Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

World Literature Website












Ancient Egyptian Literature

Historical & Cultural Context

Study Questions


Historical & Cultural Context

Archaic Period, 3250-2650
  • Scorpion King, unification of Upper (southern) Egypt, c. 3250, earliest known hieroglyphic carvings come from his tomb
  • Narmer/Menes, unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, c. 3100

Old Kingdom, 2650-2100 BC:

  • Oldest pyramid, "step pyramid" at Saqqara, tomb of 3rd dynasty king Djoser, c. 2600 BC, designed by architect and priest Imhotep

  • Great Pyramids of Giza, tombs of 4th dynasty kings Khufu (Cheops), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkaure (Mycerinus), c. 2,500 BC. The tallest of the buildings is the pyramid of Khufu which stands 482 feet high (147 meters)

  • Sphinx, also built during the 4th dynasty is a representation of king Khafre or Khufu

  • Pyramid Texts, religious inscriptions carved on pyramids, including narratives, incantations, and invocations designed to help the pharaoh's soul in his journey to the other world--found in tombs of the 5th and 6th dynasties
Middle Kingdom, 2000-1650 BC:
  • Coffin Texts, inscriptions on the sarcophagi

  • Cult of Osiris

  • Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

Hyksos Period, 1650-1550:

  • Egypt invaded and ruled by the Hyksos, a Semitic group of Cannanite or Amorite origin, 15th-17th dynasties
New Kingdom, 1550-1070 BC:
  • Book of the Dead, papyrus scrolls, 1500 BC and after

  • Akhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BC); a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty; married Nefertiti; established worship of a single god, Aten (the sun); Amarna Period;"Hymn to the Sun"

  • Tutankhamen (r. 1333-1323 BC), abandoned the cult of Aten; married a daughter of Akhenaten; his tomb remained untouched and was discovered in 1922.

  • Ramses II (r. 1279-1213 BC); pharaoh of the 19th dynasty; engaged in war against the Hittites and Lybians; commissioned great building projects, including many gigantic statues of himself; possibly the pharaoh at the time of Moses

  • Leiden Hymns (c.1238 BC)

  • Love Poetry (1300-1100)

  • Song of the Harper (c. 1160 BC)
Late Period, 1070-332 BC
  • alternation of Egyptian rule and foreign control by Nubians, Assyrians, and Persians
Greek (Ptolemaic) Period, 332-30 BC
  • Alexander the Great's invasion of Egypt, 332 BC, Greek domination of Egypt, death of Alexander in 323 BC

  • Egypt ruled by Ptolemy I (r. 323–285 BC) (Ptolemy was one one of Alexander's generals) and his successors. Capital at Alexandria.

  • Flourishing of learning and the arts during Ptolematic period, including the assembly of the library at Alexandria

  • Egyptian priest Manetho writes Aegyptiaca, a history of Egypt, in 280 BC

  • The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew bible written in Alexandria c. 250 BC

  • Rosetta Stone (196 BC): rock inscribed with three bands of writing in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek--it made possible the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Discovered in 1799.

Roman Period, 30 BC-395 AD
  • Roman occupation and rule of Egypt, began after the naval battle of Actium (31 BC) when Octavian's forces defeated those of Antony and Cleopatra.

  • Philo Judaeus (20 BC-50AD), Alexandrian Jew and neoplatonic philosopher, concerned with reconciliation of Greek and biblical thought. Used the concept of "logos" to link the transcendental and the material worlds.


  • Destruction of the library at Alexandria by repeated attacks, some of them by Christian zealots, in the 3rd-4th centuries AD
  • Jean-François Champollion deciphers Egyptian hieroglyphics (1822) and publishes his findings in 1824

Study Questions

Akhenaten's "Hymn to the Sun" (c. 1353-1336 BC)

What was the ancient Egyptian attitude toward nature and life, as seen in these texts? What may be the relationship between the theological and philosophical ideas and images in the hymn and the political situation in the Egypt of Akhenaten's time? How does Akhenaten portray his own relationship to the divine? How is the religious monotheism of Akhenaten connected to his own political and social agendas?

Leiden Hymns (c. 1238 BC)

How did the ancient Egyptians envision/imagine the creation of the universe and all its beings? What role do language and poetry have in the act of creation? What are the relations between theology, philosophy and literature among the ancient Egyptians, as seen in these texts?

Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor (from Middle Kingdom Period, 1938-1600 BC)

What is the most valuable thing in life according to this narrative? Are there any similarities in the situations and values of this narrative and those presented in works like the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer's Odyssey?

Song of the Harper (c. 1160 BC)

What values are promoted/advanced by this poem? How may such values have related to the lives of people like Inherkhawy, the chief of the workers at the royal burial ground in ancient Thebes? How may such values have related to or commented on the pharaohs's quest for eternal life (as evidenced in the practices of embalming of corpses and burial in pyramids)? How can the carpe diem motif be reconciled with the belief in or quest for immortality?

Love Lyrics (from Ramesside Period, 1300-1100 BC)

What was the ancient Egyptian attitude toward love, sexuality and the human body, as evidenced in these texts? How do those ideas relate to the values and attitudes toward life expressed in other ancient Egyptian texts?


to come


Last updated: 07/06/2006

© 2001-2006 by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, all rights reserved


This page designed and maintained by Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, © 2001-2006