Top 10 Misconceptions About Ancient Egypt

Top 10 Misconceptions You May Have Had About Ancient Egypt

The history and culture of Ancient Egypt has fascinated and amazed other peoples from time immemorial.  Even back in Roman times when Egypt was a pivotal province and grain basket of the Roman empire, Roman citizens interested themselves in finding out more about the lives of the people who lived along the Nile and many monuments such as obelisks were transported back to Rome.  In Medieval times the Islamic peoples who took control of the region were equally as fascinated with the history of the lands over which they exercised control.  By the 18th Century European peoples had rediscovered Egyptology (or as it could better be called at the time, Egyptmania) and those who could afford it travelled to the Nile to explore the history of the region.  Napoleon is perhaps the best known of these Egypt-fanatics; he recruited more than 150 scientists to research the history of Egypt and many of the artefacts found by them and their successors are housed in the Louvre museum in Paris.

It is not surprising that, given the enthusiasm with which Egypt was explored, that some misconceptions and myths became included in amongst the true history of the people of Ancient Egypt.  These days the history and culture of Egypt has just as much of a hold on us as it did on our forebears.  It would be reasonable to assume that, as we live in an age of science and rationality, that many of those myths would have been exposed for what they are.  Nevertheless these myths and misconceptions retain a tenacious hold on our collective consciousness about this ancient civilization.

Here then is our list of the top 10 things you may have heard about Ancient Egypt that are completely, totally and honestly a load of hoey!

10. The Egyptians Were Not Obsessed With Death

Ancient Egyptians were not totally consumed by death. Did they like it? Yes, of course.
Ancient Egyptians were not totally consumed by death. Did they like it? Yes, of course.

We are often brought up to believe that the Ancient Egyptians were totally obsessed with death, so much so that they spent their time on Earth building impressive tombs, collecting the grave goods to fill them and getting ready to be mummified.  Films such as The Mummy and The Mummy Returns help to underline this myth.

It is true that the Ancient Egyptians mummified their dead but this was not because they were obsessed with the idea of death but rather because they were obsessed with the concept of life.  With an average lifespan of only 40 years they knew that their time on Earth was limited.  They truly believed, however, that their soul was immortal.  Unlike the Abrahamic faiths, however, the Egyptians believed that the soul needed a physical body to reside in.  The process of mummification was therefore used to preserve the body as a vessel for the soul.

In order that the reanimated soul was able to enjoy life the mummy would be surrounded by grave goods, mostly everyday items that they would need in the afterlife.  Some Ancient Egyptians would choose to be buried with their pets or have their pets added to their tombs after they died.  Many people hoped that their afterlife would be more comfortable than their earthly one.

Their whole religion was designed to worship, not death, but the concept of everlasting life.

9. Pharaohs Did Not Have Their Servants Buried With Them

The butler typically wasn't put to death just because Pharoah kicked the bucket
The butler typically wasn’t put to death just because Pharoah kicked the bucket

Many people believe that the Egyptian Pharaohs were megalomaniacal rulers whose successors had their servants put to death to ensure that they would be well served in the afterlife.

Egyptian Pharaohs were living gods and, upon their death would take their place in the glorious pantheon of celestial gods.  As such they would need a vast army of servants to see to their many needs and to give them high status amongst the other gods.

It is true that several mass graves have been discovered that give weight to this theory of servant sacrifice.  Some people think that these servants were murdered to accompany the soul of the dead king, others believe that they died later on but were buried close to the king to elevate their social standing in the afterlife.  Whatever the reasons these mass graves date to the period of the First Dynasty only and even then relate to a few Pharaohs only.  By the time of the Second Dynasty the tradition of servant sacrifice seems to have fallen out of favor and instead of being buried with dead servants, Pharaohs were accompanied to the afterlife by hundreds of little figurines.

8. The Ancient Egyptians Were Not The First Civilization Along The Nile

Civilization flourished along the Nile for eons.
Civilization flourished along the Nile for eons.

Civilization, so many school children lean, started in the Sumerian city of Ur.  After the Sumerian civilization the Ancient Egyptian Civilization sprang into being.  Children are led to believe that this just happened, that the civilization appeared fully formed when the cultures of the upper and lower Nile united to form Egypt.  This is not, however, true.

The Nile, with its floods, makes agriculture possible in an otherwise desert environment.  In pre-Pharaonic times, however, Egypt was not as dry as it is today.  By 500BC many different societies had coalesced into separate cultures along the Nile.  They farmed crops and animals and they were wealthy enough to allow people to specialize as potters, jewelers etc.  Some of these cultures developed rudimentary hieroglyphics.  These cultures gradually coalesced into the Ancient Egypt we know today.

While some archaeologists believe that the Narmer Palette depicts the creation of Ancient Egypt by the Pharaoh Menes 5000 years ago many others believe that this depiction of the use of both the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt was symbolic and that there was no sudden unification.  The Egypt that did emerge rested firmly on the back of the developments of the preceding Nile civilizations.

7. Cleopatra Was Not Beautiful

Cleopatra was bald? Shut yo mouth!
Cleopatra was bald? Shut yo mouth!

When we think about Cleopatra we think of a stunningly beautiful woman with whom both Mark Antony and Julius Caesar fell in love.  They may have loved her but they were probably more in love with her country.  The Nile was an incredibly fertile area and was capable of growing most of the grain needed to feed the people of Rome, it was the breadbasket of the empire and the person who controlled Egypt controlled Rome.  Cleopatra was therefore alluring for reasons that go beyond the physical.

Of course beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder but were she alive today Cleopatra would not be topping the lists of ‘stunning celebs’ or have paparazzi fighting to photograph her on the red carpet.  She was a bald woman who wore a wig, had a hooked nose and fairly fat, fleshy face.  Plutarch damned her with faint praise when he said of her looks ‘her beauty was not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her’…ouch!  She does, however, appear to have been a politically savvy operator and an accomplished negotiator, able to use all her talents to get ahead.  It is said of her that she was extremely witty, had a musical voice and had a stimulating character.  Something for our celebrity and looks obsessed youth of today to strive to emulate!

6. The Pyramids Were Not Built By Aliens

Aliens did build the pyramids. The radio signals in my fillings told me so.
Aliens did build the pyramids. The radio signals in my fillings told me so.

One of the most endearing false myths perpetuated about the Ancient Egyptian culture is that they met with and were inspired by aliens who helped them to build the pyramids.

The pyramids, so the proponents of this theory say, are too perfect to have been built by an ancient civilization.  Not only have they remained in good condition over thousands of years but they incorporated cutting edge construction techniques and ensured that the structures were aligned with the stars of Orion and with the sun on the summer solstice.  Alien theory apologists rely on bizarre almost coincidences of mathematics to prove their point.  It is true that the height of the great pyramid in feet (481) multiplied by 1,000,000,000,000 is close to the distance between the Earth to the Sun.  Close but not exact – surely aliens playing with mathematics to send a message to other aliens or future earth cultures would make the calculation exact!

Others like to point to the fact that pictures of aliens appear in Egyptian wall friezes.  These pictures are almost always shown out of context, however.  In fact they depict nothing as exciting as an alien – the figure is actually a vase.  Still more people get excited by hieroglyphics at the Temple of Osiris in Abydos which they believe show helicopters and airplanes.  It turns out that the stone was actually chipped clean and reused for a second (and perhaps third) inscription when Ramesses II wanted to place his inscription in the temple in place of that of Seti I.  Bits of the original showed through and the result was the rather amusing ‘flying machines’ that we see today.

Despite it being obvious that the Pyramids were not influenced by aliens some people cling to anything they can to convince themselves that this crackpot theory has to be right.  They look at the fact that other cultures, thousands of miles away and centuries distant in time, such as the Maya also built pyramids even though there could have been no communication between the two as evidence for the handiwork of aliens.  Ask any structural engineer, however, and they will tell you that a pyramid is a simple way of building a tall, stable structure quickly, easily and without the need for complicated equipment.  Of course diverse cultures developed pyramids!  Not only that but we can see older, smaller pyramids throughout Egypt built from a variety of materials and in a variety of forms which served as practice runs before the Egyptians embarked on the construction of the Great Pyramids which still engender a feeling of awe and wonder today.  Amazing they may be but they are a very human construction, the credit must go to the Ancient Egyptians and not some fictional aliens.

5. The Pyramids Were Not Built By Slaves

Jews weren't used as slaves to build the pyramids according to some historians and scholars.
Jews weren’t used as slaves to build the pyramids according to some historians and scholars.

It is a popular belief amongst many people that the pyramids were built by slave labor.  After all why would any free man want to heave huge chunks of stone across the unforgiving, baking hot sand and then hoist it up a steep slope just to build a pyramid for a King?  No one would do that of their free will, surely?  This attitude fails to understand the purpose of the pyramids.  They were not just tombs for the Pharaohs but they were also monuments of worship, no different in many ways to the great Cathedrals built in Europe during the Middle Ages.  We never claim that the beautiful work in Notre Dame, Durham, Salisbury and Rheims was done by slave labor, we know that the people who worked on these monuments to God were skilled men who were able to charge a fair price for their work. Why then would it have been any different for the pyramids?

Archaeologists have located evidence of permanent settlements near the pyramids designed to house the working crews.  These townships showed evidence not just of bakeries to ensure that the workers got bread and water to eat but animal bones in great quantities.  The men who built the pyramids ate prime beef on a regular basis.  This type of expensive food would not have been wasted on slaves who were being worked to death.  The evidence points to the construction crews having been skilled and highly appreciated laborers.  Other evidence points to the existence of trade unions and working gangs that rotated in and out of construction duty on the pyramids – very different to the idea we have in our minds of the overseer with the whip.

4. The Ancient Egyptians Did Not Enslave The Israelites

The Old Testament might not be a bullet proof historical record.
The Old Testament might not be a bullet proof historical record.

We know, because the Bible tells us so, that the Israelites, God’s chosen people were enslaved by the Egyptians used to build the pyramids and toil for the glory of Ancient Egypt.  God was so displeased by the situation that he unleashed the 10 plagues on Egypt (see below) and Moses subsequently led the faithful to freedom, the Red Sea parting before them to enable their escape before crashing down on the pursuing Egyptian army.  These events as depicted in the Old Testament) form the key background to the Jewish celebration of Passover.

All this makes for an excellent story but it is simply not true.  The Egyptians did not use slave labor to build the pyramids (see above).  There is also no evidence of any mass migration of people through Sinai.  Not only is there no archaeological or written evidence of the enslavement but the Egyptian economy did not seem to suffer at the time of the purported exodus and there is no evidence of interbreeding between the two populations.  Even sources within Israel acknowledge that there is no archaeological record and that Passover may be nothing more than a myth.

3. The Egyptians Really Did Suffer The 10 Plagues Of The Bible

Egypt has a thing for plagues. Especially locusty plagues.
Egypt has a thing for plagues. Especially locusty plagues.

The Bible (see above) in the Book of Exodus tells us that God unleashed 10 plagues upon the Egyptians as punishment for their treatment of the Israelites.  These were the plagues of blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and death of the firstborn.

While the archaeological record does not support the presence of Jews in Egypt at the time claimed by Exodus there is evidence that the plagues so eloquently described may have really happened.  Around 3000 years ago there was a change in the climate of Egypt during the reign of Ramesses II. This caused algae to bloom in the waters turning them red which in turn led to problems with fogs, lice and fleas.  These problems caused infections and pestilence in cattle and boils to appear in humans.  This rather unfortunately coincided with a large volcanic eruption in Santorini, Greece which through an atmospheric reaction caused hail storms, encouraged swarms of locusts and blotted the sun from the sky for a time.  Pumice from Santorini has been found in excavations from that time.  All of this led to the growth of fungus in the grain stores, because the eldest male child in the house was given the first serving at the table they would have been disproportionately affected.

It seems that the author of Exodus must have heard about the catastrophes facing the Egyptians and decided that they would be just the thing to include in his cautionary tale!

2. There Is More Than One Way To Make A Mummy

Juniper oil enema. Sign me up.
Juniper oil enema. Sign me up.

Kids are endlessly fascinated by Mummies, ask almost any 7 year old and they will tell you all about how the brain is extracted through the nostril and the organs are harvested and placed in canopic jars before the body is dried and wrapped in linen.  Now it is true that that is one way to make an Egyptian mummy but it is not the only way – there were, in fact, a number of different methods that the embalmers could choose to turn to should they so wish.

The Egyptians were prolific embalmers, it was not just the wealthy and famous who were wrapped up for posterity, even quite ordinary people were mummified and many pets including dogs, cats, birds and crocodiles.  The Egyptians made mummies for about 3,000 years and they became very good at it.  Egyptians first became interested in making mummies when they found out that bodies buried in the dry sand had all the moisture sucked out from them and were preserved.  They then set about trying to recreate this in a more managed way.  In addition to the ‘classic’ method beloved of children embalmers might choose to dissolve the internal organs by administering a juniper oil enema instead of eviscerating the corpse by hand and while most mummies were embalmed in resins others were covered in bitumen.  Canopic jars, which were popular in the early years of Ancient Egypt, eventually became symbolic vessels only and the organs were returned to the body during the embalming process.

1. Tutankhamun Did Not Curse His Own Tomb

King Tut. Not a curser.
King Tut. Not a curser.

Egyptian tombs were reputed to have been cursed to prevent unscrupulous people from making off with the many wonderful goods inside.  These may have had an actual value on earth but would be needed by the deceased in the afterlife and the ‘curses’ helped preserve the integrity of the tomb.

As archaeological expeditions uncovered ever more wonderful artefacts from Egyptian tombs it was in the interests of the archaeological community to perpetuate this myth in order to preserve the tombs for proper study and prevent robbers and amateurs from destroying precious objects. This myth was given wings when, in 1923 a British expedition discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.  Two months after the tomb was opened one of the leaders of the expedition died from an infected mosquito bite, the curse of the Pharaohs seemed all too real.  In 2002 a medical study was carried out on the survival rates of the Western members of the excavating team to see if those who had been there when the tomb was opened (and therefore meant to have been cursed) died sooner than those who were not present at the opening.  There was no difference at all meaning that there is no scientific evidence that the tomb was cursed.


Why has the fascinating civilization of Ancient Egypt given rise to so many bizarre myths when there are plenty of interesting and even bizarre facts to last the fussiest of individuals a lifetime (did you know, for example that Ancient Egyptian women used crocodile dung as a contraceptive and that Egyptian Theology may have formed the basis for the story of Christ’s birth and resurrection)?

Perhaps the very antiquity of the civilization, so different from our own but with haunting similarities (they loved their pets so much they embalmed them and kept them close, much like the way we bury a much loved dog or cat in our yard) means that we look for the most bizarre explanation we can think of to explain the differences.

Ancient Egyptians were in many ways ordinary people, they did not have contact with aliens; they did not have the power to curse the men who exhumed their burial places thousands of years later.  What they were was human, fallible, brilliant and inspirational.  We may look, today, at the amazing edifices of the pyramids, their legacy for centuries to come, but their true legacy to us was the creation of a stable civilization, the use of ox drawn plows to cultivate the fields and the harnessing of a powerful river to feed the world as it was known to them.