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Hands on History
History for Kids
On This Day
Ancient Egypt and the Modern World
By Dr Joyce Tyldesley
Last updated 2011-02-17
The Rosetta Stone
There has long been a fascination in Britain with the world of ancient Egypt. What is it about this mysterious civilisation that so catches the imagination? On this page
A popular subject
Pyramids and mathematics
Beneath the bandages
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A popular subject
Five thousand years ago the chain of independent city-states lining the River Nile united to form one long, thin country ruled by one king, or pharaoh. Almost instantly a highly distinctive culture developed. For almost 30 centuries Egypt remained the foremost nation in the Mediterranean world. Then, in 332 BC, the arrival of Alexander the Great heralded the end of the Egyptian way of life.
All ancient civilisations have contributed in some way to the development of modern society.
The unique culture was quickly buried beneath successive layers of Greek, Roman and Arabic tradition, and all knowledge of Egypt's glorious past was lost. Only the decaying stone monuments, their hieroglyphic texts now unreadable, survived as silent witnesses to a long lost civilisation.
Some 2,000 years on, however, the ancient hieroglyphs have been decoded and Egyptology - the study of ancient Egypt - is booming. At a time when Latin and ancient Greek are rapidly vanishing from the school curriculum, more and more people are choosing to read hieroglyphs in their spare time. And the Egyptian galleries of our museums are packed with visitors, while the galleries dedicated to other ancient cultures remain empty.
To emphasise the point, University Egyptology courses are full to bursting, and night school classes are attracting increasing numbers of people happy to spend their leisure hours studying the far distant past. This obvious interest has become self-fulfilling. Publishers and television producers are happy to invest in ancient Egypt because they know that there will be an appreciative audience for their work, and every new book, each new programme, attracts more devotees to the subject.
All ancient civilisations have contributed in some way to the development of modern society. All therefore are equally deserving of study. Why then do so many people choose to concentrate on Egypt? What does the culture of ancient Egypt offer the modern world that other cultures - those of Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, or China - do not?
Those who have been bitten by the Egyptology bug cite a variety of reasons for their addiction - the beauty of the art, the skill of the craftsmen, the intricacies of the language, the certainties of the priests - or even a vague, indefinable feeling that the Egyptians came as close as is humanly possible to living a near-perfect life. Individually these would all be good reasons to study any ancient civilisation. Combined, and tinged with the glamour bestowed by some of the world's most flamboyant archaeologists, they make an irresistible package. Top
Photo of tomb painting of dignitary of ancient Egypt Tomb painting of dignitary of ancient Egypt © Our fascination with ancient Egypt is, to a large extent, a product of the vast amount of material information available. We know so much about the daily lives of the ancient Egyptians - we can read their words, meet their families, feel their clothes, taste their food and drink, enter their tombs and even touch their bodies - that it seems that we almost know them. And knowing...
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