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Egypt: More Than Pyramids and Pharaohs


Ita Yankovich


When we think of Egypt, our mind conjures images of mummied artifacts, golden statuesque tombs, and dusty pyramids. Egyptians have been credited for inventing the calendar and toothbrushes. Egypt’s archology has captivated historians, creating its own field of study called Egyptology. And while we are all aware of its majestic Great Sphynx of Giza, Nile River, and vast sandy deserts, here are some lesser-known facts about the ancient country.   


What’s in a Name?


The name Mitzrayim first appears in Bereishis (10:6 – 10:6) – “And the sons of Cham: Cush, and Mizrayim, and Phut, and Canaan.” For this reason, the country was once referred to as “the Land of Cham.” Within the word is the shoresh “tzar” which means narrow. Another meaning is “distress.” The word appears in Eichah (1:3) with this meaning. Some suggest that the suffix “im” and the pluralization of the word reflects Upper and Lower Egypt. Locally and within the continent, Egypt is known as “Misr” or “Misri” meaning “Land of Mitzrayim.” 


The name “Egypt” is a variation of the Middle French name Egypte,  derived from the Latin name Aegyptus and the ancient Greek name Αἴγυπτος (Aígyptos). The archaic English name for the country was Aegypt.  


The title “pharaoh” is the Greek form of the Egyptian “pero” or “per-aa,” which was the designation for the royal residence and means “great house.”  The word first appears in Bereishis (12:15): “Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh.” 

Rain, Rain Go Away

Egypt is a very arid country. They only receive one inch of rain per year. Egypt is prone to flash floods, earthquakes, droughts, landslides and sandstorms. Since rainfall is almost non-existent in Egypt, the floods provided the only source of moisture needed to sustain crops. As Rashi in Bereishis (47:10) explains, “The land of Egypt does not drink rainwater; rather, the Nile rises and waters it.”  

It’s all Greek to Me

Queen Cleopatra, possibly one of the most iconic Egyptian figures of all time, was not even Egyptian. Although Cleopatra was born in Alexandra, Egypt, she hailed from a long line of Greek Macedonians. She was one of the first of her lineage to actually speak the Egyptian language.  Cleopatra is referenced in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 90b; Niddah 30b), but as she had several namesakes it is unclear which Cleopatra is mentioned. According to the historian Josephus, Egyptian Jews helped Cleopatra II and III by enlisting in the army to help fight their enemies. 

Animal Worship

As we know from the Haggadah, the worship of sacred animals is as old as Egypt. Ancient Egypt was made up of a number of deities, and each had their specific sacred animals. There were numerous idols with the head of a ram, but goats and cats were among the other animals worshipped. Lions, cheetahs, and other large exotic cats were status symbols among royalty who kept them as pets. 

They Like to Play Games

It is said that Ancient Egyptians were the originators of board games such as “Mehen,” “Dogs and Jackals,” and a game of chance known as “Senet,” which dates back to 3500 B.C.E. Senet was played on a long board painted with squares with pieces that progressed according to rolls of dice or throwing sticks. Archeologists also discovered paintings with depictions of Queen Nefertari playing Senet. 

Egyptians Run on Beer


Modern Egypt prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol in public places. If the Ministry of Tourism approves, limited alcohol variety, like beer, is permitted in certain hotels and tourist facilities. Beer in Egypt is thought to date back to the Predynastic period, prior to the year 3100 B.C.E. While ancient Egyptians drank wine, beer is said to have been the working class’s drink of choice. In fact, beer was used as a form of payment for work. Many tombs were even equipped with brewers to make sure the deceased would travel into the afterlife with a healthy supply of beer. 

That’s Illegal?


Forget about snapping beautiful aerial shots of the pyramids. Unless you have explicit permission from the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority, it is forbidden to fly a drone in Egypt, and getting consent is very difficult.   Don’t even bother bringing the device into the country as it will be seized at the airport by customs. Disobeying this law can lead to one to seven years in prison.



Facebook Frenzy


Of all the Middle Eastern countries, Egypt is reported to have the most users, with 52.6  million people logging in. An Egyptian father even named his newborn daughter “Facebook” to commemorate the role the social media giant played in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Her full name is Facebook Jamal Ibrahim.

Jews in Egypt

According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, there are only three Jews residing in Egypt (as of 2021).  Although Israel and Egypt have maintained a relatively good relationship since their 1979 peace treaty, public declaration of their friendship remains frowned upon. Tawfiq Okasha, an Egyptian lawmaker, learned this the hard way back in 2016 when he was expelled from Parliament for inviting the Israeli ambassador to his home for dinner. The country has conflicting views on Jews and Israel.  While 85 percent of the country opposes diplomatic recognition of Israel, the government recently held a highly publicized ceremony (with politicians in attendance) where they celebrated the renovations of the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue.  In fact, the Antiquities Ministry devoted $4 million to upgrading the 14th century structure’s roof and staircase. 


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