An ancient Greek view of the people of Kemet

How the Greeks depicted the people of Kemet

Rhyton, crocodile and black male. Red-figured, height 0.222 m, width 0.14 m, depth 0.10 m. Classical Period, circa 350 B.C.


Rhyton, crocodile and black male. Red-figured, height 0.222 m, width 0.14 m, depth 0.10 m. Classical Period, circa 350 B.C.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans their contemporaries in Egypt were different. This is evidenced through descriptions of people from Kemet and also how both Greek and Roman artists depicted people from Africa. The rhyton above is a case in point. This drinking cup was manufactured in the Italian region of Apulia (below highlighted in red), which was home to colonies of Greek people.

Map showing the region of Apulia in Italy

The cup above shows a figure of a man, who by the colour of his skin and hair can be identified as being of indigenous African descent, who is being attacked by an animal. The scales on the back of the beast, its tail and its snout identify it as a crocodile; although it would appear as often seems to have been the case that the artist had never actually seen a crocodile but was perhaps basing the representation on descriptions or other works of art. What is remarkable about this particular crocodile is that it wears anklets. This is perhaps a practice that was referenced in a passage in Herodotus’ Histories:

For some of the Egyptians the crocodiles are sacred animals, and for others not so, but they treat them on the contrary as enemies: those however who dwell about Thebes and about the lake of Moiris hold them to be most sacred, and each of these two peoples keeps one crocodile selected from the whole number, which has been trained to tameness, and they put hanging ornaments of molten stone and of gold into the ears of these and anklets round the front feet, and they give them food appointed and victims of sacrifices and treat them as well as possible while they live, and after they are dead they bury them in sacred tombs, embalming them: but those who dwell about the city of Elephantine even eat them, not holding them to be sacred. They are called not crocodiles but champsai, and the Ionians gave them the name of crocodile, comparing their form to that of the crocodiles (lizards) which appear in their country in the stone walls.

(Herodotus Histories 2:69)

The crocodile became synonymous with Egypt for Greek and later Roman artists and there are both vases and stone sculptures that depict humans who look very similar to the one illustrated here, accompanied by crocodiles. It is also true if we look at text references to Egypt or Egyptians, that Greek writers saw no real difference between those people from Egypt and those from Ethiopia. In fact the Greek word Aethiops, from which Ethiopian derives, means ‘burnt face‘, presumably because the Greeks who encountered African people saw them as different to themselves.

Many readers will be familiar with another quote from Herodotus (Histories 2:104) that makes reference to  the appearance of the people of Kemet having dark skin (melanchroes) and curly (often translated as ‘woolly‘ on account of the word ‘oleos’. 

A survey of commentaries on the use of these words and their suggested translations reveals some degree of subjectivity on behalf of many authors. In his 1988 commentary on Herodotus Book 2, Alan Lloyd writes the following about the use of the word melanchroes:

There is no linguistic justification for relating this description to negroes [sic.]*. Melanchroes could denote colour from bronzed to black and negroes [sic.]* are not the only physical type to show curly hair

* this is the term that is used in the commentary, it is not one that I condone or would choose to use.

Once again we find ourselves back to the supposition that every person of African descent has (literally) skin that is black in colour, rather than acknowledging that African peoples have, and are today described as, light skinned, dark skinned, and in the case of the Caribbean red skinned (although this means very light). See an earlier post where I discuss how Egyptologists are keen to differentiate between Egyptian/Kemite and Nubian/Kushite people.

The use of a term to describe the hair that includes the word for wool would suggest that the hair of the ancient Egyptian people was textured and different from that of the Greeks. The reference to dark skin also accords with representations such as the vase above.

The artists’ representations for me speak for themselves. I would not classify myself as a philologist but I did study Ancient Greek for my first degree. The fact that the term melanchroes covers a variety of dark skin colours as pointed out by Lloyd, supports that argument that the people of ancient Kemet were indigenous African people, and that they represented the variance that we find amongst African peoples today.



Celebrating Nubian culture and heritage in Egypt

Nubian culture and heritage in Egypt

A satellite image showing some of the islands in the River Nile that are home to Nubian people

There are a number of traditional Nubian villages in and around Aswan, on both the islands and the banks of the River Nile (see above). These settlements and communities have been one of the few cultural sites in Egypt that have openly recognised the region’s connection to indigenous African cultures. In order to preserve the peace and tranquility of these long-standing communities, the Elders and the then Director of the Nubia Museum in Aswan decided to designate a site as the official heritage village for tourists.

One of the Nubian houses in the heritage village at Aswan

Celebrating Nubian culture


The Rabe family home

The traditional houses are decorated in bright colours and with items that are relevant to traditional Nubian culture. On one example that was built by the Rabe family (above), even the water pots are painted to match the exterior of the houses.

Inside the Rabe family home

Inside, traditional Nubian basketry decorates the walls, accompanied by symbols of foliage, fish and representations of the River Nile. Such symbols have been used as decorative and protective motifs in this regions for thousands of years. In ancient Kemet fish were often depicted in tomb scenes where the deceased hunted for food. Depictions of plants associated with river Nile often appear on Kemite temples as offerings (below) or as a reference to the annual inundation (flood) and the fertility of the Black Land.

A detail from the Temple of Sobek showing Cleopatra II or III presenting offerings

Continuing traditions?

The Kemite god- Sobek

The Kemite god Sobek was represented as a crocodile (see above). In his interview Dr Abdel Meguid talked about working at the Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo and the importance of this experience in him becoming an archaeologist and museum professional.

Crocodiles decorating the walls of the Rabe home

Many traditional Nubian homes are decorated with crocodiles (see above) and in the case of the Rabe family home, there was even a live crocodile in a cage in the main room! Although this is largely done for the benefit of tourism, the representation of this animal is nonetheless a tradition that goes back thousands of years. When Herodotus, the Greek historian, visited Kemet he talked about being confused that the Egyptians, as he called them, on the one hand worshipped crocodiles but on the other they ate them.

Baskets decorate the outside of a traditional Nubian house

Basketry is also a traditional craft in this region and indeed in many other parts of Africa. Nubian baskets are made from locally sourced materials, such as reeds from the river Nile and are effectively no different to examples that are 3000 years old. Baskets are used to cover food, serve food and also store food. On the photograph below you see traditional spiced Nubian coffee being made on an open fire. A flat basket was used to grind the coffee and cardamon pods before placing them into a small container with water to boil.

Making traditional Nubian coffee

Museums and communities working together

In 2011 I interviewed the then Director of the Nubia Museum, Dr Ossama Abdel Meguid. He shared his own experiences, as a person of Nubian heritage, of interacting with the Kemite past. Dr Abdel Meguid has worked tirelessly to preserve Nubian heritage and to connect it to the past. I have certainly learned an enormous amount from him, both in terms of understanding Nubian culture and how we should present indigenous cultures in museums. In the interview he talks about the importance of consulting with Nubian communities directly about how they wanted their heritage to be presented. He also explains how the Nubian people have lived in this region for the past 10,000 years and how Kemite culture came from the south. He also talks about the negative impact of the Aswan Dams on Nubian culture and heritage. In fact it was a conversation with Dr Abdel Meguid that inspired an earlier post.

An example of a traditionally decorated Nubian House

I asked Dr Abdel Meguid why the tradition of decorating Nubian houses (above) appeared to be dying out, and he explained that since being moved after the building of the Dams, many people feel disconnected from their heritage and their past. This observation makes projects such as the Nubian Heritage Village even more relevant. Such initiatives help to preserve the past, and present, for the future.



African Queens: Cleopatra

Reconstructing Cleopatra

I have always hesitated to take part in documentaries, because although they set out to be factual, producers often have a set agenda and story that they wish to explore. This agenda quickly becomes apparent in the types of questions that are asked of specialists, and no matter how hard you try to avoid acquiescing, it is the filmmakers who have the ultimate control in the way that they edit.

In 2008 I was asked, in light of writing a book on Cleopatra, to take part in a documentary on the subject of the queen. The producers wanted to reconstruct how Cleopatra might have looked and asked if this would be possible. I said that it was, by looking at statues of the queen. However, from the offset I said that I would only take part if the producer was prepared not to perpetuate the myth that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the eponymous film.

A brief background to Cleopatra

Cleopatra was descended from Macedonian Greeks, who first arrived in Egypt with the army of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE Ptolemy, one of his generals, took control of Kemet. By the time Cleopatra first came to power in 51 BCE her family had lived in Egypt for two hundred and seventy-two years. In terms of Cleopatra’s immediate ancestry we do not know the identity of Cleopatra’s grandmother, who was a concubine rather than official wife, nor are we certain who her mother was. It is therefore possible that the concubine(s) were either of Macedonian Greek descent but equally possible that they were indigenous Kemites, along with the majority of the population at that time. We know from documentary research that an increasing number of the population of Ptolemaic Egypt had mixed Greek-Kemite ancestry. This can be documented through people’s names.

Following a process (of sorts)

With this in mind, I began to work remotely with a company that specialised in computer-generated images. I sent them photographs of a statue of Cleopatra that was found in Rome at a sanctuary of Isis (below left). In case people are wondering, the nose was damaged when the statue was used as ballast in a later building on the site of the original sanctuary. In spite of the statue’s later fate, aside from some surface damage to the nose, all of the features (including the original shape of the nose) were present. I naively thought that this would be a simple task.

A statue (left) representing Cleopatra of Egypt and a first attempt to produce a digital image of the queen

The initial images that were generated can be seen above alongside the original statue. Although the fullness of the mouth has been maintained, little else of the physical features have survived. The nose has been narrowed, the fullness of the jaw line has also been trimmed, and the eye shape is not true to the original.

Reconstruction of Cleopatra based on a statue of the Queen from Rome

The initial attempts looked nothing like the statue. However, eventually we were able to produce features that were closer to the original statue than the first attempt (above). There next challenge was the hair. On the statue that was used as a model for reconstructions Cleopatra is shown with layered locks. The style is a longer version of that worn by Kawit, who was a royal wife of King Montuhotep Nebhetepre, who ruled Kemet from around 2046 to 1995 BCE. Kawit appears on the side of a sarcophagus (coffin) with her hairdresser, who attaches a piece of styled hair to the royal wife’s head (below).

A detail of a relief showing royal wife Kawit having her hair styled


Statue representing Cleopatra as Isis. Capitoline Museums Rome

In addition to her hair, the statue (left ) presents the queen with a vulture headdress (the head of the vulture is now missing); this symbol identified her as a goddess. The statue doubtless shows Cleopatra as Isis. All of Cleopatra’s representations in her homeland show her as an Egyptian ruler. It is only on coinage minted overseas and on two sculptures that were manufactured in Italy that she was presented with Greek iconography, showing her as a Classical ruler.


Detail of a sculpture representing Cleopatra. Vatican Museums, Pius-Clementine Museum.

The two Classical sculptures (see one example above) also depict Cleopatra with coarse, curly hair; in both instances it is twisted and pulled back into a small bun. The hairstyle was unusual on Classical sculptures, and if we compare the queen’s hair to her predecessors we see waves but not with the coarseness or to the extent that we find on Cleopatra’s Classical-style representations. In short, the closest parallel that I could find for her hairstyle was either twists or plaits that are both commonly worn by people of African descent with African-type hair. The resulting style that was created by the digital artists was somewhere in between (see below and also feature image).

Cleopatra_Profile View_Darker_2
Final version of the computer generated image representing Cleopatra

Responses to the images

Just before the documentary was shown, The Daily Mail (a tabloid newspaper for those reading this blog outside of the UK) ran an article on the reconstruction. The article was entitled ‘Sorry Liz but THIS is the real face of Cleopatra’. The article summarised the documentary and showed a picture of the reconstruction. The wider circulation of the reconstructed images and the opportunity for readers to share their comments on the newspaper’s website, provided a forum for the general public to air their, unsubstantiated, points of view on the racialized identity of Cleopatra.

Some comments were dismissive, others were outraged, and some revealed racist attitudes and ideals embedded within the doctrines of European/White supremacy. From a social psychological perspective, many of these comments enable a clearer understanding of the roots of prejudice and racism more widely. Many reminded me of an encounter that I observed in New York in 2006, and which I wrote about in one of my books on Cleopatra (Cleopatra and Egypt). I was undertaking research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and heard a man, who it seemed from the conversation was of American nationality and Greek descent talking to his sons. He said to them that in school they would be told that the Egyptians were the forefathers of African-Americans and that this was wrong. He asked his children if the figures on a temple looked like African Americans and they shook their heads in agreement with their father, who then went on to remind them that Cleopatra who was Queen of Egypt was Greek, as indeed were their own ancestors.

Cleopatra and her son make offerings to the gods on the Temple of Hathor at Denderah

The temple to which the man referred dated to the reign of the Emperor Augustus. It was not, therefore, a representative example for the man to use in his lesson. Nevertheless, this conversation and many of the responses to the idea that ancient Egypt was an African civilisation and that Cleopatra may have been herself part African are revealing in the sense that they allow those of us to see exactly why people react so vehemently against the idea.

What’s the problem?

If the idea that Cleopatra was of mixed African/Macedonian Greek ancestry is so bizarre, why do people respond so strongly? Why does she have to remain ‘pure’ as one commentator on the Daily Mail website stated? The answer lies in an earlier post that I wrote about cognitive dissonance, and in many respects the Cleopatra ‘experiment’ reveals this. It is strange that people use Shakespeare and Hollywood to evidence how Cleopatra simply couldn’t have looked like the proposed reconstruction rather than turning to the images of the queen that have survived from her lifetime. It is ironic that some people of European descent wish to maintain ownership of Cleopatra. Octavian, who later became the Emperor Augustus, was not so keen to welcome either her, or her son by Julius Caesar to Rome and it is quite apparent that the Queen was seen to be Egyptian.