Pyramids, cats, and the pharaohs - that's what you see when you catch a glimpse of ancient Egypt told through popular culture. Some ancient Egyptian tropes aren't wrong - they may just be a bit exaggerated or overstated. At the same time, ancient Egypt is still ancient and many true facts about it do seem fictional, making it difficult to get a clear grasp of what life was like along the Nile River thousands of years ago.
There are some key movies that have set the tone for what people believe about ancient Egypt. During the 1950s and 1960s, The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra offered up a version of ancient Egypt that remains pervasive. More recently, The Mummy franchise(s) have put some new spins on the time period. Video games have weighed in to a certain extent, adding to heaps of misunderstandings or straight-up falsehoods about ancient Egypt.
Unfortunately, some of the same foolish notions about ancient Egypt appear over and over again. Which one did you fall for, maybe more than once?
Scarabs Are Dangerous, Flesh-Eating MonstersPhoto: The Mummy / Universal Pictures
Representations of scarabs are pervasive in ancient Egyptian artwork, amulets, and seals. Egyptians believed scarabs to be sacred, associating them with the sun god Re. This was because scarabs rolled balls of dung to lay their eggs, essentially creating a ball from which new growth would soon appear. In hieroglyphics, the scarab or beetle translates to "to come into being."
Scarabs were worn as jewelry in all colors and sizes by Egyptians among the living and sent to the afterlife. Scarabs were even mummified like those found at the King Userkaf pyramid complex near Cairo in 2018. According to the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, Mostafa Waziri, "The (mummified) scarab is something really unique. It is something really a bit rare... A couple of days ago, when we discovered those coffins, they were sealed coffins with drawings of scarabs. I never heard about them before."
Despite the veneration of scarabs in the Egyptian world, the heralded dung beetles are usually presented as destructive, creepy, evil creatures in popular culture. The Mummy (1999) includes depictions of scarabs as dangerous, invasive, flesh-eating insects that crawl under peoples' skin - in no way an accurate depiction of the feces-focused crawlers.Dumb trope?
The Egyptians Were All Slightly Tan White GuysPhoto: Exodus: Gods and Kings / 20th Century Fox
Historians, archaeologists, and geneticists continue to theorize about the physical appearance of ancient Egyptians. These efforts provide some insight into the ethnic, linguistic, and biological backgrounds, but have not led to any consensus as to what ancient Egyptians looked like. In an effort to assign a "race" to ancient Egyptians - an overly simplistic, if not anachronistic classification - scholars and Hollywood alike have embraced 19th-century scholarship that pushed forward notions of Egyptian whiteness.
In truth, there was a lot of variability in appearance across ancient Egypt. Over centuries, the movement of peoples throughout the Mediterranean necessarily influenced genetics and culture, but there's no indication that Egyptians were ever what one might call "Caucasian."
Movies like The Ten Commandments from 1956 and Cleopatra from 1963 depict white actors and actresses as ancient Egyptians. The same is true of movies within The Mummy franchise, and was prominent in the animated Prince of Egypt movie from 1998.
As recently as 2014 and 2016, respectively, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Gods of Egypt were widely criticized for the same type of casting. In Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings, Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, and Aaron Paul played the lead roles, while Gerard Butler and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau fought it out as Egyptian gods Horus and Set in Gods of Egypt.
For his part, Scott explained the casting in terms of money: "I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such... I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up." On the heels of Gods of Egypt's release, director Alex Proyas and entertainment company Lionsgate issued apologies and acknowledged a lack of diversity in the cast.Dumb trope?
The Egyptians All Rode Around On CamelsPhoto: The Prince of Egypt / DreamWorks Animation
Camels show up to transport goods and perform work in movies about ancient Egypt, although they weren't widely used for such purposes until at least the 10th century BC. Movies like The Shepherd King from 1955 had nearly 500 camels on set, while The Ten Commandments (1956), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), and Prince of Egypt (1998) feature camels, as well.
Instead of dromedaries (single-hump camels), Egyptians - and groups throughout the Eastern Mediterranean - used donkeys and mules. Archaeologists have identified donkeys in Egypt by 3100 BC, which were used during the First and Second Dynasties to build monumental structures. Evidence from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650 BC) indicates donkeys were engaged in agricultural work and transported loads of grain, wood, and comparable heavy items.
There were camels present in Egypt during the ancient period, but they were only domesticated as longer trade routes developed. Donkeys and mules were unable to survive harsh, dry landscapes, but according to researchers, "The camel enabled long-distance trade for the first time, all the way to India, and perfume trade with Arabia" by the seventh century BC.Dumb trope?
The Pyramids Were Built During The Events Depicted In ExodusPhoto: The Ten Commandments / Paramount Pictures
Pyramid building remains a common trope in movies about ancient Egypt, often lumped in with stories about Moses, the Ten Commandments, and the plight of the Hebrews contained within the Book of Exodus. The Ten Commandments (1963) and Prince of Egypt (1998) are both guilty of this anachronism, linking two historical traditions that took place at least a millennia apart.
Dating the Book of Exodus and the Ten Commandments remains difficult, but the earliest possible timeframe for its content falls around 1200 BC. Even with that timeline, the Old Testament's stories about Moses, the Ten Commandments, and the Hebrew flight from Egypt still take place more than 1,000 years after the Great Pyramids of Giza were built.
Construction of the largest pyramid, that of King Khufu (2589-2566 BC), took place during the 26th century BC. The remaining two structures at Giza - the pyramids of Khafre (2558-2532 BC) and Menkaure (2532-2503 BC) - were also built during their reigns.
By about 2000 BC, the prosperity of Old Kingdom Egypt waned and massive pyramid-building activities declined. The New Kingdom (1550-712 BC) - which corresponds with the earliest possible dates for the stories in the Book of Exodus - saw no pyramids on the scale of those built during the New Kingdom.Dumb trope?