11 Things You May Not Know About Ancient Egypt

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From the earliest recorded peace treaty to ancient board games, discover 11 surprising facts about the Gift of the Nile.

1. Cleopatra was not Egyptian.

Along with King Tut, perhaps no figure is more famously associated with ancient Egypt than Cleopatra VII. But while she was born in Alexandria, Cleopatra was actually part of a long line of Greek Macedonians originally descended from Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s most trusted lieutenants. The Ptolemaic Dynasty ruled Egypt from 323 to 30 B.C., and most of its leaders remained largely Greek in their culture and sensibilities. In fact, Cleopatra was famous for being one of the first members of the Ptolemaic dynasty to actually speak the Egyptian language.

2. The ancient Egyptians forged one of the earliest peace treaties on record.

For over two centuries the Egyptians fought against the Hittite Empire for control of lands in modern day Syria. The conflict gave rise to bloody engagements like 1274 B.C.’s Battle of Kadesh, but by time of the pharaoh Ramses II neither side had emerged as a clear victor. With both the Egyptians and Hittites facing threats from other peoples, in 1259 B.C. Ramses II and the Hittite King Hattusili III negotiated a famous peace treaty. This agreement ended the conflict and decreed that the two kingdoms would aid each other in the event of an invasion by a third party. The Egyptian-Hittite treaty is now recognized as one of the earliest surviving peace accords, and a copy can even be seen above the entrance to the United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York.

3. Ancient Egyptians loved board games.

After a long day’s work along the Nile River, Egyptians often relaxed by playing board games. Several different games were played, including “Mehen” and “Dogs and Jackals,” but perhaps the most popular was a game of chance known as “Senet.” This pastime dates back as far as 3500 B.C. and was played on a long board painted with 30 squares. Each player had a set of pieces that were moved along the board according to rolls of dice or the throwing sticks. Historians still debate Senet’s exact rules, but there is little doubt of the game’s popularity. Paintings depict Queen Nefertari playing Senet, and pharaohs like Tutankhamen even had game boards buried with them in their tombs.

4. Egyptian women had a wide range of rights and freedoms.

While they may have been publicly and socially viewed as inferior to men, Egyptian women enjoyed a great deal of legal and financial independence. They could buy and sell property, serve on juries, make wills and even enter into legal contracts. Egyptian women did not typically work outside the home, but those who did usually received equal pay for doing the same jobs as men. Unlike the women of ancient Greece, who were effectively owned by their husbands, Egyptian women also had the right to divorce and remarry. Egyptian couples were even known to negotiate an ancient prenuptial agreement. These contracts listed all the property and wealth the woman had brought into the marriage and guaranteed that she would be compensated for it in the event of a divorce.

5. Egyptian workers were known to organize labor strikes.

Even though they regarded the pharaoh as a kind of living god, Egyptian workers were not afraid to protest for better working conditions. The most famous example came in the 12th century B.C. during the reign of the New Kingdom pharaoh Ramses III. When laborers engaged in building the royal necropolis at Deir el-Medina did not receive their usual payment of grain, they organized one of the first recorded strikes in history. The protest took the form of a sit-in: The workers simply entered nearby mortuary temples and refused to leave until their grievances were heard. The gamble worked, and the laborers were eventually given their overdue rations.

6. Egyptian pharaohs were often overweight.

Egyptian art commonly depicts pharaohs as being trim and statuesque, but this was most likely not the case. The Egyptian diet of beer, wine, bread and honey was high in sugar, and studies show that it may have done a number on royal waistlines. Examinations of mummies have indicated that many Egyptian rulers were unhealthy and overweight, and even suffered from diabetes. A notable example is the legendary Queen Hatshepsut, who lived in the 15th century B.C. While her sarcophagus depicts her as slender and athletic, historians believe she was actually obese and balding.

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