The scientific achievements of the ancient Egyptians were truly grandiose: their architectural constructions have survived for thousands of years, preserving a huge legacy of the dead civilization, and their master artists created beautiful wall paintings, statues and historical documents. It is believed that many of the technologies used by the people of Kemet have been lost and have still not been recovered. Some are inclined to believe that Ancient Egypt reached the highest point of development on the planet, and the particularly enthusiastic ones accept the proposition that the ancient Egyptians must have come to us from another planet. How is this possible? How and why did the inhabitants of ancient Egypt build their pyramids? According to what paradigm were they thinking and what were their views on life? Do the secret cursed tombs really exist? Of course it is impossible to find all the answers to these questions and to satisfy all the egiptomans. However, we tried to find the most authoritative source of information and turned to an Egyptologist with nearly 50 years of experience, professor at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, Jaromir Malka. We would like to note that Mr. Malka, because he is a man of science, has quite a practical perception of the world and of all the “Egyptian Wonders.” This article will appeal to those who would like to discover a little bit more about the ancient Egyptian civilization, and are ready to be led by a man who has been studying Egypt for several decades of his life.
Ancient Egypt appeared in the middle of the 4th millennium BC, and existed until the IV-VII centuries AD. During all this time, its history ebbed and flowed. Conventionally, archaeologists divide it into Predynastic, Dynastic, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods.
The predynastic period, also known as the period of Lower and Upper Egypt, is famous for its stone and clay figurines, which were the first monuments decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was also in the predynastic period that the Egyptians began to use primitive tools to work the land and to hunt.
Dynastic Egypt (3120 BC to 656-332 BC) is of the greatest interest to modern researchers. This period was marked by the reign of the pharaohs, beginning with the rule of Menes and the first dynasty up until the capture of the country by Alexander the Great. It was also the time during which pyramids and temples were built, and religion, art, language and writing developed. The Egyptian State in the dynastic period was characterized by a clear administrative and management structure, a strong army and a developed economical and trading system.
Subsequent rulers, after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, were not strong enough to restore the sovereignty of the country. For centuries Kemet wasn’t able to restore its independence. It was a time marked by the reign of the Ptolemies, then the Romans and the Byzantines, and, in the year 642, the land was conquered by the Arabs. That was the end of ancient Egypt and the beginning of medieval Egypt.
The cultural heritage of ancient Egypt
Egyptians preserved their amazing architectural monuments, sculptures, paintings and art much better than any other ancient civilization. Deep knowledge of astronomy, mathematics and geography allowed them to erect stone buildings which are still standing today, representing a living antiquity. The most famous ones are, without a doubt, the Great Pyramids, which are located in Giza (territory of the ancient Egyptian capital – Memphis).
The intellectual heritage of Egypt was not preserved as well as its cultural heritage, but it is known that, for example, texts written in the Egyptian language, along with Sumerian literature, are considered to be the first literature in the world. The ancient Egyptian mathematical texts refer to the beginning of the second millennium BC. At that time, mathematics were used in astronomy, navigation, construction of buildings, dams, canals and fortifications. The problem is that, for their records, Egyptians used papyrus, which was not suitable for long term storage, and therefore we know less about their purely intellectual accomplishments than we know, for example, about the achievements of the Greeks. However, scientists believe that the Greeks learned mathematics from the Egyptians, who knew the exact formulas for calculating the area of a rectangle, a triangle, a trapezium and a sphere, and could calculate the volume of a parallelepiped, a cylinder, a cone and a pyramid. Also, they had their own calendar.
Some believe that the knowledge of the ancient Egyptians was so deep and their building technologies so advanced that it is now impossible to explain their true origin and to reproduce them using modern techniques. However, according to scientists, everything is much easier then it seems. Professor Malek draws attention to the fact that the Egyptians accumulated their knowledge during more than three thousand years, which is longer than the existence of our era. “They did not know how to build straight away. Initially they built using bricks and started building with stone only after they learnt how to organize the workers. They developed as they accumulated experience. As for the alleged impossibility to build a pyramid using modern technology, it is not quite true. Give me an unlimited number of people and material resources for such a construction, and I’ll build it. The whole question is in the organization. It is necessary to organize the whole chain – to get the stones, to transport them to the pyramid and to lift them up. How is it possible to gather so many people to do such a job today? The main thing in this process is the organization.”
The way of life of the ancient Egyptians
The inhabitants of ancient Egypt were divided into three main classes: the slave owners, the slaves and the peasants. Slaves were mostly prisoners of war. They, like any other spoils of war, were taken by the noble Egyptians. Slaveholders acquired the lands owned by the slaves, their tools, livestock and gold. Most of the indigenous population of Egypt was constituted of peasants, who were actually farmers. As noted by J. Malek, it is worth noting that the society of ancient Egypt was quite conservative, and migration did not exist at that time. “It was impossible to just get up, leave the farm and go somewhere else. People lived where they were born and were forced to accept the rules adopted by that particular society. People were tied to their lands.”
Ancient Egyptians paid great attention to personal hygiene and appearance. They bathed in the waters of the rivers and used soap in the form of a paste made of animal fat and chalk. Men shaved their whole bodies to meet the set standards of hygiene. Clothing was made from simple white-washed linen cuts. Men and women of the upper classes wore wigs and jewelry. Children didn’t wear any clothing. Mothers took care of children and fathers were responsible for the family income.
The basic diet of an Egyptian consisted of bread and beer, and was supplemented by vegetables such as onions and garlic, and fruits such as dates and figs. Wine and meat were served on holidays.
Religion and burial rituals
Even though Egyptians were extremely superstitious, there wasn’t a common religion. At different times and in different territories, local cults existed that were dedicated to particular deities. Gods represented the various natural and social phenomena. During different periods, the most revered deities were Ra (the sun god), Osiris (the king of the underworld), Isis (goddess of motherhood), Seth (the god of war and death), Ptah (the creator god) and Anubis (the patron of cemeteries and graveyards).
Egyptians firmly believed in the existence of life after death, and, for that reason, they created a complex tradition of funerary rituals. “They were convinced that to continue life after death, the body must be stored because the soul had to have a material shelter,” – said Jaromir Malek – “and therefore, mummification was considered to be a practical way to preserve the body. The basic principle of mummification is to dry the body by removing the innards. In ancient Egypt, this was done using Natron salt. The quality of tombs depended on the social status of the deceased: the higher the social status, the more luxurious was the tomb. Poor people weren’t mummified at all.” The dead were buried together with a variety of items: from household items to magical figures, such as the ushabti statuettes – Egyptians believed that these figurines would do the manual labor in the afterlife for them. In the early royal tombs, scientists even found the remains of sacrificed people. However, later on, Pharaohs found an alternative to human sacrifice in the form of figurines and murals with spells.
One of the legends, which is quite popular and fairly fueled by Hollywood, is that the tombs of the pharaohs kept many secrets and curses. The main argument for this is the mysterious deaths of the archaeologists who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. “It is true that Lord Carnarvon died 5 months after discovering the tomb, and Gorvard Carter died quite young, just like some of other members of the expedition. But we must understand that, in the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy was lower than it is today. Moreover, some of that team lived to quite an old age. This particularly concerns Douglas Derry, the doctor who studied the mummy, who died at the age of 86 years. In theory, he should have been one of the first to die. In addition, no mysterious inscriptions, so much talked about, have been found in the tomb. I studied this topic very meticulously and, therefore, I am pretty certain of my conclusions”, – says Professor Malek.
The paradigm of thinking of the ancient Egyptians
According to a professor of Egyptology, it is extremely hard to determine the mindset of ancient Egyptians. Unfortunately, we can only guess and assume, based on their texts and works. “The environment in which the Egyptians lived, was different from the one we live in today. It is unlikely that we will be able to understand them fully,” – says Malek. “One thing I am certain of is that the freedom of Egyptian art has been slightly exaggerated by our contemporaries. In Egypt, for example, artists could not draw whatever they wanted. They always had a specific task, to accomplish which, they were given a certain model and a set of rules. They could only combine and connect them in their own way. This is one of the peculiarities of their thinking. Another example is the texts, preserved on the monuments, which we call solar hymns, as they address the god of the sun. Such texts were divided into specific sentences. The author of a new hymn could, for example, choose 25 sentences out of 50 and combine them as he wished. Therefore you will never see any ‘individuality’ in these texts.” According to the scientist, ancient Egypt, because of its modern terminologies, was a well-organized civil society. Some reports mention that, initially, there was no army or police in this civilization. People behaved in accordance with generally accepted social principles, and those who violated these principles had problems with the society in which they lived. “However, there is a huge difference between the opinion of Egyptologists and that of the majority of people, whose views were formed based on films, which, sometimes, present facts that are not always correct. That is why, today, there are two parallel notions of ancient Egypt”- summed up Jaromir Malek.
To conclude, we can say that ancient Egypt is much closer to us than it may seem. We are not talking just about the pyramids, the tombs and the Sphinx, which have survived to this day. Scientists note that the climate in Egypt almost didn’t change, which means that the work methods and the life style of farmers in general remained the same. Also, the old Egyptian language partly preserved its features in the Arabic language. All this suggests that the ancient Egyptian civilization hasn’t disappeared completely, and that, to this day, it can be touched as it manifests itself in one form or another.