Why Study the History of Ancient Egypt?

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

We know an incredible amount about the history of Egypt. We don’t know as much about the Mayans, the Assyrians, or the Babylonians, but we do know a lot about the Egyptians. Find out why that is and how best to approach a study of ancient Egypt.

View of pyramids with Sphinx
Pyramids of Giza in Egypt and the Sphinx

So, why study Egyptology? What is it about the history of ancient Egypt that has captivated historians for generations?

Let’s start with why you should be learning Egyptology. There is an element of escapism in it. Egypt is a wonderful place to go when you’re tired of the real world, when things get too busy, when things are too hectic. Egypt is a place far, far away in time and space.

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

The Most Advanced Ancient Civilization

Ancient Egypt was the most advanced civilization in the ancient world. Now there are some people who would disagree with that. The people who study Sumeria; for example, Samuel Noah Kramer was a great scholar on Sumeria and he wrote a book called History Begins at Sumer where he outlined all the things that begin in Sumeria. He was wrong; history does not begin at Sumeria. It really starts in Egypt. Why is Egypt so special among the cultures of the ancient world?

Learn more about being Egyptian

King Pharaoh God on Egypt palace
Monotheism, the belief in one god, is first presented by an Egyptian pharaoh.

There are so many firsts in Egypt that we all know about, and that makes Egypt unique. For example, the Sumerians did not build the pyramids of Egypt. The Sumerians did not build the incredible temples we see. The Sumerians did not do medical science the way the Egyptians did. There are loads of firsts in ancient Egypt; that’s why Egypt is important. For example, religion. Most people are shocked to learn that monotheism, the belief in one god, is first presented by an Egyptian pharaoh. Monotheism starts in Egypt. Or, for example, mummification.

It’s the Egyptians who perfected the science of mummification. Or Egyptian mythology. Nothing, no mythology is as rich as Egyptian mythology. Egypt is incredible. For example, the Greeks, the famous Greeks, the ancient civilization, they revered ancient Egypt. If you read Greek historians, they all say the same thing: We got our civilization from Egypt. They wanted to trace their lineage back to the Egyptians, because the Greeks were sort of “Johnny-come-lately” on the scene compared to the Egyptians.

Here you’re talking about The Iliad, The Odyssey, maybe being composed around 900 B.C. The pyramids were built a couple of thousand years earlier. So the Greeks always wanted to trace their—it’s like, when people want to trace their heritage back to the Mayflower, “my ancestors came over on the Mayflower,” that’s what the Greeks did with Egypt.

There is a wonderful story. When the Greeks were holding the Olympiad, they wanted to figure out how to make it fair, because there were foreigners who wanted to participate in the Olympiad, in the Olympic Games. They figured, well, we have Greek officials, how would we make it fair, they might be biased toward the Greeks. So they sent a committee to Egypt, because the Egyptians were wise in philosophy. And they asked the Egyptians: How do we make it fair? So the Greeks really wanted to trace everything back to Egypt. There is nothing like Egypt.

If you ask the ancient Greeks where did you learn to build your temples, they all said the same thing: “We learned to build in stone from the Egyptians.” The first building in stone in the history of the world is an Egyptian building. So, there are plenty of reasons for studying Egypt.

A Great Mystery

Another reason is that Egypt is somewhat mysterious. People look at the hieroglyphs, and they look indecipherable. They are not. But there is this mysterious aspect about Egypt that draws people to it.

Papyrus scroll with ancient Egypt hieroglyphic
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics looks indecipherable (but they are not) and that makes them very mysterious and interesting.

And then there is the art. There’s nothing like Egyptian art. If you go into a museum and you look at Greek art, the wonderful kraters, the large pots, Cycladic idols are very stylistic. But it’s not the colorful, vibrant Egyptian art. There is just something special about Egyptian art. So, there are plenty of reasons why we should study Egypt.

Unpacking Biases

There are various approaches to how to study Egypt, and it’s important that you understand these different approaches, because there are biases among them. The first is what we call the philological approach. Now philological comes from two Greek words: philo, which is love, and logos, which is words. It’s the love of words. Philologists are the language people; these are the translators. These are the guys who take a really tough text and can translate it. Egyptologists can translate hieroglyphs moderately well, but when you get a really tough text, we go to the philologists. And there is an approach to the history Egypt that’s philological, through the language.

Learn more about cities, civilizations, and sources

Sir Alan Gardiner, a great scholar of the 1930s, 1940s, was a philologist. His specialty was language, hieroglyphs. He wrote a history of Egypt. A solid history, lots of good stuff in it, but it’s mainly through language. Here is an example of how you figure out the history of Egypt through language. Take one pharaoh’s name, the pharaoh Montuhotep, made up of two Egyptian words. Montu, who is a war god. And hotep means “to be pleased.” This is why you get lots of pharaohs whose names are things like Amenhotep, right, Montuhotep, so it means, “Montu the war god is pleased.” Now as Sir Alan Gardiner points out, that tells you something about the times. Why name a kid Montuhotep? You know? It means there is war and you want to be in favor with the war god. So just from the name we can get an idea of the political times. So there is a philological approach mainly through texts and analyzing language of trying to figure out history, and it’s a legitimate approach.

There is one drawback. Alan Gardiner’s book, it’s very solid, lots of good information, but it’s unreadable. Arthur Weigall was the inspector of antiquities in the Valley of the Kings when Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered. And he’s the best writer on archeology that you will find. In the preface to one of his books, Weigall says: “It’s the goal of the archeology writer to make the dead come alive, not to put the living to sleep.” He is probably right.

There is another approach to history: trying to emphasize events and the people who made those events happen. It is best to go through Egyptian history by learning events and the people involved. There is just something about people that makes the past come alive, once it is realized that those were not just abstract kings, but real people with the same kind of emotions we have. Ramses the great one, when he went into battle he was afraid. Don’t listen to what he put on his temple wall, he was probably afraid.

From the lecture series The History of Ancient Egypt, taught by Professor Bob Brier