At a time when Egyptians are rising as one man to regain their Egyptianness, which they sense has been viciously threatened by the Islamists who have been in power for a year now, it would do us good to remember the real worth of Egyptian culture and what it gave the whole world
Words, weather and wisdom have been bequeathed to us by the ancient Egyptians. Yet few realise how wide their influence has been on the ancient and modern world, both East and West.
The film director Shadi Abdel-Salaam was one person who had a seemingly infinite knowledge about the wealth of culture. In the early 1980s I spent many happy evenings with Shadi, usually small gatherings in his apartment with two or three friends, while Salah Marei, the art director who collaborated with him on a number of his set designs, worked away in an adjoining room.
The intricate and exact replicas of Pharaonic jewellery and model boats Marei was making at the time were intended for Shadi’s planned film Akhenaten, also known as The Tragedy of the Great House, but as the start of the film’s production dragged on, bogged down in problems over financing, the completed pieces were transferred to the Sheraton Hotel in Heliopolis for display behind glass cases in their main restaurant. Sadly, they were destroyed when the hotel caught fire; and Akhenaten never came to be made. Shadi died in 1986, but his legacy can be seen in his collection in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which Marei himself curated before his death in 2011.
All these events were still to come, however. Back then, while Marei worked, occasionally joining in our conversation, Shadi would expound on the impact of Egypt’s Pharaonic history on the daily lives of the people around us. He would compare the dialects and idiom spoken in different parts of Egypt with the Arabic spoken elsewhere. He would pick through the language: the special words Egyptian mothers spoke to their babes, words that had come down from ancient Egyptian through Demotic and Coptic to be heard by every infant in Egypt. Words for food: ful medames (stewed fava beans) and khakh (sweet pastries eaten on special occasions).
The ancient Egyptians spoke an Afro-Asiatic language which was related to Semitic and other North African languages. Naturally this spoken language underwent many modifications over the centuries. Until about 1300 BC classical Egyptian was written in hieroglyphs, but the hieratic, and later the Demotic, scripts, which were easier to write and read, came into normal and business use while classical hieroglyphs were reserved for religious and funerary purposes.
At the beginning of the Christian era the Coptic alphabet—essentially the Greek alphabet with the addition of some Demotic letters—became more common. Thus words slipped from one writing form to another, and finally into Arabic. Some ancient Egyptian words have even filtered into English: desert, oasis, adobe, gum, paper, ibis, ammonia, barge, endive, sash, myth, sack, and even ebony and ivory. Just two of the names that have reached us from ancient Egyptian are Susan (from ssn, lotus) and Moses (from ms, child—Ramesses being the ‘child of Ra’).
American historian Tom Slattery suggests it is possible that many more English words may derive from the ancient language of Egypt and supposes that such words could have been introduced through dealings in the ancient Cornish tin trade, which was once very active throughout Europe and the Mediterranean where there was a huge demand for tin to make bronze. These words include season (ses, time and sesu, season); pint (about the same measurement as the Egyptian hin); verdant (from wrd, green); cot (khty, bed); bee (bit, pronounced ‘bee’, honey-bee); door (tr); and construct (khns, build). Slattery also draws attention to the comparisons that have been made between the Hymn To The Aten and Psalm 104. “These are wild questions,” he admits, “but if you don’t ask questions, you don’t get answers.”
The ancient world, backed by the accounts of his travels and observations by the historian and geographer Herodotus in the mid-fifth century BC, as well as other contemporary travellers, believed that Egypt was the cradle of astronomy and astrology. Scholars now contend that these sciences originated in Mesopotamia. Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that these disciplines developed side by side, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that there was a cross current of ideas, or that anywhere where trade routes existed there must have been a trade in knowledge and innovations as well as in goods and produce.
The ancient Egyptians invented creams for skincare, sun protection, deodorants, toothpaste and toothbrushes; they wore wigs and make-up; they invented locks and keys, ink and the ox plough. They used chairs, beds and tables very similar to our own. They invented a type of clock. Such items cannot strictly be said to have come to us directly from Egypt, but the Egyptians seem to have arrived there first.
The knowledge and skill of Egyptian craftsmen extended widely across the Mediterranean. The beautiful statues from ancient Greece would not have been created had some adventurous Greeks not crossed the “wine-dark” sea to settle on the northern Egyptian coast in the seventh century BC, where they learnt the craft of constructing life-size and colossal statues from their Egyptian hosts. Up to that time images of the gods of the Greek pantheon were doll-sized.
As above, so below
The ancient Egyptians believed that life on Earth mirrored life in the heavens, and that therefore what awaited them when they were properly prepared for death was a continuation of the life they had enjoyed on Earth. The necessary accoutrements for their heavenly existence were placed in the tomb for use in the spirit world: food, furnishings and ushabti figurines whose spirits would serve the deceased person. Vivid scenes taken from life were painted on the walls of tombs to show that this was how a beloved family member was passing his or her time: ploughing, hunting, fishing offering to the gods, often joined by a spouse.
In similar celestial harmony, the ordered pattern of the stars governed the order of life on Earth. Astrologers observed the movement of the stars, and matched these regular phases with the behaviour of those born at a particular time. People acted, they said, in perpetual harmony with the heavenly bodies. In the Temple of Hathor at Dendera there were two zodiacs, a rectangular zodiac on the ceiling of the hypostyle hall and a circular one on the ceiling of a chapel. The celestial bodies are clearly and carefully mapped, and show that the designers had made precise observations of the night sky. The central point of observation was Sirius, the so-called dog star, and its point at the time of the summer and winter solstices. Clearly the Egyptians laid the foundations of the advanced astronomic calculations made by later Greek astronomers, including those who studied at the Mouseion, the ancient Library of Alexandria. Such discoveries formed the basis of the further exploration made by mediaeval Islamic and European scholars, as well as the scientists of the Renaissance and our own modern era. The ancient Egyptians indeed left a legacy that enriched us all.
• Youssef, Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, From Pharaoh’s Lips, American University in Cairo Press.
• Slattery, Tom, The Tragic End of the Bronze Age: A Virus Makes History, Writer’s Club Press.
• To learn more about Egyptians’ command of mathematics, take a look at the video
3 July 2013