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 .

That Time I Stretched the Research

Now about those horses

Okay, so after my #bronzeageproblems post you can probably see pretty easily all the unexpected difficulty that comes with setting a story in a time period that is in many ways very alien to our own. And unfortunately the Bronze Age had one more curveball to throw at me.

The horses.

Oh, the horses.

So, the first attestation we have of horses in Egypt dates to around 1700 BC, during a time called The Second Intermediate Period. This is less than two hundred years after my setting for the Joseph story, but it’s still off. That said, the first domestication of horses in general probably took place on the Eurasian Steppes around two thousand years prior to that, and horses had made it to Mesopotamia by 2000 BC.

Now, I had already planned for horses to be a decently large plot point in the story, so you can (once again) imagine my groans when I found this out. Domesticated horses exist, just not in the right place.

Ugh.

Here’s the deal though. Our records of Egyptian history can be pretty thorough in some regards, and insanely spotty in others.

Want proof? After Cleopatra, if you’re forced to think of another Egyptian Queen, you might come up with Hatshepsut. Who was she? Like Cleopatra, she was a lady with drive. She married her half-brother (yes, moving on) the Pharaoh Thutmose II, and when he died, she decided that she would be Pharaoh instead of Thutmose III, her stepson and nephew (YES MOVING ON, Egyptian royalty is worse than the Hapsburgs). She reigned for about 22 years.

This beautiful and shockingly modern-looking temple was built for Hatshepsut. My favorite ancient building! 🙂

After her death, Thutmose III and others completed one of the most thorough damnatio memoriae campaigns known to history, (literally) scrubbing her name and likeness from inscriptions and monuments the length of Egypt. It took centuries for Egyptologists to tease out the clues, hints and signs left over of her existence so that we can now tell her story. This practice was common in Ancient Egypt, though not usually on such a large scale.

To come full circle, the point is – ancient humans created cracks in our knowledge of Ancient Egypt. So can time, and sand. New discoveries and new mysteries are uncovered in the realm of Egyptology all the time.

So did I sweat over the idea of stretching the research by including horses in the story as a curiosity owned by the mega-rich in Egypt?

Yes.

Did I still do it?

Yes. 😉

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 .

#bronzeageproblems

The Middle East 4,000 years ago

I’ll probably do a #supernerd post at some point about why I chose to date my Joseph retelling during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (12th Dynasty), but for now I don’t think anyone actually interested in dating the Bible would have any argument over the story taking place during the Bronze Age.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like setting a story during this time period would be much of an issue. After all, we’ve all seen Gladiator, or Ben Hur, or Cleopatra, or 300, or The Ten Commandments, etc. Just put a bunch of dudes wearing sandals and dresses walking around and no modern houses or weapons and you’re good. Right?

Wrong.

If you want to actually write a story set in the Bronze Age (and, for reference, the majority of those movies are actually set thousands of years after that, during the Iron Age) you run up against some very unusual problems.

The first issue I came across was actually a matter of vocabulary. One of my favorite expressions (picked up from my boy JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings) to use when writing in a more old-fashioned style is: “he steeled himself”. Translation: “he put his game face on”.

Only one problem, folks.

There’s no steel in this story because it’s The Bronze Age.

It took me a bit to realize that this expression originated from the very concept of steel and would not be available for me to use while writing this book. Honestly, it’s actually pretty easy to let this sort of mistake slip by – I once saw the term “emotional rollercoaster” used in a historical fiction story. Heh.

So, on to other weird problems.

Like writing. Yes, writing.

During the Bronze Age in the Middle East and surrounding environs, we had two main power centers – Egypt and whatever the heck civilization was in vogue at the moment in Mesopotamia (as in, we had a smorgasbord of multiple Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian Empires, etc.). Egypt wrote with hieroglyphs (and more, but we can talk about that later), and Mesopotamia thankfully stuck to using cuneiform despite playing constant Russian Roulette with the power structure.

But Canaan? The place where Joseph spent a lot of time growing up?

We have no recorded writing systems, period, for almost the entirety of the Bronze Age (be happy they finally figured it out though; the one they finally got around to making is the ancestor of the alphabet I’m using right now).

This left me up a narrative creek as there was no way I was going to have Joseph be a foreign, non-Egyptian speaking, illiterate slave and somehow end up in charge of his master’s house. That’s too many strikes against the guy and would just be goofy storytelling.

My way out was found by looking further back in the Genesis account. See, Joseph’s great-grandfather was a guy named Abraham. You may have heard of him. Guess where he was from?

Mesopotamia.

Bingo! There aren’t many narrative gymnastics involved in assuming the family would teach each new generation the writing skills brought from their homeland.

The last thing I’ll be talking about today is money.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, in the Bronze Age there was no money.

You can probably imagine my groaning when I found that out.

Especially given the narrative in Genesis, where Joseph is specifically sold by his brothers for twenty pieces of silver. At this point my head was spinning, trying to figure out how to reconcile all of this. What are silver coins doing at a time when there’s no coins?

You might have heard of the shekel. It’s the currency of the modern state of Israel, and the name of an ancient “monetary” unit seen over and over in the Bible and mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi. Guess what the root of the word means? To weigh.

So get this. Any time “coinage” is mentioned in Genesis, it’s not coinage as we think of it. It’s a value based on the weight of the metal exchanged.

A similar system was present in ancient Egypt, called the deben. There could be copper deben, silver deben, etc. But the copper deben was way bigger than the silver deben, which would be bigger than the gold deben. There could even be lead deben (eek).

I hope this gives you a hint at just how very differently some aspects of society we take for granted were dealt with during the Bronze Age. Though I haven’t talked about the horses yet, have I?  

I’ll leave off here for now, and I think next time I’ll be talking about the horses (i.e. That Time I Stretched the Research).

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 .

Real Humanity.

Uncovering the story inside the Biblical narrative

The Bible is not written as a novel. Most narratives in the Bible go over the events needed to comprehend the message or information in bare-bones, rapid-fire succession. No fluff involved, no discussion of motives, internal conflict, or thought processes. The Joseph account in Genesis is unique in that it is one of the longest continuous narratives in the Bible, but even it gives very little in the way of discussing these storytelling necessities.

As I mentioned in my first post, it was important to me not to deviate from any point recorded in Genesis (the book of the Bible the story appears in). This became my biggest challenge – to come up with consistent character traits and motivations that would lead characters to take the recorded actions. I felt like an archaeologist, piecing together ancient clues that could lead me to a bigger, more complete picture of the story.

What I found was nothing short of some extraordinary opportunities for true character-based conflict and drama.

The Joseph story is many people’s favorite Bible story (and one of the most retold) for many reasons. But I’d bet most people would point to the rags-to-riches story or the fact that Joseph gets to play mind games with his unsuspecting brothers (who don’t recognize him) after he’s become the uber-rich second in command to the Pharaoh, if pressed to give an exact reason. And those are good reasons. That’s excellent drama. But digging through the events and actions to find the character moments that went alongside them led me to some incredibly raw realizations about the story of this man’s life. Realizations that made the story I had grown up with both richer and more heartwrenching.

Realizations such as:

1.

Joseph was a smart guy. If you read the account, you see this immediately. He keeps getting put in charge of things – and people don’t put incapable people in charge of their stuff. Especially not incapable foreigners (remember, Joseph was sold into Egypt, a foreign country) during the Bronze Age, a time when cultural exchange could be very minimal.

One of the biggest “huh?” moments for me as I grew up with the story was the bit where Joseph tells his brothers he’s having dreams of greatness, where he will be in charge of all of them. Obviously, his much older (and dangerous, read Genesis 34) brothers, who already disliked him for being the favorite, hate this.

My question was then: “Why is the smart guy telling this to his brothers like an idiot?” Please note, in the narrative he does it twice, meaning it was not a slip of tongue. Seems like a pretty dumb thing to do.

I wracked my brain, trying to come up with the motivation behind the idiocy of the smart guy.

Then it came to me. What if he said those things to spite them?

Remember, the narrative records important actions. We know that his brothers were being jerks to him for years before it gets to this point. I’d say a fed-up seventeen-year-old, smart or not, would definitely tell his jerk brothers he was having prophetic dreams where he would be in charge of them, if push came to shove.

The story of Joseph that we’ve all heard for years paints him as this perfect guy. I’d say – not so.

Not by a long shot.

2.

You may recall that Joseph ends up in an Egyptian prison for a time. You may also recall why. If you don’t:

His Egyptian master’s wife thought that he was pretty cute and things spiraled from there – to the point where she accused him of attempted rape as revenge for his repeated resistance to her demands that she sleep with him.

Now, being in prison for a false rape accusation is enough to mentally destroy any decent person. However:

Remember when I mentioned Genesis 34? It’s not a story you would have been told in Sunday school.

Joseph’s sister was raped when they were growing up. Some of his brothers took it upon themselves to murder every man in the town where she was raped. Then the brothers forced all the women and the children from the town to follow Joseph’s (nomadic) family around.

Imagine how those people treated Joseph’s sister, the young woman who would work beside them every day.

Would it be unjust of them to blame the victim?

Yes.

Would it be a common human reaction?

Very.

Imagine his sister’s torment. Imagine being unjustly imprisoned for rape when your sister’s life had been destroyed by it.

These are challengingly horrible, raw concepts.

3.

Joseph lived in Egypt for 22 years before he saw hide or hair of anyone from his family again.

When I started researching the Bronze Age, it became very clear that there was no way that Joseph and the Egyptians would speak the same language. This led to some very interesting storytelling opportunities throughout the novel.

Think of it this way:

Welcome to Egypt. No one understands you and you don’t understand anyone either.

Learn Egyptian fast!

You can only speak this foreign language for 22 years.

You can also only hear this foreign language for 22 years.

Whoops! 22 years have passed and your family is back.

Speak your original language now.

Good luck and have fun!

4.

To top everything off in Joseph’s life, even after he got let out of prison and was made second-in-command and got everything that came with that sort of cushy job, there was one more curveball to be thrown at the poor guy.

Marriage.

Yes, you read right.

We get one verse on Joseph’s marriage. Genesis 41:45. “…and [Pharaoh] gave him as a wife Asenath, daughter of Potiphera priest of On.”

Phraraoh gave him. Not “Joseph eventually met a cute rich girl and they dated for a while and then got married.”

Nope. This, folks, has all the hallmarks of an arranged marriage. Pharaoh did this on purpose to legitimize his foreign second-in-command who didn’t follow the Egyptian religion.

I pity them both, but I have to say – put yourself in Asenath’s head for a minute:

Here’s your husband. Foreigner from a shepherding family from Nowheresville, Canaan. Former slave, former prisoner, and formerly accused of rape.

Lady and gentleman: Good luck.


I hope this gives everyone a taste of the opportunities to show raw moments of humanity in this story, and just how richly woven its textures are, if you look beyond the actions to find the motives behind them, and the ripple effects they cause amongst the characters. I’ll have individual posts coming up on these story topics and their connections to my historical research in the upcoming days and weeks, as while as other research and storytelling topics. I look forward to sharing this incredible story with you all!

See you 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 .)

Real Faith.

Why I chose to retell one of the most retold stories in the Bible

Imagine you’re back in Sunday School, sitting down with all your friends and watching the volunteer parent who teaches the class smile over the flannelgraph. (Or, if you never went to Sunday School, just imagine yourself in a smallish room with too many little friends around you, and an adult who doesn’t want to mess this up running the class.) “Now, friends,” (s)he says, holding up a flannel image of a teenager in what looks like a rainbow bathrobe: “This is Joseph.”

Joseph is plastered to the flannelgraph, and the parent puts up a flannel group of angry men next to him. “His brothers hated him because his father gave him a beautiful coat. They threw him in a pit and sold him as a slave!”

Appreciative gasps echo from the crowd of five-year-olds – even kids know that good drama comes from torturing your characters.

“His master threw him in prison – ” (we necessarily skip why) “– but one day Pharaoh had a dream!”

Flannel Pharaoh appears, slapped on the flannelgraph, wearing a white skirt and lots of bling.

“Joseph interpreted the dream, and Pharaoh made him his second-in-command. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt looking for food in a famine, Joseph helped them. And you know what, friends?” The parent looks around with a grin. “Joseph never lost his faith in God! Isn’t that amazing?”

You and your friends nod solemnly. What a guy.

You probably hear this story at least once a year in Sunday School, with more detail added each time, but by the time you’re a worldly-wise sixth grader, you start to nod a little less and frown a little more.

You know the story like the back of your hand.

But it doesn’t make any sense anymore.

The truth is that this version of Joseph, whose flannel avatar has been waved in your face for years, this icon of the Sunday-School world, isn’t a person to emulate. He can’t be emulated.

Because the story of a man who faced every unthinkable hardship thrown his way with a smile on his face and praise on his lips and forgiveness in his heart is. Not. A. Story. Of. Real. Faith.

You want real faith? Look at the guy who talked to Jesus in Mark Chapter 9. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Translation: “I know I’m supposed to trust You, but in this moment, I don’t. Please help me out!”

Humans aren’t perfect. Why then are we shown a perfect Joseph?

Various adaptations of the Joseph story have tried their hand at mitigating this problem. For the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the whole thing is played so humorously that character exploration ranks at exactly nil, and no one questions anything Joseph does. For the perennial Sunday-School favorite Joseph: King of Dreams cartoon movie, God and faith are taken mostly out of the story, so Joseph is free to be an “ordinary person” (Do you see the problem with this last idea? I hope you do. faith ≠ superhuman).

Other adaptations have tried as well, but this fantasy and science fiction writer had yet to see an adaptation where the story was told, exactly as it was in the Old Testament, while carefully building around the narrative to show the raw humanity, faith, and lack of faith of the people in the story.

I challenged myself to do it – firstly because I loved the story (remember, torturing characters = good drama, and boy does Joseph get the – extremely – short end of the stick for a good chunk of his life) and secondly, because I knew it would be an insane ride:

Maintain Biblical accuracy? Check.

Maintain historical accuracy? Check.

Find logical, character-based, human reasons for each action recorded in the Old Testament account? Check.

Still get Joseph to the point at the end of the story where he is able to forgive his brothers and see that God’s hand had been at work? Hoo boy. Check.

It was crazy, but I had an absolute blast.

Come, follow me through my next blog entries, and I’ll tell you all about it!