Pharaonic Egypt

The most striking aspects of the country at this time were the attention life life after death and the many gods who were adored there, both in human and animal form.

Life after death

The most conspicuous feature of ancient Egypt is the extreme concern with life after death. This is best exemplified by the pyramids, especially the largest ones in Giza, and the innumerable Egyptian mummies. In early times, most graves were quite simple and the dead were not mummified. But they were given many funerary gifts, characteristic of which are the stone vases made skilfully and laboriously with a manual drill. They have been manufactured so meticulously that today they could hardly be improved upon. Tools were made of flint, as copper and bronze were not yet in common use. Pottery was built up by hand, without a potter's wheel.
The Egyptians believed that, in certain conditions, life continued unchanged after death. The main requirement was that the Ka or soul of the deceased was given a physical resting place. It could be in the shape of a statue or of nothing more than a relief with a portrait of the deceased. However, the most desirable solution was to preserve the dead body. As long as corpses were buried in the warm desert sand the preservation process took place automatically, but when graves became more complicated structures with stone chambers and wooden or stone sarcophagi the burial conditions altered greatly and the Egyptians developed mummification into a true art.


In short, the process of mummification is as follows: the organs which decompose most quickly, like the intestines, are removed, treated separately, and stored apart in so-called canopic jars. Next, the corpse is placed in natron salt for dehydration. It is later perfumed, oiled and swathed in many metres of linen bands. The most elaborate treatment was reserved, of course, for kings, and their mummies have as a rule been best preserved.    
Animals (APM12973) were mummified too, though for other reasons. Particularly during the Late Period many different species, sometimes in large numbers, were treated so they could be offered to the appropriate gods. There are indications that animals were specially bred and slaughtered for this purpose.

Funerary gifts

Objects of everyday use like furniture, clothing, jewellery, weapons and boats were given to the dead for use in the hereafter. Sometimes the gifts are the actual objects themselves, but more often they are in the shape of models. The deceased also needed food. This could be either real food, like the fruit, vegetables, bread and meat which have been discovered in graves, or models of food, or even representations which functioned magically.
The most characteristic Egyptian grave furnishing comprises coffins, most of which are made of wood. Instead of being rectangular, some of them reproduce the general outline of the body. The more luxurious were cut out of stone
Other common funerary gifts include small mummy-shaped figurines, shabtis (APM08811). Also statues of Ptah-Sokaris-Osiris are met in graves. Many of them are furnished with rolls of the Book of the Dead which magically guided the deceased on the journey to the underworld, after passing the Judgment of the Dead. The text contains, among other things, written spells which open doors and allow safe passage past hideous guardsmen and other obstacles like rivers and fire.

Gods and temples

A striking feature of Egyptian religion is the large number of gods. The pharaoh Akhenaten tried to put an end to their multiplicity by replacing them with a single deity, the solar disc Aten. He was not entirely successful, however, and after his death the old religious institutions were reinstated.
In Egyptian religion it is necessary to distinguish between the official state cult and the beliefs of the common people. The rituals of the state cult were practised by many priests in extensive temple complexes from which the great majority of Egyptians were excluded. In contrast to mosques and churches the Egyptian temples were not places for public worship, but large precincts which were separated from their surroundings by high walls. This reflected the Egyptian concept of the temple: it was thought that the cosmos (the Egyptian term Ma'at) was literally kept in motion by the daily repetition of ritual acts like the singing of hymns to the accompaniment of a sistrum or ritual rattle (APM13000) before the god within the microcosm of the temple. Formally, the pharaoh was the high priest of all the kingdom's gods, the one who brought offerings to them, while in practice he delegated this duty to the priestly class
Unauthorized people were therefore not welcome inside the walls. The Egyptian temple has been compared to a modern electricity or nuclear plant: essential for society but not open to laymen. It was possible for the uninitiated to catch a glimpse of a god only at festivals, which as a rule took place once a year, when the divine statue was carried outside the compound in solemn procession.

Household gods

Not surprisingly, most Egyptians turned to more accessible deities. The average Egyptian had domestic gods to whom he could pray, like the divine dwarf Bes, and wore protective amulets, among others, the Horus eye. In contrast, the divine family of the death god Osiris was widely popular, including his wife the maternal goddess Isis and their son Horus.
Essentially, the religion of ancient Egypt was nature worship: all kinds of natural phenomena and environmental elements were considered divine. Among them figured the sun and the Nile, vegetation and desert, and above all animals like the falcon, ibis, bull, baboon, crocodile, cat, and even fish and scarab beetle. Over time, the pantheon came to include deified humans and, owing to international contacts, foreign gods.

  • The Great Pyramid of Kheops in Giza, with one of the Queens’ pyramids on the right.

Items related to this story