Unravelling the literacy of the Egyptian Pharaohs

Unravelling the literacy of the Egyptian Pharaohs

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It is well known that only about one percent of ancient Egyptians mastered the difficult art of reading and writing hieroglyphics. But there is little information about the education of royal children and how many of the powerful rulers of Egypt learned this important skill. Researchers from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland have examined ancient texts to find clues regarding the literacy of Egypt’s Dynastic rulers.

The most famous of all ancient Egyptian scripts is hieroglyphic. However, throughout three thousand years of ancient Egyptian civilisation, at least three other scripts – Hieratic, Demotic, and later on, Coptic – were used for different purposes. Using these scripts, scribes were able to preserve the beliefs, history and ideas of ancient Egypt in temple and tomb walls and on papyrus scrolls.

From left to right, examples of Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic script. Photo source: Wikimedia

“For administrative documents and literary texts, ancient Egyptians used mainly hieratic, which was a simplified form of writing used since the Old Kingdom, the time of the builders of the pyramids in the third millennium BC. In the middle of the first millennium BC, even more simplified demotic appeared" said Filip Taterka, Egyptologist and doctoral student at the Institute of Prehistory in Adam Mickiewicz University.

Writing in Ancient Egypt—both hieroglyphic and hieratic—first appeared in the late 4th millennium BC during the late phase of predynastic Egypt. The Egyptians called their hieroglyphs "words of god" and reserved their use for exalted purposes, such as communicating with divinities and spirits of the dead through funerary texts. Each hieroglyphic word both represented a specific object and embodied the essence of that object, recognizing it as divinely made and belonging within the greater cosmos.

By the Old Kingdom (2,600 – 2,200 BC), literary works included funerary texts, epistles and letters, hymns and poems, and commemorative autobiographical texts recounting the careers of prominent administrative officials. It was not until the early Middle Kingdom (2,100 – 1,700 BC) that a narrative Egyptian literature was created. This is believed to have been the result of the rise of an intellectual class of scribes and mainstream access to written materials. However, the overall literacy rate was still only around one percent of the entire population. The creation of literature was thus an elite exercise, monopolised by a scribal class attached to government offices and the royal court of the ruling pharaoh.

The Seated Scribe, a statue from Saqqarah dated 2600–2350 BC. Photo source: Wikimedia

According to Mr Taterka, evidence suggests that Egyptian royal children were taught hieratic, a simplified, cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs, while classical hieroglyphs were probably reserved for children who would enter the priesthood, and for the future heir to the throne.

"Relatively late sources suggest that even one of the first rulers of Egypt - Aha - mastered the writing skill. He was believed to be an author of a few medical treaties, although the reliability of this report is, of course, debatable," said Mr Taterka.

The researcher found numerous references to the Pharaoh’s skills in writing in the texts of the Pyramids, and archaeological evidence, such as writing implements showing traces of use found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, further support the belief that royal rulers were literate.

"The most famous Egyptian text that speaks of the royal literacy is the Prophecy of Neferti. It is a story concerning the first king of the fourth dynasty - Sneferu. In the story, the ruler writes down the words of Neferti - the wise man from the East- on papyrus. Although this story cannot be treated as proof of literacy of Sneferu himself, since it was created a thousand years after his reign, it clearly shows that at least in the time of the 12th dynasty, the Egyptians could imagine such a situation," said Mr Taterka.

The researcher explained that knowledge of hieroglyphics was necessary to fulfil the Pharaoh’s royal duties, which included religious rituals, during which the ruler would recite sacred texts. The ruler was the only intermediary between gods and humans and was often identified with the god Thoth, the inventor of the hieroglyphs.

While it may appear as an obvious conclusion that the elite were literate in hieroglyphics, the same was not true in other civilisations. According to Taterka, most of the royals of Mesopotamia did not have a command of the cuneiform script, which may have been due to the fact that it was a lot more difficult to master.

Featured image: Photo of a relief-section of hieroglyphs in the great temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel. Photo source: Wikimedia

Egyptian Footwear

For more than half of the recorded history of ancient Egypt there is almost no record of the use of footwear. The main source of evidence for this period, the pictorial stories found in tombs known as hieroglyphs, showed every class of person, from the ruling pharaoh (king or queen), to the lowly worker, going barefoot. This may not mean that people never wore some foot protection, but it does seem to indicate that footwear was of very little importance.

Historians are not sure why sandals were suddenly introduced but, beginning at the start of the New Kingdom period of Egyptian history in about 1500 b.c.e., sandals suddenly began to appear on the hieroglyphs depicting scenes of Egyptian life. Egyptians had developed advanced shoemaking skills for their time, and they created sandals woven of reeds or leather that were quite similar in design to many modern sandals.

Though the design of Egyptian sandals was simple, the wealthy still found ways to adorn them. Some had buckles on the straps made of precious metals, while others had jewels embedded in the woven soles. Some sandal designs had turned up toes, probably to keep sand out of the shoe as the wearer walked.

There is very little evidence of the use of covered shoes in ancient Egypt. The few that have been found were woven from palm fiber and grass. Such shoes seem to have been prized possessions. Sometimes travelers removed their shoes to keep them safe while they were on the road and then put them on again at journey's end. Other shoes have been found in tombs, indicating that they were important items to the dead person.

Joseph in Ancient Egyptian History

It’s rather amazing how historians and archaeologists have managed to “explain away” evidences which validate the Biblical account. Myths and legends derived from actual events of Biblical times are found all over the world, such as the multitude of “flood” stories, but to the unbeliever, these only “prove” that the Bible was influenced by these myths. The fact is that these myths are satanic corruptions of the truth- designed by Satan to convince man that, in his own cleverness, he is smarter than God. And ultimately, this kind of thinking leads a person to deny entirely the existence of God and the truth of the Bible.
Yet, no one seems to think it strange that every known civilization has had some type of religious system. If there is no God, where did this idea of “religion and gods” come from? It came from the original truths known by the original post-flood family of Noah. And the facts are that the evidences found validate the Biblical account, not the myths and legends. But there will always be those who simply will not see.

Some of these great evidences relate to the story of Joseph in ancient Egypt. Inscriptions on a monument to Horemheb, a pharaoh several years after the Exodus, provide evidence of the story of Joseph’s pharaoh’s invitation to Jacob’s family to come to Egypt and live. It tells of a community of shepherds from the “north” asking Egypt to allow them to pasture their cattle “as was the custom of the father of their fathers from the beginning”.

There is also a picture in the tomb of Tehuti-hetep in Bersheh which has a picture of a herd of Syrian cattle entering Egypt with the inscription: “Once you trod the Syrian sands. Now, here in Egypt, you shall feed in green pastures. (Light from the Ancient Past, by Jack Finegan.)

The evidences which parallel the story of Joseph in more detail are the focus of this newsletter. But first, we must set the stage. According to our chronology, taken from the Biblical record, the flood was in about 2348 BC. Abraham left Haran in about 1921 BC, about 427 years later.

Soon after this (we don’t know exactly how soon) he and Sarah went to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan. The Biblical account is extremely short on the subject of Abraham’s visit to Egypt (Gen. 12:10-20) but we do learn that Abraham misled the pharaoh about who Sarah was- he told him she was his sister. This was partially true since she was his half-sister, but she was also his wife.

The pharaoh, because of her beauty, took her to his palace. (Gen. 12:12-15). The king paid Abraham well for Sarah (verse 16) but God intervened, causing some types of plagues to fall upon the pharaoh. (verse 17). When the pharaoh figured out the cause for these inflictions, he called Abraham to account, asking him why he lied to him about Sarah. (verse 18, 19). He then ordered his men to escort Abraham and his entourage out of Egypt. (verse 20). Egypt at this time was already a rich nation, for it was at this time that Abraham became rich in cattle, gold and silver, given to him as payment for Sarah. (Gen. 13:1,2).

And there is good evidence that it was at this time that the regulation prohibiting the Egyptians from eating, drinking or fraternizing with foreign shepherds was instituted. (Gen. 46:34). Josephus relates that Abraham was responsible for bringing the knowledge of arithmetic and astronomy to the Egyptians, which may also be true. We believe the time of Abraham’s visit to Egypt was early in the 1st Dynasty. It would be about 200 years later when Joseph would be elevated to his high position in Egypt, second only to the pharaoh. And in the 3rd Dynasty, there appears on the scene a most incredible individual in the ancient records- a man called “Imhotep”.

For many years, Egyptologists had doubted that Imhotep had been a real person- they found it rather difficult to believe the various accomplishments credited to him in the accounts written over a thousand years after he was supposed to have lived.

At times, Imhotep has been termed the “Leonardo da Vinci” of ancient Egypt, but in fact he was more than that. Da Vinci gained the reputation of a genius- Imhotep was eventually elevated to the status of a god.

In Egypt’s long list of “gods”, very few were ever once living among them. Imhotep was. Manetho wrote that “during his [Djoser of the 3rd Dynasty] reign lived Imouthes [i.e., Imhotep], who, because of his medical skill has the reputation of Asclepius [the Greek god of medicine] among the Egyptians and who was the inventor of the art of building with hewn stone.” It was this statement that caused the specialists to doubt the existence of a real man named Imhotep. But in 1926, the question was settled once and for all- Imhotep was a real man.

When excavations were carried out at the Step Pyramid at Sakkara, fragments of a statue of pharaoh Djoser were found.

The base was inscribed with the names of Djoser and of “Imhotep, Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt, Chief under the King, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary Lord, High Priest of Heliopolis, Imhotep the Builder, the Sculptor, the Maker of Stone Vases…”.

Does this fit what we know of Joseph? The Bible is quite clear on his high rank under the pharaoh:

GEN 41:40 Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater than thou. 43 And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. 44 And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.

In fact, it sounds as if Joseph was the first person ever given such honor by a pharaoh, which is confirmed by evidences in Egypt. If this man, Imhotep, was Joseph, surely there must be some evidence tieing him with the Biblical account. Let’s take a look…

Inscription of the 7 Year Famine
Joseph’s main position was that of a prime minister and Imhotep appears to be the first who could boast of such a broad range of authority in ancient Egypt. There are records of many, many viziers throughout Egyptian history- but the first evidence which connects Imhotep with Joseph is an amazing inscription found carved on a large rock on the island of Sihiel just below the First Cataract of the Nile.

This inscription claims to be a copy of a document written by Djoser in the 18th year of his reign,- this copy being written over 1,000 years after the events it claims to be relating. It goes on to tell of a 7 year famine and 7 years of plenty. Let’s look at a few passages from this inscription and compare them with the Biblical account, keeping in mind that this was written a millenium after the events it claims to be describing:

1. It begins with the great distress of the pharaoh: “I was in distress on the Great Throne…”

GEN 41:8 And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled

2. In the inscription, the pharaoh is troubled about a famine and asks Imhotep who the god of the Nile is, so he can approach him about the drought: “… I asked him who was the Chamberlain,…Imhotep, the son of Ptah… `What is the birthplace of the Nile? Who is the god there? Who is the god?'” Imhotep answers: “I need the guidance of Him who presides over the fowling net,…”

GEN 41:16 And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace. In the Egyptian text, Imhotep is termed “the son of Ptah”, who was the Egyptian god known as the “creator” of everything else, including the other gods.

3. In the inscription, Imhotep answers the pharaoh about the god of the Nile and tells him where he lives. In the Bible, Joseph interprets the pharaohs dream. But, the next thing in the inscription tells that when the king slept, the Nile god Khnum, revealed himself to him in a dream and promised the Nile would pour forth her waters and the land would yield abundantly for 7 years, after a 7 year drought. This passage reflects the fact of a dream by the pharaoh of 7 years of plenty and 7 years of famine, although reversed.

4. The inscription then goes on to record Djoser’s promise to the Nile god, Khnum, in which the people were to be taxed 1/10 of everything, except for the priests of the “house of the god”, who would be exempted.

GEN 47:26 And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth part, except the land of the priests only, which became not Pharaoh’s.

So here we have an inscription which tells a story of pharaoh Djoser asking his vizier, Imhotep, to help him with the problem of a great 7 year famine. Imhotep tells him he must consult the god because the answer is not in him. Then, the pharaoh dreams a dream which foretells the event.

Next follow 7 years of plenty, which is reverse from the Biblical account.

The pharaoh levies a tax of 10% on all of the population except for the priesthood. The Biblical account tells of a 1/5, or 20% tax, with the priesthood exempt. All of the components of the Biblical account are present in this inscription, except that the story has been “Egyptianized” to fit their religious beliefs.

It is believed that this inscription was written during the 2nd century BC, by the priests of Khnum for the purpose of justifying their claim of some land privileges. Part of the inscription states the pharaoh dedicated some of the land and taxation to the god.

But, this isn’t the only inscription with this “tale”- there is a similar inscription on the Isle of Philae, only this one has the priests of Isis stating that Djoser made the same gift to their god for the same purpose. Just as the story of the flood is found in almost every ancient culture but is twisted to fit their own purposes and gods, here we find the story of Joseph, only it is twisted to fit the needs of the priests of the various gods in substantiating their claims to certain land.

“Imhotep, the Voice of the God, Im (I AM)”
The name, Imhotep, in ancient Egyptian is translated to mean “the voice (or mouth) of Im” however, there is no record of a god in Egypt called “Im”. But, we all know the God, “I AM”:

EXO 3:14 And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

JOH 8:58 Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

God told Moses to tell the pharaoh that “I AM” had sent him because “I AM” was the name by which the Egyptians had known Joseph’s God. Could “Im” have been “I AM”?

The name the Bible states that was given to Joseph by the pharaoh, “Zaphenath-paneah”, has been translated by some to mean, “the God lives the God speaks”. Since we do not fully understand the meaning of the Egyptian “hotep”, it is quite possible that the translation of Imhotep (“The voice of I AM) is identical to the Biblical name of Joseph (“the God lives the God speaks).

Imhotep, the Physician
Imhotep is the earliest physician whose historical records survive, and although Joseph isn’t mentioned as being a physician, the Bible gives one very important clue to this:

GEN 50:2 And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father: and the physicians embalmed Israel. Here, the physicians are specificly stated to be under Joseph.

But later, when Imhotep became established as the “god of healing”, it is the manner in which he healed that ties him directly to Joseph. Ancient Greek writings mention a great sanctuary at Memphis where people came from everywhere to seek cures from Imhotep. They would pray to him, make offerings and then spend the night in this sanctuary, which was a sort of Lourdes of ancient Egypt. While sleeping, the god, Imhotep, was said to come to people in their dreams and cure them. Is there a connection between Joseph and dreams?

GEN 37:8 And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.

Remember, it was Joseph’s dream about he and his brothers binding sheaves- their sheaves stood up and bowed to his- that was one of the causes of their great jealousy of him.

GEN 37:20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams.

The Wisdom of Imhotep
The Biblical account also speaks of Joseph’s wisdom: GEN 41:39 And Pharaoh said unto Joseph, Forasmuch as God hath shewed thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou art:.

Again, the evidence points to Imhotep. Imhotep was also revered for his wisdom. In several inscriptions from much later times, reference is made to the “words of Imhotep”. For example, in “Song from the Tomb of King Intef”, we read:

“I have heard the words of Imhotep and Hardedef…”,

and it goes on to explain that their “sayings” were recited in his day. To date, nothing has been found of Imhotep’s works, however there are several works of “wise sayings” attributed to one “Ptahotep”, who is only known as a vizier of a king from the 5th dynasty.

However, there are 5 known “Ptahoteps”, all viziers to pharaohs of the 5th dynasty, all priests of Heliopolis, or “On”. Evidence seems to indicate that after Imhotep, the trend among viziers became patterned after him, with these later viziers taking credit for Imhotep’s actual deeds and his writings- a practice which the Egyptians, among others, were notorious for.

Now, let’s do some assuming for a moment- let’s assume that Joseph wrote a collection of wise sayings, of course, inspired by God. Because of his great favor with the king, these came to be revered by the scribes and people. His fame as a sage spread throughout Egypt and became the standard of wisdom. We know that his wisdom came from the true God of Abraham. Would it not be expected that Joseph would pass on his wisdom from God to those around him? In fact, the Bible says that he did:

PSA 105:17 He sent a man before them, even Joseph, who was sold for a servant:󈻬 The king sent and loosed him even the ruler of the people, and let him go free. 21 He made him lord of his house, and ruler of all his substance: 22 To… teach his senators wisdom.

After Joseph’s death, others copied his wise sayings and took credit for them, perhaps adding a bit of their own and changing things to suit them. As these sayings were passed down through several generations, instead of being attributed to Imhotep, they were attributed to Ptahotep, “the voice of” the Egyptian creator, “Ptah”. Thousands of years later, several papyruses are found which purport to be copies of “The Instruction of Ptahotep”. Could this scenario have happened?

There are 2 particular statements in Ptahotep’s writings which indicate that this is exactly what happened. At the end of these manuscripts, the writer states that he is near death, having lived 110 years and that he received honors from the king exceeding those of the ancestors,- in other words, he received the most honors ever given a man by a pharaoh. And, we know that Joseph died at the age of 110 years.

Well, it gets even more familiar as we examine the text of these manuscripts. They begin as Solomon’s Proverbs begin, as instructions to his son, with the admonition they are “profitable to him who will hear” but “woe to him who would neglect them”. Keep in mind that the Originator of Joseph’s wisdom was also the Originator of Solomon’s wisdom, and the parallels between the 2 are undeniable. We are told in the Bible that Solomon knew many, many proverbs:

1KI 4:30 And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser… and his fame was in all nations round about. 32 And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five.

This statement indicates that the concept of a “proverb” was known to the ancient peoples. We aren’t told if Solomon was the author of all of these proverbs or whether they were passed down to him from his ancestors. There are examples of proverbs in many ancient civilizations, but the only ones which Solomon recorded by inspiration and today appear in the Bible are very similar to the ancient Egyptian “wisdom literature” which can be traced back to Imhotep. This doesn’t mean that Solomon copied from the ancient Egyptians- it means that the God of His Fathers gave the same wisdom to his ancestors, who included Joseph, that He gave to Solomon.

We’ll compare a few passages of Ptahotep’s writings to the Bible:

1) “Don’t be proud of your knowledge”

PRO 3:7 Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.

2) “One plans the morrow but knows not what will be”.

PRO 27:1 Boast not thyself of to morrow for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.

3) “If you probe the character of a friend, don’t enquire, but approach him, deal with him alone,…”

PRO 25:9 Debate thy cause with thy neighbor himself and discover not a secret to another”.

4) “If you are a man of trust, sent by one great man to another, adhere to the nature of him who sent you, give his message as he said it.”

PRO 25:13 As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him: for he refresheth the soul of his masters.

5) “Teach the great what is useful to him.”

PRO 9:9 Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.

We also find parallels in other Books, such as Psalms and Ecclesiastes:

6) “If every word is carried on, they will not perish in the land.”

PSA 78:5 For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: 6 That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born who should arise and declare them to their children:

7) “Guard against the vice of greed: a grievous sickness without cure. There is no treatment for it.

ECC 6:2 A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.

8) “If you are a man of worth who sits in his master’s council, concentrate on excellence, your silence is better than chatter… gain respect through knowledge…”

ECC 9:17 The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools.

9) “The wise is known by his wisdom, the great by his good actions his heart matches his tongue…”

PRO 18:21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.

10) “If you are one among guests at the table of one greater than you, take what he gives as it is set before you.”

PRO 23:1 When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider diligently what is before thee:

God used Joseph to establish in Egypt a safe haven for the growth and development of the “seed of Abraham” until they were ready to be delivered into the land God had promised them. And while in Egypt, surrounded by paganism, God would not leave His people nor the Egyptians without access to His Truth. The Bible records the fact that Joseph even taught the pharaoh’s “senators”.

And while this wisdom was revered by the Egyptians and carried down through the ages by their sages who copied some of his writings, (claiming it as their own), some of these same “wisdom sayings” were recorded by some of Joseph’s descendants over 700 years later, and ultimately were preserved for us in the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Psalms. But Joseph’s wisdom didn’t originate with him- it was divinely inspired, as was Solomon’s wisdom, David’s wisdom and the wisdom of all of God’s people.

Imhotep Appointed Later in Djoser’s Reign
There are several other items concerning Imhotep which continue to fit the Biblical account. We know that the pharaoh of Joseph had been king for an unknown period of time when Joseph was finally brought to him to interpret his dream.

And the evidence shows that Imhotep was not Djoser’s vizier earlier in his reign- in fact, no mention is made at all of Imhotep on Djoser’s earlier monuments. Imhotep was not the architect of Djoser’s tomb built at Beit Khallaf, which was probably undertaken soon after he became king. In this earlier tomb, which is similar to the preceding dynasties as Sakkara, there are clay sealings of jars which record Djoser’s name, his mother’s name, and the names of numerous other officials from his reign- but not Imhotep’s, which indicates that he hadn’t been appointed to his position yet. The standard practice was for the pharaoh always to appoint men to office as soon as he took the throne, with family members being the highest ranked.

All available information about Imhotep continues to point to his identification with Joseph. For example, in some inscriptions, his titles indicate that he was not a member of the royal family, but a “self-made man”. This was unique because the son of the pharaoh was usually the vizier.

Imhotep was also the “priest of Heliopolis”, the Biblical “On”. Now in the story of Joseph, we learn that his father-in-law was the “priest of On” at the time of Joseph’s marriage:

GEN 41:45 And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnathpaaneah and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On. And Joseph went out over all the land of Egypt.

Since Asenath was old enough to marry Joseph at this time, it follows that her father was probably at least in his forties. And in ancient Egypt, the people didn’t live too much longer than about 50. At his death or disability, it follows that his son-in-law would be assigned his position, especially if that son-in-law were so highly regarded by the pharaoh as Joseph was.

If Joseph became the “Priest of On”, was he being unfaithful to the true God? Absolutely not- the pharaoh had recognized the power of the God of Joseph, and even though the Egyptians remained idolaters, Joseph made them aware of his God and was unswerving in his loyalty to Him. The “Priest of On” was not termed the priest of a particular god- but the title instead seems to indicate a position of high honor and political importance.

Imhotep, the Architect of the 1st Pyramid
It was Imhotep who is credited with having designed the first pyramid and began building with hewn stone instead of all mud brick. If we look at ancient Egyptian history, we can see evidence which shows that it was during the time of Djoser that Egypt became a truly great nation- after all, it had gathered the wealth of all the surrounding nations by selling them grain during the famine.

And during the 7 years of plenty, the people, under Joseph’s wise guidance, began to organize a great administrative center which would handle the selling of the grain to all the surrounding nations.

A large complex was built which contained the future burial site of the pharaoh but also included a walled in center which contained huge grain bins. There was only one entrance into this center and there was an outside entrance into the system of storage bins. The Step Pyramid complex at Sakkara is the complex which we will now discuss.

Grain Storage Bins
Surrounding the Step Pyramid, the first ever built, and its complex is a very beautiful and elaborate wall.

At the main entrance on the east wall at the southern end, one enters a long hall of 40 columns- 20 on each side. Each column is connected to the main wall by a perpendicular wall, forming small “rooms” between each column.

As you exit this colonade and walk straight ahead, you come to a series of very large pits which extend deep into the earth. These are extremely large in size- much larger than any burial chambers they are all centrally accessible by a connecting tunnel, extend to well above ground level, and one has a staircase extending down to the bottom. For this reason, weknow that they were not built as tombs- if they were, they would have been constructed underground and they certainly would not have been so incredibly large.

These massive structures extend to well above ground level, which indicates that they were not hidden, as were tombs. Because the ancient Egyptians buried their dead with so much valuable material and provisions for their “afterlife”, plundering of tombs was always their biggest fear. Therefore, we know that these massive pits had another purpose.

Also, in all the other ancient cities, whenever large bins such as these were uncovered, they were recognized as “storage bins”, but in Egypt, the scholars tend to term everything they find a “tomb”.

However, in the pharaoh’s burial complex under the pyramid, we find matching bins for the king and his family’s afterlife- and in these bins were found grain and other food stuffs.

In the Biblical account, we learn that Joseph appointed men throughout the land of Egypt to oversee the gathering and storing of the grain in all the cities:

GEN 41:34 Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. 35 And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities.

Joseph had given this plan to the pharaoh prior to his appointment as vizier or prime minister, and since it would be impossible for him to oversee the gathering and storing for the entire country, we know he implemented this plan. We also know that when the famine began and the Egyptians began to cry for food, they were told to go to Joseph and do whatever he said, which indicates that he gave the orders for the distribution of the grain:

GEN 41:55 And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph what he saith to you, do. 56 And the famine was over all the face of the earth: and Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians and the famine waxed sore in the land of Egypt.

But when the foreign peoples came to purchase grain, we learn that they went directly to Joseph:

GEN 42:6 And Joseph was the governor over the land, and he it was that sold to all the people of the land: and Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth.

Joseph’s brothers came directly to Joseph in person. We believe it is Sakkara to which they came- where the remains of this fantastic complex are preserved. And it was here that Djoser had 11 extremely large pits constructed which can only be grain storage bins.

Every city had stored grain from its region, but at this complex at Sakarra, we have these massive pits which would have stored an incredible amount of grain- more than a single city would have needed. At the entrance to this complex, as we described earlier, there are 40 small cubicles, each just the right size to hold a single person who could administer the receipt of payment from people coming to purchase grain. There could have been several “cashiers” of each language group to handle the purchases of those who spoke the various languages. Of course, the Egyptologists think all these little cubicles were for statues, however, no pedestals were found in the remains, which is a very important point, because these statues were always erected on pedestals. Statues may vanish, but pedestals remain.

The design of the 11 pits is impressive. There are 11 of them, with only one containing a very elaborate stairway extending all the way to the bottom. All the pits are connected to each other by a subterranean tunnel- the pits were filled and the tops were sealed with wooden timbers and stone. And, all of the grain could be accessed from one entrance- and there is one entrance into the pits from outside the wall enclosure of the complex. Last of all, grain was found in the floor of these pits, which has been explained by Egyptologists as having been from foods buried with deceased who were buried there- however, no evidence of burials was ever found in these pits.

Does this fit the Biblical account? When Joseph’s brothers came to him for grain, they talked to Joseph and paid for the grain. When they received the grain, it was already in sacks:

GEN 42:25 Then Joseph commanded to fill their sacks with corn, and to restore every man’s money into his sack, and to give them provision for the way: and thus did he unto them. 26 And they laded their asses with the corn, and departed thence. 27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his ass provender in the inn, he espied his money for, behold, it was in his sack’s mouth.

The complex at Sakkara is unique- nothing like it has ever been found. It was described by William Hayes as being a “veritable city in itself, planned and executed as a single unit and built of fine white limestone from the near-by Mukattam Hills.” (The Scepter of Egypt, Vol. 1, p. 60.) In fact, Egyptologists tend to term everything they find as a royal “tomb”, which is what they have called this complex.

But it in fact exhibits every feature indicative of being a center of great activity, a feature which again fits with the story of Joseph. When Joseph’s brothers came to get grain, they came face to face with Joseph who was overseeing the distribution. Where did they go to get the grain? They went to wherever the grain was stored, and this was where Joseph was.

And the storage of such a massive amount of grain would have required a large storage area, such as the extremely large pits found in this complex. It is also reasonable to expect to find the storage pits within an enclosure such as this complex, with an area for the payment of the grain. This was a “business” and would have required a center of administration.

A great deal has been written about this complex, and most mention the uniqueness of it- something they cannot explain. In fact, when you ask the Egyptians what the huge pits were for, they admit that they just don’t know.

Some ancient historians have written of the fact that the pyramids were once believed to be “Joseph’s storage bins” for the grain, and perhaps this story has its roots in the fact Joseph designed the first pyramid in the same complex in which the grain was stored. But regardless of what the “experts” want to believe about the Step Pyramid complex, the circumstantial evidence fits the story of Joseph perfectly. And, it is one of the best preserved site in Egypt- certainly of the very old structures- and this is consistent with God’s preservation of important evidences which confirm the total accuracy of His Word.

The Search for Imhotep’s Tomb
We know from the Bible that Joseph died in Egypt and was embalmed and placed in a coffin.

GEN 50:26 So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

But, when the children of Israel left during the Exodus, his bones were taken with them:

EXO 13:19 And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.

This leads us to think that Joseph would have had a royal tomb in Egypt, but that it was possibly taken over and used by someone else, we just don’t really know. But one of the big mysteries for Egyptologists has been the tomb of Imhotep- they simply can’t find it although they know it should be somewhere in Sakkara. So important is Imhotep to Egyptology, that in the Guidebook to Sakkara by Jill Kamil, “The Tomb of Imhotep” is listed as a subject heading, only to explain that it has not been found.

In our discussion of “Imhotep, the Physician”, we mentioned that ancient Greek texts speak of a place near Memphis where people came to worship “Imhotep” and be healed. When excavators continued to search for Imhotep’s tomb very near the Step Pyramid, they found an incredible labyrinth of underground tunnels, full of mummified ibis (birds) and bulls (in separate galleries). Inscriptions and coins found here show that people came here to be healed! They had found this “sanctuary to Imhotep” written of by the Greeks.

After the deification of Imhotep as “god of medicine” , he was given the title, “Chief One of the Ibis”- and this was the connection of this labyrinth with Imhotep. These hundreds of thousands of ibis were mummified and brought here as tribute to Imhotep, filling these tunnels.

It was later discovered that these galleries connected to a pit that extends down to a funerary chamber which contains an empty coffin. They also discovered that this chamber belonged to a very large mastaba tomb which contained a second chamber full of broken stone vessels, and in the tomb’s storerooms were jars whose clay-stoppers had the seal impression of Djoser! Here is absolute proof that this was the tomb of a very important person of Djoser’s reign. No inscriptions were found on the walls and the sarcophagus was empty. But even more importantly, this mastaba is oriented to the north instead of the east, as the other pyramids and mastabas are. This was an important tomb of someone from Djoser’s time- but the sarcophagus was empty.

There was even found an inscription by an anonymous Greek who came here, telling how he was cured- and it was through a dream! Once again, the evidence speaks loudly of a wonderful story from the Bible- the story of Joseph.

Egyptian Mummies : Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art

Egyptian Mummies results from research done in preparation for the mummification of a human body, the first to be done in the Egyptian style in two thousand years. Through these studies, noted Egyptologist Bob Brier has unearthed the gripping stories of grave robberies and stolen mummies, the forgotten language of the pharaohs, and the tombs of the royal mummies. In an easily accesible and lively style, Brier uncovers the complete historical context of ancient Egyptian culture and offers a fascinating contemporary interpretation of it. Illuminating their mysteries, myths, sacred rituals, and heiroglyphic writing, Egyptian Mummies brings the ancients to life.

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EGYPTIAN MUMMIES: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art

Everything you always wanted to know about the ancient Egyptian practice of mummifying corpses—and so much more. Brier (Ancient Egyptian Magic, 1980) sets the tone early: ``For 15 years,'' he states . Читать весь отзыв

Egyptian mummies: unraveling the secrets of an ancient art

Mummies. The word itself conjures a sense of the macabre, of dread, of morbid fascination. Brier's work, however, conjures something very different: the adventure of discovery. Brier (Egyptology, Long . Читать весь отзыв

Ancient Egyptian Architecture

The pyramids are the most recognizable symbol of ancient Egypt. Even though other civilizations, such as the Maya or the Chinese, also employed this form, the pyramid in the modern day is synonymous in most people's minds with Egypt. The pyramids at Giza remain impressive monuments thousands of years after they were built and the knowledge and skill required to construct them was gathered over the many centuries prior to their construction. Yet the pyramids are not the apex of ancient Egyptian architecture they are only the earliest and best known expressions of a culture which would go on to create buildings, monuments, and temples just as intriguing.

6,000 Years of History

Ancient Egyptian history begins prior to the Predynastic Period (c. 6000 - 3150 BCE) and continues through the end of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 - 30 BCE). Artifacts and evidence of overgrazing of cattle, in the area now known as the Sahara Desert, date human habitation in the area to c. 8000 BCE. The Early Dynastic Period in Egypt (c. 3150 - 2613 BCE) built upon the knowledge of those who had gone before and Predynastic art and architecture was improved on. The first pyramid in Egypt, Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara, comes from the end of this Early Dynastic Period and a comparison of this monument and its surrounding complex with the mastaba tombs of earlier centuries show how far the Egyptians had advanced in their understanding of architectural design and construction. Equally impressive, however, is the link between these great monuments and those which came after them.


The pyramids at Giza date from the Old Kingdom (c. 2613 - 2181 BCE) and represent the pinnacle of talent and skill acquired at that time. Ancient Egyptian history, however, still had a long and illustrious path before it and as the pyramid form was abandoned the Egyptians focused their attention on temples. Many of these whose ruins are still extant, such as the temple complex of Amun-Ra at Karnak, inspire as much genuine awe as the pyramids at Giza but all of them, however great or modest, show an attention to detail and an awareness of aesthetic beauty and practical functionality which makes them masterpieces of architecture. These structures still resonate in the present day because they were conceived, designed, and raised to tell an eternal story which they still relate to everyone who visits the sites.

Egyptian Architecture & the Creation Of The World

At the beginning of time, according to the Egyptian religion, there was nothing but swirling waters of dark chaos. From these primordial waters rose a mound of dry land, known as the ben-ben, around which the waters rolled. Upon the mound lighted the god Atum who looked out over the darkness and felt lonely so he mated with himself and creation began.


Atum was responsible for the unknowable universe, the sky above, and the earth below. Through his children he was also the creator of human beings (though in some versions the goddess Neith plays a part in this). The world and all that human beings knew came from water, from dampness, moistness, from the kind of environment familiar to the Egyptians from the Nile Delta. Everything had been created by the gods and these gods were ever-present in one's life through nature.

When the Nile River overflowed its banks and deposited the life-giving soil the people depended upon for their crops it was the work of the god Osiris. When the sun set in the evening it was the god Ra in his barge going down into the underworld and the people gladly participated in rituals to make sure he would survive attacks from his nemesis Apophis and rise again the next morning. The goddess Hathor was present in the trees, Bastet kept women's secrets and protected the home, Thoth gave people the gift of literacy, Isis, although a great and powerful goddess, had also been a single mother who raised her young son Horus in the swamps of the Delta and watched over mothers on earth.

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The lives of the gods mirrored those of the people and the Egyptians honored them in their lives and through their works. The gods were thought to have provided the most perfect of worlds for the people of ancient Egypt so perfect, in fact, that it would last forever. The afterlife was simply a continuation of the life one had been living. It is not surprising, then, that when these people constructed their great monuments they would reflect this belief system. The architecture of ancient Egypt tells this story of the people's relationship with their land and their gods. The symmetry of the structures, the inscriptions, the interior design, all reflect the concept of harmony (ma'at) which was central to the ancient Egyptian value system.

The Predynastic & Early Dynastic Periods

In the Predynastic Period in Egypt images of the gods and goddesses appear in sculpture and ceramics but the people did not yet have the technical skill to raise massive structures to honor their leaders or deities. Some form of government is evident during this period but it seems to have been regional and tribal, nothing like the central government which would appear in the Old Kingdom of Egypt.


The homes and tombs of the Predynastic Period were built of mud-brick which was dried in the sun (a practice which would continue throughout Egypt's history). Homes were thatched structures of reeds which were daubed with mud for walls prior to the discovery of brick making. These early buildings were circular or oval before bricks were used and, after, became square or rectangular. Communities gathered together for protection from the elements, wild animals, and strangers and grew into cities which encircled themselves with walls.

As civilization advanced, so did the architecture with the appearance of windows and doors braced and adorned by wooden frames. Wood was more plentiful in Egypt at this time but still not in the quantity to suggest itself as a building material on any large scale. The mud brick oval home became the rectangular house with a vaulted roof, a garden, and courtyard. Work in mud brick is also evidenced in the construction of tombs which, during the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt, become more elaborate and intricate in design. These early oblong tombs (mastabas) continued to be built of mud brick but already at this time people were working in stone to create temples to their gods. Stone monuments (stelae) begin to appear, along with these temples, by the Second Dynasty of Egypt (c. 2890 - c. 2670 BCE).

Obelisks, large upright stone monuments with four sides and a tapered top, began to appear in the city of Heliopolis at about this time. The Egyptian obelisk (known to them as tekhenu, "obelisk" being the Greek name) is among the most perfect examples of Egyptian architecture reflecting the relationship between the gods and the people as they were always raised in pairs and it was thought that the two created on earth were mirrored by two identical pieces raised in the heavens at the same time. Quarrying, carving, transporting, and raising the obelisks required enormous skill and labor and taught the Egyptians well how to work in stone and move immensely heavy objects over many miles. Mastering stonework set the stage for the next great leap in Egyptian architecture: the pyramid.


Djoser's mortuary complex at Saqqara was conceived by his vizier and chief architect Imhotep (c. 2667 - c. 2600 BCE) who imagined a great mastaba tomb for his king built of stone. Djoser's pyramid is not a "true pyramid" but a series of stacked mastabas known as a "step pyramid". Even so, it was an incredibly impressive feat which had never been achieved before. Historian Desmond Stewart comments on this:

Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara marks one of those developments that afterward seem inevitable but that would have been impossible without an experimenting genius. That the royal official Imhotep was such a genius we know, not from Greek legend, which identified him with Aesculapius, the god of medicine, but from what archaeologists have discovered from his still impressive pyramid. Investigation has shown that, at every stage, he was prepared to experiment along new lines. His first innovation was to construct a mastaba that was not oblong, but square. His second concerned the material from which it was built (cited in Nardo, 125).

Temple construction, albeit on a modest level, had already acquainted the Egyptians with stonework. Imhotep imagined the same on a grand scale. The early mastabas had been decorated with inscriptions and engravings of reeds, flowers, and other nature imagery Imhotep wanted to continue that tradition in a more durable material. His great, towering mastaba pyramid would have the same delicate touches and symbolism as the more modest tombs which had preceded it and, better yet, these would all be worked in stone instead of dried mud. Historian Mark van de Mieroop comments on this:


Imhotep reproduced in stone what had been previously built of other materials. The facade of the enclosure wall had the same niches as the tombs of mud brick, the columns resembled bundles of reed and papyrus, and stone cylinders at the lintels of doorways represented rolled-up reed screens. Much experimentation was involved, which is especially clear in the construction of the pyramid in the center of the complex. It had several plans with mastaba forms before it became the first Step Pyramid in history, piling six mastaba-like levels on top of one another. The weight of the enormous mass was a challenge to the builders, who placed the stones at an inward incline in order to prevent the monument breaking up (56).

When completed, the Step Pyramid rose 204 feet (62 meters) high and was the tallest structure of its time. The surrounding complex included a temple, courtyards, shrines, and living quarters for the priests covering an area of 40 acres (16 hectares) and surrounded by a wall 30 feet (10.5 meters) high. The wall had 13 false doors cut into it with only one true entrance cut in the south-east corner the entire wall was then ringed by a trench 2,460 feet (750 meters) long and 131 feet (40 meters) wide. The actual tomb of Djoser was located beneath the pyramid at the bottom of a shaft 92 feet (28 meters) long. The tomb chamber itself was encased in granite but, to reach it, one had to traverse a maze of hallways, all brightly painted with reliefs and inlaid with tiles, leading to other rooms or dead ends filled with stone vessels carved with the names of earlier kings. This labyrinth was created, of course, to protect the tomb and grave goods of the king but, unfortunately, it failed to keep out ancient grave robbers and the tomb was looted at some point in antiquity.

Djoser's Step Pyramid incorporates all of the elements most resonant in Egyptian architecture: symmetry, balance, and grandeur which reflected the core values of the culture. Egyptian civilization was based upon the concept of ma'at (harmony, balance) which was decreed by their gods. The architecture of ancient Egypt, whether on a small or large scale, always represented these ideals. Palaces were even built with two entrances, two throne rooms, two receiving halls in order to maintain symmetry and balance in representing both Upper and Lower Egypt in the design

The Old Kingdom & the Pyramids

The innovations of Imhotep were carried further by the kings of the 4th Dynasty in the Old Kingdom. The last king of the Third Dynasty of Egypt, Huni (c. 2630 - 2613 BCE), was long thought to have initiated the massive building projects of the Old Kingdom in constructing the pyramid at Meidum but that honor is due the first king of the 4th Dynasty, Sneferu (c. 2613 - 2589 BCE). Egyptologist Barbara Watterson writes, "Sneferu initiated the golden age of the Old Kingdom, his most notable achievements being the two pyramids built for him at Dahshur" (50-51). Sneferu began his work with the pyramid at Meidum now referred to as the "collapsed pyramid" or, locally, as the "false pyramid" because of its shape: it resembles a tower more than a pyramid and its outer casing rests around it in a gigantic heap of gravel.

The pyramid of Meidum is the first true pyramid constructed in Egypt. A "true pyramid" is defined as a perfectly symmetrical monument whose steps have been filled in to create seamless sides tapering toward a point at the top. Originally, any pyramid began as a step pyramid. The Meidum pyramid did not last, however, because modifications were made to Imhotep's original pyramid design which resulted in the outer casing resting on a sand foundation rather than rock, causing it to collapse. Scholars are divided on whether the collapse occurred during construction or over a longer period of time.

Sneferu's experiments with the stone pyramid form served his successor well. Khufu (2589 - 2566 BCE) learned from his father's experiments and directed his administration in constructing the Great Pyramid of Giza, the last of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Contrary to the popular belief that his monument was built by Hebrew slaves, Egyptian workers on the Great Pyramid were well cared for and performed their duties as part of a community service, as paid laborers, or during the time when the Nile's flood made farming impossible. Scholars Bob Brier and Hoyt Hobbs note:

Were it not for the two months every year when the Nile's water covered Egypt's farmland, idling virtually the entire workforce, none of this construction would have been possible. During such times, a pharaoh offered food for work and the promise of a favored treatment in the afterworld where he would rule just as he did in this world. For two months annually, workmen gathered by the tens of thousands from all over the country to transport the blocks a permanent crew had quarried during the rest of the year. Overseers organized the men into teams to transport the stones on sleds, devices better suited than wheeled vehicles to moving weighty objects over shifting sand. A causeway, lubricated by water, smoothed the uphill pull. No mortar was used to hold the blocks in place, only a fit so exact that these towering structures have survived for 4,000 years - the only Wonders of the Ancient World still standing today (17-18).

There is no evidence whatsoever that Hebrew slaves, or any kind of slave labor, went into the construction of the pyramids at Giza, the city of Per-Ramesses, or any other important site in Egypt. The practice of slavery certainly existed in Egypt throughout its history, as it did in every ancient culture, but it was not the kind of slavery popularly depicted in fiction and film based on the biblical Book of Exodus. Slaves in the ancient world could be tutors and teachers of the young, accountants, nursemaids, dance instructors, brewers, even philosophers. Slaves in Egypt were either captives from military campaigns or those who could not pay their debts and these people usually worked in the mines and quarries.

The men and women who worked on the Great Pyramid lived in state-provided housing on the site (as discovered by Lehner and Hawass in 1979 CE) and were well compensated for their efforts. The more skilled a worker was, the higher their compensation. The result of their work still amazes people in the modern day. The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only wonder left of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and justifiably so: until the Eifel Tower was completed in 1889 CE, the Great Pyramid was the tallest structure on earth built by human hands. Historian Marc van de Mieroop writes:

The size boggles the mind: it was 146 meters high (479 feet) by 230 meters at the base (754 feet). We estimate that it contained 2,300,000 blocks of stone with an average weight of 2 and 3/4 tons some weighing up to 16 tons. Khufu ruled 23 years according to the Turin Royal Canon, which would mean that throughout his reign annually 100,000 blocks - daily about 285 blocks or one every two minutes of daylight - had to be quarried, transported, dressed, and put in place. The construction was almost faultless in design. The sides were oriented exactly toward the cardinal points and were at precise 90-degree angles (58).

The second pyramid constructed at Giza belongs to Khufu's successor Khafre (2558 - 2532 BCE) who is also credited with creating the Great Sphinx of Giza. The third pyramid belongs to his successor Menkaure (2532 - 2503 BCE). An inscription from c. 2520 BCE relates how Menkaure came to inspect his pyramid and assigned 50 of the workers to the new task of building a tomb for his official, Debhen. Part of the inscription reads, "His majesty commanded that no man should be taken for any forced labour" and that rubbish should be cleared from the site for construction (Lewis, 9). This was a fairly common practice at Giza where the kings would commission tombs for their friends and favored officials.

The Giza plateau today presents a very different image from what it would have looked like in the time of the Old Kingdom. It was not the lonely site at the edge of the desert it is today but a sizeable necropolis which had shops, factories, markets, temples, housing, public gardens, and numerous monuments. The Great Pyramid was sheathed in an outer casing of gleaming white limestone and rose from the center of the small city, visible from miles around. Giza was a self-sustaining community whose people were government workers but the construction of the enormous monuments there in the 4th Dynasty was very costly. Khafre's pyramid and complex are a little smaller than Khufu's and Menkaure's smaller than Khafre's and this is because, as 4th Dynasty pyramid building continued, resources dwindled. Menkaure's successor, Shepsekhaf (2503 - 2498 BCE) was buried in a modest mastaba at Saqqara.

The cost of the pyramids was not only financial but political. Giza was not the only necropolis in Egypt at the time and all of these sites required maintenance and administration which was carried out by priests. As these sites grew, so did the wealth and power of the priests and the regional governors (nomarchs) who presided over the different districts the sites were in. The later rulers of the Old Kingdom built temples (or pyramids on a much smaller scale) as these were more affordable. The shift from the pyramid monument to the temple signaled a deeper shift in sensibilities which had to do with the growing power of the priesthood: monuments were no longer being built to honor a certain king but for a specific god.

First Intermediate Period & Middle Kingdom

The power of the priests and nomarchs, along with other factors, brought about the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Egypt then entered the era known as the First Intermediate Period (2181 - 2040 BCE) in which individual regions essentially governed themselves. The kings still ruled from Memphis but they were ineffectual.

The First Intermediate Period of Egypt has traditionally been depicted as a time of decline because no great monuments were raised and the quality of the art is considered inferior to that of the Old Kingdom. Actually, though, the artwork and architecture is simply different, not sub-par. In the Old Kingdom, architectural works were state-sponsored, as was artwork, and so was more or less uniform to reflect the tastes of royalty. In the First Intermediate Period, regional artists and architects were free to explore different forms and styles. Historian Margaret Bunson writes:

Under the nomarchs, architecture survived the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Their patronage continued into the Middle Kingdom, resulting in such remarkable sites as Beni Hassan (c. 1900 BC) with its rock carved tombs and large chapels complete with columned porticos and painted walls (32).

When Mentuhotep II (c. 2061 - 2010 BCE) united Egypt under Theban rule, royal commissioning of art and architecture resumed but, unlike in the Old Kingdom, variety and personal expression was encouraged. Middle Kingdom architecture, beginning with Mentuhotep's grand mortuary complex at Deir el-Bahri near Thebes, is at once grand and personal in scope.

Under the reign of king Senusret I (c. 1971 - 1926 BCE), the great Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak was begun when this monarch erected a modest structure at the site. This temple, like all Middle Kingdom temples, was constructed with an outer courtyard, columned courts which led to halls and ritual chambers, and an inner sanctum which housed a god's statue. Sacred lakes were created at these sites and the entire effect was a symbolic representation of the beginning of the world and the harmonious operation of the universe. Bunson writes:

Temples were religious structures considered the "horizon" of a divine being, the point at which the god came into existence during creation. Thus, each temple had a link to the past, and the rituals conducted within its court were formulas handed down for generations. The temple was also a mirror of the universe and a representation of the Primeval Mound where creation began (258).

Columns were an important aspect of the symbolism of a temple complex. They were not designed only to support a roof but to contribute their own meaning to the whole work. Some of the many different designs were the papyrus bundle (a tighly carved column resembling papyrus reeds) the lotus design, popular in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, with a capital opening like a lotus flower the bud column whose capital appears to be an unopened flower, and the Djed column which is probably most famous from the Heb Sed Court at Djoser's pyramid complex but was so widely used in Egyptian architecture it can be found from one end of the country to the other. The Djed was an ancient symbol for stability and frequently used in columns either at the base, at the capital (so it appears the Djed is holding up the sky), or as an entire column.

Homes and other buildings continued to be made from mud brick during the Middle Kingdom stone was only used for temples and monuments and this was usually limestone, sandstone or, in some cases, granite which required the greatest skill to work in. A little known masterpiece of the Middle Kingdom, long ago lost, was the pyramid complex of Amenemhat III (c. 1860 - 1815 BCE) at the city of Hawara.

This complex was enormous, featuring twelve great separate courts which faced one another across an expanse of columned halls and interior hallways so intricate that it was called "the labyrinth" by Herodotus. The courts and hallways were further connected by corridors and colonnades and shafts so that a visitor might walk down a familiar hall but take an unfamiliar turn and wind up in a completely different area of the complex than the one they had intended. Criss-crossing alleys and false doors sealed by stone plugs served to confuse and disorient a visitor to protect the central burial chamber of the pyramid of the king. This chamber is said to have been cut from a single block of granite and to have weighed 110 tons. Herodotus claimed it was more impressive than any of the wonders he had ever seen.

Second Intermediate Period & New Kingdom

Kings like Amenemhat III of the 12th Dynasty made great contributions to Egyptian art and architecture and their policies were continued by the 13th Dynasty. The 13th Dynasty, however, was weaker and ruled poorly so that, eventually, the power of the central government declined to the point where a foreign people, the Hyksos, rose in Lower Egypt while the Nubians took portions of land to the south. This era is known as the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1782 - 1570 BCE) in which there was little advancement in the arts.

The Hyksos were driven from Egypt by Ahmose I of Thebes (c. 1570 - 1544 BCE) who then secured the southern borders from the Nubians and initiated the era known as the New Kingdom of Egypt (1570 - 1069 BCE). This period saw some of the most magnificent architectural feats since the Old Kingdom. In the same way that modern visitors are awed and intrigued by the mystery of how the pyramids at Giza were built, so are they by Hatshepsut's funerary complex, the Temple of Amun at Karnak, the many works of Amenhotep III, and the magnificent constructs of Ramesses II such as Abu Simbel.

The rulers of the New Kingdom built on a grand scale in keeping with Egypt's new elevated status as an empire. Egypt had never known a foreign power like the Hyksos taking control of their land and, after Ahmose I drove them out, he initiated military campaigns to create buffer zones around Egypt's borders. These areas were expanded by his successors, most notably Thutmose III (1458 - 1425 BCE), until Egypt ruled an empire which stretched from Syria, down the Levant, across to Libya, and down through Nubia. Egypt became immensely wealthy during this time and that wealth was lavished on temples, mortuary complexes, and monuments.

The greatest of these is the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak. As with all the other temples in Egypt, this one told the story of the past, the people's lives, and honored the gods but was an immense work-in-progress with every ruler of the New Kingdom adding to it. The site covers over 200 acres and is comprised of a series of pylons (monumental gateways which taper towards the top to cornices), leading into courtyards, halls, and smaller temples. The first pylon opens onto a wide court which invites the visitor further. The second pylon opens onto the Hypostyle Court which measures 337 feet (103 meters) by 170 feet (52 meters). The hall is supported by 134 columns 72 feet (22 meters) tall and 11 feet (3.5 meters) around in diameter. Scholars estimate one could fit three structures the size of Notre Dame Cathedral inside the main temple alone. Bunson comments:

Karnak remains the most remarkable religious complex ever built on earth. Its 250 acres of temples and chapels, obelisks, columns, and statues built over 2,000 years incorporate the finest aspects of Egyptian art and architecture into a great historical monument of stone (133).

As with all other temples, Karnak is a paragon of symmetrical architecture which seems to rise organically from the earth toward the sky. The great difference between this structure and any other is its grand scale and the scope of the vision. Each ruler who contributed to the building made greater advances than their predecessors but acknowledged those who had gone before. When Thutmose III built his festival hall there he may have removed monuments and buildings of earlier kings whom he then acknowledged with an inscription. Every temple symbolizes Egyptian culture and belief but Karnak does so in large letters and, quite literally, through inscriptions. Thousands of years of history may be read on the walls and columns of the Karnak temple.

Hatshepsut (1479 - 1458 BCE) contributed to Karnak like every other ruler but also commissioned buildings of such beauty and splendor that later kings claimed them as their own. Among her grandest is her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri near Luxor which incorporates every aspect of New Kingdom temple architecture on a grand scale: a landing stage at the water's edge, flagstaffs (relics of the past), pylons, forecourts, hypostyle halls, and a sanctuary. The temple is constructed in three tiers reaching 97 feet (29.5 meters) and visitors are still amazed by the building in the present day.

Amenhotep III (1386 - 1353 BCE) built so many monuments throughout Egypt that early scholars credited him with an exceptionally long reign. Amenhotep III commissioned over 250 buildings, monuments, stele, and temples. His mortuary complex was guarded by the Colossi of Memnon, two figures 70 feet (21.3 m) high and each weighing 700 tons. His palace, now known as Malkata, covered 30,000 square meters (30 hectares) and was elaborately decorated and furnished throughout the throne rooms, apartments, kitchens, libraries, conference rooms, festival halls, and all the other rooms.

Although Amenhotep III is famous for his opulent reign and monumental building projects, the later pharaoh Ramesses II (1279 - 1213 BCE) is even more well known. Unfortunately this is largely because he is so often equated with the unnamed pharaoh in the biblical Book of Exodus and his name has become recognizable through film adaptations of the story and the incessant repetition of the line from Exodus 1:11 that Hebrew slaves built his cities of Pithom and Per-Ramesses.

Long before the author of Exodus ever came up with his story, however, Ramesses II was famous for his military exploits, efficient rule, and magnificent building projects. His city of Per-Ramesses ("City of Ramesses") in Lower Egypt was widely praised by Egyptian scribes and foreign visitors but his temple at Abu Simbel is his masterpiece. The temple, cut from solid rock cliffs, stands 98 feet (30 meters) high and 115 feet (35 meters) long with four seated colossi flanking the entrance, two to each side, depicting Ramesses II on his throne each one 65 feet (20 meters) tall. Beneath these giant figures are smaller statues (still larger than life) depicting Ramesses' conquered enemies, the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites. Further statues represent his family members and various protecting gods and symbols of power. Passing between the colossi, through the central entrance, the interior of the temple is decorated with engravings showing Ramesses and Nefertari paying homage to the gods.

Abu Simbel is perfectly aligned with the east so that, twice a year on 21 February and 21 October, the sun shines directly into the inner sanctum to illuminate statues of Ramesses II and the god Amun. This is another aspect of ancient Egyptian architecture which characterizes most, if not all, of the great temples and monuments: celestial alignment. From the pyramids at Giza to the Temple of Amun at Karnak, the Egyptians oriented their buildings according to the cardinal points and in keeping with celestial events. The Egyptian name for a pyramid was Mer, meaning "Place of Ascension" (the name "pyramid" comes from the Greek word pyramis meaning "wheat cake" which is what they thought the structures looked like) as it was believed that the shape of the structure itself would enable the dead king to rise toward the horizon and more easily begin the next phase of his existence in the afterlife. In this same way, temples were oriented to invite the god to the inner sanctum and also, of course, provide access for when they wanted to ascend back to their own higher realms.

Late Period & Ptolemaic Dynasty

The New Kingdom declined as the priests of Amun at Thebes acquired greater power and wealth than the pharaoh while, at the same time, Egypt came to be ruled by weaker and weaker kings. By the time of the reign of Ramesses XI (c. 1107 - 1077 BCE) the central government at Per-Ramesses was completely ineffective and the high priests at Thebes held all the real power.

The Late Period of Ancient Egypt is characterized by invasions by the Assyrians and the Persians prior to the arrival of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. Alexander is said to have designed the city of Alexandria himself and then left it to his subordinates to build while he continued on with his conquests. Alexandria became the jewel of Egypt for its magnificent architecture and grew into a great center of culture and learning. The historian Strabo (63 BCE - 21CE) praised it on one of his visits, writing:

The city has magnificent public precincts and royal palaces which cover a fourth or even a third of the entire area. For just as each of the kings would, from a love of splendour, add some ornament to the public monuments, so he would provide himself at his own expense with a residence in addition to those already standing (1).

Alexandria became the impressive city Strabo praises during the time of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 - 30 BCE). Ptolemy I (323 - 285 BCE) began the great Library of Alexandria and the temple known as the Serapeum which was completed by Ptolemy II (285 - 246 BCE) who also built the famous Pharos of Alexandria, the great lighthouse which was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The early rulers of the Ptolemaic Dynasty continued the traditions of Egyptian architecture, blending them with their own Greek practices, to create impressive buildings, monuments, and temples. The dynasty ended with the death of the last queen, Cleopatra VII (69 - 30 BCE), and the country was annexed by Rome. The legacy of the Egyptian architects lives on, however, through the monuments they left behind. The imposing pyramids, temples, and monuments of Egypt continue to inspire and intrigue visitors in the present day. Imhotep and those who followed after him envisioned monuments in stone which would defy the passage of time and keep their memory alive. The enduring popularity of these structures today rewards that early vision and accomplishes their goal.


Ever since the final decline of the ancient Egyptian Empire people have struggled to understand the detailed pictures the Egyptians used to describe their lives for more than thirty centuries. The pictures, called hieroglyphs, were everywhere in Egypt: in common tombs, on monuments and temples, and especially in the ornate burial rooms of Egyptian rulers, called pharaohs, which were contained within the great pyramids. The hieroglyphs were small pictures of common objects including feathers, lions, birds, pots, and many other items. In the time when Greeks had traded with and ruled Egypt between about 332 B.C.E. and 146 B.C.E. , outsiders had known how to read the hieroglyphs, which made up a complex language. But as the Roman Empire came to power in Egypt after 146 B.C.E. , the ability to understand the hieroglyphs disappeared. The hieroglyphs, and the story they told, became a great mystery that puzzled historians for nearly two thousand years.

Over the years scholars and historians tried to understand what the hieroglyphs meant. Different people offered different explanations, but no one could ever agree. Then in 1799 French soldiers stationed near the city of Rosetta, Egypt, made a great discovery. French lieutenant Pierre François Xavier Bouchard found a large gray stone that contained three different kinds of writing: Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script (the everyday writing of the ancient Egyptians), and Greek. Bouchard believed that the stone might hold the key to uncovering the mystery of the hieroglyphs and soon, others agreed. The stone, which became known as the Rosetta Stone, had the information needed to translate both of the lost Egyptian languages. Modern readers understood Greek and needed to make the connections between Greek, the demotic script, and the hieroglyphs, and the mystery would be solved. But it was not so easy.

In 1801 the English, who were at war with France, captured the Rosetta Stone and brought it to the British Museum in England. Egyptologists, people who study the culture of ancient Egypt, traveled to the British Museum to try to crack the code of the Rosetta Stone, pieces of which had cracked off and been lost. A well-known and gifted English doctor named Thomas Young (1773–1829) was the first to try. He translated the Greek and then tried to match patterns in that language to patterns in the two lost Egyptian languages. He discovered a great deal about how the languages worked. For example, he learned that the symbols stood for sounds and that the demotic script was closely related to the hieroglyphs. But he couldn't quite make the languages match up.

Beginning in 1807 a Frenchman named Jean François Champollion began to study the Rosetta Stone. For fifteen years he tried to break the code, racing against Young to see who would succeed first. Finally in 1822 Champollion made a breakthrough. He understood that the pictures didn't stand for the single sounds of individual letters but for more complex sounds. For example, he discovered that the hieroglyph of a bird known as an ibis stood for the Egyptian god Thoth. He substituted the sound "thoth" for the bird picture and did the same with other sounds. His plan worked. He had cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone, and people could finally understand Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Champollion traveled to Egypt to confirm his discovery. He visited vast temples whose walls were covered with hieroglyphs, and he poured over ancient scrolls of papyrus, a form of ancient paper. He was the first man to "read" the history of ancient Egypt in well over a thousand years. Champollion made a translation dictionary and explained the grammar of Egyptian writing. Soon others learned to read the lost languages. Today we know a great deal about ancient Egypt thanks to the work of the scholars who discovered the secrets of the hieroglyphs.

Consanguinity and Incest in Ancient Egypt

My curiosity was piqued during one of my turns at the Petrie Museum. Facing all these artefacts, traces of dynasties of pharaohs, I was suddenly reminded of the stories of incest and marriages between brother and sister which were common in ancient Egypt among the ruling class. More recently, the topic was brought up again by another visitor. I was then told about Akhenaton’s androgynous appearance that could have been a result of the incestuous practices of the time. This practice seems to be a common thing and these stories made me immediately think of the Greek and Roman gods and their intricate family-love relationships. With this thought came then one question: why would pharaohs marry their sister, mother and other relatives? To act as living gods? To preserve the purity of their blood?

Fig. 1: Limestone statuette of Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Princess (Tell el Amarna). [Petrie museum, UC004]

Many others questions followed: If incest was accepted in ancient Egypt among the ruling class, was it tolerated by the whole population? What makes it unacceptable in Western countries today? Health? Morality? Are marriages among siblings and/or first cousins still allowed nowadays in some countries? And what are actually the risks of incestuous relations?

From ancient Egypt to the Habsburg family in Europe, throughout history cases of consanguinity — mainly among members of the ruling classes — are numerous. It is surprising that the practice continued for as long as it has when religious and civil laws started to forbid it and when the risks associated to this practice started to be known from the 5th century BCE, Roman civil law already forbade couples from marrying if they were within four degrees of consanguinity (Bouchard 2010). From the half of the 9 th century CE, the church even raised this limit to the seventh degree of consanguinity and the method of calculating degrees was also changed. More recently, modern philosophers and thinkers argued that the prohibition against incest was a universal phenomenon, the so-called incest taboo . But this theory seems contestable in view of the Egyptian case.

So why is it that incest was accepted and practised in ancient Egypt and more recently among members of the royal family such as the Habsburg (16 th -18 th century)? And how did science shed the lights on family relationships, incestuous practices and the diseases resulting from them?

Let’s first take the case of the 18 th dynasty, the first dynasty of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt.

Incest in Ancient Egypt: the case of the 18th Dynasty

There is an abundance of evidence showing that marriages or sexual relations between members of the “nuclear family“ (i.e. parents, children) were common among royalty or special classes of priests since they were the representatives of divine on Earth. They were often privileged to do what was forbidden to members of the ordinary family. During the Ptolemaic period (305 to 30 BCE) the practice was even used by King Ptolemy II as “a major theme of propaganda, stressing the nature of the couple, which could not be bound by ordinary rules of humanity” (Chauveau, M.).

Fig. 2: Alabaster sunken relief depicting Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and daughter Meritaten. Early Aten cartouches on king’s arm and chest. From Amarna, Egypt. 18th Dynasty. [Petrie Museum, UC401]

But let’s go back to the 18 th dynasty (1549/1550 BCE to 1292 BCE). In 2010, a team of Egyptian and German researchers analysed 11 mummies dated from the 18 th dynasty which were closely related to Tutankhamun (Hawass, Zahi, et al.). The mummies were scanned and DNA extraction on bone tissues was carried out. The information they could get from these analyses enabled them to identify the mummies, determine the exact relationships between members of the royal family, and to speculate on possible illnesses and causes of death.

The results of the DNA analyses show that Tutankhamun was, beyond doubt, the child born from a first-degree brother-sister relationship between Akhenaten and Akhenaten’s sister (see Fig. 3). Moreover, the authors provided an answer to the androgynous appearance of Akhenaten. They actually showed that the feminized appearance exhibited by the art of the pharaoh Akhenaten (also seen to a lesser degree in the statues and reliefs of Tutankhamun) was not related to some form of gynecomastia or Marfan syndrome as suggested in the past. Neither Akhenaten nor Tutankhamun were likely to have displayed a significantly bizarre or feminine physique. The particular artistic representation of persons in the Amarna period is more probably related to the religious reforms of Akhenaten.

However, the incestuous relationship between Akhenaten and his sister may have had other consequences. Pharaoh Tutankhamun suffered from congenital equinovarus deformity (also called ‘clubfoot’). The tomography scans of Tutankhamun’s mummy also revealed that the Pharaoh had a bone necrosis for quite a long time, which might have caused a walking disability. This was supported by the objects found next to his mummy. Did you know that 130 sticks and staves were found in its tomb?

Fig. 3: Genealogical tree showing the relationship between the tested mummies dating from the 18th dynasty (Source: Hawass, Zahi, et al.).

Fig. 4: Scans of Tutankhamun feet (Hawass, Zahi, et al.)

This article on consanguinity and incestuous marriages could easily finish here. We learned that incest was practised in ancient Egypt for strategic reasons, in order to preserve the symbolism which associates the pharaoh to a living god. We also saw how science could help us in unravelling the true stories lying behind myths, speculations and rumours.

This could be almost perfect but the incest taboo is more complex than this. As observed by Paul John Frandsen, “in a society (such as ancient Egypt) where nuclear family incest is practised there is no discrepancy between what is licit among royalty and in the populace”. Indeed, contrary to what is often admitted incest was not only reserved to the ruling class. In Persia and ancient Egypt, incestuous relationships between members of non-royal nuclear families also existed (Frandsen P. J.). This shows that incestuous relationship in the nuclear family could be more than just propaganda and that other reasons might have motivated this practice. It has been argued that this was done for economic reasons as endogamy could have been a means to keep the estate undivided and/or avoiding paying bride price. However, these arguments have been dismissed. Up till now, there is thus no reasonable explanation for the lack of incest taboo in ancient Egypt and Persia.

Keep an eye out for my next post, where I’ll talk about incest in the Habsburg royal family and King Charles II of Spain (also called “the Bewitched”)!

Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Those of My Blood : Creating Noble Families in Medieval Francia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Chauveau, Michel.MmNm. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra : History and Society under the Ptolemies. Cornell University Press, 2000.

Hawass, Zahi, et al. “Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family.” JAMA, vol. 303, no. 7, 2010, pp. 638–647.

Frandsen, Paul John,MmNm. Incestuous and Close-Kin Marriage in Ancient Egypt and Persia : an Examination of the Evidence. Museum Tusculanum Press, 2009.

Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs (Lesson)

Planning and resources for primary teachers. Our history topics include Stone Age to Iron Age, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Victorians, Shang Dynasty etc and the list is expanding each month, with literacy units to link to the topics too. Our popular resources have been tried and tested in hundreds of classrooms.

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A full lesson for KS2 introducing the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, including a detailed lesson plan, Powerpoint slides and pupil resource sheets. This lesson can also be found in the Ancient Egyptians Planning Pack for KS2.

Who were the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs?
This lesson explores the role of the pharaohs and introduces some significant figures. Pupils will play a ‘Find that Pharaoh’ game to become familiar with key people and dates. They will learn about important symbols associated with pharaohs and use them to design a royal sarcophagus.

To find out about some of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs
To explore the meaning of symbols associated with the pharaohs

The lesson plan includes differentiation ideas to adapt the activities for the needs of your class. This is the third lesson from our Ancient Egyptians Planning Pack.

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FREE Ancient Egypt Resources: Printables, Activities & More

As I’ve mentioned before, I have never been a big history buff. However, there are periods of history that I find more fascinating than others. Ancient Egypt is one of those periods. I find the era of queens and pharaohs not only interesting, but intriguing.

Growing up, I can remember doing several different reports and projects related to King Tut. It completely blew my mind that a boy my age would be in charge of an entire population of people. I could barely manage keeping my room clean for a week, there was no possible way I could rule over a people group.

Whether your kids are studying Ancient Egypt or they are just fascinated with one of the queens or pharaohs for a specific projects, you’ll need resources and printables to help get you started. I have gathered some printables, activities and more to help create a unit study, if you want to study about Ancient Egypt.

Egyptian Mummies : Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art

Egyptian Mummies results from research done in preparation for the mummification of a human body, the first to be done in the Egyptian style in two thousand years. Through these studies, noted Egyptologist Bob Brier has unearthed the gripping stories of grave robberies and stolen mummies, the forgotten language of the pharaohs, and the tombs of the royal mummies. In an easily accesible and lively style, Brier uncovers the complete historical context of ancient Egyptian culture and offers a fascinating contemporary interpretation of it. Illuminating their mysteries, myths, sacred rituals, and heiroglyphic writing, Egyptian Mummies brings the ancients to life.

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EGYPTIAN MUMMIES: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art

Everything you always wanted to know about the ancient Egyptian practice of mummifying corpses—and so much more. Brier (Ancient Egyptian Magic, 1980) sets the tone early: ``For 15 years,'' he states . Читать весь отзыв

Egyptian mummies: unraveling the secrets of an ancient art

Mummies. The word itself conjures a sense of the macabre, of dread, of morbid fascination. Brier's work, however, conjures something very different: the adventure of discovery. Brier (Egyptology, Long . Читать весь отзыв

Watch the video: GREAT PHARAOHS OF EGYPT History Documentary