Did Tahrir Square mark the final end of Ancient Egypt?

As astonishing as it is to believe Ancient Egyptian is not a dead language. While it is nobody still uses it as their main language, millions still hear it weekly as the language of the liturgy of the Coptic Church. The Coptic language is written in Ancient Greek script but takes its grammar and vocabulary from the Egyptian language spoken in the time of the pharaohs.

The Coptic Church is perhaps the oldest church still in existence; it traces its roots back to congregations that worshipped in Alexandria during the time of the Apostle Paul. It thus emerged in a time in which Egypt was ruled by the Romans but still retained its own unique culture, and the Church absorbed much of that culture including its language.

When the Arabs conquered Egypt in the 7th century, they introduced their language and their Islamic faith to the country. This left the Copts alienated from the majority of their countrymen: they were Christians in an Islamic nation, who continued speaking Coptic centuries after most Egyptians began using Arabic. Therefore, neither Pan-Arabism or Islamism – the two most powerful ideologies in modern Egypt – had much appeal to Copts. Instead they emphasised their Egyptianus and made their link to the nation’s ancient history a central part of their identity: they were the real Egyptians and the Islamic majority were imposters.

This was to have explosive political consequences following the revolution which deposed Hosni Mubarak. As this 2011 article in the New Republic explains:

In July 2008, Bishop Thomas, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El-Qussia Diocese in Upper Egypt, delivered a talk in Washington about the cultural history of his co-religionists, entitled “The Experience of the Middle East’s Largest Christian Community during a Time of Rising Islamization.” His lecture ignited an immediate explosion within Egypt’s government-controlled media and mosques. Muslim Brotherhood members, Salafis, and assorted other Islamists heatedly denounced Thomas in over 200 articles, calling for him to be put on trial for treason and accusing him of supporting a “Zionist plot,” delivering an “insolent denial of a long history of Islamic tolerance,” and other treacheries. At the following Friday prayers, the sheikh of the neighboring Al-Rahma mosque in Qussia threatened violence: “[I say to] you the traitors, there are men among the Muslims who will spill your blood …. [M]y helpers will sever the legs of all those who assist the traitor [Bishop Thomas].”


The angry aftermath, as much as the content of the bishop’s lecture, provides invaluable insight into what we’re seeing in Egypt today—namely, a reinvigorated effort by some of the country’s more radical Islamists to establish Egypt’s identity as a thoroughly Islamicized and Arabicized state. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who number about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people and now constitute the largest non-Muslim religious community in Egypt, are the most visible bloc standing in the way of impatient jihadists and violent Salafis, who reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated approach of a more gradual and democratic cultural shift. No less an authority than Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant and an Egyptian, was not shy about stating this in a three-part “Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” released on websites in late February. In his speech, Zawahiri demonized Copts as “one of Egypt’s main problems” and called Coptic Pope Shenouda a “Zionist traitor.” Since then, a heightened campaign of violence is being directed against Egypt’s Copts and is presaging a mass exodus from the country—an event which, if it transpires, will have devastating effects on the multicultural makeup of the entire Middle East.


In 2008, anti-Copt sentiments spiked following the Bishop’s presentation because his main point—that the Copts are true Egyptians—had hit a nerve….The Bishop stated that the Coptic identity centers on Egypt, its land, language and culture, while Egyptians who converted to Islam shifted their cultural identity toward Arabia…For many in contemporary Egypt, the bishop’s assertion was heresy. Islamists—and those wanting their political support—view the Copts not as real Egyptians, but, because they are religious holdouts, as second-class citizens or even a fifth column within the state. They are treated accordingly. Copts are officially discriminated against by an Ottoman-era law that restricts their ability to build or even repair their ancient and crumbling churches and monasteries. When they suffer violent assaults by Muslims, they are typically denied justice, with trial judges instead presiding over “reconciliation” sessions, with the victimized Copt being forced to shake hands with his Muslim aggressor. As a rule, Copts have been excluded from government appointments and, in this spring’s recent referendum, the Muslim Brotherhood backed a successful constitutional amendment making it official that Copts (and women) are ineligible for the presidency.

Given all the human suffering in Egypt to worry about something as ephemeral links to the past is probably unforgivably sentimental. Yet were the Copts to be driven from Egypt and their traditions to disappear, this would not only cause great pain and wreck a community with a rich history of its own, but would also sever a living tie to the most venerable civilisation on earth.

The Pyramids were not built by slaves

A scene from Cecil DeMille's Ten Commandments - cinematic but not terribly accurate

A scene from Cecil DeMille’s Ten Commandments – cinematic but not terribly accurate

A 2003 article in Harvard Magazine on the life of the Archeaologist Mark Lehner notes that:

Rooted firmly in the popular imagination is the idea that the pyramids were built by slaves serving a merciless pharaoh. This notion of a vast slave class in Egypt originated in Judeo-Christian tradition and has been popularized by Hollywood productions like Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, in which a captive people labor in the scorching sun beneath the whips of pharaoh’s overseers.

This was certainly my image though it owes more to childhood viewings of the Prince of Egypt than anything else. To be fair this idea took root for a good reason: Herodotus stated that the builders of the pyramids were indeed slaves.

However, as the Harvard Magazine article goes on to explain discoveries by Lehner and his colleagues that the workers ate meat and that there were extensive bakeries on the sight cast doubt on this theory.

There were slaves in Egypt, says Lehner, but the discovery that pyramid workers were fed like royalty buttresses other evidence that they were not slaves at all, at least in the modern sense of the word. Harvard’s George Reisner found workers’ graffiti early in the twentieth century that revealed that the pyramid builders were organized into labor units with names like “Friends of Khufu” or “Drunkards of Menkaure.” Within these units were five divisions (their roles still unknown)—the same groupings, according to papyrus scrolls of a later period, that served in the pyramid temples. We do know, Lehner says, that service in these temples was rendered by a special class of people on a rotating basis determined by those five divisions. Many Egyptologists therefore subscribe to the hypothesis that the pyramids were also built by a rotating labor force in a modular, team-based kind of organization.

If not slaves, then who were these workers? Lehner’s friend Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been excavating a “workers’ cemetery” just above Lehner’s city on the plateau, sees forensic evidence in the remains of those buried there that pyramid building was hazardous business. Why would anyone choose to perform such hard labor? The answer, says Lehner, lies in understanding obligatory labor in the premodern world. “People were not atomized, separate, individuals with the political and economic freedom that we take for granted. Obligatory labor ranges from slavery all the way to, say, the Amish, where you have elders and a strong sense of community obligations, and a barn raising is a religious event and a feasting event. If you are a young man in a traditional setting like that, you may not have a choice.” Plug that into the pyramid context, says Lehner, “and you have to say, ‘This is a hell of a barn!’”

Lehner currently thinks Egyptian society was organized somewhat like a feudal system, in which almost everyone owed service to a lord. The Egyptians called this “bak.” Everybody owed bak of some kind to people above them in the social hierarchy. “But it doesn’t really work as a word for slavery,” he says. “Even the highest officials owed bak.”

This view was confirmed in 2010 when the tombs of the workers were unearthed.

“These tombs were built beside the king’s pyramid, which indicates these people were not by any means slaves,” Zahi Hawass, the chief archaeologist heading the Egyptian excavation team, said in a statement. “If they were slaves, they would not have been able to build their tombs beside their king’s.”


Though they were not slaves, the pyramid builders led a life of hard labor, said Adel Okasha, supervisor of the excavation. Their skeletons have signs of arthritis, and their lower vertebrae point to a life passed in difficulty, he said. “Their bones tell us the story of how hard they worked,” Okasha said.

The Roman Mummies


When Egypt was conquered first by Alexander the Great and then by the Romans, an extraordinary fusion of classical and Egyptian traditions. Like many subsequent empires they hoped to reduce indigenous population’s resistance to their rule by co-opting their culture. This produced unique art forms reflecting these twin influences. The Greek ruling family known as the Ptolemy branded themselves as ‘pharaohs’ and even adopted the practice of sibling marriage. And while Roman rule would eventually provide a conduit through which Christianity would spread in Egypt, both the Ptolemy and Roman authorities continued building temples to the old gods. This period lasted almost 700 years until it was ended by the Arab conquests: it produced the city of Alexandria, the reign of Cleopatra, some of the most unusual theologians in Christian history and an extraordinary intermingling of Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians.

One of the strangest examples of this melding was that the new Greco-Roman adopted the process of mummifying their dead. While the process of mumification and burial in sarcophaguses continued it adapted to reflect the Roman influence. So we get confins decorated in a distinctly classical style such as the famous: Fayum mummy portraits.


Ancient Egyptians used penicillin

Imhotep: a polymath from the 27th century BC. He is one of the first physicians or doctors known to history.

Imhotep: a polymath from the 27th century BC. He is one of the first physicians or doctors known to history.

Penicilin is conventionally thought of as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. I was taught at school that the antibacterial properties of mould were discovered in by Alexander Fleming in 1928. While this is partly true – Fleming was responsible for a great stride in our understanding – such treatments had been being used a long time before that. It was one of many medicines deployed by the Ancient Egyptians:

Egyptian physicians made use of a wide variety of medicinal plants, but the most numerous remedies were purgatives and emetics. The cathartic oil of the castor plant was used both as an internal drug and as a medication for wounds and irritated areas. Products from the opium poppy may have come into use in Egypt relatively late, but some scholars believe the plant was a therapeutic drug in the second millennium B.C. Substances such as hyoscyamus and scopolamine (an ingredient of “twilight sleep” in recent obstetrical practice), which are both related to mandragora from the mandrake plant, probably also were employed, but the time of their introduction is not established. Some of the vegetable decoctions may. well have had antiseptic action. The “rotten bread” prescribed in several formulas might have been effective on wounds because of the presence of antibacterial molds (just as penicillium mold is used today).

This was just part of a remarkably advanced system of medicine: Homer wrote that “In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind.While the Egyptians were not immune to the pull of magic and faith healing, doctors and physicians were a distinct class from magic men or priests. They were able to perform surgery and dentistry, and provide reasonable advice on nutrition.

Ancient Egypt was ancient before it was over


The longevity of Ancient Egyptian civilisation is astonishing. More time passed between the unification of Egypt under the first pharaohs around 3,000 BC and its capture by Alexander the Great in 332 BC than has passed since.

What is more much of the Ancient culture survived the Macedonian and Roman occupations and the early years of the Arab conquest. And as we shall see in later posts some of it still survives today.

Coming up on Matter of Facts – Ancient Egypt week


My interest in history started with Ancient Egyptians. I didn’t really get along too well with school for my first couple of years. Then I started a year where our main topics were ancient history: the Romans, the Greeks and first of all the Egyptians.  History was a revelation: a subject at school I was actually interested in. It was what I wound up studying at university and remains something of an obsession for me. Though I’m now more interested in modern history, I do still find something mysterious and exotic about ancient civilisations. So inspired by visit to the British Museum this weekend, this week on matters of facts is devoted to the Ancient Egyptians.

So look out for posts about:

  • Quite how astonishingly ancient Ancient Egyptian civilisation really is
  • Who really made the pyramids
  • The ancient roots of antibiotics
  • Where you can still hear the Ancient Egyptian being spoken today
  • The Romans who made mummies