In 2014, Ridley Scott unveiled his Biblical epic Exodus: Gods And Kings and accidentally opened a very old can of worms in the process. The film features white actors playing the ancient Egyptian characters, outraging those who firmly believe that the Egyptians were black. But exactly what did the ancient Egyptians look like? Nobody knows for sure.
The majority of Egyptologists insist that it doesn’t matter at all, since there’s no reason to believe that the Egyptians shared our modern conception of race. To ask the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians, they argue, is imposing a modern idea on a very old people. But let’s find out more on the subject, shall we?
The Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote extensively about Egypt around 450 BC, was among the first to indirectly shed some light on the appearance of the ancient Egyptians. Writing over 100 years before Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, Herodotus argued that the inhabitants of Colchis (an area on the east coast of the Black Sea) were of Egyptian descent because, like the Egyptians, they had dark skin and woolly hair. Both groups also practiced circumcision and apparently wove linen in a similar way.
9. Ramesses II
During the early 19th century, proponents of slavery and various other racists argued that ancient Egypt could only have been so advanced because it was a Caucasian civilization. They also speculated that the Egyptian ruling class was white while their slaves were black. Afrocentric historians, on the other hand, stress the sub-Saharan origins of Egyptian civilization, asserting that ancient Egyptians were black.
Modern portrayals of Tutankhamun, an Egyptian pharaoh who began his rule as a nine-year-old in the 1330s BC, are a source of contention. Some Afrocentric scholars claim that popular depictions of the pharaoh (popularly known as “King Tut”) as white are racist and egregiously inaccurate. Things became even more heated after Egyptian scientists sequenced Tut’s DNA.
Just as Germans insist on calling their country Deutschland rather than Germany, the ancient Egyptians didn’t call their country Egypt; they called it Kmt (pronounced Ke-met), which means “black.” As you’d expect, there’s plenty of debate about the specific meaning of the word kmt. The two main arguments are that the Egyptians used kmt to refer to their country as the “land of black people,” or that they used it to refer to their country as the “black land.”
6. Cleopatra’s Mother
Of course, the famous Cleopatra wasn’t especially Egyptian, being descended from one of Alexander the Great’s generals. But what ethnicity was she? Most Egyptologists believe that she was a mixture of Macedonian Greek and Persian, but they don’t know for sure where her mother was from (or even who her mother was).
5. Egyptian Art
How did the ancient Egyptians depict themselves? Egyptian temples contain statues, wall paintings, and illustrated papyri that give us some clue as to how their creators saw themselves. The Egyptians depicted themselves with skin tones ranging from light brown, to red, yellow, or black. Men were often darker than women, probably to indicate that males did manual labor outdoors, but ancient Egyptian artwork was not realistic and most skin tones were probably symbolic rather than realistic.
4. The Great Sphinx
With its human head and lion’s body, the Great Sphinx of Giza is massive and incredibly old (it was probably built around 2500 BC). We don’t know for sure whose face the Sphinx was modeled after, but most Egyptologists believe that it depicts the pharaoh Khafra. In the 1780s, the French historian Count Constantine de Volney visited the Sphinx, proclaiming it “typically Negro in all its features . . . In other words, the ancient Egyptians were true Negroes of the same type as all native-born Africans.” Modern scholars consider it almost impossible to judge the Sphinx’s ethnicity, since millennia of rain, wind, and heat have worn down the statue’s face.
3. The New Race
In the 1880s, the historian Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie became one of the earliest significant students of Egyptian artifacts. Petrie made a genuine contribution to Egyptology—among other things he was the first to identify the prehistoric culture that predated ancient Egypt as we know it today. But some of Petrie’s other ideas remain controversial. For example, he insisted that the incredible civilization of early dynastic Egypt showed no continuity with the local prehistoric peoples, but was instead imported by an invading “New Race,” which had conquered the “decadent civilization of the prehistoric age.”
2. The Eastern Desert
In the early 2000s, the Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson published a study of rock drawings found in the ancient Eastern Desert, the area of the Sahara between the Red Sea and the Nile. The rock carvings, dating from the early fourth millennium BC, depict typical Nile Valley imagery—boats, crocodiles, hippos—as well as images of humans wearing headdresses and wielding maces. This imagery has significant parallels with the later artwork of the dynastic Egyptians, leading Wilkinson to conclude that they originated in the Eastern Desert.
Can studying the teeth of ancient Egyptians shed any light on their origins and what they looked like? In 2006, a study of dental remains from almost 1,000 Egyptian skeletons found that Egyptian teeth remained similar throughout ancient history—in other words, the ancient Egyptian population probably remained remarkably homogenous between the pre-dynastic period and the early Roman Empire, with the most notable outlier coming from the isolated southern cemetery at Gebel Ramlah. The teeth mostly exhibited “simple mass-reduced dentitions” that strongly resembled teeth from contemporary populations throughout North Africa, with a lesser resemblance to teeth from Europe and Western Asia.