Lately, it’s Egypt’s history in the making that’s been grabbing headlines. But it’s a more ancient sort of history that lures most of us into Egyptian travels. The fascination starts early. Teachers go large on Ancient Egypt, because they know it gets even the most fidgety pupils hooked on history. And, let’s face it, those half-remembered lessons are part of the inspiration for your Egypt holidays all these years later. But can you rely on just the stuff about pyramids and pharaohs that you learnt when you were 12? Will those musty scraps really give you much insight into the temples, tombs – and lives – of the ancients?
Perhaps it’s time to revise. Holidays shouldn’t involve too much homework, though, so I’ve put together a handy primer of fresh facts for you to pack – and debunked some tired myths, too.
Aliens built the pyramids, right?
Wrong! Let’s not confuse history with lessons learned in the school of the internet. How about some myth-busting pyramid facts, instead?
The Great Pyramid of Giza, near modern-day El Giza, is made of roughly 2.5 million limestone blocks and points almost exactly north. It’s an astonishing feat considering that the Pole Star, which marks celestial north today, wasn’t in place in ancient Egyptian skies. How ancient Egyptians achieved such accuracy has long baffled Egyptologists – and inspired alien tales from people who believe the pyramid-builders were ‘ancient astronauts’.
Thankfully, there’s a more credible theory that shows how ancient Egyptians could have observed the alignment of two stars to find north. It tells us about the sophistication of ancient Egyptian astronomy and its importance in religion, too. After all, pyramids were often tombs for pharaohs, who were considered gods on earth destined for an afterworld in the sky.
You can’t keep up with the all the gods
From powerful creator gods to personal deities, the ancient Egyptians collectively worshipped around 2000 gods. From schooldays, you’re probably already familiar with the likes of sun-god Ra and jackal-headed Anubis. But it’s worth discovering others, too, such as the Nile’s crocodile-headed god Sobek.
Ancient Egyptians believed the Nile flowed with Sobek’s sweat. Today, you can get a glimpse into how the ancients worshipped Sobek by taking a Nile cruise from Aswan to the temple of Kom Ombo.
The ancient stuff isn’t all ancient Egyptian
You’ll see temples aplenty on a Nile tour, but some of them are actually Greco-Roman (such as the Temple of Horace in Edfu). These are the ‘new’-looking ones (no more than 2200 years’ old!). Anything from the ancient Egyptian era will look pretty worn at 3000-plus years old.
You’d better like cats
When in Egypt, do as the Egyptians do and respect the cat! Cats are still loved in Egypt today, but they lived truly lavish lives in ancient times. Domestic cats (considered protectors of their households) were treated with such dignity that they were mummified and buried after death, and sometimes memorialised with the kind of statues you can see in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Some cats even wore jewellery!
And if you’re a cat lover, you’ve got a lot to thank the ancient Egyptians for. They were the first to domesticate cats (more than 6000 years ago) and all cats today are descended from those pampered ancient Egyptian kitties.
It was all hieroglyphs to them, too
As few as 2% of Egyptians could read or write, and most of those used more everyday handwritten scripts (called ‘heiratic’ and ‘demotic’ script) for letters and records. Hieroglyphs were preserved for royal and sacred purposes.