Weird things you didn’t know about Cleopatra
She’s appeared in dozens of Hollywood movies and at least a bazillion books, from biographies to historical novels to science fiction. (Yes, Cleopatra in Space is totally a thing.) Always beautiful, always exotic, always with a bunch of beads in her hair and black eyeliner that makes her look sort of like Captain Jack Sparrow, Cleopatra has attained a kind of immortality that few of her contemporaries ever did — except maybe for Julius Caesar, who attained an especially weird sort of immortality now that he shares a name with an obstetric surgery.
More than 1,500 years before the reign of Elizabeth I of England, Cleopatra proved that women were capable of ruling nations, and that they could do it with intelligence, grace, and sometimes brutality. But much of what we know — and don’t know — about the queen of the Nile comes from history that has been fictionalized, refictionalized, and fictionalized some more, so much that the made-up stuff is sometimes better-known than the facts, and the facts themselves are kind of surprising.
Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian
If someone asked you to name an Egyptian from ancient history, it would probably be a toss-up between King Tut and Cleopatra. For many people, these are the two historical figures that embody ancient Egypt — gilded, eye-linered, and walking around their luxurious palaces with their hands at 90-degree angles like in that Bangles song from the ’80s. But here’s a funny thing: One of those two people was not actually Egyptian.
According to History of Macedonia, Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which was descended from Alexander the Great’s general, a man named Ptolemy I. That means they not only had Greek ancestry, they spoke Greek and followed Greek customs, too. The Ptolemys ruled Egypt for 300 years after the nation was handed over to Ptolemy I following Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.
So how did Egypt wind up in the hands of a bunch of helmet-wearing dudes from another continent? They conquered it, which was what the ancient Greeks often did when they were bored. The good news is the Egyptians were mostly cool with their non-Egyptian pharaoh because they were fed up with the Persians, who were the conquerors that came before the Alexandrian conquerors. (You know your country is kind of messed up when you’re happy because the new conquerors are better than the old ones.)
There was some creepy Deliverance stuff in her background
Incest, as it turns out, is not just for nasty Lannister Queens and Deliverance characters. It was practiced to some degree in pretty much every royal family from Europe to the Middle East, but the Egyptians practically turned it into a competitive sport.
In Egyptian mythology, the god Osiris married his sister Isis in order to maintain the purity of the royal bloodline. They were gods, so presumably genetic disorders weren’t really a problem for them. Unfortunately for the Egyptian pharaohs, who saw the Egyptian gods as awesome role models, genetic disorders are a problem for mortals, but no one really understood that thousands of years ago.
Anyway when the Ptolemys rose to power they were all, “Hey, incest sounds like a great idea!” So by the time that got down to Cleopatra a few hundred years later, she was a genetic soup of Ptolemys who married Ptolemys who were descended from Ptolemys.
Cleopatra’s father was King Ptolemy XII. Not much is known about her mother, but Biography says it was probably her father’s sister, or possibly her father’s uncle’s cousin’s mother’s sister’s niece. In keeping with their very gross noble family tradition, Cleopatra went on to marry not one but both of her younger brothers. Eww.
She was smarter than she was beautiful
Pretty much every modern and semi-modern depiction of Cleopatra tells us she was stunningly beautiful, which frankly does seem sort of incompatible with the whole generations of incest thing, but maybe it was a fluke. Then in February 2007 a coin was unearthed bearing a portrait of Cleopatra, which appears to confirm that the queen was actually rather ordinary-looking. The fact that ancient historians didn’t say much about her looks also suggests she was no Elizabeth Taylor, but the more important point is that it really doesn’t matter. Life of Antony, written by Plutarch in 75 A.D., made the following observation about Cleopatra: “Her actual beauty … was not so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence … was irresistible. … The character that attended all she said or did was something bewitching.”
According to Ancient Origins, Cleopatra wasn’t just a shrewd diplomat, she was also a student of mathematics, medicine, alchemy, economics, history, geography, and pretty much every general education subject you probably detested in college (except maybe alchemy, which they mostly don’t teach anymore). She also spoke nine languages, beating anyone who’s ever run the White House. (The last multilingual president was Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected in 1932 and spoke French and German.)
She could actually speak the same language as the people she ruled
ancient egyptian art
Besides Greek, which was the native tongue of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra spoke the languages of most neighboring people, including the Arabs, Jews, Parthians, Syrians, Ethiopians, Medes, and the Trogodytae. She was also the only member of the Ptolemaic dynasty who bothered to learn the language of Egypt — until her reign the Ptolemys didn’t show any interest in Egyptian culture or religion and mostly just sequestered themselves in the city of Alexandria, which was sort of like the Chinatown of ancient Egypt, except Greeker. The Greek language became Egypt’s language of commerce and government, and the Ptolemys occasionally reminded themselves they were in Egypt by taking a pleasure cruise down the Nile, but that was about it.
According to Ancient Origins, Cleopatra could speak the native Coptic and she could also read hieroglyphics. What’s more, she had herself depicted as an Egyptian, wearing the traditional dress, and attending traditional Egyptian festivals and ceremonies. She was such a PR pro, in fact, that she was proclaimed a patriot and became a popular leader among the Egyptian people even though she wasn’t descended from any true Egyptian pharaohs. Cleopatra, unlike her predecessors, recognized the value of appealing to the cultural identity of the people she ruled, which is quite an evolved idea even for a lot of modern politicians.
She killed three of her siblings, including the two she was married to
Now let’s get back to the whole incest thing, since you can never have too much of that. In Egypt it was customary for pharaohs to rule in pairs — every regent needed a co-regent of the opposite gender. According to LiveScience, Cleopatra ruled with her father Ptolemy XII for a short time until his death in 51 B.C. In his will, Ptolemy XII decreed that Cleopatra should marry her 11-year-old brother, which was probably only a ceremonial thing, but either way the two were clearly not fond of each other and the relationship ended with Ptolemy XIII trying to wrest control of the throne, and his sister appealing to Julius Caesar for help reining him in.
Caesar and Cleopatra famously became lovers, and Ptolemy XIII was never happy with Caesar’s decision that he should rule with his sister. Eventually Caesar defeated Ptolemy at the Battle of the Nile, and Ptolemy drowned in the river while trying to escape. So Cleopatra was really only partially responsible for that brother’s death, but there’s more.
Because of the whole “must have a co-regent thing,” Cleopatra had to marry her other brother, who later died under “mysterious circumstances.” (Cleopatra had him poisoned.) Then she ordered the execution of her sister Arsinoe, who took Ptolemy’s side during the family feud and at one point declared herself queen. We can add fratricide to Cleopatra’s list of virtues, but who’s counting?
Her famous eye makeup was actually supposed to ward off eye infections
There’s hardly a depiction of Cleopatra that doesn’t include the trademark eye makeup — a black kohl that lined the eyes and sometimes continued down the side of the face to form decorative spirals. According to the New York Times, the kohl was made from four different lead-based materials and was actually meant not as a beauty enhancer but to ward off eye infections. Eye infections were common in ancient Egypt because particles that became airborne when the Nile flooded would get into the eyes and cause inflammation. The lead-based makeup was toxic to the bacteria that caused those infections, so it did have a preventative effect, though that probably didn’t balance out very well with the whole lead poisoning thing.
Cleopatra was pretty shrewd, so she might have understood the medicinal properties of the kohl, but most Egyptians thought it was magic. Either way, it seems pretty scary to line your eyes with lead-based metals, but ancient Egyptians also liked to pull the brains out of dead bodies with an iron hook and put their guts in canopic jars, so on a scale of 1 to weird, lead-based eye makeup doesn’t even register.
She and Mark Antony had their own drinking club
Cleopatra mark antony
Cleopatra was smart, shrewd, capable, and also kind of a party animal. But you probably would be too, if you had absolute power and Roman general Mark Antony was your boyfriend.
As it turns out, Cleopatra and Antony (who was Cleopatra’s lover after the death of Caesar and after the “totally accidental” deaths of her two brother-husbands) weren’t so preoccupied by matters of state that they made no time for fun, just as college fraternities are never so preoccupied by midterms that they make no time for keg parties and passing out in puddles of their own vomit. Cleopatra and Antony even formed their own drinking club, which they named “Inimitable Livers.” Of course, the English translation of that name could mean a couple of things. Maybe “unsurpassed love of life” or maybe “unsurpassed damage to the toxin-filtering organ inside all human bodies.” (Probably the first one, but the second one is more fun.)
Anyway, according to Food and Wine (and they would know), Inimitable Livers was officially dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine. Unofficially, it was an excuse to have keg parties and pass out in puddles vomit. The club threw nightly “feasts and wine-binges,” and then afterward Antony and Cleopatra would wander around the city in a state of drunken giddiness and play pranks on common Alexandrians. For shame. Modern politicians would never, ever behave like that.
She owned a perfume factory
We’ve already established that Cleopatra was interested in alchemy, but she also understood a bit of actual chemistry. She believed in the power of fragrance not just as a cosmetic but also as a tool of persuasion. According to Perfume Power, Cleopatra doused her ship’s sails with perfume before sailing to her first rendezvous with Mark Antony to make sure that he smelled her before he saw her. She also owned a perfume factory, which sort of seems like an odd side job for a queen, but if you just can’t find the sort of mind-control fragrances you need at the Macy’s perfume counter, there’s probably some value in just having it done at your own factory.
The ruins of Cleopatra’s perfume factory are by the Dead Sea near Ein Gedi, and there is evidence that it also operated as a sort of day spa — some seating remains, which is reminiscent of the chairs you might sit in to have your nails done or if you, too, wanted to be doused with mind-control fragrances. Cleopatra even had her perfume recipes recorded in a book called Gynaeciarum Libri, which has unfortunately been lost, perhaps perishing in the fire at the Library of Alexandria.
Cleopatra once spent the modern equivalent of $20 million on a cocktail
It’s kind of obnoxious when the uber-rich sail past impoverished fishing villages in their $100 million yachts, but at least no one has ever sunk one on purpose just because they can. (Let’s hope.) Cleopatra, on the other hand, was not at all fussed about throwing her money away (or more accurately, dissolving it) to prove a point.
According to legend, Cleopatra once bet Mark Antony that she could blow 10 million sesterces on a single meal — that’s roughly the equivalent of $10 million to $20 million in today’s money. She then requested a modest meal, and afterward had her servants bring her a cup of vinegar. Then, according to NBC, she took off one of her earrings, removed the pearl, dropped it in the vinegar, and watched it dissolve. Then she drank the cup of vinegar, thus proving that she would do just about anything to win a bet.
Pliny the Elder said the pearl was “the largest in the whole of history,” and a “remarkable and truly unique work of nature,” but who knows how much they paid him to write that. Modern historians were more skeptical of the science until someone finally tested the theory with actual vinegar and an actual pearl. The test confirmed that vinegar does, in fact, dissolve the calcium carbonate in a pearl, but it would have likely taken longer than a day for the entire pearl to disappear. But still plausible, in a sinking-your-own-yacht kind of a way.
She convinced Egypt she was the reincarnation of the goddess Isis
egyptian goddess isis
Most ancient rulers saw themselves as divine, even godlike. Some of today’s rulers do, too, so we shouldn’t judge too harshly. For Cleopatra, the whole ruler-as-divine thing was part ego, part public relations genius.
According to scholar Elizabeth A. McCabe, Cleopatra called herself “the new Isis,” telling her subjects she was the embodiment of Isis on Earth, or the reincarnation of the goddess. Not to be left out, Mark Antony also claimed to be the embodiment of Osiris on Earth. Remember the whole Isis marries her brother Osiris thing? There you go.
Now, that’s not to say that Cleopatra was very dedicated to the whole Isis thing. Prior to that she was known to play whichever goddess happened to suit her. When she sailed to that first meeting with Mark Antony on her perfumed barge, she was dressed as the goddess Venus and was waited on by young boys dressed as Cupids and maids dressed as sea nymphs. Antony was enamored, but those were different times. Imagine if the person you met on Match.com showed up for your first date on a perfumed barge dressed as a Greek deity. You’d probably hastily finish your cocktail and sneak out the bathroom window.
She might not have died from a snake bite
Cleopatra snake bite asp
One of Cleopatra’s most enduring legends has to do not with her life but with her death. According to the story, when Cleopatra learned her forces had been defeated by Octavian, who would become the first emperor of Rome, she calmly wrote a suicide note, handed it over to a guard, and then killed herself by holding a venomous snake to her breast.
Because historians like to debate things, no one really definitively accepts this account of Cleopatra’s death. Sure, it’s kind of a cool way to go, but there are some problems with it. For a start, the story indicates that it only took a few minutes for her to die, but the venom of that particular kind of Egyptian snake actually takes a few hours to work, and is even occasionally survivable.
According to the Smithsonian, most historians do agree Cleopatra’s death was a suicide, but the method isn’t clear. It’s possible she simply drank a vial of poison, but that story just isn’t as dramatic, which is probably why today most people still think it was a snake.
She was the last Egyptian pharaoh
The whole fratricide thing excluded, Cleopatra had mostly good intentions for the nation she ruled. According to ThoughtCo, she wanted Egypt to remain an independent state, and most of what she did (except maybe the drinking club and the thing with the pearl) was to that end. Unfortunately her dreams of a free Egypt died with her — after her suicide in the summer of 30 B.C., Octavian seized control of Egypt and made it a province of Rome, ending the era of the Egyptian pharaohs.
It was a while before Cleopatra was remembered fondly by anyone but her own people — the Romans undertook what could only be called a smear campaign, painting her as a harlot who seduced her way to power and practiced witchcraft in order to bring powerful men under her control. Even a couple hundred years later, poets were remembering her as “the shame of Egypt” and “the bane of Rome,” which probably suited the male-dominated Roman leadership just fine.
Try not to feel too bad for her, though. Cleopatra reigned for more than 20 years and had great success as a leader, enjoyed a life of luxury, and died on her own terms. Plus, she had that whole drinking club thing to help her pass the time. Things could have been a lot worse.
How many donkeys does it take to fill an Egyptian queen’s bathtub?
Like pretty much every human being, Cleopatra had an innate desire to avoid getting older. Unfortunately, plastic surgeons were in short supply in first-century B.C. Egypt, and Botox wouldn’t be invented for another couple millennia. But it’s good to be the queen because the queen can pursue ridiculously elaborate beauty regimes that aren’t available to the average person. In fact, Cleopatra’s favorite spa treatment was something most modern American billionaires would have a hard time pulling off even one time, never mind every morning.
According to legend, Cleopatra’s daily bath required a tub and 700 lactating donkeys. At first this might sound kind of like something the queen made up to keep her servants busy, but bathing in donkey milk was actually not just some crazy Cleopatraism. According to The Vintage News, all over the ancient world, women used donkey milk to keep their skin pale and to keep wrinkles at bay. Emperor Nero’s wife was said to travel with “whole troops of she-asses” so she’d never have to miss her daily donkey-milk bath. And today, scientists know donkey milk has a lot of important health benefits — it can be used as a cow milk substitute for people with allergies, and yes, it’s also used in modern beauty products, just in case you don’t think you’ll be able to procure yourself 700 donkeys and enough servants to milk them every day.
I know I erected a gilded statue in her honor, but I swear she meant nothing to me
Throughout much of ancient history, women had to endure their cheating husbands because divorce wasn’t usually an option and you couldn’t exactly put a tracking device under his horse or anything. Mostly, you were just expected to smile happily and pretend like you weren’t feeling totally humiliated. So imagine what Julius Caesar’s wife Calpurnia must have thought when her husband erected a gilded statue of Cleopatra in the temple of Venus Genetrix, right next to the statue of the goddess herself.
This was obnoxious on a number of levels, not just because Caesar seemed completely indifferent to how a very public statue of his mistress would make his wife feel, but also because the Romans didn’t believe their rulers were particularly divine the way the Egyptians did. So having a statue of an Egyptian queen in a holy temple was pretty impious, especially coming from the dude who was supposed to be the country’s religious leader.
However scandalized the Roman people were by the statue of Cleopatra, historian Antony Kamm notes in Julius Caesar: A Life that Cleopatra’s statue remained in the temple for at least 200 years, even after the queen was declared an enemy of Rome. So it’s possible the statue had at least some religious significance, probably because of Cleopatra’s association with the goddess Isis, who had her own minor cult following in Rome.
I know I blew off an invasion for her, but I swear she meant nothing to me
It’s no great revelation that love makes you do irrational things, but most people won’t blow off an important meeting or deadline so they can hang out with someone they only just met. Mark Antony was not most people. He skipped an entire invasion so he could spend the winter with Cleopatra in her Alexandrian palace.
According to HistoryNet, in 41 B.C. Antony assembled an army and went east, summoning client-kings in hopes of gathering resources for a Parthian invasion. One of those client-kings was 28-year-old Cleopatra, who said something to the effect of, “Let’s make love, not war.” Then Antony said something to the effect of, “The invasion can wait” and followed her back to Alexandria, leaving his army in the hands of his governor.
While Antony was enjoying the excesses of the Egyptian palace, the Parthians crossed the Euphrates River, attacked Syria, and annexed many of Antony’s troops. Meanwhile, Antony’s wife Fulvia had to flee Rome after getting her butt kicked by Julius Caesar’s heir Octavian. It’s hard to say which is worse, being attacked by your husband’s political rival while he’s off cheating on you with his Egyptian queen mistress, or keeping your mouth shut while your husband erects a gilded statue of his Egyptian queen mistress. If Fulvia and Calpurnia had formed a scorned wives club, Roman history could have been a great CW series.
If you can’t beat ’em, die together and have yourselves buried in a secret tomb
Cleopatra and Antony may or may not have died together, but someone made sure they were buried together — at least that’s what Plutarch tells us. Beyond that, we have no idea. Some historians think they were buried in Alexandria, most of which fell into the sea after an earthquake 1,600 years ago. According to Remezcla, a few archaeologists think they’re buried beneath the Taposiris Magna Temple (one of the many supposed resting places of the disembodied god Osiris) about 30 miles west of Alexandria. Cleopatra considered herself and her lover to be living embodiments of Isis and Osiris, so a temple burial does seem possible. If the pair was indeed buried beneath the temple, it would have been an effective strategy to keep their bodies out of the hands of the Romans, as well as an appropriate resting place for a couple of formerly-living god/goddess embodiments.
Archaeologist Kathleen Martinez found four burial chambers and more than 600 artifacts at Taposiris Magna, many of which bear the likenesses of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. But so far, the tomb itself remains undiscovered. Cleopatra probably would have been mummified since she was known to have followed Egyptian customs and practices. But Plutarch writes that Mark Antony was cremated in the Roman custom, so if archaeologists do discover their tomb, it’s unclear what state the two might actually be in.
23 and Cleo
Herbert Gustave Schmalz/Wikipedia
23 and Me might be able to tell you about your Greek heritage, but without a body it will never be able to find the descendants of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. According to Ancient Origins, at least one of their children survived to adulthood and went on to have children of her own — Cleopatra Selene, who married King Juba of Mauretania. The couple had a boy and a girl, but only the boy’s name was remembered. Called “Ptolemy” after all the kajillions of Ptolemys who came before him, the unfortunate young man was murdered by the emperor Caligula, evidently because he looked too awesome in a purple robe.
Whether Ptolemy had any children is not certain, and without more evidence it’s also impossible to know if his unnamed sister had children. The list of possible descendants is a convoluted line of so-and-so might have begat so-and-so, finally filtering down to one person who loudly proclaimed descent from Cleopatra: the Syrian queen Zenobia, who conquered Egypt 200 years after Cleopatra’s death. But it’s just as likely that Zenobia’s claim was pure propaganda — she was a conqueror and was probably looking for a way to strengthen her claim. Either way, it’s kind of fun to imagine that out there somewhere there might be a bona fide but oblivious Cleopatra descendant living in a college dorm and working at The Old Spaghetti Factory. But we’ll probably never know for sure.
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Bottle of French Burgundy Wine Sells for a Record-Breaking Price The 73-year-old wine is the most expensive bottle ever sold at auction,fetching $558,000. The bottle of 1945 Romanee-Conti sold at Sotheby’s for more than 17 times its original estimate of $32,000. Romanee-Conti has become the king of collectible wines, and the 1945 is considered its most prized vintage. Romanee-Conti only produced 600 bottles in 1945. This was the last year before the producer replaced the older, prized vines in 1947. Sotheby’s described the 1945 vintage as “concentrated and exotic, with seemingly everlasting power — a wine at peace with itself.”
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Things about ancient Egypt that still can’t be explained
Jason Iannone @genericwhiteboy
Few civilizations have a more mysterious reputation than ancient Egypt. But the point of a mystery is to solve it, and over the years we’ve researched and studied our way to learning a lot about the land of hieroglyphs and holy cats. But there’s still a lot left to learn. Perhaps one day we’ll uncover the answers behind the following questions, but for now all we can do is guess. Here are things about ancient Egypt that still can’t be explained.
How did King Tut die?
King Tutankhamun (Tut if you can’t spell) is perhaps the most famous of all Egyptian pharaohs, despite dying young. But how did he die? Sadly, any obituary in the Ankh Times has long since been lost to the ages. So all we’ve got is a few decent guesses.
In 2013, a group of UK researchers released a documentary called Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy. Based on X-rays taken of Tut in 1968 (along with a CT scan done in 2005 by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities), the documentary reveals he had significant damage to his ribs, along with a broken leg. That led the team to conclude that Tut likely died from a chariot crashing into the poor boy-king.
But National Geographic pointed out other possibilities. It could’ve been a kick from a chariot horse that did him in, or possibly even a hippo attack (unluckily for him, hippos were not extinct in Egypt back then). Then there’s his ribs — many are missing. They could’ve been shattered in an accident, but they also might have been sawed away by World War II-era thieves trying to get to valuable beads stuck on his chest.
Then you’ve got another theory, put forth by Professor Albert Zink, head of Italy’s Institute for Mummies and Icemen (as reported by the Jerusalem Post). To Zink, who relied on 2,000 computer scans plus DNA testing of Tut’s family, Tut’s chariot accident was near-impossible. One big reason? He had a clubbed foot and couldn’t stand on his own — inside his tomb are 130 walking canes, which he probably didn’t use for fashion’s sake.
Zink thinks Tut likely died because he was the product of incest — his parents were brother and sister — and so his already-weak body simply gave out on him. To further complicate matters, Tut suffered from malaria. That theoretically could’ve killed him, but even Zink admits they have no way of knowing for sure. For now, the only thing ironclad about King Tut’s death is that it happened.
Where is Alexander the Great’s tomb?
alexander the great
Few people came closer to ruling the entire known world than Alexander the Great.Yet, for such a famous guy, we have no idea where he’s actually buried.
Archaeology Magazine published two articles by Robert Bianchi in 1993 and 1995 about the search for Alexander’s tomb. As it turns out, there was never supposed to be a tomb at all — Alexander wanted to be thrown into the Euphrates River upon his death in 323 BC, so it would disappear and his followers would think he rose to Heaven to be with his father, the god Ammon. His generals, however, chose to bury him instead, and he supposedly wound up entombed in three different places. First, he was buried in Memphis, Egypt. Then, during either the 4th or 3rd century BC, he was moved to a new tomb, in Alexandria. Later on still, he got a new tomb, also in Alexandria. In AD 215, Roman Emperor Caracalla visited the tomb, and that’s the last recorded thing we know about it. At some point, the tomb was likely damaged and vandalized, and now we don’t have any part of it to look at, including Alexander’s body. Maybe Ammon took him away after all.
As of 1993, the Supreme Council for Antiquities recognized 140 separate searches for Alexander’s tomb and body, and each has had the exact same amount of luck: none. Over twenty years later, we still know just as much. The only thing everybody agrees on is that he was indeed buried in Alexandria and stayed there until his tomb disappeared. Which makes sense — if the city’s named after you, why would you want to leave?
What was the Sphinx’s original name?
For centuries, we knew next-to-nothing about the Sphinx. Until 1817, all we could see was its head peeking out from layers and layers of sand. But since then, thanks in large part to the efforts of archaeologist Mark Lehner (as recapped by Smithsonian.com), we’ve learned a lot about the Sphinx. We have a real good idea who built it (Pharaoh Khafre), how he got it done (hundreds of paid laborers using a humongous chunk of nearby limestone), and how long it probably took (based on the copper and stone tools they were using, probably around three years if 100 people worked on it). Other than that, though, we’ve got ourselves guesses — and that’s about it.
For one thing, we still have no idea what the ancient Egyptians even called the thing. “Sphinx” is a Greek term that didn’t exist when Khafre built his monument — what he and his people called it is currently a total mystery. The biggest issue is that, as Egyptologist James Allen put it, “The Egyptians didn’t write history … so we have no solid evidence for what its builders thought the Sphinx was.” For all we know, they called it Bob.
Another thing about Bob that still confuses us is just what it symbolizes. Obviously it was built for a reason — but what reason, we don’t know. Apparently, a god from that era, Ruti, was comprised of two lions conjoined at the back (like Cat-Dog, basically), guarding the entrance to the underworld. That sounds an awful lot like the Sphinx, but without a second lion nearby to confirm, all we have is a hard “probably.”
What are the hidden temple shoes all about?
hidden temple egypt
In 2004, archaeologist Angelo Sesana published a report in the journal Memnonia, regarding a 2,000-year-old find he and his team had stumbled across in Egypt. As recapped by LiveScience, Sesana’s team found a jar “deliberately placed in a small space between two mudbrick walls” inside a Luxor temple. Inside were seven pairs of shoes. As for why the shoes were left in that jar, and the fate of their owners, we simply don’t know.
Ancient Egyptian footware expert André Veldmeijer, whose job is officially more interesting than yours, examined pictures of the shoes sent to him by Sesana. His assessment was that these shoes were likely quite expensive and foreign-made, so whoever put them there were likely high-society. But how high, we don’t know. They could’ve been royalty, or simply well-to-do commoners. Either way, they apparently felt the need to discard their expensive footwear in a jar, place the jar between two walls in a tight place others weren’t likely to look, and then just leave them there. Were they possibly going to retrieve them later, only to be murdered first? Did they leave them there for others to use, like an ancient Goodwill? Nobody knows.
We also don’t know exactly how old they are. They’re at least 2,000 years old, but without carbon dating, there’s no way to know for sure. Sadly, carbon dating might prove challenging, as the shoes didn’t handle well at all when removed from their hidey-hole. As Veldmeijer recapped in the Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, the shoes looked to be in shockingly pristine shape when left alone. But almost as soon as they were handled, they crumbled and became extremely brittle. They’re currently protected by the Ministry of State for Antiquities, so anyone interested in unlocking this mystery might want to get on it stat, before the shoes crumble into dust forever.
What’s with the “pained expression” mummy?
egyptian mummy face
Mummies with mouths agape, looking like they’re screaming, aren’t really a new thing. They’re not even really “screaming” — many mummies had their mouths forced open during special ceremonies meant to make it easier for spirits to eat, drink, and breathe in the afterlife. However, there’s one mummy in particular that looks like it actually was screaming. In fact, it looks like it’s in downright agony, and no one knows why for sure.
According to National Geographic, “Unknown Man E” was discovered in 1886, and immediately stood out because it looked like he was screaming in pain. Many theories abound about how he died, but nothing’s been confirmed except that it probably wasn’t pretty. Some researchers think he might have been poisoned, or possibly buried alive. Others think he was a murdered Hittite prince, though archaeologist Bob Brier out of the University of Long Island disputes that, saying, “They’re not going to mummify this guy if they murdered him … they’re going to get rid of the body.” That makes sense — gotta hide the evidence, after all.
A 2008 analysis of Unknown Man E suggests he might be Prince Pentewere, executed for planning to murder his father, Pharaoh Ramses III. If true, it would explain how he was buried: wrapped in a skeepskin, which meant he had done bad things in his life, according to Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. It might also explain why he had no grave marking — that way, he wouldn’t be able to join the afterlife, the worst possible punishment for an ancient Egyptian. It might even explain why his mummification was so unimpressive: he wasn’t dehydrated, his brain was still in his skull, and they poured resin down his throat rather than into his cranium. But this entire theory of who he might’ve been is just that: a theory. Without DNA testing, all we’re left with is a cool story that, for some reason, Hollywood still hasn’t turned into a movie.
What happened to Queen Nefertiti?
Aside from Cleopatra, there might not be any more famous an Egyptian queen than Nefertiti. For years she ruled alongside Pharaoh Akhenaten, until she just … vanished. After 1336 BC, there are no records of what happened to her. We don’t even have her tomb or mummy, and we know how thorough the Egyptians were regarding dead people. But we don’t know for sure — all we have are theories.
One such theory, as written by History.com, is that she became a co-regent with Akhenaten and changed her name to Neferneferuaten. Another idea is that she changed her name to Smenkhkare and became a full-blown pharaoh while disguised as a man. But these theories currently have nothing to back them up aside from these being names that come next in the royal timeline, and Nefertiti’s being absolutely nowhere.
We may eventually learn something more about Nefertiti, however. In 2015, Egypt’s minister of antiquities (as reported by The Guardian) announced that an additional chamber (or possibly two) may have been found in King Tut’s tomb, and one of them may wind up being Nefertiti’s crypt. If so, researchers could perhaps finally deduce when she died, and if any artwork in the crypt indicates whether she took power in her own right, was brutally murdered somehow, or simply vanished to a life of post-royalty anonymity.
How many chambers are in the Great Pyramid?
great pyramid giza
Everyone knows and loves the Great Pyramid of Giza — it’s the only Natural Wonder still standing, so it deserves our respect. For awhile, it seemed like we knew exactly what was inside, too. You had three chambers: the King’s Chamber, the Queen’s Chamber, and the Grand Gallery. But very recently, more chambers have been discovered, prompting the question, “how deep does this rabbit sarcophagus go?”
In October 2016, researchers with Scan Pyramids, a group that uses methods such as muography (x-rays, basically) and thermography, uncovered evidence of two possible new chambers within the pyramid — one behind the pyramid’s North Face, and one more behind it’s descending corridor. This seems to confirm what robots had been noticing for awhile — that there’s more to the pyramid than just those three rooms. Yes, that’s right: robots.
Since 1993, several small robots have entered the Pyramid to learn what’s in there, and they’ve come back with mysterious images of tunnels no one had seen since they built the thing 4500 years back. Though these tunnels are likely too small to be of any use, it did suggest that there may be more hidden areas in the Pyramid than we thought. And thanks to Scan Pyramids, that thought may prove to be correct.
And if there are two more rooms, how many others are there? Are these rooms divided into sub-rooms? Until we do more testing, possibly with more robots, we truly don’t know. And honestly, that’s a good thing. The Great Pyramid is a Wonder, after all, so it should make us wonder as long as possible.
Who were the Sea Peoples?
sea peoples ancient egypt
Every hero needs rivals, and for awhile it seems like the Joker to Egypt’s Batman were the “Sea Peoples.” And much like Joker, we don’t know very much about who they were. In fact, we know basically nothing.
In broadest strokes, as told by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the Sea Peoples were a group of pirates and raiders who roamed the Mediterranean looking for places to loot. A major target of theirs was Egypt, who apparently decided to deny them history by barely mentioning them at all. Outside of the occasional blurb like in the Stele at Tanis (“They came from the sea in their war ships and none could stand against them,”) scrolls and documents of the time say precious little about the invaders from the sea.
Rulers like Ramses II mentioned them in writing, but didn’t bother to say who they were or where they came from. Most likely this is because any ancient Egyptian reading these inscriptions already knew who they were. He did say they were allied with the Hittites, but they were also mercenaries for Ramses himself, apparently. If that’s true, we may not know who they were, but we can certainly say they weren’t all that united.
But don’t think they were from where the Hittites called home (modern-day Turkey), because the pharaoh Merenptah wrote that they had allied with the Libyans. Most likely, they were a group of mercenaries who came from all over and banded together to conquer various lands, Egypt in particular. But without writings that say as much, that guess is as good as anyone else’s.
Where exactly was the Kingdom of Yam?
kingdom of yam ancient egypt
Somewhere in Egypt, over 4,000 years ago, existed a mysterious kingdom called Yam. It was a profitable land-of-plenty. As recapped in the book Black Genesis: The Prehistoric Origins of Ancient Egypt by Robert Bauval and Thomas Brophy, the Egyptian treasurer Harkhuf mentioned (in writings on his tomb) that he returned from a Yam expedition with some cool stuff. Stuff like, “three hundred donkeys burdened with incense, ebony, hekenu perfume, grain, leopard skins, elephant tusks, many boomerangs, and all kinds of beautiful and good presents.”
It was a sweet place, is what he was trying to say.
Sadly for such a pristine place, Yam has long been lost, and Egyptologists don’t even know where the kingdom was. According to Black Genesis, most Egyptologists believe Yam existed somewhere accessible to Egyptians, like south or westward along the Nile Valley — the desert up north was simply too harsh, dehydrated, and unforgiving. But there’s one big issue with that hypothesis: Harkhuf’s writings. In the same inscription quoted above, he bragged about making the trip to Yam and back in seven months. No way would it take seven months to trek somewhere “safe.” Bauval and Brophy calculated that, based on the speed of the donkeys he used to ride to Yam and back, Harkhuf rode at least 900 miles one way. That’s way into that “dangerous desert” territory many Egyptologists still insist he — and by extension Yam — would perish in.
No matter which theory you subscribe to, both have one thing in common: they shrug their shoulders at the exact location of this paradisiacal land of incense and leopard skins.
Who was buried at Qurna?
qurna ancient egypt
In 1908, British Egyptologist Flinders Petrie stumbled across a royal burial site no one had ever seen before. Apparently, he had also stumbled across royalty no one had ever heard of before, because over a century later, we still don’t know who was buried there.
As explained by National Museum of Scotland (which currently stores the coffins), Petrie’s team was digging around Qurna, Thebes, when they unearthed the ornate graves of two people. The coffins were dated to around the XVII or XVIII dynasties, making the bodies at least 250 years older than King Tut. We know that one mummy was a young woman and another was a child, presumably hers. They both wore priceless jewelry made of gold and ivory, so clearly they were important. Unfortunately, the inscription that might reveal who they are has been damaged beyond legibility — it almost certainly reads “King’s great wife,” but the part where the king might namecheck her and their kid isn’t there anymore.
There are a few possibilities, based on the queens of the time. To name a few, she might have been Ha’ankhes, Nubemhat, or the as-yet unidentified wife of Rahoptep or Inyotef V. We have far fewer, if any, clues about the kid’s identity — for the time being, it’s looking to stay that way. The pair are scheduled to be unveiled at the Scotland Museum in 2018, once a new Egyptian gallery is all set to go. Maybe then someone will figure out who they are and the museum’s guests will finally learn the the truth behind these mysterious figures.
Or they can just gawk at the pretty jewelry. Either way.
Who built the Nabta Playa Stone Circle?
Nabta Playa Stone Circle Raymbetz/Wikimedia Commons
Stonehenge isn’t the only circle of mysterious rocks out there — Southern Egypt’s got one, too. The Nabta Playa Stone Circle is a collection of flat rocks with taller rocks in the middle, discovered in 1974 by a team of scientists. (A reconstruction is pictured above.) According to Archaeology Expert, it’s much smaller than Stonehenge but may have served the same purpose. We say “may have” because nobody can conclude for certain why the Stone Circle existed in the first place.
Some people, such as astrophysicist Dr. Thomas Brophy in his 2005 paper Satellite Imagery Measures of the Astronomically Aligned Megaliths at Nabta Playa, theorize that, based on satellite views, the Circle was constructed for space-related reasons. Then there’s the 2007 paper Astronomy of Nabta Playa, which theorizes that the placement of the stones, plus livestock and human graves nearby, “reveals a very early symbolic connection to the heavens.”
The thing is, we don’t know what that connection might be. Stars? The Sun? An ancient god we don’t know about yet? We still don’t know the true target of the Circle’s rocky wrath, mostly because, as Brophy wrote, “Only a small number of the subsurface bedrock sculptures have been excavated.” It’s hard to reach any definite conclusion when you don’t have the whole thing in front of you.
Which script on the Rosetta Stone is the main one?
Rosetta Stone Getty Images
Before the language-learning software, there was only one Rosetta Stone, and it was in Egypt. It’s been decades since linguists deciphered the three languages on the Stone — hieroglyphs, ancient Demotic Egyptian, and ancient Greek. But we don’t yet know which of the three dialects is the main one, the one that came first and inspired the other two to translate themselves and catch up.
It’s hard to know for sure, since all three were widely used in ancient Egyptian times — it’s not like Demotic was some weird Esperanto-esque blip on the radar that nobody really spoke. But experts differ on which was “the” script. John Ray opines, in his book The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt, that “the hieroglyphs were the most important of the scripts on the stone; they were there for the gods to read, and the more learned of their priesthood.” Pretty straightforward, right? Hieroglyphs are certainly the most fun to draw of the three, so why not make them the most important? Not so fast, say others. According to Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, all three were equally important. Since many Egyptians spoke both Greek and Egyptian, had names in both languages, and worshiped gods who had names in both languages, it made sense for all three dialects to be equally common. But if, as Ray claims, the gods like hieroglyphs best, who’s going to argue with them?
What is the Dendera Light?
Dendera Light Shutterstock
The Dendera Light, even by weird ancient Egyptian standards, makes no sense. It’s a drawing of a man holding what looks to be a gigantic tube that is taller and wider than he is. And nobody knows for sure what it is, though the more fantastically minded among us certainly have some creative ideas.
Certain pseudo-scientists, such as Erich von Däniken (who pals around with Giorgio “Aliens” Tsoukalos, to clue you into his mindset) think it’s a giant battery or electric tube. If you paid attention for even one day in school, you know the ancient Egyptians didn’t have electricity, but that isn’t stopping people from arguing that they did and that humanity just conveniently forgot about it for 3,500 years. Then you’ve got more traditional, rational Egyptologists, who think the “Light” might be, according to Atlas Obscura, a “combination of a Lotus flower, a Djed pillar (a symbol of stability, symbolized by the outstretched arms), and a snake rising from the flower through the womb of Nut [the sky goddess].” There are inscriptions around the drawing that suggest it’s a lotus flower, out of which will emerge the rising sun, but it’s impossible to say for sure. The Egyptologists are probably closer to being right then the battery people, but there’s always the possibility that it’s just a giant, State Fair-winning eggplant.
Where’s the rest of the second sphinx?
Everyone knows the Great Sphinx, probably because we already talked about it in this article. But a new one was found recently, except we’ve so far been only been able to locate a small part of it. We don’t know what happened to the rest of it.
As CNN reported in 2013, archaeologists in Israel discovered the legs of a 4,000-year-old Sphinx. It appears to be tied to King Mycerinus, but according to Amnon Ben-Tor, head of the excavation, it was long ago broken up and its pieces scattered. Likely, either Mycerinus or his city fell. In Egyptian tradition, once a ruler fell, so did their statues. As for where the remaining pieces of this brand spanking new sphinx are, nobody knows. Luckily, any pieces that still exist won’t be too hard to carry. Based on the feet, this is a much smaller Sphinx than the famous one in Egypt. Archaeologists estimate it weighs maybe a half-ton and stands just a yard high. It’s the perfect size for any child’s bedroom.
There’s an additional mystery, too: how the Sphinx got to Israel in the first place. Ben-Tor wonders if it was a gift from Mycerinus to the king of nearby Hazor, but he and his team won’t know for sure until they’ve dug up the entire site. Don’t hold your breath for it to happen, though — Ben-Tor estimates it’ll take 600 years to dig up the entire 200-acre site. That’s a lot of sand.
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False facts you always believed about Ancient Egypt
Kathy Benjamin @KathyBenjamin
Despite how awesome your fifth grade social studies teacher was, he or she didn’t teach you everything there is to know about Ancient Egypt. And in reality, many of the larger-than-life “facts” you did learn were probably complete BS. Here’s the truth behind all that cool stuff you thought was true about the Ancient Egyptians.
Mummification was just for pharaohs
The most famous mummies were pharaohs who went to the afterlife with jewels, jars full of their insides, and one hell of a dehydrated body. But just because you couldn’t afford a giant pyramid to house your remains in didn’t mean you didn’t want to be mummified. In fact, everyday people are just as likely to show up in museums as the people who ruled over Ancient Egypt.
According to the Smithsonian, the earliest mummies in Egypt were probably made accidentally because when you just chuck an unprotected body into the sand in an arid environment, the body will mummify of its own accord. People soon decided being mummified was the hip new thing that would help send you off to a fun time in the afterlife, and everyone wanted to get in on it.
According to Egyptologist Salima Ikram, if you could afford it, you paid for someone to dry you out and remove your internal organs. If you were really wealthy, you had a tomb made to hold your Halloween-ready, wrapped-up body. Even the poorest people would try to mummify themselves, resorting to the age-old sand technique if necessary.
With everyone trying to get mummified, Egypt was overflowing with bodies. Over 3,000 years an estimated 70 million mummies were produced, although Ikram thinks there were probably even more. With that many mummies, you’d be lucky not to trip over them in the street.
King Tut was killed by his power-hungry grand vizier
For years, people thought King Tut’s death was worthy of a Hollywood movie. According to the LA Times, even many Egyptologists thought the boy king was brutally murdered because the back of his skull appeared to be fractured. Books were written on the theory that he met a grisly fate at the hands of his grand vizier Aye.
Not only was there the physical evidence, but Aye didn’t act like someone who was innocent. He was a commoner who ruled in Tut’s stead while the pharaoh was a child. Then Tut died shortly after taking power, and Aye started acting really suspicious. He claimed power for himself immediately and cemented it by marrying Tut’s widow, who then also died rather quickly. Talk about red flags.
Lucky for Aye’s reputation, we now know Tut didn’t die from a bonk on the head. Exactly what he died of is still a mystery, though. According to LiveScience, theories abound, including that he either had malaria, fell from his chariot, broke his leg, or had sickle cell disease. Basically, everything in the world might have killed him except the guy who comes off as a power-hungry maniac.
Pharaohs were always buried with their servants
Pop culture loves the image of pharaohs being buried alongside dozens of their servants. How powerful must you be when you can order a bunch of executions from the great beyond? The truth is, while some Ancient Egyptian pharaohs did bring their servants with them to the afterlife, it only happened during the First Dynasty and quickly fell out of fashion.
However, that didn’t mean the pharaohs would go to Egyptian heaven by themselves. They still needed servants there to do all the work for them. After all, they were gods, so how could they be expected to do anything as complicated as make bread or pour wine? Luckily for the servants, during most of the Ancient Egyptian period, pharaohs found their way around slaughtering perfectly good servants by being buried with small wooden dolls. These small statues were called ushabtis; according to author Mey Zaki, they were painted to look just like the servants they were replacing. Then the little wooden people would do all the hard work so pharaohs could enjoy being dead. They could be buried with hundreds of these little helpers. Egyptologist Salima Ikram told PBS that some pharaohs went even further and just wrote down the names of the servants they would need in the afterlife. Servants were probably thrilled to give up the honor of dying with their pharaoh.
The pharaoh’s curse was super deadly
If we all know one thing about the discovery of King Tut, it’s that after his tomb was opened, everyone involved started dropping like flies. According to a New York Times article from 1922, statues guarding the inner tomb had golden serpents on their heads. The night of the excavation, the leader of the dig Howard Carter (at center in the above image) was having dinner when a serpent that looked just like those in the tomb attacked and killed his pet canary. From there the idea of the curse took off.
According to Time magazine, newspapers started running with the curse idea. (Obviously they would never do this just to sell more copy.) LiveScience says that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed the curse was real. One theory is that the rumor might have been started by Howard Carter himself just so people would stay away from his find.
All told, 11 people connected with the dig died in the next seven years, but there never was any curse. According to History.com, in 2002 the British Medical Journal did a study of the lifespans of all the Westerners who were in Egypt at the time of the tomb’s opening and found that those who were present weren’t likely to die any earlier than their contemporaries. Carter lived another 17 years, and plenty of “cursed” people lived long and happy lives.
Cleopatra was a hottie
If in-her-prime Elizabeth Taylor is chosen to play you in a movie, chances are you were super hot. That’s the myth that has existed about Cleopatra since Ancient Rome. This was a woman who managed to seduce two of the most powerful men in the world at the time, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, so she must have been a total fox. According to Heritage Daily, the Roman historian Cassius Dio, writing 200 years after she died, said Cleopatra was “a woman of surpassing beauty.”
Here’s the thing: sexy does not always equal hot. And according to the Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, from the evidence we do have the chances are Cleopatra was pretty mannish looking. Unfortunately, we don’t have any portraits or busts of the queen, but we do have her picture on coins from the era. These show her as having a big nose, a protruding chin, and wrinkles. Not exactly supermodel status. It’s possible that she portrayed herself that way to seem more dignified rather than as a weak woman. Women had been pharaohs before, but she probably still wanted to assert her authority as much as she could, and looking more like a weathered guy might have done the trick. Or it could be an accurate representation of what she looked like. The Roman writer Plutarch, who never met Cleopatra but was writing before Cassius Dio, said that she had a sexy voice but wasn’t a hottie. Maybe we’ll figure it out if we ever find her tomb.
Everything was written in hieroglyphics
Virtually every time you see Egyptian writing, it’s all hieroglyphics. The images made up a language so complex that we had no idea what they said until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Now housed in the British Museum, the stone helpfully translates the hieroglyphics into Greek. But despite what you might think, not everyone in Egypt had time to sit and carve pretty pictures every time they needed to write a grocery list.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, for over 2,500 years, people who could read and write mostly used a type of script derived from hieroglyphics called hieratic. This was the standard way to write using a pen and papyrus as opposed to chiseling stuff into rocks. Even religious documents were usually written in hieratic. This script was eventually replaced with an even simpler one called demotic. (That’s the third language on the Rosetta Stone.) Again per the Britannica, its Egyptian name literally mean “writing for documents” and scribes and businesspeople used it for over 1,000 years. As cool as it might be to think of a storekeeper carving your receipt out into a huge piece of rock for a couple hours, in reality they’d just dash off some quick cursive. Hieroglyphics were used for important things like tomb messages because the dead weren’t really in a rush once. Craftsmen had all the time in the world to write that stuff out.
The pyramids are in the middle of the desert
Dramatic period movies have told you what to expect if you ever go see the pyramids. Located in the middle of the desert, your camel will be half dead after walking so far to see these ancient marvels. Sand will have lodged itself in crevices you never even knew you had. Finally, they rise out of the dunes like a mirage and you have made it. It was well worth the dangerous, thirsty journey to see something so amazing.
It makes sense you’d think this since most pictures you see of the pyramids show sand, the Sphinx, and not much else. But in reality, the pyramids sit right on the edge of the sprawling city of Cairo, as seen in the above image. Depending on where you live, you might have one very sweet view. Some realtors probably advertise houses as being within walking distance to the last remaining Ancient Wonder of the World. It kind of takes away part of their mystical qualities, though, knowing you could just pop out to the store and pass the pyramids on your way.
Jews and slaves built the pyramids
Hollywood is obsessed with the idea that slaves, particularly Jewish slaves, built the pyramids. It makes a little sense: how could something that big be built without some back-breaking forced labor? Surely no one would offer to build them just out of loyalty to the pharaoh?
Maybe not just for loyalty, but throw in a paycheck and you’ve got a workforce. According to Egyptologists, around 10,000 skilled workers were employed to build the pyramids. It makes sense because the pharaohs would want people who knew what they were doing. The slave story started with the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus and hasn’t let up since. The Jewish aspect was added much more recently, when former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin visited Egypt in 1977 and threw out the idea that the Jews has been the ones who built the pyramids.
Begin was partially right. According to the Bible, the Jews were enslaved to do “backbreaking labor.” But whatever they built it wasn’t the pyramids because, simply put, the Jews didn’t exist at that time.
Archaeological evidence shows that the people who did build them were treated well. The 10,000 laborers worked in three-month shifts and, as a group, consumed 21 cows and 23 sheep per day. If they died while working on the pyramids, they were given the honor of being buried right outside it, in tombs complete with beer and bread for their sweet party in the afterlife.
All its rulers were Egyptian
When you think of Ancient Egypt, you probably think of a very specific style, namely really buff people who were always looking to the side for some reason. But it wasn’t just Egyptians who ruled over the Nile.
Ancient Egypt was a pretty impressive place, and once other countries started building their own empires, it was the place to conquer. Who wouldn’t want to get a fancy hat, a nice tomb, and to become a living god? The first foreigner who decided Egypt had to be his was Alexander the Great. This Macedonian was on a roll, taking over everything in his path. Once he got to Egypt, he started a dynasty that would last over 300 years. Ethnically Greek, according to the New York Times, the Ptolemy dynasty would be become a kind of mesh of the two cultures and Alexandria would become one of the first cosmopolitan cities. The Ptolemies would take on some of the weirder Egyptian customs, like marrying siblings to keep power in the family, but according to the Smithsonian, not a single Ptolemy pharaoh could be troubled to learn the Egyptian language until Cleopatra, and she was the last of the line. Talk about too little too late.
People had very few rights
When your country is ruled by people who are supposedly gods in human form, you probably assume average people don’t have many rights. We know that Ancient Egypt had slaves, but people actually had a lot more rights than you might expect.
Skilled workers, like the ones who built the pyramids, had a sweet life. According to PBS, workers had houses with numerous rooms and got two days off for every ten days they worked. (That’s a lot better than pop culture images of whip-cracking slave drivers would suggest.) They were even allowed extra days off if they needed to mummify a friend or relative, or (most importantly) if they needed to brew beer. But they took their perks seriously and were even known to go on strike if they weren’t getting the treatment they wanted. After the death of Ramses II, the government had trouble feeding and paying the workers, so they organized the first recorded strike in history.
What’s more, women in Ancient Egypt had almost as many rights as men, according to the University of Chicago Library. They shared property jointly with their husbands and could divorce them if things went south. They could hold down jobs and make contracts in their own names; they could even be pharaohs, the sweetest position there was. Nice. Women couldn’t even vote in most societies until almost 100 years ago.
The pyramids were built to store grain
Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations
It’s hard to believe this needs debunking, but the idea that pyramids were built to store grain is so prevalent that a presidential hopeful even brought it up while campaigning.
Ben Carson didn’t just pull this theory out of his nether regions. This story started appearing in the Middle Ages, according to the BBC. The idea is that the biblical figure Joseph had a dream that Egypt was going to have a terrible famine and needed to store grain to get ready. Then he told the pharaoh (pictured above). You can even see images of the pyramids being filled with grain at St. Mark’s cathedral in Venice. Why wouldn’t you trust people who decided to build a city on top of water?
There are a few things wrong with this theory. First, the story of Joseph occurs during the Middle Kingdom, hundreds of years after the pyramids were built. The biblical story never even mentions pyramids. Second, pyramids have very little room inside, which would make it ridiculous to build such huge structures to store a tiny bit of grain. Finally, we know that the pyramids were built as tombs. Carson’s idea is so ridiculous to people who actually know what they are doing that, according to Mahmoud Afifi, Egypt’s head of ancient antiquities, the theory they were grain stores is right up there with the idea they were built by people from Atlantis.
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