Music in ancient Egypt

Written by Felgr Pavel on .

Despite the diversity of musical instruments that preserved or were identified in wall paintings or reliefs, we don’t know much about ancient Egypt music. Unfortunately, the Egyptians didn’t come to the knowledge of written records of music, and if so, no evidence was found about it.

Probably we will never find out the melody of their songs. Experts believe that it was similar to both Oriental and African music. The motives related to nowadays Arabian music mingled in it with black elements.

String instruments

The Egyptian could play the harp since the Old Kingdom (around 2,700 – 2,190 BC), which shape was almost the same as the Sumerian type of harp. Scientists can’t agree whether it came from the Nile or from the area between the Euphrates and the Tigris. The harp had eleven to thirteen strings and it had to be resting on the ground because of its large dimensions. Men usually played the harp, but also playing women weren’t an exception. Evidence of this can be a polychrome relief representing a harpist, who was playing to her husband Mereruka. The relief is from 6th dynasty of the Old Kingdom and it was found in Mereruka’s tomb.

The Egyptian music index was enhanced with melodies of three new forms from West Asia since the New Kingdom (around 1,550 – 1,069 BC). Mainly it was smaller vertical pointed harp, which was light and ease to manipulate with. The evidence of it is a painting from the tomb of Rekhmire, the vizier of 18th dynasty. A fragile girl is playing such a harp in a funeral feast in it. One exemplar of such a harp with 21 strings is among other treasures stored in the Louvre Museum.

Another instrument was an elegant lute with a long neck and oval body, which was closed partly with leather and partly with a thin plate of wood, in which a hole for sound propagation was located. Last but not least also lyre of elegant shape was used. A painting from Djeserkaraseneb’s  tomb shows that it had seven strings. This instrument used to be the domain of women.

Wind instruments

One of the eldest wind instruments was flute, made mostly of reed, wood and later of metal. A flute, up to one meter long, is depicted on reliefs from the Old Kingdom, which had to be hold at an angle by the musician. Besides that kind also a form of short flute existed that was held horizontally. According to numerous depictions only male musicians were playing flutes.

Flutes were gradually replaced by other wind instruments at the time of New Kingdom, however, flutes are still in existence till these days under Arabian name naj and uffata. Ancient Egyptians also knew spiral pipe since early days. Its original use was very practical, it was used for remote communication, e.g. during a hunt.

A clarinet called zummara is played in contemporary Egypt, whose first evidence were found in 4th dynasty period. This instrument often accompanied flute production. Also trumpet was probably used since 4th dynasty, even if the first drafts of it came from beginning of the New Kingdom. The trumpet became an important part of the military equipment and it was used for signalling during war campaigns. Long oboe extended from Western Asia to Egypt, whose sound originated in double mouthpiece because of vibrations of two reeds. Pipes of Pan and other Greek instruments came in Ptolemaic period. Greek Ktesilos, who came from Egyptian Alexandria, invented water organ in 3rd century BC, a combination of pipes of Pan with keyboard.

Rhythm instruments

Instruments of various kinds and shapes were used for setting the rhythm. The simplest ones were stone or ivory clappers whittled to the shape of arched bent arms. There were often inscriptions on them of purely religious character. The rattle sistrum is a typical Egyptian instrument, which was based on freely moveable metal petals strung on a number of horizontal wires. This rattle made of a U-shaped metal of faience frame was a sacred instrument of the goddess Hathor. The handle was usually decorated with a plastic head of this goddess of beauty, love and music.

Later (approximately 664 – 332 BC) cimbaloms came to Egypt, two hollowed discs with a diameter of 15 cm. As additional instruments were used bells of all sizes. The eldest instrument with a membrane came from the Middle Kingdom (about 2,106 – 1,786 BC) – about one meter high cylindrical drum was found in a tomb in Beni Hasan. It was played by hammering with fingers or whole palms, but never with sticks. Also tambourines were popular, made of rectangular sheet of metal with slightly curved edges.

Music and singing

Instrumental music itself apparently didn’t exist in ancient Egypt, but it is hard to prove it. The singers were usually accompanied with one or rarely with several instruments at one time in the Old Kingdom.

Larger orchestra played with them in the New Kingdom, but they also could play an instrument by themselves. Famous is a depiction of two blind harpists in the tomb of Ramesses III. It seems that singing harpists were favourite musicians because these motifs are also used in others, mainly non-royal tombs.

An important part of the musical production was cheironomy. The dancer, singer or conductor of a choir or orchestra directed and guided the melody, rhythm and volume by habitual gestures and signs.

Message from the Nile

  • History of Czech institution of egyptology

    The Czech egyptology founder is Frantisek Lexa, the author of up to now evaluated work about ancient Egypt magic and Demotic grammar. Seminar for egyptology started thanks to him in Faculty of Philosophy and Arts of Charles University in Prague in 1925. Two years later Lexa became the first regular professor of egyptology in then Czechoslovakia.

  • Abusir - outstation of Czech egyptology expedition

    Abusir is an archaeological locality in Egypt named after nearby recent village Abusir. It is situated on western Nile bank on the edge of Libyan tableland approximately 20 kilometers to the south-west of Cairo. The name of this locality is derived from ancient Egypt god Osiris, from Per Usir (Busiris), "(cult) place of Osiris" (Busiris in Greek).

  • Researches in Western desert

    Czech egyptology is successful in researching not only on pyramidal fields in Abusir recently, but also in supporting and organizing smaller expeditions into egyptian Western desert. Czech expedition has been working even in slowly evanescent oasis El-Hajez since 2003, which is situated about 400 km to the south-west from Cairo.

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