To explain why I would like to have been a part of ancient Egyptian civilization, I must first recognize that “ancient civilization” in this case translates to thousands of years and a wide range of cultures. Dynasty after dynasty ruled Egypt and, while certain cultural realities remained largely in place, there is no escaping that this was a civilization undergoing change for eras. I then focus on one era, which may be said to represent how we generally perceive ancient Egypt today. In the following, what most fascinates me about the Ptolemaic dynasty period of Egyptian history is presented as supporting how this culture of art, intense faith, and a rigid but still largely democratic social system encourages my wanting to “walk like an Egyptian.”
To begin with, a striking quality of life in the Ptolemaic dynasty, and one attached to ancient Egypt in a general sense as well, is the remarkable and varied ways in which the civilization created art. This dynasty essentially began in the 4th century BCE and survived until the end of Cleopatra’s reign, shortly before the onset of the CE. This goes to the art as greatly reflected the traditions long in place, in that Egyptian hieroglyphics, surviving texts, costumes, etc., tend to have a unique and extremely powerful style. This is art that is uniformly austere in style, as in the well-known depictions of the human form as highly stylized and expressed in formal poses. It seems that virtually every aspect of how the Egyptians lived in this era was marked by a kind of reverence for simplicity, and the order of human life and nature as demanding respect. All such actual art, of course, derived from the pharaoh’s will and directions, as most of the art was created to venerate the royal family and the gods they simultaneously were seen as being, and as representing. Moreover, an element of the beauty in all Egyptian art, from the designs of temples to the carvings and statues dedicated to individual pharaohs, is so stylized, actual and realistic representation is not the ambition. For example, the many figures of Ptolemy I are visually symbolic of any god/leader. I find something strangely hypnotic in all ancient Egyptian art, as it consistently honors simplicity, line, and the beauty of geometric forms in nature.
There is also an interesting link between art of the era and how faith was changed, in that Greek and Roman influences were powerfully affecting these aspects of Egyptian civilization. Egyptian visual and architectural art was at this time adopting Hellenistic styles, and the same influence went to how worship was altered. To begin with, and as with art, there is a unique quality to Egyptian mythology, unlike any other civilization’s belief systems. Isis, Horus, Osiris, and other Egyptian deities exist as dual human and divine beings, even more so than do the Greek and Roman gods. Each pharaoh was considered the living embodiment of one of them, just as the religious system encompassed all the elements of life and death common to most faiths of the ancient world. Still, the Egyptian stands apart because the deities are both “human” and divine in their connections to the greatest forces of the universe. Returning to the Greek influence, Ptolemy I actually brought in Greek theologians as he prepared to name a new “national god,” and Osorapis, the Greek form of Osiris, was selected. This greatly emphasizes the varied roles of deities in Egyptian civilization, as the god is basically established to honor
ancient faith and serve to support the Hellenistic interactions important to the dynasty. Still, the religion alone is strongly attractive to me, and partly due to this incorporation of it in all Egyptian living.
Lastly, in the Ptolemaic era as well as in previous dynasties, faith existed to reinforce a highly structured social system that is impressive to me. Certainly, I do not endorse slavery, nor would I wish to be of that class in ancient Egypt. This very common injustice of the times in general notwithstanding, there is strong evidence of the Egyptians as insisting upon ethical codes dictated by the deities. This also goes beyond any other culture’s incorporating faith within class and government, and because the Ptolemaic Egyptians seem to have reversed the usual processes. More exactly, the actual natures of the Egyptian gods were changed to conform to ideas of morality. Ideas of justice transformed the Osiris god persona, for example, and in democratic ways; social equality was normalized because Osiris evolved into the judge of all men after death, as the god was subject to being judged himself. Again, I am sure there was a good deal of consistent social inequality, even apart from slavery, in that wealth here, as elsewhere, enabled opportunity. Nonetheless, it still seems that the Egyptians were devout believers in the human need to recognize all as fundamentally equal in the eyes of the gods.
There is always something unavoidably naive in wanting to experience a culture long gone, simply because we can only guess at the realities of living within it. Certainly, ancient Egyptian civilization could not have been immune to the many serious problems affecting any great society. For example, it is clear that intense slave labor made possible
many of the monuments we prize today as brilliant architecture and art, as there was certainly a rigid caste system in place. At the same time, however, and personally, the unique nature of the civilization as a whole deeply attracts me. Simply, the Ptolemaic period of Egyptian history supports how this culture of art, unique faith, and a rigid but still largely democratic social system encourages my wanting to “walk like an Egyptian.”
- Bevan, Edwyn. A History of Egypt Under the Ptolemaic Dynasty. New York: Routledge, 2014.
- Gabriel, Richard A. Gods of Our Fathers: The Memory of Egypt in Judaism and Christianity. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Co., 2002.