Cultures & Traditions

The Ancient Egyptians

Located in the northeastern corner of modern Africa and along the Nile River, ancient Egypt was bounded by the Mediterranean to the north, the First Nile Cataract to the south, and desert to the east and west. The ancient Egyptian kingdoms (Old, Middle, and New) prevailed for three and a half thousand years, from c. 3000 BCE to CE 395 (from the First Dynasty to the Ptolemaic period), as evidenced by the extant monuments and treasures as well as hieroglyphic texts. Ancient Egyptian art was essentially religious and made for tombs and temples.

The Greek historian Herodotus called ancient Egypt "the gift of the Nile" because the land and people were so dependent on the fertilizing waters of the Nile River. In late summer, when the Nile came down in flood from the highlands of Ethiopia, it created very rich farmlands all along the lower stretches of the river, the heartland of Egypt.

The king of Egypt, or pharaoh, was a relation of the gods and brought divine blessings to his people and prosperity to the farmlands. He was identified with Horus, the son of Osiris, Lord of the Dead, and was believed to become Osiris after his human death. Such ideas of life in the afterworld played a very important role in Egyptian civilization.

In the 3rd millennium BCE, the Egyptian kings built large funerary monuments for their eternal life, culminating with the great pyramids on the Giza plateau near modern Cairo. At this time, only the king, his relations, and the highest nobility were thought to attain life everlasting. In later periods of Egyptian history, however, the concept of life in the afterworld became more widespread. As a result, funerary monuments, tombs, tomb art, and ornamental coffins form a large proportion of ancient Egyptian art. The Egyptians mummified the bodies of the dead and tried to supply the mummy with the most elaborate home possible to ensure magically that life after death would be like life in this world.

The close ties of the Egyptians with the rich natural world of the Nile valley is reflected in their many gods, who usually have animal heads or animals sacred to them. A good example is the relief of Thoth (1979.1), the god of wisdom and Judge of the Dead, who has the head of an ibis. Similarly the large Late Period coffin in human form (1994.184) has a green face because green is the color of Osiris and of the new growth in the fields. The self-confident humanity of Egyptian art is present in the Old Kingdom relief (1965.28.M), where servants bring food, flowers, and even a hedgehog for the enjoyment of the dead man in his tomb.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 306.

  • Anne R. Bromberg, Gallery text, Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Classical galleries, transcribed September 20, 2016.

Related Multimedia

gallery talk; speaker is professor at Richland College