For nearly 30 centuries, the Ancient Egyptian civilisation was the most prominent in the Mediterranean region, and there is no doubt that its legacy has been great. Not only do we have a rich history and culture to explore, but it may surprise you to know just how much they gifted to us, the long-future generations.
There are so many advances I could share here, from those in irrigation and agriculture (especially the ox-drawn plough and the sickle for harvesting), shipbuilding and aerodynamics, to mathematics, astronomy and of course construction (the geometry in the Pyramids is a real triumph). I have focused on some of the most interesting inventions that affect how we live today.
Paper and ink
Writing existed before the time of Ancient Egypt; the Mesopotamians had carved characters into mediums like stone. But it was the Egyptians who developed papyrus, by compressing reeds alongside the Nile. 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.
Many women today outline their eyes to make them appear bigger and more dramatic. They have the Egyptians to thank for the invention of kohl, made from various minerals mixed with animal fat or oil. 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.
Wigs were created from human hair (or, for the less wealthy, vegetable fibres); Queen Nefertiti was a fan. 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.
The wedding ring
This tradition dates back to Ancient Egypt, when couples would exchange rings upon marriage. These were made from leather or reeds and hemp braided together. Just as we do today, they wore the ring on the ‘ring finger’ of the left hand, since they believed that a vein here transported blood directly to the heart. The circle had great spiritual significance, representing the cycle of eternal life.
The calendar and clocks
The Egyptians devised a twelve-month calendar based on the flooding of the Nile, which happened around the same time each year. The year had 365 days, and each month had 30 days, with an extra five days added on to the end of the harvest and devoted to feasting. Two calendars can be seen today at the temples of Abydos and Kom-Ombo.
Kom Ombo Temple calendar
For timekeeping, the time Egyptians used obelisks like huge sundials. They also developed a water clock, using the drips though a small hole in a stone vessel to gauge the passing of time.
Bowling and wrestling
Both sports originated in Ancient Egypt.
Skittles and a ball were found in a child’s tomb dating back to 5200 BC. It is thought that the game was played on any ground – a little like the French petanque. Balls could be made from corn, leather, string or stone.
Wrestling at the time is well documented, with portrayals found in tombs – more than 400 dating to the Middle Kingdom alone. According to scenes found in the tomb of Baqti III, wrestlers were naked but for a long belt.
Sham Ennessim, celebrated in Egypt to this day at Eastertime, originated in the Ancient Egyptian festival of Shemu, which marked the start of spring. At this time, the people made offerings to the gods of salted fish, representing fertility, and lettuce, representing hopefulness. They also dyed hardboiled eggs – for them, eggs symbolised new life.
The table and chair
Well, someone had to have invented them! Before it occurred to the Egyptians to create furniture in the third millennium BC, people sat on the floor or on stools or benches. Tables of Ancient Egypt were often crafted from wood and alabaster and intricately carved. Chairs were reserved for the wealthy and royals and were very fine, made from materials like ivory and ebony.
Chair of Reniseneb, scribe of Thutmose III, c. 1450 BC
Private police forces were formed in the Old and Middle Kingdoms to keep order, and in the New Kingdom a centralised force was set up. They were armed with staffs and dogs and punishment for wrongdoing was severe, from beating to execution followed by the lack of a proper burial (thus cutting the person off from the afterlife).
Of course, the Egyptians are famous for this practice, which they did so effectively that we can examine their mummies thousands of years later.
Most importantly of all, we have the Ancient Egyptians to thank for much of the basis of modern medicine. Treating illness of course was the job of the gods, and people prayed and made offerings for healing, but a scientific approach was also developed, practised by priests and dedicated physicians. Houses of Life were like hospitals; the workers in the Valley of the Kings were afforded public healthcare. Surgery was performed, using the first surgical instruments, including forceps for childbirth, and the Edwin Smith Papyrus, dating to around 1600 BC, is the earliest known writing on surgical techniques. In addition, the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus of around 1800 BC shows that the Egyptians developed approaches to gynaecology and contraception.
Inscription showing medical instruments of Ancient Egypt
Photo credit: 1) Kriveart90/Shutterstock.com; 2) Ad Meskens/Wikipedia; 3) Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikipedia; 4)Jeff Dahl/Wikipedia