Ancient Egyptian Attitudes Towards Foreigners
Author Bruce Trigger, a professor of anthropology at McGill University, explains that during the Late Period of Egyptian history foreigners accounted for "a sizeable proportion of the population of Egypt" (Trigger, 1983, 316). Included in the list of foreigners that were living in Egypt (anyone that could not speak Egyptian was considered a foreigner) were "…merchants, mercenaries, travelers, students, allies and conquerors" (Trigger, 316). What was the Egyptian response to the presence of foreigners? According to the literature researched by Trigger, there was a "complex interplay of prejudice, ideology, pride and self-interest" -- and pride and self-interest were the attitudes that had the biggest influence.
In terms of Egyptian ethnicity and the authenticity therein, Trigger references Herodotus' writings that pointed out every one was Egyptian "…who lived north of Elephantine and drank the waters of the Nile" (316). Further, Herodotus' descriptions of foreigners did not include information relative to racial considerations, but rather foreigners were judged and described based on "domicile and culture, not physical characteristics" (Trigger, 316). As to culture, Egyptians found it contemptible that foreigners: a) had poor eating habits ("considered disgraceful") because they did not conform to Egyptian habits; b) did not write for "right to left" but instead (as the Greeks did) wrote from left to right; and c) tossed the heads of sacrificed cattle -- which had been "heaped with curses" -- into the river, or sold to the Greeks (Trigger, 316).
The ancient Greeks were certainly not widely accepted by the Egyptians; Trigger notes that Egyptians abstained from kissing Greek women or men on the mouth. Ancient Egyptians disliked the Greeks as foreigners so passionately that Egyptians would not use Greek knives, or spits, or cooking pots, and moreover, Trigger asserts that Egyptians "…would not touch any meat cut with Greek knives because all of these items might have been contaminated by contact with slain cows" (316). Herodotus wrote that the attitude that Egyptians had toward foreigners was a "mixture of cultural superiority and distaste" however that distaste was more than just social and pragmatic, as Trigger paraphrased Herodotus explaining that the distaste Egyptians had for foreigners was "…powerfully reinforced by religious taboos" (316).
On the subject of Egyptian religious biases against foreigners, the literature points to the year 410, when great hostility -- reading a fever pitch -- was recorded between Egyptian priests of the Egyptian god Khnum and the Jewish mercenary community (Trigger, 317). Apparently, according to Herodotus' account, the Jews had been sacrificing lambs in their temple but as it turns out the Egyptian god Khnum was believed to have been "incarnated in a ram" (Trigger, 317). This created the perception in the view of the Egyptians of a "grave offence to the religious susceptibilities of the priests," and hence, the Egyptian priests order that the center of Jewish worship, the temple of Jahweh, be destroyed (Trigger, 317). Hence, readers have a glimpse of the antipathy the literature records vis-a-vis Egyptian attitudes to foreigners when religion is at the heart of an incident.
Meanwhile, Mu-chou Poo writes in the book Politics and Religion in Ancient and Medieval Europe and China, that the Egyptians had a strong sense of "superiority over the Semite/Asiatic" -- and that superiority was from religious and political points-of-view (Poo, 1999, 3). The figure of Horus-falcon is shown holding the enemy in reins, which indicates that, the "god of the Egyptians also controlled the fate of foreign foes"; on the wall painting of an archaic tomb shows the Egyptian king "smiting his enemy" (p. 4).
Poo (p. 5) asserts that in the art and literature from ancient Egypt there is a "strong sense of superiority" over foreigners. In the autobiography of Weni, who was a high official from the Sixty Dynasty, Weni went to the "land of Asiatics" and "returned in safety" having "…cut down its figs, its vines" among other deeds. On page 5 Poo writes...
7) he references the Egyptians' contempt for the Asiatic ("Teaching for Merikare"):
"Lo, the miserable Asiatic; He is wretched because of the place he's in,
Short of water, bare of wood / Its paths are many and painful because of mountains.
He does not dwell in one place / Food propels his legs,
He fights since the time of Hours / Not conquering nor being conquered,
He does not announce the day of combat / like a thief who darts about a group…"
Clearly there is a strong criticism of the way Asiatic people lived, and they are made out to be cowards and thieves albeit they don't have the tools and resources or the geography to be as well-off as the Egyptians were. On page 7 Poo also quotes from an inscription of Sesostris III's boundary stele, that references the Nubians: "They are not people one respects / They are wretches, craven-hearted."
In the "Prophecy of Neferty" attitudes towards foreigners are clearly articulated -- in particular, attitudes towards Asiatics shows that the Egyptians viewed Asiatics as "a source of disaster for Egypt":
"All happiness has vanished, the land is bowed down in distress, owing to those feeders, Asiatics who roam the land. Foes have risen in the East, Asiatics have come down to Egypt" (Poo. 7-8). On page 11 Poo explains that in ancient Egypt if an Egyptian was wearing an Asiatic garment in a dream "…it was a bad omen" because Asiatic people were seen not just as foreigners in the traditional sense, but as "…down-cast people without dignity."
In The Instruction of Merikare, the King advises his son in a number of matters related to maturity. As to foreigners, the King says that in order to keep your people "safe" be sure to "consolidate your frontier and your patrolled area, for it is good to work for the future"; consolidating the frontier this certainly sounds like keeping foreigners out for a better future. Later in the narrative the King admonished Merikare to "guard your frontier, marshal your fortresses," again, presumably keeping foreigners out.
The King also requested that Merikare respect the culture of foreigners. "Granite comes to you without hindrance, so do not destroy someone else's monuments. Hew stone in Tura, but do not build your tomb of what has been thrown down" (The Teaching for Merikare, p. 8). However, the King had no gracious comments for Asiatics, who were also known as barbarians:
"Speak thus concerning the barbarian: As for the wretched Asiatic, unpleasant is the place where he is (with) trouble from water, difficulty from many trees, and the roads thereof awkward by reason of mountains." (Teaching for Merikare, pp. 9-10). Continuing, the King urges his son, "Do not worry about him, for the Asiatic is a crocodile on his riverbank; he snatches a lonely serf, but he will never rob in the vicinity of a populous town" (p. 10).
In the "Doomed Prince," translation by Miriam Lichtheim, the young prince went to a foreign land and the Prince of Nahrin challenged him to jump up to the window of his daughter, a high window, and by reaching that window the boy could marry the daughter. After many attempts the Egyptian prince did reach the window, and when the daughter went to inform her father that the winner had been found, the Prince of Nahrin became "…exceedingly angry" because he saw the boy as "a fugitive from Egypt" and the Prince of Nahrin ordered the Egyptian boy slain. He survived that challenge but eventually a crocodile -- that had been battling the demon -- seized the boy, but said the boy would be released if he helped the crocodile fight the demon. This is a strange tale of a foreign land and the point seems to be that foreigners did not take kindly to Egyptians coming into their territory, and certainly they didn't want the son of an officer / king of Egypt marrying the daughter of the Prince of Nahrin. The images of crocodiles and demons contributes to the sense of antipathy that Egyptians had for foreigners and that foreigners also had for Egyptians.
In the Prophecies of Neferti, there is a metaphorical / poetic description of how Egyptians viewed foreigners:
"A strange bird will breed in the Delta marsh / Having made its nest beside the people / The people having let it approach by default / Then perish those delightful things / The fishponds full of fish-eaters / Teeming with fish and fowl / All happiness has vanished / The land is bowed down in distress / Owing to these feeders, Asiatics who roam the land / Foes have risen in the East / Asiatics have come down to Egypt" (Werkgezelschap, et al., 1999, 267).
The Asiatic is seen as the "strange bird" and that bird got into Egypt "by default" so now…
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