Egypt (“Kemetic”)

Category: Frameworks

1 The names of Egypt

Unlike many other lands around the Mediterranean, Egypt has been recognized as a distinct region (or two regions, Lower and Upper Egypt) relatively continuously and consistently. Its name has been less stable:

  • Some variation of Egypt is used in most European languages. This derives (circuitously) from Ancient Greek Aígyptos (earlier Aíguptos), from Egyptian ḥwt-kꜣ-ptḥ (pronounced ḥikuptaḥ), literally ‘house of the ka of Ptah’. This originally referred to the god’s temple in the Egyptian city of Memphis, secondarily to Memphis itself, and tertiarily to the entire land.
  • The words Coptic and Copt (‘Coptic person’), which in English refers (A) to the last stage of the indigenous Egyptian language and (B) to members of the Egypt-based Coptic Church (who use Coptic as a liturgical language), also derives from Greek Aígyptos, which was borrowed back into Egyptian in antiquity. Subsequently, it was taken over from Egyptian into Arabic (as Qubṭ), and from Arabic into European languages.
  • The nation state of Egypt is called Miṣr in Arabic (pronounced Maṣr in Egyptian Arabic). Variations of this have been used in many Semitic languages, including Miṣru in Akkadian, and Miṣráyim (‘the two Egypts’) in the Hebrew of the Bible.
  • The modern self-designation of revivalists of Egyptian polytheism as Kemetic derives from the Egyptological vocalization of km.t, the ancient Egyptian name of the land, as “Kemet”. But it is important to note that Egyptological vocalization is purely conventional, and not meant to represent historical phonology. In fact, km.t was probably originally vocalized as Kūmat. Later, in Coptic, the pronunciation Kēmə is consistently attested (Ⲕⲏⲙⲉ in the Sahidic dialect, Ⲭⲏⲙⲓ in Bohairic). Whatever the vocalization, the name km.t means “black”, as in “fertile land” (as opposed to the red land of the desert).

None of these terms are right or wrong, they are simply used in different context. They do not determine who or what is authentically Egyptian.

2 The cultural framework of ancient Egypt

Although Egypt as a country or region designates a relatively fixed geographical entity, Egypt as a political entity saw great expansions and contractions over its ancient history. At times the kings of Egypt ruled over subject territories to the West (Libya), South (Nubia) and East (Canaan), but there were also dynasties of Canaanites (the Hyksos) and Nubians (the 25th Dynasty) that ruled over Egypt, or parts of Egypt. In either situation, Egyptian culture radiated outwards, but this too was not a consistent or one-sided matter.

The 25th Dynasty also saw the first time Egypt was made into a subsidary province of a much larger realm, namely through the short-lived Assyrian conquest (7th cent. BCE). Later came two periods of Achaemenid Persian rule (27th and 31st Dynasties), then the conquest by Alexander of Macedon in 332 BCE – leading to the establishment of the Ptolemaic dynasty –, and later annexation by Rome. Roman rule lasted, with brief interruptions, from 30 BCE until the Arab conquest of the 8th century CE. By this time, polytheistic practice was effectively extinct, although the presence of imposing pagan temples and statues remained, and continued to attract the attention of writers and exercise their imagination.

What allows us to speak of Egyptian culture as one thing – if internally plural and always enmeshed with other cultures – throughout this long timespan are, to make mention of a few things only:

  • the maintenance of the Egyptian language, its writing system and its literature;
  • a distinct art style which remains recognizable from the 1st Dynasty in the late 4th millennium BCE to the Roman period (during which Greco-Roman and Egyptian art styles were both maintained, but only mixed to a limited degree);
  • and the persistence of religious traditions – not persistence against change, but persistence through change.

This does not mean, however, that Egyptian culture and religion retained a kind of immaculate “purity” throughout. Precisely by virtue of its unique and richly elaborated character, it could be especially attractive to non-Egyptians, gracefully (often even seamlessly) incorporate originally non-Egyptian ideas, and bring together diverse people under a sense of shared or vicarious Egyptianness.

3 Egyptian religion in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean


4 Egypt and the East


In the Akkadian-language letters from Amarna, the only Egyptian god mentioned by name is Amoun. It is spelled phonetically, reflecting the pronunciation Amān-, with the Akkadian ending –u(m) added: ᵈa-ma-nu-um, ᵈa-ma-nu, ᵈa-ma-a-nu, ᵈa-ma-na. (See José M. Galán, “EA 164 and the God Amun”, in: Journal of Near Eastern Studies 51. 4 [October 1992].)


5 Egypt and the South


6 Egypt and the West