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Ancient Egypt Culture

by Vishal Kumar

Know interesting facts about the culture of Egypt including art, religion, literature, music, festivals, etc.

Egyptian Culture :

Much has been written, read, debated, and discussed the rich culture of Egypt. And yet, the Egyptian culture has remained as intriguing, as enigmatic as it was thousands of years ago, guaranteeing an ever-increasing influx of tourists and visitors to the country. Perhaps it has to do with the richness, the treasures, the scientific advancement, the magic, and the colossal architecture – whatever the reason, Egypt and Egyptian culture hold the attention of the world at large.

Art in Egypt :

Egyptian art has been studied and researched by art historians and Egyptologists for years now. The history of art in Egypt dates back to 5000 BC but the prominence of art, pottery, and paintings can be clearly related to the period from 3000 BC lasting up to the 4th century AD. Artists were quite in demand and highly respected members of society in ancient Egypt. This is attributed to the fact that pictorial depiction was a very important aspect of the religious rites. Preservation of the likeliness was an important part of magic and funerary rituals as well. Pharaohs and noblemen were buried in highly embellished tombs. Paintings of gods, their family members, and slaves (to assist in their afterlife) were quite imperative.

One of the distinct features of early Egyptian art is the strict adherence to rules and the use of stereotypes. In the depiction of gods, goddesses, and human beings the ancient Egyptian artist would stick to depicting the face in the profile, provide a frontal view of the shoulders, chest, and torso and paint both feet from the inside. Such a representation was requisite to preserve the true nature of the likeliness rather than an artistic impression of the person. Much emphasis was placed on the durability of art rather than aesthetics. Egyptians believed that the soul’s successful passage through the afterlife depended much on the preservation of the likeliness of the person.

Symbolism is an important aspect of Egyptian art. Symbols conveyed all that could not be expressed otherwise. The use of colors is especially significant in this context. Themes were very often religious, mythological, and very often about the afterlife. Gods, Goddesses, animal familiars, and members of the royal family were central to the art and paintings. Scenes from mythology and larger-than-life depictions of the Pharaoh were commonly depicted on the walls of tombs, pyramids, obelisks, and temples. Mineral dyes were used and wood and reed brushes served very effectively to impart a shaded or layered look to the wall paintings.

Besides walls and rock surfaces, the early Egyptians creatively used papyrus to write and paint. Papyrus picture books and papyrus sheets with elaborate artwork have been discovered by Egyptologists. Pots and earthenware found in tombs, temples, and pyramids testify to the exceptional skill of Egyptians in creatively embellishing these articles. Very often these pots held the internal organs of the person mummified or were used for ritual purposes.

The architecture of Ancient Egypt: Egypt is perhaps best known for its ancient architectural marvels. Think Egypt and the word “Pyramids” immediately pops into our minds. The very sight of the colossal pyramids and the sphinx is awe-inspiring. The thought that these structures were planned and built to perfection over 5000 years ago when modern engineering aids were unknown, is simply too marvelous. Ancient Egyptian architecture as evinced in the marvelous temples, tombs, palaces, and obelisks comprises a study in geometric precision and colossal construction.

The use of stone characterized ancient Egyptian architecture. Limestone and granite were used extensively. Granite came from the stone quarries to the south of Egypt. Planning was a very important part. Ground plans and layouts were carefully prepared by the scribes. The use of gridlines is seen in these monument plans as discovered by Egyptologists and archeologists. The use of mortar was unknown. Hence the stones were carefully cut in the quarries to ensure that they fit well. Transportation was the next important task. When the Nile was in its inundation cycle, these massive stones were moved in ships built especially for the purpose. A huge labor force, often running into thousands of men, was employed to build the temples, tombs, pyramids, and palaces. Royal administrators planned the settlements of these laborers as well. Scribes kept account of the payments due to them and the wages were paid in grains, flax, and oil. Egyptian architects used an elaborate system of pulleys and levers to hoist the stones to form the desired structure. Once the basic structure was constructed, carving and decoration of the walls were initiated. The construction of tombs and pyramids often lasted throughout the reign of the Pharaoh. Priests were also part of the teams that were formed for construction since they were responsible for casting propitiation spells and overseeing the carving and painting of the walls. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Sphinx, the Luxor Temple Complex, the Temple Complex of Karnak, and the Temple of Horus at Edfu are among the architectural marvels that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

MapsofWorld Trivia :

Pyramids are the best-known icons that represent Egypt and Egyptian culture the world over. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The earliest among the 118 pyramids discovered in Egypt (as of 2008), is the Pyramid of Djoser built in the 3rd century BC (built by the pharaohs of the Third Dynasty). The earliest pyramids were step-pyramids while the pyramids built by pharaohs of later dynasties are known for their smooth, well-cut, reflective surfaces. Usually built on the western bank of the Nile, the pyramid’s shape was believed to represent Ptah, the deity and the primal mound from which the world was created. The pyramids were elaborate structures with several passageways, antechambers, preparation chambers, and a burial vault. Secret chambers were frequent and well-fashioned traps threw raiders off track. Enormous treasures were often buried with the pharaohs. Every essential required to rule the underworld was provided. While early pharaohs had slaves buried with them the practice became obsolete soon and figurines and representations of slaves had to suffice. The Great Sphinx of Giza is believed to depict Pharaoh Khafra’s likeliness and immortalize him.

The religion of Egypt :

Religion was central to life in Ancient Egypt. The civilization, culture, art, architecture, sciences, and social order developed around religion. The ancient Egyptians practiced a polytheistic religion and worshipped a pantheon of Gods and goddesses. Cults developed around the worship of these Gods and Goddesses such as Ra, Anubis, Isis, Osiris, Horus, Nut, Bastet, Amun, Thot, Ma’at, Sekhmet, and Ptah.

The worship of natural forces was an interesting but important aspect of the religion. Elaborate rites and rituals were defined by the religion in an attempt to appease these Gods and Goddesses representing natural forces. Natural disasters and ailments were ascribed to their displeasure and offerings to gain favors were an accepted part of the religious practices. Ra, the sun god, was among the major deities worshipped in Egypt. As a form of Horus and later Amun, Ra was considered the creator of the entire universe. Though essentially patriarchal society, the goddesses of Egypt were considered to be extremely powerful. Isis was worshiped as the mother goddess.

Animal worship is another important aspect of the Egyptian religion. So much so, that most of the Egyptian deities were ascribed animal heads, bodies, totems, or familiars. The cat-headed goddess Bastet, lion-headed war god Maahes, the crocodile-headed god Sobek, and the frog-goddess Heqit were idolized, revered, and propitiated by the priests.

Belief in the divine origin of royalty was a key factor in holding together social order in ancient Egypt. The Pharaoh was believed to be a descendent of the gods and was ascribed magical powers to intercede with the gods in favor of the common masses. The public coffers bore the expenses for the elaborate rituals and religious practices of the Pharaoh and the royal family. Temples were built by the kings and each Pharaoh promoted the cult of his favorite deity. The Pharaoh Akhenaten went as far as prohibiting the worship of any deity other than Aten. Though the Egyptians complied under duress, worship of the pantheon was reestablished soon after the end of Akhenaten’s rule.

Death and the afterlife were central thoughts. Much of Egypt’s wealth, resources, and energies were dedicated to fashioning a comfortable afterlife, especially for the nobility. Ka priests lived off tomb endowments. Offerings were made at tombs not only during the burial but the endowments ensured that regular offerings and rituals were conducted long after the person himself/herself was no longer alive. Mummification was an elaborate process lasting 70 days. The construction of tombs and pyramids provided livelihood to many. The tombs and pyramids of the royals and nobles were constructed even during their own lifetime and were closely overseen by them.

Magic was another important aspect of religion and healing in Egypt. The priests grew as healers and god-men as embodiments of the Heka with the ability to harness the magic of the soul. Oracles were deemed sacred and often consulted both by commoners and in matters of political importance.

Christianity came to Egypt in the 4th century and over 9 % of the population was affiliated with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Islam was introduced to Egypt by the Arabs in the 7th century. Over 90 % of the country’s population belongs to the Sunni sect of Islam. The remaining 1% are Shi’a Muslims, Orthodox Christians, or belong to the Baha’i faith.

Literature of Egypt :

The literature of Egypt is among the earliest recorded literature of any civilization in the world. Influenced primarily by religious themes, early Egyptian literature includes texts written not only on papyrus, the reed used by the scribes, but also works recorded on the temple, tomb, pyramid walls, obelisks, tablets, etc.

The Book of Caverns is a famous text and among the earliest rendition of this text was found on the walls of the Osireion in Abydos. This book, dealing with Ra’s journey through the underworld, is said to have originated during the Ramesside Period. The Amudat was a funerary text reserved for the tomb walls of only the Pharaohs. It speaks of the pharaoh’s passage through Ra’s journey at night to ultimately merge with the sun god. The most noted version of the book was found in the tomb of Thutmose III in the Valley of the Kings.

The Book of the Gates, describing various gates that need to be passed through by a newly-deceased soul, is known for its graphic description of various Egyptian goddesses and provides remarkable insight into the pantheon. Versions of the text and pictorial depictions appear on the walls of many royal tombs of the New Kingdom.

The controversial Book of Abraham, supposedly written by Abraham in Egypt is replete with esoteric import and is among the earliest papyri books in the world. There has, however, been much controversy with regard to the interpretations of the book as presented by Joseph Smith and the Egyptologists in general.

Perhaps the best known and the most intriguing of the ancient Egyptian funerary books is the Book of the Dead. Versions of the book have been found in almost every tomb of the New Kingdom. Variations in spells that assist the soul in its travel of the underworld mark the differences. The Book of the Dead is perhaps the most elaborate text describing magic rituals such as amulet making, funerary practices, the afterlife, myths, origins of the various gods and goddesses, the ultimate union of the soul with the gods, and most importantly, the weighing of the heart (Ib) by Anubis, against a feather, in moral judgment. Egyptologists have made a compilation of over 197 spells found in various versions of the book. The magical abilities of these spells and the powers endowed by uttering these spells made the Book of the Dead a coveted text used only in the burial of nobility. Most of the funerary texts recovered from the tombs and pyramids of Pharaohs have been extremely helpful in throwing light on the funerary practices, theology, and religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.

Besides religious literature, love, the valor of the kings, and other commonplace themes were also themes used by poets and scribes of ancient Egypt.

With the introduction of Christianity, Coptic literature grew in popularity. The most significant works of modern Egyptian authors, poets, and dramatists have, however, been Islamic literature. With the Arab Muslim invader bringing in cloth, ink, and script, the myths of ancient Egypt influenced Arabic tales. Ibn al-Nafis is among the earliest known Egyptian Islamic texts. Later Egyptian literature evolved with many novelists, poets, and playwrights being appreciated by the world. Naguib Mahfouz bagged the Nobel Prize in Literature for Egypt. Abdel Hakim Qasem, Sonallah Ibrahim, and Nawal El Saadawi are among other famous authors from Egypt.

Music of Egypt :

Music is an integral part of Egyptian culture. While Thoth was believed to have invented music itself, Hathor was regarded as the patron of music. Almost every Egyptian God was propitiated by the use of music and hymns. The earliest representation of instrumental music in Egypt dates back to the Predynastic era. Percussion instruments such as drums, castanets, sistrums, and cymbals were used to accompany stringed instruments such as kinnors, harps, lutes, and lyres. Among the woodwind instruments trumpets, clarinets, and flutes were prominent. Horns and shells are also known to have been used to make music. The Gods were worshipped with instruments that were carved, painted, and bejeweled. Music was an indispensable part of religious rituals and court entertainment in the Old Kingdom. The traveling nomads of the land, caravans, and the commoners developed their own schools of music such as the Dhikr.

The temple musicians of ancient Egypt were accorded the highest regard. The royal household employed gifted musicians and artists to entertain and teach. Pharaohs and members of the royal households were buried with musical instruments to provide them entertainment in the afterlife. The pyramid’s interiors were engraved with elaborate carvings and paintings of musical rituals. These have provided historians with much information to study and recreate these instruments.

Modern Egyptian music evinces strong influences from Byzantine, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Greek, and Indian music besides ancient Greek music. Abdu-l Hamuli and Mahmud Osman were among the early Egyptians who popularized the country’s music in foreign lands. Later luminaries such as Sayed Darwish, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and Abdel Halim Hafez followed their tradition. In the early 20th century, with the launch of the gramophone and recording techniques, Egyptian music acquired global followers. Sayed Darwish is accredited with incorporating western musical style into indigenous music. It is in this era that Arabic music had its strongest influence in Egypt. Modern Egyptian music started to be classified into Coptic, Nubian, and Saidi genres and each had its proponents. Ali Hassan Kuban, Ahmad Ismail, Ahmed Mougahid, Ahmed Mounib, Mohamed Mounir, Omar Gharzawi, Riad Al-Sunbati, Shoukoukou, Sohar Magdy, and Zakariyya Ahmad are other famous musicians who have taken Egyptian music to the far reaches of the world. Amr Diab, Ilham Al Madfai, and Magda El Roumi are among contemporary musicians who get the world dancing to the music of Egypt. The Alexandria Music Festival is an amazing event attended by artists and musicians the world over and holds deep cultural influence.

Festivals of Egypt :

Festivals and celebrations form a part of Egyptian life. With a population of over 90% Muslims, Ramadan is naturally the biggest festival in Egypt. The month-long Ramadan is celebrated with much gaiety and devotion. From sunrise, the people fast and pray in honor of Prophet Mohammed. At sunset, the fast is broken and the ceremonial dinner, Iftar, is had with friends and family amidst much revelry. Song and dance programs, quawalis, and poetry sessions are organized and street festivals are common in every part of Egypt.

The birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed, the Moulid an-Nabi, is also celebrated with much fanfare. Besides the grand feasts hosted on the day, carnivals and parades take to the streets on the Moulid an-Nabi.

The traditional spring festival, Sham al-Naseem is celebrated across Egypt, irrespective of religion. Egyptian families set sail on the Nile and exchange greetings. Colorful festoons are put up and the onset of spring is celebrated with great cheer.

The Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas with enthusiasm and exchange gifts.

Besides religious festivals, modern Egypt is known for various sports, music, and literary festivals. Cairo, the hub of international tourism, is known for its cosmopolitan culture and plays host to a number of festivals, some of which are listed below.

Festival When
Fashion and Trade Festivals
Cairo International Fashion Exhibition October
Performing Arts, Film, Theatre, and Historical Festivals
Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre October
Cairo International Film Festival November
Sphinx Festival December
International Nile Song Festival for Children January
Sports Festivals
Pharaohs Rally October
Literary Festivals
Cairo International Book Fair January

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