The class of Ancient Egyptian Literature as Cultural Expression, taught by Fayza Haikal, professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo, brought out the fact that many practices in modern-day Egypt can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, from funerals, agriculture and weaving to storytelling and colloquial expressions. “That’s how enduring the tradition is and how consistent human nature can be,” said Haikal, who was recently honored on International Women’s Day by the British-based Egypt Exploration Society and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities for her success as a leading female Egyptologist. The striking thing about ancient Egyptian literature, Haikal noted, is the transmission of culture –– what the ancient Egyptians left to us, which is the crux of Haikal’s teaching at her course at AUC. In Ancient Egyptian Literature as Cultural Expression class, Haikal and her students don’t just look at the history and translation of ancient literature, but what the texts reveal, through content and form, about the nature of ancient Egyptians.According to Haikal, ancient Egyptians had very well-written, well-conceived literature written by professionals. As literary culture developed in ancient Egypt, distinct types of stories arose, serving different purposes. What’s interesting, Haikal pointed out, is that the same scope of genres seen in contemporary literature was present in ancient Egypt, and these genres were used in much the same way we do today. There is poetry that waxes about love, fictional tales of adventure for entertainment, and myths and fables that give warnings or teach lessons. This is especially true during the Middle Kingdom (2000 BC to 1700 BC), when the variety and number of texts surged as the language of the ancient Egyptians evolved greatly. “The Middle Kingdom had everything; you encounter every genre we have today,” said Haikal.
One of the best-known texts from ancient Egypt is The Story of Sinuhe, a man who flees Egypt after news of the king’s death and embeds himself with Bedouin tribes. The story, in which Sinuhe himself is the narrator, incorporates several genres: narrative prose, biography, poetry, propaganda for the king and religious writing.
More than an example of the mature use of a range of genres, The Story of Sinuhe is a comprehensive window into ancient Egyptian life. “If you read the lines and between the lines, you can have a very graphic view of ancient Egyptian culture and society at the time it was written,” Haikal noted. “It sheds light not only on ancient Egypt, but also the neighbors. There are comparisons of society, traditions and behaviors. Texts like The Story of Sinuhe, when examined with an astute eye, can paint a complete picture of ancient Egyptian life in a way that the study of other artifacts fails to do.” It is through such texts that Haikal’s students have come to appreciate and recognize the fact that many practices in modern-day Egypt have roots in ancient times.
As an example, Haikal pointed to funerary practices, in which the influence of ancient Egypt can be seen in both the traditions and language. “A lot of things we do in Egypt in our funerary tradition are not related to religion at all,” noted Haikal. “In fact, some of these traditions have been passed on to the West.” In burial ceremonies, she explained, ancient Egyptians would offer food to the deceased as sustenance to support them in the next life. Texts also indicate that they engaged in the familiar tradition of offering flowers and vegetation, a symbol of the continuing cycle of life and eternity. In fact, in 1996, a sarcophagus excavated at the Valley of the Kings contained the physical remnants of garlands of flowers used in royal burials. Today, the use of flowers in funerals is practiced all over the world and exists across cultures and religions.
In addition, in the language of ancient Egyptians, there is a specific verb used to indicate visiting the dead, literally going up and into the cemeteries: tal’aa. Today, Egyptians use this same specific phrase, but translated into Arabic. “Phrases like this are another indication of our continuity with the past,” Haikal observed. “We have translated their way of thinking.”
Haikal recalled an ancient text in which the writer uses the phrase: They went together like honey and fat [butter]. “For us Egyptians, it’s obvious, but if you are a foreign Egyptologist, you might not understand this phrase,” noted Haikal. “I always love metaphors because the expressions are usually taken from the environment you are living in. They are typically local.”
There is also a common phrase used in Egypt today that having an education is like a boat on a river, meaning that it will take you far. This phrase specifically references the long-standing influence of the Nile and its association with travel and speed. “Students are usually attentive and can find these connections by themselves,” said Haikal. “They remember, ‘That is what my mother or father says to me,’ and they recognize the link. It makes the class more alive.”
In her 40-year career, Haikal has made use of her unique position within the country and her field to demonstrate the link we have with ancient cultures, and this is what she hopes to pass on to her students. “It is very interesting to see that human beings have not changed –– the emotions, fears, aspirations, love and hate. Human emotion is exactly the same,” she said. “What has changed is the use of technology, but the human being hasn’t, and probably never will.”