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Who were the ancient Egyptians?

Ayi Kwei Armah, the acclaimed Ghanaian novelist, poet and scholar, is about to publish a new book, his memoirs, entitled The Eloquence of the Scribes. He has given New African the right to serialise it even before it comes out in May. This is our first instalment. Here Armah traces the identity of modern black Africans (and notably the Akan people of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, and the Soninke or Sarakholle/Sarahule of Senegal, Mali, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Sierra Leone) to Ancient Egypt, descendants of the Africans who migrated westward after the fall of Egypt. Another branch of the Africans went southward and spread over Sudan, Congo and all the way to South Africa.

"It is now well over three decades since I began the study of Ancient Egyptian literature," Armah writes. "The documents involved constitute a really substantial corpus spanning millennia of time ... I found documentary evidence that enabled me to connect my own Akan background to Sahelian oral traditions naming the Soninke or Sarakholle as the people of old Wagadou and Ghana. The migratory traditions of the Soninke and their neighbours agree on a more ancient migration from Nile valley origins ... When first encountered, lexical matches presenting precise coincidences of sound and meaning between words in Ancient Egyptian and contemporary African languages are as startling as a single drop of unexpected rain." Welcome to who the Ancient Egyptians really were! Who, according to reports from other ancient peoples, were they? More specifically, what did they say about their own identity? This is mind-boggling stuff, especially for Africans who have for centuries been told that our history started when the Europeans arrived on our shores. This is Ayi Kwei Armah at his very best. (To facilitate easy reading, we have broken the first instalment into two parts).


The accident of birth had placed me in my mother's lineage, in the Anona clan among the Akan of West Africa. If you are prepared for such beliefs, Anona people are supposed to protect and respect a symbolic bird known by the same name, ekoo, from the coast of Ghana to the Senegal river. It is the playfully coloured parrot, said to possess unusual skills of eloquence. Our clan lore claims that Anona people are apt for training in the articulation of public issues and the keeping of historical traditions. I had the luck to grow up at a time when figures like Kwame Nkrumah were rising to articulate dreams common to my society. I was struck into thought by the fact that even politicians who disagreed with Nkrumah about everything else agreed with him on one cultural fact. The colonial territory we lived in was called the Gold Coast, gold being the thing whose love had brought Europeans there. When Nkrumah's party proposed that we retrieve a name that was really ours, Ghana, no one who knew our history disagreed.



Now I had grown to adulthood. Inside our larger history I was undertaking life journeys of my own, and though I had imagined other paths, I was moving into the future as a writer. The more I learned about our history, the clearer it seemed to me that if I wanted to write, I would have to study it more seriously, since all available evidence indicated that the narrative of our social history was at the centre of the art of our poets, storytellers and spokespersons. I followed the trail of evidence backward in time. It led me to the oral traditions. The oral traditions took me back to traditions of migration. Those traditions, beginning with acknowledgments of places reached by groups travelling under pressures too extreme to adapt to, referred to an earlier place of departure. Sometimes the reference was simply to the Great River or the Great Water. More frequently, the traditions of migration mentioned Misri, Msiri, or Luti. Those are just other names for the area now known as Egypt, though in ancient times it went by other, indigenous names: Ta Meri, Beloved Land, Tawi, Two Lands, and, more often, Kemet, the Black Nation.

In the time when Europeans held direct control over political life, administrative affairs and education in Africa, it was difficult for Africans to assess the evidence contained in the traditions of migration. But after independence, Africans got absorbed into the management of European power in Africa, and colonial taboos against self-knowledge began to lose their authoritarian rigidity. I have benefited from that new flexibility. Thanks to it, I found documentary evidence that enabled me to connect my own Akan background to Sahelian oral traditions naming the Soninke or Sarakholle as the people of old Wagadou and Ghana. The migratory traditions of the Soninke and their neighbours agree on a more ancient migration from Nile valley origins.

My focus was on the content and form of the verbal arts in all these societies across time. If I meant to continue following the trail of traditions, I would have to examine the written records of the Nile valley, the oldest and most substantial corpus of documents literary, scientific and administrative, anywhere in Africa.

At no point in my formal education had the option of studying the language of Ancient Egypt been open to me. Now questions piling up in my mind could not be answered without a reading knowledge of hieroglyphics. The first publications I found did as much to deepen my perplexity as to enlighten me. Several were by the British Egyptologist Wallis Budge. He was informative on a general level, but when it came to the reading of hieroglyphic script, his two-volume dictionary and numerous other publications used a system of letter equivalents so archaic that it was often misleading.


The study of hieroglyphic writings is never going to be an entertainment, but for me it was lightened by surprises. Given that linkages between the Akan and Ancient Egyptian languages were not direct but mediated through a Soninke connection involving multi-millennial migrations over thousands of kilometres, I did not expect to encounter Ancient Egyptian words with the same sounds and meanings as Akan words. Yet as I built up my vocabulary in the dead language, apart from the intriguing fact that negations were formed the same way as in my mother tongue [Akan], by the insertion of the prefixes nn and mm, certain words jumped out at me. One was the ancient Egyptian word for the sun. Actually, there is not just one word. The sun as deity is called Ra. The visible sun, supposed to be the boat in which the deity rides daily across the sky, is called wia. The Akan name for the sun happens to be the same word: wia. Another example: the Ancient Egyptians used a drill for making fire. The fire drill was called wja. The Akan word for fire is pronounced the same way: oja. Several other matches came to my attention, like bew, meaning place, fa, meaning to take, and sen, meaning to pass.

My search, however, was not focused on linguistic data. I treated the matching words as interesting asides, and concentrated on the assessment of literary values. Readers interested in following up the issue of linguistic affinities between the Ancient Egyptian language and other African languages can explore the works of Cheik Anta Diop and Theophile Obenga.

It is now well over three decades since I began the study of Ancient Egyptian literature. The documents involved constitute a really substantial corpus spanning millennia of time. From the chronological perspective, they make up the longest literary tradition in Africa or, for that matter, anywhere. The artists who produced what we are now pleased to call Ancient Egyptian literature were not primarily interested in literature per se. They were not blind to literary values, but they thought of themselves as participants in a more important process, the maintenance of vital connections between parts of a universe in which connection meant life, disconnection death.

It would thus be accurate to think of ancient Egyptian literature as the surviving record of a long ritual involving members of a community of affection so extensive as to embrace living members in present time, members who had lived and died but whose memory it was the responsibility of the living to keep alive, and members yet to come, who would inherit the common memory and manage its flow into the future. Because the community of souls traversing time was thought to have inhabited various spaces while alive, and to have drawn sustenance from and bestowed affection on the landscape, waterways, vegetation and other living things, its connections were not simply with other human members but also with the natural environment as habitat of the living, and with the cosmos as the dwelling place of departed and unborn souls. No African society anywhere could find this outlook anything but familiar.

Death, dominant obsession

It is possible, from looking at the surfaces of Ancient Egyptian culture, to conclude that death was its dominant obsession. After all, the most spectacularly visible monuments of the pharaonic era were mortuary buildings--funerary cities and pyramids. But this would be a misinterpretation of the message these monuments were intended to convey. They were created to bear testimony to the importance of connections between the visible realities of the here and now and the invisible universe of connected times and places. This concern with connections is a constant motif in all autonomous African culture. It comes from an ethos that says death cannot be the end; that beyond death remains connection, between those here now, those who were here but are no longer here but elsewhere, and those who are not yet here but are elsewhere, destined to come some day. The tombs of Africa testify to the death of bodies, but their contents speak of the immanence of souls. Bodies may connect visibly in the here and now; souls are connectors across the present with past and future time.

People whose lives are informed by such a worldview create numerous physical reminders to counter the putative absence and invisibility of departed members, or of members not yet arrived in the present. In Central and East Africa as in the Nile valley, originally, the commonest form these reminders took was the erection of household altars and pennants. Homes included a raised platform, a sort of table on which offerings were laid out. The offerings were a way of saying to the departed: "No, we haven't forgotten you, and we hope you haven't forgotten us, either."

On these altars were placed the favourite foods, drinks and other items dear to the departed. Just outside the house, at the entrance, was erected a long, thin pole, visible from a distance, on which the family hung a strip of cloth. Its message: this is the home of so and so. The individual thus remembered may have been a beloved grandparent, an ancestor remembered for some salutary quality or deed, adopted by the family as the most illustrious representative. Gone to the world beyond the living, such individuals were expected to continue loving and caring for their relatives. With the passage of time, grandparents became ancestor figures. The respect normally accorded them deepened into veneration, and later generations ended up considering them deities, or at any rate spirits present though invisible.

In Ancient Egypt, this household practice evolved into the formal placement of a pennant outside the dwellings of spirits. When the concept of spirit or deity came to be written down, the hieroglyphic sign chosen to symbolise it was the stylised image of a household pennant, the hieroglyphic sign for the word netcher.

Commentators unable or unwilling to enter into the spirit of such a way of life have characterised the rocks, trees and groves treated with such communal respect as fetishes. The stigma bespeaks a failure of understanding. What is involved is not worship but respect. Originally, such respect was for the spirit of which the object serves as a reminder. Since out of respect for such spirits, objects in the natural environment were treated with greater care and consideration, in the resulting way of life the use of natural resources was considered a matter deserving the kind of consideration reserved for divinities.

Under pressure to embrace destruction calling itself creativity, tyranny nicknamed democracy, and robbery decked out as free trade, we were invited to discard such visions of our own as worthless, and to embrace salvation offered by enslavers. Our shattered universe lies underfoot, as we adjust to rhythms far from the call to connection. In that sense, the voice of Africa as heard in rituals of connection and remembrance has long been silenced in our public places.


The evidence

The body of writings we now call Ancient Egyptian literature is a substantial corpus. Considering how long ago its creation began--some 3,000 years before the Christian age, and over 2,000 years before the beginnings of Greek civilisation--it is an astonishingly huge and sophisticated collection of texts, inscribed on a wide variety of materials. Some texts were incised into stone monuments and great public constructions; some were painted on the walls of pyramid chambers, burial tombs and the lids of sarcophagi; some were written in ink, usually of two colours, the headings in red and the body text in black, on sheets of papyrus reeds beaten, washed and pasted together, layer on layer, to make flat, smooth surfaces; and some were written on reusable tablets convenient for classroom exercises.

The writings of the Ancient Egyptians indicate that they thought, on the whole, that answers to philosophical life queries could best be found if the living maintained unbroken contacts with their ancestors, and also remembered that there were many members of the society yet to come. Why the ancestors? Because they were the founders of society, and deserved high respect as originators. Also, because they solved many of life's problems in their time. The living who learned to communicate with them could use their accumulated experience, avoid old pitfalls and invent new solutions by combining inherited ideas.

And why the unborn? Because a sense of responsibility to future generations could spell the difference between the catastrophic waste of resources and their creative use. The necessity of maintaining a balance between the interests of the living, the dead and the unborn required the creation of a great many cultural aids to remembrance. The important thing was not to forget. Carried over the centuries and millennia on a culture of remembrance, revered ancestors metamorphosed into legendary figures. In time, the most illustrious took on the status of divinities. In this way Ancient Egyptians peopled the visible universe with traces of ancestors who would otherwise have been easy to forget. The accent on remembrance was a necessary precaution in a culture dedicated to connectedness. African culture is not alone in positing connections between all parts of reality, visible and invisible. But it is unusually explicit in its conception of these connections as close family relationships.

In Ancient Egyptian literature, this conception of connectedness is ubiquitous: the primal matter of the universe gives birth to divinity, which then engenders the many distinguishable aspects of the cosmos: space, stars, water, land, plants, animals, people. At no point is the relationship between matter and divinity, divinity and humanity, humanity and ecology, definitively severed. It is, instead, regularly affirmed. Catastrophes were seen as the result of breaks in the regularity of connections. They could only be remedied and prevented by renewed attention to neglected links. In this scheme of connections, deities were not entities apart from humanity but relatives of the living. As relatives, they sent dreams to warn the living of impending disasters, or to suggest ways out of dead ends. If the living forgot to take precautions before the coming of floods, the result was disaster. If a family forgot the needs of an ancestor, there was a risk of the said ancestor reciprocating their neglect. Again, disaster would follow. In short, it was a prerequisite of social survival and wellbeing that ancestral memories be kept alive, and that lines of communication between ancestors, the unborn and the living be kept permanently open. The ways of keeping the lines open were numerous. A simple but essential one was to keep the names of the dead among the living. Ancient Egyptians considered the loss of one's name a form of psychic death. Another custom was the offering of sustenance to the dead. Choice food at burials, libations of favourite drinks at baptisms, the giving of the names of the dead to the newborn, every mark of continued affection helped to maintain familiar bonds.

African culture gives the concept of connectedness a distinctive stamp by translating these multivalent ties into close family bonds. I suppose I shall be talking of an experience common to many African children of my generation when I say that it was on customary ceremonial occasions, especially during funeral rites, that I became most strongly aware of this assumption of connections between spirits, humans and other beings. I have mentioned my initial surprise when, as an adult, I read Ancient Egyptian words whose sounds and meanings were identical with those of certain Akan words. Something similar, but different in its subtle intensity, happened when I came upon themes shared by the oral traditions I knew and the Ancient Egyptian literature I was learning to read.

When first encountered, lexical matches presenting precise coincidences of sound and meaning between words in Ancient Egyptian and contemporary African languages are as startling as a single drop of unexpected rain. Thematic matches, in which philosophical ideas occur in identical forms in Ancient Egyptian and later African literary works, have a subtler but more durable effect, comparable to a soft, continuous drizzle of insight. The first thematic match that gave me this feeling occurred when readings of Ancient Egyptian texts about the itinerary of the soul after death aroused childhood memories of funerals I had seen. When I was little, funerals fascinated me. This may sound weird, but I think other children my age felt the same. Of course funerals were lugubrious affairs, and the heaviness of mourning affected children too. But that was hardly all. Akan funerals also meant wakes lasting nights on end, with talk and music, food and drink, libations and offerings. Children could stay up all night. If we looked and listened carefully, we could learn a great deal that was ordinarily hidden from us. What I heard I did not understand fully, not because it was unclear--it was repeated at several funerals--but because I found no adult willing to explain it to me. The gist of it was this: Wise elders spent a considerable part of their lives preparing to die a good death. Death was the start of a journey into another world. A good death meant a smooth journey. It was not the human frame that went on this journey but the kra, the invisible soul. It had to be given good wishes, prayers and things to help it complete the journey, things like food, drink, clothes, jewellery and currency.

In the spirit world gold dust was the preferred currency, though apparently the spirits would take ordinary coins if gold supplies were short. The part that made the biggest impression on me was the use the money was put to. It was needed for crossing a river like no other, on the far bank of which dwelled the dead. Many were the fruitless attempts I made to get adults to tell me where this huge, mysterious river was.

Though I was considered an inquisitive child, adults were generally ready to indulge my curiosity on ordinary issues. Concerning the river of death, however, my questions irritated them, and they put me down with a standard rebuke: Asem yi mpanyinsem a. ("These are matters for elders"). From general talk, I was able to gather a few more bits. It was said that the soul whose relatives and friends failed to bury the body with appropriate food, drinks and currency could not cross the river. In such cases, something terrible happened. That soul, neither alive nor yet properly dead, eager to reach the other bank but unable to, would ceaselessly roam the near bank. There, it would turn into a frustrated, angry spirit, a tofo or a samanta, restless, implacably destructive, forever wandering, lost. In that state, it had no power to do good. But it could cause tremendous harm to the living relatives and friends whose neglect caused its ruin, apart from visiting random mayhem on all else in its path.


When, as an adult reading up on old oral and Ancient Egyptian written traditions, I came across descriptions of rites for the dead featuring rivers to be crossed, the impression that the new information was old and familiar was soft and steady. The soul went under a different name, ba or ka, but in other respects it was the familiar kra I grew up hearing about. Here were other familiar things: libations, food and drink for the departing soul, and also cash to pay for the river crossing. The Ancient Egyptian narrative of transition began the same way as the story I had heard about the journey of the kra, but it went on beyond the point where my home narrative stopped. The written texts informed me that the dead soul needed money to pay a ferryman called Nemty to take it over to places reserved for the blessed ancestors. Although from my observations at funerals and from what adults said in frustrating snatches, I was familiar with the beginning of the soul's journey--death, the separation of body and soul, and the arrival at the river bank--no one ever told me anything about the destination. Now, reading the ancient texts, I felt I was entering a familiar world, still mysterious but not forbiddingly so. Further, the more I read, the more understandable this world in which everyone and everything was connected seemed to become.

Two views, one truth

Akan tradition, my earliest contact with the oral epic genre, mentions an ancient parent society from which the Akan and other African groups derive their origins. That society is named as Ghanaman, meaning the state of Ghana, the suffix man being the Akan suffix for a political state or city. The state of Ghana is further identified in the epic as Ebibir man kesekese bi. The adjective kesekese, an intensive form of kese (great) means very great. Ebibir is an intensive form of bir, which by itself means black; the intensive form designates a black collectivity. The whole phrase means a very great black nation. (Acquaah, Oguaa Aban, Methodist Book Depot, Cape Coast, 1968 edition of text first published in 1939). In Niane's Soundjata, the Malian griot, calling his audience and his society to pay attention, uses the Manding equivalent of the Akan term for black people. He says: "Listen then, sons of Manding, children of the black people ..." South African oral traditions use a similar formula: abantu abamnyama, though more frequently, the reference is simply to abantu, people. The identity of the griots and oral traditionalists of Africa, as expressed in the texts, is altogether straightforward. These were black artists addressing members of black communities.


In a reasonable world, the identity of the scribes who produced Ancient Egyptian literature, like that of the society they addressed in their works, would be just as straightforward. However, we live in a world where, less than 200 years ago, a ruling racial minority thought slave ownership a great lifestyle, where less than 100 years ago Europeans thought all African land and resources should belong to them, where less than 20 years ago apartheid, the reservation of political and economic power for a racial minority, was an official style of good governance, and where, to this day, globalisation, apartheid writ on a world scale, is the reigning world order. The European architects of slavery, colonialism and globalisation share a common take on Africa: whatever is valuable on this continent does not belong here; it should be extracted from here as cheaply as possible, with the help of local accomplices who for money and trinkets will run security services designed to keep an impoverished population under control, and transported to Europe or America, to be used to enhance the lifestyle of a superior minority of human beings.

Materially, this means an African economy based on the fevered extraction and dirt-cheap export of everything of value that could be used to create manufacturing industries, jobs and wealth here: timber, diamonds, gold, copper, uranium, petroleum, and soon, water. Intellectually, it means a commitment to the view that any human creation that shows intelligence, organisational ability, technical skill or artistic genius cannot possibly be African.

The material and intellectual record of Ancient Egypt leaves no doubt as to the technical, intellectual and artistic skills of the people who produced the works now classed together as Ancient Egyptian civilisation. These people had the unmistakable stamp of genius. They had such high organisational skills that their civilisation lasted thousands of years, longer than any other.

The quality of their works and philosophy still astonishes the world. Since in a world dominated by slavers, colonialists and globalisers, the occurrence of high material or intellectual value in Africa is a racial taboo, questions that would ordinarily require only research and accurate reporting were turned into matters of furious controversy. The questions are: Who were the ancient Egyptians? Who, according to reports from other ancient peoples, were they? More specifically, what did they say about their own identity? There are now two main views regarding the identity of the Ancient Egyptians. Because one view has been most articulately advocated by African scholars, notably Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor Williams and Theophile Obenga, I shall refer to it as the African view.

The other view was developed by invading Arabs and Europeans in the age of slavery; consolidated in the colonial period when Africa was under European rule, it is currently being refined for use in the age of globalisation. It is a view most actively advocated by Europeans, Americans and their followers in Africa. It is supported by the monumental political, financial and military power accumulated over the past centuries by states and corporations which have benefited from its application. It is echoed by the most powerful information media in the world: movies, television, magazines, newspapers and radio. It is the view of Africa and Ancient Egypt familiar to long-established universities and their departments of African studies. It assumes that Ancient Egypt could not have been African. It can be called, with considerable accuracy, the European view.

The African view is the work of persons with no material or political power to speak of. They own no states or armies, corporations or foundations. They dominate no universities, publishing houses or news media. Their purchase on movie-making industries is zero. The power of their arguments is based entirely on archeological and historical evidence, supported by studies in linguistics, material culture and intellectual history. In outline, the African view goes as follows: Human life, according to available evidence, began on the African continent, most likely in the east and central plateau regions. From there the first human communities spread outward to populate the world. In time some settled in the Nile valley. At first they created small, autonomous and ineffective communities, vulnerable to the elements. The geographical configuration of the Nile valley, featuring a powerful river, the longest, flowing through the largest of deserts, with periodic floods and droughts, was such that communities living in the original scattered, uncoordinated pattern of settlement had little chance of survival, and none at all of prosperity.

This is how the Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop analyses their situation, and how it led to the emergence of the unified state of Egypt:
"The suddenness and volume of the flooding of the Nile obliged the first
African populations, whom chance had brought to this valley, either to
rise above individual, clannish and tribal egoisms or to disappear. Thus
emerged a supra-tribal authority ... with the powers necessary to
conduct and coordinate irrigation and water distribution works essential
to the general activity. Thus was born a whole hierarchic body of
functionaries...."--(Anta Diop, Civilization or Barbarism, p 130)
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Publication:New African
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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