- Film and television determine what people think of ancient Egypt.
- But they often get even the most basic things wrong, from cruel pharaohs to booby-trapped pyramids.
- Here are 10 things that “Moon Knight”, “The Mummy” and others got wrong and one that was right.
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Movies and television influence the way we see the world. And when it comes to ancient Egypt, they can paint the picture of pharaohs ruling with an iron fist, cruel tortures, and pyramids riddled with traps.
But is all this true? Insider interviewed Egyptologist Anthony Browder to assess the facts about ancient Egypt in in search of the lost ark (1981), The Mummy (1999), Moon Knight (2022), gods of egypt (2016), The ten Commandments (1956) y Cleopatra (1963).
1. A normal explorer could not casually remove the lid of a sarcophagus.
It is usual that in movies and television series, such as Moon Knight from Disney: One or two explorers find a sarcophagus and remove the lid, with moderate effort.
“All the sarcophagi that I have seen in Egypt were made of stone,” explained Browder, author of several books on ancient Egypt.
That means the top of the sarcophagus would weigh the same as a car, too much for someone with normal strength to remove, he said.
When the robbers entered the tombs, “they used to be several men and they used heavy instruments,” he added.
2. During ancient Egypt, men and women lined their eyes with kohl.
Elizabeth Taylor shocked audiences with her portrayal of Cleopatra in 1963. Her character’s eyeliner, drawn to the temples, quickly became iconic.
Although ancient Egyptian eyeliner, called kohl, was used in cosmetics, it wasn’t its only use, Browder explains.
“It was mainly used as protection against intense sunlight,” Browder said.
“It is the same as seen on a football or baseball field, where the athlete puts black under the eye to absorb the intense rays of the sun and be able to see clearly,” he explained.
Nor would it have been a feminine trait. Both men and women wore eyeliner, Browder says.
Also, Queen Cleopatra would likely have much darker skin than Taylor.
“Once again, the use of white actresses to portray Cleopatra is taking liberties with historical truths based on archaeological evidence that has been found of the queen’s sisters and other family members,” Browder said.
“She was probably more like Halle Berry than Elizabeth Taylor,” he added.
3. The ushabti, statuettes buried with the deceased, would not have been found in the sarcophagus
In Moon Knight, from Disney+, a god is trapped in an ushabti, a type of statuette often found in ancient Egyptian tombs. The protagonist of the miniseries finds the ushabti inside the sarcophagus.
But Browder, who has funded and led 23 archaeological missions to Egypt, said the statuette would not have been found anywhere near the body.
“The ushabtis were never placed inside the bodies of the mummies. They were usually buried around, outside the sarcophagus,” he explained.
The ushabtis were meant to serve the deceased in the afterlife. They were not meant to trap the gods.
4. The tombs must have been well preserved and colorful, as in in search of the lost ark
In the movies, the tombs are often covered in hieroglyphs, which appear faded.
But, according to Browder, when the tomb was first sealed, it was painted and filled with color.
“If we were to go into a well-preserved tomb, the colors would be just as vibrant today as they were when the tomb was created 3,000 years ago,” he said.
“One of the most spectacular tombs in Egypt, in the Valley of the Kings, is the tomb of Seti I. And the colors are so vibrant, it looks like it has just been painted,” he added.
When Indiana Jones walks into the grave, that’s exactly what he’s supposed to look like.
Browder was also impressed with how the hieroglyphics were painted in the film.
“The images on the wall of a priest appearing before Osiris, that’s an image that comes from the Hunefer papyrus,” Browder said.
“I appreciate the attention to detail,” he noted.
5. Imhotep, the villain of The Mummyhe was a genius and would never have met his love Ankhesenamun
In the 1999 movie The Mummythe villain, Imhotep, rises from the dead to take revenge for the curse that weighs on him.
Furthermore, Imhotep is portrayed as an adviser to Seti I, and is punished for killing the pharaoh with his lover, who was also the pharaoh’s lover, Ankhesenamun.
Browder claims that Imhotep and Ankhesenamun were actual historical figures, but that they were misrepresented by Hollywood.
“Imhotep was a third-dynasty priest to King Djoser,” Browder said. Djoser ruled approximately 1,000 years before Seti I.
And there is no mention of Imhotep assassinating the king.
In fact, Imhotep would have held many more positions than priest.
“Imhotep is also considered the world’s first polymath. He was a doctor, deified by the Greeks, an architect and an engineer », explains Browder.
Ankhesenamun was also a royal historical figure, but she was not a lover. She was the wife of King Tutankhamen, who lived about a century before Seti I, Browder explained.
6. The curse that leads Imhotep to want revenge on The Mummy lacks historical basis
In the film, Imhotep is sentenced to be mummified alive, his tongue is cut out, and his body is bound in a tight wrapper before being thrown into a sarcophagus filled with carnivorous beetles.
Browder said there are no historical records of anything like this occurring.
“As far as I know, Imhotep’s tongue was not cut out,” he said.
“Mummification was a very long and expensive process, so there is no reason to bury a person alive in the past,” he explained.
7. The pyramids were not death traps nor were they intended to be tombs
Movies like The Mummy they make believe that the pyramids used to be death traps. But that’s not true, Browder says.
“The idea of booby trapping ancient Egyptian tombs is the figment of film writers’ imaginations,” he explains.
“There were false doors in some of the tombs, a corridor designed to lead a potential thief down a dead end. There were false corridors and shafts to prevent thieves from breaking in to steal the treasure that was buried in the tomb, but there were no booby traps that I know of,” he said.
In addition, the movies also often show the pyramids as gigantic tombs of pharaohs. But that’s wrong, Browder said.
“They were not used as graves. The pyramids were built over tombs,” he said.
8. The pyramids were probably not built by slaves.
In the 1956 film The ten Commandments slaves are seen dragging blocks across the desert to build the pyramids.
Although this issue has been the subject of debate, “there is no evidence that slaves built the pyramids,” says Browder.
“In recent years, Egyptian archaeologists have indeed found the tombs of the pyramid builders adjacent to the Giza plateau. That honor would not have been accorded to a slave. We know that they were built by master craftsmen, master masons and master engineers,” he said.
9. The inhabitants of ancient Egypt were not white
the 2010 film gods of egypt it received criticism because the actors playing Egyptian gods were mostly white and spoke with British accents.
“No, there were no British whites in Egypt,” Browder said.
«The original name of Egypt was Kemet. Kemet is a word that means the land of blacks,” she said.
The idea that ancient Egyptians had paler skin comes from early Egyptologists since the majority were white and viewed people of color as inferior.
“Unfortunately, a lot of it has to do with racism,” Browder said.
“History has been used as a tool to subjugate people and create false notions of superiority and inferiority,” Browder explained.
10. There is no proof that Cleopatra died from a snake bite.
The epic 1963 film also concludes with Cleopatra holding an asp—a highly venomous viper—on her chest, which bites her, causing her death.
Browder says this is “fiction” as there is little evidence as to how Cleopatra died.
“There is no evidence to show that Cleopatra died like this,” he says. However, historians and playwrights of antiquity also seem to have heard the story. In the tragedy of 1606 Antony and Cleopatraby William Shakespeare, the ruler dies after being bitten by two snakes.
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