Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt

The concept of time was an essential part of life for the people of ancient Egypt because they believed that all things are connected in a continuous cycle of life, death, and renewal. This belief was a natu­ral response to the phenomena that they observed in the world around them. They could depend on the annual flooding of the Nile River to renew the fertility of the soil. Ra, the sun god, was resur­rected every morning following his nightly passage through the underworld, to continue his perpetual voyage across the skies. All around them was proof that the cycle of life was continuous.

This idea of continuity led the Egyptians to the belief that the world had been created in a state of perfect order that would never be changed. They worshipped the goddess Ma’at, who stood for order, balance, justice, and equality. This reverence led to the development of a moral code called ma’at, which served as a guide for everyone, begin­ning with the pharaoh and extending down to the common people. The goal for all Egyptians was to lead a sinless or virtuous life in order to be judged worthy of living on in the afterlife.

Development of Religion

As was the case in most primitive cultures, the earliest inhabitants of Egypt based their religious beliefs on the natural world. Before the unification of Egypt, each city-state worshipped its own local god, usually in the form of an animal. One exam­ple of this practice was the cult of the god Apis (or Hap) of Memphis. A single bull would be selected to be the sacred Apis bull on the basis of certain markings or coloring. The temple priests main­tained the bull in luxury throughout its life. When the sacred bull died, it was mummified and received a royal burial. This cult existed well into the Ptolemaic period, so there were many tomb com­plexes where these bulls were interred. One such tomb is the huge underground cemetery called the Serapeum of Saqqara. Other animal burial sites have also been uncovered at Saqqara, with each tomb containing a different animal species.

Another animal cult, which originated in the city of Bubastis, was centered around the worship of the cat goddess, Bastet. The oldest known stat­ues of Bastet represent her as a lioness. Her wor­ship persisted and, over time, spread throughout Egypt. Around 1500 BCE, cats were first domesti­cated in Egypt and came to be considered sacred animals. They were greatly favored as pets, and mummified cats have been found in many tombs. Following the Roman conquest of Egypt, the worship of Bastet spread as far as Italy.

Beginning with the First Dynasty, the animal itself became less of an object of worship but con­tinued to serve as the personification of the god. During this time, also began to take on human attributes. Statues of the gods dating from this period portray them with a combination of both animal and human features. Assigning human features to a god or an animal is called anthropomorphism. An example of this is found in later representations of the goddess Bastet, in which she was depicted as a woman with a cat’s head.

Many local gods were adopted as state gods as local beliefs were incorporated into a more formal­ized religious practice. The ruling pharaoh would often build temples in honor of his favorite god in order to promote the worship of that god, but Egyptian temples were never intended for public worship. They were constructed to house the image of a god and a staff of priests to serve the needs of the god. The full-time priests were the only permanent residents in the temple complexes. They were also the only ones who could perform the required rituals. However, all Egyptian men were required to work in a temple for 1 month out of 4 to fulfill their duty to the gods.

Daily temple rituals were performed beginning at sunrise. The statue of the god was usually housed in an inner chamber of the temple inside a sealed cabinet. At dawn, a priest would enter the chamber, unseal the cabinet, and remove the statue, offering incense and prayers before it. The figure would then be washed, clothed, and adorned with jewels. A meal was prepared, and the food was offered to the god. This ritual was repeated several times during the day until the image was retired for the night. The priest would then return the statue to the cabinet and reseal it with wax, sweeping away his footprints as he left the cham­ber. None of the general population was allowed to participate in these daily rituals at the temple, but small shrines in private homes were not uncommon.

The only time that the public was allowed to participate in religious observances was during a festival. Each of the primary gods had his or her own festival, and as there were many gods, there were multiple festivals throughout the year, usually at least one per month. Festivals were celebrated as holidays, days when no one was required to work. At the start of the celebration, the god’s statue was brought out from the temple and car­ried to the Nile River by a procession of priests. This was the only time that the common people were allowed to see the god’s image. The statue would be installed on a luxurious barge for the journey to the capital city, stopping at towns and villages along the way where the people celebrated with feasting and entertainment. When the statue reached the capital city, the pharaoh would assume the duties of high priest, ministering to the daily needs of the statue.

Not only was the pharaoh ruler over the civil workings of the country, but he was also desig­nated as the high priest for all of the gods. Because he could not possibly fulfill his function as high priest at every temple, chief priests were appointed to serve as proxies in his place, and the pharaoh fulfilled his duties as high priest only during reli­gious festivals. In addition to his birth name, pha­raohs always carried multiple names and titles, both secular and religious, as did all high-ranking officials. The Egyptians believed that the pharaoh was not just a representative of the gods but the incarnation of the gods. Most importantly, the pharaoh was the incarnation of the sun god, Ra.

Beginnings of the Calendar

It was essential that these festivals take place on the same day of every year to ensure the goodwill of the gods who sent the yearly floods to sustain the land. To accomplish this, the Egyptians found it necessary to find a way to measure the passage of time. Temple priests first used the movement of the stars to mark the passing hours. They observed the stars nightly, appointing priests called “hour watchers” to monitor the heavens throughout the hours of darkness and record the movements of the stars in relation to a fixed point. Around 1500 BCE, the priests at the temple of the god Amon (or Amun) in Karnak began to use water clocks, or clepsydra, to determine set intervals of time for recording their astronomical observations. Over time, these observations revealed predictable pat­terns in the movement of the stars and planets, allowing the priests to predict the exact moment when the sun would rise and the daily temple ritu­als could begin. Another result of these nightly surveys was the division of the visible sky into 360°. Names were assigned to 36 star gods, or decans, each of whom occupied a 10-day period on a star chart that was similar to a horoscope. The first recorded use of star charts in Egypt has been dated to about 2100 BCE. Star charts became so important to the Egyptians that they inscribed them on the inside of a sarcophagus, or coffin, for use by the deceased in the afterlife.

The use of star charts led to the first calendar, which was used by temple priests to record reli­gious observances. It was based on the lunar year of 12 months of 30 days with 5 additional, or epagomenal, days added at the end of the year to bring the total to 365 days. Epagomenal days were designated as birthdays of the gods and were cele­brated as special holy days. Months of the lunar calendar consisted of 3 weeks of 10 days and were named for the god whose festival was held during that month. The Egyptians were the first to use a day that consisted of 24 hours, with 12 hours des­ignated for daylight and 12 hours for darkness. Because the length of a day varies with the seasons, an Egyptian hour was not a set amount of time. Instead, it was measured as 1/12 of the hours of daylight or darkness.

The first solar calendar came into use in Egypt around 2900 BCE. It was based on the appearance of the star the Egyptians called Sothis, which also signaled the imminent appearance of the annual flood. The solar year, like the lunar year, consisted of 12 months of 30 days plus the 5 epagomenal days at the end of the year. This was to become the civil calendar of Egypt and was used for all official business, such as recording the dates that grain was harvested on government land or how long workers served at civil building projects during the annual floods. Ancient Egypt had three seasons of 4 months each that coincided with the annual cycle of the Nile River. The season of Inundation would occur from June through September and was the time when the Nile River flooded the land. Because no work could be done in the fields, the people could make use of this time to work on civil build­ing projects. The season of Emergence was the season when the fields emerged from the waters. The receding water was captured in holding ponds for later use, and seed was sown for new crops. Emergence lasted from October through February. Drought was the season of the harvest and took place between March and June.

Both lunar and solar calendars were inaccurate and, over time, the two calendars became asyn­chronous. Neither of them accounted for the full 365.25 days in a year. Using the lunar calendar, the first day of the New Year was the first day of the Nile flood. A year based on this calendar was problematic because it could vary by as much as 10 days, either shortening or lengthening the year, depending on when the start of the flood occurred. When the discrepancy between the two calendars became severe enough to cause religious festivals to be celebrated during the wrong season, the use of a lunar-solar calendar that combined the best features of both types was introduced.

In 239 BCE, Pharaoh Ptolemy III issued the Decree of Canopis to institute the use of a leap year. The Egyptian priests, however, refused to change their calendar. It was not until 23 BCE, when the Roman Emperor Augustus decreed that the Egyptian calendar was to be reformed, that the changes were actually made. This calendar became known as the Alexandrian calendar and was adopted in many areas of Africa and Eastern Asia.

The calendar that we use today originated from the Roman calendar, which was heavily influenced by the Egyptians. When Julius Caesar initiated reforms to the Roman calendar in 46 BCE, he used the recommendations of Sosigenes, an Egyptian astronomer from Alexandria.

Beginnings of Astronomy

In their astronomic observations, the Egyptians noticed that certain stars and constellations remain stationary while others change their position in relation to the earth. Some of these stars disappear below the horizon for a predictable amount of time. When they reappear in the east, they are usu­ally visible for a few moments just before the ris­ing of the sun. This is called the heliacal rising of a star. If a star does not make its heliacal reappear­ance as expected, but remains invisible below the horizon for an extended period of years, the phe­nomenon is called precession. Both of these phe­nomena are caused by the rotation of the earth.

One of the most important heliacal stars for the Egyptians was Sothis, the star now known as Sirius, which is the brightest star in the constellation of Orion. Sothis was important because its heliacal rising signaled the immanence of the annual Nile River flood. It was also used to determine the beginning of the New Year for the civil calendar. Sothis and the constellation of Orion are closely linked with , god of the underworld. Osiris is one of the most important Egyptian gods because of his influence on Egyptian religious beliefs.

Osiris was one of the local gods who had moved up to the status of state god. He was a fully anthropomorphic god, being portrayed in human form, usually pictured as a mummified figure. The origin of the story of Osiris is unknown, but it seems to be a combination of a number of stories that have been found in various funerary texts that were discovered in Egyptian tombs. Plutarch, a Greek writer who lived in the 1st century CE, has left the only existing version of the story that brings together all of these myths. According to Plutarch, the story begins with Osiris, who is Pharaoh over all of Egypt. His brother Seth becomes jealous and plots against him. Seth lures Osiris into a sarcophagus, which he closes and throws into the Nile River. , Osiris’s wife, searches for and locates the sarcophagus. When Seth learns of this, he is so enraged that he cuts the body of Osiris into 14 pieces and distributes them throughout Egypt. Isis travels across the country to gather all of the pieces and, with the help of Thoth, the god of embalming, puts the pieces back together and embalms the body. Through the use of magical spells, Isis resurrects Osiris, who fathers a son with her and names him . Osiris must then descend into the underworld, leaving Isis to rear the child in secrecy to protect him from Seth.

In the next portion of the story, Horus has reached adulthood and sets out to hunt for Seth. A battle ensues, during which Seth removes Horus’s eye. Horus later retrieves the eye from Seth through trickery and the help of his mother. Horus descends to the underworld to present the eye to Osiris, who is granted eternal life because of it and, as a result, becomes ruler of the underworld. After these events, Horus rules over lower, or Northern, Egypt and Seth becomes ruler over upper, or Southern, Egypt. Horus, however, brings his case before the council of the gods, declaring that he alone is Osiris’s rightful heir and should be the ruler over all of Egypt. The gods vacillate between the two claimants for 80 years before Horus is finally declared supreme ruler of Egypt.

What could be the significance of the 80-year court case of the gods? One modern researcher has advanced a theory. Using a computer simulation, he has discovered that the constellation Orion disap­peared below the horizon of ancient Egypt for 80 years. Because the Egyptians believed so strongly in the divine order of the world, the extended disappear­ance of Sothis would need to be explained. This event may have been the source of the story of Osiris.

Burial Practices

One belief that may have originated from the story of Osiris involves the embalming process that is known as mummification. It was believed that if the pharaoh’s body were embalmed in the same manner as Osiris had been and the correct magical spells were invoked, his immortality would be ensured. During his lifetime, the pha­raoh was the person who was responsible for the welfare of the Egyptian people. He was supposed to continue to intercede with the gods on their behalf in the afterlife, making it imperative that the pharaoh achieve eternal life.

Was the story of Isis embalming her husband, Osiris, based on the practice of embalming, or did the embalming process originate with the story? Whatever the case, the process of mummification followed a strict ritual process. First, the body was cleaned and the internal organs were removed, with the exception of the heart. The brain was removed through the nostrils with no effort to preserve it because the Egyptians considered the heart to be the seat of knowledge. The four most important organs were stored in clay jars called Canopic jars. Each jar stood for one of the four sons of the god Horus, with each jar bearing a likeness of the head of its patron on the top of the lid. Imset was repre­sented by a human head, and this jar contained the liver. Hapy was signified by the head of a baboon; he guarded the jar that held the lungs. Qebhseneuf watched over the intestines and was symbolized by a falcon’s head. Duwamutaf protected the stomach and was denoted by a jackal’s head. Each of these was watched over by a goddess from one of the four directions of the compass. After the removal of the organs, the body cavity was filled with resin or sawdust. Finally, the entire body was covered with natron, a salty substance, and was left to dry during the 70 days of mourning.

While the body was being prepared for burial, the tomb was being prepared and stocked with necessities. A tomb was thought of as the dwelling place of the deceased for eternity, so it needed to be equipped with everything that the deceased would need to live in the afterlife. This would include furniture, household utensils, a miniature funerary boat, food and drink, as well as small clay figures called shabti. Scenes depicting special times in the life of the departed one were painted on the tomb walls, and a statue of the deceased was nearly always placed in the tomb to serve as a replacement home for the ka, or spirit, in the event that the mummy was destroyed.

After 70 days, the body was removed from the natron, washed, and wrapped in linen cloths. When the entire process was complete, the funeral service was held. Cemeteries were usually placed on the west side of the Nile River and when a per­son died, they were said to have “gone west” where the sun “died” each day. The western hori­zon was thought of as the borderline between the land of the living and the underworld, the king­dom of Duat that was ruled by Osiris. Just prior to placing the body into its final resting place, which was usually a stone sarcophagus, a ritual called the “opening of the mouth” took place. In this cere­mony, the priest would touch the mouth of the mummy with two special instruments while recit­ing magical incantations. The first was thought to give life and breath back to the body. The second was believed to enable the deceased to receive nourishment from the food offerings that were left in the tomb. In addition, it was thought that these incantations would enable the miniature funerary boat to enlarge for use by the deceased in the jour­ney through the underworld. The spells were also supposed to animate the shabti figures to become the person’s servants in the afterlife and were believed to enable the tomb paintings to come to life to serve the departed. This is the reason that tomb paintings always included everyday tasks, such as the harvesting of grain, the baking of bread, and the brewing of beer.

After a person died, it was believed that his or her soul must descend to the underworld to pass through certain tests and trials. Those who had lived a good life and had the proper answers to the questions of judgment would move on to an eter­nal existence. In the Old Kingdom, texts were written on the interior walls of tombs and pyra­mids to serve as a guide for the deceased. These are referred to as Pyramid Texts. During the Middle Kingdom years, these texts were written on the inside of the sarcophagus and are called Coffin Texts. Scrolls of papyrus with instructions for the deceased to use in facing the tests of the under­world were placed between the knees of the mummy in New Kingdom burials. These scrolls are known collectively as the . One thing that was contained in the Book of the Dead was a recitation of the sins that had not been committed by the deceased. In addition to respond­ing correctly to all of the questions posed by the gods, the individual’s heart would be weighed against a feather in the Hall of Ma’at. If the scales balanced, the person would go on to eternal life. If the scales did not balance, it was believed that the heart would be eaten by Amment, the “devourer of souls.” If this happened, there was no chance for an eternal existence, and it is likely that this was one of the reasons that the Egyptians devoted themselves to following the principles of truth and fairness that were expressed by the philosophy of ma’at.

During the early years of the Old Kingdom, only the pharaoh was expected to achieve eternal life. Smaller tombs for nobles and courtiers were usually constructed around the tomb of the pha­raoh in the hope that they would be allowed to serve the pharaoh in the afterlife as they had dur­ing his lifetime. By the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, burials of nobles and courtiers reflected their expectation to live on in the afterlife in the same manner as the pharaoh. By the start of the New Kingdom, these beliefs seem to have included anyone who had the means to pay for embalming and an appropriate tomb.

The temple complexes that were commonly built around the tomb or pyramid of the pharaoh during the Old and Middle Kingdoms served a double purpose. Regular attention would keep his name alive, and the priests would continue to sup­ply his mummy with regular food offerings. For everyone else, relatives were expected to visit the tomb with food and drink offerings to sustain the departed one. Those who were wealthy enough could hire priests to ensure that their loved one would have the necessary offerings in perpetuity. As time passed, it was not unusual for these agree­ments to be forgotten. If the food offerings were not forthcoming, it was believed that the needs of the deceased could be supplied by the tomb paint­ings that had been magically animated during the ceremony of the “opening of the mouth.”

Another belief tied to the story of Osiris is the idea that a person who was deceased would have eternal life as long as his name was remembered. Tomb texts containing the name of the deceased were meant to ensure that the person would live on in the afterlife, just as Osiris had done. This belief, combined with the responsibility of the pha­raoh for his people’s welfare, made it important to record the pharaoh’s name many times within his tomb, particularly on the sarcophagus. Carrying this belief one step farther, the Egyptians believed that if the departed pharaoh took on the name of Osiris, his name would be remembered forever, ensuring his immortality. Writings found in the tomb of Pharaoh , who ruled from 2375 to 2345 BCE identify him as Unas-Osiris, showing that the funerary customs of that time were based on beliefs that had originated from the story of Osiris. The importance of keeping the name of the deceased alive also led to the construction of extensive temple complexes around the tombs of the pharaohs during the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

Tombs and Pyramids

The Egyptians practiced the worship of multiple gods, but the central principle in Egyptian religion was a belief in the continuation of life after death. To achieve eternal life, a person must have a prop­erly prepared tomb where his or her ka, or spirit, would live forever. Consequently, temples, tombs, and pyramids were designed to last for eternity, and they were the only structures in Egypt that were constructed of stone instead of the tradi­tional mud brick.

Sandstone was the stone of choice because it was easily worked with the available stone tools. However, sandstone’s limitations include the fact that it cannot be used to span a large distance without support. Limestone came into use because, like sandstone, it was easy to work with, but it is also strong enough to withstand the stress of being incorporated into an arch. Everyday structures, such as houses, shops, and even the palaces of the pharaohs, were constructed of mud brick that has long since weathered away. As a result, most of what is known about ancient Egyptian civilization has come from the art and funerary goods that have been discovered in tombs.

At the beginning of the Old Kingdom, pharaohs were buried in mastaba tombs. These consisted of an underground vault, sometimes a suite of rooms, with a shaft to the surface. Above the tomb, a rect­angular structure of mud brick was constructed to afford access to the vault below. A chapel was usu­ally built inside the mastaba to provide a place for relatives to bring offerings for the deceased. Small funerary chapels slowly gave way to temple complexes.

In the 3rd century BCE, the style of tombs was changed forever when Pharaoh Djoser commis­sioned his chief architect, Imhotep, to design a tomb for him at Saqqara. Imhotep was an extraor­dinary man who served as the king’s vizier but was also a priest, physician, astronomer, philosopher, and a gifted mathematician. The project began with preparations for a large, raised mastaba tomb. However, this tomb differed from those of previous kings in that it was built entirely of lime­stone bricks instead of the traditional mud bricks. In imitation of the former tradition of using organic building materials, the outer surface of the stone was carved to represent bundles of reeds and grass mats. After completion, the tomb underwent a radical addition. A second, smaller layer was added on top of the first, with two more added to form a step pyramid. Another addition followed the first, enlarging the base and adding two more layers to form a rectangular step pyramid of six layers. It was the first structure of its kind to be built in Egypt and was the largest stone structure in the world at the time of its completion. Tombs from this time period, including Djoser’s step pyra­mid, had a north-facing entrance, pointing toward the polar stars, where it was believed that the deceased would spend eternity.

Pharaohs who followed after Djoser built tombs in a variety of styles. Some built step pyramids, but several of the kings who succeeded Djoser ruled only a short time and did not undertake such mas­sive building projects. It was King Sneferu of the Fourth Dynasty who began planning an ambitious project for his tomb shortly after coming to power. The first attempt, built at Dahshur, resulted in the bent or rhomboiDalí pyramid. The second attempt, also built at Dahshur, resulted in the first classic pyramid, and became Sneferu’s tomb. Its outer surface is covered with pink limestone that appears red at sunset, so it has been given the name Red Pyramid.

The largest of the Egyptian pyramids is the Great Pyramid at Giza, which was built by Sneferu’s son, Khufu. Its base covers 13 acres. It measures 451 feet in height and its sides are aligned with the four directions—north, south, east, and west. Khufu’s son, Khafre, built the sec­ond pyramid at Giza. Although it is smaller than the Great Pyramid, it seems larger because it was built in a higher position. The third pyramid was started by Khafre’s son, Menkaura, who died before it was finished. His successor, King Shepseskaf, completed the building of Menkaura’s pyramid.

Why did the Egyptians feel the need to build the pyramids? Pyramids, like the mastaba tombs before them, are thought to be symbolic of the primeval mound that was the first creation of Ptah, one of the creator gods. The entrance to the pyra­mid always faced to the east, where the sun god, Ra, rose every morning. It is thought that this practice reflected an emphasis toward the worship of Ra. The prevailing belief of the time concerning the afterlife was that the deceased would continu­ally journey across the sky in the boat of Ra.

Pyramid construction occurred for a relatively short time during the Old Kingdom. In the Middle Kingdom years, tombs reverted to the mastaba style but were constructed of stone instead of mud brick. By the start of the New Kingdom, tombs were constructed entirely underground with a hid­den entrance. This is the type of tomb that is found in the Valley of the Kings, which is located on the west bank of the Nile near Thebes. These tombs consist of extensive passageways and chambers that have been tunneled into the cliffs with the entrance hidden after the burial, most likely to discourage tomb robbers. This would be especially important to the Egyptians because they believed that if the tomb was robbed and the mummy was destroyed, the deceased could not continue to enjoy a life in eternity.


The Egyptians were a people who became obsessed with time and eternity. Although their religious beliefs changed over time, their belief in the after­life came to dominate every aspect of life in Egypt. The primary purpose of the greatest Egyptian architecture and art was to construct a dwelling place for the deceased and the provisions that would be needed for life in eternity. Everyday life in Egypt was ruled by the tenets of ma’at in order to achieve eternal life. This obsession would even­tually lead to the study of astronomy, the inven­tion of timekeeping instruments, and the concept of a 24-hour day and the invention of the calen­dar. Although these discoveries were made thou­sands of years ago, the legacy of the Egyptians continues to influence people’s lives today.

Corrine W. Koepf

See also Calendar, Egyptian; Mummies; Rameses II; Rosetta Stone; Seven Wonders of the Ancient World


Further Readings

Assmann, J. (2001). The search for God in ancient Egypt. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ikram, S. (2003). Death and burial in ancient Egypt. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Lamy, L. (1981). Egyptian mysteries: New light on ancient spiritual knowledge. New York: Crossroad.

Lippincott, K. (with Eco, U., Gombrich, E. H., et al.). (1999). The story of time. London: Merrell Holberton.

Richards, E. G. (1999). Mapping time: The calendar and its history. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ruiz, A. (2001). The spirit of ancient Egypt. New York: Algora.

Shaw, I. (Ed.). (2000). The Oxford history of ancient Egypt. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wilkinson, R. H. (2000). The complete temples of ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson.

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Education and Time

Education and Time

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein