If you were paying attention when Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014, dir. Ridley Scott) came out, you probably remember the controversy over whitewashing. Scott was accused of casting white actors in all of the major roles and only casting black actors in non-speaking, servile, or villainous roles. These days, the issue of whitewashing historical films has become a serious issue in many films. So let’s dig into this issue.
Race and Ancient Egypt
First off, let’s address this idea of ‘race’. While Westerners, especially Americans, tend to view race as a biological, and therefore innate, characteristic, the reality is that race is essentially a social and not biological characteristic. In American history, for example, among the groups who have been at some point considered to not be ‘white’ are the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews, all groups that today are generally seen as ‘white’. The Irish and the Italians weren’t white because they were Catholic, and the Jews weren’t white because they weren’t Christian; religion was (and perhaps still is, in the case of Muslims) a key element of whiteness, even though Americans are trained to think of it as being entirely about genetics.
Thinking about race as a biological characteristic was very useful to 19th and 20th century Europeans and (white) Americans because it provided a seemingly physical justification for the highly unequal treatment accorded to whites and blacks, and enabled them to engage in things like slavery and later colonization with a clear conscience. If race was a physical quality, then it could be used as evidence that some people, especially sub-Saharan Africans, were biologically inferior and therefore did not have a legitimate claim to their land, resources, and culture.
Most discussions of Egyptian ‘race’ turn on questions of skin color and facial features, so that’s what I’m going to focus on here. Were ancient Egyptians fair-skinned and therefore what we would call ‘white’? Were they dark-skinned and therefore what we would call ‘black’? Or were they something in between, darker-skinned but not what we would call ‘black’? Right away we run into the problem that many people today considered black do not possess particularly dark skin, perhaps because they have mixed-race ancestry but are culturally seen as ‘black’. (To call attention to the culturally-constructed nature of this issue, I’m going to use ‘white’ and ‘black’ in single quotes to refer to the modern notion of race, and terms like ‘Indo-European’ and ‘Nubian’ to refer to ethnic groupings in the Ancient period. I realize I’m over-simplifying a complex issue, since Indo-Europeans were not a single ethnicity but I want to keep this post to a manageable length and I’m not an expert in the extremely complex question of ethnicity in the Ancient World.)
The question of Egyptian ‘race’ is also complicated by the fact that over the 3,000 year history of Pharaonic Egypt, the country was ruled by 32 different dynasties, some of them ruling different parts of Egypt at the same time, and these dynasties did not all have the same ethnic background. (Just to put 3,000 years into perspective, Cleopatra is closer to us chronologically than she is to the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza.) Nor did these dynasties all arise from the local population of Egypt. The last dynasty, the Ptolemids, were of Greek origin, and the 27th and 31st dynasties were actually the shahs of Persia, ruling through appointed satraps (about whose ethnicity little is known). At least two other dynasties originated outside of Egypt proper as well. And in addition to considering the ethnicity of the different dynasties, we need to also keep in mind that the dynasties may have had different ethnicity from the native people under them.
Another complicating factor is that by the 19th century, discussions of Egyptian ‘race’ had taken on distinctly cultural and sometimes racist overtones. It was clear to 18th and 19th century Westerners that ancient Egypt was a remarkably advanced society, capable of impressive engineering feats such as the Pyramids. Because 18th and 19th century Westerners were wrestling with the issue of enslaving black Africans on the basis of their supposed inferiority, many Westerners were unwilling to see ancient Egypt as being ‘African’ in the same way that those from Sub-Saharan Africa were. Arguments were offered that the Egyptians were Caucasians, or at the very least, that they were not Sub-Saharan. Western society wanted to include Egypt in its cultural heritage, and was distinctly unwilling to consider the possibility that ‘black’ people might have made major contributions to that heritage.
On the flip side of the issue, by the 1960s, the emerging Black Pride movement began to assert that Egypt was part of Africa and therefore that the ancient Egyptians were ‘black’. The Senegalese scholar and politician Cheikh Anta Diop, a critic of colonialism, argued for the importance of viewing Egypt within the context of Africa and that Egypt was fundamentally African and therefore ‘black’. The British historian Martin Bernal became deeply interested in the question of Egypt. In 1987, he published Black Athena, which offered the controversial argument that Egypt had essentially colonized ancient Greece, that major elements of Greek civilization were of Egyptian origin, and that 18th century Europeans had essentially whitewashed the ancient Greeks, willfully obscuring the African roots of Western culture. Although Bernal did not assert that Egyptians were necessarily dark-skinned, the implication that ‘white’ culture had ‘black’ roots was a very attractive one to African American intellectuals, who saw it as a challenge to the racial politics of 20th century culture.
The Black Athena thesis was aggressively criticized by specialists in Classical Greek culture, especially the Classicist Mary Lefkowitz, whose Not Out of Africa accused Bernal of having invented a new origin for Western culture because of racial motives. Classicists have broadly rejected the Black Athena thesis, criticizing its methodology, its lack of solid evidence, its numerous linguistic errors, and its simplistic use of ancient myth. But Bernal and his supporters insisted that Lefkowitz and her followers were displaying their own racial biases. Consequently, the ‘Afrocentric’ interpretation of ancient Egypt is a highly-charged issue for many African Americans, who see non-Afrocentric readings of the evidence as being rooted in cultural bias.
An unfortunate aspect of this whole scholarly debate, which I am going to refer to simply as the ‘Afrocentric debate’, has been the tendency for the race/ethnicity of those involved to be seen as a factor. Many of the Afrocentrists have tended to be African Americans and Africans, and they have sometimes been accused of allowing their desire for a more glorious ‘black’ heritage to lead them into serious scholarly mistakes. On the other side, most of those arguing for a more traditional reading of Egyptian ethnicity (the ‘Eurocentrists’, although I think that’s a problematic term) have been accused of either actively trying to co-opt Egypt into the European past or simply to deny ‘black’ people a piece of their rightful cultural heritage. Both sides of the debate frequently express frustration and bafflement that the other side fails to see what “is plainly true”.
Adding to the issue is that few of the Afrocentrists have been trained Egyptologists (Diop was a chemist and anthropologist, Bernal an expert on Chinese history). Their opponents argue that their lack of proper training has caused them to misunderstand Egyptian culture and misread the facts, while their supporters argue that the Afrocentrists are able to see the facts more clearly because they are not trapped inside a West-centric perspective. In some cases, Afrocentrists have accused their opponents of deliberate fraud meant to perpetuate a racist narrative of Western origins. (To me as a scholar, this is one of the biggest weaknesses of the Afrocentric position; historical data can be exceptionally misleading unless you’ve been trained how to understand it. So the fact that few of the leading Afrocentrists have the specialized training to sift through the evidence fully makes me less willing to accept some of their analysis. But it doesn’t in and of itself render their analysis invalid.)
Some General Issues
Most 20th century scholars who have looked at the ethnic origins of the general Egyptian population seem to agree that the general population was probably indigenous to the Nile Valley, having been there since before 3000 BC, when recorded Egyptian history begins. So these people were Africans, but not Sub-Saharan in origin. However, there is also evidence that before 3000 BC, there was a migration of Middle Eastern peoples into Egypt. If that’s correct, the basic population of Egypt would have been a mixture of the indigenous Nilotic people and Middle Easterners. Studies of Pre-Dynastic skeletons have shown that Egyptians had a mixture of cranio-facial characteristics similar to other Africans, Middle Easterners and even some Indo-Europeans. Their body proportions are similar to Sub-Saharan Africans.
Dental evidence suggests that the basic Egyptian population remained relatively constant from the Pre-dynastic period down through the end of Pharaonic Egypt, so that there is not likely to have been a major shift in ethnicity during this period. The study’s author, Joel Irish, has said that his evidence suggests the population was a mixture of several distinct groups, including Saharans, Nilotics, and Middle Easterners. Their teeth most strongly resemble modern North Africans and Middle Easterners.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell us much about skin color. For that, we need to turn to artwork. Egyptian tomb art, which depicts skin color much more clearly than monumental reliefs do, tends to follow a pattern in which men are colored reddish-brown and women are colored a lighter yellow-brown. This is often seen as being a result of the tendency for Egyptian men to spend more time out of doors and therefore to be much more deeply tanned, but it also sometimes seen as being part of a common pattern in which fair skin is considered a mark of feminine beauty (we find the same dichotomy in much Indian artwork, and arguably in modern American entertainment media as well). So tomb paintings aren’t particularly useful in determining what color Egyptians’ skin was, although the Egyptians did sometimes depict Sub-Saharans with black skin, suggesting that they may have seen skin color as a difference between the two groups.
The Egyptian name for their country was Kemet (strictly, it was KMT, since Egyptian hieroglyphics don’t really have written vowels in the English sense. But conventionally those three letters are translitered as Kemet). The linguistic root of Kemet is ‘black’, so the word is generally translated as ‘the Black Land”. Scholars have traditionally seen this as a reference to the fertile black soil deposited by the Nile during its annual flooding, which allowed for settled agriculture. Kemet is contrasted with Deshret (DSRT), which means “the Red Land” and which referred to the barren sand that characterizes Egypt away from the Nile. However, Afrocentric scholars, including Diop, argued that Kemet was a reference not to the land but to its inhabitants. However, Egyptologists have not been persuaded by this reading.
The Tomb of Ramesses III contains a mural referred to as the ‘Table of Nations’, a common element in tomb painting in which a series of people provide guidance for the soul of the deceased to reach the Underworld. A drawing of this (referred to as Plate 48), done by the early German archaeologist Richard Lepsius was published posthumously. Diop pointed out that Plate 48 depicts the Egyptians and the Nubians as both being black-skinned. From this, he concluded that the Egyptians were black. In 1996, the Czech-American Egyptologist Frank Yurco examined the Table of Nations in Ramesses’s tomb and pointed out that Plate 48 is not an exact depiction of the mural; rather it’s a pastiche of four different figures that Lepsius drew next to each other when those figures are not next to each other in the mural; he also noted that the first figure is incorrectly labeled an Egyptian when it’s actually a Nubian in the original mural. Manu Ampim, professor of African and African American Studies, has accused Yurko of deliberate misrepresentation of the mural. (If you want to explore Ampin’s analysis, he’s posted a whole webpage of it here. However, his assertion that ‘rmT’ means ‘Egyptians’ in hieroglyphics is wrong; it’s a determinative sign meaning ‘people’, but it needs additional glyphs to designate a specific group of people. So he seems to be mistranslating the hieroglyphics.)
Afrocentrists frequently point to a passage in the writings of the 5th century BC historian Herodotus in which he describes the Egyptians as being “melanchroes“, which means ‘dark-skinned’. But the Eurocentrists respond that the term doesn’t mean ‘black-skinned’, since Homer describes Odysseus as being melanchroes. Eurocentrists also point to several ancient historians who specifically say that the Egyptians do not look like “Ethiopians” because they’re not so dark-skinned. You can read more about that facet of the debate here.
Looking at individual dynasties and specific pharaohs gives us another perspective. As already noted, the 27th dynasty, the 31st dynasty, and the Ptolemid dynasty (technically the 32nd dynasty, but they’re usually not given a number) were of non-African origin and so were Middle-Eastern and Greek. The 25th dynasty (ruled from c.760-656 BC) were rulers of Nubia who conquered Egypt from the south. They definitely register as ‘black’ by today’s standards; in artwork they are shown with wide noses and full lips even when their skin color is not clear. The 23rd dynasty (ruled 880-720 BC) came from Libya, meaning they were Berbers and thus fairly light-skinned. Many Berbers can pass for Europeans today.
But beyond those five dynasties, the evidence gets less clear. The first two dynasties came from Thinis, somewhere in the southern reaches of Upper (South) Egypt, which could have had a larger Sub-Saharan population simply because it was closer to Nubia (one ancient historian says that the southern end of Upper Egypt was a mixed-ethnicity zone but that the inhabitants were not as dark as the Nubians). Other dynasties from Upper Egypt include the 11th, the 17th-19th, and perhaps the 16th, and thus may also have had greater Nubian influence. The other dynasties were based in Lower (North) Egypt, further away from Nubia and therefore probably had a smaller Nubian element. But this doesn’t automatically mean that rulers from Upper Egypt were themselves Nubian.
An important case in point is the 18th dynasty pharaoh Ramesses II (the guy I argued in my last post was most likely to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus). A 1974 French study of his mummy determined that he was fair-skinned and had red hair, with a beaked nose. So even though his dynasty came from Upper Egypt, he does not appear to have been Nubian.
We do possess the mummies of many pharaohs, but the desiccated and decayed state they are in makes analyzing skin color and facial features extremely difficult. Tutankhamun’s DNA was recently analyzed and while it revealed some interesting information about his ancestry, the scientists who conducted the study concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to give a clear statement about his ethnicity. (Sadly, that didn’t stop some racists from insisting that the study proved Tut was Caucasian.) And it’s unlikely that DNA studies will shed much light on this issue, because most mummies have been handled so often, both in modern times and in the ancient period, that they are badly contaminated with other people’s DNA.
Egyptian statues of pharaohs are often made from black stone and thus depict their subjects as black-skinned, but that may simply be a question of materials. It might also be meant to associate the pharaoh, who as a living god is the source of Egypt’s abundance and fertility, with the fertile black soil of Kemet. And other statues are painted red the same way that Egyptian men in tomb paintings are red.
In terms of facial features, statues of pharaohs are a mixed bunch. Some certainly depict pharaohs with wide noses, full lips and other features that suggest they were ‘black’. Take a look at this gallery of pharaonic statues to see what I mean. (I’m not persuaded that all of them have ‘black’ features, but a good number of them certainly do. Note that the first image is of Narmer, the first pharaoh of Egypt, but it was made during the 25th dynasty and so does not offer evidence of what the historical Narmer looked like. Instead it reflects the influence of the Nubian dynasty ruling Egypt at the time.)
But other pharaohs are shown with thin lips and narrower noses, like this statue of 18th dynasty pharaoh Hatshepsut.
And some have thin lips but wide noses. Of course, much of this rests on the assumption that lips and noses are solid guides to ethnicity, which they aren’t. They’re good clues, but not proof.
And all of this assumes that Egyptian statues are meant as portraits in the modern sense, when in fact they may be intended to convey symbolic truths rather than to offer a genuine likeness (as I said, many scholars think that black skin is intended to suggest fertility, so perhaps other features were symbolically-loaded as well). Consider for example the statues of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel; they show him with Nubian features even though that 1974 study suggested he was fair skinned and red-haired. Of course, with mixed ancestry, one might have fair skin and still have Sub-Saharan features.
And consider the famous bust of Nefertiti.
From her facial features, she could easily be mistaken for a European, even though her skin color is a bit darker. However, some Afrocentrists insist that they see Sub-Saharan features in Hatshepsut and Nefertiti. I don’t, but an Afrocentrist might suggest that my ‘white’ eyes are trained to not see African features. And that brings us back to the social construction of race. Both Afrocentrists and Eurocentrists are looking at the same images and reading them in contradictory ways.
Nefertiti’s not a pharaoh, only a pharaoh’s wife. And that raises another issue. Most pharaohs had multiple wives. Some were their biological sisters (and in a few cases daughters), but other were royal women from other kingdoms. It’s highly likely that many pharaohs had wives who were variously Egyptian, Nubian, Berber, Mesopotamian, Hittite, and perhaps even Greek (those last two being Indo-European). There was no fixed rule for determining which son succeeded his father as the next pharaoh, so it’s likely that many dynasties were ethnically mixed, with the mothers of pharaohs coming from different ethnic groups even within a single dynasty.
The problem here is that we are looking to put ancient Egyptians into modern boxes. We have a category of ‘race’ that probably would have meant very little to them, and their concerns are hard for us to make sense of because their mental world and artistic conventions are so far removed from ours.
Were the pharoahs ‘white’? No, not the way we mean the term. I highly doubt that even fair-skinned, red-haired Ramesses II would have looked ‘white’ by modern standards, though he might have looked close to it; the 23rd dynasty might have as well. Were they ‘black’? In the case of the 25th dynasty, absolutely they were. In the case of other dynasties, I think it’s probable that some of them might well have looked like modern African Americans (who are themselves often of very mixed ancestry), at least if the statuary was trying to offer a realistic portrait. Others probably would have looked very Middle Eastern to our eyes. Unless DNA studies advance to the point that they can give us clear scientific evidence to answer this problem, I think the best answer is to say that over the course of 3,000 years, Egyptian pharaohs were a very mixed group in terms of their ancestry, skin color, facial features, and hair.
In my next post, I’ll tackle what all of this means for Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Want to Know More?
Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, Volume 1) is the first of four volumes on his theory. Mary Lefkowitz’ Not Out Of Africa: How “Afrocentrism” Became An Excuse To Teach Myth As History (New Republic Book) is the appropriate companion piece to read with it, to get both sides of the argument.