Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

What they left behind

By Amina Elbendary

For most Egyptians, the Pharaohs could almost be extraterrestrial creatures who happened to live here a long, long time ago. Sure, they left monuments: enormous buildings, exquisite tombs, millions of artefacts. But we and they are worlds, not to mention millennia, apart. What do we know of them? How do we relate to them? What on earth could we have in common with those thin, supple people in loincloths and wigs?

What contemporary Egyptians share with their ancestors is more than meets the eye. At least, that was the argument put forth by Mona Zoheir El-Shayeb, professor of archaeology at Cairo University, and Gamal Hermina of the Coptic Museum. El-Shayeb and Hermina participated in a seminar held last week at the One Horizon hall of the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, entitled "Ancient Egyptian influences on our daily lives."

Mona El-Shayeb introduced the ancient Egyptian habits and rituals of hygiene, many of which persist among us today. It is part of the arrogant bias of contemporary societies -- societies in which the ideas of progress have been enshrined -- to assume that ancient societies were backward, underdeveloped, and generally, well, "dirty."

Not so the ancient Egyptians, El-Shayeb tells us. These people were preoccupied with their bodies, and this didn't simply mean attention to dress and accessories. Elegance started with personal hygiene. The ancient Egyptians were pioneers in many things, of course, including the home bathroom.

For centuries, people around the globe had to resort to public facilities -- public hammams -- in order to bathe, and toilets were generally built outside dwellings. That wouldn't have been practical for the Egyptians, who typically bathed at least twice a day. The prototypical Egyptian dwelling had a bathroom and -- sometimes separate from it -- a toilet. Some houses even had a guest bathroom! Bathrooms were traditionally built in the southeast corner of the house, so as to be in the opposite direction to the wind, which in Egypt mostly comes from the northwest. Houses had elaborate stone-lined sewage systems.

Ancient Egyptians also devised special chemical formulas for cosmetics; soap, dyes, hair removers, mostly derived from available plants and animals. Men shaved their beards, as do most Egyptian men today. In fact, a man grew his beard in mourning -- another persisting habit. In bas-reliefs in Egyptian tombs and temples, a beard and moustache are actually a sign of a person's "lowly" status; it is workers and peasants and people preoccupied with work who are sometimes depicted with beards. Open-air shaving was one of the rituals of the typical Egyptian, and indeed the mizayyin (barber or barber-surgeon) remains an important personality in Egyptian villages till today, setting up shop in the village square or else travelling with his tools throughout the fields.

Men generally shaved their heads, for relief from heat and sweat, and opted for wigs on special and official occasions. Women, however, only cut their hair in mourning, a woman's long hair being an important sign of her beauty and attractiveness.

El-Shayeb also broached the subject of accessories that were extremely important to ancient Egyptian life. It is well known that kuhl and the makhala -- still favourites among traditional Egyptians today -- date back to the Pharaonic period. In fact, ancient Egyptian craftsmen -- and craftswomen? -- came up with inventive and creative designs for these makhalas as well as other cosmetic accessories.

The fundamental cosmetic accessory, however, remains the mirror. Mirrors played both material and spiritual roles for our ancestors. The first mirrors were bowls or planes covered with liquids that reflected images. Metal mirrors, dating back to the fourth and fifth dynasties, were designed in innovative shapes, including that of the lotus flower. Mirrors were buried alongside their owners since they preserved dead souls. Upon resurrection a mirror reflected back to the dead their former features.

Top: spoon for cosmetics (predynastic period); mirror with case (18th dynasty). From The Treasures of the Egyptian Museum , AUC Press, 1999
While Mona El-Shayeb outlined some persisting ancient Egyptian personal habits, Gamal Hermina's presentation proved that this heritage is ingrained in the Egyptian way of life, even in the words we speak. Ancient Egyptian language and vocabulary passed down to us through Coptic, itself ancient Egyptian written in the Greek alphabet. Hermina argues that more than 7,000 words in current Egyptian usage are in fact ancient Egyptian in origin. These are words that people use everyday without consciously questioning their origins, they have become part of Egyptian 'ammiya (colloquial) Arabic.

Many place names are ancient Egyptian in origin, and very often they have meaningful connotations. Shubra means farm; Shubra Khit is the northern farm while Shubra Mant is the western farm; Aswan comes from swain or market, named after the market held there for merchants from the south and Ethiopia. Qena means embrace, and the city was thus named because the Nile turns in a half circle -- like an embrace -- at this spot! Many cities were named after ancient Egyptian deities like Damanhour, city of the god Horus, Ahnasia, the seat of the child Horus, Tal Basta in Sharqiya, named after the cat-god Bessa (in fact, many Egyptians still call cats "bissa.")

Similarly, many first names -- especially ones that are favourites among Copts -- are ancient Egyptian. Take Bayoumi, meaning "of the sea:" the name comes from Fayoum, which means lake; Wanis comes from Onas, meaning the truly existing; Bisa comes from the goddess Isis; while Bishay is feast.

In addition, many words that we use daily -- and are considered vulgar or common by many -- are also ancient Egyptian in origin. These include lakkaka for someone who talks too much without use; fashush, meaning empty, yibalbat, meaning to wade in water, bahh, meaning finished; kani mani, meaning butter and honey; and layis, meaning caught in mud. Also, fangari is someone who wastes money, himm means hurry up, and malqaf means draught.

The ancient Egyptian way of life persists nowhere as it does among peasants, especially in regulating the agricultural cycles. Despite the meteorological changes and developments in irrigation and planting patterns, the Egyptian agricultural calendar retains many of its ancient characteristics. This is particularly evident in the names of Coptic months, still in use by peasants. Egyptian farmers have inherited sayings that define each month according to its weather and agricultural characteristics.

Some ancient Egyptian words have even passed on to international languages. Chemistry comes from kimi, meaning Egypt; ammonia comes from the name of the god Amun, since the gas was first discovered next to a temple dedicated to Amun, and medicine comes from the ancient Egyptian mitsini.

El-Shayeb and Hermina have shown that our ancient Egyptian heritage is richer and more ingrained in our contemporary lives than a quick tour of the Egyptian Museum might imply. It is a legacy we carry with us wherever we go.

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