Ancient Egypt was the world’s longest continuous civilization that brought us pyramids, papyrus, mummies, and pharaohs. Egyptians were innovators responsible for some of history’s greatest creations and infamous characters that are still discussed and debated today. Read on for 16 things you might not have known about awesome Ancient Egypt.
16. Cat worship
Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats and were the first society to domesticate them. There were severe penalties for mistreatment, killing, or eating cats and unlike other animals they were often mummified and buried in tombs dedicated to the goddess Bastet. Cat figurines made from wood, stone and bronze can be found in museums and collections across the world.
15. The long reign of Pepi II
King Pepi II holds the record of ruling Ancient Egypt the longest at 90 years according to 3rd century BCE priest Manetho. Pepi II was a pharaoh of the 6th Dynasty who ascended the throne at 6 years of age with his mother Ankhesenmeryre II as regent. Pepi II supposedly died in his mid to late 90s, starting a huge decline in fortunes for the economy of Ancient Egypt. A variety of modern Egyptologists contest the length of kingship citing irregularities in evidence, believing his reign was closer to 64 years. This would put Pepi II behind Ramesses the Great, who ruled for over 66 years during the 19th Dynasty.
14. Board games beat the heat
The Egyptian love of games started as means to combat boredom in a land often too hot to achieve anything. Senet, a cross between knucklebones and snakes and ladders, was the most popular game in Ancient Egypt. In Senet, small sticks are thrown to make patterns, with players movements on the board based on the result. Special tiles representing good or bad luck also affect play. Boy King Tutankhamun had an elaborately made Senet board in his sarcophagus when it was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter.
13. Ancient Egypt tattoo culture
A highly developed tattoo culture is an overlooked factor for Ancient Egyptian society. Tattoo was practiced for over 4000 years and was almost exclusively for women. Tattooed mummies dating back to the 11th Dynasty have been found by archeologists, while women’s tattoo in Egyptian art was expressed as dots and swirls located on the lower chest, abdomen, and thighs.
Cleopatra was the famous Queen of the Nile who was born in Egypt of Macedonian blood. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great and were famed for keeping bloodlines pure by marrying within their family.
Cleopatra’s parents were probably brother and sister, and before marrying Julius Caesar and leaving for Rome she wed both of her young brothers. Unlike most of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra embraced Egyptian culture, spoke the country’s native tongue, and dressed in traditional pharaonic clothing.
Obelisks are great spires of stone paying homage to the benben stone of creation. Obelisks were usually made of granite from Aswan and set in pairs at the entrance to major temples or tombs to act as a magical ward and to symbolize creator god Atum.
21 Ancient Egyptian obelisks remain standing with the majority (13) in Rome, taken during the annexation of Egypt. There are also obelisks in New York, Paris, London, and Istanbul, while 4 remain in Egypt. The obelisk below was built for Ramesses II and comes from Luxor Temple, where its partner remains.
10. Make-up pioneers
Ancient Egypt pioneered the use of make-up. Both men and women used it, primarily on the eyes and face to protect them from the harsh sun and for physical attractiveness. They also used scented oils, flowers, and herbs to create simple deodorants because they believed poor body odor offended the gods. The green eye make-up was a pigment derived from the mineral malachite. The most popular cosmetic substance was kohl, made by mixing crushed galena ore with soot and oil to create a thick black ointment.
9. What is a sphinx?
A sphinx is a popular mythological creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion. They were used by Ancient Egyptians as bodyguards for sacred sites.
The most famous is the Great Sphinx of Giza, built by pharaoh Khafre to protect the tomb inside his pyramid and that of his father Khufu. Another is the avenue of sphinxes which once ran for 3 kilometers and protected the road between the temples of Luxor and Karnak.
8. Bread and beer currency
Ancient Egypt relied on agriculture provided by the Nile river for life. Bread and beer were used to pay soldiers and the estimated 100,000 workers that built the pyramids. It was the currency between businesses, and central to offerings made to the gods and dead ancestors.
When the Nile flooded too much or too little crops would fail to flourish and there was little bread and beer. This meant the gods were unhappy and often caused turmoil in Egyptian society.
7. Akhenaten’s revolution
Ancient Egypt had as many as 2000 different religious deities ranging from Osiris the god of the Underworld to Thoth, the god of scribes and knowledge. In the 18th Dynasty this briefly changed when Akhenaten started a revolution by changing state religion to worship the sun disc Aten.
Akhenaten destroyed traditional temples, constructed his own grand temples to Aten and built a new capital city Akhet-Aten (now known as Amarna). A succession of pharaohs restored order and tried to eliminate Akhenaton’s memory from historical record after his death.
6. The secret recipe of Egyptian Papyrus
Ancient Egypt used papyrus to create documents and keep records at a time when the rest of the world used stone or clay tablets. The Egyptians knew how valuable papyrus was, keeping the recipe secret so they could use it in foreign trade. Papyrus was made by making strips from the fibrous pith inside the papyrus reed found on the banks of the Nile.
The strips were soaked in water to soften them then mashed together with a hammer. The pulp was then dried out and the strips glued together to make pages. The Egyptians made different grades of papyrus, rated by how smoothly textured and light each piece was.
5. How to make a mummy
Ancient Egyptian burial featured embalming and mummification, particularly for nobles, leading officials and the wealthy. Firstly, the dead person’s organs were removed, and brain tissue taken out by a special hook inserted through the nose. The organs were placed in canopic jars, preserved in fluid, and later buried with the mummy.
The body was dried out over a long period using salt, then wrapped in almost 100 meters of resin coated linen. The linen contained amulets and spells to ease transition to the afterlife. Finally, a mask was fitted, the mummy placed in a sarcophagus and readied for final burial rites.
4. Canopic Jars
Canopic jars were the four vessels used to store and preserve the deceased’s internal organs during mummification and then buried with them. Each canopic jar held a different vital organ; lungs, liver, intestines and stomach. The heart was the home of a person’s soul and stayed in their chest.
Early canopic jars were plain, unadorned clay vessels but by the Ptolemaic Kingdom they were more extravagant, representing four deities known as the Sons of Horus. Hapy had the head of baboon and held the lungs, Duamutef the head of a jackal kept the stomach, Imsety had a human head and stored the liver, while the intestines were inside the jar of falcon headed god Qebehsenuf.
Men and women played different roles in Ancient Egyptian society but were equal in the eyes of the law. Women primarily led domestic households while men worked or farmed. Women were able to buy land and slaves, borrow money, initiate divorce or engage in trade – a circumstance that never happened in other societies.
Women were also religiously and politically important. Hatshepsut, for example, ruled effectively for two decades, while mothers took over as regent when children became pharaoh but were too young to rule.
2. Writing in pictures
The Ancient Egyptians created hieroglyphs at the beginning of the 1st Dynasty 3000 BCE, remaining in use until late in the 4th century AD. There are more than 700 different hieroglyphs recorded, with some still unable to be fully translated. Hieroglyphs were often a variation of a picture, a sound representing a syllable, and group of pictures used in sequence to tell a more complex story.
Creating hieroglyphs was a difficult, time consuming task used mainly by those in high office or priesthoods, so scribes created a shorthand version called hieratic script for everyday use.
1. The forgotten pharaoh Tutankhamun
Not much was known about the boy King Tutankhamun until his tomb was found by archeologist Howard Carter in 1922. Since the discovery he’s become arguably Ancient Egypt’s most studied pharaoh, due to the wealth of riches and information found inside his tomb.
Tutankhamun ruled for a decade near the end of the 18th Dynasty after the death of his controversial father Akhenaten. He managed to repair some damage caused by his father’s revolution but died suddenly in his late teens. Future pharaohs tried to erase him from the record books which ironically helped his tomb remain undisturbed for over 3000 years.