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 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.

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