The pharaohs of Egypt presided over a huge kingdom for thousands of years, taming vast stretches of wilderness, erecting monuments that have stood the test of time, and creating stories that have since become legends. Ancient Egypt also had an immense cultural impact on surrounding ancient and modern civilisations, spanning topics including language, mathematics, and architecture. Egyptian inventions have been passed down to us, many of which are still in use now.
The Egyptians made advances in almost every sphere of knowledge from the manufacture of simple household goods to beer brewing (beer was invented by Mesopotamians, the earliest beer receipt is known as the Alulu Receipt (c. 2050 BCE), written in the city of Ur) , engineering and construction, to agriculture and architecture, medicine, astronomy, art and literature. Although they did not have command of the wheel until the arrival of the Hyksos during the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1782 – c. 1570 BCE), their technological skills are evident as early as the Predynastic Period (c. 6000-c. 3150 BCE) in the construction of mastaba tombs, artworks, and tools. As the civilisation advanced, so did their knowledge and skill until, by the time of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE), the last to rule Egypt before it was annexed by Rome, they had created one of the most impressive cultures of the ancient world.
The simple handheld mirror one finds so commonplace in the present day was created by the Egyptians. These were often decorated with inscriptions and figures, such as that of the protector-god Bes, and were owned by men and women alike. More ornate wall mirrors were also a part of middle- and upper-class homes and were likewise decorated.
The Egyptian invented eye makeup as far back as 4000 B.C. They combined soot with a lead mineral called galena to create a black ointment known as kohl. They also made green eye makeup by combining malachite with galena to tint the ointment.
Both men and women wore eye make up. (Note: The Mesopotamian men and women also outlined their eyes with an early form of mascara.) Egyptian women (and sometimes men) would wear both black and green kohl, and it is believed that the intricacy of the design could indicate social status and, for women, marital status. Kohl also had religious significance (it has been found buried with mummies) and was used in rituals, and it was believed to protect against the Evil Eye. As well as having magical properties, it was prescribed for the treatment of eye illnesses.
During the hot summers many Egyptians shaved their heads to keep them clean and prevent pests such as lice. Although priests remained bald as part of their purification rituals, those that could afford it had wigs made in various styles and set with perfumed beeswax. Wigs were created from human hair (or, for the less wealthy, vegetable fibres).
The hairbrush was also an invention of this civilisation. And it was the Egyptians who pioneered the notion of smooth skin being beautiful: they used a sugar wax to remove hair.
In addition, dental hygiene was a concern, and the Egyptians developed the first toothpaste, toothbrushes, toothpicks and breath mints.
Papyrus & hieroglyphics
Writing developed independently in many different areas of the world from China to Mesoamerica, but Mesopotamia is considered the first to do so, having created a writing system prior to c. 3000 BCE, known as cuneiform. Paper and ink, which we now consider inseparable from the written word, were ancient Egyptian inventions. It was not paper as we know it today, but a precursor called papyrus, named after the grassy reeds that grew along the Nile, from which the material was made. Then they developed wonderfully coloured inks with which to draw and write on the papyrus, through grinding together natural pigments and metallic ores. It’s amazing how well the papyrus and inks have stood the test of time.
The Ancient Egyptians used picture words called hieroglyphics which they started to use around 3000 BCE. Hieroglyphics is a very complicated way of writing involving 1000s of symbols. Some of the symbols represented sounds, like our letters, and other’s represented entire words.
Since writing in hieroglyphics was so complicated, it took years of education and practice to be able to do it. The people who trained to write were called scribes. They would start training at a very young age of six or seven.
Being a scribe was a good job in Ancient Egypt. Scribes didn’t have to pay taxes or enter the army. They were very highly thought of and only the children of the wealthy got the opportunity to train as scribes.
The Ancient Egyptians often wrote on tablets or walls, but they also wrote on a type of paper called papyrus. It is thought, that the first step involved cutting the stem of the plant into strips, after which they were soaked to expand the fibres, and laid down in overlapping layers. They were then compressed, either hammered, rolled or pressed, until the layers fused to form a flat surface, although ancient papyrus was nowhere near as smooth as modern paper. The dry Egyptian climate meant that documents made out of papyrus were incredibly long-lasting.
Astronomy & concept of time
Astronomy was important to the ancient Egyptians on two levels: the spiritual and the practical. Egypt was thought to be a perfect reflection of the land of the gods and the afterlife a mirror image of one’s life on earth. This duality is apparent in Egyptian culture in every aspect and epitomised in the obelisk which was always raised in pairs and believed to reflect a divine pair appearing at the same time in the heavens. The stars told the stories of the gods’ accomplishments and trials but also indicated the passage of time and the seasons.
On a more practical level, the stars could tell one when it was going to rain, when it was nearing time to plant or harvest crops, and even the best times for making important decisions such as building a home or temple or starting a business venture. Astronomical observations led to astrological interpretations which may have been adopted from Mesopotamian sources via trade. Strictly astronomical examination of the night skies, however, were interpreted in terms of pragmatism and recorded in mathematical calculations measuring weeks, months, and years. Although the calendar was invented by the ancient Sumerians, the concept was adapted and improved upon by the Egyptians.
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