Throughout the history of Western culture, the white race was frequently represented as superior, while non-white races were misrepresented and stereotyped. The attribution of the white origin to the Ancient Egyptian civilization is one of the most apparent examples of this situation. Critically evaluating various literary and art sources, Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop investigates this issue in detail in the third chapter of his book, “The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality.” Diop claims that “by running away from the evidence of a Negro origin [of the Ancient Egyptian civilization], the specialists fall into improbabilities and dead-end contradictions” (58).
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Thus, the present paper will aim to summarize these contradictions, as well as major arguments put forth by the author in order to reveal the truth about the racial background of Ancient Egyptians and the origins of their culture.
The first pieces of evidence supporting the assumption about the Negro origin of the Ancient Egyptian civilization are the old ethnographic descriptions of the North African regions and peoples. One of the authors of such ethnographic records was Herodotus who is conventionally considered the father of history. In his writing, Herodotus notes that during pre-historic times there was the Capsian civilization situated in the area where modern Tunisia is located.
However, the close seat of that civilization to the territory of Ancient Egypt is not the only fact supporting the connectedness between them. They shared some cultural features, such as the fertility cult, the use of spherical symbols and common attributes of deities in visual arts, which indicate the connection as well. This observation is important because it goes against the ideas written down by later authors considering that Egypt became civilized as a result of invasion by European peoples. One of those authors was Fontanes who also states that North Africans mixed early with the European blood and, therefore, Egyptians are related to the Indo-European race and the Aryan (Diop 64).
It is likely that Ancient Egyptians cross-bred with people of different ethnicities and races, including whites, as they were open to other cultures and acknowledged their importance in the world. However, this is not a sufficient argument for claiming that the seeds of civilization and culture were brought to Ancient Egypt from Europe. In fact, Diop states that when the Ancient Egyptian civilization was already thriving, the European tribes were still uncultured and led a barbaric lifestyle (65). This observation is also verified by a piece of art created by Ancient Egyptians themselves in which they recorded the representations and hierarchy of different races.
The painting was first described by Champollion who notes that Egyptians were depicted on it as the closest to god and they had dark red skin. Later in the hierarchy went Nahasi – the black race, – that was followed by Namou – the Asian race with yellow skin. The white race, Tamhou, was the last one in the hierarchy mainly because its representatives did not fit well in the cultured world of Ancient Egypt and were savage (Diop 46-47). Based on this painting, it is valid to say that Egyptians are much closer to Africans, both racially and culturally, than to Europeans. Nevertheless, later Western authors and historians frequently neglected all types of evidence for the Negro origin of the Egyptian civilization and overemphasized the role of Indo-Europeans, whereas it could be minimal if took place at all.
The main point they used to defend their stance was that Egyptians were differentiated from Blacks in visual arts by their complexion. For example, the dark red color of their skin in the abovementioned painting was sufficient for Champollion to conclude that there was a unique Egyptian race (Diop 48). Nevertheless, Champollion and his similar others failed to take into account or deliberately neglected the fact that in many pieces of art, Egyptians have apparent Negro features. For instance, Diop states that “Egyptians always painted their gods black as coal, in the image of their race, from the beginning to the end of the history” (75).
Additionally, the facial features of one of the most famous Ancient Egyptian monuments, the Sphinx of Giza, has the facial features of a black person: wide nose, thick lips, and the overall skull structure. While also taking into account the ancient historical and ethnographic records describing early Egyptians as people with dark skin, wooly hair, and other physical characteristics of blacks, it becomes hard to deny that the origins of Egyptian race and culture were indeed African.
Overall, Diop’s work demonstrated the common misconceptions about the origins of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. By doing so, the author demonstrated the ways through which the role of black people is understated in contemporary Western culture. It is clear that the European historians and explorers who wrote about their research of the ancient African culture were biased and let common stereotypes stain their judgment.
They could do that unintentionally, merely due to the lack of awareness of own prejudices and negative influences of the mainstream culture that tended to suppress minorities. In any case, the detrimental effects of such misrepresentation are still felt today.
Diop, Anta Cheikh. “Modern Falsification of History.” The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, edited by Mercer Cook, Lawrence Hill Books, 1989, pp. 43-84.