200 years of understanding ancient Egypt — V

Tarek Osman
Thursday 7 Apr 2022

As Egypt rightfully celebrates its ancient heritage, this must be accompanied by innovative and imaginative attempts at understanding its greatness, writes Tarek Osman

Many Egyptologists have described ancient Egypt as mysterious and magical, meaning that many aspects and features of its life, and crucially of its religion, remain unknown to us. 

Two hundred years ago, the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone and opened avenues for us through which we could read like an open book the drawings and carvings on the walls and ceilings of the temples and tombs all over Egypt. 

However, our command over the language remains far from complete. There continue to be many symbols that have multiple interpretations and sections of texts – or what we can think of as paragraphs – that have multiple contexts. 

The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead is a prime example. A large part of this consists of the spells and incantations that the ancient Egyptian priests recited for the souls of the departed to produce certain effects in their journey in the other world. 

For some scholars, the Book is therefore not really a book of religion, but of magic. Throughout the Book, we find scattered short texts that do not contextualise the incantations and hardly explain the effects they are supposed to have. These texts are effectively invocations of values, particularly righteousness, justice, and truth, repeatedly put in that order. 

To a large extent, the Book of the Dead is like the books of several other religions, full of rituals on how to worship the divine and how to attain heaven and escape hell, irrespective of how these concepts were conceived. 

But the values were there to give a deeper meaning. Behind the rituals and the details, the Book contains the monotheistic tradition of ancient Egypt and crucially its emphasis on elevating the human to achieve the potential of divinisation, not through rituals and incantations, but through behaviour. 

Indeed, in this tradition through righteousness, self-control, and discipline the human being can benefit from the inevitability of justice, which the ancient Egyptians saw as a natural law always applicable in life, and ascend to truth. 

Not surprisingly, this tradition drives towards order in life and society. But perhaps surprisingly for some, it also revolves around human agency. Success or failure in controlling oneself is the determinant of destiny, not to attain a reward and eschew punishment, but to achieve the ultimate potential of transcendence towards divinity. 

As discussed in the third article in this series, this was ancient Egypt’s idea of and route towards divinisation, which was the core of ancient Egypt’s conception of the divine, the human, and the true meaning and purpose of life. 

This conception not only links the sacred and the secular, but it also connects the past with the present. Ancient Egypt was not a civilisation with self-contained beliefs detached from what had preceded it and what came after it. It was far from being a civilisation that had once existed and then had dwindled and disappeared. 

Those who believe in that view utterly miss the core ideas of ancient Egypt, and they misunderstand or ignore how ancient Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato viewed ancient Egypt and its contribution to the flow of knowledge through human history. 

In ancient Egyptian thought, and that of some of the most profound ancient Greek philosophers who studied in Egypt, there is always a connection between the past and the present. There is never a cutoff in the flow of knowledge. 

In the tradition of ancient Egypt, that connection between the past and the present is located in the land. The flow of knowledge that has existed throughout human history – Plato’s higher ideas – settled in the land, or as Goethe directed us to think, became one with nature in this part of the world. 

These ideas – conceptions of the divine and of humanity and the link between them – were not exclusively Egyptian. They had been developed before ancient Egypt arose, and they remained after ancient Egypt had handed on the torch to ancient Greece. 

Nevertheless, their becoming one with the land meant that they settled deep in the Egyptian psyche, becoming a link between what was before and what was to come. The land and geography became not only a carrier of history, but also part of it. 

In this view, the land in the past was not an auxiliary background to the development and growth of ancient Egyptian civilisation. The land today is also not merely the natural background through which our eyes (the windows of consciousness) discern the marvels that this civilisation left behind it.  

Instead, the land is at the very core of that civilisation. The desert sand, the Nile, and the greenery of the Nile banks are the constituents of it. The land is the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis finding, gathering, and resuscitating the sacred – the god Osiris – that was scattered in and across it and that was in danger of being lost unless there was a will and an inspiration to preserve it. 

In this understanding, the land of Egypt was the vessel containing the meanings that ancient Egyptian civilisation created.

This form of understanding is what this series is about. It is a way of bringing back into our collective memory explanations of ancient Egypt that decades of ignorance, of exiling the true Egypt, and of obsession with literalism have squandered. 

It is also a reminder that, as Egypt now rightfully celebrates its ancient heritage, this celebration must be accompanied by innovative and imaginative attempts at delving beneath the simplistic views about the civilisation that have prevailed in popular culture over recent decades – views that neither explain ancient Egypt’s greatness nor revel in its grandeur. 

By revealing the ingenuity, depth, richness, and complexity of ancient Egypt, this series has attempted to show how much we stand to gain by understanding what the civilisation of our land, and what our land itself, mean.


* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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