Was Ancient Egypt a White Civilisation

Ancient Egyptians were, no doubt, pioneers of a tremendous and startling number of inventions that are still relevant to us to this day. They were gifted with conceptualizing great inventions in their minds and bringing them into reality with their hands.

The pyramids, which is the most talked-about innovation of Ancient Egypt, still standing today, serve as a testament to how sound they were architecturally. They put much effort into the construction of those pyramids because it was where the Pharaohs of Egypt were buried as they believed treasures were needed to be buried alongside the Pharaoh so he could use them in the afterlife.

Besides this major feat accomplished by Ancient Egyptians, research has also shown that other inventions like paper and ink, writing, math, the earliest uses of wig and makeup, medicines, furniture, calendar, toothpaste, perfume, and many more can be linked to Ancient Egypt.

Thus, it can be said that their civilisation had a significant effect on the way people today dress, eat, communicate, travel, et cetera.

But who were Ancient Egyptians? How did they look like? Was Ancient Egypt a white civilisation or a black one? We shall find out in the course of this article…

Egyptian tomb wall-painting, circa 1826
Egyptian tomb wall-painting, c.1826/Unsplash.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt lasted from 3100 B.C. when Narmer reigned as Egypt’s first king and ended in 30 B.C. when, under Cleopatra and her son and co-ruler, Caesarion, it fell to the Roman Empire and, thus, became a Roman province.

The Ancient Egyptian Empire began to experience a decline in about 700 BC. It was dominated by several other civilisations. The first to conquer Egypt was the Assyrian Empire, the Persian Empire followed suit about a hundred years later. Subsequently, Alexander the Great of Greece in 332 BC, conquered Egypt and set up his Dynasty which was known as the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Finally, the Romans came in 30 BC and reduced the once-powerful Egypt to a mere province of Rome.

Alexander and his horse-Bucephalus
King Alexander the Great and Bucephalus – Battle of Issus mosaic – created c.100 BC. Alexander named a city after his horse/Public Domain.

The civilisation has been attached to solid relations with other territories bringing in and exporting goods, food, tradition, religion, people, and goals. At different points in time, ancient Egypt dominated and ruled surrounding regions outside the modern-day country’s border, today known as Sudan, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Palestine.

The Ethnicity of Ancient Egypt

There has been a long-standing controversy as to the ethnicity of the ancient peoples of the Nile Valley, Egypt. The lingering question is whether they were ‘black’ or ‘white’. Some have argued for the former while others, the latter. A few others remain neutral opining that it was neither black nor white.

Egypt was conquered a number of times – by Alexander the Great, the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and more. Did these invasions have any major effects on their genetics?

Argument for White Civilisation

As far back as the 19th century, the Americans and Europeans have the record for being the first to disagree with the ethnic background of the ancient Egyptians in their works. A classic example of such can be seen in an October 1833 article published in The New-England Magazine, where the writers opposed a claim celebrating Herodotus as the benchmark for their being Negroes.

They noted that: “It may be observed that the complexion of the men is invariably red, that of the women yellow; but neither of them can be said to have anything in their physiognomy at all resembling the Negro countenance.”

The UNESCO, in 1974, organised a symposium in Cairo on the “Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of the Meroitic Script.” The black theory was faced with “profound” dissent by scholars. In a like manner, none of the attendees lent their voice supporting an earlier hypothesis that Egyptians were “white with a dark or even black, pigmentation.”

The_Ten_Commandments
Yul Brynner (Rameses) and Anne Baxter (Queen Nefertari) in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandment, 1956/The Voice.

The conclusion drawn by most participants at the UNESCO conference of 1974 was that the people of ancient Egypt were indigenous to the Nile Valley, and comprised of people from north and south of the Sahara who were distinguished by their colour.

It would seem that Hollywood has also taken a position, upholding the origin of the Egyptians to be white. This is evidenced by the domination of whites in their castings for movies based on ancient Egypt.

Argument for Black Civilisation

Perhaps one of the strongest proofs in favour of African descent of Egyptian civilisation stems from the fact that Egyptians themselves called their land Kamit, translating to the Black Land, whilst their name for themselves was Kamiu, which means the Blacks.

Furthermore, they used the phrase Khenti or Khentiu to refer to the lands to the south of them which were generally inhabited by the Sudanic peoples.

In the 1800s, A French philosopher, Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney, wrote about the Egyptian race disputation.

He wrote that the Copts were the proper representatives of the Ancient Egyptians due to their jaundiced and fumed skin, which is neither Greek, Negro nor Arab; de Chassebœuf said their full faces, their puffy eyes, their crushed noses, and their thick lips showed that the ancient Egyptians were true negroes of the same type as all native-born Africans.

Also, we can decipher from Egyptian art that the people were portrayed with reddish, olive, or yellow skin tones. Even the Great Sphinx of Giza, commonly referred to as the Sphinx, has been described as having Nubian or sub-Saharan attributes; and literary works from Greek writers like Herodotus and Aristotle referred to Egyptians as having dark skin.

ancient-egypt
The Sphinx of Ancient Egypt/Unsplash.

Many Western scholars, especially in the early 2000s, could not bring themselves to accept that black people could have created such great civilisation. To this day, they perpetuate and give room to the racist proposition that only white people ever could and ever will be capable of such architectural attainment.

The Neutrals

Conventional scholars reject the idea that Egypt was either a black or white civilisation; they opine that applying current notions of black or white races to ancient Egypt is anachronistic.

Below are what some renowned scholars have had to say on the issue of Ancient Egypt Civilisation not being black or white:

Barbara Mertz writes in Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt: “Egyptian civilisation was not Mediterranean or African, Semitic or Hamitic, black or white, but all of them. It was, in short, Egyptian.”

Kathryn Bard, a professor of Archaeology and Classical Studies, wrote on the racial issue of the ancient Egyptians that “Egyptians were the indigenous farmers of the lower Nile valley, neither black nor white as races are conceived of today.”

Nicky Nielsen noted in his book Egyptomaniacs: How We Became Obsessed with Ancient Egypt that “Ancient Egypt was neither black nor white, and the repeated attempt by advocates of either ideology to seize the ownership of ancient Egypt simply perpetuates an old tradition: one of removing agency and control of their heritage from the modern population living along the banks of the Nile.”

Abu Simbel Temples, Egypt
The Abu Simbel Temples, Egypt/Unsplash.

Proponents of this school of thought believe that enough evidence has not yet been gathered to make a precise judgment about the complexion of the ancient Egyptians.

While it is true that bodies have been exhumed and researched on, mummies are too desiccated to show appropriate skin tone, and the little amount of genetic evidence they have birthed thus far does not do much to answer the question at hand. They have been heard to say that minor alterations in bone structure do not accurately reveal the race of a recently deceased human, how much more a 3,000-year-old corpse? 

Genetic testing on ancient Egyptians has been met with a lot of difficulties. But DNA tests on present-day Egyptians reveals that their genes are similar to that of the people from the rest of the Middle East and interposed between peoples from Southern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Contemporary Egyptians however ethnically identify themselves as Arabs.

Conclusion

Ancient Egypt was an ethnically/racially diverse region, the reason being that the Nile River within their vicinity attracted people from all over. None of the old Egyptian writings from that period suggest that the people were engrossed with skin colour or placed much focus on it.

Those who simply obeyed the king followed laid down rules, conversed in the language, and worshipped the proper gods were considered Egyptian. Foreigners were even permitted to marry Egyptians.

The-Ten-Commandments-1956
Black Nubian emissaries appeal to the White Egyptian rulers in in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandment, 1956/Creepy Catalog.

While we cannot ascertain whether Ancient Egyptian civilisation was black or white, we also cannot deny the effect it has in our world today.

Finally, assuming without conceding that the race of the ancient Egyptians was of grand importance to the civilisation, then the odds would be in favour of the blacks as evidence tilts in their direction.

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Sources

Abad-Santos, A. (2014, August 4). Hollywood likes to pretend that ancient Egypt was full of white people. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2014/8/4/5955253/Hollywood-egypt-white-people-exodus-gods-and-kings

BBC. (n.d.). The Story of Africa: Nile Valley. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/3chapter5.shtml

Ducksters. (n.d.). World History: Ancient Egypt For Kids. Retrieved from https://www.ducksters.com/history/ancient_egypt.php

Forbes, M. (2020, September 13). 10 Ancient Egyptian Inventions That Will Surprise You. Retrieved from https://www.thecollector.com/ancient-egyptian-inventions/

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III, C. S. (1987, October 11). The Black Roots of Egypt’s Glory. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1987/10/11/the-black-roots-of-egypts-glory/1c3faf74-331c-4cc1-a6a0-3535fa3e098a/

Jarus, O. (2016, July 28). Ancient Egypt: A Brief History. Retrieved January 2020, from https://www.livescience.com/55578-egyptian-civilisation.html

Palmer, B. (2014, December). How White Were Ancient Egyptians? Not As White As Christian Bale. Retrieved from https://slate.com/technology/2014/12/ridley-scotts-exodus-were-ancient-egyptians-white-black-or-brown.html

Perry, P. (2017, June 11). Were the ancient Egyptians black or white? Scientists now know. Retrieved from https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/were-the-ancient-egyptians-black-or-white-scientists-now-know

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Ancient Egyptian race controversy. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_race_controversy

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