Located in the Sahara Desert, it would come as a surprise that Ancient Egypt would rise in such a harsh and inhospitable land. In fact, it’s for that reason that the Ancient Egyptians considered the Nile River as the source of all life. Without the Nile, the Ancient Egyptian kingdom wouldn’t even exist. We wouldn’t have the pyramids, the Sphinx, and many other legacies they left for us today.
Much of Egypt would be uninhabitable without the Nile. The river is home to many aquatic species as well as hundreds of terrestrial species that live along its banks. Many of the animals that live in and around the Nile are both feared and revered by the locals. Some of them were even worshiped by the ancient Egyptians. Practically everything important in Egypt is next to the Nile or quite near it.
Learn more surprising things about the oldest nation in the world. Check out these 50 Ancient Egypt facts.
The Ancient Egyptians never actually called their land Egypt.
The name Egypt actually comes from the Ancient Greek name for the country, Aigyptos, itself a corruption of the Egyptian name for the city of Memphis, Hikuptah. Instead, the Ancient Egyptians called their country Kemet. This literally means black land, referencing the rich black mud left behind by the Nile’s annual floods.
Together with the Nile’s water, this allowed Ancient Egyptian farms to produce big harvests, providing food for their people. This also stood in contrast to the dry deserts surrounding the Nile Valley. They called these “deshret,” which means “red land.”
Ancient Egypt had two major political divisions.
They called them Lower and Upper Egypt. Lower Egypt covers Nile Delta, while Upper Egypt covers the Nile Valley up to the first set of rapids at Aswan. In fact, the first Pharaoh’s claim to kingship came from his successful unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. This became referenced in the “pschent,” or the double crown worn by all Pharaohs.
It included the White Hedjet Crown of Upper Egypt, and the Red Deshret Crown of Lower Egypt, along with their respective animal emblems. A cobra represented Lower Egypt, while also symbolizing the goddess Wadjet. A vulture represented Upper Egypt, as well as the goddess Nekhbet, who along with Wadjet became known as the Two Ladies.
It took the Ancient Egyptians a century to perfect the pyramid.
Archaeologists can perfectly trace the development of the pyramid in Ancient Egypt, starting with the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. Built in the 27th century BC, priest and architect Imhotep designed and oversaw its construction for the Pharaoh Djoser. Imhotep’s success would actually lead to his deification after his death. As a matter of fact, over the following century, Ancient Egyptian architects and engineers would build on Imhotep’s work.
This led to the Bent Pyramid, built at the very start of the 26th century BC at Dahshur. Egyptians built it for Pharaoh Sneferu of the 4th dynasty. Continued improvement of the pyramid finally concluded with the perfected design of the Great Pyramid of Giza in the middle of the 26th century BC.
Egypt had plenty of gold.
They found their first mines in the Eastern Desert, located between the Nile and the Red Sea. The gold mines in the region proved so rich, that they remained productive through Roman times and well into the Islamic Golden Age of the 8th to 14th centuries AD.
Later on, during the Middle and New Kingdoms, Egypt’s expansion to the south led to the discovery of more gold mines in Nubia. Located in modern Sudan, the Nubian gold mines continue to produce material, even to this day.
In its time, Ancient Egypt’s wealth in gold made them the richest country in the world during the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. This great wealth also contributed to their military dominance during the latter part of the Bronze Age, allowing them to arm more soldiers and fight wars longer than their enemies could.
Two of the greatest Pharaohs were Thutmose I and Thutmose III.
First, we have Thutmose I, the third Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty and the New Kingdom. Thutmose I conquered Nubia, bringing what would become modern Sudan into Egypt’s growing empire.
Later on, his grandson Thutmose III continued Egypt’s expansion, only in the opposite direction. Thutmose III campaigned north, into the Mediterranean coast of Asia, and brought Palestine and Syria under Egyptian control. He also made policy changes, at least when it came to his Asian conquests.
In Nubia, the Pharaoh appointed a viceroy to govern in their name and ruled the region as part of Egypt. In contrast, Thutmose III allowed local rulers in Syria and Palestine to keep their thrones, so long as they paid tribute regularly to the Pharaoh.
Only one woman ever ruled as a Pharaoh.
Hatshepsut started out as Thutmose I’s daughter, and sister-wife to his son and successor, Thutmose II. After her brother died to plague, Hatshepsut first served as regent for her stepson, the future Thutmose III, but eventually claimed the throne as Pharaoh.
Unlike her father, and later on her stepson, Hatshepsut focused on domestic affairs instead of foreign conquests. During her reign, Egypt became the center of trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, bringing great wealth to the country.
She used that wealth to build new roads, temples, bridges, irrigation systems, and other pieces of infrastructure. This gave her the reputation as one of the greatest Pharaohs in Egyptian history, and the first truly great woman in history as a whole.
Pharaoh Amenhotep IV once tried to adopt monotheism in Egypt.
Amenhotep IV ruled as the tenth ruler of the 18th dynasty, and tried to replace Egypt’s many gods with just one god. Specifically, Aten, who was originally just an obscure aspect of the Sun God Ra, but which Amenhotep made the focus of his new religion. As part of this, he renamed himself Akhenaten and even built a new capital, Akhetaten, modern-day Amarna.
In practice, however, worship of Aten became limited to the city, while everywhere else, worship of the old Egyptian gods continued. After Akhenaten’s death, worship of Aten stopped, and the city of Akhetaten was abandoned. Succeeding Pharaohs destroyed Akhenaten’s monuments, and even erased his name from most records.
In fact, most records only refer to Akhenaten as a criminal, or by his former name, Amenhotep IV.
Tutankhamun succeeded Amenhotep IV as the Pharaoh of Egypt.
Originally born Tutankhaten, he became Pharaoh as Tutankhamun as part of the restoration of Ancient Egypt’s traditional religion following his father, Akhenaten’s death. Crowned at the age of 8, Tutankhamun’s young age meant he ruled with the help of several advisers. His reign itself proved short, barely 9 years, with his death becoming a source of controversy among scholars.
Most scholars once believed his regent Ay had murdered Tutankhamun to become Pharaoh himself. Investigation of the Pharaoh’s body showed no evidence of murder, however. A theory that the Pharaoh died from a chariot accident also proved inconclusive, with seeming injuries in his body instead of getting discovered as caused by tomb robbers.
Today, archaeologists believe that the Pharaoh died from malaria, with remnants of the parasite from his mummy serving as evidence.
The tomb of Tutankhamun remains the most intact Ancient Egyptian tomb ever discovered.
When Howard Carter discovered the tomb in 1922, every other tomb in the Valley of the Tombs in Upper Egypt had already suffered from tomb robbers. They had stolen not just the treasures buried with the Pharaohs and their queens, but even damaged their mummies.
In some cases, the tomb robbers had even stolen the mummies. In fact, tomb robbers had also attacked Tutankhamun’s tomb in the past, with Carter estimating that the treasures he found only accounted for 40% of what the Ancient Egyptians had buried with the Pharaoh.
Despite all that, the Pharaoh’s mummy managed to remain in his tomb, along with at least some of his treasures, like a model boat, several chariots, and a dagger made from meteoric iron. The mummies of the Pharaoh’s two stillborn children also remained with their father in his tomb. Even today, archaeologists have found no other tomb as intact as Tutankhamun’s.
Ramesses II remains the greatest Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt.
So much so, even in his time, his people called him Ramesses the Great. He reigned from 1279 to 1213 BC, as the third Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty. He rose to greatness in 1278 BC, when the so-called Sea Peoples invaded Egypt.
Ramesses fought them off, and in what the Egyptians saw as an act of mercy, allowed them to serve in his army. Over the rest of his reign, Ramesses put down revolts in Syria, before fighting the Hittite Empire in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey.
This led to the signing of the oldest recorded peace treaty in history, with the Ancient Egyptians and Hittites marking out their respective territories to each other. Ramesses also built the Great Temple at Abu Simbel, as well as the Ramesseum in Thebes. He also expanded his father Seti I’s summer palace in Lower Egypt into a new city, Pi-Ramesses.
Historians consider many possible factors in Ancient Egypt’s decline.
The biggest factor of them all involved the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. In particular, the widespread adoption of iron weapons and armor during the latter part of the 2nd century BC made Egypt’s armies obsolete.
Egypt actually had rich copper deposits, which had given them an advantage during the Bronze Age, as they only needed to import tin to alloy copper with, for bronze. However, Egypt lacked iron deposits, and while the Ancient Egyptians could import iron, it still put them at a disadvantage against enemies who had iron of their own.
Worse, Egypt at this time had become politically unstable and had even broken apart along Upper-Lower Egyptian lines. Merchant princes ruled Lower Egypt, while priests from Thebes dominated Upper Egypt’s nobles. This, together with the obsolescence of Egypt’s soldiers, left them vulnerable to foreign conquerors.
Ancient Egypt had a complex government.
The Pharaoh stood on top, theoretically as a god-king with absolute power over the country. In practice, the Pharaoh had to balance the competing interests and ambitions of the factions in his court. Those included the nobility, the scribes, the merchants, the soldiers, and the priesthood.
Directly below the Pharaoh stood the vizier, the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of a modern Prime Minister. Provincial governors called nomarchs answered directly to the vizier, with each nomarch governing one of Ancient Egypt’s 42 provinces, or nomes.
Out of the factions of the Pharaoh’s court, the priesthood proved especially powerful, with all levels of the government having to accommodate them to some degree. This came from the fact that as we mentioned earlier, temples doubled as granaries and treasuries. This, in turn, made the temples the backbone of Ancient Egypt’s economy, with the priesthood influencing the nation’s food and wealth.
They also had a hierarchical society.
The Pharaoh and the nobility stood on top of the Egyptian society, with the educated elite of doctors, engineers, scribes, and the priesthood immediately below them. Next came the skilled craftsmen and artisans, who took raw materials and worked them into useful tools and goods for sale.
Finally, the farmers made up the bottom level of Ancient Egyptian society, with the majority of Ancient Egyptians belonging to this class. And while slavery existed in Ancient Egypt, scholars remain unclear about their actual position. Slaves in Ancient Egypt could earn their keep on the side, and eventually buy their freedom. Slaves enjoyed access to public doctors, and former slaves could eventually rise to become nobles themselves.
Women in Ancient Egypt enjoyed many freedoms.
Women had equal status to men in the law, something not even Greek or Roman women had. They could also own, sell, and inherit property, as well as start and run businesses of their own. Ancient Egyptian women also had a say in their marriages, with marriage contracts treated as a way to secure their rights in the event of a divorce. And while only one woman ever became Pharaoh, many women became scribes and doctors, with the royal high priestesses wielding great influence in Ancient Egypt.
Ancient Egypt also had an advanced legal system.
Legal records recovered from Ancient Egypt showed that the Ancient Egyptians valued the spirit of the law as much as its letter. Councils of local elders called kenbet served as courts in Ancient Egypt, holding trials for minor crimes.
Major crimes such as murder and robbery instead went to the vizier, or sometimes even to the Pharaoh, for judgment. Regardless of who served as a judge, scribes always made detailed records for reference purposes. Punishments varied between crimes, with minor ones resulting in fines or beatings. Major crimes, though, could result in exile, mutilation, and of course, death.
The Ancient Egyptians had a solid agricultural economy.
Wheat made up the biggest part of Ancient Egypt’s harvests, used to make bread of various kinds. Ancient Egyptian farmers also grew barley, which they used to make beer, which became a major commodity in Ancient Egypt. So much so, that workers commonly accepted beer as payment instead of grain. Barrels of beer also became placed in tombs as funerary offerings, while beer recipes were inscribed as part of tomb writings.
Other crops grown in Ancient Egypt include flax, used to make linen for clothes, with Egyptian linen becoming famous across the Mediterranean. Even today, Egyptian linen remains a major export, fetching high prices on the world market. They also grew papyrus for paper, while other food crops included garlic, leeks, legumes, lettuce, and squash, among others.
Egyptians traded far and wide across the Ancient World.
Grain became their primary export, with Ancient Egypt selling food to neighboring countries. In turn, they imported various goods and raw materials, such as pottery from Palestine, and gemstones from India and Central Asia.
Other imports included wood from Lebanon, a rare and expensive commodity in Egypt’s desert climate. They also imported wine from Greece, as well as from Palestine and Syria. Ancient Egyptian merchants also imported spices and gemstones from Punt in East Africa.
The Ancient Egyptian language remains a mystery to this day.
Egyptologists have made great efforts and have even rediscovered the consonants used by the Ancient Egyptians. They also managed to rediscover the sentence structure of the Ancient Egyptian language, and how words form and change with tenses.
The biggest obstacle, though, involves the vowels of the Ancient Egyptian language. Egyptologists know that the language had, at most 9 vowels, with 3 short vowels and another 3 long vowels. This makes it impossible, at least at present, to actually speak Ancient Egyptian.
Ancient Egypt had two alphabets.
Hieroglyphs make up the most famous of them all, with each picture representing a single concept. Individual hieroglyphs group together to form words, with many different combinations forming single sentences.
That said, hieroglyphs make for a difficult way to write, especially when it comes to making records. This led the Ancient Egyptians to develop the hieratic alphabet, a simplified alphabet meant for day-to-day use. The knowledge of how to read and write either hieroglyphs, or hieratic, died with the Roman Empire, however.
What did this mean? This meant Ancient Egyptian language became lost for centuries, until the Rosetta Stone’s discovery in 1799. It had an inscription in 3 different alphabets: hieroglyphic, hieratic, and Greek. In other words, it gave Egyptologists context they could use to finally relearn how to read and write Ancient Egyptian.
Archaeologists have recovered various pieces of Ancient Egyptian literature.
In particular, the Middle Kingdom story of Sinuhe has become seen by Egyptologists as a classic of Ancient Egyptian literature. It tells the story of Sinuhe, an official in service to Prince Senusret, who goes into exile after the death of Pharaoh Amenemhet I. He married into the Ammunenshi tribe and became a great warrior. His reputation eventually reaches Egypt, where Senusret has become the Pharaoh.
Senusret I then invites Sinuhe to return to Egypt, which he does, with the Pharaoh receiving him with honor on his return. Sinuhe lives out the rest of his life in royal favor, and on his death, receives a dignified burial in the royal necropolis.
The Ancient Egyptians greatly valued hygiene.
They bathed regularly and used soap made from animal fat and chalk. Plus, they shaved all their body hair and used a variety of ointments that worked to prevent body odor, while also soothing their skin in Egypt’s desert climate.
The Ancient Egyptians also made the first toothpaste in the world, made from dried iris flowers, mint, pepper, and rock salt. Since they didn’t have toothbrushes, they used their teeth to rub the toothpaste onto their teeth.
In addition, they circumcised their male children, usually around the age of 12.
Egyptians had certain traditions when it came to clothing.
For one thing, children went around naked until the age of 6. But even before then, they wore protective amulets and jewelry.
The Ancient Egyptians also preferred to wear plant fibers, usually linen, as they saw animal fibers like wool as ritually unclean. Those who were rich, though, wore overcoats made from wool, but took them off before entering sanctified places like temples.
Ancient Egyptians in general preferred not to dye their clothes, instead keeping their natural color. Slaves usually worked naked, but most workers wore a linen loincloth while at work.
They also had a wide variety of makeup and jewelry available.
Jewelry, in particular, provided a colorful contrast to the usual plain appearance of Ancient Egyptian clothing. As we mentioned earlier, Ancient Egypt had plenty of gold, making it a common material for use in making jewelry.
In fact, the Ancient Egyptians considered silver as more valuable than gold, as they needed to import it from Asia. Gemstones imported all the way from Afghanistan also became in high demand for use in making jewelry. The Ancient Egyptians also used various ores and minerals for use as makeup.
In particular, they used henna to paint their hands and nails, galena as eyeliner, malachite as eyeshadow, and ochre for lipsticks.
Ancient Egyptians had plenty of ways to pass the time.
Music proved especially popular among the upper class, provided by a variety of instruments like flutes, harps, oboes, and trumpets among others. Ancient Egyptians, in general, played various board games such as sehet and mehen, although the rules became forgotten with the Fall of the Roman Empire.
Juggling and ball games proved especially popular among children, while wrestling proved a common sport in general.
The Ancient Egyptians had many gods.
Out of all the Egyptian gods and goddesses, the Sun God Ra was the most important of them all. Ancient Egyptians believed he traveled the sky every day in a great ship, bringing light to the world. When night fell, that meant Ra visited the afterlife in its turn, bringing light there as well.
Other important gods included Osiris, his wife Isis, and their son Horus. The Pharaohs saw Osiris and Isis as their shared ancestor, and themselves as Horus in human form. Horus’ wife Hathor also had importance as the goddess of fertility. Seth, for all his infamous rivalry with Osiris, also had a place as the divine protector of Egypt, and the god of the desert.
He also protected foreigners who had come to visit Egypt in peace. The jackal god Anubis protected the dead on their journey to final judgment, and should they pass, escorted them to the afterlife.
Mummification had strong religious elements behind it.
The Ancient Egyptians believed even though a person’s soul left their body when they died, body and soul would reunite in the afterlife. This meant preserving the body from rot after death, as without the body, the soul would never find peace in the afterlife.
In fact, the Ancient Egyptians made the destruction of the body after death the worst punishment they could inflict on their criminals. After they executed them, the Ancient Egyptians would burn the criminals’ bodies, and have a herd of donkeys stamp over the ashes.
This would scatter the ashes into the air, where the wind would blow them away, ensuring that the criminals’ souls could never find peace even in death.
The Ancient Egyptians developed a complex process for mummifying their dead.
Well, for the rich and powerful, anyway. The poor typically just buried their dead in the desert, where the heat and the dry sand would keep the bodies from rotting. For the rich, though, professional embalmers carefully removed certain organs: the intestines, liver, lungs, and stomach.
They placed these organs with preservatives in canopic jars, each protected by one of the four sons of Horus. Embalmers left the heart in the body for Osiris to judge before they allowed the dead into the afterlife. The embalmers removed the brain, but as it had no religious significance, they just threw it away.
Afterward, they used natron salt to dry the body, before adding additional preservatives. They then wrapped linen cloth around the body and inserted amulets between the layers as protection from demons on the way to the afterlife.
Ancient Egypt had a powerful military.
Archers made up their most effective soldiers, trained to move quickly, and in formation. This allowed them to keep their distance from the enemy, while also allowing them to aim and fire effectively in large numbers.
Other soldiers had the job of helping keep the enemy away from the archers, usually with spear and shield combinations. The Ancient Egyptians also used a specialized sword called a khopesh, which had a design to compensate for bronze’s weaknesses, which they used from New Kingdom times onward.
Egyptians also adopted chariots, usually used by nobles and officers, to deliver the killing blow against an enemy army. Ancient Egypt also had a powerful fleet, but used different tactics compared to the Greeks and Romans. Greeks preferred ramming tactics at sea, while the Romans favored boarding actions. Instead, the Ancient Egyptians kept their ships at a distance, using archers to rain arrows down on enemy crews.
The Ancient Egyptians had an advanced grasp of mathematics.
For one thing, they used the same base 10 numerical system we use today. They also had a complete understanding of arithmetic, as well as decimals and rational equations. Ancient Egyptians even had their own form of algebra, able to solve quadratic equations. They also calculated the Pythagorean Theorem centuries before Pythagoras formulated it.
Surprisingly, though, archaeologists note that recovered Ancient Egyptian manuscripts have little about geometric theory. This led them to think that the Ancient Egyptians’ mastery of geometry focused on the application, instead of theory. The precise arrangement of Ancient Egyptian monuments, as well as the use of the golden ratio in the area of the Great Pyramid’s base, provide evidence for this theory.
Egyptians had an advanced grasp of medicine.
In fact, even the Greeks and Romans looked up to the Ancient Egyptians when it came to medical science. Egyptian doctors remained in demand across the Mediterranean up until the Fall of the Roman Empire.
They used a variety of medicines to prevent infection in wounds, and also had a basic understanding of sanitation. This led to them insisting on the use of clean and fresh linen when it came to bandages. Doctors also had advanced treatments for burns, how to conduct surgery, set bones, and even perform amputations.
Amputees could expect prosthetics to replace lost limbs, while surgical patients had plenty of painkillers available. That said, the Ancient Egyptians still had their share of superstition when it came to medicine, especially for diseases their doctors had no cure for, such as malaria. In those cases, patients could only pray to the gods for healing.