Canaan, 1800 BC

Let’s get ready for some culture shock

Looking back on my blog posts so far, I’ve realized that I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Ancient Egypt and not a lot of time contextualizing it. Meaning, if you’ve read everything so far, you probably know quite a bit about what Ancient Egypt was like, and not as much about what made it different from the rest of the surrounding world.

On that note, I thought it would be good to talk a little bit about what nearby Canaan was like during the time period. This will give you a pretty good idea of why Egypt was considered a pretty marvelous place.

Please note that Egypt was not the only “marvelous” place in the world at the time. Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and environs), which  I’ve mentioned before, was another large power center. Further afield, the Indus Valley Civilization in what is now Pakistan and India was going strong. Closer to the modern Middle East, the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete is now considered the first advanced civilization in Europe and was an important player during this time.

But, I mean, that’s kind of it. At this time, Ancient China is still in a quasi-mythical state of which we’re not even sure of the historicity, and even the Mesoamerican Olmecs won’t be around for another couple hundred years.

So, you can imagine that anyone living even vaguely near one of the few advanced centers of civilization would have heard all sorts of fabulous tales of all the wonders to be found therein.

You can also imagine that anyone who actually traveled to one of those advanced centers of civilization would be very much blown away.

So, given the fact that the story of Joseph definitely has a character going from a rather unadvanced area to one of the most advanced areas in the world at the time, you can imagine that I had a lot of fun playing with the idea of culture shock as I wrote my story.

Back to Canaan, then. What was it actually like in 1800 BC?

Canaan was culturally under the influence of Mesopotamia more than Egypt. The languages belong to the same wider family and, while we don’t have evidence of a script native to Canaan until centuries later, we do know that the Mesopotamian cuneiform script was used throughout the Near East (excluding Egypt) for record-keeping.

But, unlike Mesopotamia, Canaan had no giant population centers. There were cities, here and there, but they were not the sprawling, comparative metropolises of places like Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Canaan does have a claim to fame in that one of its cities, Jericho, has the distinction of being one of the oldest (if not the oldest) continuously inhabited settlements in the world, starting possibly as far back as 9,000 BC. Canaan may not have been as well-developed, but it had street cred.

Canaan’s religious systems (aside from being the incubation area for the Jewish faith) were also influenced far more by Mesopotamian religion than that of Egypt, though this would change in the following centuries. A quick survey of the religious practices of Canaan turns up Mesopotamian deity names like Astarte (the goddess of fertility and war) and Dumuzid (Astarte’s dead husband that she killed – long story). Both are mentioned in the Bible under the alternate names Ashteroth and Tammuz.

In regards to cultural homogeneity, Egypt had the world pretty well beat, as I have discussed before. Mesopotamia had multiple cultures that would fall under varying leadership depending on which people group was in power at the time.

Canaan, on the other hand, was fractured into city states while at the same time incubating the beginnings of several distinct cultures. Cities had a “king” (the Pharaoh in Egypt would have laughed), who ruled over an individual city and the surrounding lands or villages. Plenty of land beyond that, we can assume, was little more than no-man’s-land.

This lasted for a while, but we have record that before 2000 BC, many cities were abandoned and the area returned to a very nomadic and agrarian lifestyle, with people living as they had in centuries prior. It took some time before people began moving back into cities again. This speaks to the instability of the region – it didn’t have the trade and social supports to maintain a constant urban civilization.

You can imagine, then, the sheer culture shock that would ensue if someone living in Canaan (i.e., Joseph) encountered the cultural monolith that was Egypt. The sprawling Egyptian city of Memphis, for example, had been a cultural epicenter for 500 years and more by 1800 BC. Egypt had police, Nile River merchants, courts of law, and a complex governmental, military, and religious hierarchy. Canaan was a true backwater in comparison.

The story is made all the more interesting (from a writing perspective, at least!) by the fact that the majority of Canaan’s outside influence was from Mesopotamia at the time, not Egypt. Therefore, the language, religion, and writing systems of Egypt would have been much more foreign than anything a traveler from Canaan would have found in Mesopotamia.

I hope you can see the sheer fun this gave me as a writer (and I hope I don’t sound like a sadist, hah!). Confusion and conflict breed a good story, after all.

I hope to be able to share it with you in the future!

(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)

The Case of the Nonexistent Egyptian Wedding Ceremony

Yeah, that’s a thing

One of the things you start to learn when researching Ancient Egypt is that there is quite a bit that we actually just don’t know.

I’m not talking about the damnatio memoriae situations I have mentioned prior to this post, either. These situations notwithstanding, we honestly just seem to have quite a few odd gaps in our knowledge, simply because we haven’t dug up any artifacts or uncovered any documentation that speak to these things. These are gaps that I personally think we will uncover a lot of the answers to in the future, with time, research, digging, and patience. But, in the meantime, they made writing and researching certain aspects of my story fairly … interesting.

I developed a mantra to deal with this while writing. In a nutshell, it was:

Just don’t contradict anything that is known, and you’ll be fine.

For me, a very Type A individual, this was pretty rough going. I want facts, I want answers, and I want them nice and organized, thank you very much.

But that just wasn’t going to happen with certain parts of my research, and I had to learn to deal with it.

I’ll give you one example:

One of the strangest gaps in our knowledge is regarding Ancient Egyptian wedding practices.

We have absolutely zero evidence that there was any sort of acknowledgement of a wedding. People are recorded as married, but there’s no evidence that they got to be that way by any other means that agreeing to and writing up a pre-nuptial agreement (i.e., My family will get some gold for you and I’ll get some camels. Good? Good.).

This whole thing is pretty bonkers when you consider the copious amounts of Ancient Egyptian love poetry we have found. Despite the fact that many marriages were arranged, true love between the husband and wife was held as the ideal throughout the culture.

I can hear you now:

Do you really mean to tell me that they were writing love poetry until the cows came home and then not celebrating any weddings?

As far as we know?


Now, like I said above, there’s always a chance (maybe even a good chance) that we will uncover some evidence to the contrary in the future. But, for the time being, we have exactly zero evidence for a wedding ceremony.

So, I was left up the proverbial creek without a paddle, because I 100% had a couple getting married in Egypt in my story, and there was no way I was going to let them get away with not having a party. First off, it would have read as downright odd to a modern audience, and secondly, after slogging through hundreds of pages of emotional trauma (Joseph did not have an easy life) I wanted to write about a party, dangit.

At this point, my mantra becomes relevant.

Just don’t contradict anything that is known, and you’ll be fine.

Okay, no wedding, check.


Trying to avoid spoilers for one of my subplots, I will just say that I have a very politically-oriented arranged marriage that happens about midway through my book. Its orchestrator is the Pharaoh, who wants to do everything in his power to ensure that everything seems legitimate and respectable.

And what’s the best way to legitimize?

Exposure – in a highly controlled, official setting.

Oh, we are getting a party. We are getting a big freaking party. Just not on the day of the marriage.

Because – we know that the Ancient Egyptians were great at throwing parties. As much time as they spent preparing for death, they were also bent on enjoying life. We have records of copious amounts of food and drink at celebrations (there’s rumors of them throwing up to make room for more fare), music, dancers, acrobats, the works. We have records of wrestling as a popular sport during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, so I added wrestlers performing. I added gifts, because why not? (I even managed to make one an important plot point later.)

And, through all of that, I had to keep reminding myself:

Just don’t contradict anything that is known, and you’ll be fine.

Whew. This Type A girl is still reeling!

(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)

Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt

A for effort … But for implementation? You decide

Given that the bulk of my story is set in Ancient Egypt and I have two pretty prominent Egyptian, female characters, I did a fair amount of research on women’s rights and roles in Egypt during that time period before I began writing.

And it turns out that when you boil it down, the issue of women’s rights in Ancient Egypt is one of those things that looks pretty darn good on paper, but can get rather lame when put into practice. That said, most things are like that, and it’s a sight better than the situation in most ancient societies. So, it’s worth a look.

Let’s dig in to some specifics.

Firstly, Ancient Egyptian women were equal under the law to men. This means that (drumroll) female ownership of personal property, including the right and ability to buy and sell, was a thing. Further, women could sue and be sued, initiate divorce, travel on their own, and serve as a witness in a court case or for a legal document.

This. Is. Huge in the ancient world.

Now, before you start your standing ovation, remember that I said this all looks good on paper. There’s a second aspect to all of this that we need to discuss.

Social standing.

And social standing, in Ancient Egypt, came from your job.

I think you may see now where this is heading.

We have plenty of evidence that women in Ancient Egypt held jobs. Women could be manufacturers of goods or service providers, such as makeup artists or cooks. A few women, who had families willing and able to educate them (many men were not literate, either), held careers as doctors or scribes. Many became priestesses.


Not many (read: hardly any) worked in any sort of administration, and that, my friends, is where the “really big fish” were, socially and legally speaking.

Most women, in actuality, despite the fact that many of their peers worked outside the home (and nothing was seen to be wrong with that), held the title of “mistress of the house” in legal documents and textual records – a much more typical status for a woman when the ancient world is viewed as a whole.

And being the “mistress of the house” makes you a very small fish with not much legal clout, even if your rights are technically the same as men, particularly men with the same sort of “job status level”.

Now, this means that there were plenty of men in Ancient Egypt who would have experienced the same or similar skewing of legal clout based on their social standing. I will also say that women in Ancient Egypt, if they really wanted or needed to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and carve their own path, could probably have pulled it off, limited from certain professions only perhaps by lack of literacy. But again, this was a ceiling many men would encounter as well.

In conclusion, the mere fact that men and women technically held the same rights under the law and even the fact that both men and women felt the same sort of pressure and restriction from their social standing are pretty unusual concepts in the ancient world.

So, as the heading suggests, I’m giving Ancient Egypt an A for effort. It’s a pretty noteworthy accomplishment. In regards to actual grading … you decide! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter!

(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)

Dating the Joseph Story (Part 2)

Herein lies the craziest chain reaction of historical coincidences (?) ever

So, in my last post, I told you that we would go over some of the interesting “funny things” that occur in history if you place Joseph’s life during the 12th Dynasty of Egypt. Let’s take a trip down some of the highlights of that list (yes, there are far more than what I’m going to mention!).

Funny Thing 1: Senusret III, a pharaoh Joseph could have served under using this dating scheme, is famous for taking the land and power from the Egyptian nomarchs (you may remember them from my blog series on Ancient Egyptian history; they’re like regional governors) and centralizing the government. This is exactly the sort of thing that happened in Genesis 40, when the Egyptian people had to sell all their land to the government in exchange for food during the famine.

Funny Thing 2: During the time of Senusret III, a canal was built in the area of the capital, Itjtawy (one of many built during his reign). This is one of the things that would have happened in Egypt under Joseph’s leadership, to prepare for the prophesied famine. It still exists today. Guess what its name is. Bahr-Yussef.

Funny Thing 3: Okay, going forward quite a bit in time. At the beginning of the Exodus story, we are told that there came a line of Pharaohs who did not remember Joseph and all he did for Egypt. If we go forward in the historical timeline using this 12th-Dynasty-based chronology, we see that the Second Intermediate Period eventually occurs – mentioned in an earlier blog post. It is a time wherein Egypt was conquered by an Asiatic people called the Hyksos. They ruled for about 100 years before the native Egyptians overthrew them.

Theoretically, this would also be about the time that the Egyptians also began oppressing the Hebrew people. And why wouldn’t they? The Egyptians had been completely overthrown by an ethnic group very similar in appearance and language to the Asiatic Hebrews. After such years of turmoil, they would have no memory of Joseph and no desire to treat anyone even remotely like the Hyksos kindly.

Funny Thing 4: You may remember Hatshepsut, the woman-pharaoh I talked about in a previous post, of whom we lost all record for centuries because her successors tried to obliterate her name from history. Looking at the Moses story, we see that he was saved and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter during a time when the Egyptians had ordered a form of genocide on the Hebrews. Using these dates, guess who the Pharaoh’s daughter would have been at the time Moses was born? Moses whose “let my people go” routine really messed up Egypt.

Yes, it was Hatshepsut. The one whose memory the Egyptians tried to erase.

Guess when they tried to erase it? Not until decades her death. Exactly when the Exodus would have taken place.

Funny Thing 5: You know those Ten Plagues of Egypt? You know the last one, the one from which Judaism derives the Passover? This was the plague of the death of the firstborn son. I’m not about to get in an argument over God’s decisions, but I’ll say this. The firstborn son of Thutmose III, who would have been the pharaoh at the time using this dating scheme, died.

Funny Thing 6: One of the weirdest events in Egyptian history is “that one time Pharaoh Akhenaten decided to make Egypt monotheist”. If we use our 12th-Dynasty-chronology, Akhenaten lived about a century after the Exodus, which would be the time that the Hebrews were slowly setting up in the land that would eventually become Israel. Did Akhenaten (and his wife, the famous Nefertiti) see the Hebrews “magically” become a successful and conquering people after “magically” leaving Egypt after the Ten Plagues and then decide that emulating their monotheism might not be such a bad idea? It’s an interesting proposition. By the way – Akhenaten’s monotheism, which was the worship of the solar disc, called the Aten, didn’t stick. His son, Tutankhaten, brought the old religion back and changed his name to Tutankhamun. Yes, that Tutankhamun.

Funny Thing 7: There are a series of letters written to the Pharaoh of Egypt during the time period mentioned above called the Amarna Letters. (Most would therefore have been written to Akhenaten). Many are written by rulers in Canaan, telling the Egyptian Pharaoh that these darn people called the ‘Apiru/Habiru (both translations have been used) are taking over completely everything. What would the Biblical Hebrews have been doing at this time, according to the timeline we’re using? Taking over completely everything.

One more thing. The etymology of the word “Hebrew” in the Hebrew language itself relates to the idea of wandering. The word “‘Apiru/Habiru” was a word historically used to apply to a wandering social class. What were the ancestors of the Jewish people doing before they showed up in Canaan and started taking over completely everything? Wandering in the desert.

Honestly, I could go on for pages and pages about how the history seems to line up so nicely, but I think I have written enough for now! I hope you have enjoyed these examples of why my placement of Joseph during the 12th Dynasty of Egypt seems logical to me. If you have any questions or want more information, please comment below!

(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)

Dating the Joseph Story (Part 1)

Putting the puzzle pieces together

Okay, so before we go any further, I guess now is the time to address the elephant in the room.

If you’ve been reading my blog posts with a critical eye, you’ve probably started to wonder:

Wait. Is she treating the Bible as a historically-accurate document?

I am aware that doing so is something that is near-sacrilege in the academic community, and, to be frank, it is not popular in certain parts of the religious community, either. I am also aware that how I answer this question will determine for some people whether or not they continue reading this blog.

Here is my answer.


I am treating the Bible as a historically-accurate document, and not just as “a book of wisdom and parables”.


Because I don’t think God is a liar.

Why would God give us a book of wisdom and parables that treats every fake story in it as historical fact? How is that anything near wise? And if it were parables, I’m pretty sure it would say so, since every time Jesus uses a parable in the Bible, the text is very clear that this is a parable.

Now, I am not saying that the Bible is not a literary document. It employs metaphor; anyone who reads it can see that. But I am saying that one can tell the difference between the figurative language and the text meant to be historical documentation. Whether or not you go with the idea of historicity is up to you, but God gave us that book with no fine print about “feigning historicity for effect” attached.

I could go on this tangent for a long while and drag in archaeological and historical research, and if anyone wants me to, let me know in the comments. Just don’t be mean about it. I love discussion and discourse. I’m simply not into internet trolls masquerading as academics, or academics moonlighting as internet trolls.

In the meantime, if you’re still with me here (either because you’re down with treating the Bible as a historical document or chill with me doing it, kudos for either) I wanted to talk about when I decided to set the Joseph story historically, and why.

Please note that I am not trying to date our earliest-known writings of the story, since that is its own can of worms and the earliest text we have is not necessarily the earliest text that ever existed. Wars over dating lexical structure and literary style are never any fun anyway.

What I am trying to do here is to show you the strategy I used to get a ballpark estimate for the time the story took place. Note that there are multiple ways to do this based on your interpretation of Biblical dates and what they refer to. This is strictly my thought process, though others have arrived at similar conclusions (and many have arrived at different ones). Not also that I said ballpark. Because that’s all we have here, folks, when push comes to shove.

Important Date 1:

The reign of King Solomon. Scholars ballpark his reign as beginning in the mid-900s BC based on Babylonian records and Biblical chronology. The Bible gives a further dating point for his reign because he was the King who built the First Temple (for reference, the famous Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is the only remnant of the Second Temple). In 1 Kings 6:1, the Bible says that this building project began 480 years after Moses did the whole “Let my people go” thing.

Important Date 2:

Exodus 12:40 also says that the Hebrew people were living in Egypt for 430 years, until Moses did his thing.

Why were they in Egypt?


This places Joseph in Egypt (again, ballpark, mind you) around 1880 BC. Otherwise known as the 12th Dynasty, Middle Kingdom.

This is a relatively unknown time to us in certain respects, since the 12th Dynasty capital, Itjtawy, has never been discovered, though archaeologists have a pretty good idea where it is and preliminary exploration and satellite imagery seem to agree they’re on the right track.

When I explored the idea of placing Joseph here (there’s other schools of thought that would place him elsewhere in time due to different interpretations of the dates above), there were some fun results.

Again, this is all ballparking, but some funny things happened in Egypt that I thought could feasibly be natural consequences of placing Joseph during this time. At first I thought I could list them all in this post, but the chain reaction of “funny things” is actually rather long. SO, join me next time if you want to watch me get super nerdy about archaeology and ancient history.

I hope you do!

(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)

Faith Before the Ten Commandments

What was Judaism before Judaism?

Okay, so imagine you’re about to play a board game, say Sorry, or Clue, or something. Something you know – not Monopoly because no one actually knows how to play that. Something with nice, organized rules.

Except then someone comes along and rips those rules out of your hand and tells you to start over and make a prequel.

“What?” you’re asking. “What are you on? What’s a prequel game?” (Some of you may in fact be asking, “What’s a prequel?”)

Okay, so, first off. A prequel is the opposite of a sequel. It is a story presented as the originator or backstory of a more well-known, previously published story.

Therefore, a prequel must set down certain rules or plot points, and you must be able to see as a member of the audience how this prequel logically sets up the story you already know.

SO, back to the prequel game.

What you are effectively being asked to do is create a game with rules, whose rules logically could transition, change, and grow over time into the game you’re familiar with.

This was me in trying to write Not by Sight: The Story of Joseph.


Joseph is considered a patriarch of the Jewish people and Jewish faith (and, therefore, the Christian faith). But, he lived around 400 years before the Ten Commandments, the Old Testament Law, and all those things that were the hallmarks of the Jewish faith, ever existed.

Joseph’s story as told in the Bible is a story steeped in the theme of faith through adversity, and I was completely gung ho and ready to dive in, until I realized I was going to have to construct the “prequel” to Judaism.

My head hurts just thinking about it again.

But something I realized early on was pretty key.

It turned out that the most important thing for me to wrap my head around was that just because I basically only had the book of Genesis available to me timeline-wise out of the all the books of the Bible, it did not mean that everything else went out the window.

You don’t write a prequel by completely ignoring the original. You have to know the original so that you can create foreshadowing and all that other nifty literary stuff.

So, I looked at what I had technically and I looked at what I didn’t have (technically).

What I had was Genesis. Basically anything in there was fair game. Unfortunately, that made some things pretty confusing. Because God never really sits down with anyone in Genesis and goes: “Okay, humanity, here’s how it should be …” Genesis is full of accounts of people serving God and falling away from God and utterly rejecting God, but since it was recorded for the first time in tandem with the Old Testament Law, there’s not much recorded by way of rules. Basically, people are just supposed to worship God and not worship idols. Aside from that, there’s mention of food-based sacrifices but no set rules for how and when to perform them. Sodom and Gomorrah are completely hedonistic, rape-based cultures, and we are told that they’re awful places. And lastly, we have this verse:

“Abram [also known as Abraham] believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

So basically, Genesis boils down to:

  • Believe God (God talks to a lot of people in Genesis, so at this point this would just mean: “follow God’s directions when He gives them to you”)
  • Don’t worship idols

If I could insert an emoji here it would be the gritted-teeth-guy.


God never talks to Joseph. Not once. But somehow he turns into this super faith-filled guy? I was left scratching my head.

So I turned to what I didn’t have, which was basically the entire rest of the Bible, and, in a bit of desperation, I looked for little phases, wordings of the type that could have been passed down from generation to generation with an origin in the times of Genesis, only to be written down later on.

Because, I figured, God talks to a lot of people in Genesis, but he doesn’t talk to everyone. People must be sharing God’s instructions with each other.

So I edited the first rule:

  • Believe God: Follow God’s directions when He gives them to you, or someone you know (if applicable)

It still wasn’t a lot to work with, but it was something.

The phrases from other parts of the Old Testament (not Genesis) that I felt could have been passed down were:

“ … And what does the LORD require of you

But to do justly,

To love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

“ … His compassions fail not.

They are new every morning;

Great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

These little bits of wisdom and knowledge, coupled together with the stories Joseph would have heard of God from his father and forefathers, created a strong enough “prequel” to Judaism, one that I felt could logically serve as the basis for faith in this story.

When you read it, I hope you’ll agree!

Do you have any specific questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below and I’ll answer, or even make a post on it! Also, don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .

The Writing System That Drove 19th Century Europe Up the Wall


 Someone at some point probably told you that hieroglyphs are “picture writing”. As in, one image means one word and another means a different word, and so on and so forth.

Here’s the problem.

That’s true.

It’s also not true.

The hieroglyphic writing system was such a crazily complex system that it’s a wonder to me that anyone ever figured out how to read it after it fell into disuse. But the fact of the matter is, it worked for the Egyptians – it was in use for over 2,000 years.

Now, granted, a more everyday system called hieratic was also in use, but it was structurally very similar. The only thing that really changed was how complicated the shapes were.

So let’s take a brief look at how hieroglyphs work, with the goal of uncovering why it took so long for scholars to decipher them.

The first issue, to be frank, is that the scholars thought exactly what the layperson today has been told to think – that hieroglyphs are “picture writing”. And I’m sure we can all see where they got that idea; I mean, just look at them.

The problem is if you set about reading hieroglyphs this way you come to the very quick conclusion that there’s no way a hieroglyph can always mean whatever it is a picture of. Otherwise, you get sentences like “crocodile squiggly line some kind of bird kneeling man circle with a dot in the middle”.

So people tried and failed for almost two thousand years to sort these things out because there was no way this lunacy was what the Egyptians were bothering to write down, but there was also no way to figure out what they were really saying, either.

Enter the Rosetta Stone.

Even if you don’t know what it is, you’ve probably heard of this thing – and it was this thing that blew the door open on deciphering hieroglyphs. And we’ve got Napoleon of all people to thank for finding it. Yes, that Napoleon. In 1799 his army was marching through Egypt and came across The Stone That Changed Everything.

Because on the Rosetta Stone was the same message in three different writing systems. Ancient Greek, which was already understood and interpretable, hieroglyphs, and a third writing system from Egypt called demotic, which we won’t discuss here. We have enough on our hands.

Once the linguists got ahold of the stone and/or copies of what was on it, they went hog-wild trying (and failing) to decipher it, but there were, in time, two critical breakthroughs that eventually occurred:

One: The thought that a circled group of hieroglyphs, called a cartouche, might signify an important name – one that was already known in the historical record.

Two: The thought that Coptic, an ancient language used in the Coptic Church (like Latin in the Catholic Church) was a descendant of Ancient Egyptian, and could therefore be helpful in translation.

Both of these thoughts turned out to be true.

Over the ensuing years, there were plenty of breakthroughs but also quite a bit of incorrect translation, owing to the complexities of hieroglyphs. However, having historical names to look for and Coptic words to provide reference vocabulary helped linguists painstakingly begin to understand the system, through intense trial and error. In the end, the basic rules of the system are known to be these:

  1. A hieroglyph may stand for a sound
  2. A hieroglyph may stand for a syllable
  3. A hieroglyph that usually stands for a sound or syllable may sometimes stand for an idea (WHEE, now it’s getting fun)
  4. A hieroglyph that usually stands for a sound or syllable and/or idea may sometimes stand for none of those, and instead be a “determinative” – a clarifying symbol that is not pronounced and simply further describes a word (WHEE ARE YOU HAVING FUN YET??)
  5. Hieroglyphs may be written in any direction you wish (SO MUCH FUN!!)

From this I think you can see why it took so long to decipher these things. I have to hand it to these guys who slogged though copies of texts and Coptic reference wordlists and incorrect translations for years to get this all figured out.

Gentlemen, I salute you.

Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .

Your Guide to Ancient Egypt (Part 3)

What changed and what didn’t over the centuries

Well, today we are back to finish off our Timeline of Ancient Egypt! Let’s crank this out. For reference, last time we made it up to the Middle Kingdom. So that means we now have to talk about:

The Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550 BC)

The Second Intermediate Period was a weird time. Basically, a culture called the Hyksos, probably from the modern Levant (Canaan during the Bronze Age), came in and took over the northern parts of Egypt. Now before all you people who know the Moses story get excited, these were not the Hebrews.

Some people interested in trying to date the Bible place the Joseph story during this time period. This makes zero sense to me (I’ll talk about this in another post).

Highlights of the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC)

Eventually the Egyptians kicked the Hyksos out and had full control over Egypt again. Welcome to the New Kingdom!

King Tut’s treasure survived because his tomb (not a pyramid) was invisible to thieves. Here’s his gold-covered chair. Because he could.

NO MORE PYRAMIDS – If a movie is set in the New Kingdom and someone is building a pyramid, they. Are. So. Wrong. Society realized that pyramids were basically big signs saying: “HEY A RICH PERSON IS BURIED HERE WITH LOTS OF GOLD, WANNA SEE???” Unsurprisingly, pyramids were getting robbed left and right, so they moved to much more austere (from the outside) and easily hidden tombs. The famous Valley of the Kings is the site of many New Kingdom burials.

ALL THE PEOPLE YOU’VE HEARD OF (EXCEPT CLEOPATRA) – The New Kingdom has an impressive assortment of famous Kings and Queens. While you might not be able to name them off the top of your head, I’d bet some of these names sound familiar: Rameses, Tutankhamun, Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Thutmose, Seti, Hatshepsut, and Tiye.

THOSE WHITE SKIRTS GOT WEIRD – The shendyt continues, except it gets super pleat-y. That’s right. The more folds and bunches, the better. If I ever see a Hollywood costume designer actually do this, I’ll eat my hat.

ALL THE GOLD – Remember when I said that in the Middle Kingdom, you can’t imagine dudes with solid gold collar-necklaces and cuff bracelets? Now is the time, my friends. Go wild.

The Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 BC)

Here we come to somewhat of a mystery. If you’ve studied ancient history, you may have heard of The Bronze Age Collapse. Basically, every civilization in the Middle East fell apart, and historians don’t really know why – they only know that it happened.

The Third Intermediate Period coincides with The Bronze Age Collapse, and continues onward in time with various civil wars and different rulers in different parts of the country.

The Late Period (664-332 BC)

Unfortunately, the New Kingdom was the last big hurrah of Ancient Egypt. The Late Period is a time where, although Egyptian culture flourished, rulers were often from a foreign, conquering people, such as the Nubians or Persians.

I think this is important to note, though. Remember how we talked about Egypt presenting a consistent face to the outside world, no matter what was going on internally? It’s happening right here.

The Late Period came to an end when Alexander the Great came knocking in 332 BC.


And thus began Hellenistic (Greek) Egypt, and the dynasty in power, the Ptolemies, was Greek in origin. Cleopatra, the last great Ptolemy, had a Greek father, although questions remain about the heritage of her mother. She was known for embracing Ancient Egyptian culture despite her heritage, the last Pharaoh to show the face of Ancient Egypt to the world. She died in 30 BC.

I hope this three-part series gives you a taste of Ancient Egyptian history – enough of a taste to feel more confident when watching a movie or documentary on the subject! Join me next time for my addendum to this topic – Hieroglyphs.

Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .

Your Guide to Ancient Egypt (Part 2)

What changed and what didn’t over the centuries

Okay folks, it’s go time. Let’s dive into this oft-referenced and oft-misrepresented ancient society.

So one of the first things you need to know is that Ancient Egyptians divided their country into two areas. Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Now, this is not a reference to north and south, it’s a reference to the way the Nile (the center of all Egyptian life) flows. It flows from south to north. So Upper Egypt is southwards, nearer the headwaters, and Lower Egypt is northwards, nearer the Mediterranean Sea.

A lot of historians set the beginning of Egypt as the moment when the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were unified, around 3100 BC.  But the “Old Kingdom”, the first era we laypeople really associate with Ancient Egypt, started around 2686 BC.

Highlights of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC)

PYRAMIDS – Yes, pyramids. These guys loved their pyramids and spent centuries trying to get them to stand up. I have some examples here. They were not always successful at the beginning!

THOSE WHITE SKIRTS – You know how in every movie set in Ancient Egypt, all the dudes are wearing those white skirts (the Egyptian term was shendyt)? Clothes are a fun way to check a movie’s production design for historical accuracy. In the Old Kingdom, the shendyt was knee-length, which is probably what you were envisioning in your head. If they’re wearing that length and the movie is set any later in time, the costume designer got it wrong, since the style later changed.

IMHOTEP – If you’ve ever seen The Mummy (the one with Brendan Fraser, I can’t speak for the Tom Cruise travesty that came out recently, haven’t seen it), you probably have memories of guys walking around chanting “Imhotep” – the name of the titular mummy. In the movie, he was a high-ranking official who got in trouble. In real life, he was a high-ranking official who didn’t get in trouble. He was an architect and was later said to be a physician and man of great wisdom – so much so that he was deified long after his death, despite there being no real record of him having any skills in these areas!

The First Intermediate Period (2181-2055 BC)

Honestly, you could take the word “Intermediate” out and put the word “Boring” in and it wouldn’t make any difference to me. This is why I’m not a historian.

Basically, any “Intermediate Period” is a time of disunion and upheaval. There were several factors that made Egypt fall apart during this time, but I’ll mention two. The first reason is that the Nile flooding cycle went haywire. This is important because the Nile is a Really Nice River that floods on a lovely timetable (most of the time), to water all the fields. This was an advantage that Egypt had over all the other ancient civilizations, that had Really Not Nice Rivers that flooded more randomly. This is one of the reasons Ancient Egypt lasted so long. When the Nile flooding cycle breaks down, chaos ensues.

The second reason is that Ancient Egypt had gotten advanced enough to have what are called nomes and nomarchs. I mention this because it is important in my story. A nome is like a province, and a nomarch is like a provincial governor. During the First Intermediate Period, the nomarchs got way too much power, to the point where they had armies of their own and started marching their guys all over the kingdom to fight other nomarchs.

Highlights of the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BC)

We have arrived! Here is my sweet spot, where I set my story.

MORE PYRAMIDS – Yes, they kept on building these things, but none of them are intact. (That’s right, every intact pyramid we have today is from the Old Kingdom).

RELIGION – In the Middle Kingdom, the populace became more and more concerned about their comfort in the afterlife, maybe because of the chaos of the First Intermediate Period. As Egyptians focused more on death and what awaited them in the beyond, the general populace took a greater interest in burial traditions. Osiris, the god of the dead, became a very popular deity.

THOSE WHITE SKIRTS – The shendyt lengthened to mid-calf and stayed that way after this time period. Watch those costume designers carefully!

Pectoral and necklace of Princess Sithathoriunet. Image courtesy of The Met.

BOMB JEWELRY-MAKING SKILLS – So go back to the image in your head of the Ancient Egyptian guy and his white skirt. If he’s wearing a solid gold collar around his neck and solid gold cuff bracelets (typical Hollywood imagery) you’ve got the wrong time period (hint: that’s New Kingdom). The Middle Kingdom has some of the most delicate jewelry work in the ancient world. A lot of it was beadwork and when gold was used, it wasn’t in huge plates. Take a look at this lovely example, worn by a real-life person who is also a character in my story!

THE MYSTERIOUS IJTAWY – Archeologists and historians know the general location of this Middle Kingdom capital. There’s even evidence in satellite imagery of where it once was. They just haven’t excavated yet.

Whew! I think I’ve given you enough information for today! Join me next time when we finish the timeline. In the post after that, we’ll talk a bit about Hieroglyphs, The Writing System That Drove 19th Century Europe Up The Wall.

Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .

Your Guide to Ancient Egypt (Part 1)

Why does Egypt sit so clearly in our cultural consciousness?

Okay. So after winning the poll (by a nose), you’re getting a multi-part ”Brief Overview of Ancient Egypt”.

I include the word brief despite also saying “multi-part” because we’re talking about 4,000 years of history here and despite whatever I can say about it, I don’t dare pretend that I can provide you with even a fraction of the information available on this fascinating ancient civilization. What I can provide you with is some interesting tidbits I discovered during my research, and I think you’ll come out of it with a better understanding of this culture that is pretty revered by Western Civilization, almost on par with Greece and Rome.

Interestingly, despite this reverence, we here in the US don’t really come out of the school system with any great knowledge of Ancient Egypt. We all know that there were mummies and pyramids, and King Tut and hieroglyphs. Cleopatra and the Nile River. Before I started my research, I didn’t know much more than that myself.

Now, to be fair to us all, despite all our overall greater reverence of Greece and Rome in Western cultures, I bet you can’t name one Greek king (besides Alexander the Great, who wasn’t technically Greek). You may know the name of the river that runs though Rome, or one or two Roman Emperors. But if we’re talking ancient civilizations, despite the impact of Greece on mathematics, science, philosophy, and government systems, and the impact on Rome on Christianity and Europe as a continent, the average US Citizen could probably list out more factoids on Egypt than any other ancient civilization.

MVP. Keeping Egypt fresh in the minds of moviegoers for almost 100 years.

Why is this? Why does the thought of Egypt invite so much intrigue and interest as to supersede Greece and Rome?

Well, firstly I guess we have to thank the mummies and whoever it was who had the idea to make them chase people around in movies.

But after that, I think we have to thank – say it with me now – long term cultural homogeneity.

Meaning, unlike Greece, Rome, and even Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt’s cultural “fingerprint” remained almost unchanged for thousands of years, at least as it appeared to outsiders.

This is important, so I’ll back up.

Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome were all important civilizations for hundreds, even thousands of years. But within those years, those civilizations changed writing systems, languages, religions, ruling cultures, governmental systems – nothing was safe from an overhaul, forced or otherwise.

Egypt, while it had its times of upheaval, in the long run, dramatically changed none of these things. So it looms large in the writings of other cultures through the centuries, in the archaeological discoveries in Africa and the Middle East, in the historical record itself. Egypt stands. Egypt remains. Egypt is.

I’ll put it into perspective. I think we’ve all heard of Cleopatra. You may have even heard her described as the last Egyptian Pharaoh (she was actually at least half-Greek, but we can talk about that another time).

Cleopatra died in 30 BC.

The Great Pyramid of Giza near modern Cairo was built around 2570 BC.

Cleopatra lived closer in time to us than she did to the building of the Great Pyramid.

Think about that.

In the millennia leading up to Cleopatra, we are talking about over 2,500 years of a culture that, while it might change in its “smaller” particulars, never changes the face it shows to the outside world. What other culture on earth can say this?

It is no wonder that Egypt looms large in our cultural consciousness!

To leave off for today, I’ll provide you with the standard timeline historians use to demarcate the eras of this extraordinarily long-lived society. Over the next few blog posts, you’ll learn a little bit about each period – you might even learn to spot inconsistencies in movies set in Egypt, which is one of the most fun things I’ve found I’ve been able to do since researching. It’s not as hard as you think!

2686-2181 BC – Old Kingdom (This is when the Pyramids at Giza were built. Those things are OLD.)

2181-2055 BC – 1st Intermediate Period (Any time you see the phrase “intermediate period”, think “upheaval”.)

2055-1650 BC – Middle Kingdom (I set my story during this somewhat overlooked era. More on why in the future.)

1650-1550 BC – 2nd Intermediate Period

1550-1069 BC – New Kingdom (This is when good old King Tut was around. Please observe how far removed in time he is from the Pyramids at Giza!)

1069-664 BC – 3rd Intermediate Period

664-332 BC – Late Period (After which Alexander the Great arrives, sets up a Greek government, and the at-least-part-Greek Cleopatra comes along.)

Again, take a look at the crazy timespan of this civilization!

In the next couple posts I’ll give you a quick rundown of these eras, focusing on pointing out how things changed between them. Maybe you’ll be finding inconsistencies in movies yourself soon!

Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .