Issues in the Study of Ancient Egypt

From the lecture series: The History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

How should you begin a study of Ancient Egypt? What historical sources can you trust? And why should you study Egypt in the first place? Gain insight into how to begin your investigations into one of the world’s most interesting civilizations.

Papyrus with elements of egyptian ancient history under magnifier
(Image: V_Krv/Shutterstock)

If you dive into a study of Ancient Egypt, the first thing you will learn is that sources and approaches to the subject vary. A good but contentious source among Egyptologists is “The Histories”, written by Herodotus, a Greek historian, who traveled to Egypt around 440 B.C. Reflecting on Herodotus’ record of the ancient world can point us toward larger issues in the study of Egyptian history.

Herodotus: A Reliable Source?

Herodotus surveyed the ancient cultures of parts of present-day Western Asia, Northern Africa, and Greece. His travels included Russia, Ethiopia, and Scythia, and his writings discussed the daily living and rituals of the people he encountered.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Statue of Herodotus in old Halicarnassus, modern Bodrum in Turkey
In 450 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote a research book about Egypt. It provided an eyewitness account of what was going on in Egypt that year (Image: Repina Valeriya/Shutterstock)

In 440 B.C., Egypt was a strong civilization, part of the late period, when Herodotus published his work. His writings were collected in the book he called Historia or “The Histories”, the name we derive our word history from and is the Greek word for research. Historia is considered the first history book in the world. Book Two of his investigation focuses on Egypt, serving as an eyewitness account of what was going on in Egypt in that period.

Criticism of Herodotus’ account has spanned several centuries, dating from antiquity to the present day. Historians and readers alike must keep in mind that while his accounts are first hand, Herodotus didn’t speak the language and undoubtedly worked through translators and guides. Some of his stories are strange and outlandish, pointing to the probability they may not be true. In one example, Herodotus stated that carved on the Great Pyramid of Egypt were the number of onions, bread, and other goods given to the workmen as wages for their labor on the pyramid.

Learn more about the four scripts in which ancient Egyptian can be written

It is questionable that the pharaoh building his pyramid and tomb would commission a record of the onions and bread his workers were paid. It is likely that as Herodotus was taken around by guides, he was given false information or misinterpreted what he was told was carved on the sides of the pyramid. Though many things are inaccurate in Herodotus, he’s still a good source for us to utilize in our research.

What Makes Egypt Great?

Ancient Egypt Map
The Nile River flows across Egypt from upper Egypt to lower Egypt. When it overflows, it deposits rich topsoil, which enabled the ancient Egyptians to grow plentiful crops (Image: Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock)

History is about people, and a good way to approach a subject is to take a person-centered approach to history by personalizing it. There are two theories about what made Egypt great. One relates to its geography, specifically the location of the Nile flowing through Egypt. Each year the banks of the Nile would overflow, depositing rich topsoil that enabled the Egyptians to grow plentiful crops. As a consequence of this, if you can grow more food than you need, you can support a larger number of people, a larger number of people who don’t contribute to your economy traditionally as workers. Egypt used that bigger population to support a standing army.

At first, a standing army doesn’t contribute to the economy, but once it marches out of Egypt, conquers foreign lands, and brings back tribute, it can provide wealth to grow an economy. Even Herodotus made the famous statement that Egypt is the gift of the Nile, literally, since the Nile brings the very soil of Egypt and deposits it. The Nile also enabled them to support not just an army but priests, an entire leisure class that did nothing but practice religion.

Learn more about how Egypt became history’s first nation

But it’s also the personalities that appeared throughout their history, our second theory. Egypt was always ruled by a pharaoh, a king with absolute power—a god on earth. If you had a pharaoh who was a great man he could do great things. Egyptian personalities are many, from the builders of the pyramids to Cleopatra, the last ruler of Egypt.

The Many Varieties of Egyptologies

The study of Egyptian civilization is broad, spanning almost 30 centuries. A word of advice on dates: Don’t try to memorize them. I tell my students what’s important is that you grasp the relative chronology of their history, by knowing that the pyramids were built when Egypt was just beginning; that when Tutankhamen was buried in his tomb, the pyramids were a thousand years old; or when Cleopatra ruled, Tutankhamen had been dead for a thousand years. What’s important is you get the idea of what came before what. You have probably gathered that in studying this culture, Egyptologists come in different flavors: art historians, philologists who are interested in the language; my specialty is mummification, paleopathology, and diseases in the ancient world.

When setting goals for studying Egypt, a good curriculum will give you a broad knowledge of Egyptian history, including something about architecture, religion, politics, and an appreciation of Egyptian art. Exposed to the immense range of subjects to study, you can gain a great appreciation for these people. Imagine entering a museum, heading to the Egyptian exhibit, looking at a statue and saying, “Ah, idealized form, that must be the Old Kingdom.” Or, “Ah, look at that, must be Ptolemaic, one of the Ptolemies.”

Learn more about the Middle Kingdom and Egypt’s resurrection

Maybe the most important goal of any study of ancient Egypt is to keep going. Continue learning about Egypt, as an introduction to Egyptian history is merely the beginning of learning.

Common Questions About the Study of Ancient Egypt

Q: What is required to become an Egyptologist?

Academic degrees are mostly required to begin as an Egyptologist. Subjects that are crucial are Egyptology, archeology, as well as fluency in the German and French languages to be able to read older texts.

Q: Who created the study of Egyptology?

The first Egyptologists were a group of 167 scholars that Napoleon brought with him to document Egypt during his invasion. However, the most influential Egyptologist was Jean-Francois Champollion, who deciphered hieroglyphs, the Egyptian language.

Q: Who is the most well known Egyptologist to date?

The most famous Egyptologist is Zahi Hawass, who was the Chief Inspector of the Giza Pyramid Plateau and discovered many tombs at Giza and the Valley of the Golden Mummies.

Q: What type of salary do Egyptologists make?

Egyptologists can make anywhere from around $35,000 to around $97,000.

This article was updated on October 14, 2019

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