7 Interesting Facts About Ancient Egypt You Might Not Know

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The three main pyramids of the Giza pyramid complex along with smaller pyramids in Egypt
One of the most recognizable symbols of Ancient Egypt, the Pyramids of Giza in Cairo, Egypt. Credit: Ricardo Liberato // CC BY-SA 2.0

1. The Ancient Egyptian timeline is broken up into several different kingdoms and periods lasting almost 6000 years! 

The Great Sphinx of Egypt, which is believed to have been built during the Old Kingdom during the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Khafre
The Great Sphinx of Egypt, which is believed to have been built during the Old Kingdom during the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Khafre (c. 2558 – 2532 BC). Credit: MusikAnimal // CC BY-SA 3.0

The first period is known as the Predynastic Period and some historians record it as being from 6000 to 3150 BC. The final period in Egyptian history is the Ptolemaic Period, which is recorded as 323 – 30 BC. This is 5970 years after the first period of recorded Egyptian history! The periods are generally separated between ‘kingdoms’ and ‘intermediate periods’ to describe the difference in rule. In a kingdom period, such as the Old Kingdom, a monarch would have a centralized location of rule with there being progress to the economy, society, and culture. In contrast, an intermediate period, such as the First Intermediate Period, marks a period of division in rule with less progress and stability. 

2. The pyramids were NOT built by slaves.

The edge of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo, Egypt
The edge of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo, Egypt. Each core block weighs about 1.5 tons each, and he granite blocks used to roof the burial chambers are estimated to weigh up to 80 tons each. Credit: Mgiganteus1 // CC BY-SA 3.0

Isn’t it obvious? They MUST have been built by aliens! Well, no. It is a common belief that slaves built the great pyramids but it was, in fact, a workforce made up of regular Egyptians who were even paid for their work. Some who did work on the pyramids would have been skilled artisans and architects, who managed teams of workers. These workforces would often leave behind graffiti, such as the workers who chose to be remembered as “Friends of Khufu.” These groups would have been made up of local and builders and other temporary workers who would put their time to good use when the Nile river flooded during part of the year, leaving the land they would have originally worked at underwater. 

Ancient Egyptians did have slaves, but they would most likely have been involved in more domestic and agricultural work.

3. There are more pyramids in Egypt than the famous ones in Giza, but some of them look a little sad in comparison. 

The Pyramid of Amenemhet I at Lisht, Egypt.
The Pyramid of Amenemhet I located in Lisht, Egypt built by the founder of the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt, Amenemhet I. Credit: Jon Bodsworth // Copyrighted free use

Although the great pyramids in Giza are the most famous pyramids in Egypt, they are not the only ones that have been built. In reality, there are a number of pyramids that were built. Some of them are in a similar style to those in Giza, others are partially collapsed, more narrow, and some look more like mounds than pyramids. The best examples of different styles of pyramid are those at Meidum and the pyramid of Amenemhet I at Lisht. 

4. Cleopatra was born closer to the digital age than the building of the pyramids. 

Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra painted with red hair and distinct facial features.
Portrait of Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra believed to have been painted posthumously in the 1st Century AD. Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The pyramids and Cleopatra’s reign are some of the most popular aspects of Ancient Egyptian history, so many would assume they happen together when Egypt is at its pinnacle. However, this is not the case. As mentioned previously, Egyptian culture flourished during kingdom periods overruled by Pharaohs, and the Pharaohs during the Old Kingdom were among the first to build pyramids until the economy failed, leading to an intermediate period. Cleopatra rose to fame during the Ptolemaic Period, and she became famous for seducing both Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony – all of this happening 2500 years after the pyramids were built, and only 1940 years away from the Digital Revolution of the 1970s!

5. Ancient Egyptian royal families were often made up of intermarriages between brothers and sisters. 

Tutankhamun with his wife and half-sister Ankhesenamun. Ankhesenamun is also believed to have been married to her father, and also to her maternal grandfather after the death of Tutankhamun.
Tutankhamun with his wife and half-sister Ankhesenamun. Ankhesenamun is also believed to have been married to her father, and also to her maternal grandfather after the death of Tutankhamun. Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every dynasty of Egyptian history contains intermarriage between members of the royal family. Often this would be the marriage to a sibling or the marriage between the ruler and the child of a sibling, so the pharaoh’s niece or nephew. Historians believe this may be due to the Egyptian religious belief that Osiris married Isis, his sister, to keep their bloodline pure. As pharaohs were a living embodiment of the Gods, this justified their incest. There is evidence that this led to physical defects, most famously found in Tutankhamun who had a cleft lip and curved spine.

6. It is unknown how Tutankhamun died.

The Gold mask of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun
The mask of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Credit: Roland Unger // CC BY-SA 3.0

Speaking of the famous young Pharaoh, it is still unknown, but hotly debated, how he died. There was some speculation he may have died due to a chariot crash. Tomb paintings show Tutankhamun to be an avid chariot racer and it is believed a crash led to a broken pelvis and leg, resulting in blood poisoning which led to his death. But this has been questioned by some historians such as Christopher Naunton, who claims there are no records of such an incident and damage to Tut’s skeleton might be due to poor care in handling his body upon the discovery of his tomb by Howard Carter in 1923. 

Some historians believe he may have been killed by a hippopotamus due to several factors including his love of hunting the animal, broken ribs, and his unusual mummification which left him without his heart, an essential part of anatomy which was strictly left in the body during his period’s mummification process!

7. The Egyptians had over 1500 named deities, but they did not always worship multiple gods. 

Three deities that were worshipped in Egypt: Osiris, Anubis, and Horus
The Egyptian Gods Osiris, Anubis, and Horus in the tomb of Pharaoh Horemheb. Credit: A. Parrot // CC BY 2.0

Ancient Egypt’s religion was polytheistic, meaning multiple deities. This was similar to both Roman and Greek religion in the way that certain deities would represent certain aspects of the society which were important to those within it. So there were deities for agriculture and the Nile, and for more personal things like fertility and the home. However, one Pharaoh tried to put an end to this. Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and established a new religion which worshipped only one god, the sun god Aten. Akhenaten’s son, good old Tutankhamun, reestablished the polytheistic religion upon his ascension to the throne, thus ending a brief monotheistic stint in Egypt’s history.

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