11 Things You May Not Know About Ancient Egypt

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7. The pyramids were not built by slaves.

The life of a pyramid builder certainly wasn’t easy—skeletons of workers commonly show signs of arthritis and other ailments—but evidence suggests that the massive tombs were built not by slaves but by paid laborers. These ancient construction workers were a mix of skilled artisans and temporary hands, and some appear to have taken great pride in their craft. Graffiti found near the monuments suggests they often assigned humorous names to their crews like the “Drunkards of Menkaure” or the “Friends of Khufu.” The idea that slaves built the pyramids at the crack of a whip was first conjured by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., but most historians now dismiss it as myth. While the ancient Egyptians were certainly not averse to keeping slaves, they appear to have mostly used them as field hands and domestic servants.

8. King Tut may have been killed by a hippopotamus.

Surprisingly little is known about the life of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, but some historians believe they know how he died. Scans of the young king’s body show that he was embalmed without his heart or his chest wall. This drastic departure from traditional Egyptian burial practice suggests that he may have suffered a horrific injury prior to his death. According to a handful of Egyptologists, one of the most likely causes for this wound would have been a bite from a hippopotamus. Evidence indicates that the Egyptians hunted the beasts for sport, and statues found in King Tut’s tomb even depict him in the act of throwing a harpoon. If the boy pharaoh was indeed fond of stalking dangerous game, then his death might have been the result of a hunt gone wrong.

9. Some Egyptian doctors had specialized fields of study.

An ancient physician was usually a jack-of-all-trades, but evidence shows that Egyptian doctors sometimes focused on healing only one part of the human body. This early form of medical specialization was first noted in 450 B.C. by the traveler and historian Herodotus. Discussing Egyptian medicine, he wrote, “Each physician is a healer of one disease and no more…some of the eye, some of the teeth, some of what pertains to the belly.” These specialists even had specific names. Dentists were known as “doctors of the tooth,” while the term for proctologists literally translates to “shepherd of the anus.”

10. Egyptians kept many animals as pets.

The Egyptians saw animals as incarnations of the gods and were one of the first civilizations to keep household pets. Egyptians were particularly fond of cats, which were associated with the goddess Bastet, but they also had a reverence for hawks, ibises, dogs, lions and baboons. Many of these animals held a special place in the Egyptian home, and they were often mummified and buried with their owners after they died. Other creatures were specially trained to work as helper animals. Egyptian police officers, for example, were known to use dogs and even trained monkeys to assist them when out on patrol.

11. Egyptians of both sexes wore makeup.

Vanity is as old as civilization, and the ancient Egyptians were no exception. Both men and women were known to wear copious amounts of makeup, which they believed gave them the protection of the gods Horus and Ra. These cosmetics were made by grinding ores like malachite and galena into a substance called kohl. It was then liberally applied around the eyes with utensils made out of wood, bone and ivory. Women would also stain their cheeks with red paint and use henna to color their hands and fingernails, and both sexes wore perfumes made from oil, myrrh and cinnamon. The Egyptians believed their makeup had magical healing powers, and they weren’t entirely wrong: Research has shown that the lead-based cosmetics worn along the Nile actually helped stave off eye infections.

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