Were Ancient (Egyptian) Times More Modern Than We Think?

“Egypt gave birth to what later would become known as ‘western civilization’; long before the greatness of Greece and Rome.” -John Henrik Clark

Hollywood movies have played their part in creating the notion that the Nile’s gift was a land riddled with mysterious forms of art, sorcery, murder and extravagant eye makeup. We all grew up with stories of the beautiful seductress Cleopatra and the great lands of Egypt ruled by the native Egyptians for millennia before the Greeks finally arrived. The funny part is this: Cleopatra probably wasn’t very beautiful (incest was a common practice among the royals back then, and in the absence of genetic diversity, deformed features like elongated faces were common among them) and the Egyptians had been ruled by foreigners like the Ethiopians long before the Ptolemaic dynasty, the last dynasty of Egypt.

Egypt was a rather modern and ahead-of-its-time kind of a society. This fact finds reflection in their inscriptions, their rulers, their trade affairs and so on. Let’s start with their family lives and societal norms. The ancient Egyptians had their own religion and two of their most important Gods and Goddesses were Osiris and Isis, a brother-sister duo married to each other (again, incest was okay). Unlike most religions, wherein the man is portrayed as dominant and the woman as submissive, Isis, the goddess of magic, was the dominant one in their duo. In fact, every ruler needed a partner in order to rule Egypt. Unlike most modern societies, the husband and the wife were at the same pedestal. All of this is evidenced by inscriptions depicting the husband and the wife (Pharaoh and Queen) together, even showing them commanding an army of soldiers (best examples include the inscriptions dating back to the Amarna period) and coins showing faces of both side by side (from the Ptolemaic period).

In ancient Egyptian society, virginity was not a requisite for marriage but loyalty after marriage was expected. If a couple were to fall out of love, they could get a divorce; a common enough practice and therefore free of stigma. In countries like India, even today, people who walk away from their marriages fearing shaming and ostracisation at the hands of society. Nuclear families dominated their communities and lineage was traced through both parents’ sides alike. Both of these bear testimony to the fact that the Egyptian lifestyle was very different from that of its contemporary civilisations.

From Egyptian inscriptions, it seems unlikely that they ever practised slavery, once again, contrary to popular belief. The labourers who worked on the pyramids or the temples were well fed and housed. Their mummified bodies also indicate that they were natives of the land. They lived close to where they worked and were even buried there, literally in the shadows of the pyramids- the Pharaoh’s last resting place (considered to be a great honour).

Their houses were intriguing too. They had courtyards and separate studios. Another very common feature was a flat roof, where they often cooked or slept during hot nights. Ancient folk are not expected to share the ideals of cleanliness that modern society holds. But lo and behold, the Egyptians had toilets in their homes and their own systems of drainage and cleaning.

Some of ancient Egypt’s greatest contributions include the papyrus. At one point, the Egyptians mass produced (handwritten, of course) ‘The Book of the Dead’ to be buried with the mummified bodies of their loved ones. Besides, Kings and Queens used this ‘paper’ to sign away their declarations and orders too, a practice, surprisingly similar to the present-day passing of bills. Drinking beer was a common practice, even among the commoners. Ancient Egypt can also be credited with the development of several methods of contraception and various pregnancy tests. The Egyptians valued knowledge a lot and this is evident from the remains of the great library at Alexandria. We might as well call Egypt the Land of Inventions because of the numerous inventions that came out of this particular ancient culture, some of which revolutionised human life long before the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution.

Unlike most contemporary civilisations, the Egyptians did not have a calendar based on the moon’s cycle. Instead, their calendar was based on the Earth’s revolution around the sun (Turns out Copernicus might have had some help in the form of ancient inspiration!). These ancient humans had 365 days in a year and an extra day every four years (Julius Caesar later took this idea to Greece during Cleopatra’s reign). Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? Surprisingly enough, their religion lent support to the science that pervaded their society! In fact, most of their mythological stories revolve around facts that have been proven to be scientifically correct. The Egyptians were also pioneers in the field of astronomy!

Their architectural brilliance proves the fact that they were great engineers and mathematicians too. The angle of inclination of the pyramids, the lengths of their sides and so on, were accurate down to minutes and a couple of inches respectively. Granite blocks used in the Great Pyramid of Giza’s burial chamber are cut to perfection and fit into each other such that not even a credit card can slip in between. The pyramids are spectacles that cannot be explained even today. Each stone block used in its construction weighs at least a couple of tonnes and the entire structure rises up to a staggering height of 139 metres. Did I mention that the Egyptians did not even have the wheel? How the pyramids were constructed is up for debate. What is undeniable is the fact that they were masters of the art of building and made structures meant to stand the test of time unlike any other.

We all have either heard or read about the Gods and Goddesses of Egypt. As I learnt more about their culture and society, I came across something that left me astonished: monotheism- a very modern ideology and isn’t uncommon today. But, I guess, Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Queen Nefertiti were way ahead of their times. They devoted all their lives to the worship of a single God- Aten (the Sun). This religion, however, did not address one major question that had always plagued the Egyptians: ‘What happens after death?’. This obviously did not sit very well with the priests and the practice was discarded right after Akhenaten’s reign.

The most famous of ancient Egyptian practices is probably the process of mummification. The method that they developed was nothing short of genius. They wanted immortality and in some ways, they did achieve it. We know what they did, ate and entertained themselves with, just like any other civilisation. But, here, we also have their bodies; their stories literally have faces.

Very recently, Egyptian inscriptions were located in Australia. It is undeniable that their trade flourished. With the advent of the Ptolemaic dynasty (after Alexander the Great’s invasion), coins were introduced in trade. The second Pharaoh of this dynasty, Queen Arsinoe introduced coins with her face on them - she wanted everyone to know who held the reigns. Most rulers were well versed in several languages and were very diplomatic. Cleopatra is claimed to have been fluent in around 9 languages. That, however, is not the only shocking thing in her resume. She was intelligent and trained in alchemy, geography, philosophy and so on and so forth. She knew chemistry too, in fact, she owned a perfume factory. To me, it all sounds like capitalism might have had some really ancient roots.

It’s a pity that the only thing that we usually care about is whether the Egyptians were black, how beautiful the pyramids are and how was Cleopatra able to seduce both Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar, and speculations about how beautiful she was. The Egyptians accomplished tasks their contemporaries could only ever dream to accomplish–feats involving mind-boggling architecture, freakishly modern societal norms, mastery in mathematics, astronomy and art, and unique practices that would later go on to shape the world. They lived up to every word they ever wrote or spoke:

“What I hate is ignorance, smallness of imagination, the eye that sees no farther than its own lashes. All things are possible… Who you are is limited only by who you think you are.” – Egyptian Book of the Dead


Oindrila Ghosh

I am a student of Chemical Engineering at BITS Pilani and an Egyptology enthusiast, who loves reading about cold cases, creation and everything else that will probably never benefit me in my future career.

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