailed through the heavens, with actual examples buried close to certain pyramids for use by the spirits of the pharaohs|
|Uraeus||an image of the cobra goddess Wadjet, worn at the brow of royalty to symbolically protect them by spitting fire into the eyes of their enemies|
|Weighing of the Heart (The Judgement of Osiris)||the heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Maat with Osiris as judge; if light and free of sin they were allowed to spend eternity as an akh, but if their heart was heavy with sin it was eaten by Ammut and they were damned forever|
Feature: The Lady of the House
The home was very much the 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.
Feature: The Wise Scribe
A huge civil service of scribes worked on the pharaoh’s behalf to record taxes and organise workers. 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 six occasions.
People & Culture
A badge worn by a Cairene woman soon after President Mubarak stepped down read ‘Egyptian and proud’. Understanding what it means to be Egyptian has never been easier, nor more difficult, because there are now so many possibilities. But one characteristic that still links the majority of Egyptians, from the university professor in Alexandria to the shoeshine boy in Luxor, is an immense pride in simply being Egyptian, pride in their extraordinary history and in some of their recent achievements.
Sense of Community
It's hard sometimes for outsiders to see where the Egyptians' sense of pride comes from, given the pervasive poverty, low literacy levels, high unemployment, housing shortages, infrastructure failings and myriad other pitfalls that face the country. But aiding each Egyptian in the daily struggle is every other Egyptian, and indeed there is a real sense that everybody’s in it together. Large extended families and close-knit neighbourhoods act as social support groups, strangers fall easily into conversation with each other, and whatever goes wrong, somebody always knows someone somewhere who can help fix it.
For Egyptians, religion cushions life’s blows and permeates every aspect of life. But for many, the Muslim Brotherhood's brand of Islam was too strident: Egyptians love enjoying themselves too much to welcome an authoritarian, politicised version of Islam. But religion is always there in the background. Ask after someone’s health and the answer, from a Christian or a Muslim, is Alhamdulallah (Fine. Praise to God). Arrange to meet tomorrow and it’s Inshallah (God willing). Then, if your appointee fails to turn up, God obviously didn’t mean it to be.
And when all else fails – and it so often fails – there’s humour. Egyptians are renowned for it. Jokes and wisecracks are the parlance of life. Comedy is the staple of the local cinema industry and the backbone of TV scheduling. The stock character is the little guy who through wit and a sharp tongue always manages to prick pomposity and triumph over the odds. Laughter lubricates the wheels of social exchange and one of the most enjoyable aspects of travelling in Egypt is how much can be negotiated with a smile.
There’s no simple definition of Egyptian society. There are obviously unfathomable differences between someone living off their land in the Nile Delta and someone working in Cairo. But even among the latter, there are extremes of experience. On the one hand there’s religious conservatism, where women wear the long, black, all-concealing abaya and men wear the gownlike galabeya. In traditional circles, cousins marry cousins; going to Alexandria constitutes the trip of a lifetime; and all is ‘God’s will’. On the other hand, there are sections of society whose members order out from McDonald’s; whose daughters wear slinky black numbers and flirt outrageously; who think nothing of regular trips to the US; and who never set foot in a mosque until the day they’re laid out in one. The bulk of the Egyptian populace falls somewhere between these two extremes.
A City Story
The typical urban family is among the 11 million Cairenes who live in 'informal housing' (slums), in a six-floor breeze-block apartment building with cracking walls and dodgy plumbing in an overcrowded suburb. They are probably not technically poor – only 18% of Cairenes live below the poverty line. If they’re lucky they may own a small car; otherwise, the husband will fight for a handhold on one of the city’s sardine-can buses. He may well be a university graduate (about 40,000 people graduate each year), although a degree no longer guarantees a job – graduate unemployment has shot up in the past decade. He may also be one of the million-plus paper-pushing civil servants, earning a pittance to while away each day in an undemanding job. This at least allows him to slip away from work early each afternoon to borrow his cousin’s taxi for a few hours to bring in some much-needed supplementary cash. His wife remains at home cooking, looking after the three or more children, and swapping visits with his mother, her mother and various other family members.
The Country Scene
Life in rural Egypt is undergoing a transformation. Just over half the country’s population lives there, creating some of the most densely populated agricultural land in the world. What little land remains is divided into small plots (averaging just 0.6 hectares), which don’t even support a medium-sized family. Just under one-third of Egyptians make their living off the land. Returns are small – agriculture accounts for just 14% of Egypt’s GDP – which explains why so many live below the poverty line. The small size of plots prevents mechanisation and improved yields. As a result, farmers increasingly rely on animal husbandry or look for other ways of surviving. The farmer you see working his field may spend his afternoons working as a labourer or selling cigarettes from a homemade kiosk to make ends meet.
The countryside remains the repository of traditional culture and values. Large families are still the norm, particularly in Upper Egypt, and extended families still live together. High rates of female illiteracy are standard. Though all of this is gradually changing.
Egypt is football obsessed. The country hosts the Egyptian Premier League, which is regarded as one of the top 20 most competitive leagues in the world. The two most popular clubs are Ahly and Zamalek; both are located in Cairo and both inspire fervent loyalty in their fans. The Egyptian national team hasn’t qualified for the FIFA World Cup since 1990 (and its 2009 loss to Algeria in a qualifier match sparked passionate protests and riots in Egypt and abroad). But it has won the African Nations Cup seven times, including a run of three victories in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
Most Egyptians will proudly tell you that they are descendants of the ancient Egyptians and there seems to be some truth in that. The country was invaded by Libyans, Persians, Greeks, Romans and, most significantly, the 4000 Arab horsemen who invaded in AD 640. In the centuries since then, there was significant Arab migration and intermarriage with the indigenous population. The Mamluks, rulers of Egypt between the 13th and 16th centuries, were of Turkish and Circassian origins, and then there were the Ottoman Turks, rulers and occupiers from 1517 until the latter years of the 18th century. And yet recent DNA studies have shown that 68% of the indigenous population is originally from North Africa.
Besidse the Egyptians of the Nile Valley, there is a handful of separate indigenous groups with ancient roots. The ancestors of Egypt’s Bedouins are believed to have migrated from the Arabian Peninsula, before settling the Western and Eastern Deserts and Sinai. But their nomadic way of life is under threat as the interests of the rest of the country increasingly intrude on their once-isolated domains.
In the Western Desert, particularly in and around Siwa Oasis, are a small number of Berbers who have retained much of their own identity. They are quite easily distinguished from other Egyptians by the dress of the women, who usually don the meliyya (head-to-toe garment with slits for the eyes). Although many speak Arabic, they have preserved their own native tongues.
People of the South
In the south, the tall, dark-skinned Nubians originate from Nubia, the region between Aswan in southern Egypt and Khartoum in Sudan. Their homeland almost completely disappeared in the 1970s when the High Dam created Lake Nasser. Some of Egypt’s Nubians emigrated to Cairo, but the majority were resettled in towns and villages between Edfu and Aswan. Their cultural identity has survived, however; whether in the way they decorate their homes or play their music, Nubians are recognisably distinct from other Egyptians.
Some 90% of Egypt’s population is Muslim. Islam prevails in Egyptian life at a low-key, almost unconscious level, and yet almost all men heed the amplified call of the muezzin (mosque official) each Friday noon, when the crowds from the mosques block streets and footpaths. The vast majority of the 10% of Egypt that isn’t Muslim is Coptic Christian. The two communities have a mixed history, with periodic flare-ups. One of the most inspiring images of the 2011 Tahrir protests was the sight of Muslims protecting Christians while they prayed, and vice versa. The current government, like its Muslim Brotherhood predecessor, has been criticised for inciting violence towards Copts and for not offering sufficient support and security to communities and churches.
Islam, the predominant religion of Egypt, shares its roots with Judaism and Christianity. Adam, Abraham (Ibrahim), Noah and Moses are all prophets in Islam; Jesus is recognised as a prophet, but not the son of God. Muslim teachings correspond closely to the Torah (the foundation book of Judaism) and the Christian Gospels. The essence of Islam is the Quran, which Muslims believe is the last and truest message from God, delivered by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed.
The majority of Egyptian Christians are known as Copts. The term is the Western form of the Arabic qibt, derived from the Greek aegyptios (Egyptian), which in turn comes from the ancient Egyptian language.
Although Christianity did not become the official religion of Egypt until the 4th century, Egypt was one of the first countries to embrace the new faith. St Mark, companion of the apostles Paul and Peter, is said to have begun preaching Christianity in Egypt around AD 45. From the closure of the pagan temples to the arrival of Islam, Christianity was the predominant religion in Egypt.
Women in Egypt
Some of the biggest misunderstandings between Egyptians and Westerners occur over the issue of women. Half-truths and stereotypes exist on both sides: many Westerners assume all Egyptian women are repressed, while many Egyptians see Western women as sex-obsessed and immoral.
For many Egyptians of both sexes, the role of a woman is as defined as ever: she is the mother and the matron of the household while the man is the provider. But there are thousands of middle- and upper-middle-class professional women in Egypt who, like their counterparts in the West, now juggle work and family responsibilities. There are also female members of the Egyptian cabinet, and in 2017 the first female governor was appointed. Among the working classes, where adherence to tradition is theoretically strongest, it’s certainly the ideal for women to concentrate on home and family, but economic reality means that millions of women are forced to work at the same time as being responsible for all domestic chores.
The issue of sex is big, naturally. Premarital sex (or any sex outside marriage) is taboo in Egypt. But marriage is an expensive business, so men must often put it off until well into their 30s. This leads to a frustration that can often seem palpable in the streets. For women the issue is potentially far more serious. Women are typically expected to be virgins when they marry and a family’s reputation can still rest on this point. Thus the social restrictions placed on young women are meant to protect them for marriage.
This has long had the effect of dampening discussions of sexual abuse and harassment. But in 2008 a woman for the first time sued a man who had attacked her in the street, and the perpetrator was sentenced to jail. Women were targeted by gangs during some of the protests in Tahrir Square and there were many incidents of harassment and rape. In June 2014 newly elected President Sisi pushed the issue into the limelight when he went to visit a rape victim in hospital to apologise on behalf of the nation.
As with so many aspects of Egyptian life since the revolution, the role of women is in flux. The 2014 constitution states the right of all women to access education and also to hold government posts – several female ministers sit in government at present, including a female National Security Advisor. But although Sisi declared 2017 the Year of Egyptian Women, a survey that year showed that 87% of Egyptian men think a woman's place is still in the home (Egypt Independent, 8 May 2017).
Feature: Silent Communication in Egypt
Egyptians have a range of nonverbal ways to get a point across – and if you know some of them, you’ll be much less likely to get offended, run over or neglected in a restaurant.
First, ‘no’ is often communicated with a simple upward nod or a brusque tsk sound – which can seem a bit rude if you’re not expecting it. But if you use it casually to touts on the street, they’re more likely to leave you alone.
Another signal that can be misinterpreted by foreigners is a loud hissing sound. That guy might be trying to get your attention so you don’t get trampled by his donkey cart coming down the narrow lane. But he might also be insulting you by implying you are a prostitute.
But the most essential gesture to learn is the one for asking for the bill at a restaurant. Make eye contact with your waiter, hold out your hand palm up, then make a quick chopping motion across it with the side of your other hand, as if to say ‘Cut me off’. Works like a charm.
Feature: Backhand Economy
Baksheesh means tip, but it’s more than just a reward for services rendered. Salaries and wages in Egypt are much lower than in Western countries (the average monthly wage across the country is LE4000), so baksheesh is an essential means of supplementing income. Even Egyptians have to constantly dole out the baksheesh – to park their cars, receive mail and ensure they get fresh produce at the grocers.
For travellers not used to tipping, demands for baksheesh for pointing out the obvious in museums can be quite irritating. But services such as opening a door, delivering room service or carrying your bags warrant baksheesh. This may only be a few Egyptian pounds, but will always be welcome.
We suggest carrying lots of small change with you (trust us – you’ll need it!) and also to keep it separate from bigger bills. And remember, there is only one immutable rule and that is that you can never give too much.
Feature: The Moulid
A cross between a funfair and a religious festival, a moulid celebrates the birthday of a local saint or holy person – typically Muslim, but in Egypt, there are Coptic moulids too. They are often a colourful riot of celebrations attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Visitors from out of town set up camp in the streets, close to the saint’s tomb, where children’s rides, sideshows and food stalls are erected. In the midst of the chaos, barbers perform mass circumcisions; snake charmers induce cobras out of baskets; and children are presented at the shrine to be blessed and the sick to be cured.
Tartours (cone-shaped hats) and fanous (lanterns) are made and sold to passers-by and in the evenings local Sufi orders usually hold hypnotic zikrs (literally ‘remembrance’) in colourful tents. In a zikr the mugzzabin (Sufi followers who participate in zikrs) stand in straight lines and sway from side to side to rhythmic clapping that gradually increases in intensity over a period of hours. Other zikrs are formidable endurance tests where troupes of musicians perform for hours in the company of ecstatic dancers.
Most moulids last for about a week, with one night, the leila kebira (big night), being the rowdiest. Much of the infrastructure is provided by ‘professional’ mawladiyya (moulid people), who spend their lives going from one moulid to another.
For visitors, the hardest part about attending a moulid is ascertaining dates. Events are tied to either the Islamic or Gregorian calendars and dates can be different each year. The country’s biggest moulid, for Al Sayyed Al Badawi, in Tanta, does have a fixed date, in the last week of October. Cairo hosts several moulids, and there are a number of smaller moulids in the area around Luxor.
If you do attend the festivities, be prepared for immense crowds (hold on to your valuables) and incredible noise. These are typically family events, so crowds are usually mixed, but women should always be escorted by a male.
While Egyptian culture has not had much impact in the West, many Egyptian actors and musicians are revered cultural icons throughout the Arab world. The 2011 revolution spawned a cultural outpouring like no other, and several visual artists have been successful in the global art market. Egypt's cultural identity and the right of all Egyptians to be active participants in the cultural process is one of the big achievements of the 2011 revolution.
Naguib Mahfouz, who won a Nobel Prize for his work, was for many years just about the only Egyptian writer frequently read in the West. Things are changing, however. In the last decade several writers have tried to define a new Egyptian novelistic style, striving for a fresh language and approach, and many of these are now being translated into English.
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, Naguib Mahfouz was one of the most important 20th-century writers of Arabic literature. Born in 1911 in Cairo’s Islamic quarter, Mahfouz began writing when he was 17 and published over 50 novels and 350 short stories, as well as movie scripts, plays and journalism. His first efforts were influenced by the European greats, but over the course of his career he developed a voice that was uniquely Egyptian, and drew its inspiration from the talk in the coffeehouses and the dialect of Cairo’s streets. In 1994 he was the victim of a knife attack that left him partially paralysed. The attack was a response to a book Mahfouz had written, which was a thinly disguised allegory of the life of the great religious leaders including Prophet Mohammed. Mahfouz died in 2006 after falling and sustaining a head injury.
Mahfouz came out of a strong literary tradition. Other respected writers working at the time included Taha Hussein, a blind author and intellectual who spent much of his life in trouble with whichever regime happened to be in power; the Alexandrian playwright Tawfiq Al Hakim; and Yusuf Idris, a writer of powerful short stories.
Egypt’s female writers have also enjoyed international success. Feminist and activist Nawal El Saadawi’s fictional work Woman at Point Zero has been translated into 28 languages. An outspoken critic on behalf of women, she is marginalised at home – her nonfiction book The Hidden Face of Eve, which criticises the role of women in the Arab world, is banned in Egypt. Those interested in learning more about her fascinating and inspirational life should read her autobiography Walking Through Fire, which was published in 2002.
Born in Cairo, Ahdaf Soueif writes in English as well as Arabic, but most of her work has yet to appear in Arabic. Her most successful novel, The Map of Love, set in Egypt, was short-listed for the Booker prize, and her other novels are Aisha, Sandpiper and In the Eye of the Sun. In early 2012 she published her memoir: Cairo: My City, Our Revolution.
Beer in the Snooker Club (1964) by Waguih Ghali is a fantastic novel of youthful angst set against a backdrop of 1950s revolutionary Egypt and literary London. It’s the Egyptian Catcher in the Rye.
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz is usually considered Mahfouz’s masterpiece; this generational saga of family life is rich in colour and detail, and has earned comparisons with Dickens and Zola.
Love in Exile and Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher, one of the most respected living writers in the Arab world, have both won awards.
The Harafish (1977) by Naguib Mahfouz would be our desert-island choice if we were allowed only one work by Mahfouz. This is written in an episodic, almost folkloric style that owes much to the tradition of The Thousand and One Nights.
Proud Beggars (1955), The Jokers (1964) and The Colours of Infamy (1999) by Albert Cossery were all recently translated and published following the author’s death in 2008. His novels were written in French, and have a cult following among Egyptophiles.
Zayni Barakat (1974) by Gamal Al Ghitani is a drama set in Cairo during the waning years of the Mamluk era. It was made into an extremely successful local TV drama in the early 1990s.
Egyptian Contemporary Novels
As well known globally as Naguib Mahfouz, contemporary dentist-turned-novelist Alaa Al Aswany writes about Egyptians, poverty and class differences. His 2002 blockbuster The Yacoubian Building is a bleak but compelling snapshot of contemporary Cairo seen through the stories of the occupants of a Downtown building. The world’s biggest-selling novel in Arabic, it is remarkable for the way it depicts Egypt towards the end of Mubarak's rule and for introducing archetypes that hadn’t previously been captured in Arabic literature. Al Aswany’s subsequent writing – Chicago, Friendly Fire and The Automobile Club of Egypt have not lived up to the earlier promise.
Salwa Bakr tackles taboo subjects such as sexual prejudice and social inequality. Her work includes the novels The Golden Chariot and the excellent The Man from Bashmour.
Youssef Rakha's work is firmly rooted in Cairo. His award-winning The Book of the Sultan's Seal tells of a search for identity and also happens to be a great read. In Crocodiles he weaves a story around the events of 2011.
One of the most promising of a very vibrant new generation of writers is Mansoura Ez Eldin, whose novel Maryam’s Maze is the wonderfully written story of a woman trying to find her way in the confusion all around her. Beyond Paradise (2009) is also rewarding. Other younger writers to look out for include Amina Zaydan (Red Wine), Hamdi Abu Golayyel (A Dog with No Tail) and Miral Al Tahawy (Blue Aubergine).
Egypt in Western Novels
The Alexandria Quartet (1962) by Lawrence Durrell is perhaps essential reading, but to visit Alexandria looking for the city of the Quartet is a bit like heading to London hoping to run into Mary Poppins.
Baby Love (1997) by Louisa Young is a smart, hip novel that shimmies between Shepherd’s Bush in London and the West Bank of Luxor, as a former belly dancer, now single mother, skirts romance and a violent past.
City of Gold (1992) by Len Deighton is a thriller set in wartime Cairo, elevated by solid research. The period detail is fantastic and brings the city to life.
Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie draws on Christie’s experiences of a winter in Upper Egypt. An absolute must if you’re booked on a cruise.
Although the well-known film of the same name bears little resemblance to the novel, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) – a story of love, desert and destiny in WWII – remains a beautifully written, poetic novel.
Egypt during the war serves as the setting for the trials and traumas of a despicable bunch of expats in The Levant Trilogy (1980) by Olivia Manning. It has some fabulous descriptions of life in Cairo during WWII, and was filmed by the BBC as Fortunes of War starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.
A section that is set on a Nile cruise is only a small part of John Fowles's brilliant novel Daniel Martin (1977), but his descriptions are razor sharp.
Moon Tiger (1987) by Penelope Lively is an award-winning romance, very moving in parts, with events that occurred in Cairo during WWII at its heart.
The Photographer’s Wife (1996) by Robert Sole is one of three historical romances by this French journalist set in late-19th-century Egypt. They’re slow-going but worth it for the fine period detail and emotive stories.
In the halcyon years of the 1940s and ’50s, Cairo’s film studios turned out more than 100 movies annually, filling cinemas throughout the Arab world with charming musicals that are still classics of regional cinema. Until the 1980s Cairo remained a major player in the film industry, but currently only about 20 films are made each year. The chief reason for the decline, according to the producers, was excessive government taxation and restrictive censorship. Asked what sort of things are censored, one film industry figure replied, ‘Sex, politics, religion – that’s all’. However, at least one Cairo film critic has suggested that another reason for the demise of local film is that so much of what is made is of poor quality. The ingredients of the typical Egyptian film are shallow plot lines, farcical slapstick humour, over-the-top acting and perhaps a little belly dancing.
One Egyptian director who consistently stood apart from the mainstream was Youssef Chahine (1926–2008). He directed over 35 films, has been called Egypt’s Fellini and was honoured at Cannes in 1997 with a lifetime achievement award. His later and more well-known works are 1999’s Al Akhar (The Other), 1997’s Al Masir (Destiny) and 1994’s Al Muhagir (The Emigrant). Others to look out for are Al Widaa Bonaparte (Adieu Bonaparte), a historical drama about the French occupation, and Iskandariyya Ley? (Alexandria Why?), an autobiographical meditation on the city of Chahine’s birth.
Since the 2011 revolution a new wave of filmmakers has entered the Egyptian cinema scene and are taking Egyptian cinema into exciting and uncharted territory. Jehane Noujaim won an Oscar nomination and three Emmys for The Square (2013), which looks at events in Tahrir from 2011–13. In early 2014 Zawya, a new cinema in downtown Cairo, opened, showing art-house movies and work by young Egyptian filmmakers.
Forty years after her death, the 'Star of the Orient', Umm Kulthum, still provokes huge emotion in Egypt. But the new kids on the block are making a loud noise. The latest sound heard in Cairo is mahraganat, created by artists from some of the poorest suburbs and slums, who are shouting about their disenchantment with their situation.
Classical Arabic music peaked in the 1940s and ’50s. These were the golden days of a rushing tide of nationalism and then, later, of Nasser’s rule when Cairo was the virile heart of the Arab-speaking world. Its singers were icons and, through radio, their impassioned words captured and inflamed the spirits of listeners from Algiers to Baghdad.
Chief among them was Umm Kulthum, the most famous Arab singer of the 20th century. Her protracted love songs and qasa’id (long poems) were the very expression of the Arab world’s collective identity. Egypt’s love affair with Umm Kulthum was such that on the afternoon of the first Thursday of each month, streets would become deserted as the whole country sat beside a radio to listen to her regular live-broadcast performances. She had her male counterparts in Abdel Halim Hafez and Farid Al Attrache, but they never attracted anything like the devotion accorded ‘As Sitt’ (the Lady). She retired after a concert in 1972. When she died three years later, millions of grieving Egyptians poured onto the streets of Cairo. The Umm Kulthum Museum opened in Cairo in 2002.
Ahmed Adawiyya did for Arabic music what punk did to popular music in the West. Throwing out traditional melodies and melodramas, his backstreet, streetwise and, to some, politically subversive songs captured the spirit of the times and dominated popular culture throughout the 1970s. He set the blueprint for a new kind of music known as al jeel (the generation), characterised by a clattering, hand-clapping rhythm overlaid with synthesised twirling and a catchy, repetitive vocal. This evolved into a more Western-style pop, helmed by Amr Diab, who is often described as the Arab world’s Ricky Martin.
Adawiyya’s legacy also spawned something called shaabi (from the word for popular), much cruder than al jeel, and often with satirical or politically provocative lyrics. The acceptable face of shaabi is TV-friendly Hakim, whose albums regularly sell around the million mark. In 2010 shaabi singer Mohamed Mounir brought out a song Ezay? (How?), that was banned for being too political; he brought it out again with the backdrop of the people in Midan Tahrir during the 2011 revolution.
The uprisings of the revolutionary youth in Cairo and elsewhere was fuelled by rap and hip-hop music, the so-called shebabi (youth) music. The sound of Cairo now is mahraganat, a relentless mix of drumbeats and auto-tuned rap that started in Cairo's slums but has been likened to grime music. The artists often record at home, and spread their music via the internet. Diesel, AKA Mohamed Saber, is one of mahraganat's most innovative artists, while Sadat, AKA Al Sadat Abdelaziz, is its biggest star. The music expresses the reality of young people, using their slang to express their struggle. They sing about revolution, drugs and sexual harassment, and mainly perform live in street weddings.
Egypt's visual arts scene was as depressed as the country until 2011, when it was transformed by the uprising against the Mubarak regime. The artist and musician Ahmed Bassiouny, killed on the third day of the uprising against Mubarak, had his work shown posthumously at the 2011 Venice Biennale. With the downfall of the president, the art scene entered a period of chaotic freedom that saw many other Egyptian artists enjoy international acclaim.
Until the rise of Sisi, graffiti artists made the streets their canvas, as a way of taking ownership of public space. In post-revolution Cairo, street art is forbidden. Ganzeer, possibly Egypt's most famous street artist and who created some of the strongest and most politically engaged images, now lives and works in the US. Many others have also moved abroad.
And yet the visual arts scene continues to flourish, helped in part by the support of contemporary art spaces such as Townhouse Gallery and Mashrabia Gallery in Cairo.
Tomb paintings in Egypt prove that the tradition of formalised dancing goes back as far as the pharaohs. During medieval times the ghawazee (cast of dancers), travelled with storytellers and poets and performed publicly. In the 19th century the Muslim authorities were outraged that Muslim women were performing for ‘infidel’ men on their Grand Tour, and dancers were banished from Cairo to Esna. Belly dancing began to gain credibility and popularity in Egypt with the advent of cinema, which imbued belly dancing with glamour and made household names of a handful of dancers: in the 1990s, Fifi Abdou danced her way to become one of the most famous people in the country.
Since the early 1990s Islamist conservatives have patrolled weddings in poor areas of Cairo and forcibly prevented women from dancing or singing, cutting off a vital source of income for lower-echelon performers. At the same time, a number of high-profile entertainers donned the veil and retired, denouncing their former profession as sinful. Now few Egyptian belly dancers perform in public, and their place has been taken by foreigners mainly dancing for tourists. The future for Egyptian belly dancing looks uncertain.
Feature: New Egyptian Cinema
Several Egyptian films have won international awards in recent years, although some are banned in Egypt for being critical of the new regime.
- Jehane Noujaim’s The Square was shortlisted for the Best Documentary Award at the 2014 Oscars.
- Mohamed Khan, who has made a comeback with Fatat El Masnaa (Factory Girl; 2013), a film about women seeking independence in a society that place great restrictions on them.
- In Harag W' Marag (Chaos, Order; 2012) Mohamed Khan's daughter Nadine Khan tells a story of two tough youths vying for a girl in a poor but lively and exotic-looking Cairo neighbourhood.
- Rags and Tatters (2013) by Ahmad Abdalla, another brilliant award-winning film, is an honest take on the Egyptian revolution, and unusual, as it is for the most part silent.
- Villa 69 (2013), director Ayten Amin’s debut film, shows how Hussein (Khaled Abul-Naga), a solitary man in his 50s who lives alone in a beautiful but dilapidated villa, is forced to deal with reality when his sister and her grandson come to stay.
- Coming Forth By Day (2012), the debut feature film by writer-director Hala Lotfy, shows a small family being worn down by the indignities of everyday life: sickness, money problems, rejection, restlessness, frustration.
- The Nile Hilton Incident (2017) is a thriller about a policeman on the make who is called in to investigate a murder in pre-2011 Cairo.
Feature: Soundtrack of the Revolution
The following songs and bands formed part of the soundtrack of the 2011 revolution. Some are available internationally; all are on YouTube.
- Irhal (Leave) by Ramy Essam – This song made Ramy Essam one of the stars of the revolution; he sang it on stage on 11 February, when it was announced that Mubarak had gone.
- Eid Fi Eid (Hand in Hand) by The Arabian Knightz – One of the first Egyptian rap bands to release music about the revolution, they filmed a video for their track in Midan Tahrir.
- Rebel by The Arabian Knightz, featuring Lauryn Hill – This track was recorded during the first days of the revolution.
- Thawra by Rayess Bek – Lebanese band sings about and for the revolution with a background of the slogan ‘as shab yurid thawra’ (‘the people want revolution’) chanted in Midan Tahrir.
- Sout El Hurriya (Voice of Freedom) by Amir Eid, Hany Adel, Hawary and Sherif – The YouTube clip shows the song sung by people in Midan Tahrir.
Feature: Contemporary Egyptian Artists
- Chant Avedissian (www.chantavedissian.com) Armenian-Egyptian artist whose stencils of iconic celebrities from the past have become very much in demand with Middle Eastern art collectors.
- Youssef Nabil (www.youssefnabil.com) Egyptian artist living in New York who makes hand-coloured gelatin silver prints of photographs of Egyptian and international celebrities.
- Ghada Amer (www.ghadaamer.com) Egyptian artist who embroiders on abstract canvases that deal with female sexuality and eroticism.
- Lara Baladi Egyptian-Lebanese multimedia artist who works with personal and collective memory.
- Mohamed Abla (www.facebook.com/mohamed.abla.73) His work on social injustice was not exhibited in Egypt during the Mubarak years.
- Wael Shawky One of the most powerful and poignant voices coming out of Egypt, Shawky reinterprets faith, myth and history through video installations.
Egypt's extremities, its deserts and Red Sea coral reefs are rich in wildlife. But elsewhere, environmental issues are increasingly acute. The narrow strip of fertile land between the desert and river faces threats from overpopulation, pollution, a reduced share of the Nile water, salinisation of the land and rising ground-water levels caused by the building of the High Dam in Aswan.
The Nile Valley is home to most Egyptians, with some 90% of the population confined to the narrow strip of fertile land bordering the great river. To the south the river is hemmed in by mountains and the agricultural plain is narrow, but as the river flows north the land becomes flatter and the valley widens to between 20km and 30km.
To the east of the valley is the Eastern Desert (this is also known as the Arabian Desert), a barren plateau bounded on its eastern edge by a high ridge of mountains that rises to more than 2000m and extends for about 800km. To the west is the Western Desert (also known as the Libyan Desert), which officially comprises two-thirds of the land surface of Egypt. If you ignore the political boundaries on the map, the Western Desert stretches right across the top of North Africa under its better-known and highly evocative name, the Sahara (Arabic for 'desert').
Cairo also demarcates Egyptian geography as it lies roughly at the point where the Nile splits into several tributaries and the valley becomes a 200km-wide delta. Burdened with the task of providing for the entire country, this Delta region ranks among the world’s most intensely cultivated lands.
To the east, across the Suez Canal, is the triangular wedge of Sinai. It’s a geological extension of the Eastern Desert; the terrain here slopes from the high mountain ridges, which include Mt Sinai and Gebel Katarina (the highest mountain in Egypt at 2642m) in the south, to desert coastal plains and lagoons in the north.
Egypt is about 94% desert – such a figure conjures up images of vast, barren wastelands where nothing can live. However, there are plenty of desert regions where fragile ecosystems have adapted over millennia to extremely hostile conditions.
Egypt is home to about 100 species of mammals, though you’d be lucky to see anything other than camels, donkeys, horses and buffalo. Egypt’s deserts were once sanctuaries for an amazing variety of larger mammals, such as the leopard, cheetah, oryx, aardwolf, striped hyena and caracal, but all of these have been brought to the brink of extinction through hunting. Creatures such as the sand cat, the fennec fox and the Nubian ibex are rarely sighted, and Egyptian cheetahs and leopards have most likely been wiped out already.
There were three types of gazelle in Egypt: the Arabian, dorcas and white. Unfortunately, Arabian gazelles are thought to be extinct, and there are only individual sightings of dorcas and white gazelles, though herds were common features of the desert landscape only 35 years ago.
The zorilla, a kind of weasel, lives in the Gebel Elba region. In Sinai you may see the rock hyrax, a small creature about the size of a large rabbit, which lives in large groups and is extremely sociable.
Less loveable are the 34 species of snake in Egypt. The best known is the cobra, which featured prominently on the headdress of the ancient pharaohs. Another well-known species is the horned viper, a thickset snake that has horns over its eyes. There are also plenty of scorpions, although they’re largely nocturnal and rarely seen. Be careful if you’re lifting up stones as they like to burrow into cool spots.
The lotus that symbolises ancient Egypt can be found, albeit rarely, in the Delta area; the papyrus reed, depicted in ancient art in vast swamps where the pharaohs hunted hippos, has disappeared from its natural habitats. Except for one clump found in 1968 in Wadi Natrun, papyrus is now found only in botanical gardens.
More than 100 varieties of grass thrive in areas where there is water, and the date palm can be seen in virtually every cultivable area. Along with tamarisk and acacia, the imported jacaranda and poinciana (red and orange flowers) have come to mark Egyptian summers with their vivid colours.
Cairo is one of the world’s most polluted cities. Air in the capital contains 76 micrograms per cubic metre, as opposed to 9 in New York and 15 in London (according to the World Health Organization). The consequences of this, according to a startling feature article by Ursula Lindsey published in Cairo magazine, is that as many as 20,000 Cairenes die each year of pollution-related disease and that close to half a million contract pollution-related respiratory diseases.
The biggest culprits for the air pollution are the industrial plants, particularly those burning the heavy, low-quality mazut in generating plants. The increase of cement and steel factories, often established by Western countries in Egypt over the past two decades, is highly polluting, and has ruined the health of workers and nearby residents. A second factor is the desert storms, as most of Egypt is desert. The growing number of vehicles adds to the problem. Some estimates place over two million cars in the greater Cairo area, and it’s clear that this number is increasing every year. Most are poorly maintained diesel-run Fiats and Peugeots that spew out dangerous fumes; very few run on unleaded petrol.
Though factories are officially required to undertake environmental-impact assessments and the government lays out a system of incentives and penalties designed to encourage industrial polluters to clean up their acts, few have done so and little is being done to prosecute offenders. Laws designed to ensure emission levels of vehicles are tested don’t appear to be regularly enforced. Organisations such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have tried to turn the situation around by funding initiatives such as the Cairo Air Improvement project, costing several hundreds of millions of US dollars.
The seriousness of the situation is particularly apparent each spring and autumn, when the infamous ‘black cloud’ appears over the city. A dense layer of smog that is variously blamed on thermal inversion, rice-straw burning in the Delta, automobile exhaust, burning rubbish and industrial pollution, it is a vivid reminder of an increasingly serious environmental problem.
Impact of Tourism
Ill-planned tourism development remains one of the biggest threats to Egypt’s environment, particularly along the Red Sea coast and in Sinai. Following decades of frenzied development along the Red Sea coast, damaged coral reefs now run along most of its length. In Sinai the coastline near Sharm El Sheikh was the site of a building boom for many years: the downturn in tourism since 2011 has left half-finished resorts defacing the seafront. Whether the businesspeople investing here will make good on their promises to protect the reefs around the area remains to be seen.
Since the opening of the Nile bridge in Luxor (previously there was only a ferry) many more tourists visit the west bank monuments, causing much damage in the fragile tombs. Several villages built over the tombs have been bulldozed as part of the project to make Luxor the largest open-air museum in the world. Large residential areas in Luxor have also been demolished to clear areas around historical sites, despite protests from some locals and organisations.
Fortunately, there have been some positive developments. A National Parks office has opened in Hurghada and is hoping to rein in some of the more grandiose development plans in the Marsa Alam area. New ‘green’ guidelines for running hotels are being trialled under a joint US–Egyptian Red Sea Sustainable Tourism Initiative (RSSTI). Recommendations focus on energy use, water conservation, and the handling and disposal of waste, including simple measures such as installing foot-pedal taps at sinks, which make it harder to leave water running.
Finally, Egypt has an increasing number of high-profile ecolodges. It started with the fabulous Basata in Sinai and Adrère Amellal at Siwa, and they appear to have inspired a few others towards environmentally responsible tourism.
Egypt currently has 29 ‘Protected Areas’ in a bid to preserve the incredible biodiversity in the country, which ranges from river islands and underwater coral reefs to desert ecosystems. However, just what ‘protected area’ means varies wildly. Take, for instance, the Nile Islands Protected Area, which runs all the way from Cairo to Aswan: nobody is clear which islands are included and most are inhabited and cultivated without restriction. Other sites are closed to the public while some, such as Egypt’s oldest national park, Ras Mohammed National Park in the Red Sea, are popular tourist destinations that have received international plaudits for their eco smarts. Even hunting is allowed in some of the protectorates if you have the right permit from Egyptian environmental authorities.
The problem, as always, is a lack of funding. The Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) has neither the high-level support nor the resources needed to provide effective management of the protectorates. Some help has arrived through foreign donors and assistance: the Italians at Wadi Rayyan; the EU at St Katherine; and USAID at the Red Sea coast and islands.
High Dam Effect
The Aswan High Dam and its sibling, Lake Nasser, have been a mixed blessing. They allowed more irrigation for farming, but stopped the rich deposits of silt that were left after the annual flood and fertilised the land. This has led to a serious degradation of Egypt’s soil and has made agriculture in Egypt entirely dependent on fertilisers. The annual inundations also flushed away the salts from the soil. But now that there is no annual flood, the biggest problem facing farmers is the high salinity of the soil.
Soil erosion has also become a major problem, particularly in the Delta region. The Nile has so little outflow, and deposits so little silt, that the Mediterranean is now gradually eating away the coastline. This also threatens the thriving fishing industry in the Delta lagoons. And, as the rich nutrients of the Nile no longer reach the sea, fish stocks there have been seriously reduced.
Another potentially catastrophic consequence of the dam and lake appears to be the rise in ground-water levels. With the water table higher, and salt levels raised, the sandstone blocks of many Egyptian monuments are being eaten away.
Feature: Responsible Travel
Tourism is vital to the Egyptian economy, and with fewer visitors the country is hitting rock bottom. At the same time, millions of visitors each year can’t help but add to the ecological and environmental overload. As long as outsiders have been stumbling upon or searching for the wonders of ancient Egypt, they have also been crawling all over them, chipping bits off or leaving their own contributions engraved in the stones. Needless to say, this is not sustainable.
Mass tourism threatens to destroy the very monuments that visitors come to see. In the recent past, at sites such as the Valley of the Kings, thousands of visitors a day mill about in cramped tombs designed for one occupant. The deterioration of the painted wall reliefs alarms archaeologists, whose calls for limits on the number of visitors have largely fallen on deaf ears.
Even the Pyramids, which have so far survived 4500 years, are suffering. Cracks have begun to appear in inner chambers and, in cases such as these, authorities have been forced to limit visitors and to close the great structures periodically to give them some rest and recuperation. It is likely only a matter of time before similar measures are enforced elsewhere.
In the meantime it’s up to the traveller to be aware of these serious concerns. Don’t be tempted to baksheesh guards so you can use your flash in tombs. Don’t clamber over toppled pillars and statues. Don’t touch painted reliefs. It’s all just common sense.
Feature: Notable National Parks
Egypt has a number of notable national parks:
- Lake Qarun Scenic lake important for wintering water birds
- Nabq Protectorate Southern Sinai coastal strip with the most northerly mangrove swamp in the world
- Ras Mohammed National Park Spectacular reefs with sheer cliffs of coral; a haven for migrating white storks in autumn
- Wadi Gimal Protectorate Eastern desert protected area with spectacular scenery
- St Katherine Protectorate Mountains rich in plant and animal life including Nubian ibex and rock hyrax
- Wadi Rayyan Protected Area Uninhabited Saharan lake with endangered wildlife
- White Desert National Park White chalk monoliths, fossils and rock formations