The portrayal of ancient Egyptians across film and TV has been a source of immense controversy for many years. Often shown as having very European features across media with no solid factual evidence of such. I look at the relationship between media and colonialist messaging across film and TV that has managed to keep a foothold up until the present day.
From Exodus: Gods And Kings to The Mummy, darker-skinned characters have been notoriously left out of retellings or fictional stories. The most infamous example is Cleopatra in 1922. Historians, Egyptologists, and Anthropologists have chalked this up to several factors with a key through-line throughout.
Egyptologist and Assistant Curator of the Bade Museum in California, Jess Johnson, said on the phenomenon in a thought piece: “Egyptology, the study of the language, history, art, and civilization of ancient Egypt, is a discipline rooted in European and American colonialism. It is a discipline built by those in power, originally founded by white males, and often warped to fit their agendas. Founder Egyptologists defined ancient Egypt through its relationship to the West. The West, during the early formation of Egyptology as a discipline, included France, Germany, and Britain; these were the colonial powers at the time. I suggest that Western scholars were influenced by their countries’ colonialist agendas and their cultural baggage to emphasize the separation of ancient Egypt from Africa.”
She continued, “I would suggest that the initial separation of ancient Egypt from Africa by European scholars not only advanced the colonialist agenda of denying Egypt’s “African-ness,” but also bolstered the justification of slavery in the United States by implicitly countering the idea that the ancient culture of Egypt was an African culture. The cultural framework within which early Egyptology existed has created a foundation from which its perception could continue to impact scholarship. American scholars adopted European definitions of the relationship between Egypt and the West and used this mentality to support an atmosphere conducive to slavery.”
With current prominent voices becoming more vocal on why this depiction has continued post the most ill-famed European colonialist era, the disingenuous and duplicitous interpretation of history by specific Europeans of the era has been noted as the biggest cause.
At a UNESCO conference in 1974, historian and anthropologist Professor Cheikh Anta Diop challenged the notion of several European historians on the matter and their drive to discredit Africa. Diop used the specific writings of numerous Greek and Latin writers who went to Egypt at the time and described the ancient Egyptians. Specifically choosing European writers so they would not be discredited.
Of the examples, the most direct was the Greek historian and philosopher Herodotus who described the Colchians of the Black Sea shores as “Egyptians by race” and specified that they had “black skins and kinky hair.”
Another note was Apollodorus, the Greek philosopher, who described Egypt as “the country of the black-footed ones”. Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus said, “the men of Egypt are mostly brown or black with a skinny desiccated look.”
Diop also stated in his examination that the Egyptians even described themselves as black and that there were very close resemblances between the ancient Egyptian dialect and the present languages in Africa.
Kemet (Kmt), the name for Ancient Egypt, is referenced by current mainstream scholars to translate to “black” or “land of the blacks”. Some European scholars in particular went as far to counter this by saying it was more in reference to the black fertile land for which the kingdom sat on due to the Nile. This theory is noted by some as correct but yet has no factual proof in that it was definitively the word’s interpretation.
The continued and direct assault on ancient Egyptian history is further evidenced in statues, with facial features popularized amongst those with darker skin being frequently defaced throughout history, with evidence that it was committed to hide the race of those the objects depicted.
Commenting in Smithsonian Magazine on who gets to tell the story of ancient Egypt, archaeologist, Egyptologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs in Egypt said: “People were asleep for years, and now they’re awake,” he said. “I’m sure [Westerners] have nightmares of what happened: taking the history and the heritage of Africa to their countries with no right. There is no right for them to have this heritage in their country at all.”
Though there have been notions that what was committed during colonialism was atrocious, there have never been specific apologies laid out from heads of state (primarily due to the potential precedent it places for reparations), and more importantly, the ideology behind the barbaric endeavor is not spoken out on nearly as much as it should in regards to the untruthful tropes it entails.
The ripple effect that these tropes have had throughout society has been routinely destructive. Continuing to perpetuate negative notions throughout the world with many not knowing how they came to be.
Talking to Shadow & Act, film historian Donald Bogle said on the continued stereotyped portrayals in Hollywood, “It’s important to continually speak out about this kind of thing and hopefully we will eventually eradicate it but no, it has not gone away.”
The media and entertainment industry has had a labeled responsibility to inform audiences, and we must ask ourselves, are we doing enough to debunk the horrifying nuances leftover from colonialism with the whitewashing of ancient Egypt being a primary example.
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