Posted by: xeper | May 10, 2008

Egyptology without Egypt?!

An interesting article by Nicole Hansen “Arabic and Its Role in Egyptology and Egyptian Archaeology” addresses the barrier of the Arabic language which limits the ability of non-Egyptian egyptologists to gain insights into Egyptian culture from one side, and which has also led to some of the most experienced and talented Egyptian members of archaeological expeditions getting little or no credit for their work and “hampered the results of Egyptian excavations from being published”. While overall well-balanced and bringing to light a few interesting details, she (unintentionally?) falls in the same old traps that she highlights; she defends Egyptian archaeologists and egyptologists from not being mentioned, but she mentions by name only ZH, whose integrity and real abilities we can examine in another occasion. However, I honestly think Nicole’s article is a great one, and showing real integrity and concern for the field, in effect shouting “How on earth are we having egyptology without Egypt?!”

Formal egyptology seems to have jumped straight from the superstitious and dogmatic into the snobby blind deaf scientific, without stopping for a sip of real contemplation. First, European archaeologic thought perceived Egypt with a strong biblical background; the pyramids in their minds were the grain stores of the biblical Joseph, for instance, until they discovered in amazement these structures were not hollow. Medical recipes including Egyptian mummy components were the highest acclaimed cures of whatever did not have a cure. Talks of red mercury are still widespread today. And many other tales.

Today, Western archaeology still sees Ancient Egypt as a dead civilization, largely refusing to use insight from the parts of Egypt that still survive. I still read the most comical explanations of various findings; comical in the sense that some of the practices are still carried out today in Egypt and yet the renowned archaeologists take the utmost troublem to research sources from the four corners of the world except from current day Egypt. Everyday beliefs of Egyptians are still scenting of that ancient scent, mixed with other things we found along the way. The language as well. It is such a shame that to learn Ancient Egyptian in many schools you are required to learn Hebrew first, rather than Arabic. Even Egyptian Arabic.

And religion.

It strikes me as a snob blind deaf scientific stupidity that today’s mainstream egyptology does not study current Egyptian religion to understand Ancient Egyptian religion. A malady that has reached even Egyptian archaeologists themselves. For instance, were Egyptians monotheist or polytheist? How did they see the divine? Well, let me ask you: Ever thought to check out current Egyptians??! Allow me to give you an overview of Modern Egyptians’ religious religious convictions today: Modern Egyptians today are mostly Moslems and Christians. Curious thing, though: Egyptian Eslaam and Egyptian Christianity share many aspects things that they might not share with non-Egyptian branches of their religion. But let’s discuss this later if you want; the point today is to read Ancient Egypt with Modern Egyptian eyes.

Polytheism vs Monotheism in Ancient Egypt and Modern Egypt:

Moslems in Egypt, and indeed all over the world, believe that God has many Names. For He is The Merciful, yet The Vengeful. He is The Inner, yet The Outer too. And so on and so forth. Yet ask Moslems anywhere in the world about God and they are all true and proud monotheists. Ask about the Names of God and you will find them praying to Him using the different Names, and giving their children names starting with Abd-El (aka Abdul), which is our Hotep; and means “Living in Service Of and Devotion To”. Are they Abd-El different gods? No. One God with different Names, different Aspects.

Check out Christians in Egypt (and I think also most Christians around the world) and tell them they are polytheist believing in three Gods and you could get killed. But arent The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit three? Of course not, they would tell you; they are Aqaniim (loosely translated as “Aspects”); and aqaniim means they are three parts of a whole, where each part is still equal to the whole. In my humble undersanding it means Aspects, or Names.

Ancient Egyptians? The same: Different Names but one God. One smart egyptologist would give me the difficult question: but there were temples to different gods in Ancient Egypt?! *triumphant smug smile* And I would answer: I take it you do not read Arabic; for if you did you would have found Mosques and Churches with all names, and today we reached a level of amalgamation of the Names where while the different Names are used in prayer in all Mosques and Churches, you would still find the names of mosques and churches to be different.

Were Ancient Egyptians polytheist or monotheist? What do you think they are today? The closest similar modern case, if you insist on not studying the Egyptian context, is probably that of monotheism in hinduism, another largely misunderstood tradition.

This is but the first thing we can learn about Ancient Egyptian religion by looking at, or from, Modern Egypt. Many other issues can be discussed as I get more inquiries or read other articles. For those who don’t get it though, unless your dogma prescribes doing egyptology without Egypt, please do us all a favor and learn Arabic like Nicole was saying!



  1. It amazes me that you can study Egyptology in this country without being taught modern Egyptian Arabic. You can’t honestly hope to get far without it. In my opinion (as someone trying to learn it independently) it should be a required component of any undergraduate level study in the subject (Ancient Egyptian is, after all). That it hasn’t, I feel is that most publications and journals are published in European languages and largely ignore Arabic speakers (i.e., pretty much the entire population of modern Egypt) It’s been very easy for people in the west to push modern Egypt aside and ignore it. Whilst there are some (well, many) things about modern Egypt that make me want to scream with frustration, we cannot and should not ignore it. There are, as you say, many echoes of the past, and the language is an important part of accessing that.

    I also would point to anthropology as in important part of this, that is also largely ignored. I was going to comment on it in my post concerning the Metamorphosis exhibition (See post) but I was getting bogged down in it. The point I wished to emphasise was the importance of studying current and near-current culture, belief, and language in Egypt as a key to understanding the past, as well as for understanding the present as well. History never, ever, dies or finishes. The past is the present and the present is the past. It is sometimes said that Egypt never left a descendant culture. Maybe not in the most direct sense, but nothing disappears without a trace. Ancient Egyptian language wouldn’t be understood as well as it is now were it not for certain individuals recognising the importance of the Coptic language as it’s distant cousin. A language that the west would otherwise have dismissed as an odd curio or relic. As it turned out, it was absolutely key, and still is, in efforts to try and reconstruct pronunciation correctly.

    I would like to recommend two books here:

    The Fellahin of Upper Egypt – Winifred S. Blackman and Salima Ikram – AUC Press. A study of rural Upper Egyptian society at the time the author was writing (early 20th century).

    From Pharaoh’s Lips – Ahmad Abdel-Hamid Youssef – AUC Press. Usage of Egyptian and Coptic words and terms in Egyptian Arabic with very amusing presentation and illustrations. I never saw this book in the UK.

    As for religion, I don’t want to be shot by anyone! I know exactly what your saying though, and it’s perfectly valid. Whilst I might not agree with you on the actual point of Egyptian religion, I nevertheless agree completely on the point about how Egyptology approaches the issue. You know my feelings on how the Biblical accounts have affected western attitudes towards A.E. and this traditionally did affect academic attitudes also, and to a degree, in some circles, it still does.

    I also think the traditional background of many people in the field is an issue. Most people come through classical education that focuses heavily on Rome and Greece, and they approach Egypt through these, rather than vice versa. However, the influence in history was probably more the reverse, since Egyptian civilisation pre-dated Rome and Classical Greece. We also approach it from the point of view of a hermetically sealed culture, separated from it’s legacies. Although linguistic and folk cultural practises can still be linked to Pharaonic culture, we don’t exploit this fact to the full, to further our understanding.

    Western people studying Egyptian history do need to learn Arabic, and they need to spend more time in modern Egyptian settings, from Zamalek right down to Nowhere Town. Also, efforts need to be made to document these surviving shards as well, as global monoculture WILL destroy them too. And it will happen soon.

    End of rant, albeit mostly in agreement!

  2. Thank you Silver for your great comment. It brings many thoughts:

    First, that modern Egyptians are ignored by “Egyptologists” is sadly true. And the problem comes from the bulk of modern Egyptians as much as from most egyptologists.

    Second, and since youre studying both Modern and Ancient Egyptian, during your study, and as I am starting an etymological dictionary of Modern Egyptian “Arabic”, would you please share those words, sentence structures, etc, that are common between the two? That would be what I can do, if I could, to document those ancient echoes.

    Third, rather than being a distant cousin, I would say Coptic is AE’s granddaughter language, you know, from her youngest daughter getting married to that Greek? 🙂

    Why dont you write more of your thoughts about such things on Pavements? I’m sure your readers would like to know your opinions? If you dont, though, Im glad Im getting the honor of this insight on my humble pages.

    Thanks again 🙂

  3. It’s not only the language barrier, I think to thoroughly study Egyptology u have to actually live in Egypt. Anyway there are many open issues concerning Ancient Egypt, and some of them may never be solved.

  4. “…And the problem comes from the bulk of modern Egyptians as much as from most egyptologists”

    Is this a reaction to that lack of accessibility, or what caused it? I’d like your take on this, if you wish to share.

    I’m afraid that my knowledge of Arabic (nor Egyptian) is nowhere near adequate (yet) to give you all the examples there are, but I will be glad to assist in any way I can. I am really very heartened to hear that you have undertaken this project, for exactly the reasons I mentioned above. I’ll happily do anything I can to help. It’s all, as they say, for the greater good.

    “…I would say Coptic is AE’s granddaughter language, you know, from her youngest daughter getting married to that Greek?”

    Good point 😉 I always did wonder where those baby vowel signs came from. Her mother didn’t approve of them, but they did prove themselves useful in the end 😉

    Why don’t you write more of your thoughts about such things on Pavements? I’m sure your readers would like to know your opinions?

    I do intend to in future. At the moment I’m working on an article on the Great Revolt of Hor-wennefer. It’s something I’ve wanted to write for a while but haven’t had the chance. I haven’t got anything lined up after that though so I may do that, and any thoughts, input or collaboration would be most welcome.

    If you dont, though, Im glad Im getting the honor of this insight on my humble pages.

    I felt I was being a bit rant-ish actually, truth be told *g* I’m glad you disagree!

  5. Shahinaz Gamal

    It’s not only the language barrier, I think to thoroughly study Egyptology u have to actually live in Egypt. Anyway there are many open issues concerning Ancient Egypt, and some of them may never be solved.

    It can help considerably. I wouldn’t say it’s essential, but it is a valid approach and has several benefits. However, there are valid reasons not to as well.

    I have considered it, agonised over it myself, and further down the line it’s quite possible I will take that road. However, some (perhaps most) don’t want to, and I respect their view that it is isn’t essential, especially given the incredible difficulties it entails, and the other drawbacks in terms of academic opportunities and professional development one would face by being away from their own academic institutions on a semi-permanent basis.

    Linguistic and cultural understanding of Modern Egypt is not be the ladder to heaven, but it is a good start, and we can progress onward form there, with more understanding.

  6. Shahi:
    Would you please elaborate? Why do you think you need to live in Egypt to understand Ancient Egypt? Maybe you have even more insight, and I am greedy in this 🙂

    Also, which issues are you referring to? And why you think those are important and why do you think they may never be (re)solved?

    I have an idea but I would like not to assume you mean the same things I imagine you mean.. if you know what I mean 😛

  7. Silver (4):
    Re: Result or cause of lack of accessibility. I think my opinion is much more complex than I can describe here. I will try to put my opinion about this on a post then post the link.

    Silver (5):
    Re: Difficulties and constraints for Egyptologists to live in Egypt. I think I have a little story to respond to this argument 🙂 I’ll post it then put the permalink here.

    Please remind me with a new comment if I don’t fill both soon enough 🙂

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