Lncient Egypt is one of the most studied and best known of the early civilizations. With its great pyramids and temples that have survived to the present day, and with the fascinating mummies found in tombs filled with riches and lined with hieroglyphs, or picture drawings, ancient Egypt provides a fascinating historical record. Tracing its roots to about 4000 b.c.e., the civilizations that we know as ancient Egypt existed for nearly four thousand years before they broke up and came under the control of the Roman Empire. During its peak, from about 2700 b.c.e. to about 750 b.c.e., ancient Egypt developed a complex and powerful civilization and also created fascinating customs surrounding dress and body ornamentation.
The power of the pharaohs
The first Egyptian cultures formed along the banks of the Nile River in northern Africa sometime before 4000 b.c.e. Ever since that time, the Nile has been at the center of Egyptian culture. One of earth's great rivers, the Nile's waters allowed for the development of agriculture in a dry land, and communities formed along its banks. The Nile flows north from Lake Victoria in present-day Uganda through Sudan and into Egypt and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times Egypt had been divided into Upper Egypt to the south and Lower Egypt to the north. In about 3100 b.c.e. the
two cultures were united under King Menes. (Some believe, however, the king who united the two Egypts was named King Narmer.) He became the first pharaoh, the Egyptian name for the ultimate ruler, and he wore the pschent, a crown that symbolized the union of the two regions of Egypt.
From the time of Menes on, Egypt was ruled by pharaohs whose reign was known as a dynasty. The pharaohs were thought to be directly related to the gods. In fact, Egyptians believed that the pharaohs were gods. The pharaohs had ultimate power in Egypt and were the head of the religion and the government; any decision that they made was accepted without question. The society that they ruled over fully accepted the power of the pharaoh, and Egypt was long protected from foreign attack by the vast deserts that lay to the west and the Red Sea that lay to the east. For these reasons Egyptian society was very stable. Pharaoh succeeded pharaoh for nearly three thousand years, and many elements of Egyptian culture stayed the same throughout this time, including many of their clothing traditions.
The history of ancient Egypt is broken into several periods or eras. There are stretches of time in Egyptian society that we know more about than others. During the well-known periods, Egyptians left enduring records of their society in the form of buildings and hieroglyphs that describe the period. These times were the most stable, with peaceful succession of rulers. From the lesser-known periods, few records remain. Out of the well-known periods there are three that are extensively studied: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. The Old Kingdom period, which lasted from about 2700 b.c.e. to about 2000 b.c.e., saw the construction of the first great monuments of Egyptian architecture: the great stone pyramids at Giza on the west bank of the Nile near the current Egyptian capital of Cairo. During the Old Kingdom Egyptians developed an accurate solar calendar much like the one we use today, and they made great achievements in art and culture. The Middle Kingdom period lasted from about 2000 b.c.e. to about 1500 b.c.e. It is known for achievements made in literature and for the increasing contacts that Egyptians made with surrounding cultures in the greater Middle East. Egyptians borrowed customs from other cultures and incorporated them into their lives.
The New Kingdom period lasted from about 1500 b.c.e. to about 750 b.c.e. During this time Egypt truly became an empire. It conquered its neighbors to the south and expanded its control into other parts of Africa. Egypt became very rich during the New Kingdom, and it displayed its wealth in lavish temples and more highly decorated clothes. Egyptian society began to break down after about 1000 b.c.e., and it was conquered by Macedonian leader Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.e.) in 332 b.c.e. From that point on the stable and distinctive culture of ancient Egypt slowly disappeared.
Though ancient Egyptian culture existed for nearly thirty centuries, many elements of the culture stayed quite similar over this vast span of time. Religion remained very important to the Egyptians. Religious rituals accompanied every part of Egyptian daily life. One key belief held by Egyptians was that of eternal life. They believed that life would go on after death, so they preserved
Ever since the final decline of the ancient Egyptian Empire people have struggled to understand the detailed pictures the Egyptians used to describe their lives for more than thirty centuries. The pictures, called hieroglyphs, were everywhere in Egypt: in common tombs, on monuments and temples, and especially in the ornate burial rooms of Egyptian rulers, called pharaohs, which were contained within the great pyramids. The hieroglyphs were small pictures of common objects including feathers, lions, birds, pots, and many other items. In the time when Greeks had traded with and ruled Egypt between about 332 B.C.E. and 146 B.C.E., outsiders had known how to read the hieroglyphs, which made up a complex language. But as the Roman Empire came to power in Egypt after 146 B.C.E., the ability to understand the hieroglyphs disappeared. The hieroglyphs, and the story they told, became a great mystery that puzzled historians for nearly two thousand years.
Over the years scholars and historians tried to understand what the hieroglyphs meant. Different people offered different explanations, but no one could ever agree. Then in 1799 French soldiers stationed near the city of Rosetta, Egypt, made a great discovery. French lieutenant Pierre François Xavier Bouchard found a large gray stone that contained three different kinds of writing: Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script (the everyday writing of the ancient Egyptians), and Greek. Bouchard believed that the stone might hold the key to uncovering the mystery of the hieroglyphs and soon, others agreed. The stone, which became known as the Rosetta Stone, had the informa tion needed to translate both of the lost Egyptian languages. Modern readers understood Greek and needed to make the connections between Greek, the demotic script, and the hieroglyphs, and the mystery would be solved. But it was not so easy.
In 1801 the English, who were at war with France, captured the Rosetta Stone and brought it to the British Museum in England. Egyptologists, people who study the culture of ancient Egypt, traveled to the British Museum to try to crack the code of the Rosetta Stone, pieces of which had cracked off and been lost. A well-known and gifted English doctor named Thomas Young (1773-1829) was the first to try. He translated the Greek and then tried to match patterns in that language to patterns in the two lost Egyptian languages. He discovered a great deal about how the languages worked. For example, he learned that the symbols stood for sounds and that the demotic script was closely related to the hieroglyphs. But he couldn't quite make the languages match up.
Beginning in 1807 a Frenchman named Jean François Champollion began to study the Rosetta Stone. For fifteen years he tried to break the code, racing against Young to see who would succeed first. Finally in 1822 Champollion made a breakthrough. He understood that the pictures didn't stand for the single sounds of individual letters but for more complex sounds. For example, he discovered that the hieroglyph of a bird known as an ibis stood for the Egyptian god Thoth. He substituted the sound "thoth" for the bird picture and did the same with other sounds. His plan worked. He had cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone, and people could finally understand Egyptian hieroglyphs.
dead bodies very well. Those people who could afford it had their bodies made into mummies, or bodies that were preserved and wrapped in cloth. Nobles, or high officials, and pharaohs were always well preserved and their bodies were kept in tombs that were filled with goods that they might need in the afterlife. The great
Champollion traveled to Egypt to confirm his discovery. He visited vast temples whose walls were covered with hieroglyphs, and he poured over ancient scrolls of papyrus, a form of ancient paper. He was the first man to "read" the history of ancient Egypt in well over a thousand years.
Champollion made a translation dictionary and explained the grammar of Egyptian writing. Soon others learned to read the lost languages. Today we know a great deal about ancient Egypt thanks to the work of the scholars who discovered the secrets of the hieroglyphs.
pyramids and temples were the greatest of these tombs but were frequently ransacked by robbers over the ages, destroying many preserved treasures. The only pharaoh's tomb to be found intact belonged to King Tutankhamun, the young king who ruled in the fourteenth century b.c.e. His solid gold coffin and the many riches found nearby, which were discovered in 1922, show how rich the lives of these pharaohs must have been. The great pyramids of ancient Egypt, which survive to this day as a marvel of human engineering, show how seriously Egyptians took preparations for the afterlife.
The other great source of stability in ancient Egypt was the Nile River. While religion and the pharaohs controlled one aspect of life in Egypt, the Nile—the longest river in the world—controlled other aspects. Its seasonal floods richened the soil that provided the basis for Egypt's agricultural economy. Egyptians grew a variety of grains, such as wheat and flax. They also grew vegetables. All of the major settlements in Egypt were built along the Nile, for much of the rest of the area was desert. Egyptians lived in small towns, and they built homes from mud bricks which helped keep the walls cool in the hot temperatures.
In the contemporary world fashions change all the time. But in ancient Egypt certain kinds of clothing were worn by generation after generation of people with very little change. For Egyptians, this stability was not a problem but rather a symbol of the secure nature of their society.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Chrisp, Peter. Ancient Egypt Revealed. New York: DK Publishing, 2002.
Contini, Mila. Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. Edited by James Laver. New York: Odyssey Press, 1965.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Donoughue, Carol. The Mystery of the Hieroglyphs: The Story of the Rosetta Stone and the Race to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Kinnaer, Jacques. The Ancient Egypt Site. http://www.ancient-egypt.org (accessed on July 24, 2003).
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Shuter, Jane. The Ancient Egyptians. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2000.
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