In the Classroom
In Ancient Egypt both men and women wore make-up. Eye make-up was mostly green (made of malachite) or black (made from galena, or lead ore). Heavy makeup around the eye helped reduce the harsh glare of the sun in the desert. The Egyptians also believed it had magical healing protection properties.
THE earliest inhabitants of Egypt were hunters and fishermen who settled on the banks of the Nile River more than 8 000 years ago. Later they started farming, which led to cities being built. They began trading with neighbouring areas and learnt to build and sail boats.
Then about 5 000 years ago a civilisation developed that would achieve great things. These people left behind temples and pyramids – huge, triangular burial sites – which still remind us of the Ancient Egyptians’ ingenuity.
Let’s find out more about this now vanished culture and the monuments – especially the pyramids – it left behind.
THE NILE, SOURCE OF LIFE
The annual flood waters of the Nile, the longest river in Africa, carried fertile silt (a type of soil) with it into the arid desert that surrounds the river. This enabled the Ancient Egyptians to farm the land and to keep livestock, especially in the Nile Delta – the coastal area where the Nile spreads out before it reaches the Mediterranean Sea. They planted barley and wheat to make beer and bread, as well as fruit and vegetables, and cotton to make clothes. They also kept cattle, sheep and goats for milk, meat and skins.
Their agriculture was hugely productive and provided an abundance of food. The population grew and cities such as Thebes and Memphis were built, while kingdoms developed in Upper Egypt (in the region of modern-day Sudan) and Lower Egypt (the coastal area of the Nile Delta). The two kingdoms were unified in about 3100 BC by a mighty king known as a pharaoh. These kings built magnificent temples and pyramids to show their people and the world how powerful they were.
Because this civilisation developed along a large river, boats were an important means of transport. The Ancient Egyptians used them to go fishing and hunting, or to transport goods and passengers. They even had huge barges to transport stone slabs to the places where the pharaohs wanted to build their temples and pyramids.
When a pharaoh died, his body was embalmed and wrapped in linens and his mummy (corpse) transported in a decorated barge to his tomb. Early pharaohs were buried inside pyramids but later their tombs were hidden underground to keep them hidden from grave robbers who wanted to steal the riches buried with the pharaoh.
Ancient Egyptian civilisation has a long history, which can be roughly divided into four periods: Early Dynastic Period (3050-2686 BC) This period lasted for about 400 years and began with the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt under Pharaoh Menes.
During this time the Egyptians started building temples and palaces, intensified their agricultural activities and started developing hieroglyphs (“picture” writing, eventually using around 1 000 characters). Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC) This period lasted about 500 years, during which pharaohs started building ever bigger monuments. Many of the pyramids we still see today were built during this time.
But building pyramids was expensive and weakened the Egyptian economy. By the end of this period the central government had
collapsed, the country had fallen into chaos and the kingdom had broken up into smaller areas ruled by regional governors. Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC) This period lasted for about 200 years and began with the reunification of the country.
During this time the arts, especially architecture and literature, flourished. The Egyptians created diplomatic and trade relationships with kingdoms such as Assyria and Canaan. They started mining and built military strongholds.
But then a group – today thought to have been from Western Asia, and whom the Egyptians referred to as the Hyksos – conquered Egypt and ruled it for about 100 years. Eventually Egyptian forces from Thebes managed to drive them away. New Kingdom (1567-1085 BC) Egypt developed into the mightiest kingdom in the known world. At its peak the empire stretched from Nubia (modern Sudan) all the way to the Euphrates River in Asia.
These buildings were burial chambers for the pharaohs and their families. A pharaoh’s pyramid was also a status symbol and reflected his power. So far more than 130 pyramids have been discovered. Archaeologists are unsure exactly how they were built. Most experts agree that large man-made slopes were used to roll and pull the massive stone blocks into place. About 20 000 men would work for about 20 years to finish one pyramid.
In 2630 BC, during the Old Kingdom period, Pharaoh Djoser (or Zoser) ordered the architect, physician and priest Imhotep to design his tomb.
This became the world’s first cut-stone construction and still exists. It’s known as the Pyramid of Djoser and is located at Saqqara near Memphis. Pyramid building reached its peak with the Great Pyramid of Giza, near Cairo. It was built for the pharaoh Khufu, who reigned from 2589-2566 BC. This pyramid is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that still exists today.
The Ancient Egyptians strongly believed in an afterlife, and therefore believed the deceased’s body had to be preserved for all eternity so the person’s soul could continue using it in the afterlife.
To preserve a body they mummified it – a process that took about 70 days. The priest in charge of the mummification wore the mask of a jackal, representing Anubis, the god of embalming and the dead.
First the body was washed and purified. All the organs, except the heart, were removed and preserved in jars. Then the body was dried out using a salt-like mineral called natron. The mummy was stuffed with wood shavings or linen, wrapped in linen dressing and covered in a shroud. Finally, the mummy was put in a sarcophagus (a stone coffin), ready for their journey to the afterlife. The Ancient Egyptians also mummified dead animals such as cats they considered holy.
The Ancient Egyptians’ culture was centred on their religion so when people began to adopt Christianity in the fourth century AD, the ancient culture declined. Their language was also lost and replaced with Arabic during the Arab invasion of 640 AD.
It would take hundreds of years before archaeologists could decipher the Ancient Egyptians’ hieroglyphs and unearth the secrets of this lost civilisation.
Two famous Ancient Egyptian faces: the death mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (left) and a bust of Nefertiti, wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Designed by the priest Imhotep for the Pharaoh Djoser, the Step Pyramid was created by stacking tombs on top of one another. From this, the smoothsided pyramid evolved.
The fertile banks of the Nile with the desert beyond it.
ABOVE: A mummy on display in a museum. The Ancient Egyptians believed a person’s body had to be preserved for use in the afterlife. RIGHT: Priests who prepared the body wore a mask of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and burial.
Egyptian hieroglyphics is a system of writing containing more than 1 000 characters. This slab is known as the Stele of Ankh-ef-enKhonsu, or Stele of Revelation. It contains, among other things, script from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.