Eternal as the Nile
Three millennia of Egyptian genetic continuity
Egypt may technically be the world’s second-oldest literate civilization after Sumer, but in our imaginations, it lives on with a vivid grandeur Mesopotamia can’t touch. This owes to the incalculable influence Egypt exerted upon both Greeks and Hebrews, who deferred to the civilization of the Nile as more ancient and wiser than their own. Athenian democracy’s architect, the lawgiver Solon, reputedly traveled to Egypt to learn at the feet of its wise men. Plato in Phaedrus even asserts that Egyptians “invented numbers and arithmetic… and, most important of all, letters,” and he seems to have been at least partially correct, as the first alphabets were improvised nearly 4,000 years ago in Egypt by Semitic speakers adapting hieroglyphics. This influence on language remains apparent; Moses is most likely an Egyptian name (compare to the pharaohs named Thutmose). More significantly, scholars have argued that Jewish monotheism was strongly influenced by Egyptian religion, a not unreasonable contention in light of the Bible’s repeated witness to interactions between the Hebrews and their western neighbors in the Nile Valley. Whether historically accurate or not, the dramatic Hebrew sojourn in Egypt remains stamped on Jewish memory to this day.
Archaeologically, Mesopotamia has pride of place when it comes to many firsts, but historically it is Egypt’s civilizational continuity that knows no rival. Despite some common cultural throughlines, Mesopotamian civilization was far more protean than that of the Egyptians. Though both were lands given life by their rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates were mercurial and prone to destructive floods, while the Nile was ever regular, reliably redepositing a bounty of fertile soil in its wake. Just as nature was crueler to Mesopotamia, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh depicts a world of city-states exposed on all sides to enemies, whether it be mountain barbarians and enemy kingdoms to the east or menacing nomads to the west. In contrast, Egypt was nestled in the Nile Valley, buffered by impassable deserts that long kept it a world unto itself, stable, complacent and able to evolve and change gradually on its own terms.
Nature’s vicissitudes had an impact on cultural diversity in Mesopotamia, as its traditions began with the Sumerians 5,000 years ago, but within 1,000 years they were extinct, to be succeeded by a cavalcade of peoples, Akkadians, Amorites, Assyrians, Arameans and Chaldeans until Babylonia’s conquest by the Persians in the 6th century finally ended Mesopotamian independence. In contrast, ancient Egyptian culture retained an unchanged core from the Old Kingdom in 2800 BC, down to their own conquest by the Persians in the 6th century.
A language descended from that of the ancient Egyptians even continues to be used to this day in the liturgies of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and it seems likely that it was spoken as late as the 1600’s in some Nile-Valley Christian villages. The ancient Egyptian religion, whose roots predate literacy 5,000 years ago, persisted in official form until 537 AD when the temple complex at Philae was shuttered by Roman authorities. If Christianity is to last as long as Egyptian religion, it’s still got a solid 1,500 years to go. In the ancient world, Egyptian culture was famously glamorous and magnetically attractive to outsiders. Cleopatra, despite being mostly of Macedonian ancestry, was a devotee of the goddess Isis. Hieroglyphs first mention Isis in 2500 BC, meaning that Cleopatra was drawn into a continuous religious tradition whose origins lay as far in the past from her as Pericles’ Athens from us.
Because the memory of Egypt looms over us even in the present, many wonder who the ancient Egyptians really were. Their culture and history are so real to us, interwoven into the dominant religions of the West, their legend so enduring, that we crave to understand who they were as a people. Science, archaeology and history are converging on a clear conclusion: the ancient Egyptians are still with us, their direct descendants navigating Cairo’s bustling streets on their way to air-conditioned offices, while others till the Nile Valley’s eternally rich soil as their forebears have for millennia. Ideologically motivated arguments by American Afrocentrists, that ancient Egyptians were black and replaced later by invaders from the Arabian peninsula abound, while recently a British tabloid trumpeted the headline “Ancient Egyptians more closely related to Europeans than modern Egyptians, scientists claim.” But the genetic reality is a bit more complicated (or perhaps boring?) than either of these suspiciously dramatic caricatures. Unsurprisingly, if you dig into the actual abstruse statistics, and caveats in said paper, they rather undermine such glitzy conclusions. Contra the headline, the people of the pharaohs are surprisingly little changed in the intervening millennia and they are right where you’d expect them.
A quick aside, lest anyone is tempted at this point to dismiss this relative continuity as no news at all. If you've been following the past decade or two of great leaps forward in our knowledge of human population history, as driven by genomics and ancient-DNA research, or if you read me here, you can summon plenty of cases of storied ancient civilizations whose genetic legacy is better summed up as "new number, who dis" or "it's complicated" than "plus ça change." I'm thinking here of ancient Rome whose illustrious citizens might have changed the world, but left so little imprint on modern Italian genetics that I titled my exploration of their legacy, They came, they saw, they left no trace. India falls in the bit more complicated column, but vehemently as Indian nationalists resisted the long-standing suggestions that a large contribution of ancestry poured into the subcontinent in the last 4,000 years from far north on the Eurasian steppe, that conclusion is now unavoidable.