10 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know about Ancient Egypt

10 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know about Ancient Egypt

Solve the Riddle of the Sphinx

1. There wasn’t just one Cleopatra. We’ve all heard of her. Cleopatra was one of the most famous figures in ancient history and one of the most well-known female rulers ever. However, she wasn’t the only Cleopatra around. In fact, the woman we refer to whenever we say the name was actually Cleopatra VII. She also wasn’t Egyptian. She was of Greek origins as part of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, one of the four groups that ruled over the former kingdom of Alexander the Great after he died and failed to name a successor.

Cleopatra painting

2. Who was the first pharaoh? This is actually pretty hard to answer with certainty because we are lacking information regarding those early periods. Originally, the region was divided into two areas: Lower and Upper Egypt. Each one was its own individual kingdom with its own ruler and we know very little about them. All the information about the pharaohs of Lower Egypt (which isn’t much apart from their names) comes from the Palermo Stone, one of the few surviving fragments of the Royal Annals of the Old Kingdom. Logically, the first pharaoh of Egypt should be the one who unified the kingdoms and started the First Dynasty. And that would be Menes…or Narmer…or Aha. Actually, Menes and Narmer are thought to have been the same person, just using different nomenclature, although some would argue that Menes and Aha were actually the same person. We’re still not clear on that.

3. They had one of the first peace treaties in the world. One of the greatest enemies the Egyptians ever faced was the Hittite Empire. These two nations fought each other for hundreds of years until they finally negotiated peace in 1259 BC. This took place between Ramesses II and Hattusili III, King of the Hittites. Also known as the Treaty of Kadesh, this is the oldest written treaty that has survived to this day. The original was done in two copies, one in Egyptian and one in Akkadian. The Egyptians wrote theirs down on a temple wall which is still standing today in Karnak, while the Hittites preserved theirs on clay tablets which are today found at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

Treaty of Kadesh

Photo Credit: Yasin Turkoglu via Flickr

4. Let’s talk Ramesses II. The peace he brokered with the Hittites, ending a centuries-old war, was just one of his accomplishments. That’s why he is now considered the greatest pharaoh in Egypt’s history and also known as Ramesses the Great. He undertook numerous military campaigns, fighting to extend Egypt’s borders as well as to regain old territories lost by his predecessors. He built multiple cities and some of the most famous temples and monuments during that time such as the Great Temple at Abu Simbel. The fact that he lived for 96 years and had an almost 67-year long reign (something unheard of at that time) probably helped, too.

5. What about the Sphinx? You’ve probably heard of the Sphinx or, at least, of one of them. When we say “Sphinx”, we typically refer to the giant, noseless statue at Giza. And, truth be told, that is, without a doubt, the most famous sphinx in the world, but it’s not the only one. And it’s not exclusively Egyptian, either. A sphinx is a mythological creature which has the body of a lion and the head of a man (and also wings, typically, sometimes a snake tail) and it makes appearances in Greek and Arabic works of art and literature. He’s also been used as an art motif numerous times so there are plenty of statues and paintings that depict sphinxes.

Sphinx and pyramids

Photo Credit: Daniel Mayer via Wiki Commons

6. Can you solve the Riddle of the Sphinx? Part of the lore surrounding the sphinx is that the creature would ask a question and would devour anyone incapable of answering it correctly. This gave birth to, probably, the most famous riddle in history. Well, actually, the first mentions of the sphinx didn’t specify a riddle. It wasn’t until later that one was added to the tale and, realistically, there have been many versions so it’s probably impossible to say for sure if the riddle we know today is the original one (don’t click that link if you want to answer the riddle).

So here it is: “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” There is also another riddle mentioned much more rarely: “There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters?” So, do you know the answers or would the sphinx have devoured you? Find out at the end of the article.

7. Egyptians loved board games. When they weren’t busy working, ancient Egyptians were quite keen fans of board games. Examples of games include Dogs & Jackals and Mehen, but the most popular seemed to be a game called Senet. Although we have found the ancient game boards and various other game tools, the rules for these games haven’t survived so we aren’t 100% sure how they were played.


Photo Credit: Keith Schengili-Roberts via Wiki Commons

8. “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”. That’s what Herodotus said, at least, to illustrate how important the river is to the Egyptian civilization. However, being the longest river in the world, the Nile actually passes through 11 African countries and the country with the largest segment is not Egypt, it’s Sudan. The Nile has always been considered an invaluable resource for that part of Africa and, unsurprisingly, to this day there are arguments between those countries regarding water sharing, with most nations within the Horn of Africa claiming that Egypt uses too many water resources.

9. They might have had the first labor strike. Despite our modern perception that ancient Egyptians used slaves for everything, the truth is that most of the construction labor was done by workers. And they were apparently not afraid to fight for their right to party…and by “party” I mean receive decent rations of grain. That is how the workers under Ramesses III staged the first recorded labor strike at Deir el Medina in 1155 BC.


10. They were really into perfumes. Egyptians weren’t the first to make them, but they valued perfume so much that they eventually became the world leader in perfumes. One of the most popular perfumes was made in the city of Mendes and was simply called Mendesian, although it became so popular globally that it eventually became known as the Egyptian.

Bonus: Here are the answers to the riddle. The creature that has four legs, then two legs, then three is man. When we’re babies we walk on all fours, we walk on two legs as adults and we use the cane as the third leg when we get old. The two sisters who give birth to one another are day & night.