Extraterrestrial influencers, royal curses, and biblical enslavements - myths about ancient Egypt abound. Centuries of inaccuracies, lost sources, and popular fictions have sometimes misrepresented and fudged facts about ancient Egypt. So, what is true and false about the long-gone world of pyramids and pharaohs?
In the many millennia between 3100 and 332 BCE, pharaohs ruled over a sophisticated civilization. This was a world of organized medical knowledge and ancient Egyptian surgery, complex religious beliefs, and even ancient sex culture and birth control. But not everyone was free or equal; the divide between rich and poor was expressed in unexpected ways. Pharaohs claimed to be gods incarnate, and they built hieroglyph-laden pyramids and giant statues to show off their authority.
Though plenty of historical and archeological evidence offer glimpses into ancient Egypt, not everything people believe about it is true. By debunking ancient Egypt myths, it's possible to get a clearer picture about the era in all its complexity.
The Reality: Though slavery certainly existed in ancient Egypt, there is little to no archaeological evidence to support the story that the pharaohs systematically enslaved Israelites in Egypt. In fact, it's even questionable if Israelites were even in Egypt before a great exodus. There were other Canaanite groups in Egypt at various times, however, and some of them were perhaps slaves. These groups of workers may have migrated to and from Egypt in small numbers, but concrete evidence of a mass exodus of millions of enslaved people hasn't emerged. The story may be rooted in a historical experience, but there is nothing to support it as it appears in religious texts.
Why The Myth: Religious texts in the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions attest to the existence of a man named Moses (or Musa) who led enslaved Israelites out of Egypt and to freedom. This powerful story has resonated with religious and oppressed communities for centuries, and Hollywood further popularized the narrative with films like The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt.
The Reality: The great pyramids of Egypt required a large force of roughly 10,000 workers per structure, but the workers probably weren't slaves. Instead, pyramids were constructed thanks to a form of labor built on obligation and exchange. Scholars believe pyramid construction crews perhaps comprised workers who labored for three months at a time.
Why The Myth: The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was among the first to circulate the myth Egyptians relied on slave labor to build their elaborate pyramids. The belief stuck, and Hollywood films like The Ten Commandments brought the myth to wider audiences.
The Reality: Rulers in the First Dynasty did expect some servants to follow them into the afterlife: They were sacrificed and buried in the pharaoh's tomb. One of the earliest pharaohs King Djer, for example, may have sacrificed hundreds of servants. But this process quickly fell out of practice. Later pharaohs were buried with figurines to represent their servants and undertake work in the afterlife.
Why The Myth: The myth that all pharaohs slayed and entombed their servants - or buried them alive - fixates on a limited era of Egyptian history and wrongly applies it to the entire ancient period. It also underscores the Hollywood-nurtured assumption that ancient Egyptian rulers were bloodthirsty.
The Reality: Pharaohs had extensive banquets and their diets weren't especially healthy. They feasted on foods with lots of fat, carbs, and sugars, including bread, meat, and beer. This heavy diet meant pharaohs weren't the statuesque, slender figures believed by popular memory. Like Hatshepsut, some were overweight and probably suffered from diabetes. King Tut, who passed as a teenager, also wasn't what people might have imagined. Likely due to inbreeding in the royal bloodline, he had problems with his foot and might have had to use a cane to walk.
Why The Myth: Pharaohs look tall and lean in representational Egyptian artwork that venerated rulers.