Books Reviews

Ethnic identities in the Land of the Pharaohs by Uroš Matić

How did the people who lived in the Nile Valley identify themselves?

You often come across ‘foreigners’ in Ancient Egyptian art. They can be found crouching before Pharaoh or bringing tribute outside temples or on tomb walls. They are nearly always the defeated enemy.

The most notable example of this is the Narmer Palette. Although it is not the oldest picture from the Nile Valley, it can be read as a symbolic image of the Union of the Two Kingdoms of Egypt and as such could be seen as one of the first images of ‘Pharaonic Egypt’.

A two-sided shield-shaped object, on the front (‘recto’) it depicts King Narmer about to strike a kneeling man with a mace. The kneeling man is possibly an inhabitant of Lower Egypt or Libya, or perhaps a representation of these lands. The object is often read as a symbolic icon of pharaoh’s stabilising power. Egypt was not so much the land of the Nile, as the pharaoh himself. Although the boundaries and governance of the region changed over the years, when pharaoh ruled, his rule defined the ‘state’- l’etat c’est moi. Or perhaps so they would like us to think. The pharaoh’s power is defined against an anonymous enemy and chaos. The back (‘verso’) shows wild animals and scenes of conflict. 

If the borders of Egypt were malleable, then presumably inhabitants of the same region would find their collective identity changing depending on who was in power. It is not surprising then that even as they used images of foreign enemies in their propaganda, the Egyptians never denied the humanity of foreigners and the words for ‘foreigner’ were never used as a word for a social group within Egypt itself. 

Would the pharaoh on the Narmer palette conceive of himself as an ‘Egyptian’? What about the other people- the kneeling man and other warriors – how did they conceive their identity? These are the types of questions which Uroš Matić asks in Ethnic identities in the Land of the Pharaohs.

The brilliant new book is published as part of Cambridge University Press’ Ancient Egypt in Context series of ‘Elements’, short texts combining the best bits of books and journals aimed at the broader humanities community, offering authoritative but accessible overviews of important topics in the field.


If the concept of the ‘other’ was an important theme within Egyptian art, this does not map onto modern concepts which developed in the nineteenth century within often racist institutions.

Although Ancient Egypt has been studied for millennia – in medieval Egypt and Baroque Europe to name two often overlooked examples – it was in the Nineteenth century that it became a subject. Franco-British military interventions in Egypt from 1798, opened the country up to European ‘investment’ and made it much easier for western scholars to visit the country or to engage with its archaeology. 

It has become an academic cliche, to say that Egyptology was put on a scientific footing. Important sites were mapped and excavated, items were taken to European institutions and the hieroglyphs were deciphered. Yet much of the ‘science’ of these Western scholars was flawed and based on racist assumptions. At its most notorious, archaeologists used methods such as the measurement of skulls (craniometry) to identify the ‘race’ of mummies by the shape and size of the skull without considering other factors such as age or gender. 

Other scholars, basing their theories on racist assumptions, argued that a ‘dynastic race’ arrived in the Nile from the East and took control of the region, introducing more advanced technology to the region and organising large scale infrastructure projects such as the pyramids. A theory which is mirrored in contemporary stories about Aliens building the pyramid.

It is important to outline this history, as the underlying conclusions, assumptions and methodologies of these racist historians are still unwittingly used by many contemporary authors and researchers. Take craniometry. Even though it has been completely discredited, the underlying theory that race can be identified from human remains is still a key assumption in the use of DNA evidence. As is the idea that ‘race’ is biologically determined.

DNA technology is often seen to provide new ways to read history and map long scale historical trends which is scientific and objective. Yet this is only as good as the historiography on which it is based, which Matić shows in precise detail is problematic and subjective. For example,  scientists still identify certain human remains as ‘Phoenician’, yet many historians have argued that this term is not accurate and avoid using it. Thus contemporary ‘scientific’ identification is based on outdated history. Other similar but more painful examples of outdated collective identities are given.

How then did the ancient Egyptians conceive of themselves? 

Matić argues that:

Egyptian’ could be anyone who inhabited the urban zones of the Nile Valley […], spoke Egyptian language, worshipped Egyptian gods, and was loyal to the Egyptian state, no matter if he or she was born in Egypt or not.

Ethnic identities in the Land of the Pharaohs, p. 10

This is a very broad definition, which obviously allowed for change during the millennia between Narmer and Nectanebo. The geographic area of pharaonic control changed at different points. Pharaoh’s role was central, but how was loyalty expressed in different sections of the communities is a difficult question. Language was an important unifying factor. In Egypt, the same word was used for the braying of a donkey as speakers of foreign languages. Language and affiliation to different groups becomes even more complex, when you get to the Ptolemaic period. The Oracle of the Potter foresees a destruction coming over Greek speakers in Egypt.

It is interesting to see worship of Egyptian gods as an identifying factor of Egyptian identity. By the first millennia BCE, non-Egyptian gods were worshipped in the Nile Valley, whilst at the same time, Egyptians gods were worshipped by people who were not ‘Egyptian’. Greeks and Carians in Memphis adored the Apis Bull. The Egyptian gods also spread beyond the Nile in this period, the goddess Hathor may have been worshipped in the city of Byblos and Egyptian gods have been found in Minoan buildings.

Egyptians did not differentiate groups by the same criteria as nineteenth century Western scholars.

Admittedly there are apparent similarities between contemporary ideas and Ancient Egyptian ideas. In the Great Hymn to Aten, Matić identifies three different ways to differentiate different groups:

Their tongues (ns.w) are separate in speech (md.t) and their natures (ḳd=sn) as well; Their skins (jnm=sn) are distinguished, as you distinguished the foreign peoples.

Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. II New Kingdom, p. 98

In Egyptian art, a  common way to differentiate people from different regions was through skin colour. Images of Egyptians were painted with red skin, Nubians brown and black, Syro-Palestinians “yellowish” and Libyans “whitish-yellowish”. It needs to be stressed that this was an artistic tradition. We need to avoid the “false conclusion that skin colour was considered to be essential for one’s identity” (p. 13). Indeed Greeks (Aegeans / Minoans) and Puntites were both regularly painted with the reddish skin colour used for Egyptian figures. At the same time, different colour paints were used to differentiate people in crowd scenes even where the captions say they come from the same region. In one example an identifiable individual (Hekanefer) was depicted in different skin colours, in different contexts. 


It should hopefully be clear from this brief overview that ‘Ethnic identity’ or ‘collective identity’ was complex in pharaonic Egypt, but it is important to understand that we question all assumptions and challenge wooly thinking even, no especially, when it is dressed up as science.

Ethnic identities in the Land of the Pharaohs is a great book for people new to the topic and already well read. Its relevance extends beyond Egyptology and will be of value to students and academics beginning research in the field.

Photo references

Narmer Palette, Public Domain

Book cover used under Fair use as part of a review.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics

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