Human Legacy Course/Egyptian Culture

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Human Legacy Course I
Egyptian Culture

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Hi and welcome to Lecture 2 of Week 3. In this lecture, we will be taking a look at Egyptian culture. Today's question is:

How did a doctor and builder become a god? In the case of Imhotep, the most famous architect in Egyptian history, it was by helping shape Egyptian culture. Imhotep, who lived in the 2600s BC—early in the Old Kingdom—designed the first pyramid ever built in Egypt. Located at Saqqara, the step-sided pyramid was the tomb of Imhotep’s lord, the pharaoh Djoser.

Imhotep’s contributions to Egyptian culture go far beyond pyramids, though. As an architect, he may have been the first person in the world to use columns in his designs, a style for which Egyptian architecture is famous. As a skilled physician, he is considered the founder of Egyptian medicine. He was believed to have written descriptions of cures for several diseases and instructions on how to perform surgery. Imhotep also acted as vizier to Djoser and as the high priest of the sun god Re. In these positions, he had great authority and considerable personal influence.

During Imhotep’s lifetime, stories began to circulate in Egypt that he was the son of the god Ptah, the god of crafts and creation. Legends of Imhotep’s brilliance continued to spread after he died, and over time people even began to worship him as a god. By about 2,000 years after his death, Imhotep had entered Egyptian religion as the god of medicine and healing.

Egyptian Religion

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Like the people of Mesopotamia, the Egyptians worshipped many gods. Some of the gods were ancient, worshipped from the earliest days of the Old Kingdom. Others, such as Imhotep, were added to the religion later. Egyptian religious beliefs were constantly evolving.

The Egyptians believed that gods controlled all natural events. As a result, a people dependent on the Nile’s natural cycle of flooding for food and survival both feared and respected the awesome powers of the gods.

Chief Gods & Goddesses

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Although the Egyptians worshipped hundreds of gods and goddesses, a few were central to their religion. However, the gods that were central changed several times over the kingdom’s long history.

The god of the sun was almost always a key figure in Egyptian religion. In the Old Kingdom, this god was called Re. Later, he became linked to a sky god called Amon and was known as Amon-Re. Amon-Re, the King of the Gods, was also thought to be the father of the pharaohs. The temple to him at Karnak was the largest ever built in Egypt.

Anubis, the protector of the dead, was also widely worshipped in Egypt. The Egyptians believed that he weighed the souls of the dead to decide their fate. Those who had light souls had been good in life and were rewarded after death, while those who were unworthy were fed to a terrible monster.

Also central were the trio of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. According to legend, the god Osiris introduced civilization into Egypt. Shortly afterward, however, Osiris was killed by his brother Seth, who cut the god’s body into pieces that he scattered around Egypt. Isis, the wife and sister of Osiris, sought out the pieces of his body, reassembled them, and brought Osiris back to life. Afterward, they had a child, Horus, who grew up and sought revenge on his uncle Seth. Later, Osiris became the new judge of the dead, replacing Anubis, Isis became known as a goddess of nature and renewal, and Horus became the first king of Egypt.

Other important Egyptian gods included Hathor, the cow-headed goddess of love, and Thoth, the god of wisdom. In addition, the Egyptians worshipped local gods who had power over small areas or single households.

Temples & Religious Practices

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The Egyptians built temples to honor their gods and also to provide homes for them. The ruins of many such temples can still be seen around Egypt. Many of them were huge, decorated with massive statues, elaborate paintings, and detailed carvings. Many temples also featured obelisks, tall, thin pillars with pyramid-shaped tops. An obelisk was made from a single piece of stone and carved with intricate designs.

In Egyptian temples, priests performed rituals to fulfill the gods’ needs. For example, each morning the priests placed a statue of their god on an altar, removed its clothing, and cleaned it by burning incense. They then dressed the statue in clean clothes, applied ointment to its face, and presented it with food. The Egyptians believed that such rituals refreshed the gods and kept them alive. In return for these rituals, the Egyptians believed that the gods would grant the pharaohs immortality and bring prosperity to all of Egypt.

Caring for the gods was the responsibility of the priests. Common people had no part in these religious rituals, and ordinary Egyptians never even entered temples. However, people did worship the gods during annual festivals. During these festivals, people sang hymns and songs, danced, and paraded statues of the gods through the streets.

Mummification & Burial

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Central to Egyptian religion was the belief in an afterlife. The Egyptians believed that, after a person died, his or her soul would go to live in the land of the dead. Because of this belief in continued life after death, the Egyptians developed elaborate rituals regarding death and burial.

Teachings on the Afterlife

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The Egyptians believed that when the physical body died, a force called the ka escaped. The ka was essentially an individual’s personality separated from the body. It was the ka, not the body, that would journey on to the land of the dead.

Although the ka had no physical presence, the Egyptians believed that it needed food and drink to survive. In addition, they believed that the ka might shrivel and vanish if the body decomposed. To keep this from happening, the Egyptians sought a way to prevent dead bodies from breaking down over time.


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The process that the Egyptians developed to prevent the breakdown of a dead body was mummification, or the making of mummies. Early in Egypt’s history, only kings and members of the royal family could be mummified. Later, though, the process was made available to anyone whose family could afford it.

Mummification was a complex process that historians still do not fully understand. From what they have been able to discover, the first step in mummifying a body was to remove its internal organs. Most of the organs were taken out through an incision in the body’s side, but the brain may have been liquefied and drawn out through the nose. The heart, which the Egyptians thought controlled a person’s intellect and emotions, was left in the body. After removal, the organs were placed in jars to be buried with the mummy.

Next, the body was packed with various materials to help it keep its shape. Special salts were then used to dry out the body before it was wrapped in thin strips of linen. Once the mummy was wrapped, artists painted the dead person’s features on the outside of the mummy itself or on a mask to ensure that the ka would be able to recognize its body.


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Mummification was only the first step in preparing the dead for the afterlife. Once a body was prepared, it still had to be buried.

Dead Egyptians were buried with all the possessions people thought they would need in the afterlife. For common people, this might include only some food and drink for the ka. The needs of pharaohs and nobles, however, were much greater. In addition to food, their bodies were surrounded with great treasures, riches to accompany them to the afterlife. Their tombs often sparkled with gold and gems.

Besides treasures, dead pharaohs needed people to serve them. Royal tombs were filled with statues of servants that the Egyptians thought would come to life to serve the pharaoh’s ka. Some tombs also contained models of animals, chariots, and boats to serve as transportation for the dead pharaoh.

The walls of Egyptian tombs were often painted with colorful scenes from the person’s life or from stories about the gods. Egyptians believed the figures from these paintings would come to life to serve the ka and maximize its happiness in the afterlife.

Daily Life

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The burial practices of ancient Egypt have taught us a great deal about people’s daily lives. Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of items that had been buried in tombs to keep the ka happy, from furniture and tools to clothing and cosmetics. The images of daily life painted on tomb walls have also answered many questions about how the Egyptians lived. Coupled with the wealth of writings produced by the ancient Egyptians, these burial finds have given historians a fairly clear picture of Egyptian society and culture.

Social Structure

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Egyptian society was highly stratified, or layered. At the very top of society, of course, was the pharaoh and the royal family. Also prominent and influential in Egypt were key government officials, priests and priestesses, scribes, military leaders, landowners, and doctors. These people were all among the wealthiest in Egypt.

The next level of society included artisans, craftspeople, and merchants. These were the people who made and sold the goods, such as jewelry and clothing, used by others both in Egypt and in other lands.

The largest part of Egyptian society, about 90 percent of the population, was made up of peasant farmers. Although they spent most of their time in the fields, these farmers could also be recruited to build large public works, such as the pyramids, during the flood season. Farmers were also sometimes asked to work in quarries or mines or to serve in the army.

The Egyptians kept slaves, but slaves never made up a large part of the kingdom’s population. Most slaves were convicted criminals or prisoners of war. They worked on public projects, in private households, or in temples. The number of slaves in Egypt increased during the later New Kingdom.

In some ways, Egyptian society was less rigid than other ancient civilizations. Although sons usually learned the same jobs their fathers had, it was possible—though rare—for people to become educated, to find better jobs, and to gain social status. Perhaps the fastest way to gain status was to become a scribe. Scribes’ ability to write made them highly sought after. Scribes composed and copied religious texts, collected taxes, and kept public records.

Home & Family Life

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Egyptian family life varied widely from class to class. For example, marriage practices varied from one class to another. Pharaohs often married their sisters, a practice intended to keep the royal blood pure. In addition, while royalty often had more than one wife, most Egyptian men had only one wife.

Most Egyptians lived as family units. The father usually served as the head of the household, which included children and possibly unmarried relatives. Again, the houses in which families lived varied. Poor families might live in tiny huts, while slightly wealthier families had brick homes with a few rooms. Noble families often lived in huge palaces.

Women & Children

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As in most ancient societies, the primary duty of an Egyptian woman was to take care of the home and children. However, Egyptian women had more rights than women in most ancient civilizations. Women could be priestesses, own and inherit property, create wills, and divorce their husbands. Though many jobs were barred to them, women did often work outside the home. They worked as hairdressers, wigmakers, singers, and in other similar jobs.

Few children in Egypt received any kind of education, and most of those who were educated were boys learning trades. Girls, meanwhile, learned from their mothers how to raise children and run a household. When not in school, Egyptian children played with wooden toys and kept pets such as dogs, cats, monkeys, and ducks.

Appearance & Customs

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Most Egyptians paid close attention to their appearance. Many people of the upper class, both men and women, shaved their heads and wore wigs, both for fashion and to protect their heads and faces from the sun. Both men and women also wore perfume and makeup, including dark eyeliner that could double as sun protection. Women sometimes added lipstick and rouge.

Egyptian clothing was usually made from linen and wool. Peasant men wore short loincloths wrapped around their waists, while wealthy men wore longer skirts or robes. Women of all social classes wore long dresses that reached down to the floor. Wealthy men and women often decked themselves out in gold jewelry as well. Children, regardless of gender or social class, generally wore no clothes until they reached adolescence.

In their free time, the Egyptians enjoyed sports such as wrestling, javelin throwing, dancing, boating, and hunting. They also swam, fished, and sailed. Board games were also a popular form of entertainment in Egypt. Archaeologists have found many game boards and playing pieces, though they have not yet figured out the games’ rules.

Art, Writing, & Science

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Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted more than 2,000 years. During that time, the Egyptians made tremendous advances in many fields. Among the achievements for which the Egyptians are best remembered are those in art, literature, and science.

Egyptian Art

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Egyptian art is very distinctive. Both paintings and sculptures from Egypt are easily recognizable and quite distinct from the art of other ancient civilizations.

Egyptian paintings tend to be both detailed and colorful. The subjects of these paintings range widely, from illustrations of stories of the gods to pictures of daily life. Many of the paintings from ancient Egypt that have survived to today are found on the walls of tombs and temples, but illustrations in written manuscripts are also fairly common.

As you look through Egyptian paintings, you may notice some unusual characteristics. In many Egyptian paintings, people’s torsos are seen straight on, but their heads, arms, and legs are seen from the side. In addition, major figures like gods and pharaohs are drawn much larger than other people. Together, these characteristics give Egyptian art a unique style.

Unlike the paintings, which often include tiny details, Egyptian statues are often large and imposing. Most large statues from ancient Egypt show gods or pharaohs and once stood in temples. These statues were designed to show the power and majesty of their subjects.

One of the most famous statues from Egypt is also the largest. The Great Sphinx is a huge stone statue of a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a person, 65 feet high and 260 feet long. It stands at Giza near the Great Pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu.

Egyptian Writing

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The Egyptians were prolific writers. They recorded the events of their society in great detail and composed beautiful songs and stories. Before they could create even the simplest tale, however, the Egyptians needed a system of writing.

The main Egyptian writing system was hieroglyphics. This system, which uses picture symbols to represent objects, sounds, and ideas, was one of the world’s first writing systems. Archaeologists have found examples of Egyptian hieroglyphics that date back to about 3200 BC. Only Sumerian cuneiform is thought to be older.

The Egyptians most often used hieroglyphics for formal writing, such as you might find on stone monuments, and for religious texts. Hieroglyphics were difficult to learn and took time to compose. Once written, however, they were appreciated for their beauty. Written words were appreciated as an art form.

For texts that needed to be written more quickly, the Egyptians had two other writing systems. The first was called hieratic, and it was used mostly for religious texts. The other system, demotic, was used mainly for legal and literary writings after about 500 BC.

Both simpler and less attractive than hieroglyphics, hieratic and demotic writings were seldom carved into stone. Instead, writings were made on wood, leather, pottery, and papyrus sheets.

Papyrus is a reedy plant that grew along the Nile. The Egyptians used the pulp of the papyrus to make paperlike sheets. Once dried, these sheets provided an excellent writing surface. Because Egypt’s climate is so dry, papyrus did not decompose quickly. Many papyrus scrolls are still readable after thousands of years.

For centuries after the decline of Egypt, no one could read Egyptian writing. Historians knew that the hieroglyphs they found in tombs were a form of writing, but they had no idea how to decipher it.

In 1799 a French soldier discovered a broken granite slab near the Nile Delta village of Rosetta. On this Rosetta Stone, as it came to be called, were long passages of ancient writing. In fact, the writing turned out to be the same text written in three different scripts: hieroglyphic, demotic, and ancient Greek. Using the Greek text as a guide, a French scholar managed to figure out the meaning of the hieroglyphs and of the demotic characters. This discovery unlocked the mystery of Egyptian writing, giving historians the key they needed to translate ancient texts.

Egyptian Math & Science

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The Egyptians were interested in math and science mainly for their practical applications. Rather than trying to understand how the world worked, they used science and math as tools to improve their lives. In doing so, however, they made many key discoveries.

In math, the Egyptians had a thorough understanding of basic arithmetic. They knew how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Also, the Egyptians obviously understood the basic principles of geometry. Without such an understanding, there is no way that they could have built the pyramids so precisely.

Building the pyramids also required a firm grasp of engineering. Engineers and architects had to understand how well buildings would stand and how much weight a column or wall could support. The fact that some of their buildings have stood for thousands of years is a testimony to their great building skills.

Perhaps the greatest Egyptian scientific advances, though, were in medicine. The Egyptians were masters of human anatomy. Doctors used this anatomical knowledge to treat patients, both at home and at certain temples regarded as healing centers. These doctors set broken bones, treated wounds, and performed simple surgical procedures, such as removing certain types of tumors. To cure simpler illnesses, they used medicines made from plants and animals. Doctors also prescribed regimens of basic hygiene, including regular bathing, in order to prevent people from getting sick. Written compilations of the Egyptians’ medical knowledge were studied by doctors for many centuries after Egypt’s decline.


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  • Question #1: What were Egyptian temples like?
  • Question #2: Why were the Egyptians careful not to offend any of their gods?
  • Question #3: What were the Egyptians’ burial practices?
  • Question #4: How did the Egyptian idea of the afterlife lead to the beginning of mummification?
  • Question #5: What were the main social classes in ancient Egypt?
  • Question #6: How did the lives of women in ancient Egypt differ from the lives of women in other ancient societies?
  • Question #7: What was the Rosetta Stone, and why was it important in translating hieroglyphics?
  • Question #8: How did mummy-making advance Egyptian science?
  • Question #9: What makes Egyptian painting and sculpture distinctive?