BY: AISHA ILYAD
Egypt – the land of magic and unknown ancient secrets, decorated with the greatest man-made structure of the ancient world, the great pyramid of Giza – is a land of many treasures. When Greek historian and philosopher, Herodotus, came to Egypt he was startled and stunned by the many beauties and marvelous creations of the Pharaohs in the blessing of River Nile. He told the world about the biggest pyramid they made, the shivering tall statues, enormous temples, well-protected state of the art megacities and the darkest conspiracies of a bygone age. It is the land belonging to many great Pharaohs including King Tutankhamen and the land of the Sun God, Ra. Egypt was also ruled by many great queens, those who marked today’s beauty standards, or at least this is what we have been told.
We live in a body-obsessed culture. Men and women both feel pressured to have perfect bodies, and we buy into so many ideas about what a perfect body is and what defines beauty. Pop culture is steeped in images of smoky-eyed pharaohs and their queens. Were the ancient Egyptians insufferably vain – or are we simply projecting our own values onto them?
We almost have a complete lack of primary sources, as we cannot hope to hear Cleopatra or Nefertiti, two of the most famous Egyptian queens true voice or see their real photo. Instead, we are forced to see them through secondary eyes – through paintings and statues – already colored by other people’s propaganda. Were they truly beautiful and actually responsible for setting today’s beauty standards or was it just their power and status that got people’s attention?
It is possible that ancient Egyptians were besotted with superficial appearance, much as we are today. Indeed, perhaps they even set the template for how we still perceive beauty.
Unsurprisingly, female beauty was referred to much more often than male beauty in Egyptian art and literature. Female allure, often described as “divine aroma”, is another significant point in Egyptian writings. Particularly the queens turned all the attention toward their selves, and this attention was purely from their links with the king. The more links the more status and attention.
Research shows ancient Egyptians of both sexes apparently went to great lengths to touch up their appearance. Moreover, this was just as true in death as it was in life: witness the smooth, serene faces, with regular features and prominent eyes emphasized by dramatic black outlines, typically painted onto cartonnage mummy masks and wooden coffins. It was one of the vainest ancient civilizations and one of the first nations that created perfumes, oils and other beauty treatments. Indeed, the Egyptians placed a very high emphasis on their physical appearance.
It may very well be that we have Ancient Egypt to thank for the world’s absurd belief that beauty is synonymous with youth. The depictions of young Egyptian women are considerably different from those of older ones. A youthful, slim silhouette depicted in Egyptian art is believed to be the ideal strived for by the vain nation. It’s a similar story with men, although the representations of aging in Egyptian art are much subtler in those cases. The Pharaohs were, however, sometimes depicted posthumously as elderly men in order to emphasize their wisdom.
Women’s body hair was similarly frowned upon, and their wigs were much more elaborate than men’s. Unlike men’s, however, the “beautiful” complexion of women was considered to be golden instead of reddish-brown. This is because reddish-brown colour was considered a “poor woman’s complexion”. Rich women who stayed indoors had a higher chance of preserving their paler, golden complexion. This golden colour was a prominent feature of Egyptian erotic texts.
Cleopatra and Nefertiti, who are believed to be the most beautiful females in ancient and today’s history, are set as sex symbols, but it is said that the former was actually plain, no more than 5ft tall and rather plump, and the later queen’s royal sculptor at the time may have smoothed creases around the mouth and fixed a bumpy nose to depict the ‘Beauty of the Nile’ in a better light. The properties of Photoshop existed even back then.
What about men in ancient Egypt?
One thing that might sound surprising is that the Egyptians viewed beards and moustaches as “unclean” and men’s faces were usually clean-shaven, which was seen as beautiful. Some of them even wore wigs instead of natural hair which they also shaved off.
Egyptians believed that the most “beautiful” skin on men was red or brown-ish, as depicted in many artworks. Heavyset men were considered less attractive than slim ones, although the most powerful figures were often depicted as strong and with well-toned musculature.
Symmetry was also a very important concept of male (as well as female) beauty in Ancient Egypt.
So What is Real Beauty?
One may find a person to be beautiful at first glance. On the other hand, sometimes one may not find a person to be beautiful at first, but after spending time with them may come to find that person to be beautiful.
Real beauty is something that you define for yourself, and you follow or you aspire to follow that definition. For example, if for one person real beauty is fairness, then that person will try to maintain and improve the fairness of their skin. Similarly, if for another person real beauty is about being good and being devoid of feelings like jealousy and hatred, then that person will aspire and try to maintain such goodness. So each person has their own definition of their real beauty.
A combination of internal and external beauty brings the real beauty out of a person. People are most beautiful when internal beauty takes priority over external beauty.