Music formed an important part of ancient Egyptian life, with musicians occupying a variety of positions in society and some of them being buried in royal necropolises as a mark of distinction.
Music accompanied various activities in ancient Egypt, being played in temples, palaces, workshops, farms, on battlefields, and even in tombs. According to documentary records, music was an integral part of religious worship and was used during rituals dedicated to different gods. It was also used in therapy and was considered as a way of communicating with the dead.
The ancient Egyptian musical instruments that can be seen in many museums today and their representation in bas reliefs and in the paintings decorating the walls of temples and tombs shed much light on this subject, as does the preservation of some ancient Egyptian musical traditions by Coptic singers.
To celebrate World Music Day this year, the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square has organised a special exhibition of six ancient Egyptian musical instruments in its foyer, highlighting the importance of music in ancient times.
Sabah Abdel-Razek, director-general of the museum, said that the exhibition, lasting 30 days, included a collection of nine musical instruments that were used in religious rituals and festivals in ancient times.
The objects include part of the neck of an ancient Egyptian harp made of sycamore and ebony plywood and originally part of an instrument with nine tuning keys. There is a bronze Roman-period bell in the shape of a flattened cone with an oval cut in it. The decorative rim of the bell is cast in one piece with the handle.
A pair of bronze cymbals decorated with concentric circles is another piece on display, along with a small conical bell with a handle decorated with two animal figurines on its sides depicting a jackal’s head and the head probably of a feline species. The bell’s clapper is shaped like a club.
Two other bells, the first decorated with animal heads, among which is an animal with pointed ears and the other probably of a ram, are also in the exhibition. The bell and its handle are cast in one piece.
The second bell is made of bronze and is hemispherical in form. It is decorated on four sides with the heads of the deities Bes and Anubis, as well as of a crocodile and another image that is now erased. The bell and its handle are cast in one piece, with the clapper being short and club-shaped.
A flute made of wood and metal with eight holes on one side and two thumbholes on the other side is also in the exhibition. It has been broken in the middle, possibly intentionally, and the lower part of the flute is encircled with a metal ring.
A double flute and drum are also on display. The first consists of two tubes decorated with incisions in crossed lines and joined together near the lower and the upper edges by dark fabric ribbons. Each tube is pierced with five holes. A ribbon of reddish-brown fabric once covered the entire surface of the instrument except for the holes.
The drum is barrel-shaped and made of palm wood and leather with two patches of skin on the top and bottom. Abdel-Razek said that the patch fragments had been newly restored and that the drum was being exhibited with them in place for the first time.
The drum’s surface has crisscrossed patterning, and it is retained by transverse straps. There are some traces of a light colour on the inside and outside of it.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.