When people think of things the ancient Egyptians did first, they’re usually thinking of papyrus, or cat-based theology. But I thought this week, we’d look at a few lesser-known things the Egyptians came up, and perhaps get a better sense of the wide scope of human endeavor we can trace back to the Nile Valley.
As a caveat, I’ve tried to pick innovations that by sheer antiquity can be assumed to have been first thought up by the Egyptians, but in a few cases it might be more correct to label these inventions as “things for which the Egyptian version is the oldest we have documentation for.” The climate of Egypt that permitted extensive preservation of its records and artifacts gives the Egyptian civilization a leg up over certain other equally ancient civilization centers in India and China, and its less extensive historical record of civilization-ending-style warfare means those records are sometimes in better shape than their Middle Eastern neighbors to the north. In short, we think the Egyptians were probably the first inventors of many of the following fascinating items and ideas, but archeology is an ever-green field and each new discovery can change our knowledge in an instant. But that’s the fun of it and history in general, so with that in mind, let’s dig in!
With our caveat in mind, the ancient Egyptians were one of the earliest people to figure out the basic concept behind a/c— a must in a desert climate, for sure. The Egyptians would hang reeds in windows and have water run over the reeds at a drip. The water itself and the evaporation process would in turn cool the air moving through the window. This would also act as a humidifier, putting moisture back into the dry Egyptian desert air.
There is some evidence that the ancient people of Iberia and Northern India used similar systems, but who was using them first is difficult to pin down. Passive air-conditioning on this model would continue to be the whole world’s system until the 20th century, when our trusty powered, vapor-compression units took over. Though I suspect a curtain of glistening reeds does make for a more aesthetically pleasing window decoration.
We generally think about high heels being invented by the Persians in early medieval period, first as a practical accompaniment to the arrival of the horse stirrup so a rider’s foot remained more secure in the saddle, and later, as a status symbol of wealth and impracticality that their diplomats imported to equally impractical European aristocrats.
But heeled shoes appear in Egyptian art as early as 3500 BC. Like the Persians, heeled or platformed shoes were usually a sign of prestige, the wearers of such shoes being members of the nobility or of the priesthood. Because even these depictions are somewhat rare, pharaohs and other usually shown in fancy flat sandals, the heeled ones might have had a particular religious significance. Or, since these aristocrats are sometimes accompanied by lower class people who are depicted barefoot, the heel might have been a way to artistically emphasize the status of the nobility via footwear and make sure the observer’s focus remained on the most important people in a scene’s composition.
However, there is one non-noble Egyptian group for which we also have heeled pictures from a similar time period, and that is, surprisingly enough, butchers. Archeologists have found drawings of Egyptian butchers wearing high-heeled shoes, presumably to allow them to maneuver around the blood and offal of their work environment. The medieval European nobility would adopt a similar tactic to negotiate their castles and towns in an era when people had abandoned Roman plumbing and the worship of Cloacina. But the Egyptian butchers’ footwear lends credence to the ida that the heeled priests and nobles were wearing their proto-stilettos as part of a religious function rather than as a fashion statement. Remember, nearly all Egyptian rites of this period would involve some sort of animal sacrifice, and at the end of the day, religious animal sacrifice is just fancy butchering. So, perhaps the priests and pharaohs were simply taking a practical tip from their neighborhood butchers in order to keep the rest of their ceremonial togs a little cleaner.
Written International Peace Treaties
Ok, I’ll cop to the heading on this one being a little misleading. Obviously, it’s probably impossible to prove whether the Egyptians invented written peace treaties, but as one of the earliest adopters of written language generally, they were likely some of the earliest to be able to write contracts and agreements down to preserve them. What we actually have here is the oldest written peace treaty to which we have both sides’ copies of the agreement, which is still a heck of an accomplishment.
The so-called Silver Treaty, or Eternal Treaty, was the agreement between Ramses II of Egypt and Muwatalli II of the Hittite Empire (in eastern Turkey) following the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC. Kadesh was the culmination of a decades-long state of intermittent warfare between these two powerful empires, mostly over territory located between their kingdoms in Syria, and if you’d only ever seen Ramses’ depictions of the battle, you’d be forgiven for thinking Kadesh was a great victory for the Egyptians. But in reality, it was a drawn-out, costly stalemate that Ramses was probably lucky to have come out of in any form due to some over-confident strategic mistakes. However, both sides were exhausted of men and resources, and had larger military problems than each other, so it was decided that a treaty binding “the kings, their children, and grandchildren” would be drawn up to stop the drain for both empires.
While Ramses, as many leaders after him, would spin this stalemate into a big political victory that makes it look like he won to his own people, the actual content of Egyptian and Hittite copies of the Silver Treaty really are almost identical in content. Aside from some disparate boilerplate at the beginning (where again the Egyptians make it seem like they were graciously allowing the Hittites to sign a peace treaty in their version), the meat of the agreement lines up. The Egyptians and Hittites agree to some standard international accord stuff like mutual military aid and promises not to harbor each other’s rebellious elements, in addition to things like pledges to aid the return of the other’s refugees displaced by the conflict. This leads some historians to classify the Silver Treaty as more of a treaty of alliance, rather than a peace treaty, but usually the latter description holds because although it put an end to the open Egypto-Hittite conflict, both sides would continue to harbor significant mistrust of the other until a later specific treaty of alliance was agreed to some time later.
One of the earliest examples of an encrypted text was found in the tomb of a nomarch from the 12th Dynasty (1900s BC), Khnumhotep II. Egyptians invented symbol-replacement encryption, where a symbol is used instead of a letter or word (or, in the case of the Egyptians, a hieroglyph). Because the symbols aren’t letter-replacement ciphers, like the one invented by Julius, where a letter is replaced by a corresponding letter shifted a set number positions down in the alphabet and one only needs to know the number of shifts to decipher the text, these non-standard symbol-replacement encryptions are unreadable without a cipher key. In fact, this would be the dominant cipher of the Mediterranean until the Caesar Cipher comes along, which mostly overtakes it in vogue because of its higher versatility.
Khnumhotep’s tomb in Beni Hasan, in the middle of the Nile Valley, is one of several beautifully preserved burial sites for the powerful and wealthy nomarchs of the 16th (Oryx) Nome. Khnumhotep governed his administrative sector at a time of lower centralized pharaonic power, and the necropolis he shares with his relatives reflects this. Aside from the encrypted text, his tomb is also famous for a fairly unusual depiction of early Semitic/ Levantine traders to Egypt, distinguished by their shaggier hair and beards (see above).
The Postal System
Mail itself clearly has existed since people got writing figured out and could therefore send their thoughts to one another, but the Egyptians were the first to establish an organized courier system through which to send information in 2400 BC. As you might expect, though, this wasn’t exactly the USPS, serving anyone with a mailbox. Pharaohs used this official channel as a fast and reliable method to see that their decrees were disseminated in a fast and consistent manner to all parts of the kingdom. Because there was arguably nothing Dynastic Egypt appreciated more than well-oiled cogs in its bureaucracy— a bureaucracy so specialized and elaborate that multiple foreign regimes simply continued to use it rather than imposing their own system.
As for the more common folk, letters were likely transported much as they would be in many places until fairly late in modernity: you entrusted your precious correspondence to a family friend or neighbor who happened to heading in the right direction and you crossed your fingers that they remembered to drop it off. The father of the universal postal service would probably be the Persian shah Cyrus the Great, who would institute mail reception and delivery to all of the citizens of his empire by 550 BC. But the Egyptians do hold the distinction for possessing the oldest surviving piece of mail, with a document dating from 255 BC.
Geological & Topographical Maps
The oldest geological map we have on record is the so-called Turin Papyrus, a survey map drawn up for a quarrying expedition during the reign of Ramses IV (1155-1149 BC). The map depicts roughly fifteen kilometers of the Wadi Hammamat, a dry river bed in the Eastern Desert between Koptos on the Nile and Quseir on the coast. This area was famous as quarry during the dynastic period, the ancient deceased river having exposed large quantities of basalt, schist, and the highly-prized bekhen, a beautiful green sandstone that was beloved for sculpture and sarcophagi, that made up the Precambrian Arabian-Nubian rock shield. The Turin Papyrus carefully details the different deposits of these rocks with different paint colors, as well as notations delineated the size the rocks that had been able to be cut in each area. Because we’re also in the gold hills not far from Nebut/Ombos, the papyrus also makes note of the mines nearby.
However, the Turin Papyrus is also a topographical map. It details Wadi Hammamat’s confluence with two other wadis nearby, Atalla and el-Sid, as well as the grades of the surrounding hill country and the quarry settlement at what would later be Bir Umm Fawakhir. It’s hard to tell in the fragment photo here, but the papyrus has a full symbolic legend and many hieratic script annotations meant to make the map easy to follow for the survey team, and incidentally, modern archeologists. That’s how we know that the team’s main purpose was to assess and obtain large blocks of that lovely bekhen sandstone for Ramses IV’s new statuary.
Organized Labor Strikes
The classic depiction of an Egyptian worker is somebody toiling up a pyramid ramp dragging a block of limestone, or perhaps a farmer threshing wheat with a sickle, but at its height, Egypt supported a large caste of middle-class artisans. Many of the very best of these artists lived in a permanent village at Deir el-Medina, the colony that performed the various tomb-work in the Valley of the Kings. The town’s Egyptian name was Set ma’at, “Town of Truth,” and the craftsmen and their families were referred to as the “Servants of Truth.” Because of the deep cultural importance of one’s journey to the afterlife, the artisans of Deir el-Medina were generally well-paid and well-treated by their royal employers who relied on their skills to produce tombs and grave goods fit for all of eternity. While the Egyptians were no strangers to slave labor, the workers at Deir el-Medina were all free citizens. And that’s probably why they knew their rights…
In 1152 BC, during the reign of Ramses III, the artisans of Deir el-Medina had been suffering through several weeks of delayed wage payments. If they had been paid solely in money, that would have been bad enough, but like many ancient workers, the artisans were mostly paid in a wheat ration, which meant it was more difficult for them and their families to eat. After unsuccessfully petitioning the royal vizier for redress, on November 14th, the artisans threw down their tools and refused to continue their work, and swore “great oaths” at the village headsmen who attempted to get them to return to the Valley of the Kings. As the Servants of Ma’at, no one had a better understanding of their place in the cosmic balance of the Egyptian world, and in turn, their pharaoh’s place in that balance to provide for their sacred work. After a short amount of back and forth between the royal representatives and the workers, the strike was resolved, but labor organization was here to stay. One of the outcomes of this historic strike was that since the headsmen had sided with the authorities during the conflict, the artisans no longer trusted them to negotiate on their behalf. So, instead, they elected their own people to interface with the vizier, and therefore also invented the first union reps.
This is the one that got away from my entry on games, but yes— as far as we can tell, the Egyptians invented the first bowling-style games. Tomb art shows Egyptians bowling as early as 5200 BC, and protodynastic grave sites from the Naqada period have yielded ancient balls and pins. The earliest types of balls were made of leather filled with grain husks, bound together by string or twine, but later iterations made of porcelain have also been recovered. These larger, heavier balls were probably rolled much like a modern bowling ball, rather than thrown as the leather balls might have been.
Similarly, a miniature version of the game made with porphyry and alabaster pieces was found around the same period in a child’s tomb, indicating this was a game enjoyed by all ages. It has been suggested that this tiny bowling field is meant to be its size and is a forerunner of modern skittles or jacks. But grave goods are often in miniature for space reasons (think of the boxes of palm-sized ushabtis servants), with the understanding that the magic of the Duat will render items appropriately in the afterlife. So it’s just as possible that this child had a sweet full-sized bowling alley in the Field of Reeds to invite his new friends over to.
The idea of communities distributing credit and financing outside of an actual institution like a bank feels like a new idea born out of necessity in a late-capitalism world, but really micro-lending is far older than what call “banking,” as lending houses and banks used to mainly cater to the privileged and wealthy. We don’t know exactly when Egyptians started using community banking, but it is likely tied to the rise of the nomes, which were created before Egypt’s organized dynastic government. Each nome was originally an entire administrative unit unto itself, much like a Greek city-state, until the pharaoh Menes united the Nile Valley in the 3200s BC. After unification, the nomes operated much like a modern American state, answering to the centralized pharaonic government, though they retained a fair amount of autonomy, in part because of distance and the complex web of government authority.
In this kind of micro-lending, the community pools resources and decides collectively how funds should be allocated, and to whom. As we saw with the artisans at Deir el-Medina, most Egyptians were paid in grain rather than hard currency, so this usually meant that all the grain of a village would be gathered together and distributed in a manner to ensure the health and wealth of the entire community, rather than the individual. Aside from trying to promote cooperation amongst neighbors, this would have been an effective way to prevent individual hoarding (which is even stupider when one is dealing with a perishable commodity as your unit of exchange), and to ensure taxes paid to the royal government were handled efficiently.
Incidentally, modern micro-lending is great way to help small borrowers around the world — particularly the many people who don’t have access to traditional banking, like those living in remote rural communities and refugees. I’ve been lending for several years through Kiva, and it’s been exciting and rewarding to see how even a small loan can be life-changing to the individuals receiving it. Check it out!
I was going to save this one for a (no doubt future) entry on food, but frankly it was just too goofy to pass up as a fun way to round out our discussion. Yes, folks, the Egyptians invented marshmallows. Not exactly the fluffy sugar bombs we know, but one of the earliest versions of the confection that would evolve into the modern s’more binder.
Original marshmallows were so named because they were made from the root of the marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis), a flowering marsh-dweller found in many parts of Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Marshmallow root has a long history as an herbal remedy for sore throats and congestion. The Egyptians used marshmallow for this, especially boiled with that natural cure-all, honey, but they seem to be the first to use marshmallow in a more culinary fashion. Boiled marshmallow root is stiff enough to substitute for beaten egg whites, and the Egyptians combined this with sap from the plant, honey, and grains that would then be baked into a type of cake. The end product was only permitted to be eaten by the gods, and by extension, their mortal children, the pharaohs, which mostly sounds like a whole bunch of pharaohs not wanting to share their delicious marshmallow cakes with anyone. But if you figure out how to chase the mental picture of the gods of Egypt sitting around a campfire toasting marshmallows on their was-scepters, please tell me your secret in the comments below. Because the struggle is real 🔥🍡