Egypt is a long, narrow strip of endless desert, between the Mediterranean and the first cataract of the Nile. The ancient Egyptians called their country by many names, but Kemet, or 'Black Land', was the most common. Kemet referred to the fertile strip of land at the heart of the empire, the Nile Valley, and the surrounding desert was called Deseret, or 'Red Land'. The name refers to the source of Egypt's wealth, the Nile. The river that made the land fertile and provided food for thousands of years.
In the first centuries, Memphis was the capital of the country, and next to it rose the tombs of the Pharaohs, the pyramids of Giza. The pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) is the most imposing, and those of Chephren and Mycerinus still stand today. As Egyptian history is mainly based on Greek sources (mostly attributed to Herodotus), many personal names, gods and places have two forms, the Greek version being the most common in Hungary.
After a while, the royal seat was moved to Thebes, and the pharaohs were buried in rock tombs outside the city in the Valley of the Kings. No sources have survived about the circumstances of the construction of pyramids, and it is no wonder that, given the grandiose undertaking, many even consider extraterrestrial assistance possible.
As for the sources, it is not only the lack of them that has caused difficulties for scientists, but also the difficulty of reading the existing written records. Attempts to decipher the hieroglyphs have been made since the Renaissance, but they have failed time and again as scholars have approached the hieroglyphs as pictographs. The birth of modern Egyptology is clearly attributed to Jean-François Champollion, who, in 1822, deciphered the hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic scripts after much experimentation and a thorough knowledge of the Coptic language.
As for other major events in its history, Egypt first became part of the Achaemenid Empire and was then occupied by Alexander the Great's troops. Alexandria became the centre of Hellenistic Egypt.
The country became an ally and major supplier of grain to the Roman Republic in the 3rd century BC and then increasingly subject to it over the following centuries. The Ptolemaic Empire came to an end in 30 BC when Augustus conquered the country and when its last ruler, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide. Egypt was then part of the Roman Empire. Christianity started spreading very early in the province. It was here that the movement of the hermits developed, led by St. Paul the Hermit and St. Anthony the Hermit, and later the monastic movement formed by St. Pachomius. In 641, it came under Arab authority, and Islamization was slow because the local Coptic Christians retained their autonomy for a long time.
The word Coptic comes from the Greek aigyptios, meaning "Egyptian", which the Arabs changed to gibt. The Arabs adopted and used this term; in this form, it was used to distinguish the conquering Muslim Arabs from the indigenous people.
The reign of Muhammad Ali of Egypt (1805-1848) was a favourable period for Egyptology. In a modernising Egypt, there were favourable opportunities for both foreign academic research and, more importantly, for research aimed at making money. One after the other, the great Egyptian collections were established in Europe and can still be seen today in the Louvre or the British Museum.
A milestone in the history of research was reached in 1858, when the Service des Antiquités, the Egyptian Archaeological Service, was set up in Cairo at the initiative of French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, to control the excavations of foreigners and, in principle, to prevent the export of major artefacts.
However, Egypt was not only a prosperous place in antiquity; the Islamic conquest also created many monuments. The most beautiful ones are in the Al-Azhar quarter, including three city gates, the square towers of the city walls and five mosques. Al-Azhar Mosque, the third oldest mosque in Egypt, was built between 970 and 972.
Hungarian Egyptology can look back on a century of history, an important milestone of which was the establishment of the Egyptian Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. In one of the largest undertakings of recent decades, the "Great Nubian Rescue", a team of archaeologists and engineers sought to excavate and save the archaeological treasures of the construction site at the future location of the Merowe Dam, the Sudanese sibling of Egypt's Aswan Dam.
Hungary had previously taken part in an expedition organised during the construction of the Aswan Dam, and the two ventures had similar aims, namely to explore areas threatened by water. The treasures found at the site enrich the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Translated by Zita Aknai
Kákosy László: Ré fiai, Gondoalt, Budapest, 1979.