The ancient Egyptians were a fascinating bunch. Their impressive social structure, skills at agriculture and architecture, and their wealth and power made them a formidable civilization. Here are 6 facts about them:
1. Harem For a Boy
No other pharaoh of Egypt can compare with Ramesses II for achievement and self-glorification. At the age of ten he was already a captain in the army and had his own harem. By the time he died in 1213 BC, aged over 90, he had ruled for 66 years (longer than Britain’s Queen Victoria), fathered 111 sons and 67 daughters, built the exquisite temples of Abu Simbel and added to those at Luxor and Karnak. The great Battle of Kadesh in about 1274, in which he claimed to have subdued the Hittites, is celebrated in a gigantic relief on one of the walls of his mortuary temples on the Nile’s West bank at the Thebes.
On the obelisk which is now in the Place de la Concorde, Paris, he had his glory described in these words: “Ramesses, conqueror of all crown bearers, Ramesses who fought the millions, bids the whole world subdue itself to his power…”
The massive fallen statue of Ramesses at the Ramesseum of Thebes probably inspired English poet Percy Shelley’s sonnet of faded glory. Called “Ozymandias” (Ozymandias was the Greek rendering of one of the pharaoh’s names), the poem ends with the lines:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
2. The Sphinx
The Great Sphinx by the pyramids at Giza, near Cairo, stands 20 m high, is 73 m long and was carved from a knoll left from the quarrying of stone for the Great Pyramid – only the paws were carved separately. It dates from the 26th century BC, which makes it the oldest known sphinx in Egypt.
Sphinxes were mythological animals, like the unicorn of northern Europe, and they are found in Mesopotamian and Greek mythology as well as in Egyptian tales. Sphinxes were usually male in Egyptian legends and female in Greek ones. Egyptian sphinxes were often constructed with the body of a lion, the tail of a serpent, a human head, and sometimes wings as well; but they could vary. At Karnak, for example, there is an avenue of sphinxes with the heads of rams. Originally, sphinxes were considered by the Egyptians to represent the guardian of the Gates of Sunset, and were erected to protect tombs from intruders. The features of the Great Sphinx are those of the Pharaoh Chephren (Kafre), whose tomb is in one of the three nearby pyramids.
3. Birth of The Mummy
The word mummy, for the embalmed bodies of Egyptian notables, does not come from Egypt or even from the Arab world. It is thought to be derived from a Persian word “mummia”, meaning ‘bitumen’ or ‘tar’. Mummies were so named because ancient people who came across the age-blackened corpses believed wrongly that the bodies were a source of tar.
4. The Healing Arts
Medicine and surgery were both advanced and respected in ancient Egypt – so respected that Pharaoh Atothis is supposed to have written a book on anatomy in around 3000 BC. Nine medical treatises have survived. One, the oldest surviving book of surgery in the world, contains details of 48 operations, among them trepanning – boring a hole in the skull to relieve pressure in the brain. Others contain medical advice which is largely based on superstition, but they also list drugs which are still familiar, such as castor oil, wormwood, sodium bicarbonate, and arsenic. Egyptian doctors even used adhesive plaster on wounds.
5. Preserving The Dead
The first Egyptian mummies date from about 2600 BC, and the practice survived until Muslim Arabs conquered Egypt in AD 641. At its height, around the time of the 21st dynasty of pharaohs (about 1085 – 945 BC), the most sophisticated techniques of mummification took about 70 days to complete.
The internal organs were first removed through a cut about 100 mm long near the left hip. They were cleaned in wine and spices, and the abdominal cavity was flushed out with cedar oil. The brain was removed by forcing a pointed tool up through the nose and then scraping the inside of the skull, probably with a small ladle.
Once cleaned, the body and organs were packed in natron – a natural rock salt which was a mixture of washing soda and baking soda – to dry them. Then the organs were individually wrapped and replaced in the body, and the cavity was topped up with sawdust, linen, tar or even mud, depending on what was available.
The face and body were restored to a lifelike plumpness by inserting wads of linen under the skin. Finally, each limb, along with the head and torso, was wrapped separately in layers of resin-smeared linen before the body was handed back to the family for burial. This last stage must have taken considerable time. On some mummies that have been unwrapped by modern scholars, the total length of the bandages has been about 2.5 km.
6. Treasure of a Teenage King
Almost 2000 fabulous objects, including gold figurines and masks and priceless jewellery, were found when British archaeologist Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in November 1922. It was one of the most stunning archeological finds of all time. Carter, asked what he could see as he peered into the tomb, could only gasp: “Wonderful things….”
Yet Tutankhamun, who died in about 1352 BC at the age of 18 or 19, was only a minor pharaoh. Far more amazing treasures must have been buried with the more important pharaohs. But their larger and more conspicuous tombs were emptied by grave-robbers thousands of years ago.