The past in ancient Egypt

The meanings of the past in ancient Egypt were manifold and diverse. The following account is very abbreviated; for a fuller picture see in particular the work of Jan Assmann (1988, 1992, 1996) as well as John Baines (1988) and Erik Hornung (1982). An interesting new publication - first published after this page was written - is John Tait's edited volume on Egypt's view of its past (2003).

Early Period and Old Kingdom (3100–2150 BC)

The uses of the past in ancient Egypt during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC are diverse. References to the distant past can be found in contexts as different as the following (Baines 1989):

The pyramids of the Old Kingdom are the oldest expressions of the Egyptian 'megalithic age', expressing an 'ideology of stone' which linked the dead pharaohs with eternity and the gods (Assmann 1996: 69, 93, 472, and part one, passim). In this context, it is very interesting that the pyramids have, on several occasions, been evoked in order to understand the megaliths in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (e.g. Petzsch 1925: 32; Furthmann 1980: 103; Deppe 1983: 30; Veit 1994: 358-9 and note 17). Moreover, Jan Assmann (1988: 87-91 and note 5) did not hesitate to compare Nazi architecture and its 'theory of ruin value' with Egyptian pyramids. What megaliths, pyramids and Nazi architecture certainly have in common are prospective memories of their builders, their monumentality (even if on quite different scales), and the ability to become sites of memory and timemarks in later ages.

Grahame Clark argued that the pyramids conveyed a sense of history to all Egyptians (1992: 89):

"No Egyptian could have passed his brief existence without being made aware that he lived in a community consecrated by history. The Old Kingdom pyramids were more than royal tombs ... [t]hey were the very symbols of Egyptian history, identified with kings whose place in the succession was well known."

People of later Egyptian periods frequently referred back to the Old Kingdom and sometimes imitated or revived some of its cultural achievements, for example in their grave architecture. The formal language of the third millennium BC in particular became 'canonised' in later ages (Assmann 1996: 80-1).

Middle Kingdom (2040–1650 BC)

During the Middle Kingdom, architecture and art styles first continued or imitated older styles. The Old Kingdom became the 'golden age' of the Middle Kingdom, and literature, which flourished during this period, frequently referred to the past. Jan Assmann noted (1996: 302-3) that during the Middle Kingdom people did not consciously try to recreate a lost past (as some did later, in both the New Kingdom and the Late Period) but were more concerned with continuing long established traditions.

In another way, however, the (distant) past gained an entirely new cultural significance. The kings-lists ('annals'), which had been begun in the 1st dynasty, contained probably since the Middle Kingdom also the names of the gods and semi-gods of a mythical, golden prehistory, placed before the first kings. A mythical distant past was thus being included in the official accounts of the history of Egypt (Otto 1964-66: 170-3; Seters 1983: 135-8; Gundlach 1985: 451-2; Baines 1989: 134).

These references in art and literature stopped after the 12th dynasty and were taken up again at the end of the 2nd intermediate period (Baines 1989: 140f.).

New Kingdom (1550–1070 BC)

During the New Kingdom interest in the past was again widespread, but now the past was seen as much more distant than before and more effort was needed to regain it. Relevant phenomena of contemporary history culture included (after Baines 1989: 141-4 and additional sources as named),

Such references to the past (and the New Kingdom as a whole) came to an end when someone with the name Herihor, in the fashion of a dictator, declared himself King, decided to start a new era and, as part of this, a new system of counting the years (Assmann 1996: 320-1). Most continuities from the past were now denied and rejected; the third intermediate period of Egyptian history begun.

The Late Period (760/664–333 BC)

The Egyptian Late Period knew again many archaistic tendencies and other references to the past, especially to the Old Kingdom which was perceived as part of a mythical prehistory. This broad interest in the past, or 'Egyptian Renaissance' emerged (as in ancient Greece) during the 8th century BC and found its climax during the 26th dynasty of the Saite family (664–525 BC). The extent to which the past appeared desirable led Jan Assmann (1996: 377-8) to speak of a 'cultural revolution' and the first 'Egyptomania'. It comprised the following phenomena, among others (after Brunner 1970; 1972; Gundlach 1985: 453; Manuelian 1994; Assmann 1996: 371–403)

Jan Assmann argued that the temples of the Late Period are the 'built memory' of a mythical distant past. They re-established primordial principles of architecture, epigraphy, cult and ethics (Assmann 1992: chapter 4.2).

Various explanations for these archaisms have been offered by egyptologists (Brunner 1970: 155-61; Manuelian 1994: XXXV–XXXVIII, 408–410; Neureiter 1994). These include their interpretation as expressions of

  1. national pride and identity after the re-gaining of independence and national unity, possibly reacting against Greek influence (H.Junker);
  2. a lack of contemporary creativity (Rudolf Anthes);
  3. attempts of political legitimation by drawing on the mythical past and selective forgetting of parts of the recent past (Battiscombe Gunn; Anthony Spalinger);
  4. a nationalistic nostalgia for the 'lost paradise' of the 'youth' of Egypt and a wish to escape the present (Adolf Erman; Eberhard Otto; J.Vandier);
  5. 'chaotic conditions' in a dieing culture: ancient art was copied eclectically and arbitrarily (W.Wolf);
  6. a continuing 'security psychosis' about the danger of foreign invasion after the occupation by the Hyksos, and a need for national consolation (John Wilson);
  7. a search for orientation and a collective identity in the distant past of mythical origins, during a time of change; the mythical past was now taken literally, rather than symbolically, in funerary rituals (Hellmut Brunner; Diethelm Eigner; Jan Assmann 1992: chapter 4);
  8. a need of the social and political elite, especially the priests, to find new ways of displaying and maintaining their status and privileges by drawing on an exclusive knowledge of the past (Sabine Neureiter);
  9. the aristocracy's cultural consciousness, which distinguished the Egyptian elite from the lower classes of their own society and from other peoples outside Egypt (Jan Assmann 1996: 381-2).

An account of the Egyptian past and the great pyramids in particular was given by the Greek scholar Herodotus (2.124ff.) in the 5th century BC (Elsner 1994: 229-35). His interest and relatively long treatment of Egyptian history may reflect the keenness of those contemporaneous Egyptians who were his sources of information, to give him the 'full story'.

When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, he immediately adopted the role of the pharaoh and revived ancient myths which strengthened his position (Assmann 1996: 412, 418-9). Long memories to the great Egyptian past remained important in religious rites, architecture and for the collective identity for many centuries to come (Assmann 1996: 87-9, 470-2). Descriptions of the distant past now turned nostalgic at times (Assmann 1996: 428).

General tendencies

The Egyptian conception of time was ambivalent. While the events of the present and recent past were understood within the framework of a linear progression of time, recorded in annals and in parts measured by complex calendars and observations in the sky, the wider patterns of the distant past and distant future, similarly backed up with astronomical observations of re-occurring phenomena, were perceived as circular and beyond human influence (Otto 1964-66; Brunner 1970: 158-9; Hornung 1982: 20-4; Assmann 1988: 102; Baines 1989: 132). For the Egyptians, all important developments from which our present world emerged happened in a mythical time of prehistory, while nothing ever changed during historic periods. This was reflected in their art, which seems to have stayed committed to virtually the same styles for several millennia (Plato, Laws, 656d–657a; cf. Assmann 1992: 171-4, 190-4; 1996: 380-1). Language too modelled itself on ancient forms (Assmann 1996: 393-4). History was thus interesting only as a source of models and precedent cases, which repeated itself later (Assmann 1988: 106-7).

It is interesting that in ancient Egypt, as in Mesopotamia, the past was imagined as lying in front of a person rather than behind them (Hornung 1982: 20). This may already indicate the important role of cultural memory in Egypt. References to and borrowings from the past occurred frequently in Egyptian history: in funerary texts, literary texts, and in architecture (see Redford 1986; Manuelian 1994: 1-3, 409 for further examples and literature).

"Over the several millennia of Egyptian history, as ages of unity and prosperity fluctuated with times of instability and decline, archaism was often utilized to reinforce the claims of legitimacy for the aspiring ruler, dynastic house or even deceased individual desirous of a prosperous afterlife." (Manuelian 1994: 1)

Generally, references to the past were seen as a powerful means to legitimatise action in the present, because the past was considered a perfect god-wanted state from which people deviated in later ages. Ma'at was the right order of the world as it had originally existed in prehistory. It was seen as the task of every king to rebuild the Ma'at and monuments were one way of expressing this (Otto 1964-66: 165-6; Hornung 1982: 26; Gundlach 1985; Assmann 1988: 98-100).

It has been pointed out that the past referred to in Egypt was often a past-as-wished-for rather than an accurate image of how things had been, and that interest in the past was motivated by 'utilitarian' propaganda rather than 'historical' curiosity (e.g. Otto 1964-66: 161-2; Brunner 1970: 159-60; Gundlach 1985: 443-5, 454; cf. Hornung 1982: 20; Seters 1983: 172-81). This does not mean, however, that the past was not important in ancient Egypt, but rather that historical accuracy (as defined by modern historians) did not feature prominently in Egyptian history culture.


Due to the many inscriptions in a familiar writing system, the knowledge about the builders and original purpose of ancient monuments may never have been lost in Egypt for much of antiquity (Assmann 1988: 105, my translation; see also 1992: 191; 1996: 34-6, 82):

"Reaching back dozens and eventually hundreds of generations, these imposing monuments signified a history made by people in which the Egyptians recognised themselves. This was not the work of gods, demons, giants, cyclopes etc., but of 'us'."
Various Roman writers described the pyramids, but often they simply repeated what Herodotus had written earlier (Elsner 1994: 233, 235-44). Herodotus himself however gives this story of the pyramids (2.126; link added):
"And so evil a man was Kheops that, needing money, he put his own daughter in a brothel and made her charge a fee (how much, they did not say). She did as her father told her, but was disposed to leave a memorial of her own, and asked of each coming to her that he give one stone; and of these stones they said the pyramid was built that stands midmost of the three, over against the great pyramid; each side of it measures one hundred and fifty feet."

Groups of early Christians were responsible for desecrations and vandalism in Egyptian temples, and they also converted some into churches. At the same time, the Egyptian ankh sign appears to have inspired the early type of Coptic cross (Grinsell 1947: 353-7). In subsequent ages, the pyramids in particular attracted a rich folklore, connecting them with biblical events, hidden treasures, fairies (the Djinn), all sorts of magical powers, and numerous legends (Grinsell 1947).

Although the hieroglyphs had to be re-deciphered by Champollion in 1822, the Egyptian heritage was never completely forgotten in Europe: Egypt always remained significant in the European cultural memory (Assmann 1996: 475-87). Leslie Grinsell reported the following remarkable story about the role of ancient Egyptian statues in the 20th century (1947: 357):

"The late Mr.Engelbach, a former Director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, stated that it is well known that the reason why large numbers of native women visit that museum is not to obtain mental enlightenment but to obtain children; for to move among 'anticas' is considered by them to be conducive to successful childbirth."


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 26 July 2005