40 Fascinating Facts About Ancient Egypt To Dig Through
Among many early civilizations, Ancient Egypt holds a special place. History experts know quite a bit about it. And even if you are not a professional historian or didn’t take history at school, you surely have heard about the pyramids that have become the symbol of Egypt, both ancient and modern.
The Ancient Egypt civilization left us with a lot of highly useful knowledge in the fields of geography, mathematics, and astronomy. Ancient Egyptians were also great engineers — can you imagine how much highly professional expertise the construction of the pyramids would need?
If you find yourself pondering upon the question “What did Ancient Egypt look like?”, the answer probably is “Not the way it is portrayed in movies.” According to Hollywood, all of Egypt was covered in sand, everyone wore eyeliner, and the only pyramids were located near the city of Giza. While the Great Pyramids of Giza are indeed the most well-known ones, there were other, earlier pyramids along the Nile as well.
Ancient Egypt history is also quite different from what the movies would have you believe. For example, Tutankhamun and Cleopatra lived 1,300 years apart and, therefore, never met. As such, the history of Ancient Egypt is a compelling subject to study, and even if you are not a history enthusiast, there are a lot of fascinating things to learn about this great civilization.
For this article, we have collected some of the not widely known facts about Ancient Egypt. How many were new to you? What do you find most mind-blowing about Ancient Egypt?
Cleopatra is well-known for her beauty but very little is spoken of her intellect. Not only did she speak as many as twelve languages but also had substantial knowledge in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and oratory. Ancient Egyptian chroniclers described her as a ruler who gave scholars their due, and would often be seen in their company.
Women may not have been social equals of men in Ancient Egypt, yet they enjoyed quite a wide range of rights and freedoms, especially when compared to other countries in the same era. Unlike Greece, where women were practically owned by their husbands, Egyptian women were allowed to divorce and remarry, and would also retain the wealth they brought into the marriage. In addition, they were allowed to buy and sell property, enter into legal agreements, and even serve on juries. They rarely worked outside the home, but in case of an official employment were usually guaranteed equal pay.
Egyptians may have treated their pharaohs like gods, but it didn’t mean they could mess with their labor rights. There are recorded cases of labor strikes organized by Egyptian workers to get better working conditions. One of the most famous one took place in the 12th century BC during the reign of pharaoh Ramses III, when constructors who worked on the royal necropolis at Deir el-Medina did not receive their usual payment of grain. The workers walked into a nearby mortuary and stayed there until someone came to listen to their demands and made sure they got their due payment.
Makeup was not only acceptable but also encouraged for both sexes. Moderation was not a concern when applying it with wooden, bone, or ivory tools. Eye makeup was manufactured by grinding ores like malachite and galena. The received substance was known as kohl. Women also enjoyed painting their hands and fingernails with henna and coloring their cheeks with red paint. Perfume made of oil, myrrh, and cinnamon was popular among both men and women. Makeup was considered to summon protection of the gods Horus and Ra and have magical healing powers. Interestingly, there was truth to this supposition. Scientists confirmed that lead-based cosmetics would protect Egyptians from eye infections.
Egypt was the first to introduce a health care plan. Stanford Egyptologist Anne Austin speaks about “the earliest documented governmental health care plan” that allowed workers from a village that later became known as Deir el-Medina to take a paid sick leave or visit a doctor during their time on the pyramid construction. Some modern countries could definitely learn from this example.
Moldy bread was used as a form of early antibiotics. Mr. Allen, curator of Egyptian art at the Met, spoke about one ancient Egyptian text that suggested applying moldy bread on wounds. This implies that, though they didn’t know anything about bacteria, Egyptians had already discovered a way to fight infections and understood the basic principle behind the functioning of penicillin.
It is a well-known fact that cats were very special in the ancient Egyptian culture but did you know that wealthy families would dress their cats in jewels and feed them with food not every common family could afford? As the cats were considered to be magical creatures, ancient Egyptians believed they brought good luck to people who had them as pets and treated them right. If a pet cat died, the owner would shave off their eyebrows and mourn the loss until the eyebrows grew back.
The pyramids were not built by slaves.
The life of a pyramid builder certainly wasn’t easy—skeletons of workers commonly show signs of arthritis and other ailments—but evidence suggests that the massive tombs were built not by slaves but by paid laborers. These ancient construction workers were a mix of skilled artisans and temporary hands, and some appear to have taken great pride in their craft. Graffiti found near the monuments suggests they often assigned humorous names to their crews like the “Drunkards of Menkaure” or the “Friends of Khufu.” The idea that slaves built the pyramids at the crack of a whip was first conjured by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., but most historians now dismiss it as myth. While the ancient Egyptians were certainly not averse to keeping slaves, they appear to have mostly used them as field hands and domestic servants.
Wars were a part of life in Ancient Egypt. One of the longest lasted for over two centuries, in which Egyptians fought against the Hittite Empire for control of lands in what later became the country of Syria. By the time pharaoh Ramses II ascended the throne, both empires were in danger of attacks from other lands. To end the battle that drained much necessary resources, in 1259 BC Ramses II proposed what later will become known as the Egyptian-Hittite peace treaty, one of the first known recorded peace treaties. It helped both countries stop the fight and unite their powers against other invaders. A copy of the treaty can be found today above the entrance to the United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York.
Cleopatra’s first husband, Ptolemy XIII (who was also her brother), ran her out of Egypt when she tried to get rid of him as the ruler and hold all the power in her hands. Cleopatra found an ally in Julius Caesar and defeated Ptolemy, becoming the queen of Egypt. Ptolemy, on the other hand, drowned in the Nile.
Most ancient healers would treat anything from a fever to a wound sustained in a fight. However there is evidence to prove that some Egyptian doctors would concentrate on one particular aspect of human health. Greek historian and traveler Herodotus first mentions this practice in his notes dating to 450 BC. This is what he wrote: “Each physician is a healer of one disease and no more…some of the eye, some of the teeth, some of what pertains to the belly.” Egyptians would even give specific names to doctors specializing in only one field.
Many of us have heard about Egyptian deities such as Isis, Ra, Osiris, Anubis, or Horus. But the fact is the Egyptian pantheon included over 2,000 gods and goddesses. Those more popular became national deities celebrated all over the country. Other, lesser known ones, were either associated with a particular region or supervised a certain ritual or role. One of such deities was goddess Qebhet, who offered cool water to the souls of the dead as they awaited judgment in the afterlife. Another example is Seshat the goddess of written words and specific measurements.
The age of the Sphinx is a mystery. The most common and widely accepted theory puts the construction of the Great Sphinx in the era of Pharaoh Khafre (ca. 2603-2578 BC), however it is just that – a theory. Some scientists suggest the statue is much older. They base their supposition on the patterns of erosion presented on the statue and other archeological signs.
We already established that Cleopatra was not only beautiful but also very intelligent. What she was not though is Egyptian. She was born in Alexandria, and her ancestry can be traced back to a Greek Macedonian lieutenant Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s most trusted people. His descendants ruled Egypt from 323 to 30 BC, and managed to largely preserve their Greek identity and culture.
Ancient Egyptian economy heavily relied on the River Nile. Surrounded by desert, the Nile was an essential lifeline, not only for transportation of construction materials and travel, but also irrigation of agricultural land, food resources and much more. It affected every aspect of life in the country.
Some modern European countries may be regarded as the best beer producers but did you know that in Ancient Egypt beer was a regular part of the menu? As it was rich in calories, beer was considered as a great source of nutrition not only for adults of both genders but for kids as well. It was also quite common to use beer as compensation for labor. For example, construction workers at the Giza plateau would receive beer three times a day as payment for their work.
Every deceased person in Ancient Egypt was buried with four canopic jars. Those jars were used to store and preserve the deceased’s internal organs while the body was mummified. Each canopic jar contained one vital organ: lungs, liver, intestines, and stomach. The embalmers wouldn’t remove the heart as it was considered to be the home of the person’s soul.
Board games were very popular among Ancient Egyptians. Some of the games that reached us were “Mehen” and “Dogs and Jackals” but it seems like the most popular one was a game known as “Senet”. It included rolling dice or throwing sticks and moving your pieces along a board with painted squares. While historians are still trying to determine the exact rules of the game, they are fairly confident it goes as far back as 3500 BC and was popular not only among common folks but also pharaohs.
The process of embalming had strict rules in Ancient Egypt, and one of them was keeping the heart inside the body, while other organs were removed. Imagine how shocked archeologists were when they discovered that this rule was violated for none other than King Tut. The reason could be an injury the young king sustained on his chest before he died. Some Egyptologists believe that the wound that left him without his chest wall was a bite from a hippo. Archeological evidence shows that Egyptians hunted river horses for sport, and several statues in King Tut’s tomb portray him throwing a harpoon. So it is highly possible that he indeed died during a hunt.
Everyone knows that Egyptians loved their cats who were associated with the goddess Bastet. But of course, they were not the only animals Egyptians kept as pets. Hawks, ibises, dogs, lions, and baboons were also highly respected and held a special status in Egyptian households. Often, when they died, animals would be mummified and buried with their owners. Ancient Egyptians would also train animals to provide help with work. For instance, Egyptian police had special dogs, and sometimes also monkeys, who would accompany them on patrols.
Bandaging a mummy might appear as a very simple process but it was in fact time and material consuming. It could last anywhere between one to two weeks and required about 4,000 square feet (372 sq. meters) of linen. The family of the deceased had time to collect all this material while the deceased themselves were drying in the desert. The embalmers later stripped all the clothes into narrow bandages and used it on the mummy. Rich families would bring expensive materials and sometimes even clothing from sacred statues, while the lower class would collect old clothes and other household linens.
When your diet includes large amounts of beer, wine, bread, and honey, it is only a matter of time when it will start showing on your physique. Combined with lack of manual labor, it resulted in obesity and poor health for many pharaohs. One of the most notable examples is Queen Hatshepsut who lived in the 15th century BC. Her sarcophagus portrayed her as slender (because who would dare say otherwise) but historians have grounds to believe she was obese and losing hair.
Science was highly respected and well-developed in Ancient Egypt. Of course, they did not possess all the knowledge we have today, but Egyptians could boast of some great mathematicians and scientists. In particular, mathematical concepts they understood and applied in practice included geometry, such as determining the surface area and volume of three-dimensional shapes useful for architectural engineering, and algebra, such as the false position method and quadratic equations.
What do writing, ink, make up, toothpaste, plow, advancement in medicine, door lock, calendar, the concept of a police force, and bowling have in common? They were all invented by Ancient Egyptians. And this is not even the full list of things we use today that came from Egypt.
With thousands of years of history and one of the greatest earlier civilizations, it is not surprising that modern Egypt is home to as many as seven UNESCO world heritage sites. These are: Abu Mena, Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis, Historic Cairo, Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur, Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae, Saint Catherine Area, and Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley).
Jewelry was not as much a beautiful accessory in Ancient Egypt, as it was a way to make the gods like you (and thus help you and protect you). The more jewelry you wore, the more attention you would get from the gods. That’s why it was common for both men and women to wear necklaces, bracelets, heavy neck collars, rings, earrings, pendants, and special buttons. For special occasions, they would wear glamorous headdresses you can often see in ancient drawings. Of course, the wealthier a person was, the more jewelry he or she would wear every day.
Sometimes servants were required to cover their body in honey to keep flies away from pharaohs. Sources speak of pharaoh Pepi II who was particularly good at making weird demands. He once ordered his servants to capture a dancing pygmy because he thought having one in his palace would be entertaining. He also would make his servants cover themselves in honey to make sure flies were attracted to them and not to him.
One thing you don’t expect from a pharaoh is a revolution, yet this is exactly what king Akhenaten did. His reign, characterized by social, political and religious upheaval, is still considered to be one of the most controversial ones in the entire history of Ancient Egypt. During a little under two decades on the throne, Akhenaten attempted a religious revolution, as he imposed new religious aspects, tried to obliterate the names and images of some of Egypt’s traditional gods, implemented a new form of architecture, overhauled its royal artistic style, and moved Egypt’s capital to a previously unoccupied site.
Every tourist who ever visits Egypt, goes sightseeing to the pyramids in the Giza plateau. Those three huge constructions, serving as the last harbor for pharaohs Keops, Khafre, and Menkaura, while increasingly famous, are not the only pyramids Egypt can boast of. In fact, there are a total of 118 pyramids in the country.
You don’t have to be a devoted Christian to know about the Ten Commandments and the story of Moses who received them from God. Describing this event, the Bible mentions Mount Sinai as the place where it all happened. However, in the Book of Deuteronomy the location is called Horeb. Scholars tend to believe that both these names refer to the same place.
Ancient Egyptians are responsible for the 12-month calendar we use today. They designed a solar calendar with 365 days per year. The division was a little different from the modern calendar. There were only three seasons, each containing 120 days. Every season was further divided into four months of 30 days. In addition, there was an intercalary month of five epagomenal days treated as outside of the year proper. Initially, months were numbered within the season, but were often called by the names of their principal festivals. Months were also divided into three decades, a period of 10 days.
If you imagine King Tutankhamun as this mature adult, well, that’s not exactly the truth. The great pharaoh was between eight and nine years of age when he ascended the throne, choosing the name of Nebkheperure. His reign continued for approximately nine years before he died. During this period the position of Vizier had been split between Upper and Lower Egypt.
Even though King Tutankhamun was very young when he died, he still gave life to two daughters. Both died during infancy, and their names weren’t mentioned on the coffins, that’s why they are recorded in history as mummies 317a and 317b, names that were given to them by Howard Carter during his excavation. Examinations showed that 317b had Sprengel's deformity and spina bifida. Mummy 317a was born prematurely at 5–6 months' gestation. There is no record of their mother but it is believed that it was Ankhesenamun, King Tut’s only known wife.
Think that tattoos were invented by rock musicians? Pirates? Go further in time. When scientists used infrared imaging and radiocarbon dating on two Gebelein mummies, they discovered something they believe to be the earliest figural tattoos. They are still unsure what purpose or meaning the tattoos had in Ancient Egypt. The two mummies who caused the discovery date back to a period from 3351 to 3017 BC.
Egyptian pharaohs had a dual role in the country. As kings, they headed the state, made laws, collected taxes, waged wars, and oversaw all the land. By the way, according to the law, the entire land in the country belonged to the pharaoh. The other role was to guide their people as the religious leader. This implied maintaining religious harmony and participating in ceremonies. In the capacity of the religious leader pharaohs were seen as the divine intermediary between gods and humans.
You surely know about “mummy’s curse” that implies that everyone who comes near a pharaoh’s tomb or – God forbid! – opens it, will die a horrible death. The world first heard of the “curse” in 1922 when archeologists discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor. The hieroglyphics on the wall of the king’s tomb were believed to cast a curse of death on anyone around.
When you look at ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, they seem very beautiful but also incredibly difficult. Well, yes, they are, in fact, quite complicated. Combining logographic, syllabic and alphabetic elements, the Ancient Egyptian writing system includes around 1,000 distinct characters. If that wasn’t enough, they also had cursive hieroglyphs that were used for religious literature on papyrus and wood. Many modern scripts were based on the Egyptian hieroglyphic script, some of the most prominent ones include Latin, Cyrillic (through Greek), and the Arabic script. It is also quite possible that the Brahmic family of scripts was based on hieroglyphs.
Aside from famous hieroglyphs, Egyptians had another form of writing called hieratic. Some historians believe that the concept of the written word was brought to Egypt from Mesopotamia where it was developed. Hieroglyphics, while fully Egyptian in origin, were quite labor consuming to write. That’s why, another faster script was developed. Hieratic script consisted of simplified versions of hieroglyphs, its name translated as “sacred writing”.
Geographically, Egypt has a very advantageous position. Located between the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, Egypt has had a strategic role in trade and communication for ages. The Suez Canal was constructed in the second half of the 19th century to connect both seas and allow ships to easily travel between Asia and Europe.
When modern Egypt began its planned industrialization, one of the major projects was the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Built across the Nile in the city of Aswan between 1960 and 1970, this dam is considered to be one of the largest embankment dams in the world. It allowed better control of floodings during the high water season, served as an increased water storage for irrigation, and generated electricity.