Grauman’s Egyptian Theater

I was recently in Los Angeles and decided to go have a quick look at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, an important building in the Egyptian Revival style constructed in 1922, which I wrote about in my last post. I assumed that even though it wouldn’t be open, I would be able to look around the outside, but unfortunately the whole complex is gated so I could only glimpse through the bars at the outermost courtyard. Nevertheless, I managed to take some photos (of dubious quality, though I blame the gate) and thought I’d post them here. A lot of Egyptian-inspired buildings only give the slightest nod to actual Egyptian design so its quite nice to see that the facade is reminiscent of temple pylons and even the palm trees could be interpreted as real-life versions of palmiform columns. It’s a shame that it’s not generally open to the public though, since perhaps more people would take the time to appreciate it. You’d hardly notice the building if you were just walking past, and while there were swarms of tourists around Grauman’s other more famous cinema, the Chinese Theater, no one was looking at the Egyptian Theatre. Still, American Cinematheque have done a great job restoring it and hopefully I’ll get the chance to go back and look around properly one day.

The Egyptian Theater exterior, now the American Cinematheque

The Courtyard

The Egyptian sign

Deity parade


A king


Winged guardians
(presumable inspired by Isis & Nephthys but someone wasn’t sure about their headdresses)

A slightly bizarre looking scene that I couldn’t get close enough to, involving amongst other things a lot of free-floating objects or hieroglyphs (sort of à la First Intermediate Period) and a figure that could be interpreted as Seth wearing a pot on his head. Though it might not be.

One last view of Grauman’s

Egyptian Revival in Hollywood

As an Egyptologist, I understand from first-hand experience how captivating Egyptian culture can be, and I find it interesting to contemplate the ways in which Egyptomania seized upon the minds and imaginations of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries and manifested itself in art, architecture, and advertising ranging from the absurd to the sublime. It spread throughout the Western world and beyond, from Europe and North America to Russia and South Africa. There are certainly numerous examples of the craze in London (see my Egyptological map of the city), but some other interesting examples have been featured on the internet lately.

Bonhams’s recently had an Egyptian Revival sale and the pieces that were auctioned can all be viewed on the site here. Some wonderful pieces are actually directly inspired by real Egyptian artifacts, for example this chair modelled on the chair of Sitamun from the tomb of Yuya and Tuya as pictured here, while others provide comedy value with their extravagant over-blown design and heavy-handed interpretations of Egyptian design that bear little resemblance to their supposed origins.

I also stumbled across a very interesting article, purely by chance, mainly about the Egyptian-inspired movie theatres of the United States but also touching on the history of Egyptomania itself. The entire article by Bruce Handy of Vanity Fair is well-worth reading, but the most gripping description is perhaps that of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater and its spectacular role in the very first ever movie premiere. Back in 1922, before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, when Hollywood was just a sleepy stretch of orchards dotted with a few fledgling movie studios and the joke was that ‘cannonball could be fired down Hollywood Boulevard any time after nine at night and never hit a soul’, it was decided that a movie theatre would be ‘the perfect anchor for commercial development. And not just any movie theater: it would be one of the most spectacular the world had ever seen’.

As Handy states:

‘On October 18, 1922, with newspaper ads promising that “every star and director in the motion picture industry will be there,” Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre was unveiled in all its pharaonic splendor, playing host to the world premiere of Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood.

Grauman theater

Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor

It was a hell of an evening. The newly installed Hollywood Egyptian Theatre Symphony Orchestra played the overture from Aida. Speeches were given by Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky (one of the founders of the studio that would become Paramount Pictures), and the mayor of Los Angeles. Fairbanks, of course, was in attendance, as was his wife, Mary Pickford, along with John Barrymore and the Talmadge sisters, all of whom had strode down a long red carpet, which had been laid over the theater’s extended courtyard and was flanked by crowds of gawkers and photographers. It was, literally, the original Hollywood premiere. “First night audience rivals Paris in styles”, bragged one Los Angeles paper. “Greatest gathering of kind in Hollywood history”, trumpeted another, describing “a jam of people and motor cars … extending in all directions” while “the picture stars were wildly greeted” and numerous photos taken of the “kaleidoscopic human spectacle.”

The theater was its own kind of kaleidoscope, a riot of hieroglyphs and cenotaphs, animal-headed gods and winged scarabs, bas-relief sphinx heads and a gilded sun-disk ceiling. Even the bathrooms featured what one critic described as “fascinating Egyptian decorations done in the soft reds, blues, and yellows in which this early nation delighted.” The screen itself, one of the interior’s few unadorned surfaces, was framed by four pillars, decorated like papyrus plants and topped by a pair of massive, heavy-looking lintels seemingly awaiting only the fulfillment of an ancient mummy’s curse to tumble down and seal the auditorium in the dust and gloom of millennia. Earlier theaters had had Egyptian elements, but this was ancient Egypt given the full, unabashed Hollywood treatment…

Art and Archaeology declared in 1924 that Grauman’s Egyptian “is not made up of grotesque statues, sphinxes, pyramids, and meaningless signs in lieu of hieroglyphics, but is a replica of real Egyptian art and architecture.”

For a second opinion, [Bruce Handy] asked Richard A. Fazzini, an Egyptologist at the Brooklyn Museum who is also a passionate scholar of Egyptomania, to look at photos of various Egyptian theaters, including Grauman’s. He praised the accuracy of many of that theater’s “playful” design elements, but noted, “Nothing in Egypt ever looked like that as a whole.” He pointed to the decoration of the theater’s massive lintel: “A winged scarab flanked by what—swans? No, that doesn’t work. A winged scarab maybe, but not flanked by swans. I don’t know if they had swans in Egypt, but they didn’t appear in the art really”.’

Grauman’s ignited a vogue for Egyptian-themed theaters in America and in the 1920s some four dozen were built ‘bringing the glories of the Nile to exotica-poor locales such as Brooklyn, Denver, Seattle, Indianapolis, Houston, Milwaukee, and Ogden, Utah’.

Grauman detail

Detail from Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor

But why did the movie industry in particular seize upon Egyptomania so enthusiastically? The main reason is the obvious coincidence of timing between the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the birth of cinema. As Handy notes: ‘Of negligible import as a pharaoh, Tut nevertheless enjoys one of the ancient world’s highest Q ratings, right up there with Jesus, Mary, Cleopatra, and the first two Caesars. The discovery also unleashed one of the West’s greatest waves of Egyptomania… Filmmakers, then as now not immune to popular taste, released Tut-ankh-Amen’s Eighth Wife and Tut-Tut and His Terrible Tomb, both in 1923. Tin Pan Alley staked its own claim with “Old King Tut Was a Wise Old Nut.”’ However, I think there were several other reasons why Egyptian design became so popular a style for movie theatres and they lie in the nature of the movie industry at the time, how Egypt was perceived and what it represented to people.

Movies were a way of transporting people, allowing them to use their imaginations and escape. Ancient Egypt had already been a popular subject for early filmmakers with five features about Cleopatra alone made between 1908 and 1918. Ancient Egypt was exotic and mysterious; by designing theatres in Egyptian styles, the cinemas themselves became fuel for the imagination, pure escapism in architecture. With cinema in its early stages, studios and theatres wanted to convince people of the industry’s stability and potential for success and longevity. What better association to make than with the eternal land of pyramids and temples? Also, the image Hollywood has always cultivated for itself is one of opulence, and it seems hardly coincidence that the first glamorous red carpet parade happened at the opening of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, with its rich Egyptian style decor suggesting all the golden wealth of the ancient civilization that Hollywood wished to emulate. Using the motifs of Egyptian design was more than just an architectural fad, they could be used to convey a message to audiences and contribute to the image Hollywood studios wished to present.

Handy also discusses why Egyptian themes were so popular with early America as a nation:

‘Nineteenth-century America clasped ancient Egypt especially close to her bosom. “The Egyptian style,” writes the historian Blanche Linden-Ward, “captured the imagination of arbiters of American culture intent on finding new symbols representative of their nation. Many Americans in the 1830s equated their country with Egypt, another ‘first civilization’ … They nicknamed the Mississippi the ‘American Nile’ and gave the names of Memphis, Cairo, Karnak and Thebes to new towns along its banks.” Perhaps the most famous example of our forebears’ Egyptophilia, aside from the Great Seal, is the Washington Monument, a 555-foot-tall obelisk that was designed in 1836 (though not completed until 1884). Another proposed monument, serious enough to be entertained by Congress, would have entombed the father of his country pharaoh-style in a giant pyramid, which demonstrates the pitfalls of modeling a fledgling republic after a millennia-old monarchy, at least when it comes to questions of official taste.’

Although Washington didn’t get a pyramid from Congress, according to theater historian David Naylor, the flamboyant movie exhibitor Grauman gave him an even more bizarre memorial in his second downtown theatre, the Metropolitan: ‘a sphinx with the head of George Washington on a pedestal beside the lobby staircase. The quote near the base of the sphinx read, “You cannot speak to us, O George Washington, but you can speak to God. Ask him to make us good American citizens”‘.

Although Grauman’s Egyptian Theater has been restored and is currently the home of the American Cinematheque, of the 40 to 50 Egyptian theatres built in America in the 1920s, only a handful survive.

The sad thing I find is that I can no longer imagine an Egyptian revival of such magnitude ever taking place again, or at least not one that would be taken seriously and valued for the elegance and energy of its design. The media, movie-industry, and disappointingly even the way Egypt and its treasures are promoted, have all contributed to some people’s view of Egypt not just as a stereotyped land of gold and mummies, but have also added tacky, over-the-top, crude, and laughable overtones to the way it’s perceived. Sadly some of the crasser examples of Egyptomania can also be said to have contributed. Despite the general public’s fascination with Egypt, their exposure is superficial, with few people able to tell the difference between crude inaccurate Egyptian-style reproductions and the real artistry of the originals.

As the author of the aforementioned article, Bruce Handy, similarly notes:

‘Most of us have gleaned whatever knowledge we have of ancient Egypt from popular culture, whether Boris Karloff’s The Mummy, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, Victor Buono’s King Tut on the old Batman show, Steve Martin’s novelty song “King Tut” (in which the boy king moves from Arizona to Babylonia, where he owns a “condo made of stone-a”), or Brendan Fraser’s frantic Mummy remakes. Indeed, judging from these sources, you’d be forgiven for thinking that ancient Egypt’s was the silliest civilization that ever existed’.

None of this is going to be changed anytime soon, if Egypt continues to be presented in a way that aims to appeal to the lowest common denominator with sensationalism rather than aspiring to a more informed representation. Commercialism feeds people’s misconceptions of Egyptian culture in an attempt to cash in and sadly one of the most disappointing examples of this happening is connected to what should be an opportunity to educate people.

I think the marketing for the Tutankhamun exhibit at the O2 buys too much into stereotypes, trying to sell it on gold, gold, and more gold, and raising false hopes of seeing the famous death mask, rather than helping people see that viewing more domestic objects can actually give us more insight into the life of the boy king. I’ve even heard that the gift shop features a tissue box in the form of the famous mask, where the tissues come out of the nostrils! But I shouldn’t really judge until I’ve seen it myself. I’m planning to visit it at the end of March, and when I do I’ll let you know what I think of it.

I believe that it’s possible to harness the interest in Egypt inspired by Hollywood and the media, and use it as an opportunity to introduce people to the real Egypt. Though exciting action and glittering gold can glamorize Egypt, it remains that this fascinating culture has intrigued people since ancient Greek and Roman times and will continue to in spite of the misleading publicity it gets. For those willing to actually take a close look at the objects and monuments or read about them will realize that it can be even more thrilling to pierce the veil of mystery that shrouds the *real* Egypt and to delve into the lives of the people who created this astounding civilization.

For further reading on Egyptomania, I can recommend Imhotep Today: Egyptianizing Architecture, a nice collection of essays on examples from around the world.

Grauman sign

Sign for Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Kevin Stanchfield.

The Love Poetry of Ancient Egypt

Whether you love it or hate it, today is St. Valentine’s day, and while the Egyptians didn’t really have an equivalent, the closest they had to such a holiday would perhaps be the festivals of Hathor, who, as the goddess or love, beauty, music, fertility, and even drunkenness, would make a much more likely patron of lovers than a canonized Roman martyr.

Although the Egyptians didn’t go in for roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, they did have lots of love poetry. Many people don’t realize what a rich body of literature the ancient Egyptians had, from fun stories about the adventures of magicians, to epic poems about epic journeys, and even what one might call the Egyptian version of the fairytale Rapunzel. The love poems date back to the 13th-12th centuries BC but the sentiments that they express seem just as fresh today, verses filled with lust, longing, tenderness, and heartbreak.

UCL’s Digital Egypt website has a nice page about love songs, including translations and even recordings of selections being read aloud. One thing that should be pointed out to readers less familiar with Egyptian literature, is that the terms ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ were used by Egyptian lovers to indicate intimacy and affection. This is one of the reasons that early Egyptologists believed that marriage between siblings was common, which is untrue. There were royal sibling marriages to keep power within family, but not amongst ordinary people.

Here is an example of one of the beautiful poems, sung by a woman secretly longing for the man she is in love with:

‘My brother overwhelms my heart with his words,
he has made sickness seize hold of me…
see how my heart is torn by the memory of him,
love of him has stolen me.
Look what a senseless man he is
– but I am just like him.
He does not realise how I wish to embrace him,
or he would write to my mother.
Brother, yes! I am destined to be yours,
by the Gold Goddess of women.
Come to me, let your beauty be seen,
let father and mother be glad.
Call all my people together in one place,
let them shout out for you, brother.’

Also, here are links to some of the recordings of the poems being read aloud. My favourite readings are the one in which a man describes his beloved’s beauty (Part One & Part Two) and then another when he has been separated from her for seven days and is stricken ill with missing her (Part One & Part Two).

If you’re interested in reading more, there are translations of Egyptian love poetry in a collection of Egyptian literature edited by William Kelly Simpsons entitled ‘The Literature of Ancient Egypt’. One book is devoted entirely to love poetry. John Foster’s translations in ‘Love Songs of the New Kingdom’ are perhaps slightly less literal (or accurate, depending on one’s point of view) but quite enjoyable to read, and displayed with the text in hieroglyphs alongside.

In poetry, and especially love poetry, the Egyptians and all their desires and fears come alive again. As one of my supervisors, Dr. Richard Parkinson of the British Museum has said: ‘The poems provide an archaeology of the emotions, a sense of what it was like to be Egyptian, which is otherwise inaccessible’.

Seeing Ancient Egypt with new eyes

Although I’ve travelled to Egypt a few times now myself, it always interests me to hear people’s first impressions of the country, especially when they are less familiar with the ancient society. Lynn Barber has written a delightful article in the Guardian on ‘how she fell for Egypt’, and it gives a wonderfully fresh insight on how the country and its landscapes, people, monuments, and artwork can captivate and capture the imagination so instantly and entirely.

It’s wonderful to hear about someone else falling for the first time for something you love too and it makes me recall my first trip to Egypt. To me Egypt was a civilization that I already knew very intimately, but to finally be there, I was just as astonished as Barber, or even more so.

I still vividly remember my first visit to the museum in Cairo. When I was a child, I delighted in the Egyptian gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, but was awestruck when I finally encountered the more extensive collections of the British Museum and the Louvre- what treasure troves of wonder! But everything I had yet seen paled in comparison when I first visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. While the museum conditions are not ideal and the labelling is rather sparse, the collection of artifacts is incredible and not to be missed. Despite the rather shabby setting, I gasped in awe not just at each new room I entered, of which there was an astounding, seemingly endless number brimming with antiquities, but at each object that met my eye; many of them were familiar to me as significant pieces appearing in countless books, and the rest were new and thrilling, each one a tiny time capsule revealing some insight into the ancient Egyptians. From the imposing colossal statue of Amenhotep III and his wife Mut, who preside over the great statue court at the heart of the museum, to the thousands of tiny, delightful pieces stuffed into the rooms that tourists seem to ignore entirely in their dash for King Tut’s mask–they all made me fall in love with Egypt all over again.

Hippo and cow

A delightful unintentionally funny display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

My first sight of the great hypostyle hall at the temple of Karnak was one of the few experiences in my life that’s been literally jaw-dropping, as in actually being unable to keep my upper and lower jaws attached. Karnak is the grand temple of Egypt, the one that every king had to add to until it became positively labyrinthine, and apparently the largest ancient religious site in the world. The hypostyle hall is its crowning glory: 134 massive limestone stone columns in the form of papyrus plants, some standing up to 80 feet high, form a veritable stone forest. I am sadly unable to find the words to describe the strange humbling yet inspiring feeling I felt standing dwarfed in the midst of that massive monument. I can only say, if you’ve never been, you need to go.

On one point in Barber’s article I’d have to disagree though- she describes her visit to the Valley of the Kings and says that while the main ticket allows entrance to three tombs, ‘if you want to see more tombs, you can buy another ticket or go to the Valley of the Queens, and the Valley of the Nobles, but three is probably enough’. I can understand that seeing a myriad of tombs might be overwhelming for those new to Egypt and three tombs in the Valley of the Kings specifically might indeed be enough, but missing out the Nobles and the tombs of Deir el Medina is a mistake that many tourists seem to make- both were deserted when I visited. The tombs of the kings and the tombs of the nobles, and also of the workers who made the kings’ tombs, are very different in style indeed. The royal design is understandably quite formal and focussed on religious motifs, and personally I think that the average person would probably enjoy the tombs of the Nobles and Deir el Medina much more with their lively decoration and relate more to the scenes of daily life.

A relief in the tomb of Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles, photo by Becky Ragby

The art in those tombs is truly superb and not to be missed. Actually, it’s hardly surprising that the artists who decorated the tombs of the kings did a rather wonderful job on their own tombs too! It was wonderful to read Lynn Barber describe Egyptian art in such glowing terms: ‘I expected to find ancient Egyptian art interesting: what I didn’t expect was that I’d find it as thrilling as, say, Florence or St Petersburg’. Sadly, Egyptian art has always historically been viewed as inferior to classical art, but I’m glad it’s not just the Egyptologists who’d disagree with this.

I’m not convinced either by her claim that ‘most of the tour guides in Egypt are fully trained Egyptologists’ since sadly I’ve heard numerous guides spouting ridiculous nonsense to rapt audiences of tourists. I’ve met a number of the Egyptian summer trainees at the British Museum and they’re actually curators and antiquities inspectors not tour guides.

Egypt can have a profound effect on its visitors, however Lynn Barber’s final comments in her article were incredibly amusing to me as an Egyptologist-in-training who decided on her career at the age of 6. Unfortunately Barber’s words of wisdom come perhaps slightly too late for me: ‘Incidentally if you have children of an impressionable age, do not take them to Egypt because it will inevitably make them want to become archaeologists when they grow up and then they will spend their adult lives sorting shards in some dim county museum… Egyptology is an incredibly alluring subject, but a disastrous career, I suspect’.

Copywriting the Pyramids

You’ve probably all heard about this story already since it broke in all the newspapers awhile ago. It wasn’t an April the 1st story, though you’d be excused for thinking it. The announcement that the Egyptian government was planning to pass a copyright law on its antiquities has flabbergasted just about everyone.

Apparently the draft bill was formulated in the wake of attacks by the Egyptian media against the famous pyramid-shaped Luxor casino in Las Vegas. The newspaper Al-Wafd published an article stating that ‘Thirty-five million tourists visit Las Vegas to see the reproduction of Luxor city while only six million visit the real Egyptian city of Luxor’. (They fail to note that while the casino is called the Luxor, it has nothing to do with the city of Luxor and is actually a copy of the Great Pyramid at Giza located almost 700km away).

So, at first glance, it appears that the entire point of this law would be to get a slice of the biggest, most successful exploiters of Egyptian cultural heritage. But then comes the strange twist in the whole story: the Luxor Casino would be exempt from the law, supposedly because it’s not an ‘exact’ replica, even though it is blatantly meant to represent the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. According to Zahi Hawass, ‘It is a resort that doesn’t look like anything from antiquity, it is a replica of imagination, I can’t stop them from doing that’. Besides, “it is an ugly pyramid with fake hieroglyphics inside’.

But why would places like the Luxor casino be exempt? If they’re not the target, then what is the point of the law and who would they be going after? If the reproductions have to be 100% accurate for the copyright to apply, how many objects will this actually affect? Such a law would just encourage businesses to make even more dreadfully ugly and inauthentic reproductions than they do already, just to avoid being accused of copying.

Also, how would the Egyptians actually manage to enforce the law internationally? I suspect that the government would only really be able to enforce the law in its own country, and thereby only succeed in hurting its own economy, tourism being its primary industry. And if they didn’t enforce it in their own country, how could they justify going after anyone outside it?

Deciding who copyright belongs to when the artists, craftsmen, and architects are unknown and so long dead seems like a minefield in itself. If artifacts are kept in museums outside of Egypt and have been there for centuries, does the copyright still belong to Egypt? The bill raises so many baffling and ludicrous questions and the whole concept seems to rest on very shaky ground.

The way I see it, reproductions are actually free advertising for the Egyptian Tourism Board. In my experience, the plastic (rather grotesque) King Tut mask that my mom got me for Hallowe’en when I was a child only further fueled my desire to one day visit Egypt myself. Around the world, similar trinkets and architectural homages only remind us of the much greater wonders that lie in Egypt itself. In the International Herald Tribune, the lawyer Jeffrey P. Weingart states: ‘Anytime someone seeks to promote and profit from artistic or photographic expression, one walks a fine line between promoting its use on the one hand and protecting material on the other’.

Whatever the Egyptian government’s confusingly unclear motives are, either trying to snatch a slice of the profits from ancient Egyptian spinoffs or impose control on use of Egyptian images, the whole concept comes across as hollow threats, all rather bizarre and futile. I certainly support finding as many ways possible to fund the Supreme Council of Antiquities’ efforts to preserve ancient Egyptian monuments, but there surely must be more effective ways than a worldwide fake pyramid hunt. In the meantime, I guess we’d all better be careful about posting our holiday snaps of the pyramids on the internet, otherwise we might find Zahi and his lawyers on our doorsteps…

For a very amusing commentary on the copyright story, check out this blog entry at the Guardian entitled ‘Quick! Hide your pyramids!’.

The Senior Copyright Counsel for Google has also written an interesting response to the issue at his blog: ‘You can walk like King Tut, but don’t copy him’.

For more articles, check out Andie Byrnes’ brilliant blog where she has been rounding up all of the media coverage on the story.


More word play

In relation to my previous post about the Egyptian polyseme Å¡di which means both ‘to suckle’ and ‘to educate’, I thought I’d look at another polyseme which ended up being extremely influential in Egyptian tomb decoration. And which is an excellent excuse to examine some of my favourite masterpieces of Egyptian art, the tomb paintings of Nebamun at the British Museum, scenes of which are illustrated below.

One of the oldest, most common, and central scenes in Egyptian tomb decoration, depicts the tomb owner fishing and fowling in the marshes. It held a symbolic meaning, relating the tomb owner’s triumph over nature to the triumph of order over chaos and death. However, there was also another additional layer of symbolic meaning connected to fertility (and so, to rebirth in the afterlife), which can be discerned from some of the unusual features present in the scene.
Fishing and fowling was a form of hunting sport, a very masculine activity, but while other depictions of hunting never include female figures, in the fishing scene, the tomb owner is always accompanied by his wife, elaborately dressed, wearing jewellery and a wig, and his children. The marsh setting is associated with fertility and the goddess Hathor, who hid there to nurse the child god Horus, and was the goddess of love, music, beauty, and sexuality. Some marsh elements have erotic symbolism, like ducks, while others are connected with rebirth like lotus flowers (which open when the sun rises), tilapia fish (who swim into their parents’ mouths when there is danger, and then emerge again ‘reborn’). The word play involved in the scene involves the visual puns of the spear and the throwstick held by the tomb owner. The word ‘to spear’, sti, also means ‘to impregnate’, and the word for ‘throwstick’, qmA, also means ‘to beget’.

The word sti also serves as a pun in the banqueting scenes that frequently appear in 18th Dynasty tombs. The guests are shown having drinks poured for them, and sti can mean both ‘to pour’ and ‘to impregnate’. Drunkenness and intoxication, enhanced by smelling lotus flowers and mandrake fruits, are also associated with Hathor and fertility. Further, the guests are entertained by music and young naked adolescent dancing girls, completing what is obviously an erotically charged scene.

Word play contributed a central aspect of funerary decoration, and celebrated the Egyptians love of life, love, and words.


Food for thought

I really love when a certain word has dual related meanings that reveal the way people understand certain concepts and make associations between them. I mean not just homonyms that sound the same, but ones that actually have a deeper connection between their different meanings. They’re called polysemes. An example in English would be ‘mole’, meaning both an underground animal, and a person who goes undercover. Another amusing example can be found here.

My favourite Egyptian example of polysemy is the word Å¡di. It is written like this:

with a sign representing a water skin- the phonetic symbol for the sound ‘shed’, with an alphabetic ‘d’ sign- a hand, and then a breast sign serving as a determinative for the overall meaning. As the breast symbol suggests, the word means ‘to suckle’ or breastfeed a young child. It’s alternate meaning, which obviously derives from the original, is ‘to educate. Instead of meaning to nourish a young body with milk, it means to nourish a young mind with knowledge. It’s a beautiful parallel and gives us an insight into the importance literate Egyptians gave to educating their children.
Here are a couple of examples of the word being used in both contexts:

These ones are captions from the temple decorations at Karnak from the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III, which show the Pharaoh being addressed by the goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, who were the symbolic mothers of the divine king of the Two Lands.

The first one records the speech of the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt, Nekhbet, to the Pharaoh:

Nekhbet speech

Which is transliterated as:
ink mwt.k bnr mrwt
šd.n tw m nḫn.k

And translates as:
‘I am your beloved mother,
Who nursed you in your youth.’

This is the speech of the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt, Wadjet, to the Pharaoh:

Buto speech

Transliterated as: šd.n tw m irṯt.i
Which means: ‘I suckled you with my milk’.

The next one is from the inscription on the false door of Ptahshepses’ mastaba at Abusir, vizier to Niuserre, a king of the Fifth Dynasty:

Which describes Ptahshepses as one: ‘whom he educated among the king’s children in the palace of the king, in the Residence, in the king’s harem, who was more honoured before the king than any child, Ptahshepses.’

While our versions of these words don’t have the same nuances, English does make a similar connection between nourishment and knowledge, in such expressions as ‘to chew things over’, ‘to ruminate’ and of course, ‘food for thought’, and such verbal associations colour the way we think. šdi is yet another wonderful word that sheds a little light on how the Egyptians thought.

Head North, or rather ḫd North


To the Egyptians, ‘travel’ was synonymous with ‘water travel’, and the Nile acted as the country’s superhighway. Since Egypt was entirely strung out along the fertile riverbanks of the life-giving Nile that served as the country’s backbone, the majority of travel and transportation was north-south oriented and much time and energy was saved by using boats. Therefore the words used to indicate north or southward movement were written with boat symbols.

The word ḫnti, a verb meaning “to sail upstream, travel southward” (definition from Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian 1962, 195), was written like this:hnti

beginning with the phonetic sound ‘ḫnt’—a symbol of three (or four) jars in a rack, the wavy water symbol that stands for the letter ‘n’, a loaf of bread for the letter ‘t’, and a determinative symbol to give a visual clue to the word’s meaning, in this case a hieroglyph of a boat with a raised sail.

The word ḫdi, a verb meaning “to travel downstream, northwards” (according to Faulkner 1962, 199), was written like this:


with the symbol for the letter round ‘ḫ’, a circle filled with horizontal lines, the letter ‘d’ which was written with a hand, and a determinative depicting a boat with oars.

You may have noticed that while both these words designate travel using boat determinatives they differ slightly, one being shown with oars and the other with sails. This is because the Egyptians reflected the realities of travel in how they wrote—the word for southern travel is written with a sail because the prevailing wind in Egypt comes from the north and people travelling south would always make use of the helpful wind, harnessing its energy with sails, while the word for northern travel is written with oars, since anyone going north by boat would have had to travel against the wind, but following the flow of the river downstream towards the Mediterranean, using the water current and oars to propel the boat. Beautifully logical, isn’t it?

The visual dimension of Egyptian words means that they can often give us much more information about the culture beyond a literal reading and it’s worth reading between the lines.

Solar boat
A full-sized boat built from cedar wood that was buried beside the Great Pyramid of Khufu, rebuilt and now on display at Giza.

Egyptian word of the week

I’ve decided that it might be interesting to share some of my favourite Egyptian words each week, so that even if you don’t read hieroglyphs, you can enjoy some of the flavour and character of the language that is often lost in translation.

The basis of certain words and the special ways in which they were used can give us key insights into Egyptian culture and the way the people thought. For example, the Egyptians were very keen on puns or play-on-words, which often formed a key symbolic part of religious and political ideology. Also, although hieroglyphs weren’t just simplistic representative pictures, their pictorial form was still significant and often exploited in art and texts. And sometimes it’s not just our understanding of Egyptian culture that can be enlightened by examining Egyptian words—sometimes it’s our own culture as well. Some Egyptian words have made it into modern languages, including English.

I remember learning one of my favourite examples of an Egyptian loan word into English back during my undergraduate degree in Toronto when we read an inscription about Queen Hatshepsut’s trading expedition to the exotic land of Punt (which some argue is modern Eritrea). The word is hbny and you might be able to guess what the English loan word is!

hbny is written like this:hbny

with the phonetic ‘h’ symbol—a walled courtyard, the symbol for ‘b’—a leg, a plow sign that is the phonetic symbol for ‘hb’, the squiggly line depicting water that is the phonetic ‘n’ sign, two dashes representing the sound ‘y’, and a branch symbol acting as a determinative to the word to specify it’s wood-related meaning. hbny is the word for the dark tropical hardwood that we call ‘ebony’. We’ve just simply dropped the ‘h’ sound from the Egyptian word.

The word was borrowed by the Greeks and entered into English. So whenever you say ‘ebony’, bear in mind that you’re speaking ancient Egyptian!

Some examples of the word’s use in Egyptian texts can be found in lists of luxury products from foreign countries, such as in the autobiographical inscription in the rock-cut tomb of the official Harkhuf, describing the products he acquired during his travels:


Here is my translation of the above text transcribed in Sethe 1932, 126: ‘I returned with 300 donkeys, which were laden with incense, ebony, hekenu-oil, sat, moringa oil, panther skins, ivory tusks, throwsticks, and all good products’.

hbny is also used in the Punt expedition text that I mentioned above. A relief from the temple depicting Punt is pictured below:


In the temple of Hatshepsut (the Egyptian queen who ruled as king) at Deir El Bahri, over an image of ships being loaded with the products of Punt, is the inscription:
‘The loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God’s Land, heaps of myrrh-resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory…Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning’ (translation from Breasted 1906-7 vol.2, 263-5).

hbny and ivory’. So it turns out that that old Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder lyric is actually over three thousand years old!

Why the aliens did NOT build the pyramids

PyramidIt has always pained me a great deal that so many people all over the world are genuinely fascinated by ancient Egypt and yet they are so woefully misinformed by sensationalist media, so-called documentaries based in pseudoscience, and the fantasy world of Hollywood. No other ancient civilization is so universally recognized and yet so thoroughly misunderstood. Sadly, Egyptologists are often so frustrated by this that they want nothing to do with the situation; it’s not just a matter of educating people, it’s completely reeducating them, trying to reverse the damage caused by ‘The Mummy’ and even the Discovery Channel.

When I tell people that I’m studying Egyptology, people always assume that this means pyramids and mummies, the only things they know about Egypt. In fact these areas are so popular that they are overrun by untrained theorists and most Egyptologists shun them rather than tackling all of the misinformation. Sometimes I can hardly blame them; even as a lowly student, I was once approached at a conference by a man who wanted to show me the home experiments that he’d carried out, pulling miniature pyramid blocks in his backyard! The sad thing though is that many people prefer madcap theories to the truth, especially when genuine research is presented in dry academic speak rather than the exciting Indiana Jones-style of tv.

Once I was actually asked in all seriousness for my professional opinion on whether alien build the pyramids. The man said: ‘There’s so much discussion of the alien theory that there must be something to it, right?’. Well, my short answer would be, ‘No. There isn’t anything to it at all.’ My longer answer will follow, with a thorough dissection of the central arguments of the alien theory and why they are wrong. I think the main reason the theory is so popular is that people like to believe in things, things that are much bigger than themselves, whether it’s god or aliens. But often people also want proof and they seek to find it in the pyramids and other ancient monuments. It’s no wonder that the pyramids are incredible enough that they inspire people to believe the unbelievable. I myself don’t think there’s anything wrong with postulating that there might be other life out there in the universe, but I also don’t believe in robbing humanity of pride in its achievements.

I think it’s rather more inspiring to think that human beings, our own ancestors, created such spectacular monumental achievements. However, some people see the concept of civilization as progressive, that humans only continue to improve upon the past, so they think that just because we are uncertain about how the pyramids were built and we ourselves would struggle to replicate their achievement, it is impossible that humans of the past could have done it.

They say that since the pyramids of Giza were built about 4500 years ago, people back then couldn’t have been skilled enough to do it. However, we’re ignoring that numerous remarkable developments were happening all those millennia ago. There are many things that were discovered in the distant past that still serve us today. The Egyptians made many brilliant innovations (something I will have to write more about in another post): simple things that we still use today, which have barely changed over the millennia since they first conceived, from the earliest forms of paper and ink, to the 24 hour day.

People say that since we wouldn’t be able to build pyramids today, that the Egyptians couldn’t have done it, but it’s not just building of the pyramids that couldn’t be replicated today. It’s hard to imagine ever being able to pull together the resources, power, money, skilled craftsmen, and architects needed to build one of the great gothic cathedrals in this day and age. It just couldn’t happen. This isn’t something to be ashamed of though, we simply use different technologies and have different priorities these days. While we couldn’t build another Notre Dame Cathedral or Great Pyramid, modern structures like the Eiffel Tower or the Gherkin wouldn’t have been possible back then either. Pyramids were possible simply because the entire economy, resources, and population of the Egyptian civilization was under the control of a single omnipotent ruler, who could mobilize them all into a monumental building project.

To argue that just because we don’t know every detail about how the pyramids were built would be a logical fallacy (an argument from ignorance) and does not prove that aliens must have built them. We have so much evidence that strongly indicates that the Egyptians themselves were responsible for building the pyramids. We have archaeological evidence of their construction: remains of the quarries, roads, tools, records of the workers and the towns in which they lived. We know why they built them and we can even observe their lengthy and imperfect evolution before they reached their architectural peak with the Great Pyramid.

To properly address the issues out there, I will cite from a number of websites that support the theory that aliens built the pyramids and some of the comments that individuals have posted there, and explain why they are incorrect. I randomly chose a number of sites from the top Google search hits for aliens and pyramids. I don’t want to single anyone out or anything, so I won’t use any names attached to the comments. The various websites from which they derive are listed at the end of this post.

I am no great pyramid expert myself, so I must acknowledge an enormous debt to the work of Mark Lehner and Dieter Arnold, from whom most of my information derives, along with other Egyptological sources, all of which are also listed at the end. I’d recommend Lehner’s ‘The Complete Pyramids’ as the best general book on the subject if you want to learn more. It is very readable with lots of illustrations and diagrams.

Why were the pyramids built?

Referring to the alien theory, someone states: ‘It’s the most sensible theory. Why would ancient Egyptians build such monstrosities just to bury their kings?’ Alien theorists say that it’s a mystery why the Egyptians or other ancient people would build such immense monuments. Therefore, it must have been aliens. But why on earth would the aliens want to build these monuments? And on earth? That makes even less sense. We definitely know the purpose behind the building of the pyramids.

They were used as tombs for the ancient Egyptian kings, but they represented much more than just a grave. They were iconic symbols of the supreme power of the ruler; what better way of showing your subjects who’s boss, than conscripting them to build you a monolith that dominates the entire landscape? Above all, they were monuments to divine Egyptian kingship, the place where the king would be transformed into a god. One of the most important Egyptian myths tells how an ancient king named Osiris was murdered by his evil usurping brother, who in turn was eventually defeated by the rightful heir to the throne, Osiris’ son Horus. In death, Egyptian kings were thought to take on the role of Osiris, the ruler of the underworld, while their son assumed the role of Horus and the kingship. And although deceased, the former king would join the eternal cycle of life to be reborn everyday with the sun god. The pyramid was thought to facilitate this. This also legitimized the rule of the successor to the throne, since the pyramid was a symbol of his father’s new divinity.

There are a number of reasons why these tombs were built in a pyramidal form. First of all, they developed out of an older form of monumental royal tombs called mastabas, which were flat-roofed rectangular buildings, that an enterprising architect named Imhotep then decided to adapt by stacking one on top of the other into a step pyramid form. Also, the pyramid was intended as a place of rebirth. An Egyptian creation myth tells of the birth of the world as a primeval mound rising out of the waters of chaos. The pyramid is a stylized mound.

In a country where the sun is always shining, the sun god Re was the supreme deity, and the king aspired to join him in being reborn every dawn. The pyramid form echoed the rays of the sun and its staircase like form allowed it to serve as an instrument of ascension. Each of the pyramids was capped with a pyramidal stone block, or pyramidion, and the carvings on the one from Amenemhat III’s pyramid at Dashur confirm its celestial role for the king; it is inscribed with a pair of eyes looking up at the sundisk and hieroglyphs that read ‘Amenemhat beholds the perfection of Re’.

The ancient names for the pyramids themselves reveal a great deal about their purpose as royal monuments and symbolic locations for the king’s divine transformation and journey to heaven. The Great Pyramid is called ‘Khufu’s horizon’, and the other two Giza pyramids are called ‘Great is Khafre’ and ‘Menkaure is Divine’. Other pyramid names include ‘Djedefre is a Sehed-Star’ and Sahure’s ‘Rising of the Ba-Spirit’. Just because the Egyptians were interested in the celestial aspect of the afterlife though, doesn’t mean they had to be inspired by aliens. People throughout history have been fascinated by the stars, and I don’t think anyone’s calling Galileo an alien.

The pyramids themselves were clearly part of Egyptian religious tradition, forming the focal point for the worship of the deceased king. Some of the rituals involved cleaning, dressing, and offering food and drink to statues of the king, who was undoubtedly human rather than green or tentacled. We actually have records of the day-to-day activities centred around the pyramids. The Abusir papyri preserve detailed records of the daily activities at the pyramids and of the people who worked there, including schedules of priest and guard duties; inventories of pyramid temple equipment; financial accounts; lists of goods supplied and stored; and records of architectural inspections.

The Egyptians had strong cultural, religious, and political reasons for building the pyramids and there is no reason to question their purpose.
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