Queries & Comments
Were the Ancient Egyptians of the Black Race?
A letter in our May/June issue (Queries & Comments, BAR 15:03) from Mrs. Joan P. Wilson asserting that the Egyptian queen Nefertiti was black and, indeed, that the Egyptians are “a black race of people” brought a flood of mail—so much that we decided to ask an expert Egyptologist to consider the matter. In “Were the Ancient Egyptians Black or White?” Frank J. Yurco of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago discusses the issues at some length.
Nevertheless, we print here a few of our readers’ letters. Some make supplementary points. Others we publish because we want to let you know what our readers are thinking. But perhaps most interesting are points made both by Egyptologist Yurco and by our readers’ letters. Both may be correct, but the implications—or shadings, since we are talking about race—can be quite different. For example, consider the matter of black pharaohs or the conventional coloring of males as red or brown and females as yellow, or white in Egyptian art. How do these facts bear on the question?—Ed.
In the May/June issue, one of your readers deplored the depiction of Queen Nefertiti as a white woman. Mrs. Joan P. Wilson claims that Nefertiti was “a beautiful black Egyptian queen,” and that the Egyptians are “a black race of people.”
This is a common misperception based on a sketchy understanding of ancient Egypt.
There was indeed a line of ancient Egyptian pharaohs who were black. They constituted the XXVth (Ethiopian) Dynasty, which ruled Egypt from about 751–656 B.C.E. They had been rulers of Nubia, which had been a dependency of Egypt for a thousand years, and had thoroughly absorbed Egyptian culture. The Ethiopian pharaohs Tirhakah and Zerah are mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 19:9 and 2 Chronicles 14:9–15, respectively).
However, the black pharaohs ruled 800 years after Queen Nefertiti. There is an enormous body of evidence that Nefertiti and, indeed, the Egyptian people as a whole were not blacks.
The most compelling evidence is from the ancient Egyptians themselves. They left us an endless body of sculpture and paintings depicting themselves and their neighbors in great detail. In fact, these surviving works of art are the best (and sometimes the only) evidence we have for many of their contemporaries in the ancient world.
The evidence is both general and specific. There exists in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin a world-famous bust of Nefertiti that was excavated in Amarna, where her palace was located. It is incredibly detailed and lifelike—and unmistakably Caucasian. There are numerous other depictions of Nefertiti from her lifetime, all depicting her as Caucasian.
It is also important to note that the ancient Egyptians were very good at portraying the racial characteristics of the peoples they had contact with. There were three major peoples they depicted most often, in addition to themselves. These peoples were the Libyans, depicted as Caucasians with pointed beards; the Asiatics, luxuriantly black-bearded men from Asia Minor; and blacks, whom the Egyptians called nehes. In their paintings and sculptures, the Egyptian, Libyan and Asiatic men were generally depicted with Caucasian features. Male Egyptians were generally depicted with reddish brown skin. Females were depicted with either yellow or white skin (because they were probably kept in seclusion, out of the sun), and sometimes with reddish brown skin.
However, the Nubian blacks were always depicted with unmistakable negroid features, short, curly hair and black skin.
By general scientific agreement, the ancient Egyptians were Hamites, who are related biologically and linguistically to the Semites and Berbers.
So, walking through the ancient Egyptian exhibit in any museum, it is immediately apparent that aside from a period of less than 100 years that came during the end of Egypt’s 3,000-year history, Egyptians were not a black people and they were not ruled by black kings and queens.
However, there was a powerful, Egyptianized black kingdom that ruled for centuries in what is now the Sudan and Ethiopia. After being defeated by the Assyrians, the Ethiopian kings of Egypt retreated to their capitals of Meroe and Napata and ruled there in splendor and glory until Roman times. The ancient Greeks, who are late-comers compared to the Egyptians, knew of this black civilization and were struck by its resemblance to Egyptian culture. They speculated that it had given birth to the Egyptian civilization, and this has resulted in much of today’s confusion. But scientific evidence has not supported their view.
Paul S. Forbes
Here we go again (“Objects to a White Nefertiti, ”Queries & Comments, BAR 15:03). I cannot believe that you would print such a letter. I feel that this must be laid to rest once and for all.
Mrs. Joan P. Wilson of Georgia states boldly (and naively) that not only was Nefertiti a black woman, but that “the Egyptians are a black race of people.”
Has Mrs. Wilson ever seen the famous bust of Nefertiti, now in the Berlin museum, which portrays her as white? Numerous other busts and representations not only of this queen but of other Egyptians are portrayed as white. If any color could be applied, it would have to be red, since the men were shown as red in wall paintings and the women were painted as white.
The quaint belief that the Egyptians were black is held only by some American blacks; it is not held by anyone who looks at the evidence. People who continue to believe that the Egyptians were black do so for emotional reasons, because they need a belief in a black superpower nation from Africa for reasons of ego and self-esteem. But this has nothing to do with the real Egyptians.
But I suppose one might as well try to prove the nonexistence of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.
The Egyptians held that the black Africans, like every race outside of Egypt, were inferior and to be made captives, which is why they are represented, along with the Asiatics and the Libyans, as Enemies of the State, to be captured and bound. There is a footstool from the tomb of Tutankhamun that shows blacks tied up and captive, which the king used to rest his feet on, meaning he had conquered them. If he himself were black, why would he do this?
There is also the famous Southern Border stela, which marks the southern boundary of 010Egypt, and which explicitly states that no black person may enter Egypt without permission. If they were all blacks, why would the government of Egypt do this? [See Frank Yurco’s article, “Were the Ancient Egyptians Black or White?” for a different view of this stela.—Ed.]
There is no reason to believe that the Egyptians were black, and plenty of reasons to believe they were not.
“African” does not mean “black” or “negro.” The Berbers are African, but they are not black. Colonel Qaddafi is African, from Libya, a country that is “hot all year round with plenty of desert land,” to use the language of Mrs. Wilson’s letter, but Qaddafi is not black. The present-day Egyptians are African, but they are not black.
So let’s put this incredible notion to rest once and for all. Such illusions only serve to divide and enslave us.
I love your magazine.
If Mrs. Joan P. Wilson were not blinded by her own prejudices, she would have noted in her study of ancient history that color to the early Egyptians was very important [compare Frank Yurco’s article, “Were the Ancient Egyptians Black or White?” on this point.—Ed.]. If she looked at Egyptian art, or perhaps read a book or two, she would know that all males were depicted in brown tones and females in pale yellow or alabaster. Red shades indicated Seth, god of evil, and black skin color was reserved for death and resurrection.
Mrs. Wilson’s objections are based solely upon ignorance of historical fact and perhaps a touch too much racial sensitivity.
Walter Del Pellegrino
Keansburg, New Jersey
The Egyptians are no more “a black race of people,” as Mrs. Joan P. Wilson asserts in the May/June BAR, than Americans are a white (or black or red or whatever) race of people. Egyptians have variations of skin tones, just like that strange and barbaric race that may be found on the beaches of Florida during Spring Break.
As for Nefertiti, it has long been questioned that Nefertiti was an Egyptian anyway. Her unique headdress is in the style of Hittite upper-class women. (That other famous “Egyptian” queen, Cleopatra, wasn’t Egyptian either; she was an ethnic Greek of the house of Ptolemy).
For more on the controversy, see “Nefertiti the Turk,” Science Digest, June 1972, pages 16–22.
Being myself born and raised a Southerner, I smell the old religious bigots’ “Curse of Ham” hogwash in Mrs. Wilson’s letter: The Egyptians are darker skinned than the apparently blond, Nordic Aryan folk of Austell, Georgia.
Bigots! Ignore them, BAR, and they will go away.
Jim L. Shirah
I am surprised that you printed the letter from Mrs. Joan P. Wilson of Austell, Georgia, to publicly embarrass her for her ignorance, especially since her motive was obviously to fight racism. The wording in her letter makes it clear that she was trying to prove that black Africans could be royalty. Rather than print such a letter, it would be far better to privately send her the evidence that she was wrong.
Mrs. Joan P. Wilson’s letter in your May/June issue makes some strong statements without proper research (BSBA 15:03).
BAR, you do seem to get your share of narrow-minded and quick-to-put-pen-to-paper people. Keep up the good work, and thanks for as unbiased publishing as there is today.
Mrs. Joan P. Wilson’s letter complaining about the “white” Nefertiti brings to mind the Italian artists who paint the apostles and disciples with Italian features and characteristics—except for Judas. He is the only one with Jewish features.
These racial things we just have to learn to live with.
Wilmington, North Carolina
Some BAR Goofs
I was eager to read about the beautiful gold object on the cover of the May/June BAR, but had to chuckle when I saw that it was identified on the Table of Contents page as “wood-covered gold leaf.” I can only assume that the intended reading was “gold leaf-covered wood.”
I enjoy BAR. Keep up the good work!
You correctly assume our intention. Sometimes our proofreader goes cross-eyed.—Ed.
Some years ago you printed in BAR my letter concerning Paper’s Law (Queries & Comments, BAR 05:03), which states that if a museum has only one cuneiform tablet it will be displayed upside down; and as a corollary, illustrations of inscriptions, whether cuneiform, Sanskrit, or other ancient script, will be printed upside down. Now in the most recent BAR issue, 013you have affirmed it again. In the May/June issue (“Does the Bible Exaggerate King Solomon’s Golden Wealth?” BAR 15:03) you print a beautiful photograph of an Achaemenid gold bowl, with the inscription printed in reverse.
Herbert H. Paper
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Before you have many letters from other readers complaining, let me point out some errors in the illustrations that accompanied my article in the May/June issue (“Does the Bible Exaggerate King Sololmon’s Golden Wealth?” BAR 15:03). The Persian bowl and the “Ophir” ostracon have been printed in reverse. This is also true of the throne. The golden shrine is not one of those which guarded the body of Tutankhamun, but the one which housed, probably, a statue of the king and his wife. I did not see these pictures before they were printed. I know how easily these things happen!
Rankin Reader in Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages
University of Liverpool
Millard Wrote a Shaggy Dog Story
Alan R. Millard’s article in the May/June 1989 BAR about Solomon’s gold [“Does the Bible Exaggerate King Solomon’s Golden Wealth?” BAR 15:03] is truly an incredible piece of archaeological speculation. It is stuffed with irrelevance. It is nothing but a beautifully illustrated shaggy dog story. In his search for Solomon’s gold, Millard starts backward by assuming a priori that Solomon was a tenth-century B.C.E. king of Israel who was fabulously wealthy. Then he buttresses his assumption by pointing out that since Egyptians and Babylonians and Assyrians and Persians were fabulously wealthy, why not Solomon? The ingenuousness of this argument leaves the reader incredulous, wondering if he picked up the wrong magazine.
The question “Was Solomon’s gold exaggerated?” asked in an archaeological context, requires a rational sequence of presentation. First “Who was Solomon?” then “What was the economic base of his wealth?” then “How much gold could he have plausibly acquired?” Millard should have started at the beginning by listing the archaeological evidence for Solomon and his kingdom. Then it would be a natural progression to describe the kinds of documents kept by courtiers and bureaucrats of tenth-century B.C.E. Jerusalem, like the clay tablets that contemporary cultures 016archived by the ton. In lieu of that, he might have offered his readers an expert guess to explain the curious dearth of such documents. Perhaps he could have shown his readers an ostracon, just one little potsherd, written in Hebrew before the eighth century B.C.E. It’s the least he could do for his readers who are thirsting after knowledge on the subject of Hebrew literacy, upon which Millard is a published author.
Unanswered questions: What artifacts or images mark the reign of Solomon, Israel’s greatest king? What language did the governmental keepers of that kingdom use, and how did they record it?
After establishing the archaeological evidence for Solomon, however slight, Millard should have discussed Hebrew wealth and how Solomon turned it into tons and tons of gold. For this Millard would need to establish a basis for speculation on the economics of Solomon’s kingdom. The Biblical accounts leave more questions than answers in matters of economics. Great gifts are described. We presume these were a kind of tribute paid for protection and alliance. But it takes more than foreign tribute to maintain a sheep-ranching kingdom in high style over the years. How did Solomon’s subjects create wealth that would be worth trading for gold, and how did Solomon tax it and manage to avoid the bad press suffered by Herod the Great?
The Irony of the Odyssey of Egyptian Gold
I was intrigued by Kenneth A. Kitchen’s short article “Where Did Solomon’s Gold Go?” BAR 15:03. It struck me that, if his conjecture is correct (Solomon’s gold wound up as Osorkon’s gift to the gods and goddesses of Egypt), we have an instance of supreme irony. Bible readers will remember that Israel’s national history began with the Exodus from Egypt. After the tenth plague (death of the firstborn), the Hebrews asked their Egyptian neighbors for jewelry of silver and gold (Exodus 11:1–2, 12:35–36). Much of this gold would presumably have been used in the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings (Exodus 25:1–9, 35:1–39:43). Thus Egyptian gold was used in the worship of the one, true and living God of Israel.
With the apostasy of Solomon and his son Rehoboam, however, we learn that the gold of Solomon’s Temple and palace was transported to Egypt where it was dedicated to the impotent gods and goddesses of Egypt. It was just possible that some of the gold had come full circle, since it may have been fashioned into jewelry in Egypt centuries before! The theological point is clear.
Larry R. Helyer, Ph.D.
Professor of Biblical Studies
Did Pillars from Solomon’s Temple Survive at Baalbek?
In the article “Does the Bible Exaggerate King Solomon’s Golden Wealth?” BAR 15:03, by Alan R. Millard, I found this statement: “No trace of Solomon’s Temple has ever been found. Only the Biblical account survives.” This triggered my memory about an article by George Lamsa entitled “The Ancient Temple of Solomon,” which suggests that the huge columns in the temple at Baalbek came from Solomon’s Temple.
Has this site ever been visited by archaeologists since 1964 to verify or disprove the findings of George Lamsa? I would imagine that today this area is in the war zone and is inaccessible, but I feel that in the future this finding should be investigated.
Joseph T. Seem
Alan R. Millard replies:
Mr. Lamsa [cited in Mr. Seem’s letter] has claimed that columns from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem were transported to Baalbek and used there in the great temple of Jupiter by the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (361–363 A.D.). Unhappily, there is no evidence to support his idea. The temple of Jupiter was apparently already in use when the emperor Hadrian visited it about 130 A.D. and the pillars could not have been added later. Work continued for many years on other parts of the surrounding structure, but the entrance porch and colonnade were completed in the middle of the third century as inscriptions at the site and pictures on coins show.
The carving on some of the stories at Baalbek is typical of the Hellenistic-Roman period and quite unlike what is known of stone-carving from Solomon’s time. It is different, too, from the carving on stone blocks recovered recently from Herod’s Temple.
Regrettably, Mr. Lamsa has allowed his imagination to run freely; assuming the columns of Baalbek came from Jerusalem, he says they “show evidence of terrific bombardment by the Roman engines of war … in 70 A.D.” The temples at Baalbek were attacked by enemies more than once. In 1136 Zengi of Aleppo besieged the town for three months, 058hurling missiles with 14 great catapults. The scars on the stonework are attributable to that, and other actions, not to Romans in 70.
That a late 15th-century Arab writer alleged a Solomonic origin for Baalbek’s pillars is weak support, for Arab writers and folklore often said massive or mysterious features were the work of Solomon.
Triangles, Stars of David and Sexual Intercourse
The picture of Capernaum in your ad for the Galilee Archaeology slide set reminded me that I myself have a slide of a six-pointed Star of David symbol I found on an architectural fragment from the Capernaum synagogue.
Fifty-five years ago a University of Wisconsin sociology professor told our extension class in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that the two intersecting triangles that comprise the six-pointed star represented the male and female pubic hair at the time of intercourse. He also mentioned that the YMCA uses the female triangle and the YWCA, the male triangle.
I was interested in finding this Star of David because although I knew it was a very old symbol I had never seen it on an ancient artifact.
Rev. Donald F. Heermans
Retired Episcopal Priest
Rachel Hachlili, author of the recently published Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Land of Israel (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988), replies:
The six-pointed star is a geometric design consisting of two superimposed triangles. It appears as the symbolic Star of David and a Jewish symbol in the Middle Ages. In the ancient synagogue at Capernaum, this six-pointed star is one of several geometric and floral motifs, like the rosette next to it and the five-pointed star, all filling acanthus leaf medallions on the frieze of the building.
Were the Ancient Egyptians of the Black Race?