Hollywood always casts white people as ancient Egyptians, but what race were the true ancient Egyptians? Were they Black or tanned white people?
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What Are Ancient Egyptians Supposed To Look Like?
The white-washing of Ancient Egyptians in popular culture has changed the way a lot of people view history. The most popular and circulated images have a way of sticking with you. The possible white-washing of Ancient Egypt and the Egyptian civilization is a heated subject in scholarly circles as well.
From Egyptian art, we know that people were depicted with reddish, olive, or yellow skin tones. The Sphinx has been described as having Nubian or sub-Saharan features. And from literature, Greek writers like Herodotus and Aristotle referred to Egyptians as having dark skin.
Genetic testing on ancient Egyptians has been difficult and near impossible. But DNA tests on contemporary Egyptians find that they share genetic similarities to people from the rest of the Middle East and are intermediate between peoples from Southern Europe and sub-saharan Africa. (Many Egyptians today consider themselves ethnically Arab, an identity shared with many other Middle Eastern and North African countries.) Check out this video on what race are North Africans.
But that isn’t exactly conclusive, since you’re measuring people who are hundreds of eras apart.
Why Race In Ancient Egypt Matters
It’s really quite simple: ancient Egypt was an amazing civilization. It’s a symbol of pride and wonder still today. And there’s been a feeling that, when we think of Egypt, we don’t often acknowledge its African history. There are extreme examples of this, like far right groups who use controversial blood test findings to assert that King Tut and Egyptian royalty were Nordic. Yes, Nordic.
This happens in more educated and high-brow debates among historians too. In the 1930s, ethnologist Charles Seligman strongly believed that Hamites, a Caucasian/Middle Eastern race, were really the ones who we should credit for African accomplishments. This was seen as trying to wash away Egypt’s Black and African roots.
What Hollywood Is Getting Wrong
On one level the stakes of Egypt and representing its diversity are very high. But casting and movies like Gods of Egypt also highlight the struggle for non-white actors to land jobs. If Black actors aren’t being used to tell a stories of Black people, then what kind of jobs are they landing?
They (movie studios) want big profits. The way that the business is set up, they think only white, male leads will yield these big profits for them. A common excuse is that there’s something of an applicant pool problem. Hollywood acts as though there simply isn’t enough Black actors.
The Question Of Race In Ancient Egypt
A Disputed Terrain
The human catastrophe of early modern slavery juxtaposed west and central Africans with northwest Europeans in the Americas. Out of this genocidal experience, race has become a dominant category for uniting and dividing people in modernity. Within the race debate, ancient Egypt has become a terrain contested by three mutually exclusive views:
- Modern Egyptian: The ancient Egyptians are the same group of people as the modern Egyptians.
- Afrocentric: The ancient Egyptians were Black Africans, displaced by later movements of peoples, for example the Macedonian, Roman and Arab conquests.
- Eurocentric: The ancient Egyptians are ancestral to modern Europe
A social constructivist might conclude that race is, like everything else in human societies, a socially agreed category combining geographical and historical origins.
However, such an attitude amounts to a European strategy to defuse the issue of race, now that it undermines as much as reinforces European and North American domination.
An Ancient Egyptian View On Race?
The question of race can be approached from another vantage-point: How did the ancient Egyptians group human beings? For this question, there are more diverse published sources, including pictorial and written.
Pictorial sources: differences in depicting peoples include differences in
- skin colour
- facial features
- material culture (tools, weapons, other artificial products)
Substantive differences can only be verified from observation of the original, or from good photographic reproductions; an Egyptological publication may assert clear differences in skin colour and facial features, where the original depiction is not clear or reveals no difference. The various types of difference may be borne out in the archaeological record.