Religious Life and Death


All know the monstrous worships that defile the Egyptians.

They adore the crocodile and the ibis gorged on snake,

While in awe they gape before the golden image of an ape.

The leek’s taboo! Don’t chew an onion head!

O holy people, whose gods are garden-bred,

They spare the woolly race and won’t permit

The throat of any goatbitch to be slit,

Yet unrebuked, at meals of human flesh they sit.1

The theology of ancient Egypt, with its awesome pantheon of animal-headed deities, its imposing temples and its idiosyncratic preparations for death, has fascinated observers from the end of the Dynastic period onwards. Juvenal’s largely inaccurate religious satire quoted above – far from being taboo the onion was a staple of the Egyptian diet, while there is certainly no evidence to support claims of bloodthirsty acts of priestly cannibalism – indicates how even to the peoples of the classical world the gods of Egypt were a powerful and exciting mystery, the subjects of endless superstition and rumour. Two thousand years later tourists continue to flock in vast numbers to gaze in wonder at the pyramids and there speculate on the faith which inspired such extravagant building projects, while the mystical names of Isis, her husband–brother Osiris and her son Horus, have retained their power to conjure up vivid images of ancient beliefs and dark, intriguing rituals.

It would certainly not be possible to make any valid study of Egyptian society without giving some consideration to the religion which played an important political role within the Egyptian state, and which may be supposed to have influenced the thoughts and daily actions of her people. However, any such consideration must be taken with a suitable degree of caution. It is extremely difficult for us, looking back over a vast span of historical events, to evaluate the precise influence of past beliefs. Although we are fortunate enough to have both written and archaeological evidence for a variety of religious and superstitious rituals it must always be remembered that we are able to observe only some of the outward or material signs of inner faith. It may be very tempting to impose our own expectations and preconceptions on the Egyptians, to the extent of imagining that we might actually be able to understand how they thought and felt, but this would clearly be wrong. We only have to consider the problems of a twenty-second-century archaeologist trying to identify all aspects of Christian doctrine, based on the excavation of a few churches plus a study of the Bible, to see how difficult an attempted interpretation of past religions can be.

The conventional phrase ‘Egyptian religion’, with its implication of one single creed enshrined in holy writings and accepted by all, is actually very misleading. Throughout the Dynastic period there were several distinct but related aspects of Egyptian spiritual life which were able to co-exist happily, each gradually evolving and developing through time while always overlapping with the others. The two extremes which may easily be both recognized and classified were the official or major tradition, represented by the formal state theology and its associated bureaucracy, and the unofficial or minor tradition which included the less respectable arts often lumped together under the headings of magic, superstition and witchcraft. Between these two distinct poles lay the respectable semi-official religions; the regional and family cults which were very important in the lives of individual households and their members but of relatively little interest to the state. There was no obvious cut-off point between any of these religious approaches, and each influenced the ordinary man and woman to a greater or lesser extent. For example, the women of Deir el-Medina, living very close to the centre of the cult of the state god Amen, participated in the annual festivals of the major tradition but officially worshipped the more local patron deities of the Theban necropolis, the deified king Amenhotep I and his mother Ahmose Nefertari together with Meretseger (‘She-Loves-Silence’), the snake goddess of the Theban mountain who was also known as the ‘Peak of the West’. Evidence recovered from their houses, however, suggests that more personal family-based cults with a heavy emphasis on the gods and spirits associated with pregnancy and childbirth were at least equally important in their lives, while belief in the awesome powers of superstition and magic was widespread.


Fig. 42 Woman praying

This diversity of religious approach is by no means unusual. Indeed, it is widely recognized that where there is a highly focalized official religion with an intricate theology less sophisticated grassroots cults will often develop, adapting and reinterpreting certain facets of the mainstream belief while completely disregarding others. This is particularly common where the major tradition is primarily a male-oriented religion, controlled by an élite of upper-class educated men and therefore remote from the daily life of most women. In these circumstances men are often able to satisfy their religious needs by adherence to the state theology while women, excluded from fully participating in the rituals of their official faith and often unable to fully understand the intricacies of doctrine due to a lack of religious teaching, find their spiritual fulfilment by developing the minor traditions, or ‘woman’s superstitions’, without feeling that they are in any way deviating from the demands of their major religion.

This religious duality is still seen to a remarkable degree in present-day Egypt, where both Moslem and Christian peasant women retain a deep-rooted belief in the malignancy of certain spirits and the awesome powers of the evil eye. A village wife wishing to conceive a child, for example, is far more likely to call upon the spirits of her dead children or to obtain a spell from the local magician than to pray to Allah, and would not see this as a betrayal of her ‘official’ faith. Many modern village women feel that the ancient monuments of Egypt themselves possess magical or spiritual powers, and while walking across an archaeological site it is not unusual to find evidence for modern fertility rites – usually small heaps of recently broken pottery – associated with the ancient statues and images. Winifred Blackman observed this same phenomenon in an Egyptian village in the 1920s, where she attempted to help childless women conceive by enlisting the aid of ancient relics and modern Egyptian-style charms:

The ritual was as follows. The women first repaired to one of the ancient decorated tomb-chapels, conducted thither by one of our servants who had the key. On entering they each stepped seven times backwards and forwards over what they supposed to be the mouth of the shaft admitting to the subterranean burial chamber. When this performance was over they returned to the undecorated tomb-chapel in which I lived. Here I produced the charms, two of which were placed on the ground at a time. Then each woman solemnly stepped over them backwards and forwards seven times. Four charms in all were used, representing the head of Isis, a mummified divinity, a scarab and a cat. When this was accomplished the lower jaw-bone of an ancient Egyptian skull was placed on the ground. The same ceremony was yet again performed, being repeated with two complete ancient Egyptian heads, one a well-preserved mummified head, the other a skull. A glass of water was then brought, into which the blue glazed charms were dropped. Each woman drank some of the water, and then picked out the charms and sucked them, and some rubbed their bodies with these magical objects, and also applied the water to their persons.

Happily, Miss Blackman was able to report that at least two of the ladies helped in this way became pregnant soon after receiving their unorthodox treatment.

The state religion of ancient Egypt evolved with the unification of the country and remained relatively consistent throughout the Dynastic era, although it was at all times receptive to new ideas and flexible enough to accept foreign influences. Before unification each town or village simply worshipped its own omnipotent totem who provided a rational explanation for the puzzling and often frightening natural phenomena which would otherwise have worried the whole community. Everyone understood that neighbouring areas respected different gods, and people were happy to accept the polytheistic concept of many deities existing simultaneously while retaining their personal loyalty to one particular being. Following unification, several specific cults started to rise to prominence and, although individual communities continued to worship their own local gods, major national deities began to emerge. In particular, the cults of Re, the sun god, and Horus, the god associated with royalty, became politically very important due to the increased patronage of the king.

You are Amen, the Lord of the silent, who pays heed to the voice of the poor. When I call to you in my distress you come to rescue me. You give breath to me in my wretchedness and release me from my bondage.

New Kingdom stela from Deir el-Medina

It was not until the New Kingdom that some of the more conspicuous national gods started to take on particular specialized attributes and characteristics, a change which led directly to the development of Egyptian mythology. Meanwhile, the smaller regional cults continued to flourish under the supervision of local priestly families. Local temples and shrines were endowed with land and property by the monarch and their gods and goddesses, who were also included in the wider state pantheon, continued in their role as regional omnipotent deity. This dual role is somewhat confusing to modern observers but was perfectly acceptable to the Egyptians. For example, at Hermopolis Magna in Middle Egypt the ibis- or baboon-headed god Thoth, state god of writing and learning, was worshipped not simply because of his impressive educational skills but as the supreme deity of the region; the two distinct aspects of Thoth were certainly not felt to be mutually incompatible. The local versions of the gods and goddesses were generally far less specialized than their counterparts in the state pantheon, being more strongly associated with nature and the annual cycle of the Nile inundation which played an important part in day-to-day life.

Throughout this time the relationship between the ordinary people and the principal gods was conducted, in theory at least, exclusively through the monarch. The king, as a god himself, was the only person able to communicate with his fellow deities, and he automatically became the chief priest of all Egyptian cults. However, as he obviously could not be physically present to serve every god in every temple, priests were appointed from upper-class families to deputize for the king and perform all the necessary rituals. The monarch would normally choose to delegate much of his routine work to these deputies but would wish to be seen officiating during the important annual festivals of the major national gods, especially the Opet festival for Amen, the state god of the Egyptian Empire, when the statues of the god, his consort Mut and their child Khonsu were taken in a lengthy procession from the Luxor temple to the nearby temple of Karnak. This ritual journey was a great public spectacle, and the banks of the Nile were lined with Egyptians eager to get a glimpse of their god.


Fig. 43 The sky goddess Nut

This Egyptian state religion was clearly very different to the major faiths of the present day. Not only was it polytheistic, it was also a theology without a creed, with no real moral undertones and no tradition of pastoral care. Indeed, it was generally more important as a source of continuing unity and stability throughout the country than as a means of spiritual enlightenment. Although it was generally accepted that men and women should choose to lead a good life rather than a bad one, this moral code evolved more for the convenience of society than the gratification of the gods. Virtue did not necessarily reap any heavenly reward, and only the king was required to act in a fitting and proper manner to ensure the preservation of maat throughout the land. The gods themselves showed remarkably little concern over the behaviour of the ordinary Egyptians, although when directly provoked they could retaliate with a vengeance; the New Kingdom testimony of Neferabu, a draughtsman working at Deir el-Medina who had offended Ptah by swearing a false oath, tells us how he was struck blind as a punishment for the lies which had been interpreted as a lack of proper respect for the god:

I am a man who swore falsely by Ptah, Lord of maat, and he made me see darkness by day. I will announce his might to both those who are ignorant of him and those who know him, to both the small and the great. Beware of Ptah, Lord of maat, for he does not forgive anyone’s lapse! Refrain from using the name of Ptah falsely, for he who utters it falsely, will fall.

Priests were appointed simply to serve the god on behalf of their king, and consequently had absolutely no interest in the spiritual or other welfare of the people. The temples of Egypt should not be regarded as the ancient equivalent of cathedrals or mosques; they were built simply to be the homes of the gods, housing the cult statues within which the deities were thought to dwell. As such they had no congregation and, indeed, were usually out of bounds to the ordinary people. Access to the back part of the temple, which can be equated with the family rooms at the rear of the private houses, was restricted to the priesthood and the king who serviced the cult by providing food, drink and clothing and burning incense; the front part, which was decorated with scenes of royal propaganda, was thrown open to the general public only on special festival days, therefore there was no Egyptian equivalent of the Friday mosque, Saturday synagogue or Sunday church service.

The ordinary people were allowed to view the religious festivals which occurred throughout the year, although they were denied any ritual participation in these great events. The Opet festival, held at Thebes during the second month of the inundation, has already been mentioned. This ceremony, marked by a state holiday of at least eleven days, was clearly an occasion for national rejoicing; at Medinet Habu the celebrations were made extra special by the free distribution of over 11,300 loaves and 385 large jugs of beer. Later in the year the residents of Thebes enjoyed yet another public holiday as the statue of Amen made a second official journey from his Theban home, crossing the Nile to visit the mortuary temples of the past rulers of Egypt.

The Abydos equivalent of the Opet festival was the procession of the statue of Osiris from his temple at Abydos to his tomb at the Umm el-Qaab, the traditional site of the burials of the archaic kings of Egypt. The ritual of this procession seems to have re-enacted the myth of the death and burial of the god in a dramatic form which must have been quite similar to the English medieval passion-plays, and the reconstruction of the murder was followed by the triumphal return of the resurrected god to his home. It is best known from the description left to us by the Middle Kingdom official Ikhernofret, who had been sent to Abydos in order to oversee the refurbishment of the god’s processional paraphernalia. Ikhernofret left a commemorative limestone stela at Abydos detailing both his own important activities and the highlights of the religious drama:

I conducted the Great Procession, following in the god’s steps. I made the god’s boat sail, with Thoth at the helm… Decked in his beautiful regalia, he proceeded to the domain of Peqer… I followed the god to his house.

At Edfu the annual festival included a drama commemorating the victory of Horus over Seth, his justification before the tribunal of the gods, and the dismemberment of his former adversary. By re-performing these events, their beneficial effect was reinforced and the king used the play as a means of deflecting some of Horus’s triumph on to himself, ensuring a continuing prosperous reign. Not all the annual state festivals were so solemn, however; the Late Period celebration of the cat-headed goddess Bast held at the Delta town of Bubastis was clearly a more cheerful occasion. Herodotus has described how bands of excited pilgrims travelled by boat to the city, passing the journey by drinking, singing, more drinking, clapping, drinking again and playing musical instruments. Whenever they approached a town they steered their tipsy cargo towards the river bank and:

… while some of the women continue to play and sing others call out to the females of the place and hurl abuse at them, while a certain number dance, and some even stand up and expose their private parts. After proceeding in this fashion all along the river course they reach Bubastis, where they celebrate the feast with abundant sacrifices. More grape wine is consumed at this festival than in all the rest of the year.

The gods and goddesses of the New Kingdom pantheon were perceived as behaving in a remarkably human fashion, falling in love, marrying, quarrelling and indeed displaying many of the foibles and failings of their mortal counterparts. The goddesses therefore reflect, to a limited extent, the role of women within the community, providing us with one of our few opportunities to examine the behaviour of females – albeit mythological – outside the home environment. Within the pantheon there developed a natural hierarchy, and included among the more important of the gods were some impressively powerful goddesses. There was, however, no goddess as powerful as the most mighty of the gods, Osiris, Re and Amen, and initially no specific ‘earth mother’ particularly associated with the mysteries of fertility and creation. Although all the goddesses had originated as local deities capable of independent thought and action, in their state-goddess personae they followed Egyptian convention by marrying neighbouring gods of roughly equal stature and assuming the more passive woman’s role within the marriage. Typically, they bore a male child, thereby becoming associated with the approved feminine traits of fertility, motherhood and domesticity.


Fig. 44 Isis

Isis, perhaps the best known and most forceful of the goddesses, displayed decisive action only when attempting to protect and defend her husband, an admirable activity for a loyal Egyptian wife. Following Seth’s betrayal and dismemberment of Osiris, Isis and her sister Nephthys travelled to the ends of the earth to gather up his scattered remains so that he could eventually became whole again: ‘Rise up, Osiris, for Isis has your arm and Nephthys has your hand.’ Following this remarkable resurrection, Isis conceived a son, hiding in the marshes until she could safely present Horus before the tribunal of the gods where he was acknowledged as heir to his father. Motherhood slowly became an important part of the cult of Isis and, particularly during the Late Period, she was frequently illustrated breastfeeding the baby Horus. These depictions marked the transition of Isis from her relatively restricted role as a member of the Egyptian pantheon to more universal recognition as a mother goddess or earth mother. Isis remained an important goddess beyond the collapse of the Egyptian empire as her cult, carried by visiting sailors, first travelled to Rome and then spread throughout the Roman Empire, attracting mysterious rituals and doctrines. Within Egypt, it was only the gradual spread of Christianity which caused her adherents to dwindle, and her cult was still being practised on the Island of Philae, Upper Egypt, in the fifth century AD. The cult of Isis was always particularly important to women as she was variously perceived as being the patroness of marriage, a protector during childbirth and even the inventor of weaving. The major attraction of her cult in the Roman world, however, seems to have been that worshippers of both sexes were allowed to take an active part in the ceremonies rather than being forced to observe the rituals of the official priests.

The other highly influential Egyptian goddess was Hathor, ‘Lady of the Sycamores’ and mistress of love, music and drunkenness. Hathor was already a well-established goddess at the start of the Old Kingdom, as her prominent role on the Narmer Palette confirms, and she was still being worshipped in various forms during the Saite period some two thousand years later. She enjoyed a widespread popularity among women, and was depicted on many popular day-to-day female items such as mirrors, which were symbolically linked with both fertility and childbirth. Hathor’s role as a nurturer or provider was emphasized by her identification with the cow; she was either depicted as a cow-goddess or as a lady with obviously rounded cow’s ears and horns. Her cult, based at the Upper Egyptian town of Dendera, was served by a large number of female priestesses, often of high birth, who were supervised by relatively few male administrators. Hathor of Dendera was believed to be the wife of the nearby Horus of Edfu, and mother of Harsomtus, while the ‘Seven Hathors’ were connected with Hathor as a goddess of death.

There were, however, clear exceptions to the general rule of the goddess as a loyal wife preoccupied with approved feminine pursuits such as fertility, childbirth, music and love. Neith, the patron deity of the Delta town of Sais, had a slightly androgynous quality. Although she was always depicted as a woman she was linked with the undeniably masculine concerns of war and hunting, and she was often depicted carrying a bow or crossed arrows, so that eventually she became identified with the Greek warrior maiden Athene. Neith may be compared with Sekhmet, the bloodthirsty lion-headed goddess of war and sickness, who was only narrowly thwarted in her mission to destroy all of mankind by the cunning intervention of Re.2 In her less dramatic moments, Sekhmet was the consort of Ptah and the mother of Nefertum at Memphis, and she had a more benevolent counterpart in Bast, the cat-headed goddess of Bubastis.

Several warlike goddesses were imported into Egypt during the New Kingdom, and it says much for the flexibility of the religious system that they were able to find a niche in the official pantheon without any undue fuss. The Canaanite goddess Astarte, who is also identified with the Assyrio-Babylonian goddess Ishtar, is either depicted as a lion-headed goddess driving a chariot over her vanquished enemies or as a naked goddess riding a horse and wielding a dangerous-looking sword and battle-axe; in her more gentle persona of Ashtoreth she is again shown as a beautiful naked woman, often identified with Hathor in her role as goddess of love. Anath was the Syrian war-goddess who in Egypt became ‘Lady of Heaven’ and ‘Mistress of the Gods’, the daughter of Re and the consort of Seth. Although she usually dressed in a conventional feminine style, she carried a battle-axe and spear to indicate where her real interests lay.


Behold, I will announce to the great and the small who are in the troop: Beware of the Peak, for there is a lion within her! The Peak pounces with the movement of a savage lion, and she goes after him who offends her.

New Kingdom stela from Deir el-Medina

Everyday religious life was very much centred around the cults of the family past and present. Bonds with living relatives were crucial to the family-centred Egyptians, and there was at all times a deeply felt and permanent link with the dead relations who were in many ways still regarded as family members. Paying honour to immediate ancestors was therefore regarded as a particularly important religious requirement. Those who were affluent enough to build their own private tombs made sure that they included an integral above-ground chapel in the plan. This allowed the living to visit the tomb and make offerings to the spirit dwelling in the body of the deceased family member who was interred at the bottom of a shaft dug within or in front of the chapel. Separate shafts were excavated for the husband, wife and young unmarried children, and each succeeding generation hoped to build a new tomb to house their own nuclear family.

Tomb ownership was, however, a luxury denied to most Egyptians who were forced to express their reverence either at the graveside or, more usually, at the family altar or shrine. In poorer houses this shrine was a simple decorated niche or cupboard set in the wall of the main room directly opposite a doorway. More wealthy families were able to build elaborate free-standing chapels in the gardens of their spacious villas. The shrine usually held a small sacred image, a carving or statue which represented a composite of the patron god or goddess, the king and the souls of all the deceased family members. The function of the family shrine or chapel extended beyond that of the tomb-chapel, being concerned not only with the welfare of the recently departed but also with the worship of a mixture of local cult gods and goddesses, minor deities and the king. The private votive chapels which were built on the outskirts of the Amarna workmen’s village developed their own priesthood, and each chapel had its own guardian or curator who actually lived within the chapel precincts. Many of these chapels included images of Renenutet, the cobra-goddess of harvest and fertility, while the comparable votive chapels at the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina showed a definite bias towards the female-orientated goddesses Renenutet, Meretseger and Taweret. Although not particularly influential within the state pantheon, these three goddesses personified events and locations which were very important in the daily lives of their worshippers.


Fig. 45 The cobra goddess Renenutet

A particularly strong domestic cult evolved around the cobra goddess Renenutet who was firmly identified with household and family life and was also the patron goddess of nursing and the harvest. The snake, who at first sight might be regarded as an unwelcome guest in any home, protected the stored food from vermin and was therefore perceived as both helpful and friendly. Renenutet, Meretseger and Edjo, the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt and protector of the king, were all widely revered female snake-deities, while the only wholly evil snake was the male Apophis, a serpent who was despised as the enemy of the gods. As the goddess of the Theban mountain, Meretseger (the ‘Peak of the West’) was particularly important to the workmen of Deir el-Medina, and was frequently depicted in association with Ptah, the mummiform patron of craftsmen.

Snakes became very closely linked with women, fertility and childbirth to the extent that Isis, holding the baby Horus, was often depicted under the protection of two snakes. Further evidence of a connection between the snake and femininity is provided by a series of New Kingdom female-fertility figurines which are modelled lying on beds decorated with red and black stripy snakes, while both ostraca and wall paintings recovered at Amarna and Deir el-Medina depict snakes in close association with dancing Bes figures, Taweret and trailing foliage and flowers.3 These scenes may be literal depictions of a ‘birth bower’, a particular room or even a separate hut reserved for the use of women during their delivery and subsequent period of purification, or they may be more symbolic representations intended to give protection to the mother and child and to ensure the continued prosperity of the whole family. Whatever their purpose, they certainly emphasize the importance attached to childbirth by the community as a whole.

The dangerous mysteries associated with the creation of a new life led to the development of a female-orientated domestic cult centred around fertility, pregnancy and, more specifically, childbirth. The whole process of delivery was not only physically hazardous for the mother and child, it also seemed to bring the participants, indeed, the whole household, into contact with forces of creation far outside human control. Medicine could be of very little help at such a time, so women naturally turned to the comfort of superstition and magic ritual to ward off evil and assist them through their labour. A small hoard of private votive material recently discovered in the cupboard of an abandoned Amarna house includes a stela showing a woman and a girl worshipping Taweret, two broken female figurines and two model beds; this poignant collection, symbolizing the hopes and fears of an unknown mother and her daughter, allows us a glimpse of the hidden rituals of childbirth. Three thousand years later the Egyptian village women were still treating their confinements as a matter for magic intervention rather than medical aid. As Miss Blackman dispassionately observed:

On many different occasions women have brought their babies to me with the request that I would spit into their mouths, in order to make them live long. Also I found that many of my old clothes that I had thrown away were torn up, and many small pieces of them given to various mothers in the village, who hung them on their babies as charms to prolong life. One expectant mother came and begged me to let her have one of my old frocks, in order that her child might be born on to it! She, poor thing, did not get her request granted, and I regret to say that her baby died very soon after the birth!

The most popular charms and amulets associated with childbirth were those of Taweret (‘The Great One’), the hippopotamus goddess who was always depicted standing upright to display her large and presumably pregnant belly, and who protected women throughout their pregnancy and labour. Although a kindly goddess, Taweret’s power should not be underestimated; the hippopotamus is a large and dangerous animal and even today more Africans are killed each year by hippos than by lions. Charms portraying Hekat, the frog-headed goddess, and Bes, the ugly dwarf god, were also associated with the mysteries of birth; indeed, both Taweret and Bes were occasionally painted on to the inner walls of the village houses to provide a degree of extra protection for the whole family.

All the items associated with childbirth developed a special ritual significance and became invested with particular magical powers, so that even the birthing-stool or birthing-bricks became personified in the form of the goddess Meskhenet, an idiosyncratic-looking lady occasionally illustrated as a tile or brick with a human head but more often shown as a woman sporting a cow’s uterus as her divine headgear.4 Meskhenet was entrusted with the task of protecting the new-born infant, and it is perhaps significant that the determinative sign of a snake was often written at the end of her name. Special care was taken to guard the birthing-bricks themselves, as these would later be used as tablets by the god Thoth when he wrote the future of the new-born child. During the Middle Kingdom magical boomerang-shaped batons or wands played an important but unfortunately obscure role during the delivery. Over one hundred of these batons have been recovered, and almost all are carved from hippopotamus teeth, stressing the link with Taweret. Many carry engraved images of the protective spirits, Taweret and Bes, while some even have inscriptions ‘we have come to give protection to this child’ and the name of the baby or the mother. These items were first identified as magical knives, although as they are all blunt it seems more likely that they had some other less obvious function. The most credible suggestion which has been made as to their use is that they were used to draw a magic circle around the bed to protect the mother and child, somewhat as modern witches are popularly supposed to draw and then step inside a magic pentagon while performing their nefarious deeds.


Fig. 46 The two forms of Meskhenet

It was not only the items associated with childbirth which developed a symbolic or ritual meaning beyond their obvious functional role. Religion, or superstition, had become so much an integral part of everyday life that almost every item used by the Egyptians carried some underlying magical message or had some associated superstitious ritual. Even the days were graded according to magical portents into good, bad and indifferent, and nervous businessmen could consult the official calendar before deciding whether or not to take momentous actions. Similarly, dreams became the subject of intense study as a means of divining the future; the Dream Book gave a long list of common dreams and their interpretations: ‘If a man dreams that he is drinking warm beer, this is bad and suffering will come to him.’ The beneficial effects of wearing specific charms or even specific colours have already been discussed in Chapter 5. Less apparent to modern eyes, but clearly important to the Egyptians, were the advantages of displaying certain decorative devices. For example, a blue faience bowl decorated with a lotus-blossom pattern may have been a beautiful object to have in the house or the tomb, but it also had a symbolic meaning to its owner. The lotus motif, representing the blue lotus flower which opens its petals at daybreak and closes them at night, was closely associated with the daily rebirth of the sun god, and by extension became symbolic of rebirth after death. Similarly, a cosmetic dish or spoon in the shape of a fish would not only be an amusing and practical trinket, it too would represent rebirth and fertility to its owner.

As for the person who knows this spell, he will become like Re in the eastern sky and like Osiris in the Netherworld. He will go down into the circle of fire, without the flame ever touching him.

Part of a spell taken from the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts

In marked contrast to the somewhat scanty evidence for the everyday religious practices of the ordinary people, the rituals associated with death have made a significant contribution to the archaeological record. The Egyptians were a joyful and vibrant people who enjoyed life and its pleasures to the full and who were tireless in their pursuit of happiness. It is therefore somewhat ironic that their idiosyncratic and highly materialistic approach towards the Afterlife has so fascinated modern observers that the uninformed visitor to an egyptological museum or specialist bookshop might be forgiven for imagining that the Egyptians themselves held an unhealthy and overwhelming obsession with all aspects of their own demise. To a large extent this misrepresentation is a direct result of the archaeological bias mentioned in the Introduction to this book, as the tradition of constructing permanent tombs of stone while living in relatively fragile mud-brick houses has naturally led to the disproportionate conservation of funerary remains. It has, however, been exacerbated by the fact that many observers, including trained egyptologists who should perhaps know better, exhibit a passionate interest in studying funerary rites to the virtual exclusion of other less bizarre but equally valid aspects of Egyptian existence. Could it be that this almost voyeuristic interest in the burial habits of others is a reflection of our own deep-seated insecurity which has made death a semi-taboo subject in the western world? It is certainly rare to find a modern people who can accept and even plan for their own departure with the equanimity of the ancient Egyptians.

Although the Egyptians did not allow persistent morbid thoughts to spoil their enjoyment of life they were very much aware that their earthly existence could be abruptly terminated at any moment. Indeed, their very love of life probably masked a very understandable fear of death and the unknown. The lack of some of the most basic of medical skills combined with ever-present natural dangers such as flood and famine to make death a constant threat to family security, and most Egyptians would have experienced the loss of one or more loved ones at a very early age. The official state theology did not attempt to provide any rational explanation or justification for death, and dying seems to have been accepted as an inexplicable fact of life. Rather than wasting time in endless speculation about the meaning of existence, the Egyptians preferred to make practical preparations for their own end. The prudent and the wealthy planned ahead, ensuring that their wishes would be fulfilled by supervising the construction of their own tombs and the collection of their own grave goods. However, this forward thinking should not be interpreted as a longing for death, and surviving texts give no indication that the planners ever anticipated their own demise in the way that traditionally devout Christians look forward to leaving the Vale of Tears and passing through the Pearly Gates of Heaven.

I asked the Majesty of my Lord that a white limestone sarcophagus might be brought for me from Tura. His Majesty caused the seal-bearer of the god and a crew under his direction to ferry over in order to bring for me this sarcophagus from Tura. He returned with it, in a great transport-boat of the Residence, together with its lid…

Inscription from the Old Kingdom tomb of Weni

Just as childbirth is almost universally perceived as a female rite so, in many cultures, it is women who are expected to supervise dying, while men assume control over the funeral rites of the dead. Birth and death therefore become inextricably linked together as contrasting sides of the same coin – one representing a passage into the light and the other a passage into the dark. It would appear that death is even in some obscure way perceived as polluting and that women, with their already impure bodies, are seen as the more appropriate sex to handle this transition. However, this rather neat anthropological theory may well represent the over-analysis of a basically simple situation; it is certainly equally valid to state that as women are conventionally at home all day, they are naturally the ones who are called upon to nurse the terminally ill. Whatever the reason, it is undeniable that most people regard death as a frightening event involving direct contact with unknown and uncontrollable forces. Even those with the advantages of modern medical knowledge regard the phenomena of birth and death with some awe and, until relatively recently, men have generally tended to avoid immediate contact with either of these mysteries. In practical terms this means that the care of the dying is generally perceived as female work, with men expecting women to preside over the deathbed and perhaps the laying out of the corpse before taking over with the more formal burial rituals which often cannot be adequately performed by a woman.

Egypt was no exception to this general rule, and it is no coincidence that the goddesses Isis and Nephthys were strongly connected with both the rites of birth (acting as midwives) and death (divine mourners). As there was no Dynastic equivalent of our hospital system to remove the sick from their home environment, nursing became the duty of the women of the household. Under these intimate circumstances no member of the family could hope to avoid contact with the dying or recently dead and, indeed, most women would expect, throughout their lives, to assist at the deathbeds of close relations. Death was therefore neither an abstract nor a sanitized concept to the Egyptian woman. It was a simple fact of life, albeit one to be avoided as far as possible by the appropriate use of prayers, amulets and charms.

Rise up, O Teti. Seize your head and collect up your bones. Gather your limbs together and shake the dust from your flesh. Take your bread which will never rot and your beer that will never sour, and stand before the gateway that excludes the common people. The gatekeeper comes out to you. He takes you by the hand and leads you into heaven, into the presence of your father, Geb.

Speech from the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Teti

Although death was inevitable it was not necessarily final. Throughout the Dynastic period the Egyptians retained a firm belief in the possibility of life after death, a belief which had a deep influence upon the development of both art and architecture. This belief slowly evolved through time, so that the dying of the Archaic Period held a very different set of expectations from their Late Period descendants. During the Old Kingdom, it was widely accepted that only the king would be able to pass on to a new world outside the tomb, becoming himself a god and living with the other gods. He achieved his transformation by one of three main routes: by travelling with the sun god, Re, in his solar boat, by being reborn as an undying or circumpolar star, or by becoming identified with Osiris, the god of the dead. The spirits of less exalted Egyptians could also continue to exist after death, but they were forced to dwell in close proximity to the body interred in its tomb or grave – a belief which led the upper classes to build the largest and most comfortable tombs possible. After all, no one would wish to live for all eternity confined to an uncomfortably cramped and dirty pit-grave.

Gradually, following the collapse of central authority at the end of the Old Kingdom, many of the hitherto exclusively royal religious prerogatives were taken over by the ordinary people. As a result, survival in the next world for everyone during the Middle Kingdom depended on the identification of the deceased, male and female alike, with the dead Osiris. Now everyone was eligible to become a subject in the Netherworld, the kingdom of Osiris which was a direct counterpart to the living world ruled by the pharaoh, the living Horus. This rather restricted image of heaven slowly expanded to become the New Kingdom Afterlife, the ‘Field of Reeds’ or the ‘Field of Offerings’; a land of pleasure and plenty again ruled by Osiris. This Afterlife was an almost exact replica of earthly rural life but was much, much better. Here the crops grew taller, the cattle grew fatter and the fish in the river simply begged to be caught. The residents were all young, fit and attractive as, dressed in clean white linen and adorned with sparkling jewels, they enjoyed mouthwatering meals in a land where beer and wine flowed like Nile water. Life in the Field of Reeds was clearly very desirable. Unfortunately, admission to these delights was not automatic, nor could it be secured by living a virtuous or devout earthly life. Entrance to the Afterlife was by examination only, and there was a strict pass or fail system. Those who flunked got no second chance.

‘I will not let you enter through me,’ says the jamb of the door, ‘unless you tell me my name.’

‘Plumb-bob in the Place of Truth is your name.’

Extract from the New Kingdom Book of the Dead

After death the spirit of the deceased embarked upon a long and fantastic journey, voyaging through a surreal maze of halls, chambers and gates where he or she was repeatedly challenged by a series of intricate questions posed by either the gatekeepers or, more bizarrely, by the gates themselves. Those who safely negotiated this labyrinth entered before a tribunal of the gods where a strict viva voce examination allowed the traveller to make a series of formal speeches justifying his or her life: ‘I have given bread to the hungry and water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked and a boat to those who have no boat.’ As a final test the heart of the deceased was weighed in a balance against the feather which symbolized maat, in order that the gods might determine whether or not he or she was true of heart. Only those who triumphed over all these hazards could pass on to perpetual life in the Field of Reeds. Those who were found wanting were doomed to die a second, frightening and permanent, death.

Entry into the Afterlife was not, however, merely dependent upon good examination technique. As has already been noted, the Egyptians were an intensely practical people who preferred to leave nothing to chance. They therefore took care to equip their tombs with a complete set of those questions and answers which they knew would be posed on the journey after death, effectively providing themselves with a passport to the delights of the next world. As the gods did not disapprove of this rather blatant form of cheating, rebirth in the Field of Reeds became assured for the wealthy. During the Middle Kingdom, this guide to the Afterlife took the form of spells and incantations which had evolved from the Old Kingdom Royal Pyramid Texts, and which were either engraved or painted on the sides of the coffins. By the New Kingdom the deceased were provided with their own personalized copy of The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day, an illustrated papyrus scroll containing a lengthy collection of spells, rituals, questions and answers which is now known more familiarly as The Book of the Dead.5 Affluent members of society had their individual copy of The Book of the Dead custom-written, while the less wealthy purchased mass-produced male or female scrolls which had gaps left at appropriate intervals so that the correct name and titles could be inserted. Occasionally there were mix-ups, and several women were buried with scrolls which were originally written for men.

The following is the way in which they conduct their mourning and their funerals. On the death in any house of a man of consequence, forthwith the women of the family plaster their heads, and sometimes even their faces, with mud. Then, leaving the body indoors, they sally forth and wander through the city with their dress fastened by a band and their bosoms bare, beating themselves as they walk. All the female relations join in and do the same. The men too, similarly dressed, beat their breasts separately. When these ceremonies are over, the body is carried away to be embalmed.


The Egyptians were by no means the only people of the ancient world to envisage an Afterlife. Indeed, there is an almost universal reluctance to accept that death might be the absolute end of all things. However, they were the only people to believe that the survival of the physical remains of the deceased was a virtual prerequisite for the survival of the spirits or life-force. Two spirits, the Ka and the Ba, would be released from the body at death; the Ka stayed close to the corpse in the tomb while the Ba was free to leave the tomb in the form of a human-headed bird. At the same time a third and entirely different aspect of the soul embarked upon the lengthy journey to the Afterlife. Both the Ka and the Ba, however, needed to be able to return to the body. If the corpse was destroyed these spirits were also destroyed and there could be no further hope of continuing life, although in an emergency they could take up residence in a substitute body such as a statue or even an illustration on the tomb wall. It was this deeply held belief which led to the development of elaborate mortuary rituals, including mummification, which were all designed as a practical means of preserving the body for all eternity.

Ironically, it was those who tried hardest and paid the most to protect their bodies who faced the greatest threat of decomposition. The poorer people, who throughout the Dynastic periods continued to be buried without coffins in the simple graves of the desert cemeteries, became naturally desiccated in the hot sand and were relatively well-preserved in a lifelike, if somewhat shrivelled, form. It was the introduction of the wooden coffin and the wood- or brick-lined tomb – probably initially intended to protect the body from the grave filling – which stopped the direct contact between the corpse and the sand, trapping moisture in close proximity to the body and encouraging putrefaction. Unfortunately, both coffins and tombs soon became essential components of a fashionable burial; the tomb served as protection against robbers, as a storehouse for grave-goods and, most importantly, as the permanent home of the soul, while the coffin carried the vital spells necessary to bring the deceased back to life. The resulting decomposition of the deceased was obvious, and led to ingenious attempts to preserve the body in a recognizable form.

Mummification techniques improved throughout the Dynastic period so that, although at the start of the Old Kingdom the majority of the embalmed bodies continued to decay, by the middle of the New Kingdom most professional undertakers could produce a remarkably lifelike embalmed corpse. The earliest attempts at preserving the body failed because no attempt was made to remove the soft tissue; the semi-dried corpses were simply wrapped in linen bandages complete with their already decomposing internal organs. As the bodies treated in this way simply disintegrated, resin or plaster was used to harden the bandages – although the body within the wrappings quickly rotted the hard outer shell retained a fairly natural appearance. It was only during the 4th Dynasty that the undertakers started to experiment with the removal of the viscera and the drying and stuffing of the now empty body cavity. This experimentation continued until, by the 21st Dynasty, the art of mummification had reached its peak.

Herodotus tells us that the good New Kingdom undertakers offered a range of services to their clients. The most successful method, which was naturally the most expensive, required that the body have its brain and entrails physically removed before undergoing a lengthy period of desiccation in dry natron powder. The hollow body cavities were then filled with rags and resin packing and the entire corpse was carefully bandaged. The whole process took seventy days to complete. The less costly embalming methods were generally less effective. The ‘second’ class of treatment involved the injection of fluids to dissolve the soft parts of the body without cutting open the stomach, while:

… the third method of embalming, which is practised in the case of the poorer classes, is to clear out the intestines with a clyster and then let the body lie in natron for seventy days, after which it is at once given to those who come to take it away.


Once it had returned from its lengthy stay at the embalming house the neatly wrapped and sweet-smelling body was placed in a coffin to await a burial befitting the rank of the deceased. As in modern times, the funeral served as an immediately recognizable indication of social status; a ‘good’ funeral conferred great prestige on the family as well as serving as a respectful tribute to the departed. Therefore, although the majority of Egyptians had a relatively simple ceremony followed by interment in the local cemetery, wealthy families paid for the most elaborate and ostentatious funerary ritual that they could afford. Just as the Afterlife was originally open to the king alone, so the traditional Egyptian funeral developed for the exclusive use of the monarch before being gradually usurped by the nobility. This royal origin was never completely forgotten, and tomb illustrations which depict funerals often include pictures of offering bearers carrying royal regalia such as crowns and sceptres which were not literally appropriate to the status of the deceased.

Specific funerary practices varied at different times and in different parts of the country according to local traditions, although the underlying ideas remained constant. The deceased was escorted to his or her new home, magic was used to ensure that he or she could be re-born, and the tomb was then sealed against intruders. The full Theban funeral developed into a particularly lengthy ritual with four basic stages: the mourning on the east bank of the Nile, the journey across the river, the procession to the necropolis and the arrival at the tomb. Each stage had its own particular religious actions and spells and each was presided over by one of several male priests who played different roles in the identification of the departed with the dead Osiris. Nine male officials escorted the funeral cortège, and ceremonial male dancers greeted the procession at the door of the tomb. Here the vitally important ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony was conducted, as the mouth of the mummy or its anthropoid coffin was touched by magical implements to restore the faculties of the deceased, allowing him or her to breathe and eat in the next life. The major female participants in this ritual were the djeryt, two women who travelled with the body representing Isis and Nephthys, the loyal sisters of Osiris who had assumed the form of kites to search for their brother’s dismembered remains. The role of the djeryt appears to have been entirely passive and their place was occasionally taken by large wooden models of women with wide protective bird’s wings in place of arms. The grieving family followed the funeral procession to the tomb, their numbers increased by groups of paid female mourners and the family servants who carried the furniture needed for use in the Afterlife.

The contemporary funeral rituals performed at the northern city of Memphis have left far less archaeological evidence for us to unravel. However, we do know that temporary booths or shelters were erected near to the tomb, and that these were used for the funeral feast which was attended by the mourners and priests. This was followed by a ritual known as the ‘smashing of the red pots’ when, as its name suggests, the vessels used at the feast were destroyed.

The first-born son of the departed had an important role to play at his parent’s funeral. Legend decreed that Horus, the loyal son and heir of Osiris, avenged his father’s murder and performed his funerary rites before acceding to the throne. Taking this precedent to its logical conclusion, the Egyptians came to believe that the person carrying out the burial rites would become the acknowledged heir of the deceased, to the extent that a man with a legally dubious claim to inherit could reinforce his position by performing the necessary ceremony; ‘let the possessions be given to him who buries’ was apparently valid Egyptian law. Egyptian kings were careful, therefore, to accord a fitting burial to their predecessor, not because of a sense of natural decency but out of a more practical desire to strengthen their claim to the throne. Although it was desirable that the funeral rites should be performed by a son, the duty could be delegated to a paid priest without the son losing his right to inherit, just as a deputy could subsequently be employed to care for the tomb and perform the necessary daily offerings to the deceased. It was also possible, though perhaps less desirable, for a daughter or wife to organize the funeral. This was clearly an expensive business; the funeral of Huy, a native of Deir el-Medina, was financed by his wife Iy who had to sell a house in order to raise the necessary capital. Fortunately Iy then recovered her investment by inheriting all her late husband’s property. By the Roman period the traditional funeral, including mummification, had become so costly that there could be considerable haggling within the family as to who exactly was expected to foot the bill. Some wills even included clauses explicitly stating that children had to pay for the funeral before they could receive any inheritance, while legal agreements between brothers and sisters, detailing exactly who would contribute what to the funeral expenses of a dead parent, were not uncommon.

His beloved wife who shares his estate, the Sole Royal Ornament, Priestess of Hathor, Demyosnai, good of speech. She who makes the offering of white bread, who pleases in every respect and who serves the heart in all that one could wish. The sister-of-the-estate, praised of Hathor, Lady of Dendera, Demyosnai.

From the Middle Kingdom funeral stela of the butler Merer

Only the more privileged members of society could afford to build elaborate stone-cut tombs, and it is not surprising that very few women occupied prestigious tombs in their own right. Tomb ownership accurately reflected the social climate, and most women would have found it impossible to accumulate the wealth needed to pay for such a monument. Royal wives, mothers and daughters were often accorded a separate tomb close to that of the king but these burials, invariably far less imposing than the major tomb, should properly be seen as an extension of the king’s funeral-complex. Even where the two tombs are completely separate, and again separate from the royal mortuary temple, as in the New Kingdom Valleys of the Kings and Queens, it is difficult to decide whether the burial of the queen should be interpreted as an extension of the king’s burial-complex, as a separate monument reflecting the importance of the queen, or even as a separate monument reflecting the decreasing importance of the queen who was no longer worthy of burial with her husband.

Most women were included in stone-cut tombs in their role as wives and daughters, and in these cases the relevant male burial naturally took precedence, with the female taking a subsidiary role just as she would have done in her husband’s or father’s home. It is particularly noticeable that the decoration of these shared tombs relates almost exclusively to the male deceased and his survival in the Afterlife, while the text on the wall details the life and achievements of the man with only a passing reference to the activities of his wife. It would appear that the woman was expected to enter the Afterlife not so much as a person in her own right but as a part of her husband’s entourage. As has already been noted, women are allocated a passive role in almost all tomb scenes so that often the only time a wife can be seen acting independently of her husband is when she is depicted mourning at his funeral. There is no standard scene showing a widower grieving for his lost wife.

Do not delay building your tomb in the mountains; you do not know how long you will live.

Late Period scribal advice

The majority of women were buried in individual graves dug into the desert sand of the village cemetery. These local cemeteries remained in use for remarkably long periods, slowly spreading and shifting as the number of interments increased so that the Late Period graves might be sited some distance away from the original Old Kingdom burial ground. Within the cemetery the graves of the less important people were either arranged around the more impressive tombs of the major local dignitaries or simply dug into the next available and unoccupied patch of desert. The location of each middle-class grave was then marked either by a simple wooden or stone stela or by a more impressive tomb superstructure; the graves of the illiterate peasants appear to have been left unmarked.

Local burial customs gradually evolved as the Dynastic period progressed, but the majority of interments always included a wooden coffin and an assortment of grave goods. Some of these goods were sex-specific so that while pottery and stone vessels or wooden headrests could be included in both male or female inhumations, some objects such as mirrors and certain items of jewellery were only found in women’s graves. Ayrton and Loat, who directed the excavation of part of the Old Kingdom Abydos necropolis, have left us a detailed description of the recovery of a virtually intact female burial. It is worth quoting their description at some length, as it provides us with a vivid insight into the practicalities of an ordinary Egyptian woman’s funeral:

The skeleton (a woman) lay on the left side, with the head to the north-west, arms to the sides and knees slightly drawn up. Under the left temple were the remains of a wooden pillow. Before the face stood a large alabaster vase, behind the head was a flat red pottery vase with handles, and at the back of the neck a small red polished pottery vase.

Before the breast lay a large copper mirror with a lotiform wooden handle, behind the knees was a large polished red pottery vase and a copper needle. Round the neck were two strings of glazed steatite beads, one with a large carnelian bead in the centre, and the other supporting a steatite button seal with the figure of a hornet cut on the face.

On the lid of the coffin, over the knees, was placed a small red pottery vase, and against the outside of the coffin at the feet leant a large globular vase of rough pottery, over the mouth of which was placed an inverted red polished pottery bowl with a spout.6

The strongly held Egyptian belief in ghosts and spirits meant that death did not necessarily bring an end to communications between husband and wife, and it was relatively common for the surviving partner to write to his or her dead spouse, asking for intercession in some personal or domestic problem. The 19th Dynasty letter written by a husband who believed that his dead wife was haunting him has already been quoted in Chapter 2. A similar letter, written during the Middle Kingdom on the surface of a red bowl, asks that the priest Intef, the husband of the widow Dedi, should use his influence to frighten off the evil spirits who are making his wife’s serving-girl ill: ‘If you don’t help in this matter, your house will be destroyed… fight for her and watch over her, save her from all those who are causing her harm.’ The bowl would have been used as an offering vessel in Intef’s tomb. Less abrupt is the Middle Kingdom stela set up by Merirtifi to his dead wife Nebitef, asking that she should help him while he is ill. He promises that, if she appears to him in a dream, he will increase her mortuary cult:

… Look, I am your beloved on earth, so fight for me and intercede for my name… Drive off the illness of my limbs. May you appear as a blessed one before me, so that I may see you fighting for me, in my dream.

The dead in turn communicated with the living via their funerary stelae: commemorative stones or plaques which were set up either in the necropolis or the temple, and which usually included some autobiographical information together with a request that passers-by should repeat a prayer for the continued well-being of the deceased. Naturally, it was the prerogative of the husband to erect a stela for his dead wife, and it was he who chose the text. The stela of the Lady Taimhotep, who lived and died during the Graeco-Roman period, is unusual in providing us with some details of her life and early death. It tells how she married at fourteen years of age and bore three daughters and a long-awaited son before dying aged thirty. It then goes on to lament the cruel fate which has snatched her from her beloved husband and children, reflecting the stylized pessimism of the Late and Graeco-Roman Period approach to death:

Oh my brother, my husband. My friend and high priest. Do not weary of drink and of food, of drinking deep and loving… The west is a land of sleep where darkness weighs on the dwelling place. Those who live there sleep as mummies. They do not wake to see their brothers, and cannot see their fathers or mothers. Their hearts forget their wives and children… Turn my face to the north wind at the edge of the water. Perhaps then my heart will be cooled in its grief.


First Intermediate Period stela showing the Ladies Hetepi and Bebi, daughters of the Steward Sennedjsui.


The elaborate dress and coiffure of a New Kingdom lady.


Old Kingdom pair-statue of a husband and wife.


Stela of Iteti, accompanied by his three wives and two of his daughters.


Middle Kingdom family stela featuring the scribal assistant Iy together with his wife, his children and his parents. The precise role of the six ‘Ladies of the House’ shown towards the bottom of the stela is unknown.


Middle Kingdom model of a female dwarf carrying a child on her hip.


The dwarf god Bes.


Fragment of an ivory ‘magic wand’ with protective deities.


Wooden tomb models of two servant women, each carrying a box and two ducks.


Cord fertility dolls of the Middle Kingdom.


Reed brush and basket, typical household implements of the New Kingdom.


Large basket…


… containing a foldaway stool.


New Kingdom ladies listening to a musician.


Wooden model of a djeryt.


The morning toilette of the early Middle Kingdom Queen Kawit, shown on her sarcophagus.


Bronze razor with a handle in the form of a duck’s head and neck.


Bronze mirror with lotus-shaped handle.


Model sandals from a Middle Kingdom tomb.


Ivory and slate bracelet from Nagada tomb of Queen Neith-Hotep.


Middle Kingdom cosmetic pots, cosmetic grinder and applicators.


Queen Nefertari representing the Goddess Hathor on the façade of her Abu Simbel temple.


Queen Hatchepsut receives the Royal ibs-crown from the god Amen-Re.


The mortuary temple of Queen Hatchepsut at Deir el-Bahri, Thebes.


The ‘God’s Wife of Amen’, possibly Amenirdis I.


The goddess Hathor and the falcon-headed god Re.


The mummy of the Lady Ray.


Tomb of a rich New Kingdom lady.

Historical Events

Years Before Christ






Archaic Period (Dynasties1–2)

Unification of Egypt

Queen Neith-Hotep



Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3–6)

Djoser step-pyramid at Sakkara

Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza

Sargon establishes the Akkadian Empire

Standing stone alignments at Carnac, France


First Intermediate Period (Dynasties 7–11)


Ascendancy of Ur

Major building phase at Stonehenge, England


Middle Kingdom (Dynasties 11–13)

Theban Kings re-unify Egypt

Queen Sobek-Nofru

Hammurabi King in Babylon

Palace period in Minoan Crete


Second Intermediate Period (Dynasties 14–17)

Hyksos kings in Northern Egypt



New Kingdom (Dynasties 18–20)

Queen Hatchepsut

Queen Nefertiti


Ramesses II


Destruction of Minoan Crete

Ascendancy of Mycenaean civilization in Aegean


Third Intermediate Period (Dynasties 21–25)


Kings at Tanis

Nubian kings

Solomon builds temple in Jerusalem

Assyrian Empire

Traditional date for foundation of Rome


Late Period (Dynasties 26–31)


Nebuchadnezzer and the Babylonian Empire

Battle of Marathon

Parthenon built in Athens


Ptolemaic Period



Egypt part of Roman Empire

Parthian Empire in Persia

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