Not intended as a comprehensive list, the following guide covers the main terms and phrases that may be unfamiliar to readers. Terms that are themeselves defined in the glossary appear in bold in other entries.
Cataract In the context of the Nile, the term cataract refers to areas of shallow water or rapids caused by bands of hard stone crossing the river. This stone is much more resistant to weathering by the flow of the river than the surrounding sandstone, creating natural obstacles to river travel, especially when the Nile is low in its inundation cycle. The First Cataract of the Nile at Elephantine/Aswan, formed of granite, is a natural frontier that became the effective political boundary between Egypt and Nubia for most of pharaonic history. The Second Cataract of the Nile, which was heavily defended by Egypt during the Middle Kingdom, formed the boundary between Lower Nubia (‘Wawat’) and Upper Nubia (‘Kush’).
Confréries Small group of workmen at Deir el-Medina. The term was used by Bruyère to describe the ‘social clubs’ for which he found evidence at the site as he was excavating.
Disembedded capital ‘Disembedded capitals are urban sites founded de novo and designed to supplant existing patterns of authority and administration’ (Joffe 1998, 549). Ancient Egypt produced a number of such non-organic urban developments, which were driven by the individual requirements of particular rulers, or groups of rulers: Itj-Tawy in the Middle Kingdom, Amarna in the New Kingdom and Alexandria at the beginning of the Graeco-Roman Period are all especially good examples. See also ‘royal cities’.
Encomium A poem or prose text written in praise of a person or thing. In the New Kingdom a genre of texts generally referred to as ‘In Praise of the City’ gives the view of educated scribes as to the benefits of individual cities, such as Pr-Ramesses or Thebes, or city life in general.
Gezira The Arabic word for ‘island’, the term gezira is also used to refer to the naturally deposited sand-islands whose most distinctive feature was that they stood above the floodwaters of the Nile, even during the inundation. These features, sometimes referred to as ‘turtlebacks’, were especially important in the Nile Delta, and could be of very considerable size, as at Tanis.
Inundation The annual flooding of the Nile covered the fields of the Valley and Delta with silt-rich water, which contributed greatly to the fertility of Egypt’s agricultural land. This widespread flooding also had a profound influence on the location and nature of settlements (and, especially, cemeteries) in ancient Egypt.
Iteru The main measure of long distance in ancient Egypt an iteru, or ‘river-length’, was probably 20,000 cubits in length, or (since a cubit was approx. 525 mm), 10.5 km (6½ miles).
Ka The ancient Egyptians conceived the self as being made up by several visible and invisible parts. The ka, roughly translated as soul, had to be nourished after death by relatives or other individuals leaving food at the tomb.
Kom Like tell, the Arabic kom refers to a mound formed by the debris of earlier settlements. The appearance of kom in a modern toponym is often an indication of significant ancient settlement, as at Kom Ombo in southern Egypt or Kom Firin in the Nile Delta.
Loggia An architectural term referring to a room or gallery on the outside of a building, where the outer wall is replaced by a series of columns in order to open it to the exterior. Such features seem to have been common in large villas such as those at Amarna where a loggia would provide a comfortable summer room that was both shaded from the sun yet open to cool breezes.
Lower Egypt Northern Egypt, primarily comprising the Nile Delta, but also including the 1st Lower Egyptian nome, which contained Memphis and the Memphite cemeteries on the west bank of the Nile as far south as Meidum.
Mastaba Monumental mudbrick tombs built to house elite burials from the Early Dynastic Period onwards. The massive rectangular edifices with sloping sides and a flat roof were constructed above ground over the interior underground burial chamber. They are especially known from the court cemeteries around Old Kingdom royal burials, where they are often cased with fine limestone.
Mulqaf A ‘wind-catcher’ – a feature on the roofs of houses designed as a ‘scoop’ that funnelled cool breezes into the house itself. Mulqafs are illustrated in depictions of houses on some tomb scenes and on model ‘soul houses’.
Nilometer The Egyptians carefully monitored the rise and fall of the Nile during the inundation using large-scale measuring devices especially found within major temples. Linear scales cut into the walls of large stone pools or staircases running down into the river were two popular forms. The most important Nilometer – because it was the first part of Egypt where the rise in the Nile would be visible – was at Elephantine.
Nomarch Theoretically the chief official of a nome. In reality, the pattern of local government and its relationship to the crown varied considerably during the dynastic period, although the general areas of responsibility – tax collection for the crown, oversight of economic activity within the nome – remained fairly constant.
Nome A Greek word used to refer to the basic geographical administrative unit in ancient Egypt, which the Egyptians themselves called a sp3t (sepat). The division of Upper Egypt into 22 nomes was established by the Old Kingdom, but the 20 nomes of Lower Egypt were subject to change up to and including the Graeco-Roman Period, partly because nome boundaries in the Delta were based on the dynamic branches of the Nile. The nome capitals constituted the largest group of important towns/cities of ancient Egypt.
Onomasticon (pl. onomastica) Ancient Egyptian texts that aimed to provide categorized lists of places and things. Two especially important onomastica, which list towns and cities of ancient Egypt, are the Middle Kingdom Ramesseum Onomasticon and the New Kingdom Onomasticon of Amenemope, both of which provide important information on contemporary placenames.
Ostracon (pl. ostraca) From the Greek term for a potsherd, used as casual writing material. In Egypt the term more usually refers to flakes of limestone whose smooth surface and white appearance made them suitable for short texts or illustrations written in ink, most notably from the Theban area in the New Kingdom.
Polis In Hellenistic Egypt the term refers specifically to a self-governing urban centre with its own extensive (Greek style) institutions. It would be supported by a network of smaller settlements within its agricultural hinterland (known as the chora). The most important of the small number of cities in Egypt that fitted, or came to fit, this description was Alexandria.
Pyramid town Sometimes used as a variant of ‘Workmen’s Village’, that is to say a settlement built to house workers involved in the construction of a royal project, in this case a pyramid. However, the term is also used to refer to a settlement that housed the priests, administrators and workers who were required for the ongoing functioning of the royal pyramid, especially the cultic activity in its mortuary temple. Such pyramid towns could become important centres of population and regional administration in their own right. The best example of such a settlement is the pyramid town of Kahun, part of the pyramid complex of King Senwosret II.
‘Royal city’ Used by Egyptologists to refer to urban projects in ancient Egypt that were the result of royal initiative and were also designed around buildings of particular importance to the king, such as major temples and palace complexes. The best known and most complete of such ‘royal cities’ is Amarna.
Sebbakh Being made largely of Nile silt (and usually mixed with straw), the mud brick used in the construction of Egyptian buildings was a ready-made fertilizer referred to by the Arabic term sebbakh. In the 19th century in particular, ancient tells, especially in the Delta, were tempting targets for peasant farmers who removed vast quantities of this material to spread on their fields, resulting in much destruction to ancient sites. Individuals who removed sebbakh are referred to as sebbakh-diggers.
Sed-festival The jubilee celebrations held every thirty years of a king’s reign.
‘Soul house’ In the Middle Kingdom in particular, models of houses, workshops and other structures were an important component of the burial equipment, and were used to provide the soul or ka of the deceased with magical substitutes for the things the models represented. The largest and most impressive of these, such as that belonging to the Theban official Meketre, were rendered in great detail and provide important evidence for the form and decoration of buildings of the period. Much simpler variants were the clay offering-trays that were partly modelled to look like houses.
Talatat Although most Egyptian monumental architecture was built from impressively large individual blocks of stone, the scale of building works undertaken by Akhenaten at Karnak and, especially, at Amarna made rapid construction a priority. One way of achieving this was the use of smaller, regular-sized building blocks of local stone that could be quarried, transported and used in building projects much more easily. These standard blocks, measuring c. 1 by 0.5 by 0.5 cubits (c. 54 by 27 by 27 cm, or c. 21¼ by 10⅔ by 10⅔ in.) are referred to as talatat from the Arabic word for ‘three’, possibly because each is approximately three hand-spans long.
Tell A mound formed by successive occupation layers at one settlement over a period of many years. Many settlements in modern Egypt have the qualifier ‘Tell’ in their name, and although not all have a distinctive ancient mound to match their toponym (although some, such as Tell Edfu, do), the term is itself an indicator that an ancient site was probably to be found in that locality.
Temenos In the context of ancient Egypt, this term is used to refer to the sacred precincts around a temple. A very significant aspect of town and city planning, in most cases this area was defined by the temenos- or enclosure-wall, which could be a massive construction and could form a well-fortified town-within-a-town at times of danger to the community, for example at Medinet Habu on the West Bank at Thebes at the end of the New Kingdom.
Upper Egypt Southern Egypt, primarily comprising the Nile Valley between the First Cataract of the Nile near Elephantine to as far north as Meidum on the west bank of the Nile and a little further north on the east. Although not part of the nome system until the Graeco-Roman Period, the Faiyum can be regarded as an adjunct to Upper Egypt.
Urbanization Broadly speaking, the process of urbanization sees the increase in number and size of urban centres, accompanied by a decrease in the proportion of the population living outside cities. In ancient Egypt the vast majority of the population was always rural (i.e. non-urban), but the emergence of cities in the Late Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods was vital to Egypt’s development as a politically centralized state with a sophisticated and shared elite culture.
‘Villageization’ The adaptation of centrally planned and sometimes monumental structures for small-scale domestic use by individual communities. The growth of the town of Djeme within the temenos walls of the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu is a good example of this.
Vizier Term used to describe the chief official below the king. The two viziers of Upper and Lower Egypt had a wide range of administrative responsibilities for the regions they oversaw.
Wadi A dry river bed, often used as a road to travel through the desert. Two of the most famous were the Wadi Tumilat linking the Eastern Delta to Sinai and the Wadi Hammamat, a major trade route that connected the Qena bend of the Nile with the Red Sea.
‘Ways of Horus’ This ancient Egyptian term refers to the route from the Eastern Nile Delta across northern Sinai towards Southern Palestine. It is most famously represented by Seti I at Karnak as a series of forts and fortified settlements, which have been identified with sites close to the northeastern Delta (including Tell Heboua and Tell Borg) and along the North Sinai coast (including Haruba and Bir el-Abd).
Window of Appearances One of the public aspects of some Egyptian royal palaces, whose main functions were primarily residential and administrative, was to provide a physical location where the king could appear to the population at large on specific ceremonial occasions, such as the presentation of rewards to worthy officials. As illustrated in New Kingdom private tombs, most notably those at Amarna, these ‘Windows of Appearances’ took the form of elaborately decorated raised balconies where the king, suitably elevated, could appear to best effect.
Workmen’s village A purpose-built settlement to house state-controlled workers involved in royal building projects. These settlements might be short-lived for short-term projects, but the best known – the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina – was in use for as long as royal tomb builders were needed for the Valley of the Kings, a period of nearly 500 years.
Zir A large ceramic vessel, usually used for the short-term storage of drinking water.