Descriptions of ancient Egyptians by others.

Reconstruction of Tutankhamun, for National geographic.

Ancient Greco-Roman descriptions of Egyptians

Egyptians had a “medium tone”

The Ethiopians stain the world and depict a race of men steeped in darkness; less sun-burnt are the natives of India; the land of Egypt, flooded by the Nile, darkens bodies more mildly owing to the inundation of its fields: it it a country nearer to us and its moderate climate imparts a medium tone.

– Manilius, Astronomica 4.724 Here the term Ethiopians (= Greek “burnt face”, denoting very dark skin) refers to Africans inhabiting latitudes south of Egypt (Snowden, 1989). The term “Ethiopian,” in that it was a broad category encompassing diverse ethnic groups of tropical Africa, was similar to a modern-day “racial” designation and roughly corresponded to what early anthropologists would have called “Negro.” Yet classical writers, as exemplified by Manilius’ quote above, clearly differentiated the Egyptians from “Ethiopians.” Philostratus, for example, noted that a people living near the Nubian border were lighter than Ethiopians, and that Egyptians were lighter still.

Egyptians resembled Northern Indians
There are cases of Greco-Roman authors likening Egyptians’ appearance to that of northern Indians, who generally do not look like black Africans. According to Arrian (Indica 6.9):

The appearance of the inhabitants is also not very different in India and Ethiopia: the southern Indians are rather more like Ethiopians as they are black to look on, and their hair is black; only they are not so snub-nosed or woolly-haired as the Ethiopians; the northern Indians are most like the Egyptians physically.

Strabo confirms in Geography 15.1.13, in almost identical wording:

As for the people of India, those in the south are like the Aethiopians in color, although they are like the rest in respect to countenance and hair (for on account of the humidity of the air their hair does not curl), whereas those in the north are like the Egyptians.
Arrian and Strabo concur that the Egyptians resembled northern Indians – who are usually straight-haired and occasionally as light-skinned as southern Europeans – rather than the dark Dravidian types of southern India.

Furthermore, although Arrian and Strabo differentiate Ethiopians from South Indians in terms of facial form and hair texture, they cite no such differences between the Egyptians and northern Indians.


Afrocentric misreadings of classical texts-The meaning of melas and melanochroes

In their efforts to paint the ancient Egyptians “black,” Afrocentrists rely heavily on misreadings of ancient Greek and Roman literature – many of which stem from a severe misunderstanding of the historical use of color terms. In many ages and many cultures, descriptions of human complexion as “white,” “brown” or “black” would correspond in modern usage to “fair,” “tan” or “swarthy.” According to the anthropologist Peter Frost (*): This older, more relative sense has been noted in other culture areas. The Japanese once used the terms shiroi (white) and kuroi (black) to describe their skin and its gradations of color. The Ibos of Nigeria employed ocha (white) and ojii (black) in the same way, so that nwoko ocha (white man) simply meant an Ibo with a lighter complexion. In French Canada, the older generation still refers to a swarthy Canadien as noir. Vestiges of this older usage persist in family names. Mr. White, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Black were individuals within the normal color spectrum of English people.

Ditto for Leblanc, Lebrun, and Lenoir among the French or Weiss and Schwartz among the Germans. In the same vein, the Greek words melas and leukos when applied to skin color were usually equivalent to “swarthy” and “fair” rather than the racial terms “black” or “white” as Afrocentrists would prefer (see definition of melas in the online LSJ lexicon). There are numerous examples of this usage in Greek literature – one unequivocal example describes an aged Odysseus magically regaining his youth (Homer Odyssey 16.172-176):

“With this, Athena touched him [Odysseus] with her golden wand. A well-washed cloak and a tunic she first of all cast about his breast, and she increased his stature and his youthful bloom. Once more he grew dark of color [melanchroiês], and his cheeks filled out, and dark grew the beard about his chin.”

In describing the skin tone of Odysseus, Homer used the word melanchroiês – a form of the same word that other

Greeks sometimes chose to describe Egyptians, and one that is the source of much Afrocentric misunderstanding. If taken literally, the word would mean “black-skinned”; however, it is clear from the context that Homer means “of swarthy complexion” rather than racially “black,” and intends to describe Odysseus regaining his youthful color. Otherwise we would have to assume that during the process of rejuvenation Odysseus transformed into a black African! This despite the numerous ancient artistic portrayals of Odysseus as Greek-looking and certainly not “black” in any modern racial sense.

Likewise, when the ancient writers described Egyptians as melas or melanchroes, they almost surely meant “dark-complected” rather than literally “black.” Any ambiguity in such descriptions can be resolved by noting that other classical writers such as Manilius specifically identified the Egyptians as medium in complexion rather than “black,” and that the Egyptians portrayed themselves as lighter and finer-featured than their African neighbors to the south.

The Herodotus quote
Perhaps the most frequently cited Greek quote among Afrocentrists is that of Herodotus (Histories 2.104.2) describing Egyptians as well as Colchians of the Caucasus as “dark-skinned and woolly-haired.” That the Egyptians were dark relative to Greeks is not surprising, considering that the same is true today. But Herodotus’ description of Egyptian hair would, at first glance, appear to conflict with the physical evidence left by the Egyptians themselves – numerous mummies with hair still attached to the skulls showing more straight, wavy, or lightly curled hair types than “woolly.”

The only way to make the evidence consistent is to assume Herodotus spoke in a relative rather than absolute sense. That is, Egyptian hair was on average curlier than Greek hair, and the tightly-curled (“woolly”) hair type was found more often in Egyptians than in Greeks – as is true today. There is no reason to assume on the basis of Herodotus’ words that all or even most Egyptians had “woolly” hair, nor that such hair found in Egyptians was as “woolly” as that of tropical Africans. Indeed, Herodotus himself mentions only “Ethiopians” – not Egyptians – as having the “woolliest hair of all men” (Herodotus Histories 7.70.1). Moreover, Herodotus’ explanation that being melanchroes or oulotriches “indeed counts for nothing, since other peoples are, too” suggests that these adjectives did not apply exclusively to any one “race” of people.

An analogous example of a stereotype based on relative comparison comes from the medieval Arab scholar Ibn Butlan, who noted the Greeks as having “straight blond hair” and “blue eyes.” Does this mean that all medieval Greeks had a Nordic appearance? Certainly not: it merely suggests that the blond-haired, blue-eyed type is more common among Greeks than Arabs and stood out more as a salient characteristic worthy of mention. The Arabs, like the Greeks, noted characteristics that were unusual in their own population and used these traits to typify the foreigners.

Interestingly, Herodotus mentions the Colchians as another group having “dark skin and woolly hair.” Considering that the Colchians inhabited what is roughly modern-day Georgia in the Caucasus, it would seem that the vast majority of Colchians were most likely – and quite literally – Caucasian. Of course Afrocentric diehards might claim that Colchians too were black Africans, but such a theory runs into trouble when one considers the observations of Hippocrates, who wrote that the Colchians in Phasis “are large and corpulent in body. Neither joint nor vein is evident. They have a yellow flesh, as if victims of jaundice” (Hippocrates, Airs, Waters, Places 15). Nothing in Hippocrates’ description suggests that Colchians look anything like sub-Saharan Africans and this further weakens the Afrocentric argument that Egyptians and Colchians must have looked like “blacks” on the basis of Herodotus’ words.

Other ancient quotes cited by Afrocentrists


There are certain other quotes that some Afro-Egyptocentrists interpret in such a way as to conflict with other descriptions such as the ones at the top of this page. The interpretations have similar failings as the Herodotus quote.

That is, (1) misconstruing melas and its variants as meaning racially “black”; (2) assuming certain traits mentioned in quotes are found in all or even most of the Egyptian population; and (3) assuming that when Egyptians do possess such traits, they are expressed nearly as strongly as in tropical Africans to the south. Using similar faulty methods, Afrocentrists might as well say Jews in the Middle Ages were “black” because Joseph ben Nathan in the 13th century quoted his father as saying “we Jews come from a pure, white source, and so our faces are black.” Of course to do this would be to ignore the fact that in medieval Europe as in ancient Greece, black often meant “swarthy.” Likewise, Afrocentrists could insist that 12th-century Moors were “black” on the basis of their being exaggerated as “blacker than pitch or ink” in the epic Chanson d’Aspremont. But we know on the basis of physical remains and ample pictorial evidence that neither the Jews nor Turks were actually “black” in medieval times.

They never believe you though. I’ve had one insist it meant the ‘real’ Jews were all black.

There’s a quote from Jane Eyre, where she describes a gypsy as being ‘as black as a crock’, and references to gypsies and Spaniards as being black can be found through European literature.

 ‘Black as crock’ Roma girls.

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12 responses to “Descriptions of ancient Egyptians by others.

  1. Looking at the very “Francois” depiction of what is supposed to be Tutankhamen, years ago would have pissed me off. But, I am more tolerant now because I know that so many people want to see themselves in the Mysterious Land of the Pharaohs…

    Nevermind the brown hues of his statues and painted thrones which mysteriously “darkened in time,” the Frenchman’s handsome protrayal does away with all of them. His bride, Ankhesenpaaten also could never have shared the same. His black eyes replaced with light-brown or hazel is more suitable and holds more weight for the majority of us of the “Humanities.”

    Again, I know that we want to see ourselves, our people as having had something to do with the glories of the longest lasted of all civilizations of antiquity. We feel a sense of pride when we find such a photo of the lovely Neith http://thatcantbe89.tripod.com/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/neith.jpg (clearly of Caucasian descent) or the venerable Amenhotep III http://c.myspace.com/Groups/00019/95/47/19467459_l.jpg (clearly of Black African descent)… Can we stomach the truth? Or will we continue to avoid the painful truth of this civilization? Tolerance, Dignity and Respect… This is what I represent, and what do you??

    To be “cen-tric” anything, whether Afro or Euro to me is to en-SOR truths that you are not comfortable with. Why else would the incredibly diverse nation of AE be constantly up for debate (as we see here).

  2. I always maintain a ‘same population’ stance with Egypt.

    Personally I think Tut’s a little light in skin colour on that reconstruction. Maybe the lighting in the shot whites it out a bit. Other shots look a darker tan colour.

    Last I read the skull showed a few aspects that you’d associate with Nubian ancestry, but mostly it looked North African. He probably had pretty mixed ancestry.

    The Southern Egyptians today would mostly be called black by American standards. They are about 1/3 African ancestry around Luxor.

  3. Mathilda, with all due respect dear, those intimidating “percentages” and “fractions” you quote for Lower and Upper Egyptians, Nubians etc. are worth a laugh… ;)

    I not long ago ended a rather annoying debate with a very astute white nationalist who threw around percentages and fractions for Nubians, Somalis, Ethiopians bla bla bla the whole time. Unbenounced to him, (or maybe not) the same people he claimed were his ancestors, he later claimed he’d disown his daughter for if she ever married… (LMAO). Needless to say, that question ended the debate and deservingly so. :D Thank you for posting my comments.

    -Hakat Re

  4. I’m interested in the percentages because I’m interested in the Migration patterns across North and East Africa from the Paleolithic to Neolithic. The percentages are a good way the measure the ebb and flow of the population groups. You can see the change in the Egyptian and Nubian popualtions in dynastic times as the ‘Upper Egyptian type’ gets slowly replaced by the ‘Lower Egyptian type’. There was a slow pressure Southwards.

    If I seem unduly interested in their appearance, that’s because that’s the major part of human difference that interests me (anthropologically). I’m more into anthropology than ancient Egypt, it’s about 80% anthropology on this blog and 20% Egypt. You’ve possibly got a slightly skew idea of what my main interests are because you are mainly looking at the Egyptian posts.

    Unlike white nationalists I can actually point to my African blood relatives. It’s one of the reasons I’m interested in the Continent-family ties. If I where I white nationalist (heaven forbid) I’d hardly be posting about the Northward population expansion from Nubia into Syria and Algeria circa 25k-20k ago.

    I post any polite intelligent comment, and funny ones. I don’t delete unless its repetetive or abusive.

    The comments I used to routinely delete from here would make your hair stand on end. Mostly the filtering system on the comments auto deletes them now though.

  5. Mathilda, I respect your interest in the migratory patterns of North Africans and anthropology itself. I focus on the Egyptian aspects of these for ancient times because so much needs to be understood (imo).

    I make it a point to combat “scholarly ignorance” when it comes the the people of AE becasue it was such a great example of what diversity can do for a nation of people, and their influence upon the world. And although I don’t always agree with your comments, I do thank you for your contribution to our knowledge.

  6. Let’s remember that both Egypt and Israel are at the crossroads of three continents. While there have been population trends over the milenia, there could never have been homogeneity.
    The location is simply not issolating enough for there to have ever been only one ethnic look.
    Even Homo S. Neandertal and Homo S. Sapien were contemparates in Israel.

    Also, Three thousand years ago, the average Jew and the average Egyptian would have looked fairly similar, as Jews were slaves in Egypt, and we all know what happens to female slaves.

    You could say, based on the easy access to Israel and Egypt, both overland along the Nile from Ethiopia and Nubia etc, overland from Asia like Abraham and Sarah traveled (and later along the Silk Route), and by short boat trip from Europe, Jews and Egyptians would have had plenty of gene flow from Africa, Asia, and Europe making for phenotypes like you get in parts of the USA nowadays, example: Tiger Woods.
    He’s probably as good a model as any.

  7. The majority of the world is composed of people of color. We digress by trying to distinguish Egyptians from the continent of Africa from being anything but Egyptians. African Americans living in the United States are also different hues and possess genetic identifiers. The Egyptians possessed increased intellect and command of the sciences of architecture and medicine to name two. Is it because the Egyptians obtained such superior intellect and knowledge, that we cannot possibly accept this knowledge was commanded by people of color? What is the premise of these arguments? Do we toll over the true race of other people that inherit this earth as we do the Egyptian culture?

  8. descartes // May 9, 2009

    “The Egyptians possessed increased intellect and command of the sciences of architecture and medicine to name two. Is it because the Egyptians obtained such superior intellect and knowledge, that we cannot possibly accept this knowledge was commanded by people of color? What is the premise of these arguments? Do we toll over the true race of other people that inherit this earth as we do the Egyptian culture?”

    Beautiful statement and ending question, descartes. To answer your question (imo); Actually No… As far as the accomplishments of Blacks nowadays (e.g. President Obama), we don’t toll over race NOW like we do over the Egypt of antiquity because unlike modern “people of color,” who CAN combat talks of their exclusion from history (LOL), the ancients can’t speak for themselves. So it’s anybody’s bloody call… hence the morons of Afrocentric and Eurocentric thought.

    I’ve mentioned the likes of this several times in this blog and many others and as always, I am completely amused how this never fails… NOT ONE PEEP of a valid reply comes back when I mention in any anthropology blog that Obama is 50% WHITE European Caucasoid and 50% Sub-Saharan African yet, is hailed in the U.S. and the world over as the nation’s first BLACK president. THERE IS NO TALK OF HIM BEING “HALF” OF ANYTHING (Mathilda). But, we can’t argue enough about “percentages” when it comes to Upper Egyptian art and remains. Mysteriously, EVERYONE who does argue this or that concerning Caucasian predominance for Upper Egypt is utterly SILENT against the ‘Obama argument’ which speaks of similar percentages. Silent as a mouse with a muzzle on too tight when the cat walks in. WHY?? Because his genetic data and ancestry is absolute, undeniable and acknowledged by not just a few educated and un-educated morons… but, the entire friggin world and there simply is no argument. Barrack can speak for himself (thank you), the ancients can’t. But, didn’t we create this myth of “race” in the first place? Don’t we adhere to RACE?? Not in anthropology blogs, appearantly. LMAO

    The bottom line is, you can’t have it both ways, nationalists. The same information that silences people on WHO is definitely Black NOW… is the same data which screams justice for who was Black in ancient Upper Egypt back THEN. And what of Lower Egypt? Nothing’s changed there. It’s always been predominantly North African/Levantine Caucasoid, no confusion there. We just have a serious problem with the term “Black” and how it should be applied to many Egyptians (ancient and modern). That’s all.

  9. descartes // May 9, 2009

    “The Egyptians possessed increased intellect and command of the sciences of architecture and medicine to name two. Is it because the Egyptians obtained such superior intellect and knowledge, that we cannot possibly accept this knowledge was commanded by people of color? What is the premise of these arguments? Do we toll over the true race of other people that inherit this earth as we do the Egyptian culture?”

    Beautiful statement and ending question, descartes. To answer your question (imo); Actually No… As far as the accomplishments of Blacks nowadays (e.g. President Obama), we don’t toll over race NOW like we do over the Egypt of antiquity because unlike modern “people of color,” who CAN combat talks of their exclusion from history (LOL), the ancients can’t speak for themselves. So it’s anybody’s bloody call… hence the morons of Afrocentric and Eurocentric thought.

    I’ve mentioned the likes of this several times in this blog and many others and as always, I am completely amused how this never fails… NOT ONE PEEP of a valid reply comes back when I mention in any anthropology blog that Obama is 50% WHITE European Caucasoid and 50% Sub-Saharan African yet, is hailed in the U.S. and the world over as the nation’s first BLACK president. THERE IS NO TALK OF HIM BEING “HALF” OF ANYTHING (Mathilda). But, we can’t argue enough about “percentages” when it comes to Upper Egyptian art and remains. Mysteriously, EVERYONE who does argue this or that concerning Caucasian predominance for Upper Egypt is utterly SILENT against the ‘Obama argument’ which speaks of similar percentages. Silent as a mouse with a muzzle on too tight when the cat walks in. WHY?? Because his genetic data and ancestry is absolute, undeniable and acknowledged by not just a few educated and un-educated morons… but, the entire friggin world and there simply is no argument. Barrack can speak for himself (thank you), the ancients can’t. But, didn’t we create this myth of “race” in the first place? Don’t we adhere to RACE?? Not in anthropology blogs, apparantly. LMAO

    The bottom line is, you can’t have it both ways, nationalists. The same information that silences people on WHO is definitely Black NOW… is the same data which screams justice for who was Black in ancient Upper Egypt back THEN. And what of Lower Egypt? Nothing’s changed there. It’s always been predominantly North African/Levantine Caucasoid, no confusion there. We just have a serious problem with the term “Black” and how it should be applied to many Egyptians (ancient and modern). That’s all.

    • Hakat- the british would and generally do call Obama mixed race.

      Since my only real statement has only ever been that ‘Egyptians aer the same’, I’m curious about the point of that rant.

      Reminds me, I need to add a vid to this page.

  10. To put it in simplest terms Mathilda… I take issue with your stance for people who are at or near a 50% Caucasoid, 50% Negroid mix, those folks who the majority of people (worldwide) certainly regard as “Black.” You deny that perspective consistently and it’s all over the ancient Egyptians portion of your blog here. Some of the greatest examples of this denial are your posts that speak of Ethiopians, Nubians and Upper Egyptians with 40% or more Eurasian admixture – the same who are undoubtedly Black by today’s standards. It just ruffles my feathers and makes you look a bit racially biased, especially on subjects that involve many people of pharonic, Upper Egypt, an era of great importance to world history…

    • Hakat, the term 40% Eurasian is word for word out of published genetics papers. That they have black coloured skin is more or less irrelevant.

      I’ve said myself that about 1/7 of the mummies would be classed as black Africans just by looking at them. Eurasian admixture does not speak as to skin tone which is purely adaptive.

      And how comes no one gets irate when you discuss black/SSA ancestry in the Saudis and Yemeni?

      For what is like the sixth time today- modern Egyptians are the same now as then. Genetically they group closest with near Eastern populations.

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