An excursus on the Egyptian word nTr

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As someone who studies and researches ancient Egypt from a very conservative and traditional perspective, I’ve witnessed a lot of misrepresentation and speculation attributed to this long-ago culture. A great many people have an innate affection for the civilization of ancient Egypt: the scholars and academics who research it professionally, enthusiasts and amateur historians such as I, and those who are drawn to it for mystical and New Age reasons. Along the way the civilization of ancient Egypt is frequently misrepresented among the general public, whether this be from a simple lack of familiarity with the civilization or from alternative historians or fringe adherents striving to serve a personal agenda.

One such example is the ancient Egyptian word “netjer,” sometimes also spelled “netcher” and, somewhat astray, “neter.” It is transliterated as nTr, where the “T” represents a prepalatal stop usually rendered in Western speech as a “ch” sound. In their hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts the Egyptians did not employ symbols representing vowels, so the most we can reconstruct from this ancient word are the consonants transliterated nTr. That is, as with so many words from the ancient Egyptian vocabulary, absent the vowels we cannot know for sure how nTr sounded as spoken in pharaonic times; hence “netjer.”

There is essentially no reason to doubt our understanding of nTr, however. The use of this word is amply attested in the historical record all the way back into the late-prehistory of the Nile Valley. But before we break down what this word meant to the ancient Egyptians, let’s eliminate a couple of examples of what nTr did not mean. It is not the origin of our word “nature,” for instance. Our word “nature” and its meaning of the collective world of plants, landscapes, animal, and people ultimately derives through Old French from the Latin nasci (link). In point of fact the Egyptians do not appear to have had a word that would equate to our word “nature.” My own feeling on this is–as with the absence of a name for their religion in the way we use terms like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism today–the natural world was an innate and intimate part of every-day life and was not viewed as something separate.

Also sometimes suggested is that the word “natron” comes from nTr. This has been argued for ages in academic circles but no convincing linguistic evidence has ever been posited to corroborate the argument (Hornung 1971: 41). There is an Egyptian word ntryt that exists in one fragmentary source that has been posited as “natron,” but even here the evidence is not compelling (Faulkner 1962: 143).

The word nTr is usually translated as “god” or, as an adjective, “divine.” Based on how the Egyptians themselves used the word, this translation is sound. In Greek the equivalent word is theos, and in late bilingual inscriptions where nTr and theos appear more or less side by side, it is clear that “god” is the meaning (Dunard & Zivie-Coche 2004: 8). Going in the other direction, all the way back to the dawn of state formation in Egypt (c. 3100 BCE), the meaning seems to have started in the same way. The ancient word nTr survived through pharaonic history and in the worship of Coptic Christianity became the word noute for God (ibid).

There are numerous ways the word was written in hieroglyphs when pertaining to gods, goddesses, or other divine concepts, and a number of different semantic determinatives developed through pharaonic history to help to clarify meanings; the most common determinative was, however, the pole and banner, which resembles a flag:

From their own iconography, the Egyptians showed us that such a standard was typically presented in pairs outside the entrances to temples. This was the case as well in prehistory (Wilkinson 2003: 27), such as at important ritual sites like Hierokonpolis (ancient Nekhen). From the start the symbol was intimately associated with the divine and with ritual. Drawing from the above diagram, the most common form of the pole and banner through pharaonic history was the example at left (a); the middle example ( b ) appears in iconography in the earliest dynasties, and early scholars originally mistook it for an axe (Hornung 1971: 34); the example at far right ( c ) is how the symbol appears in iconography in late prehistory.

That this symbol came to represent the word “god” or “divine” must have been a natural progression for the Egyptians; examine the ritual slate palettes of late prehistory and the Early Dynastic Period, and you will see how standards and banners stood as important iconography from the beginning. The term nTr in the singular generally meant “god,” as in a singular male deity; it was abundantly used in this sense and often without reference to a specific god. This should not be taken to mean the Egyptians believed in the One God as in the Judeo-Christian sense, a misconception under which many early scholars labored (given their classical training in biblical studies). In his important book Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt (1971) the eminent Egyptologist Erik Hornung laid this idea to rest definitively. Polytheism is the general consensus today, and it has been noted how the flag could be used to denote “deity” in a generic sense (Wilkinson 2003: 27). The feminine marker was used to indicate a goddess (nTrt), and the plural (nTrw) could be indicated in a number of ways: three flags; a single flag with three vertical strokes; and, in late examples, three flags interspersed with three cobras (Wilson 1993: 85-87), the cobra itself representing divinity and/or divine kingship.

Facets of nTr are evident in the mortal world of the ancient Egyptians. It is an exaggeration to suggest that all Egyptian kings were regarded as gods, but these kings were certainly viewed as someone much closer to the gods than ordinary people were. The king’s status as semi-divine is reflected in one of his titles, nTr nfr, meaning “Perfect God” or “Beautiful God.” The dead were seen as somewhat divine themselves, having gone on to live forever in the land of the gods. The Egyptian word for “incense” was snTr, which literally means “to make deified, divine” (Dunard & Zivie-Coche 2004: 12).

The Egyptian nTr seems also to have been intimately associated with the dead, as I intimated above. Until recent times flagpoles were commonly set up outside tombs in North Africa and Sudan, reflecting a tradition seen in pharaonic Egypt going back into prehistory; some have argued that nTr may have originally referred to the dead (Hornung 1971: 37, 42). The etymology and origin of the word nTr remains unknown, despite decades of attempts by linguists to try to identify cognates and other connections to Afro-Semitic languages, but its meaning is not a mystery. The Egyptians themselves left us an ample record of the word to examine.

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Dunard, Francoise & Christine Zivie-Coche. Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE. 2004.

Faulkner, Raymond O. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. 1962.

Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: the One and the Many. 1971.

Wilkinson, Richard. Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. 2003.

Wilson, Hilary. Understanding Hieroglyphs: A Complete Introductory Guide. 1993.

The Great Pyramid as tomb

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Probably no monument of ancient Egypt has been so intensively poked, prodded, explored, researched, and published as the Great Pyramid. Similarly, among fringe circles, no monument of ancient Egypt has suffered so many bizarre speculations as the Great Pyramid: from the landing site of alien spacecraft championed by Zecharia Sitchin (1980) to a giant psi-org energy plant posited by Moustafa Gadalla (2003). Other decidedly odd fringe arguments for the Great Pyramid include a colossal water pump and nuclear reactor. Fringe themes range far and wide, but in the end none of them stands up to scrutiny.

Among many in the fringe camp, the Great Pyramid is stated emphatically not to have been a tomb. Fringe adherents will put forth numerous examples for why this is so, but such arguments also fall in the face of scrutiny. One of the chief problems with the fringe position is the tendency to pull the Great Pyramid out of context, as though it somehow stands alone, unrelated, in the span and breadth of pharaonic Egypt. This dooms the fringe stance from the start.

I would like to relate some points in the orthodox position that makes it clear the Great Pyramid was a tomb. This article is not about how the pyramid was built, which is another debate altogether. I will discuss evidence relating only to the pyramid’s purpose as a royal burial.

Provenance & Attestation

To begin, we need to establish a couple of things: when the Great Pyramid was built and for whom it was built. Both points are often called into question by fringe adherents. A common fringe theme is that the Great Pyramid was built by a lost civilization on the order of 10,000 or more years ago. However, on two separate occasions, in 1984 and 1995, numerous monuments dating to the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom were subjected to extensive carbon dating; more than 450 organic samples were extracted for analysis (Bonani et al 2001: 1297). More than forty samples were extracted from the Great Pyramid alone–principally from mortar in many different spots all over the monument. The orthodox date for the Great Pyramid is generally 2500 BCE, and the carbon dating has established that the Great Pyramid might have been erected a little earlier (c. 2604 BCE) but no more than around 150 years earlier than conventionally thought (ibid: 1315).

Naturally, when presented with this science, fringe adherents typically resort to such statements as: “Well, the dating is wrong because C14 is not reliable.” This statement itself is wrong. By this point in time C14 dating has become a highly accurate and reliable method for dating most anything organic up to about 50,000 years old. Indeed, all such a statement shows is the fringe’s inability to learn about the science or to deal with it in realistic terms.

As mentioned, also questioned by the fringe is the fact that the Great Pyramid was erected for King Khufu, in Dynasty 4 (conventionally spanning 2597-2471 BCE). Khufu is believed to have reigned between 2547 to 2524 BCE. The carbon dating might be telling us he lived somewhat earlier, but the fringe camp argues that the Great Pyramid bears no inscriptions proving the pyramid was built for Khufu. This is incorrect. There is ample graffiti in the sets of relieving chambers above the King’s Chamber that prove the Great Pyramid was built for Khufu.

I’d like to return to the workmen’s graffiti a little later, but provenance and attestation are established: the Great Pyramid was built in the Early Bronze Age, during Dynasty 4 of pharaonic Egypt, and it was built for Khufu.

The Pyramid in Cultural Development

Many fringe arguments are very misleading, either on deliberate grounds or simply due to a lack of familiarity with the known facts of pharaonic Egypt. For instance, you will often see a fringe argument stating in wonder how the Great Pyramid seemed to have popped up out of nowhere, with no observable cultural or architectural antecedents; indeed, this is often stated of the dynastic civilization in general. It is patently false. Egypt became a kingdom around 3100 BCE, some 600 years before the Great Pyramid was erected, and there is ample evidence in the archaeological and material record for the dynasties preceding Khufu’s time.

The earliest kings of Egypt came from the south or upper valley; in the current literature this is sometimes referred to as Dynasty 0, more often as Dynasty 1 of the Early Dynastic Period, and also often by the designation Naqada IIIc; again, this was around 3100 BCE. These kings were buried in tombs at an ancient cemetery at the site of Abydos (ancient Abdju). Specifically, they were buried in Cemetery B, known by the modern Arabic name Umm el Qaab. Nearby is an even older site known as Cemetery U, where powerful regional rulers had been interred in the times soon before state formation; in Cemetery U was found the tomb designated Uj, from which was excavated the oldest-yet known hieroglyphs, dating to around 3200 or 3300 BCE. About a mile to the north of the tombs at Umm el Qaab, these kings erected large enclosures of mud brick. The largest that survives is that of Khasekhemwy, last king of Dynasty 2. It goes by the name Shunet el Zebib today. The precise purpose for the enclosures is uncertain, but there is consensus among scholars that some sort of cult for the deceased king took place in them (O’Connor 2009: 159-163). This pattern will be seen in pyramid complexes, which I’ll discuss below.

Several royal tombs dating to Dynasty 2 were built in Saqqara, revealing that the siting of the royal necropolis was moved from ancient Abydos to the area of the new administrative capital of Memphis (ancient Mennefer), in the north. These tombs are poorly understood because the pyramid complex of King Djoser, to be discussed presently, was built over a couple of them and the superstructures were obliterated (Verner 2001: 122). The same is true for a couple of other Dynasty 2 royal tombs just to the south, which were obliterated by the pyramid complex of King Unis in Dynasty 5. In fact, while the subterranean spaces of these Abydos and Saqqara royal tombs are fairly well preserved, their superstructures are not. It’s not clear what form the above-ground portions took. It’s evident at Abydos that the royal tombs were topped by a large, landscaped mound, at least over the areas of the burial chambers, and this was likely the genesis of the mastaba tomb, which would be a common means of burial for elite individuals throughout the Old Kingdom.

A powerful king named Netjerikhet came to the throne around 2663 BCE, at the start of Dynasty 3. Netjerikhet was most likely the son of Khasekhemwy, mentioned above. Netjerikhet is more commonly known today by the name Djoser, which may have been an alternate name for him but this much is unclear. The name Djoser appears in graffiti dating much later, but this is the name I’ll use because it’s more familiar to the general reader. Djoser’s principal claim to fame is his magnificent Step Pyramid complex in Saqqara. Rightly so. This complex represents not only many innovations in stone architecture by ancient Egyptian craftsmen, but features as its focal point the first pyramid built by mankind. It is actually a series of stepped mastabas, one atop the other, and careful analysis of the monument has revealed that it underwent a number of architectural revisions before it was completed. This was the first royal tomb also to bring the various elements into one place: the tomb in which the king was buried, and the cultic buildings wherein his soul was venerated and sustained (recall the Abydos tombs and their temple-like enclosures a mile to the north). Djoser’s complex includes structures for the eternal celebration of his Sed-festival, a ceremony of renewal forever guaranteeing the existence of the deified king (ibid: 129).

So we can see through these examinations how the royal tomb developed from Dynasty 1 to Dynasty 3 into a pyramid. Several unfinished pyramids date to after the reign of Djoser, and the next great king to come to the throne was Sneferu at the start of Dynasty 4, who reigned 2597-2547 BCE. Sneferu was the greatest builder of the entire Old Kingdom and erected three different pyramids during his reign: his first pyramid at Meidum and then the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid, both at Dashur. The Medium pyramid, also known as the Tower Pyramid from the exposed core due to the outer casing stones collapsing in ancient times, is sometimes argued to have been built by Huni, last king of Dynasty 3. Most scholars today, however, agree that it was Sneferu’s first pyramid. The significance with Sneferu is that he was the first to perfect the true pyramid. This was actually the Bent Pyramid, despite its odd shape. The Meidum pyramid began as a stepped structure and analysis has shown that it was converted to a true pyramid later in Sneferu’s reign. And in these three pyramids of Sneferu we see design and architectural elements that were perfected in the Great Pyramid (ibid: 176-177), such as the corbelled ceiling.

Sneferu’s son and successor was none other than Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid. Thus far, then, we can trace the history of royal-tomb building all the way back to Dynasty 1, if not even farther. We can see how the pyramid evolved in royal mortuary architecture, and how it developed from stepped to true form. This brings us to the Great Pyramid.

Akhet Khufu

The Egyptians called the Great Pyramid Akhet Khufu, the “Horizon of Khufu.” This king took the throne around 2547 BCE (I continue to use conventional dates, although reminding the reader that the carbon-dating analyses might be pushing us a little farther back in time). The sites discussed so far–specifically Abydos, Saqqara, Meidum, and Dashur–were royal necropoli. Cemeteries for kings, in other words. At these sites were interred family members of these kings as well as noblemen and other officials who served in the courts of these kings. The same is true for Giza, which Khufu established as a new royal necropolis when he ascended to the throne. These were not farm fields or sites of industry but cemeteries, exclusively. They were cities for the dead.

The carbon dating establishes that the orthodox timeline is essentially correct for the Great Pyramid, and the above-mentioned workmen’s graffiti establishes that the Great Pyramid was built for King Khufu. I’d like to spend a moment discussing this graffiti now. It’s important to understand that this graffiti was written within relieving chambers designed to lessen the stress on the King’s Chamber, given the enormous mass of masonry existing above the King’s Chamber. These relieving chambers were sealed and entirely unknown to us until an explorer named Colonel Richard Howard Vyse blasted his way into them in March 1837. The lowest chamber actually had been found by Nathaniel Davison in 1765 but contained no graffiti; Vyse speculated there may have been more chambers above this one. His method of getting into the upper chambers was certainly reckless, but he was correct. It was in these chambers that the graffiti was found.

Fringe adherents have tried to argue that the graffiti was a hoax on the part of Vyse. This was strenuously argued by Stichin in The Stairway to Heaven (1980), but his argument and all subsequent arguments built along these lines have been absurd. There is no question the graffiti is authentic. Some of it disappears between massive blocks of masonry, and can be seen but not accessed in loose joins. In other words, some of this graffiti had to have been painted onto the stones before they were put into position inside the relieving chambers. The graffiti is without question contemporary to the time of the building of this pyramid. It’s also quite interesting.

Deciphering the linear glyphs was arguably not fully possible in the time of Colonel Vyse, but it is fairly well understood today. The earliest such graffiti is actually found on the Meidum pyramid of Sneferu and records the names of phyles (work crews) that had labored there (Roth 1991: 125); the graffiti in the relieving chambers of the Great Pyramid contain even more information. The names of three different phyles are extant, all based on permutations of Khufu’s name (ibid):

  • Seven blocks of masonry with the king’s Horus name, Medjedu (Hr-mDdw)
  • Ten blocks of masonry with the king’s full name, Khnum-Khuf (Xnmw-xwf)
  • Two blocks of masonry with the king’s abbreviated name, Khufu (xwfw)

In fact, the spatial arrangement of the graffiti allows us to determine which crews were responsible for specific parts of the relieving chambers as they were being built (ibid: 127). These phyles left us no doubt the great monument they were building was for their king, Khufu.

Although the Great Pyramid has several architectural features and arrangements that make it stand out a bit from other pyramids before and after, it is not so different that we have license to pull it out of context and separate it from pharaonic Egypt altogether. It belongs in the development of royal tomb architecture and it is but the largest pyramid built for the interment of a king. Also clarifying the purpose of burial is the granite sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber. This is one of the earliest sacrophagi of granite the Egyptians ever attempted, but to the point, sarcophagi in pharaonic Egypt served one purpose and one purpose only: the interment of a body. It is strictly a form of burial equipment. In my own experience, I have never seen a fringe adherent adequately provide an alternative explanation for this sarcophagus.

Ancillary Constructions

No Egyptian pyramid stands alone. In every case where one was built, it was part of a wider complex. This is so with Khufu’s, and it is another reflection of the development of royal burial cults. The pyramid was the structure in which the king’s body was interred and from which his soul would ascend to the heavens, but adjoining the pyramid was a temple connected to another temple via a stone-built causeway. The temple adjoining the pyramid, usually on the east face as is the case with Khufu’s, is typically referred to as the mortuary temple. At the other end of the causeway was the structure typically called the valley temple. In Khufu’s case only a small portion of the valley temple has been found because nearly all of it lies under the modern suburban sprawl of Cairo. The causeway itself is in ruined condition. All that one sees of the mortuary temple today, against the east face of the pyramid, are the basalt paving stones. However, careful archaeology of the site over the years has enabled us to get a working idea of what it might have originally looked like.

Archaeology has also recovered fragments of inscribed masonry once adorning the walls of the mortuary temple, causeway, and theoretically the valley temple. These fragments have been excavated from the Giza site itself (example here), and others have been recovered from the Dynasty 12 pyramid of a Middle Kingdom king named Amenemhat I (1994-1964 BCE); his pyramid is at Lisht. It was common for kings throughout pharaonic history to incorporate bits and pieces of monuments from the reigns of earlier kings, particularly kings who were remembered as great in their time. These inscribed fragments from Giza and Lisht show typical mortuary scenes such as personified estates, male and female, bringing offerings to sustain the soul and the cult of the deceased king (Hawass 2006: 69). Numerous instances of Khufu’s titulary are also extent in the fragments. Other fragments bear scenes of the Sed-festival (ibid: 72), stressing the renewal of Khufu just as Djoser had done for himself in his complex at Saqqara. Khufu’s fragments further preserve an unusual scene depicting the canid god Wepwawet (ibid). The name of this god means “Opener of the Ways” and he is seen in numerous examples of iconography dating all the way back to Dynasty 1 (Wilkinson 2000: 297-298). Although Wepwawet served functions to the king’s cult in life, he was a primary underworld deity who guided the king into his afterlife.

Other fragments preserve scenes of the king with foreigners, in some instances receiving them and in others subduing them in typical pharaonic combat posture. These fragments are believed to have come from the valley temple or along the early portions of the causeway, based on extant examples in other pyramid complexes. Altogether, these fragments reveal the traditional purpose for the temples and pyramid: the site where the king’s soul would ascend to the heavens, and where he would forever be venerated and sustained. Moreover, the cemetery that grew around the Great Pyramid, much of which was probably being planned and laid out at the same time as the pyramid itself, contains the burials of family members to the east and high court officials to the west. Included among the former is Khufu’s mother, Hetepheres; a prince named Kawab; another prince named Djedefhor who would end up succeeding Khufu under the name Djedefre (he would build a pyramid at Abu Rawash); and yet another prince named Khafkhufu who would succeed Djedefre under the name Khafre (he would return to Giza, where he built the second pyramid) (Hawass 2006:95-96). And of course there were the three small queens’ pyramids outside the east face of the Great Pyramid.

All of these structures–Great Pyramid, mortuary temple, causeway, valley temple, neighboring tombs–were built at about the same time. There is no doubt the entire complex was funerary in nature.

Tomb Robbing

A frequent argument put forth by fringe adherents is that no body was found in the Great Pyramid, so it cannot have been a tomb. This is one of the weakest arguments of all. There were more than three thousand years of kings in pharaonic Egypt, and with but a scant handful of exceptions–the tomb of Tutankhamun and a couple of royal tombs from a later period, at the site of Tanis–no royal tomb has yet been found unviolated. Indeed, it’s safe to say that of all of the tombs in general which archaeologists have excavated, the vast majority had experienced tomb robbing at some point in ancient times. It is extremely rare for archaeologists to find an intact or mostly intact tomb. Pharaonic Egypt experienced numerous periods of decline and destabilization–especially during the three intermediate periods–and in each of these periods, the breakdown of state authority was matched by the influx of tomb raiding.

Giza was no different. The first instance of the breakdown of state authority began around 2200 BCE, at the end of Dynasty 6. This marks the close of the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the First Intermediate Period. This period lasted at most about 200 years but was particularly marked by destabilization and civil war. The Giza necropolis bears ample evidence of plundering during the First Intermediate Period (Kákosy 1989: 145). It’s not so easy to say that the Great Pyramid was violated at this time, however. In fact, it’s unlikely that it was, although its attendant temples and neighboring tombs probably were. Exactly when the Great Pyramid was raided has long been debated, although Strabo records a movable stone in the face of the monument that led to a sloping passage; Arab accounts in the early Islamic period mention numerous mummies found within the pyramid (ibid: 159, 161), suggesting intrusive burials from later pharaonic periods. Based on available evidence, the lower corridors and chambers were raided first and the upper ones at a later time. In all probability Khufu’s monument could’ve been raided in the later Persian Period, prior to the conquest of Alexander the Great, although raiding could’ve occurred as late as the time of Caliph Al-Ma’mun, in the ninth century CE. (ibid: 162).

The point is, at some point in time the Great Pyramid was raided. All Egyptian pyramids were. Almost nothing contemporary to the time of a pyramid has been found in that pyramid by archaeologists. In only a couple of cases have human remains of a king been found in the burial chamber. Tomb robbers were thorough, and tomb robbing occurred in the same tombs down through time until literally nothing worth taking was left.

An argument based on the absence of a body is, quite honestly, pointless.

Pyramid Texts

This is the last evidentiary point I wish to make. I usually shy away from arguments employing the Pyramid Texts in relation to the Great Pyramid because no know example of the Texts exists from the time of Khufu. The earliest Pyramid Texts we have are those inscribed inside the pyramid of King Unis (2385-2355 BCE), who reigned at the end of Dynasty 5. This was roughly 150 years after the time of Khufu.

Still, it can be useful to turn for a moment to the Pyramid Texts, which is the oldest religious corpus in the world. These were funerary spells devised to aid the soul of the deceased king in its journey up into the heavens. That they existed prior to the time of Unis is generally agreed by scholars; earlier examples were probably written and kept on papyrus and did not survive. The language of the Texts is written in a form antiquated even by the time of Unis; the language evidences phonological and grammatical differences from other inscriptions of the Old Kingdom, and it’s clear the orthography was still in the process of development (Hornung 1999: 5). Changes in pronoun usage suggest the Texts were undergoing different applications of a funerary nature through time (ibid: 4).

The spells that comprise the Texts make it abundantly clear that they were used for the dead. They are replete with references to the pyramid as a tomb. Many of them were probably read aloud during the funeral, and their permanent inscription onto the stone masonry made them available to the soul of the king forever. The spells were inscribed in such a way that an order is observable. They start in the burial chamber and continue in a logical sequence past the antechamber and down the corridors to the exit of the pyramid: in other words, the direction in which the soul of the king was meant to travel. The burial chamber corresponds to the underworld, from which the soul of the king would arise to rejoin his mummy; the antechamber represents Akhet, the horizon, where the soul of the king became an akh, or “effective spirit;” the corridor leading from there to the exit represents the passage by which the king’s soul would arise into the heavens. All of the spells inscribed into the walls make this clear.

Khufu’s pyramid may not have Pyramid Texts, but bear in mind Unis’ pyramid was built only around 150 years later. The Pyramid Texts in his burial and in all of the pyramids down to the end of Dynasty 6 reveal that the pyramid was regarded as a tomb. It would be highly illogical to suspect that the purpose of a pyramid fundamentally changed between the time of Khufu and Unis.

The pyramid was a tomb. In the above article I have attempted to explain some of the highlights whereby orthodox research has made this clear to us. And as long as this article is, trust me, I have provided but a summary of evidence. I could fill a book, as many professional historians have–and much abler than I have. The Great Pyramid cannot be viewed out of context. It does not exist in a vacuum. When viewed in its proper context, there can be no other conclusion than that it was built for King Khufu and was specifically for the burial of this great monarch of Dynasty 4.

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Allen, James P. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. 2005

Bonani, Georges et al. “Radiocarbon Dating of Old and Middle Kingdom Monuments in Egypt.” 2001

Hawass, Zahi. Mountains of the Pharaohs. 2006

Hornung, Erik. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. 1999

Kákosy, László. “The Plundering of the Great Pyramid.” 1989

O’Connor, David. Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris. 2009

Roth, Ann Macy. Egyptian Phyles in the Old Kingdom. 1991

Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids. 2001

Wilkinson, Toby. Early Dynastic Egypt. 2000

Myth of the Egyptian “Anu People”

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Over the years on the internet I’ve encountered the subject of an ancient Egyptian glazed plaque supposedly mentioning the “Anu People.” You will see this plaque featured on some web pages, including this one, and usually in historically revisionist form. It is particularly popular among the afrocentric set of historical revisionists. These folks are of proud African descent and in their zeal they try to present ancient Egypt as a homogeneous, unwavering race of black Africans. In the other extreme are eurocentrists who try to paint the founders of the great civilization of ancient Egypt as European in origin.

Both are wrong. Professional research and scientific inquiry have demonstrated to us that, not surprisingly, the original population of the Nile Valley was a lot more complex than that. It is extremely rare in the analysis of ancient history for us to find a topic so black and white, so to speak. Ancient history was not produced by a cookie-cutter pattern. It is our own failing that many of us bring modern racial baggage to historical debates, which is something that would be certain to confuse an ancient person. Taking ancient Egypt as an example, there is really nothing in the historical record of the ancient Nile Valley that would lead us to suspect the Egyptians thought in rigid racial terms. Indeed, ancient Egyptians were like so many other neighboring civilizations: as long as you belonged to the group, you were fine; if you belonged to another group, you were inherently inferior. Xenophobia was the rule, not racism. Skin color was not necessarily a factor.

More on that at the end of this article, but suffice it to say the ancient Egyptian glazed plaque in question has entered this sphere of racial debate. It appears in Flinders Petrie’s 1939 publication The Making of Egypt, wherein Petrie produced a badly mangled translation of the few glyphs appearing on the plaque. Here is how it is typically presented on the internet:

Recently there was an exhibition called “Visible Language” at the Oriental Institute Museum, in Chicago. This plaque is in the collection of the O.I. (OIM E7911) and was one of the artifacts on display in the exhibition. As a docent, when I gaze at this relic what I appreciate is its great antiquity–coming as it does from the very dawn of the Egyptian kingdom. Unfortunately I am also reminded of how it’s treated on the internet. A person’s skin color is irrelevant to me, but what rankles me is when a bit of history, even this small and unassuming glazed plaque, is twisted to suit a modern socio-political agenda.

Now, here is a color-coded photo of the plaque with its glyphs offset at right. The hieroglyphs are faint to see on the plaque itself, so I thought representing them in line-art would be more helpful for my purpose:

The above translation from the web page is wrong on all counts, although the name of the individual in the figure standing at left comes close. His name (shaded in red) is transliterated as tri-nTr. It can be rendered as Terinetjer (as one example) and can be translated as “One who worships the gods.” This is his name, not a title. The translation of the glyphs I’ve shaded green are still the subject of dispute but the current transliteration is nxn.w (MacArthur 2010: 136), which can be rendered as Nekhenw. It is believed that this is the name of an estate of which Terinetjer may have been in charge (ibid); more on that presently.

The translation from the web page breaks the next set of glyphs into two lines: “of the god Seth / Net Annu-u: ‘of the Cities of the Annu People’s.'” This is incorrect. In my own image this is the area I’ve color-coded blue, and it’s simply a cadrat or square of glyphs all of which belong together when read. The correct translation is Menhet (transliterated mnH[.t]), and is the name of a town. It’s location is not known today but it was probably the nearest settlement of size to the estate called nxn.w (Nekhenw).

The word “Anu” or “Aunu” or other variations does not appear anywhere on this plaque. The web page to which I’ve been referring (see link in opening paragraph) quotes Petrie from his The Making of Egypt:

The Aunu People. Besides these types, belonging to the north and east, There [sic] is the aboriginal race of the Anu, or Aunu, people (written with three pillars), who became a part of the historic inhabitants. The subject ramifies too doubtfully if we include all single-pillar names, but looking for the Aunu, written with the three pillars, we find that they occupied Southern Egypt and Nubia, and the name is also applied in Sinai and Libya (Petrie 1939: 68).

This information about the Anu and the pillars is incorrect and is not linguistically supported in the hieroglyphic script in this instance. It must be understood that in this early time the understanding of hieroglyphs was leaps and bound behind what we know today; moreover, Petrie himself was the first to admit his own acumen with hieroglyphs was quite limited. He never delved into comprehending the script as he did with other things historical, and his achievements as the “founder of Egyptology” lay in other matters altogether, particularly in stratigraphy and other dating methods and archaeological techniques.

Perhaps some of you are wondering where I’m going with this. I opened with a caution against revisionist tendencies like afrocentrism and eurocentrism, and Terinetjer’s plaque has fallen into this sphere. For one thing, afrocentric websites point at the negroid appearance of Terinetjer, and they turn to Petrie’s own descriptions in The Making of Egypt (in which Petrie notes physical characteristics of Terinetjer together with human remains he had excavated at Tarkhan [ibid]). Terinetjer may or may not appear as what we might think of as a black African. As any well-trained student of ancient Egyptian art history can tell you, deducing racial types from pharaonic art is often fruitless (albeit not always). The way Terinetjer appears on the plaque may be nothing more than a stylistic preference or a lack of skill, for that matter.

The point is, when one understands an artifact such as Terinetjer’s, one knows that depicting the race of the individual was irrelevant. Preserving that individual’s name and titles is what mattered to the ancient mind. This is why Terinetjer is presented with the probable name of an estate he served, nearest the town where it was located. The plaque was found in a funerary context in Abydos, one of the most ancient cemeteries of Egypt and the first royal cemetery. It was recovered in one of Petrie’s excavations there. The web page mentions that the glazed plaque is predynastic, but it is not. It is dated to Dynasty 1 (MacArthur 2010: 136). Egypt had become a kingdom, and Terinetjer served a king of Dynasty 1. A myriad of estates grew produce and prepared other goods for the funerals of kings, and the names of these estates are preserved on many tags and plaques from this period. Plaques like Terinetjer’s reflect the prestige of belonging to the central administration and contributing to the funerary economy (Stauder 2010: 144-45). This is what Terinetjer’s plaque is about.

It is well understood that the kingdom of Egypt grew from tribal societies scattered throughout the Nile Valley. Something of this tribal origin is preserved in the complex and varied religion of pharaonic Egypt, but identifiable socio-political traits of the original tribes quickly disappeared once state formation was achieved. Henceforth, the king and nobles and other elites presented themselves not as members of this or that tribe but as the ruling class of the kingdom. This is to stress the fact that no group of Egyptians, to my knowledge, ever called themselves the “Anu People.” Such a claim is a fallacy based around a bungled translation.

There is a sad irony in the afrocentric promotion of Terinetjer’s plaque. The web page quotes a number of statements from Petrie’s 1939 publication, probably due to the assumption that as the founder of Egyptology Flinders Petrie is a solid source to use. In most ways he is, but the fact is, Flinders Petrie was one of numerous scholars in the early days of Egyptology who believed the kingdom of Egypt was founded not by the population of the Nile Valley but by a “dynastic race” that came in from the outside (Drower 1995: 181, 213, 217). Bearing colonial attitudes, Europeans of the day had a hard time fathoming that Africans could have created such a remarkable, powerful, and long-lasting kingdom.

This notion is no longer credible (Wilkinson 2003: 187). It might be easy for us to condemn such a bias attitude, but it’s also true that in Petrie’s day very little was known of the origins of pharaonic Egypt. In fact, in Petrie’s day, many thought the Old Kingdom was the beginning of pharaonic Egypt. We know today that the kingdom stretched much farther back than that. And another irony is that Petrie himself was one of the archaeologists most responsible for opening this reality to us. Petrie excavated sites that helped us to begin to understand the prehistory of Egypt and the origins of the peoples who had lived there. Nevertheless, Petrie went to his grave rigidly holding to the outdated notion of the “dynastic race.”

More current archaeology and research has settled this issue. Dynastic Egypt was founded by the Egyptians themselves. Peoples moved from the south into the Nile Valley, from the western deserts, from the eastern deserts, and from the northeast. From the beginning, the population of the Nile Valley was racially and ethnically mixed. To me, personally, this had to have been one of the strengths of the kingdom of Egypt. In the words of Toby Wilkinson, one of the leading researchers of prehistoric and Early Dynastic Egypt: “…at its most fundamental, pharaonic civilization is an Egyptian, indeed an African phenomenon” (ibid).

When it comes to studying ancient Egypt or any other ancient civilization, it behooves us to dispense with our modern racial baggage. We must approach the ancient civilization on its own terms: how its own people thought and felt, not how we think and feel. As difficult as this can be for many modern people to do, it is essential to do so. With ancient Egypt in particular, what most matters is what this great civilization accomplished in the course of more than 3,000 years. What color their skin was is irrelevant. I’m quite certain Terinetjer would agree.

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Drower, Margaret S. Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology. 1995

Petrie, Flinders W. M. The Making of Egypt. 1939

Wilkinson, Toby. Genesis of the Pharaohs. 2003

Woods, Christopher, ed. Visible Language. 2010

Was Proto-Sinaitic the origin of the alphabet?

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The earliest scripts in the world are Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Both date to the late fourth millennium BCE. Which came first is still the subject of heated debate, especially since Günter Dreyer’s discovery in 1988 of inscribed ivory tags and vessels in Tomb Uj at Abydos, which has significantly pushed back the oldest-known writing in Egypt. The Egyptians themselves employed different scripts through time, but as with the cuneiform used in Mesopotamia through the millennia, a true alphabet never emerged from either form of writing. The potential was there all along but never realized, and most likely for deliberate reasons.

The Phoenicians were the first to come closest to developing a true alphabet, to represent their northern Semitic tongue. The oldest inscription dates to around 1000 BCE (Robinson 1995: 164). Exactly how the Phoenicians developed their script is not clear, but it represents only the sound values of their consonants. The first true alphabet, representing both consonants and vowels, was developed by the Greeks. Scholars agree that the Greeks adapted and developed their alphabet based on that of the Phoenicians’, but the mechanics of how this happened are not well understood. The oldest inscription written in the Greek alphabet, representing their Indo-European tongue, dates to 730 BCE (ibid: 167).

So where did the idea of the alphabet come from? To be sure it was a remarkable development in the history of writing, and it would forever influence the Western world. Widely used scripts such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and especially Mesopotamian cuneiform were based largely on logographic and rebus principles, although at the same time they contained ample examples of monoliteral signs in which one symbol represented one sound: the very structure of an alphabet. Still, hieroglyphs relied much more on symbols that could represent two or three consonants or, in the case of cuneiform, syllables.

In the spring 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, professor of Near Eastern languages and culture Orly Goldwasser (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) makes a case in her article “How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs” that the script known as Proto-Sinaitic was the genesis of the alphabet. Goldwasser’s article is fascinating and engaging, if not a tad ambitious: she makes a good case for her argument, but it should be noted that her argument is not accepted by all scholars.

The Proto-Sinaitic script might ring a bell for some of you. It was partly the subject of a 2006 History Channel special called The Exodus Decoded, produced by Simcha Jacobovici. It must be remembered that Jacobovici is neither an historian nor researcher but a filmmaker. The Exodus Decoded was a flashy special and very professionally produced from an entertainment point of view, but it was riddled with errors and was based largely on uncorroborated speculation. It must not be regarded as a professional, academic examination of the biblical Exodus (readers might benefit from this web page, which debunks the show fairly well). In the special Jacobovici turns to the Proto-Sinaitic script as “proof” that Hebrews were working as slaves for the Egyptians in the turquoise mines of the Sinai, and during the course of their slavery they developed a script to represent their language.

This is wrong for a number of obvious reasons, so to point out the errors in Jacobovici’s revisionist program as well as to look further into Goldwasser’s interesting argument about Proto-Sinaitic, it is useful to explore the realities behind the situation.

No one doubts that Canaanites were working in the turquoise mines. This is well attested in inscriptional material recovered in and around Serabit el-Khadim, a site in the southwest Sinai where the Egyptians extensively mined for turquoise as well as other ores and minerals. Proto-Sinaitic takes us back to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, and specifically to the reigns of two Dynasty 12 kings named Amenemhat III (1842-1794 BCE) and Amenemhat IV (1798-1785 BCE). Both of these kings sent numerous expeditions to Serabit el-Khadim. It’s known that at this time Egypt was maintaining steady ties with well-established Canaanite city-states along the coastal Levant, and many Asiatics from these city-states were migrating into Egypt and settling into the eastern Delta (Goldwasser 2010: 38). Many of these Asiatics worked in the Sinai expeditions as parts of the mining teams, and they formed regular parts of the workforce at Serabit el-Khadim. They lived with and worked among Egyptians. In other words, these Canaanites were paid workers, not slaves.

Jacobovici’s proposal in The Exodus Decoded is further reduced by the simple fact that the Hebrews did not even yet exist at this time. This was the eighteenth century BCE, the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. The earliest verifiable evidence for the existence of the Hebrews appears on the victory stela of a New Kingdom pharaoh called Merneptah; the stela dates to around 1207 BCE, some 600 years after the time of Amenemhat III and Amenemhat IV. Archaeology of the highlands of Judea further reinforces the fact that the Hebrews as a separate and identifiable culture were not emerging until the very end of the Late Bronze Age. That said, we can see that Jacobovici’s proposal about Proto-Sinaitic is untenable on all fronts and need not be considered further.

It is always better to turn to the work of a professional scholar who possesses the proper training and experience to evaluate and present evidence. This takes us back to Orly Goldwasser article in Biblical Archaeology Review. I should add before continuing that BAR sometimes has a “bad” reputation among historically adept folks who, in probably being unfamiliar with the magazine, view it as a tool of Bible-thumpers to promote biblical fables and stories. It’s been my experience that quite the opposite is true. I’ve been a subscriber to BAR for years because I find its articles to be well researched and properly balanced on academic grounds. Not quite every single time, mind you, but in the majority of cases.

Returning to the subject at hand, the Proto-Sinaitic script was first observed in a 1905 archaeological expedition conducted at Serabit el-Khadim by Flinders Petrie. His wife, Hilda, noticed odd and crudely formed inscriptions in numerous locations at the site (ibid: 41): on boulders and rocks, on the stone walls within the ancient mines, and on the occasional small monuments. Although Flinders Petrie himself was never terribly adept at translating hieroglyphic inscriptions, he believed this odd and crude form of hieroglyphs represented an alphabetic script. He was basically correct. Subsequently Sir Alan Gardiner, one of the giants in the early days of Egyptian linguistics, substantiated Petrie’s theory and performed further work and refinement on the study of the script.

For example, among the odd inscriptions Gardiner found frequent mention of b-‘-l-t (Baalat), the Canaanite word for “mistress.” He was able to demonstrate this on a small stone sphinx bearing a bilingual inscription.

The red arrow points to the Egyptian inscription: Ht-Hr mry Hmt n mfkAt, “The Beloved of Hathor, mistress of the turquoise.” The blue arrow points to the Canaanite inscription, which in translation is close to the Egyptian and of the same theme: m’h( b ) b’l(t), “Beloved of the Mistress.” Hathor was the principal deity venerated at Serabit el-Khadim, where a large temple was erected for her worship and significantly enlarged during the reigns of Amenemhat III and Amenemhat IV. It appears the Canaanites working side by side with the Egyptians were also venerating Hathor, which would not be unusual. It behooved one to venerate in proper form the deity of any important place, whether or not that deity was from your own culture.

It’s possible the Canaanites who developed the script we call Proto-Sinaitic were not even literate. Quite simply, most people were not. But working at Serabit el-Khadim, they were surrounded by temple walls, stelae, statues, and other monuments covered with Egyptian hieroglyphs. They would not have known how these glyphs worked as a written language, but they were able to adapt certain signs to represent the sounds of their own language. In doing so they used an individual Egyptian glyph for its acrophonic vlaue in their own language: this means a symbol stands not for a depicted word but for its initial sound (ibid: 42). See this chart.

Each of these is a Proto-Sinaitic character adapted from an Egyptian hieroglyph. The character was then used to represent a sound in the Semitic tongue spoken by the Canaanites:

1. Ox head: the sound value kA in Egyptian, aleph in Canaanite.
2. House plan: the sound value pr in Egyptian, bêt in Canaanite.
3. Hand: the sound value d in Egyptian, kaf in Canaanite.
4. Water ripple: the sound value n in Egyptian, mayim in Canaanite.
5. Rearing cobra: the sound value D in Egyptian, nahash in Canaanite.
6. Eye: the sound value ir in Egyptian, ‘ayin in Canaanite.
7. Head in profile: the sound value tp in Egyptian, rosh in Canaanite.

The sound used by the Canaanites for their reading was the first sound appearing in the word. Thus, for the ox head, the sound was an ” ‘ ” (a weak consonant); for the house plan, a “B”; for the hand, a “K”: for the water ripple, an “M”; and so on.

These Canaanites’ ties with their homeland in the Levant is further emphasized at the site of Serabit el-Khadim by several monuments and inscriptions in which a man name Khebeded makes an appearance. He is described in Egyptian inscriptions as “Brother of the Ruler of Retenu,” the designation “Retenu” being the Egyptian word for the territory roughly between modern Gaza and the Baqaa in Lebanon (ibid: 45). This was Canaanite territoy. Here is one of the monuments in which Khebeded appears.

Khebeded is farthest left in the procession of men. All the others are Egyptians and Khebeded is identified by his “mushroom”-shaped headgear (circled above), a classic form of Canaanite apparel at this time. The inscription running vertically in front of him states: sn n HKA n rTnw, “Brother of the Ruler of the Retenu.” Khebeded was one of the Canaanites present at Serabit el-Khadim, where he retained his title of prominence. This is further evidence that the Canaanites in residence at the mines were certainly not slaves but valued members of the workforce. Slaves were not allowed titles.

Upon returning home, the Canaanites working at Serabit el-Khadim brought their script with them. How much influence the script had from there remains the subject of debate. Goldwasser is the latest scholar to argue that it eventually was adapted to serve as writing among the Phoenicians and others, but not all agree with this premise (cf Robbinson 1995: 160). To be sure, it is not exactly the same as the script used by the Phoenicians, nor should it be mistaken for the origin of the Hebrew script. People are too quick to turn a lot of events from ancient Egypt into the origin of everything Hebrew. This is a gross oversimplification.

A case in point. The Hebrew kingdom was starting to emerge in the Levant in the Early Iron Age, and literacy appears not to have been a fixed part of the culture until the end of the eighth century BCE (Finkelstein & Silberman 2006: 86). For instance, the Solomonic legends appear to have been first put to paper in the seventh century BCE (ibid: 175), and we have evidence for extrabiblical prayers from the site of Ketef Hinnom that would later appear as Numbers 6:24-26 and dating to about the same time (Barkay 2009: 124). But the earliest form of Hebrew script cannot be tied with any certainty to Proto-Sinaitic. The Canaanites had left Serabit el-Khadim long before the Hebrews existed, as I stressed earlier.

It’s believed the Hebrew script was adapted from the Phoenician script possibly as early as the ninth century BCE and was later heavily influenced by the Aramaic script (Robinson 1995: 172). Although Proto-Sinaitic appears to have been used to a limited extent in the Levant, it disappears entirely from the historical record at the end of the Bronze Age, when civilizations of the Near East experienced wide-spread collapse. Now, this was about the same time the Phoenicians were developing their script, so it remains possible that Proto-Sinaitic influenced the Phoenicians.

The situation is not clear but we can point to the occasional tidbit of evidence of how Proto-Sinaitic entered permanent usage. A well known example is the Egyptian water ripple which represented the sound value n, which was used in Proto-Sinaitic to represent the sound “M” (see the chart above), and which does appear to have been adapted into the Phoenician alphabet to represent the same sound. It remained that way in subsequent scripts, so we owe our Western letter “M” to the humble Egyptian water ripple.

The origin of the alphabet remains an interesting subject for debate and discussion, and perhaps this is so simply because there are still questions to answer. Flashy and superficial TV specials like The Exodus Decoded might muddy the waters of logic and common sense, as is the tendency of historical revisionism, but legitimate historical research continues in the hopes of filling in the blanks.

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Barkay, Gabriel. 2009. “The Riches of Ketef Hinnom.” Biblical Archaeology Review. 200th Issue, July/August.
Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman. David and Solomon. 2006.
Goldwasser, Orly. 2010. “How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs.” Biblical Archaeology Review. April.
Robbinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing. 1995.