The concept of race in human beings has come under considerable debate during the twentieth century. Recent surveys show that approximately half the anthropologists in the United States reject any scientific basis for race among humans. The American Anthropological Association characterizes racial categories as both arbitrary and subjective. This disfavor reflects both the inability to create consistent scientific definitions for supposed human racial groups and the misuse of the race concept in models of cultural evolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The latter led to the use of “scientific” race to support racist and colonial ideologies of superiority and inferiority. As a cultural, not scientific, construct, the concept of race can reveal key insights into the worldview of different cultures, particularly the ways they see themselves vis-à-vis the groups who surround them. This article will review modern views of race, followed by a comparison with and consideration of ancient Egyptian notions of race.

Modern Conceptions of Race.

The origins of the modern conception of race derive from the work of nineteenth-century anthropologists like L. H. Morgan and E. B. Tylor, who developed “scientific” unilinear evolutionary theoretical models for the development of human beings from “savagery” to “civilization.” Racial groups were ranked by evolutionary categories, linked to intellectual capacities, based on elaborate cranial measurements; supposedly, this provided causal links between phenotypic (observable) traits, mental capacity, and sociopolitical dominance. This model not coincidentally re-inforced the existing European-American domination of third-world peoples with the claim of scientifically “objective” methodologies based on race and evolution.

The unilinear evolutionary model did influence some early Egyptologists. W. M. Flinders Petrie used it to develop his notion of the “Dynastic Race,” to explain the rapid development of Egyptian civilization. In part this was based on prevailing models of culture change that emphasized migration as an explanation for cultural change, but, ultimately, racist notions drove the model. The implication was that Egypt had a “white” or “brown” ruling class dominating a native “black” African underclass who supplied the labor to build Egypt's great monuments. Petrie's model was never enthusiastically accepted by the Egyptological community as a whole, although the idea persisted through a few enthusiasts. James Henry Breasted echoed the sentiments of most contemporary Egyptologists in seeing the Egyptians as indigenous, but as a brown rather than black race, related to other northeastern Africans. It is interesting to note that the Egyptians became “white” for a classroom textbook, presumably reflecting the racism of the day. The last serious argument in support of the Dynastic Race theory appeared in Walter Emery's Archaic Egypt (New York, 1961). In the context of his discussion, it is ironic that some Afrocentric scholars seeking to undo the legacy of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century racist scholarship have revived the concept of race, often employing the same diffusionist arguments linking race to cultural achievement.

As early as 1897, the anthropologist Franz Boas challenged this racial ideology, in particular the argument for connections among language, culture, and biology (i.e., race). His observations contradicted the notion of races as biologically fixed natural groupings of physical traits ranked by proximity to the apes. Boas demonstrated that supposedly distinctive “core” racial indicators could change quickly in response to clothing styles, nutrition, and cultural and environmental factors. He still, however, recognized biological races, but he argued forcefully for the separation of culture and language from race and against the inherent racism of earlier evolutionary models. Boas and his influential student Ruth Benedict argued that culture was the most important explanation of human variation. Race's role was minimal and carefully circumscribed.

Further tainted by Nazism's use of genocide in the name of racial purity, the biological concept of race was gradually replaced by population genetics from the 1930s to the 1950s. Instead, micro-evolutionary theory focused on breeding populations with a collective set of genetic traits. Ashley Montague, another student of Boas, played a key role in developing and disseminating this concept, arguing in Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (New York, 1942) that “the character of these populations must lie in the study of the frequency distribution of the genes which characterize them—and not in the study of entities [racial categories] which are purely imaginary” (p. 36). Dynamic populations with overlapping characteristics replaced the old paradigm of static races. Far from being absolute, genetic traits are distributed in clines, that are continuously varying distributions of traits inconsistent with racial categories.

In spite of the evidence, race is still a powerful interpretive model in modern society. As Kamala Visweswaran (1998) concludes, “Races certainly exist, but they have no biological meaning outside the social significance we attach to biological explanation itself. … In other words, to say that race has no biological meaning is not to say race lacks meaning.” In other words, race is culturally constructed, and it is applied in modern societies in both positive and negative (i.e., racism) ways. Modern popular views of race still cling to supposed “phenotypic” traits (e.g., skin color, nose shape, and hair color and texture) that mark a small number of distinct races.

Ancient Egyptian Concept of Race.

Race and culture were often linked in Egyptian royal ideology in a scheme that recognized Egyptians as civilized superiors to their barbaric foreign counterparts with different skin color, dress, and speech. Unlike modern essentialist racial models, however, the Egyptians separated language and culture (costume, hairstyle, etc.) from race (skin color, facial features/phenotype), acknowledging that foreigners could act in positive ways and be incorporated into the civilized sphere. The solar theology explicitly acknowledges different racial groups: “You made the earth as you wished … you set every man in his place, you supply their needs; everyone has his food, his lifetime is counted. Their tongues differ in speech, their characters likewise; their skins are distinct, for you distinguished the peoples” (Hymn to the Aten, Lichtheim, 1973, pp. 131–132).

This is rendered artistically in scenes from the tombs of Ramesses III and Sety I showing the basic divisions of humankind. These depictions separated humankind into four peoples or races, each with stereotypical skin color, coiffure, and dress. The Egyptians (rmṯ “people”) are shown with red-brown skin, black shoulder-length hair, a simple white kilt, and small trimmed beard (only men are represented). Near Easterners (“Asiatics”; ʿʒmw, specifically Syrian-Palestinians), appear with yellow skin, a black bobbed hairstyle with headband tied at the back, elaborately decorated kilts, and ample, sometimes pointed, beards and mustaches. Nubians (Nḥsἰw) are shown with black skin, broad, flat noses, short hair in trimmed ringlets, hoop earrings, and decorated leather sashes over white Egyptian-style kilts. Finally, Libyans (Ṯḥnw) appear as very light-skinned, with geometric tattoos, braided or ringletted hair with sidelocks and two ostrich feathers; they wear a loincloth under a long leather cloak showing the natural patterns of the cow's hair.

Although these ideologically charged racial stereotypes approached modern racism in the context of state dogma, on a practical level the Egyptians did not engage in the kind of racial prejudice seen in modern times. Modern racism revolves largely around differences in skin color; in particular, dark skin color was (and with some groups still is) a sign of inferiority, regardless of individual achievement and sophistication. Miscegenation, or racial intermarriage, is often considered immoral. At its worst, skin color distinguished between slaves and free people, in general, in the pre–Civil War American South. The ancient Egyptians, and indeed ancient Mediterranean peoples did not generally make skin color a definitive criterion for racial discrimination. Slavery was not connected to race or even class. Thus, while Nubians were depicted with black skin, Nubians like the soldier and royal confidant Mahirper achieved high position in Egyptian society as long as they assimilated to Egyptian cultural norms. Similarly, a man of Near Eastern ancestry like Aper-El could achieve the highest office in the land. Nubians, Near Easterners, and other peoples married freely with Egyptians, and slaves were sometimes adopted into Egyptian families, at least among the elite. It was the cultural identity of immigrants to Egypt that mattered to their success in Egyptian society, not their skin color or ancestry. Thus, we may regard the Egyptians more as cultural chauvinists than as racists.

Race and foreigners in Egyptian literature.

Egypt's ideological view of foreigners, expressed in the basic racial divisions discussed above, reflects different goals and perceptions from the administrative realities of diplomacy, trade, and empire. Antonio Loprieno (1988) has characterized the Egyptian view of different peoples through a distinction between topos and mimesis, reflected in Egyptian literature. Topos represents and idealized view of the world, which serves a rhetorical but not necessarily literal end; mimesis reflects the reality of daily experience, if ultimately filtered through Egyptian cultural perceptions.

The ideological topos applied to foreign peoples in Egypt reflects a propagandistic manipulation of reality aimed at an inner audience. In the celebrative central ideology, often expressed in monumental art and architecture, Egypt becomes the center of the universe, and all the foreign lands bow down to the pharaoh regardless of their actual relationship. Foreigners represent chaotic, uncivilized threats to the inner order, ultimately disposed of by the ruler. The role of foreigners in the Egyptian foreigner topos stands in opposition to maat (“order, harmony, rightness”). Maat exists in opposition to isfet (“disorder, chaos”), which constantly tries to upset the heavenly and earthly order. The sun god Re appoints the king as the upholder of maat on Earth. Without the king and his constant struggle for maat, the whole world would fall into chaos and decay and would no longer be habitable. One of the most potent forces of isfet is the traditional foreign enemies of Egypt. Thus, foreigners appear as chaotic masses threatening Egypt's inner order. They are depicted as strangers and generalized as an ethnic group with negative qualities. The particular dress and physical appearance of each ethnic group emphasizes their otherness in the foreigner topos. Several literary themes characterize the foreigner topos. In a military context, foreigners are cowards, instantly defeated by the king, often without a fight. Thus, the boundary stela of Senwosret III (c. 1850 BCE), set up at Semna just south of the Second Cataract, reads:

Since the Nubian listens to the word of mouth,

To answer him is to make him retreat.

Attack him, he will turn his back,

Retreat, he will start attacking.

They are not people one respects,

They are wretches, craven-hearted. (Lichtheim, 1976, p. 119)

The Instructions for Merikare adopt a similar theme:

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 Horus,

Not conquering nor being conquered,

He does not announce the day of combat,

Like a thief who darts about a group …

The Asiatic is a crocodile on its shore,

It snatches from a lonely road,

It cannot seize from a populous town. (Lichtheim, 1976, pp. 103–104)

Other texts take the foreigner topos a step farther. Not only are foreigners wretched cowards, they are not really people (rmṯ); they are compared with animals, their speech unintelligible, like the jabbering of baboons. In the Admonitions of Ipuwer, everything in Egypt is topsy-turvy: the poor man is rich, the servant is served by a former master. Not surprisingly, even foreigners are treated like people:

Foreigners have become people everywhere.

Foreign bowmen have come into Egypt.

Lo, [break]

There are no people anywhere. (Lichtheim, 1976, pp. 151–152)

The Prophecy of Neferti is usually attributed to Amenemhet I's reign (c. 1950 BCE), although the theme below is better suited as a reference to the Hyksos domination of the Nile Delta in the Second Intermediate Period. In any case, the author takes up the theme of foreigner as animal, comparing Near Eastern immigrants with a flock of rapacious birds descending on Egypt:

A strange bird will breed in the Delta marsh,

Having made its nest beside the people

The people letting 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 those feeders,

Asiatics who roam the land.

Foes have risen in the East,

Asiatics have come down into Egypt. (Lichtheim, 1976, p. 141)

The New Kingdom Instructions of Anii likens Near Easterners and Nubians directly to various animals, dismissing them as mere beasts:

"There's nothing [superfluous in] our words,"

Which you say should be reduced.The fighting bull who kills in the stable,He forgets and abandons the arena;He conquers his nature,Remembers what he's learned …The monkey carries the stick,Though its mother did not carry it.The goose returns from the pond,When one comes to shut it in the yard.One teaches the Nubian to speak Egyptian,The Syrian and other strangers too.Say: “I shall do like all the beasts,”Listen and learn what they do. (Lichtheim, 1973, p. 144)

A more realistic portrayal occurs in texts reflecting mimesis. Foreigners are treated as individuals, not as stereotypes. They are identified by name and can speak Egyptian like a “real” person, and thus are incorporated into the Egyptian cultural framework. The fact that they are foreigners does not preclude the possibility that they can act in a positive way. Foreign influences and even deities are tolerated. For example, despite state ideological representations of Near Easterners as uncivilized enemies, Levantine mythical and literary motifs, loanwords, and deities such as Ba'al, Astarte, and Reshep all entered into the Egyptian cultural sphere during the New Kingdom. Although no indisputably Nubian deities appear in Egypt, elite military dress and accouterments, including leather kilts and hairstyles, were borrowed from Nubia.

The Middle Kingdom Tale of Sinuhe tells of a court official who flees Egypt upon the assassination of Amenemhet I to live in northern Palestine (Lebanon). A number of Near Easterners who help Sinuhe are depicted in very positive light, and he brags about his service to Ammunenshe, the ruler of Upper Retenu:

"When Asiatics conspired to attack the Rulers of Hill-Countries, I opposed their movements. For this ruler of Retenu made me carry out numerous missions as commander of his troops … I won his heart and he loved me, for he recognized my valor. He set me at the head of his children, for he saw the strength of my arms. (Lichtheim, 1976, p. 227)"

When a champion comes to challenge Sinuhe, he recognizes that his position is unusual, and that as a stranger he is regarded as inferior to local princes, a concept entirely foreign to the state topos:

"I am indeed like a stray bull in a strange herd, whom the bull of the herd charges, whom the longhorn attacks. Is an inferior beloved when he becomes a superior? No Asiatic makes friends with a Delta-man. And what would make papyrus cleave to that mountain? (Lichtheim, 1976, p. 227)"

Not surprisingly, in the end the story is still biased towards things Egyptian, but the following passage represents more a cultural chauvinism than an expression of modern racism:

"I was put in the house of a prince. In it were luxuries: a bathroom and mirrors. In it were riches from the treasury; clothes of royal linen, myrrh, and the choice perfume of the king and of his favorite courtiers were in every room. Every servant was at his task. Years were removed from my body. I was shaved; my hair was combed. Thus was my squalor returned to the foreign land, my dress to the Sand-farers. I was clothed in fine linen; I was anointed with fine oil. I slept on a bed. I had returned the sand to those who dwell in it, the tree-oil to those who grease themselves with it. (Lichtheim, 1976, p. 233)"

Foreigner topos in art and archeology.

Egypt's rich artistic and archaeological records shed further light on the ancient Egyptian view of foreigners in both the state ideology and everyday life. Both the foreigner topos and mimesis are reflected in pictorial representations of foreigners in Egyptian art. Topical depictions of foreigners as stereotypes appear prominently on large-scale monuments. The foreigner topos is also reflected strongly in the architectural setting and accouterments connected with kings that show foreigners as defeated enemies, with the stereotypical racial features mentioned above. These architectural elements and objects reflect the orthodoxy of the king's topical role as subduer of the traditional enemies of Egypt, who threaten maat, the eternal order of things. On the other hand, evidence from more private contexts reflects a mimetic viewpoint in the broader society, depicting foreigners as real people within an Egyptian cultural framework.

Objects from Tutankhamun's tomb show that the king was surrounded by imagery reflecting the foreigner topos. The elaborate battle scene on the painted box from the antechamber shows the king, larger than life, defeating a chaotic and disorganized mass of Near Easterners on one side, Nubians on the other. The ends of the box show Tutankhamun as a sphinx trampling a topical Near Easterner and Nubian with the stereotypical racial features of the foreigner topos (costume, skin color, and facial features). Similar bound prisoners decorate many of the objects from the tomb. In a text from one of his chariots, the king is “the Perfect God who appears in [maat] and who smites the nobles of all the foreign lands, who carries off millions and chops down thousands, (all) brought together beneath his sandals.” This symbolism is repeated over and over in the king's accouterments and the architectural setting for his appearances. The trampling motif is very common, often acting as sympathetic magic against Egypt's enemies. Thus, Tutankhamen's royal footstool has representations of topical Near Easterners and Nubians on which the king could rest the royal feet, and bound prisoners shown on the soles of the king's sandals allowed him to trample his enemies with each step he took. His walking staff had similar figures on the base, so that the king would drag his enemies in the dust. Foreigners were also depicted on the royal throne dais, the “window of appearances” where loyal followers were rewarded in state ceremonies, and on the bases of royal statues, which often listed conquered cities. Whenever the king made a public appearance, his own accouterments and surroundings emphasized his role as defender of maat and enemy of isfet—the topical foreign enemies of Egypt.

In contrast to state art, private tombs often represent a more mimetic view of foreigners especially when an acculturated immigrant owns the tomb. Nubian mercenaries settled at Gebelein in the First Intermediate Period are represented as Egyptians on their stelae, except for stereotypical Nubian facial features and dark skin color. Mahirper, who was given the honor of burial in the Valley of the Kings, is shown in his copy of the Book of Going Forth by Day as an Egyptian noble, but with Nubian features, military hairstyle, and dark skin. Egyptianized Nubian princes of Egypt's Lower Nubian empire, like Djehutyhotep of Tehkhet and Hekanefer of Miam (Aniba), are shown as Egyptian officials in their tombs, which have the same repertory of scenes and assemblage of grave goods as a typical elite tomb in Egypt. The same can be said of acculturated Near Eastern immigrants like Aper-El, vizier under Amenhotpe III, whose tomb at Saqqara is completely Egyptian in style and grave goods.

The Theban tomb of the viceroy of Kush Huy, the Egyptian official in charge of Egypt's Nubian colony, shows Nubians in the Presentation of Inw. The term inw is usually translated as “tribute,” but it really reflects a combination of tribute and gift exchange that reinforced social relationships. The ceremony was highly symbolic, stressing the topical role of the king as subduer of Egypt's enemies. As a result, the depiction of Nubians lies somewhere between topos and mimesis, depending on their role in the event. The Lower Nubian chiefs are depicted with the topical Nubian racial features, but they are surrounded by family members shown almost entirely as Egyptians. Huy names their leader, Hekanefer, prince of Miam (Aniba). As noted above, his tomb at Toshka East depicts him as a normal Egyptian official, reflecting a more mimetic view. The tomb of Djehutyhotep, prince of Tehkhet (the area around Fadrus and Serra) in the reign of Thutmose III, is better preserved, including several scenes depicting him as entirely Egyptian.

The “tribute” scene of Huy may actually represent a fairly accurate portrayal of the performance of the foreigner topos during this ceremony. Topos required that the Nubians bearing the “tribute” of Wawat and Kush appear in the racial stereotype of “southern foreigner,” with the typical ethnic costume, coloring, and facial features. Beneath the native trappings, however, the Lower Nubian participants wear the dress of the Egyptian elite, reflecting the fact that by this period their society was completely egyptianized. The subsidiary princelings, whom topos apparently did not require to wear foreign costumes, are shown in almost completely Egyptian outfits. These great ceremonies, recorded in the tomb of Huy and elsewhere, must have made an impressive display of royal power and authority. A New Kingdom model letter describes this event:

"Think about the day when the tribute is sent, and you are brought into the presence (of the king) under the Window (of Appearances), the Nobles to either side in front of his Majesty, the Princes and the Envoys of every foreign land standing, looking at the tribute … tall Trk-people in their garments, with fans of gold, high (feathered?) hairstyles, and their jewelry of ivory, and numerous Nubians of all kinds."

This text emphasizes the racial stereotypes, providing a good match to the tomb scenes. By including officials otherwise unconnected with the event, the king and central authority gained added prestige within an important segment of Egyptian society. These carefully organized events showed that the king could command people from a far-off land, wearing exotic costumes and bearing exotic and valuable gifts like gold, ivory, ebony, panther skins, even live giraffes and panthers. The use of racial stereotypes in the portrayal of foreigners was thus closely tied to the ideological legitimization of the king, which reinforced his authority both at home and abroad. The foreigner topos transformed the reality of Egyptian—Nubian relations to suit political purposes. On a cosmological level, they reinforced the role of the king in the maintenance of maat. This concept provided a powerful integrating force in Egyptian society and government, legitimizing the king's authority over the entire nation. The depiction of the king as the subduer of foreign lands established an ideological footing for Egypt's external relationships, emphasizing how the king brought order from chaos and vigorously subdued isfet, personified by the “rebellious” and inherently “chaotic” foreigners who might threaten Egypt and thus maat.



  • Benedict, Ruth. Race: Science and Politics. New York, 1940.
  • Bernal, Martin. Black Athena. New Brunswick, N.J., 1987. A good critique of the racist biases of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that minimized Egypt's African-ness and denied interactions with the Aegean. Unfortunately, he goes on to revive seriously flawed radical diffusionist approaches that posit massive migrations and influence of Egyptians on the development of classical civilization.
  • Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture. Chicago, 1940. A seminal work refuting the connection of biology (race) and culture.
  • Celenko, Theodore, ed. Egypt in Africa. Indianapolis, 1996. The companion volume for an innovative exhibit exploring ancient Egypt's African roots, juxtaposing images from Egypt and other African cultures. Each section is accompanied by essays from Egyptologists and Africanist scholars exploring related themes.
  • Davies, Nina de Garis, and Alan H. Gardiner. The Tomb of Huy Viceroy of Nuiba in the Reign of Tutʿankhamun (No. 40). London, 1926. Excellent documentation of this important tomb with its representations of Nubian and Near Eastern “tribute,” emphasizing the artistic stereotypes of the foreigner topos.
  • Diop, Cheikh Ante. The African Origin of Civilization. Chicago, 1974. A highly influential work that rightly points out the African origins of Egyptian civilization, but reinforces the methodological and theoretical foundations of colonialist theories of history, embracing racialist thinking and simply reversing the flow of diffusionist models.
  • Keita, S. O. Y., and Rick Kittles. “The Persistence of Racial Thinking and the Myth of Racial Divergence.” American Anthropologist 99 (1997), 534–544. An excellent summary of the evidence against race as a scientific concept, with particular reference to the ancient Egyptians.
  • Kemp, Barry J. “Imperialism in New Kingdom Egypt (c. 1575–1087 B.C.).” In Imperialism in the Ancient World, edited by P. D. A. Garnsey and C. R. Whittaker, pp. 7–57, 283–297. Cambridge, 1978. An excellent consideration of Egypt's Nubian and Syrian-Palestinian empires, including an extensive discussion of foreigners in Egyptian ideology.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 1, The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Los Angeles, 1976.
  • Lichtheim, Miriam. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. 2, The New Kingdom. Los Angeles, 1983.
  • Liverani, Mario. Prestige and Interest: International Relations in the Near East ca. 1600–1100 B.C. Padua, 1990. A perceptive, wideranging comparison of Egypt and the great powers of the Near East, contrasting ideological pronouncements that emphasize the internal prestige of the ruler, with diplomatic correspondence reflecting political and economic interest.
  • Loprieno, Antonio. Topos und Mimesis: Zum Ausländer in der ägyptischen Literatur. Wiesbaden, 1988.
  • Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, 1992. A comprehensive survey of Egypt's interactions with Syria-Palestine, including discussions of the role of Near Easterners in Egypt.
  • Säve-Söderbergh, Torgny, and Lana Troy. New Kingdom Pharaonic Sites. Uppsala, 1991. A thorough report on the excavation of several Nubian cemeteries, important to understanding the acculturation of Lower Nubians in the New Kingdom and the origins and role of the Lower Nubian princes.
  • Smith, Stuart T. “State and Empire in the Middle and New Kingdoms.” In Anthropological Analysis of Ancient Egypt, edited by Judy Lustig, pp. 66–89. Sheffield, 1997. Contrasts the economic and social dynamics of Egypt's empire with the portrayal and role of other peoples in Egyptian ideology.
  • Snowden, Frank. Before Color Prejudice. Cambridge, Mass., 1983. Contrasts modern and ancient views of race, arguing that modern color prejudice did not exist in antiquity.
  • Visweswaran, Kamala. “Race and the Culture of Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 100 (1998), 70–83.
  • Vogel, Joseph O., ed. Encyclopedia of Precolonial Africa. Walnut Creek, Calif., 1997. Includes numerous surveys of various aspects of northeastern African history and culture, including human origins, pastoralism, rock art, the rise of Neolithic culture, and the origins of the ancient Egyptians. See especially articles by Holl on Pan-Africanism and Afrocentrism, with particular reference to Diop; Ehret on African languages; and Williams, Hassan, Wettestrom, and Fattovich on the origins of Egyptian civilization and its connections to adjacent areas.

Stuart Tyson Smith