Did you know that “Egypt” wasn’t the real name of this country in ancient times, and it still isn’t even in modern times? Nope, that’s one of the many misconceptions about the country we call Egypt today (Can a country actually catfish people?). What else do we think is true about Egypt but really isn’t? That’s what John reveals in this episode of The Egypt Travel Podcast – conceptions and misconceptions of both modern and ancient Egypt (or whatever it’s actually called… find out in this episode!).
For more travel advice on trips to and around Egypt, check out all the other episodes of the Egypt Travel Podcast. And please feel welcome to go to www.EgyptElite.com for help planning your trip to Egypt, and we’ll be delighted to help you make it a reality.
Episode 33 Transcript
Sabah el xheir, everyone. Greetings from sunny Aswan, Egypt where I’m recording this latest episode of the Egypt Travel Podcast while I’m here with 3 different sets of clients who are touring Egypt right now.
One of the clients in a small private group I have here right now suggested the other day that I should do a podcast episode covering common misconceptions of Egypt, and he did a great job of giving me a few starter ideas based on misconceptions that he, his sister, and his fiancé had about Egypt before they came. I met them for dinner in Luxor last week, and as they told me the things that they had assumed about Egypt but were surprised to find out were different once they arrived and began exploring the country, I realized that Michael, you were exactly right. This topic needs its own podcast episode, or maybe even a series of them.
Despite all the info out there (like this podcast, like EgyptTravelBlog.com, and all the other resources on Egypt that we and others put out), and despite the millions of tourists that visit Egypt every year and return home to talk about how wonderful and surprising the experience was, there are still hundreds of millions of people out there who have certain conceptions and misconceptions about Egypt. And I’m always amazed at how off people’s conceptions of Egypt are sometimes. Whether it’s in regards to ancient Egypt (which wasn’t even called Egypt, by the way) or the modern country (which also isn’t really called Egypt either, by the way), Egypt remains a land of contrasts, myths, misconceptions, and lots of surprises.
Let’s start with the name, since I probably just confused you on that topic by saying that wasn’t and isn’t the real name of the country. In ancient times, the place we know today as Egypt was called Kemet. Egypt as a name was a later Greek creation, Aigyptos, which was derived from the Egyptian name for the city of Memphis, which was also a Greek name we still use today for that ancient capital of Egypt, but which had a different name in the ancient Egyptian language too – Hwt-Ka-Ptah if anyone is interested, which meant Mansion of the Spirit of Ptah, an ancient god. So from Hwt-Ka-Ptah, the Greeks started staying Aigyptahhh, and of course they put “os” on the end of everything because, well they’re Greek. So we get Aigyptos, which then was picked up in Latin as Aegyptus after the Romans took Egypt from Greece, and then Egypte in old French, and now you can probably see where in English we get the word Egypt from.
It wasn’t the name of the country, but the Romans and the French and the English have been so globally dominant for the past 2000 years sailing around everywhere telling everyone about this great country called Egypt, so the people here just rolled with it and still do. They’re just like – sure, call us whatever you want, as long as you come see the Pyramids and stuff.
Similarly, when the Arab tribes from present-day Saudi Arabia invaded Egypt in the 600s and brought both the Islamic religion and the Arabic language to the area, they called the country Masr. Masr remains the country’s name today in the actual native language of the people here… not the indigenous language, but at least the current native language.
So Egypt – that’s basically the pan-European version of the country’s name. Masr that’s the native Arabic version of the country’s name. And Kemet is the original indigenous ancient Egyptian name for this country.
Related to that is another misconception about Egypt. Many of the people here, especially in northern Egypt, aren’t the same as the ancient Egyptians who built pyramids and empires here thousands of years ago. Many modern-day people here are Arabs descended form the tribes across the Red Sea in the Arabian peninsula or Turkish tribes to the north who came and settled during the long Ottoman occupation period. In fact, in the Delta region of Egypt in the north you can see many people who are very very light skinned, almost white, because they are of Turkish descent from Anatolia in modern-day Turkey or the Balkans in Europe or the Caucuses region, where the word Caucasion even originated.
In fact, Egypt’s last royal family was ethnically Albanian. They were from the European part of the Ottoman Empire and became governors here when the Ottomans ruled Egypt and then kings of Egypt when they broke away from Ottoman control. And the last famous royal family before that, of which the Cleopatra was a member, was Greek and Macedonian… they were from Europe too!
Which is actually really funny because in the new remake of the famous film about Cleopatra, the Israeli actress Gal Gidot was cast to star as Cleopatra, and all these idiots in the West were screaming online about how dare they cast a non-African to play an African queen? But guess what… the irony is that these uneducated people who think they’re so worldly and knowledgeable about Africa and Egypt were completely ignorant of this place’s history. They were imposing their own assumptions and misconceptions onto Egypt and then screaming at others who were actually getting it right.
Cleopatra wasn’t African; she was of European descent from the Balkans. And Gal Gidot, actually being from the Middle East herself, was way more ethnically diverse than Cleopatra ever was.
Only in the very far south of Egypt in what we call Upper Egypt or Lower Nubia do you see what are likely continuous lines of truly indigenous ancient Egyptians still inhabiting Egypt today, although some would argue that the Coptic families in Egypt are very likely the next most closely related to the ancients because they didn’t mix and marry with the invading Arab tribes from Saudi that took over the country after the Muslim conquest in the 600s.
Ok, so in sum here, Egypt is a foreign word used to refer to ancient Kemet, in the original Egyptian language, and modern Masr, in the Arabic language. But Egypt is the commonly accepted word in English for the country, so Egyptian themselves accept and embrace it as well, at least in other languages. And modern Egyptians are a mix of Arabs, Ottomans, Nubians, and more, in addition to indigenous Kemites or Kemetese or whatever adjective the ancient citizens of Kemet would have called themselves.
So now let’s go back nearly 5000 years to ancient Kemet and talk about one of modern Egypt’s greatest monuments – the pyramids. First, we honestly still don’t truly know how they were built. There are theories, but they are just that. Most likely the ancients used either long or winding mud-brick ramps, but they just as easily could have used a material or technique that we haven’t yet imagined and which isn’t currently referred to or spelled out in any surviving pictorials or records.
Second, the pyramids were most likely not built by slaves, but instead by local workers who were taking turns performing a period of national service to the state (i.e., the Pharaoh). Since they didn’t have an IRS or currency back then to collect taxes and the Pharaoh didn’t really need to collect a percentage of crops or meat that could spoil, the ancient Egyptian state often took taxes in the form of labor, and some of that labor was put to work building the final resting places of the god-kings who ruled absolutely.
How do we know this? Well, the best evidence comes from the ruins of the accommodations provided for the workers around the pyramid building sites and the remains of the food that they were fed in these areas. For example, precious meat would not have been wasted on slaves, yet remnants of massive amounts of meat have been found amid the workers’ villages surrounding pyramid construction sites. So it’s more likely that the builders of the pyramids were more of a national service corps that was conscripted to work for the Pharaoh for a period of time in exchange for the protection, both physical and divine, that he was thought to have provided them and for sustenance in the form of decent meat, bread, and beer.
What about the aliens though, you may be thinking? Why would the History Channel and Discovery Channel and Clickbait Channel have all of these tv shows about ancient aliens building things like the pyramids if there ins’t any potential merit to these theories? Well, you can probably guess the answer to that yourself. Theories and shows like these are fascinating, enthralling, and they get you to click links and watch shows for hours on end late at night when you can’t sleep.
However, there isn’t any evidence of anything supernatural in the building of Egypt’s ancient monuments. All of them can plausibly have been built with ancient tools and sufficient manpower. And nothing unexplainable has been found at these sites. There are no radiation burn marks on the walls or non-earthly metals integrated into anything. If extraterrestrials had anything to do with it, you would expect to find some sort of evidence of inexplicable phenomena. But instead, all we find is evidence of immense hard work, careful planning, and grand ambitions.
Some people also mistakenly believe that the pyramids can’t possibly be solid all the way through. There would have to be more than 2.3 million of these stones that weigh an average of 2.5 tons each for the largest of them, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, to be solid all the way through. Well guess what… it is. And they all are, except for the very small open burial and storage chambers inside of them. How do we know? Well the simple answer here is because we can go inside of them and see for ourselves.
That, by the way, is another misconception about Egypt and the pyramids. Many people think you can’t go inside of them. You can. Several of Egypt’s most famous pyramids, including the Great Pyramid, are continuously open for visitors to go into. In fact, you can walk through a narrow corridor all the way to the center of the pyramids and see the actual burial chambers in the middle of them.
It would have been much harder for the ancients to have only filled in the huge stone blocks around the tunnels and burial chambers inside of the pyramids and then also on the exterior of the structure and then left the rest empty just to intentionally fool the conspiracy theorists watching the History Channel at 4am in the 21st century. We also know that the pyramids are solid structures because there are over a hundred of them left standing, and most of them are in states of collapse such that we can see what’s inside of them now because the insides are exposed. And guess what… the ones that are collapsing and falling apart are revealing their interiors to be solid stone all the way though.
Another misconception about the pyramids is that the reward for duck-walking through a hot and stuffy narrow tunnel all the way to the king’s burial chamber in the center will be some spectacular scenes like out of some movie. But in reality, the pyramids are blank inside – and outside for that matter. Their magnificence is in their scale and size and the fact that the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom period were building these enormous structures 4,500 years ago while Europeans and North Americans were still living in caves and hunting and gathering. The fabulous colorful artwork on tomb and temple walls didn’t come until later. One client of Egypt Elite here with us recently described it as if you’re seeing the ancient world in sepia tones instead of in vivid color.
With that said, however, another misconception is that all of the ancient monuments in Egypt are in sepia without any of the original color or artwork. That’s not true either once you get down to the tombs and temples in Luxor. The dry air, lack of rainfall, and protection from wind damage by being underground has preserved most of the original vivid colors of the tombs of Egypt’s greatest New Kingdom pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens in Luxor. And even though the above-ground temples in Luxor were exposed to the elements for thousands of years, the areas that were least exposed, such as the underside of the temple roofs, still have a lot of original vivid color that has survived to the present day.
So when you’re touring Karnak Temple, for example, at first you’re admiring the massive walls of the pylons and the columns of the hypostyle hall and the huge obelisks as you make your way back through the temple complex. But if you also look up while you’re walking through, you’ll see the temple more like its original builders and users saw it – awash in bright colors that really made the walls and columns pop back in the day.
And finally, let’s talk about the big elephant in the room… or at least in some rooms. For anyone who has been to Egypt now, we find it hard to believe that people still in this day and age, in 2022, would think that Egypt is not safe. That’s such old-school thinking by those who either a) remember when the whole Middle East used to be a powder keg in the 1960s and 70s (but so was the USA at that time), or b) think that because something dicey is going on elsewhere in the region that it must somehow make Egypt, a completely different country, unsafe too, as if drug violence in Mexico (part of North America) somehow makes Quebec, Canada (also in North America) dangerous and doggy. No one would ever say, “I’m not visiting Vancouver because there was a shooting in Miami.” But that’s what people sounds like when they say they think Egypt is unsafe because they heard on their favorite click-bait website or for-profit news channel that something sketchy was happening in another country where they also happen to speak Arabic far away.
Similarly, Egyptians came out into the streets and demonstrated in crowds in 2011 and toppled their government, which we now in retrospect call the Egyptian Revolution. But the same thing happened in the USA last year though, and those trying to overthrow the American government actually succeeded in storming and occupying the legislature and five Americans were killed. No one ever stormed government buildings in Egypt during their revolution and no Americans or other foreigners were killed or even hurt. Yet much worse has happened in the US now. The US even has more people who have died from Coronavirus than the total number of people in all of Egypt who have even gotten the sniffles from it.
If you’re seriously concerned about your safety, you’re much better off getting on a plane, leaving the USA, and coming to Egypt. You’re much safer in Egypt than you are in your home country. Crime against foreigners is virtually unheard of here. The penalties for it are so severe that people don’t even think of hurting a foreigner in Egypt. But in the US, there are many crimes against you in many places across country that the local government intentionally does not prosecute because they are so common that they would overwhelm the courts there.
In other words, it’s practically legal for people in your own country to attack or harm you without repercussions, whereas in Egypt the punishment for even looking at a foreigner the wrong way is so severe that you’re treated like a god-king pharaoh here.
The absolute worst thing that will happen to you here in Egypt as a visiting tourist is that someone will try to rip you off when you buy something. They may charge you double what it should really cost, and someone who brought you there may take half of that as a kickback. That’s the worst that will happen, and even that will only happen if you book your trip to and around Egypt with a scammy company and if you don’t listen to the Egypt Travel Podcast episodes about these practices and read the many articles on EgyptTravelBlog.com about all of these scams to avoid.
So on that note, I’ll bid you all farewell again until the next episode of the Egypt Travel Podcast. Ma’salaama everyone.