Reconciling Egyptians with their ancient past? Analyzing students’ perspectives and curriculum representations of ancient Egyptian history

“The part I hated most at school was having to study ancient Egyptian history.”

“I have no idea why we had to learn all those names and the dates of ancient kings and queens!”

“Why do we have to learn that history? I felt no connection with it whatsoever.”

“Ancient Egyptian beliefs were clearly morally imbalanced.”

***

These were some of the comments I collected during interviews with 40 young Egyptians who had mostly graduated from public schools over the past five to 10 years, representing 12 governorates across Egypt[1]. Although their views on ancient Egypt varied, it is a pity that they were mostly negative or ambivalent at best, because, as many Egyptian and foreign scholars have argued, ancient Egyptian wisdom and belief systems have much to teach us in terms of respect for diversity, for women, other humans, living beings in general, and the environment.

My interviews revealed that young Egyptians have four broadly different views about ancient Egyptian heritage: There are those who are ambivalent, neutral, and do not care much or see any relevance in learning about ancient Egyptian history; those who have a strong pride in, yet superficial knowledge of, ancient Egyptian history (within this category, the majority would feel particularly proud of technological and scientific advancements of ancient Egyptians and their unilateral material influence on other civilizations, but might have reservations about the ancient Egyptian belief system); those with reservations against ancient Egypt as a whole; and finally, those who have a respect and appreciation for the ancient Egyptian civilization based on a deep knowledge and solid understanding of ancient Egypt. It is worth noting that only very few participants fit into the fourth category.

Those who exhibited generally negative feelings toward ancient Egypt often subscribe to one of the following perspectives: There are those who explained that they particularly disliked the rote memorization of ancient Egyptian names, dates and facts that they considered to be irrelevant. Others, mainly drawing on a religious understanding of the world — especially Islamic — stated that ancient Egyptian religious and belief systems were imbalanced, or less morally and ethically evolved than Abrahamic, monotheistic belief systems. Yet another view is expressed by those who explained that they felt that they had no connection with “those ancient people” and questioned the prominence of their history in the school curriculum. Within this third group, much of the criticism stemmed from a sense that the ruling elite might be using ancient Egyptian history to build its own legitimacy — for example, by emphasizing the central role of the military in the ancient roots of the Egyptian nation state.

Revisiting our relationship and reconciling with our ancient history might help to shed light on the root causes of some of our societal tensions and conflicts, and offer some possible remedies. Perhaps this discussion gains its pertinence and timeliness from the increasingly stifling and unproductive polarization of Egyptian society. Such polarization, not foreign to other societies, is pronounced along various lines: socio-economic, religious, or ideological, with intersections of age and other demographics.

The continued relevance of ancient Egyptian knowledge and wisdom are most apparent in how several African-American scholars, spiritual leaders and healers continue to borrow from, and build upon, the rich ancient Egyptian philosophy of Imhotep or Maat’s 42 principles (also known as the Negative Confessions).[2] They attempt to use ancient wisdom to help empower contemporary individuals and communities and allow them to develop better compassion, harmony and respect for the self and others.[3]

In the coming paragraphs, I try to shed light on references and discourses that have contributed to the shaping of a curriculum that does less than it perhaps ought to, to entice Egyptians to discover and understand the relevance of their ancient history. I then propose possible curricular reforms, that could be constructed in ways that revive an understanding of ancient history and that are not centered on nationalistic and religious discourses alone.

Cultural references and broader discourses

Some of the aversion to ancient Egyptian belief systems is apparent in and reinforced by popular culture. For instance, drawing on religious narratives that depict Moses as a symbol of goodness and honesty, and Pharaoh as a symbol of tyranny and untrustworthiness, Egyptians widely use the proverb, “Elli tehseboh Musa yetla’ fer’oan” (He who you consider to be Moses turns out to be a Pharaoh).

These negative views are also reproduced by the educational system in at least two ways—curricular content and teachers’ performance.

It is widely accepted that the Egyptian history curriculum — including ancient Egyptian history — is presented in an uninteresting manner, with a large amount of names and details that students are expected to memorize and regurgitate in their exams. This reality has been critiqued by several advocates over the past decades, including in early 2016, when thousands of women joined a Facebook group titled “Egyptian mothers’ revolt against curricula,” in which they called for curricular reform, mentioning history textbooks in particular, which they perceived to be loaded with dense information. However, while it might be more in evidence within the framework of history education, the premium that is placed on exams and standardized assessments is not unique to this matter, but is rather characteristic of the Egyptian educational system as a whole, which hinders students’ ability to develop critical thinking, genuine interest or curiosity.

Portrayals of ancient Egyptian class structures seem to suggest that lower classes are expected and destined to live simpler lives with fewer resources.

In addition to this information overload, the way that the content is taught in teacher-centered classrooms reinforces negative sentiments toward ancient Egypt. A few of my interviewees highlighted for example that, even in cases when the textbook content was balanced and positive, their teachers portrayed ancient Egyptian history — and especially ancient Egyptian beliefs — in a sarcastic and negative light. One female participant from Fayoum told me, “I understand that teachers want to lighten the content and make it funny, to grab their students’ attention and interest. But this should not come at the expense of mocking ancient belief systems and the role of ancient Egyptian female rulers.” In addition to the way that teachers mocked ancient Egyptian beliefs — emphasizing how they worshipped animals, for instance — female participants especially noted that when male teachers discussed ancient Egyptian queens, they would make sure to convey the message that no country can succeed with a female ruler. This negative application of the curriculum is in contrast to some of the history textbooks’ positive depiction of ancient Egyptian queens. For instance, the textbooks list Hatshepsut’s great achievements, explaining how her dynasty was characterised by peace and stability, impressive architectural projects, and successful trade expeditions.[4]

This curriculum emanates from broader dominant societal discourses that affect the way ancient Egypt is represented and perceived. [5] 

A territorial nationalistic discourse, for example, valorizes Egypt as a nation-state, emphasizes its exceptional role, and proclaims that its unique influence and contribution to humanity was unmatched by any other ancient civilization. It emphasizes a united cultural identity as primordial, and Egyptians as a people who have always identified as Egyptian. It appropriates ancient Egypt as the predecessor of modern-day Egypt, drawing from it legitimacy for modern day structures and institutions. Some of the key defining elements shaping this discourse emerge from analyzing contemporary history textbooks.[6]

For example, ancient Egyptian history is represented in ways that emphasize the resilient nature of the Egyptian nation state, as well as the need for a strong centralized rule to ensure stability.  To illustrate, in highlighting the Intermediate Periods (‘usur al-idmihlaal), there is a strong emphasis on the importance of strong rule, unity and solidarity, so that the country would not fall prey to foreign attacks. As is more explicitly stated in the Grade 7 (Part 1) textbook, the lesson learned is that the weakness of rulers and internal conflicts with regional rulers of provinces allowed foreigners to occupy the country.[7] Similarly, the Grade 10 textbook explains that Egyptians, since ancient times, have realized the importance of a strong, centralized rule that protects their national security.[8]

For example, ancient Egyptian history is represented in ways that emphasize the resilient nature of the Egyptian nation state, as well as the need for a strong centralized rule to ensure stability.

Moreover, social and economic inequalities and gaps between rich and poor Egyptians are represented as a natural characteristic of Egypt that has endured throughout its history. Source material, such as the Grade 7 (Part 2) textbook, often normalizes a static class structure or social pyramid, headed by the Pharaoh ruler and his family, who preside over a class of ministers, then scribes, senior officials and clergy, then junior employees and merchants, with small farmers and cattle herders at the very bottom. The same textbook explains that while Egyptians dressed in local linen and built small houses of one or two levels[9], rich people dressed in silk imported from Phoenicia; the houses of the poor were built of clay, unlike the rich, whose large houses were surrounded with lush gardens.[10] The same message is re-emphasized in the Grade 10 textbook.[11] As part of this discussion, the Grade 10 textbook rhetorically asks students, “Can people be one class?” afterwards proposing that students explain “the difference between class division (taqseem tabaqi) and class discrimination (tamyeez tabaqi).” It then asks, “How does someone move from one class to another?”[12] By drawing such an elusive distinction and implying that class discrimination is an avoidable manifestation of the more normal class division, the textbooks arguably normalize — and potentially valorize — the concept of class division in society. Additionally, within this normalized class division, the portrayals of ancient Egyptian class structures seem to suggest that lower classes are expected and destined to live simpler lives with fewer resources. These normalized societal hierarchies are only problematized when the ruling class happens to be non-Egyptian, such as in the case of the Ptolemaic rule of Egypt; in that case only, students are encouraged to discuss the issue of racial discrimination with their teachers in Grade 10.[13] Similarly, in the case of Roman rule, by presenting the social pyramid with Egyptians at the bottom, students are asked what they think and, “Why were Greeks higher than Egyptians [in the social pyramid]?”[14]

Textbooks also highlight the significance of ancient Egyptians’ unilateral influence on other civilizations, which clearly feeds into a false sense of supremacy and self-aggrandizement. For instance, the Grade 10 textbook states that, “Egypt was the spiritual and economic source for the rest of Africa during all of the ancient dynasties.”[15] Similarly, the textbook emphasizes Egypt’s unilateral influence on ancient Phoenicia on several levels related to religious belief, literature, and other aspects.[16] This same narrative is adopted when discussing ancient Egyptian influences on ancient Greece[17] and ancient Rome.[18] The same textbook highlights how inter-civilizational exchanges allowed Egypt to “spread the light of knowledge and science, influencing both eastern and western civilizations to varying degrees.”[19] In fact, the Grade 10 textbook is explicit in its lesson objectives, stating that it aims for students “to appreciate Egypt’s contributions to ancient Phoenicia and Mesopotamia.”[20] The same textbook declares ancient Egyptian civilization to be “the oldest civilization in the world, which is at least 7,000 years old,”[21] ignoring the many theories and efforts that show that ancient Mesopotamia predated ancient Egyptian civilization. Ancient Mesopotamia’s appearance in the textbook does, however, constitute one of the rare mentions of another civilization’s global influences. The textbooks highlight Mesopotamian influence on Egyptian architecture, art and deities.[22] 

Meanwhile, secular rule is valorized in the curricula, while any religious-based theocratic rule is portrayed as illegitimate, opportunistic and motivated by the “greed of ancient Egyptian clergy” who would exploit the vacuums resulting from internal conflict and chaos. For instance, the Grade 7 (Part 1) textbook explains that, as the powers of ancient Egyptian priests expanded, they illegitimately grabbed the seat of authority, ending the New Kingdom.[23]

This territorial nationalistic discourse tends to confound and confuse historically documented evidence (based on proper historical research) with religious evidence (mainly based on spiritual and transcendental narratives). For instance, when the Egyptian authorities banned the Exodus: Gods and Kings film from being screened, the panel of historians consulted about the decision reportedly issued a statement announcing that the movie did not adhere to the historical facts and details of the Bible and the Quran. Prominent Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy criticized this statement, questioning how a panel purportedly composed of “historians” could base its recommendation on the veracity and accuracy of depictions of the Exodus, an event which is not historically documented. Fahmy was one of very few to highlight this key issue, reminding us that, so far, no physical evidence or historical record of this Biblical and Quranic event is to be found anywhere — including in ancient Egypt’s extremely detailed and well-documented historical records.

Another dominant societal discourse is religious. This discourse’s relationship to ancient Egypt can be defined by two directions that are inherently contradictory. One extreme direction entails an outright rejection of ancient Egyptian history as the pagan, polytheistic history of idolatry and darkness (gahiliyya), that was eventually replaced by the advent of the supreme Abrahamic religions. Calls to demolish ancient Egyptian statues, and milder calls to cover them up with wax — as Islamist leader Abdel Moneim al-Shahat advocated in 2011 — are often associated with this discourse. Another direction entails the appropriation of ancient Egypt in order to present Abrahamic monotheism, especially Islam, as the natural progression and epitome of divine and human evolution. The two discourses — the territorial nationalistic and religious — overlap in some areas, especially in emphasizing and valorizing the Arab and Muslim cultural identity and in mixing transcendental religious narratives with actual historical evidence.

A key aspect of this religious discourse in textbooks is the depiction of Egyptians as “religious by nature.” One of the features of ancient Egyptian civilization is said to be the central role of religion, and the natural inclination of Egyptians to be religious. Greek historian Herodotus is said to have declared that Egyptians were the “most pious” people he had ever encountered.[24] The fact that foreign colonizers often manipulated Egyptians’ religious nature in order to gain their affection and support is cited as evidence of the population’s supposedly inherent piety. For example, Alexander the Great paid tribute to the god Amun upon his arrival in Egypt.[25] Egyptians’ acceptance of Alexander is put into sharp contrast with how the Persians were rejected, largely because of their mistreatment of ancient Egyptian religious symbols.[26] Importantly, however, ancient Egyptians were not simply religious; they always tended towards the ennobled value of monotheism (al-semew ila al-tawhid).[27] This inclination towards monotheism is said to have distinguished Egyptians from other ancient peoples.[28]

Celebrating monotheism while demonizing ancient beliefs and clergy is critical to the religious discourse espoused through Egyptian textbooks. While the belief of ordinary people — including the specific distinction that they were inclined towards monotheism — is portrayed positively, the ancient Egyptian religious establishment is consistently vilified. For example, we only hear about ancient Egyptian clergy when they are vying for power, whether attempting to illegitimately take over from a Pharaoh, as the Grade 7 (Part 1) textbook explains they did with Ramses III,[29] or when resisting Akhenaten’s call to monotheism “out of fear of losing their power and privileges.”[30] Allowing people to worship multiple deities is also presented as a strategy encouraged by Pharaohs to divide and rule. As Grade 7 (Part 1) argues, kings and queens encouraged the multiple regional deities to ensure that no one religious leader enjoyed absolute spiritual authority or amassed too much power over ancient Egyptians.[31] Thus, the ancient religious beliefs, mainly presented as polytheistic, require that students try to understand the logic behind this seemingly primitive or unnatural inclination. For instance, one of the objectives in a Grade 7 (Part 1) lesson is to enable students to “explain reasons for the multiplicity of deities in ancient Egypt” and to discuss this with the teacher.[32] In that sense, monotheism is presented as the inevitable and desired evolution of religion.

While the belief of ordinary people — including the specific distinction that they were inclined towards monotheism — is portrayed positively, the ancient Egyptian religious establishment is consistently vilified.

The propagators of these dominant and exclusionary discourses clearly use ancient Egyptian history for their own purposes, providing a generally unbalanced understanding of ancient Egypt.

Curricular reform

Based on this analysis, I propose some curricular and pedagogical reforms that would help render the ancient Egyptian history content conducive to a more in-depth, inclusive, critical, and thus productive, engagement with this history.

Reviving an understanding of ancient history could give contemporary Egyptians a different way of viewing themselves and their place in history and the world. It could help offer alternatives to purely territorial, nationalistic or religion-based cultural identities or understandings of the world, opening up wider prospects beyond that narrow binary between those dominant discourses. Teaching ancient history — as well as teaching other types of history — in more balanced ways can have direct influences on students’ abilities to develop critical thinking skills, as well as to develop the values of respect for pluralism and diversity.

Several prominent scholars of ancient histories — as is apparent in discussions within academic circles and conferences on ancient Near Eastern civilizations — seem to agree that ancient Egypt did have a more powerful and lasting influence on other civilizations than others had on it. Nonetheless, ancient Egyptian influence should be presented in more balanced ways, something which would avoid giving students a false sense of supremacy vis-à-vis other groups and civilizations. One way to avoid feeding a superficial sense of national superiority would entail dedicating more time to exploring other ancient civilizations and peoples, such as the ancient Mesopotamians, and their contributions to human advancement. This revision would fulfill the already stated objectives of some of the textbooks. For instance, one of the key stated objectives of the Grade 10 textbook is for students to learn to “avoid fanaticism or extremism by appreciating the contributions of various civilizations. The world was not only built by one civilization, or one group, or one language. Each nation made a contribution that history cannot deny.”[33] Additionally, such an approach would possibly motivate students to try to make their own contributions to society and the world, as opposed to falling back on an ancient civilization with its intimidating, unmatchable glory and achievements.

Teaching ancient history — as well as teaching other types of history — in more balanced ways can have direct influences on students’ abilities to develop critical thinking skills, as well as to develop the values of respect for pluralism and diversity.

Existing textbook content could be built upon to introduce the idea that the Abrahamic tradition draws on ancient Egyptian wisdom and belief systems. For instance, Grade 7 (Part 1) presents some of Akhenaten’s prayers to the one god Aten that he called on others to worship, the Arabic translation of which is made to sound extremely similar to Quranic verses, including “Ayuha al-wahid al-ahad, allathi la ilaha ghayruh” (O you one and only God, who there is no God but Him).[34] Also, Grade 7 (Part 2) lists some of Akhenaten’s sayings, using language and terminology which resonate strongly with those of Abrahamic religions.[35] However, it is important to mention ancient Egyptian influences on Abrahamic religious traditions more explicitly. This should help students to better appreciate how even their religious identities as Muslims and Christians, which many seem to view as being diametrically opposed to an ancient Egyptian cultural identity, share common core elements with ancient Egyptians. This would include highlighting core beliefs and overall philosophies, such as that of Maat, with its key principles calling for balance, harmony, and respect for justice, the environment, and all living beings. The textbooks should highlight how many scholars have argued that the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments are largely derived from Maat’s 42 principles. That way, students might begin to better appreciate how, through their search for goodness and justice, ancient Egyptians were able to produce a sophisticated moral code, one which bears many similarities to later manifestations of religion. Some current textbooks, for example, do explicitly highlight cultural continuity, by mentioning the game seega — explaining that it was invented in ancient Egypt but continues to be played today by Egyptians living in rural areas.[36]  However, beyond these references, it is important to acknowledge the more profound spiritual connections and continuities that could be fostered, if we were to help students develop a deeper sense of affinity and connection with ancient history and its influences.

While contemporary curricula are generally positive about ancient Egyptian beliefs, they are mostly presented in a way that is brief and superficial, without providing a fuller context or delving into the philosophies behind these beliefs and practices. For instance, the Grade 10 textbook presents the very complex concept of Maat simply by stating that she was the goddess of honesty and justice, and the symbol adopted by ancient Egyptian courts.[37] Similarly, the textbook lists nine key sayings and pieces of advice from ancient Egypt, although it does not provide any explanation about the source of those sayings.[38] Some questions begin to prompt students to think of connections with Abrahamic religions: “What do you think of that advice? What are the values that this advice points to? Identify the advice that coincides with what Abrahamic religions call for.”[39] These are all good starting points, on the condition that teachers also approach the topics in ways that encourage open, intelligent, and respectful classroom conversations. In that regard, textbooks should not only emphasize commonalities with Christianity and Islam — which some do — but more explicitly highlight the widely acknowledged significant influences of ancient Egyptian beliefs on those latter belief systems.

Meanwhile, the textbooks confuse historically documented evidence with religious (or spiritual and transcendental) narratives, conflating historical evidence with Biblical and Quranic religious narratives. In that vein, the textbooks refer to Joseph’s miracles in ancient Egypt — which are non-historically documented religious narratives — as if they were historically researched and proven events. For example, the Grade 10 history textbook explains how the story of “Prophet Joseph (Youssef) Peace be Upon Him” demonstrates the importance of good governance, central planning and management of resources.[40] A good start to build an alternative approach upon can be found in the same textbook, as it dedicates a few pages to presenting the various sources of historical evidence, clarifying concepts such as primary sources.[41] Similarly, the Grade 4 (Part 2) workbook encourages students to collect information about the annual phenomenon of the sun landing on the face of Ramses II’s statue in Luxor and to research its significance.[42] Importantly, the Grade 10 textbook also articulates the hope that students will “learn how to write a historical article, use historical evidence and proofs, read and analyze [ancient] carvings and drawings.”[43] However, apart from these examples, nowhere do any of the textbooks provide guidance as to how proper historical research is conducted.

Both the curricula and the teaching of the textbooks should also refer to difficult periods within our collective history, such as times of violence and the forced religious conversion of Egyptians. This would include currently omitted discussions of conversions from the ancient Egypt religion to Christianity, and later, from Christianity to Islam. The former case, in particular, is key in order to highlight and restore the value of the ancient Egyptian religious belief systems. Currently, when presenting the conversion from ancient Egyptian religious practices to Christianity, textbooks emphasize the peaceful nature of this conversion, stating that Egyptians voluntarily sought refuge from “the confusion they faced in dealing with multiple Egyptian, Greek, and Roman deities.”[44] Such statements undermine the value and sophistication of the ancient Egyptian religion. Reinstating content related to historical violence which is currently missing from the curriculum could also provide an opportunity for students to discuss violence committed in the name of religion more broadly — including Christianity and Islam — and the dangers of exclusionary supremacist thought and ethnocentrism. Within popular culture, there have been some historical and literary efforts to do this, such as Youssef Zeidan’s Azazeel (2008) highlighting the violence of early Egyptian Christians against adherents of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, or Omar Abdel Geleel’s Tarikh Misr li Yohanna Al-Naqyusi: Ro’ya Qibtiyya lil fat’h Al-Islami (A History of Egypt by John of Nikiou: A Coptic View of the Muslim Conquest, Egyptian General Book Organization, 2003) and Sanaa El Masry’s Hawamish Al-Fat’h Al’Arabi: Hikayaat al-Dukhul (Anecdotes of the Arab Conquest: Stories of the Entry, Sena Publishing, 1996), highlighting the generally silenced violence committed by the conquering Arab Muslim armies and rulers against Egyptian Christians.

Highlighting the multi-racial nature of ancient Egyptians communities, which included Asiatic and Nubian rulers, is another key intervention. One of my participants asked, “Who are we as Egyptians, ethnically speaking? I wish that in school we could learn about our racial and ethnic backgrounds as Egyptians.” Current curricula seem to avoid holding any such discussions, leaving students to inaccurately think of themselves in simplistic binaries, as either Copts from pure, ancient Egyptian descent, or Muslims of Arab or Turkic lineages, for instance. Including content about the racial heterogeneity of ancient Egyptians and how this evolved over time, with waves of migration and colonization, could offer opportunities for students to appreciate the ethnic and racial diversity of Egypt’s population. In turn, this would also serve to address issues of racism, discrimination, and other exclusionary attitudes, which are prevalent in contemporary Egypt.

Curricula should also offer more emphasis on people’s social history, with less time spent on rulers’ names and achievements. This would entail more in-depth engagement with various belief systems and philosophies, as well as an exploration of the cultural continuity between ancient Egypt and its influences on contemporary Egyptians. This approach would help students better connect with and appreciate the contributions of ancient Egyptian civilization, not only technologically and materially, but also ethically and morally. Ideally, students would not only learn more about ancient Egyptian literature (tales, love songs, wisdom texts, etc.) – which the current textbooks do cover briefly – but also about the daily lives of common ancient Egyptians, as has been unveiled through the excavations from Deir al-Medina, for instance. Perhaps this would also entail an increase in the number of novels with ancient Egyptian themes that are taught as part of the Arabic language curriculum. For instance, currently, Naguib Mahfouz’s must-read historical novel Kifah Tibah (Thebes at War, 1994) offers students a sense of the social history of ancient Egyptians. However, more historical and fictional content that is not necessarily centered on military conflicts, occupation and resisting foreign powers might enrich students’ understandings of other aspects of ancient Egyptians and their lives.

Finally, there is some good material in current textbooks to build on for helping students better appreciate the ancient indigenous systems of preserving and respecting the environment and natural resources. For instance, the Grade 4 (Part 1) textbook explains how ancient Egyptians believed in having to testify that they “did not pollute the Nile” to successfully enter the afterlife, because in ancient times, “polluting the Nile was considered one of the gravest crimes.”[45] Similarly, in discussing economic activity in ancient Egypt, the Grade 7 (Part 1) textbook presents some promising objectives for a lesson on “Economic Life,” including how students would learn to use natural resources well and value the Nile.[46] However, these sporadic mentions are not presented in a holistic manner that would expose students to the sophisticated moral code and reveal the philosophy behind those ancient Egyptian belief systems, and their relevance and applicability to addressing some of today’s pressing environmental challenges.  In the long term, ancient Egyptian contributions, thought and philosophy could also be included as part of the curricula for subjects such as science, medicine, astronomy and mathematics.

All of these curricular interventions require that better preparation be offered to teachers in order for them to practice a better pedagogy of ancient Egyptian history. This entails training on how best to teach ancient Egyptian history in ways that promote respect for diversity, a plurality of religious beliefs and the significant contributions of women in society. It should include training on how to engage with the strong influences and cultural continuities between ancient Egyptians and modern-day Egyptians, including on their language and belief systems. Teachers should also be prepared to engage with the various controversial questions that they might instinctively find easier to avoid, including discussing the multiple perspectives around whether poor ancient Egyptians were enslaved to build the pyramids, whether there were wide gaps between socio-economic classes, or the reasons why some kings or queens might have married their siblings. These need to include more recent and contemporary debates taking place among Egyptologists, for instance, around these important questions. This training could possibly be co-designed and implemented by universities and civil society organizations, alongside the Ministry of Education.

The sophisticated moral code and philosophy behind ancient Egyptian belief systems are relevant and applicable to addressing some of today’s pressing environmental challenges.

Moreover, several of my research participants pointed out that organizing more field visits to ancient Egyptian archaeological sites and museums, especially with professional tour guides or historians, would enrich their learning experiences and help students develop a better understanding and connection with that ancient history.

Revivals

The above propositions resonate with some contemporary cultural productions that engage with ancient Egypt in factual and creative ways. Some excellent examples over the past few decades include Mervat Abdel Nasser’s significant contributions, including books dedicated to adults and children, such as her book Why Did Horus Lose His Eye? New Reading in Ancient Egyptian Thought (2005). Her approach has been to make ancient Egyptian wisdom more familiar to contemporary Egyptians, emphasizing elements of cultural continuity and shedding light on the humanistic values of this civilization, which managed to transcend religious differences, among others.

More recently, this connection with ancient Egypt could be sensed in graffiti murals during the 2011 Revolution and their aftermath, many of which carried powerful ancient Egyptian symbols and themes. Ancient Egyptian symbols were also mobilized in several of the emblems developed throughout the protests and marches of the January 2011 Revolution.

Among these pioneering efforts is also Ali El Alfi’s work Al-Gybtana: Asfaar Al-Takween Al-Misriyya (The Gyptana: The Egyptian Books of Genesis, 2010), which attempts to revive the ancient texts collected by ancient Egyptian historian Manitoun of the town of Samannoud. The texts help showcase the clear influences of ancient Egyptian beliefs on the Abrahamic tradition. Similarly, over the past few years, there have been important literary efforts aiming to reconcile Egyptians with their ancient Egyptian history. For example, Atef Ezzat’s book Fir’awn Musa Min Qawm Musa (Moses’s Pharaoh Was of Moses’s People, 2003). Drawing on this book’s central argument and presenting it in a highly intriguing fictional historical novel is Ahmed Murad’s Ard El Ellah (The Land of the Lord, 2016). The two books aim to reinterpret the Quranic narrative — and by extension the Biblical narrative — of the Exodus of the Israelites from ancient Egypt, while fully respecting the key tenets of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic narrative. Central to this reinterpretation is a reminder that Moses — a key figure in establishing the Abrahamic religious tradition — was brought up as part of the ancient Egyptian theological establishment, fully immersed in, and continuously learning, its highly sophisticated knowledge, wisdom and religious beliefs.[47]

Moreover, the authors propose that Pharaoh (Fir’awn) was a ruler of a land called “Misr,” which was located in or near today’s Sinai Peninsula. However, when the Quran referred to “Misr” or when the Bible referred to “Egypt,” they were not referring to the ancient land of Egypt, which some superficial interpretations might have led us to believe. In actuality, “Misr” in the Quran refers to that peripheral and largely nomadic northeastern region of the country, but never to the Nile Valley and its sophisticated civilization and belief systems. In an attempt to reconcile Egyptians with their ancient ancestors, these reinterpreted narratives propose that the Egyptian people, including their high priests and magicians, supported Moses and his people against the tyrannical Asiatic ruler Fir’awn until they achieved their liberation. As a result — and central to that reinterpretation — instead of being the villains, the Egyptian king and people at the time are repositioned as supporters of Moses, reasserting the strong inspiration that Moses found in ancient Egyptian religious beliefs for his monotheistic call. These reinterpretations include a strong undertone that valorizes the settled, agrarian nature of ancient Egyptians by contrasting it to the Asiatic nomadic lifestyle, which is generally presented as primitive and violent. While this aspect is clearly problematic, these positive reinterpretations offer a fresh and welcome take on ancient Egyptian belief system, clergy and establishment.

In conclusion, the existing curriculum includes some good materials that could be built upon and enhanced to help build a deeper and more critical engagement with the ancient Egyptian civilization. In addition to some reforms regarding the content, as highlighted above, it seems that the key areas to turn to for now are teacher training and preparation, to teach that history in meaningful ways that avoid disrespect or value judgements, as well as rote memorization. This would also require a revision of the standard assessments devised by the Ministry of Education to evaluate students’ knowledge of ancient Egyptian history. It is important as well to open up a larger societal discussion about our relationship with ancient Egypt, which at the moment is clearly limited and confined by elements of the dominant territorial nationalist and religion-based discourses.

I would like to thank the Mada Masr editorial team as well as the following individuals for their extremely helpful insights and critical feedback on earlier versions of this article: Ms. Fatma Keshk, Dr. Yasmin El Shazly and Ms. Nelly El Zayat. I would also like to express my special gratitude to Dr. Mervat Abdel Nasser for her comments. Her several contributions on the issues this article attempts to tackle continue to teach and inspire numerous people, including me.

[1] International schools operating in Egypt adopting foreign curricula, such as the International Baccalaureate or American Diploma, seem to offer students a more in-depth and hands-on understanding of ancient Egyptian history. So, more interviews with students enrolled in these kinds of schools might have given different results. However, those represent a negligible percentage of the total number of Egyptian students.

[2] Maat’s principles, the ethical and moral principles expected to be followed by every ancient Egyptian, include affirmations such as, “I have not behaved with violence; I have not caused disruption of peace; I have not acted hastily or without thought; I have not polluted the water.”

[3] Some examples of self-proclaimed African-American spiritual healers discussing the Maat principles can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvBrWSjqSUU; here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwDGIk4p7So&t=485s and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46siYNcHMxM&t=192s. Similarly African-American scholars have been drawing on that wisdom in their quest for empowering various groups, including women. For instance, see Martin, D. (2008). Maat and order in African cosmology: A conceptual tool for understanding indigenous knowledge. Journal of Black Studies, 38(6), 951-967.

[4] Grade 4(2), p. 35 and p. 46; Grade 7(1), p. 55.

[5] I would argue that both the territorial nationalistic and religious-based discourses, along with other discourses such as Pan-Arabism, valorize an Arab and Muslim cultural identity. For more on that analysis and how that valorization has manifested itself in Egyptian history textbooks from the 1800s until the present, please refer to my two articles: https://madamasr.com/en/2017/09/22/feature/society/copts-in-egyptian-history-textbooks-since-1890-part-1-are-we-asking-the-right-questions/ and https://madamasr.com/en/2017/09/29/feature/society/copts-in-egyptian-history-textbooks-part-2-issues-today-and-hidden-gems-from-earlier-textbooks/

[6] Given there have been no key changes over the past several years to the ancient history curricular content, I analyzed the 2016/2017 textbooks. I refer to the textbook’s grade levels and term number in brackets (1 or 2). For instance, the textbook for Term 1 of first preparatory (Grade 7) would be referred to as Grade 7 (Part 1).

[7] p. 47 and p. 51.

[8] p. 35.

[9] pp. 31-32

[10] pp. 33-34

[11] p. 47

[12] p. 44

[13] p. 108

[14] p. 122

[15] p. 68

[16] p. 91

[17] p. 130

[18] p. 131

[19] p. 24

[20] p. 87

[21] p. 24

[22] p. 89

[23] p. 59

[24] Grade 10, p. 51

[25] Grade 7(2), p. 46; Grade 10, p. 103

[26] Grade 7(2), p. 46

[27] Grade 7(1), p. 68; Grade 10, p. 52

[28] Grade 10, p. 24

[29] p. 59

[30] Grade 10, p. 52

[31] p. 70

[32] p. 69

[33] Grade 10, p. 6

[34] p. 71

[35] p. 68

[36] Grade 10, p. 48

[37] p. 45

[38] Grade 10, p. 53

[39] p. 53

[40] p. 28

[41] Grade 10, pp. 9-11

[42] p. 37

[43] p. 87

[44] Grade 7(2), p. 57

[45] p. 39

[46] p. 72

[47] This argument — that Moses would have been mostly educated within, and thus strongly influenced by, ancient Egyptian theology, knowledge, and wisdom — was also put forward by some prominent Western scholars, such as German Egyptologist Jan Assmann in his book Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (1998), Harvard University Press.

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