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You are in: Collections > Ancient World > Egypt > Kemet

What is an African centred approach to Egypt?

African Centred Egyptology aims to look at Egypt as part of African culture. People mainly look at Ancient Egypt through a European bias. This is because the majority of books on Egyptology are written by researchers of European, or North-American backgrounds. There are also increasing numbers of Egyptian scholars also publishing in English as well as Arabic. However, there are comparatively few scholars of African origin or descent who work on the subject of Ancient Egypt. Their views, when African Centred, are often and wrongly dismissed by more mainstream Egyptologists.

Historians and archaeologists rarely disclose their cultural identities in the same way that someone working in sociology (the study of society and the people in it) or anthropology (the study of people and cultures) would automatically declare in their books and articles. The reason that some disciplines talk about the identity of the author is because how we view the world can influence how we interpret it. Our views can be influenced by where we grew up, where we received our education and to what extent we have been exposed to other cultures and groups of people.

Where is Egypt and where was Kemet?

What does Kemet mean?

People in Egypt today call their country by the Arabic name of ‘Misr’. The word ‘Egypt’ is the name that the Ancient Greeks gave to the country and is still used in Europe today. Prior to Europe’s involvement with Egypt, the people of Ancient Egypt had many names for their country such as ‘Ta Mery’ (the beloved land), ‘Ta Sety’ (the land of the bow) which was used for the southern most regions of the country and Nubia (see below). Another name was 'Kemet', which means ‘the black land’. All of these names were originally spelt without vowels, so for example Kmt.

The meaning of Kemet has been much debated. The word was spelt with four hieroglyphs: a piece of crocodile skin with spines making the sound K; an owl making the sound M and a half loaf of bread making the sound T. The round symbol represents a crossroads and shows the reader that in this context this is a place name. There are parallels – Sudan for example comes from the Arabic Bilad-al-sudan meaning country of the blacks and Ethiopia derives from the Greek meaning ‘burnt-face’ in reference to the people and their black skin. The word kem means ‘black’. However, people have interpreted the reference to the colour black this in two different ways:

In reference to the colour of the silt of the Nile and so the fertile soil of Egypt
In reference to the colour of the people

What does Kemet mean?

Today, for obvious reasons, the name Kemet is associated with a more African-centred approach to looking at ‘Egypt’. For this reason the gallery that you are currently viewing is called Virtual Kemet. In adopting this name we hope to remind people that the ‘Ancient Egypt’ is an African civilization and that whilst the culture had contact with people from other civilizations, it was essentially African in its culture and well as its geographical placement.

There are many links between ancient Egyptian and modern African culture, ranging from objects such as headrests to hairstyles such as the side lock, and this and other evidence support the idea that it was an African culture in addition to being geographically in Africa. For these reasons Egypt is seen by people of African descent as part of their cultural heritage and history. The concept of Egypt as part of Africa is not a new one. Some of the earliest travellers to Egypt came from the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, including Greek philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, writers and poets who came to learn from the priests. To the Greeks and Romans, Egypt was an African country, and their artists depicted the Egyptians as Africans, with black skin and tightly curled hair, described by the Greek historian Herodotos in the fifth century BC as 'woolly'.

Were the people in Ancient Kemet the same groups of people who live Egypt today?

No. Throughout Egypt’s history it had traded and fought with people from other countries. From around 750 BC the Nubian rulers, often called ‘The Kushites’ controlled Kemet and became its Twenty-fifth Dynasty. During this time Kemet enjoyed a renaissance, or return to earlier culture, as indicated by the promotion of the cult of the god Amun and also copies of earlier statues that were made by officials and the rulers.

Later, the population was affected by the immigration of soldiers, traders and settlers from outside cultures, which included two Persian invasions in 525 BC and 343 BC; Macedonian Greeks who ruled Kemet from 332-30 BC; Romans, who took control of Kemet in 30 BC; and the Islamic settlement in AD 642. The Persians ruled Kemet from their own country. The Greek rulers, in contrast, lived in Kemet and adopted Egyptian culture and traditions; however, the language for administration was changed to Greek. The Romans, although absent rulers, had large numbers of their army in Kemet and were keen to promote Egyptian culture, albeit their own version of it. The last hieroglyphic inscription dates to AD 394, after this time Christianity, which had been present in Egypt from the first century AD, gradually became the dominant religion. Early Islamic rulers maintained cultural links with earlier Egypt, as seen by the minaret at the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, which is in the form of the famous lighthouse of Alexandria and which dated to the third century BC. The language was changed to Arabic at this time and the religion to Islam.

Were the people in Ancient Kemet the same groups of people who live Egypt today?

Today, many people forget that Egypt is part of the continent of Africa and only think of the modern state of Egypt, which has closer ties to the Islamic world and is often seen by people to be part of the ‘Middle East’. The ‘Middle East’ includes countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and the Arabian Peninsula.

Where was Nubia and who are the Nubians?

Nubian civilization pre-dates Egyptian. The earliest artefacts that were found in this region date to around 300,000 years ago, possibly earlier. Kemet and Nubia were closely linked from around 6000 years ago. Early pottery indicates that the Nubians were capable of making very thin, high quality bowls and jars from 7000 years ago; these skills were taken to Egypt as people moved northwards.

Nubia was originally called ‘Ta Sety’, the Land of the Bow. The Nubians were skilled warriors, famous also for their wrestling. The word Nubian comes from the Ancient Egyptian word ‘nbt’, meaning gold. The Nubians controlled the gold mines and were often shown in tomb paintings bringing gold as an offering. Geographically, Nubia is defined as the land between Dongola in northern Sudan and Aswan in southern Egypt. This region is home to people who are linked through dialects that belong to a distinct language that connects them linguistically to the Ancient Nubian language, but who are culturally diverse from each other and from the past. Nubians are divided into three main groups: the Danaqla and Mahas in Sudan and the Sikurta around Aswan is Egypt. Nubian, like Ancient Egyptian, belong to the African language family.

Modern Nubian culture was affected by the building of the Aswan dam in the 1960’s. This dam prevented the annual flooding of the river Nile but also meant that a huge lake was formed behind it. This lake flooded many ancient sites and modern Nubian communities. Some temples such as Abu Simbal, Kalabsha and Philae, were moved block by block in order to save them. However, many old Nubian settlements and people’s homes were lost.

Nubian identity has been more widely adopted by the African diaspora, most notably in the US. In Britain an increasing number of members of the Black British community have begun to seek to understand their African heritage and see a connection to Ancient Nubian culture as a means of self-empowerment.

Today, many people forget that Egypt is part of the continent of Africa and only think of the modern state of Egypt, which has closer ties to the Islamic world and is often seen by people to be part of the ‘Middle East’. The ‘Middle East’ includes countries such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and the Arabian Peninsula.

Were the Ancient Egyptians Africans? What colour was their skin?

Yes. Egypt is in Africa and there are many cultural links to other African civilisations.

If we look at the skin colour and also facial features on representations of Egyptians, many are what we would consider today to be Black African. Skin colours on temple and wall reliefs show ranges between dark brown and black, which is typical of what we see today with regard to people of Black African descent or origin. Furthermore, Nubians, a group who are accepted universally as Black Africans are, like their neighbours from Kemet, shown on reliefs with both jet black and red-brown skin and can be distinguished as Nubians by their short wigs.

Many statues have lost their original skin colour. Sometimes colours were used by the Egyptians symbolically, so for example a statue of a god or royal person would painted gold to represent immortality.

If we leave colour aside for a moment, we can also find out a great deal from looking at the facial features shown on Egyptian statues. Here, there can be no doubt that we are dealing with people who were African. Faces were broad with high cheekbones and the jaws are typically strong. The noses are also broad and the lips are generally full and fleshy in appearance.

How long ago was ‘Ancient Egypt’ or Kemet?

Kemet’s origins were small farming communities who lived in groups throughout the country. We can gage the development of this early culture through the kinds of objects that people were buried with. These objects were sophisticated and included items such as stone vases and some objects or materials that indicate trade with foreign lands. This period is called Pre-Dynastic, because it was before there was a single king and the country was unified. This period started around 4000 BC, which is over 6,000 years ago. Before this time there is evidence of a culture that we call Paleolithic and which dated in Kemet to around 100,000 BC, and which was centred around the southern part of the country. Objects from this phase were mainly in the form of flint tools and weapons.

The first rulers in Kemet lived around 3000 BC, which is 5000 years ago. If we compare Kemet to Greece and Rome we can see that Kemet is much older and developed ideas such as monumental buildings, religious beliefs and writing much earlier than European cultures. We know that many of the famous Greek philosophers, playwrights and mathematicians went to Kemet to learn and study. And we can also see Kemet’s early development through its mud-brick and monumental architecture. Greek civilisation and democracy falls into the so-called Late Period of Kemet, and Rome expanded later still.

Some people would like to see Kemet as an earlier civilisation. The problem with re-dating key monuments such as the sphinx is that everything else needs to be re-dated accordingly and in relation. We date archaeological sites and contexts through pottery, inscriptions and sequences. If you wish to use an alternative chronology, it is essential that you keep this in mind.

When looking at Ancient Kemet it helps to remember that we are Before Christ (B.C.) or Before Common Era. This is any date before Year 0 of our calendar. The year 2009 is A.D., which stands for ‘Anno Domini’, a Latin phrase meaning ‘the Year of our Lord’. Some people find this easier to remember this as ‘After Death’. The term Common Era is also used to refer to anything after Year 0. When working out how many years ago objects were made add the current year to the B.C. date. For example if something dates to 3000 BC you add 3000 + 2009 (the current year) to get 5009 years old. Many dates in Kemet are estimates and so you may find in consulting books that different years are given for rulers.

Who was Cleopatra? Was she African?

In the African-American oral tradition Cleopatra is often said to be an African woman. However, many academics who follow an African centred approach to Kemet ignore her. This is because Cleopatra’s family came to Kemet from Macedonia (region that is now part of northern Greece rather than the modern state with the same name). Her family had lived in Kemet for around 300 years before she was born and had enthusiastically adopted the traditional culture of Kemet and its religion and were proud to be shown as kings and queens of Kemet. Unlike earlier kings of Kemet, the Ptolemies (pronounced ‘Tolemees’) as they were known, usually took only one official wife but had many mistresses and concubines. These relationships often resulted in children who were illegitimate. Cleopatra and her father were born from such relationships and it has been suggested that both her mother and grandmother were native to Kemet and so Africans. This is because of the close ties between the royal family and the native elite in Kemet, and the fact that the Ptolemies had been in Kemet for so long at this time. Statues of Cleopatra suggest that the queen was part African and the Romans referred to her as an Egyptian, not as a Greek.

Why have many Egyptian statues lost their noses? Was this deliberate?

In asking this question many people suggest that the damage occurred to statues in order to hide their African features.

The sphinx at Giza for example is often cited as the subject of target practice for French and British troops occupying Egypt. However, an etching by a Danish artist dating to 1737, before the French and British arrived, shows the monument without its nose. Later sketches show the nose restored, perhaps on account of artistic convention. There is a reference to the sphinx being damaged much earlier, in 1378 AD. The Arab historian al-Maqrizi wrote that a man named Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr attacked the statue when he saw farmers making offerings in front of it, because this was not acceptable according to his view of Islamic tradition.

In ancient times statues were also often reused in buildings and walls and were damaged as part of this process. Many of the temples in Kemet were damaged by later people of different religions, who were offended by the images of animals as gods. This was because as the traditional religion of Kemet was replaced firstly by Christianity and later by Islam, many of the old temples housed churches, monasteries and mosques. This would suggest that some damage to material from Kemet was deliberate.

Why are there objects from Kemet in the Fitzwilliam Museum?

Objects in British museums came by three different means. Firstly, objects were given to museums, often by private collectors who had lived in Egypt and purchased material there. Secondly some objects were given to the Museum through excavations. When British academics went to Egypt to excavate they were allowed by the authorities to bring object back to Britain for display and learning. This practise ended in 1976 and it is now illegal to bring even samples of pottery out of the country for archaeological research. Finally, the Museum purchased objects, although this is becoming increasingly less common because museums need to be certain that the objects were taken out of Egypt legally and that their history is documented.

The documents here come from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s archives and show a list of objects from excavations at Abydos that were being given to the museum through the Egypt Exploration Fund, and a list of objects bought by the Egyptologist E. Wallis Budge on behalf of the Museum from dealers in Egypt in 1899. Note that the accounts show the price of packing and shipping the objects.

Why are there objects from Kemet in the Fitzwilliam Museum?

When using the Virtual Gallery you can see how objects came into the Museum’s collections because the labels state whether the object was purchased, given, or bequeathed (left in a will). Numbers appear for example as: E.34.1899, which means that an object is part of the Egyptian collection and was the 34th object to be registered in the year 1899. E.GA before an object number (for example E.GA.50.1943 means that the object was part of the Gayer-Anderson Collection and was given to the Museum in 1943. Objects labelled GR come from the Greek and Roman collections and were registered through their culture rather than their country of origin. A small number of objects have other letters such as ‘E.SS.70’, these are some of the earliest objects to come into the Museum’s collections and were not registered by year. E stands for Egypt and SS stands for stone stela (a type of relief).