Ancient Egyptian Science & Technology

Ancient Egyptian Science & Technology

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The great temples and monuments of ancient Egypt continue to fascinate and amaze people in the modern day. The sheer size and scope of structures like the Great Pyramid at Giza or the Temple of Amun at Karnak or the Colossi of Memnon are literally awe-inspiring and naturally encourage questions regarding how they were built. All across the Egyptian landscape rise immense structures, thousands of years old, which have given rise to many different theories as to their construction. While a number of very significant questions remain unanswered, the simplest explanation for many can be found in ancient Egyptian inscriptions, texts, wall paintings, tomb inscriptions, art, and artifacts: the ancient Egyptians had an extraordinary command of science and technology.

Ancient monuments and grand temples aside, the ancient Egyptians invented a number of items which one simply takes for granted in the modern day. Paper and ink, cosmetics, the toothbrush and toothpaste, even the ancestor of the modern breath mint, were all invented by the Egyptians. Additionally, they made advances in almost every sphere of knowledge from the manufacture of simple household goods to beer brewing, engineering and construction, to agriculture and architecture, medicine, astronomy, art and literature. Although they did not have command of the wheel until the arrival of the Hyksos during the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1782 - c. 1570 BCE), their technological skills are evident as early as the Predynastic Period (c. 6000-c. 3150 BCE) in the construction of mastaba tombs, artworks, and tools. As the civilization advanced, so did their knowledge and skill until, by the time of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323-30 BCE), the last to rule Egypt before it was annexed by Rome, they had created one of the most impressive cultures of the ancient world.

Household Goods

The simple handheld mirror one finds so commonplace in the present day was created by the Egyptians. These were often decorated with inscriptions and figures, such as that of the protector-god Bes, and were owned by men and women alike. More ornate wall mirrors were also a part of middle- and upper-class homes and were likewise decorated. The ancient Egyptians were very aware of their self-image and personal hygiene and appearance was an important value.

Toothbrushes and toothpaste were invented because of the grit and sand which found its way into the bread and vegetables of the daily meals. The image presented in the modern day by art and movies of Egyptians with exceptionally white teeth is misleading; dental problems were common in ancient Egypt, and few, if any, had an all-white smile. Dentistry developed to deal with these difficulties but never seems to have advanced at the same rate as other areas of medicine. While it appears doctors were fairly successful in their techniques, dentists were less so. To cite only one example, the queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE) actually died from an abscess following a tooth extraction.

Toothpaste was made of rock salt, mint, dried iris petals, and pepper, according to one recipe from the 4th century CE, which dentists in 2003 CE tried and found to be quite effective (although it made their gums bleed). Another earlier recipe suggested ground-up ox hooves and ash, which, mixed with one's saliva, created a cleansing paste for the teeth. This recipe, lacking the mint, did nothing for one's breath and so tablets were created from spices like cinnamon and frankincense heated in a honey mixture, which became the world's first breath mints.

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Ornamentation on furniture, although first appearing in Mesopotamia, became more elaborate in Egypt and more refined as time went on. Different colors of ink and different weights of paper were also developed by the Egyptians through their invention of paint cakes and processing of the papyrus plant. Small area rugs one finds in homes all over the world also were either invented or advanced in Egypt (made of the same papyrus plant) as were knick-knacks in the form of cats, dogs, people, and the gods. Small statues of gods such as Isis, Bes, Horus, Hathor, among others have been found as parts of household shrines as the people worshiped their gods in the home more often than at temple festivals. These statues were made of material ranging from sun-dried mud to gold depending on one's personal wealth.

Engineering & Construction

The great temples of ancient Egypt arose from the same technological skill one sees on the small scale of household goods. The central value observed in creating any of these goods or structures was a careful attention to detail. The Egyptians are noted in many aspects of their culture as a very conservative society, and this adherence to a certain way of accomplishing tasks can clearly be seen in their construction of the pyramids and other monuments. The creation of an obelisk, for example, seems to have always involved the exact same procedure performed in precisely the same way. The quarrying and transport of obelisks are well documented (though how the immense monuments were raised is not) and shows a strict adherence to a standard procedure.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser was successfully built according to the precepts of the vizier Imhotep (c. 2667-2600 BCE), and when his plans were deviated from by Sneferu during of the Old Kingdom (c. 2613- c. 2181 BCE), the result was the so-called 'collapsed pyramid' at Meidum. Sneferu returned to Imhotep's original engineering plans for his next projects and was able to create his Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid at Dashur, advancing the art of pyramid building which is epitomized in the Great Pyramid at Giza.

The technological skill required to build the Great Pyramid still mystifies scholars in the present day. Egyptologists Bob Brier and Hoyt Hobbs comment on this:

Because of their immense size, building pyramids posed special problems of both organization and engineering. Constructing the Great Pyramid of the pharaoh Khufu, for example, required that more than two million blocks weighing from two to more than sixty tons be formed into a structure covering two football fields and rising in a perfect pyramidal shape 480 feet into the sky. Its construction involved vast numbers of workers which, in turn, presented complex logistical problems concerning food, shelter, and organization. Millions of heavy stone blocks needed not only to be quarried and raised to great heights but also set together with precision in order to create the desired shape. (217)

In order to accomplish this, the vizier would delegate responsibility to subordinates who would further delegate tasks to others. The bureaucracy of the Old Kingdom of Egypt set the paradigm for the rest of the country's history in accounting for every aspect of a building project and making sure each step was proceeding according to plan. Later in the Old Kingdom, Weni, known as the Governor of the South, would leave an inscription detailing how he traveled to Elephantine for granite for a false door for a pyramid and dug five canals for towboats to bring supplies for further construction (Lewis, 33). Records such as Weni's show the immense amount of effort required in building the monuments one finds in Egypt today. There are numerous inscriptions relating to supplies and difficulties in building the pyramids at Giza but no definitive explanation of the practical means by which they were built.

The most popular theory involves ramps which were constructed as the pyramid was raised but this is actually untenable as Brier and Hobbs note:

The problem is one of physics. The steeper the angle of an incline, the more effort necessary to move an object up that incline. So, in order for a relatively small number of men, say ten or so, to drag a two-ton load up a ramp, its angle could not be more than about eight percent. Geometry tells us that to reach a height of 480 feet, an inclined plane rising at eight percent would have to start almost one mile from its finish. It has been calculated that building a mile-long ramp that rose as high as the Great Pyramid would require as much material as that needed for the pyramid itself - workers would have had to build the equivilent of two pyramids in the twenty-year time frame. (221)

A modification of the ramp theory was proposed by the French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin who claims ramps were used but on the inside of the pyramid, not the exterior. Ramps may have been used externally in the initial stages of construction but then were moved inside. The quarried stones were then brought in through the entrance and moved up the ramps to their position. This, Houdin claims, would account for the shafts one finds inside the pyramid. This theory, however, does not account for the weight of the stones or the number of workers on the ramp required to move them up an angle inside the pyramid.

A much more cogent theory has been proposed by engineer Robert Carson who suggests that water power was used. It has been clearly substantiated that the water tables of the Giza plateau are quite high and were more so during the period of the Great Pyramid's construction. Water could have been harnessed and pressure exerted via a pump, as Carson claims, to help raise the stones up a ramp to their intended position. Egyptologists still debate the purpose of the shafts inside the Great Pyramid with some claiming they served a spiritual purpose (so the king's soul could ascend to the heavens) and others a practical left over from construction. Egyptologist Miroslav Verner states that these questions cannot finally be answered as we have no definitive texts or archaeological evidence to point in one direction or another.

While that may be so, Carson's claim for water power in construction makes more sense than many others (such as a hoist being used to transport the stones when, clearly, there is no evidence whatsoever for Egyptian use or knowledge of a crane) and it is known that the Egyptians were acquainted with the concept of the pump. King Senusret (c. 1971-1926 BCE) of the Middle Kingdom drained the lake at the center of the Fayyum district during his reign through the use of canals and pumps were used to divert resources from the Nile in other periods. Ukranian engineer Mikhail Volgin also cites water as central to the Great Pyramid's construction and claims that the pyramids were not designed as tombs at all actually but were immense waterworks depots. He points to the lack of any mummies found in the pyramids, their shape, and the high water table of the Giza plateau as evidence for his claim.

Agriculture & Architecture

Whatever one makes of Volgin's water theory concerning the pyramids, Egyptian society did depend on a reliable supply of clean water for their crops and livestock. Ancient Egypt was an agricultural society and so naturally developed innovations to help cultivate the land. Among the many inventions or innovations of the ancient Egyptians was the ox-drawn plow and improvements in irrigation. The ox-drawn plow was designed in two gauges: heavy and light. The heavy plow went first and cut the furrows while the lighter plow came behind turning up the earth. Once the field was plowed then workers with hoes broke up the clumps of soil and sowed the rows with seed. To press the seed into the furrows, livestock was driven across the field and the furrows were closed. All of this work would have been for nothing, however, if the seeds were denied sufficient water and so regular irrigation of the land was extremely important.

Egyptian irrigation techniques were so effective they were implemented by the cultures of Greece and Rome. It has been noted that the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (c. 585 BCE) studied in Egypt and may have brought these innovations back to Greece (although he also studied at Babylon and could have learned irrigation techniques there). New irrigation techniques were introduced during the Second Intermediate Period by the people known as the Hyksos, who settled in Avaris in Lower Egypt, and the Egyptians improved upon them; notably through the expanded use of the canal. The yearly inundation of the Nile overflowing its banks and depositing rich soil throughout the valley was essential to Egyptian life but irrigation canals were necessary to carry water to outlying farms and villages as well as to maintain even saturation of crops near the river. Historian Margaret Bunson writes:

Early farmers dug trenches from the Nile shore to the farmlands, using draw wells and then the Shaduf, a primitive machine that allowed them to raise levels of water from the Nile into canals...Fields thus irrigated produced abundant annual crops. From the predynastic times agriculture was the mainstay of the Egyptian economy. Most Egyptians were employed in agricultural labors, either on their own lands or on the estates of the temples or nobles. Control of irrigation became a major concern and provincial officials were held responsible for the regulation of water. (4)

Architecture surrounding these canals was sometimes quite ornate as in the case of the pharaoh Ramesses the Great (1279-1213 BCE) and his city of Per-Ramesses in Lower Egypt. Ramesses the Great was one of the most prolific builders in Egyptian history; so much so that there is no ancient site in Egypt which does not make some mention of his reign and accomplishments. In creating his grand monuments, Ramesses' engineers called upon another invention of the Old Kingdom: the corbelled arch. Without the concept of the corbelled arch, architecture the world over would be significantly diminished and some structures, such as the Great Pyramid, would be impossibilities. The grand halls of the temples of Egypt, the inner sanctums, the temples themselves would all have been likewise impossible if not for this advance in engineering and construction.

One of the most impressive of Ramesses' monuments is his temple of Abu Simbel which was precisely designed so that, twice a year on 21 February and 21 October, the sun shines directly into the sanctuary of the temple to illuminate the statues of Ramesses and the god Amun. This kind of precision in design and construction can be seen in temples throughout Egypt which were all built to mirror the afterlife. The courtyard of the temple with its reflecting pool would symbolize the Lake of Flowers in the next world and the temple itself would stand for various other aspects of the afterlife and the final paradise of the Field of Reeds. Temples are regularly oriented toward cardinal points and some, like the Temple of Amun at Karnak, were used as astronomical observatories.

Mathematics & Astronomy

Astronomy was important to the ancient Egyptians on two levels: the spiritual and the practical. Egypt was thought to be a perfect reflection of the land of the gods and the afterlife a mirror image of one's life on earth. This duality is apparent in Egyptian culture in every aspect and epitomized in the obelisk which was always raised in pairs and believed to reflect a divine pair appearing at the same time in the heavens. The stars told the stories of the gods' accomplishments and trials but also indicated the passage of time and the seasons. Egyptologist Rosalie David comments on this:

The Egyptians were noted astronomers who distinguised between the "imperishable stars" (the circumpolar stars) and the "indefatigable stars" (the planets and stars not visible at all hours of the night). They used stellar observations to determine the true north and were able to orientate the pyramids with great accuracy...Each temple was possibly aligned toward a star that had a particular association with the deity resident in that building. (218)

On a more practical level, the stars could tell one when it was going to rain, when it was nearing time to plant or harvest crops, and even the best times for making important decisions such as building a home or temple or starting a business venture. Astronomical observations led to astrological interpretations which may have been adopted from Mesopotamian sources via trade. Strictly astronomical examination of the night skies, however, were interpreted in terms of pragmatism and recorded in mathematical calculations measuring weeks, months, and years. Although the calendar was invented by the ancient Sumerians, the concept was adapted and improved upon by the Egyptians.

Mathematics was used in record keeping, in developing the schematics for machines such as the water pump, in calculating tax rates, & in drawing up designs & siting locations for building projects.

According to many Egyptologists, mathematics in Egypt was entirely practical. Rosalie David, for example, claims, "Mathematics served basically utilitarian purposes in Egypt and does not seem to have been regarded as a theoretical science" (217). Ancient writers such as Herodotus and Pliny, however, consistently mention the Egyptians as the source of theoretical mathematics, and they are not the sole sources on this. Many ancient writers, Diogenes Laertius and his sources among them, point to philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato, who both studied in Egypt, and the importance of mathematical knowledge in their belief systems. Plato regarded the study of geometry necessary for clarity of mind and it is thought he took this concept from Pythagoras who first learned it from the priests in Egypt. In his book Stolen Legacy: The Egyptian Origins of Western Philosophy, scholar George G.M. James argues western philosophical concepts are falsely attributed to the Greeks who merely developed Egyptian ideas, and this same paradigm may hold for the study of mathematics as well.

There is no doubt that the Egyptians used mathematics on a daily basis for far more mundane purposes than the pursuit of ultimate truths. Mathematics was used in record keeping, in developing the schematics for machines such as the water pump, in calculating tax rates, and in drawing up designs and siting locations for building projects. Mathematics was also used on a very simple level in the medical arts in writing prescriptions for patients and mixing the ingredients for medicines.

Medicine & Dentistry

Medicine in ancient Egypt was intimately tied to magic. The three best-known works dealing with medical issues are the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE), the Edwin Smith Papyrus (c. 1600 BCE), and the London Medical Papyrus (c. 1629 BCE) all of which, to one degree or another, prescribe the use of spells in treating diseases while at the same time exhibiting a significant degree of medical knowledge.

The Ebers Papyrus is a text of 110 pages treating ailments such as trauma, cancer, heart disease, depression, dermatology, gastrointestinal distress, and many others. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is the oldest known work on surgical techniques and is thought to have been written for triage surgeons in field hospitals. This work shows detailed knowledge of anatomy and physiology. The London Medical Papyrus combines practical medical skill with magical spells for the treatment of conditions ranging from eye problems to miscarriages.

Medical texts, other than these, also give prescriptions for dental problems. Herodotus notes that doctors in Egypt were all specialists in their particular field and this applied to dentists as well as any other. There was a position known as "One Who is Concerned with Teeth", regarded as a dentist and another known as "One Who Deals with Teeth" who may have been a kind of pharmacist. The dentist was often called upon to pull a tooth but it seems that oral surgery was seldom performed. Most of the medical texts dealing with dental issues are preventative or related to pain management.

Based on the evidence of mummies who have been examined, as well as letters and other documents, ancient Egyptians seem to have experienced fairly severe and widespread dental problems. Dentistry does not seem to have evolved at the same pace as other branches of medicine but still was more advanced and showed a greater knowledge of dealing with oral pain than later remedies practiced by other cultures. The first known dental procedure dates to 14,000 years ago in Italy, according to evidence published in 2015 CE, but the first dentist in the world known by name was the Egyptian Hesyre (c. 2660 BCE) who held the position of Chief of Dentists and Physician to the King during the reign of Djoser (c. 2670 BCE) showing that dentistry was considered an important practice as early as Djoser's reign and probably earlier. This being so, it is unclear why dental practices did not evolve to the same degree as other medical fields.

Artwork and many medical texts seem to largely ignore dental problems and toothaches, but non-medical texts address them as most likely caused by a tooth-worm which needed to be driven away by magical spells, extraction, and applying an ointment. This belief most likely came from Mesopotamia, specifically Sumer, as an ancient text from that region predates the Egyptian concept of the tooth-worm. Medical tools have been found which could have been used by dentists, but as none are labeled or referred to clearly in texts, one cannot say for certain. It is clear, however, that dentists had the ability to diagnose oral disease and the technology to operate on gums and teeth.

Art & Literature

Technology also influenced Egyptian art and literature, not only in how it was produced but in content and form. Obviously, the invention of papyrus and ink greatly facilitated writing and advances in copper tools replacing flint in carving improved quality of art; but the world the Egyptians created through their understanding of scientific measurements and technological advancements became both the subject and the canvas artists worked on.

The Poem of Pentaur, for example, which narrates the victory of Ramesses the Great over the Hittites at Kadesh, is not simply written on a sheet of papyrus or a plaque but proclaimed from the sides of temples in Abydos, Karnak, Abu Simbel, and his Ramesseum. The form the artist worked in, the stone of the temple, informs the content of the piece itself: Ramesses' great victory against overwhelming odds. The story is more impressive for the medium in which it is told.

This same is true for the stelae, obelisks, and other monuments throughout Egypt. The literature which is inscribed on these stone pieces gives them their own life while imbuing the story itself with greater meaning as both literary and visual art. In written texts, of course, technological advances appear constantly in stories whether The Tale of Sinuhe where the narrator speaks of his travels in other lands and what he finds lacking there or the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor where the technology of shipbuilding makes the story possible.

The ancient Egyptians believed that balance, harmony, in all aspects of life was most important and this value can be seen in almost all of their advances in the sciences and technology: what was found lacking in life was balanced by what was created by individual ingenuity. Although the gods were thought to have provided all good things to human beings, it was still an individual's responsibility to care for one's self and the greater community. Through their inventions and advances in knowledge, the Egyptians would have believed they were doing the god's will in making even better the grand life and world they had been given.

Technology in the ancient world

The identification of the history of technology with the history of humanlike species does not help in fixing a precise point for its origin, because the estimates of prehistorians and anthropologists concerning the emergence of human species vary so widely. Animals occasionally use natural tools such as sticks or stones, and the creatures that became human doubtless did the same for hundreds of millennia before the first giant step of fashioning their own tools. Even then it was an interminable time before they put such toolmaking on a regular basis, and still more aeons passed as they arrived at the successive stages of standardizing their simple stone choppers and pounders and of manufacturing them—that is, providing sites and assigning specialists to the work. A degree of specialization in toolmaking was achieved by the time of the Neanderthals (70,000 bce ) more-advanced tools, requiring assemblage of head and haft, were produced by Cro-Magnons (perhaps as early as 35,000 bce ) while the application of mechanical principles was achieved by pottery-making Neolithic (New Stone Age 6000 bce ) and Metal Age peoples (about 3000 bce ).

Ancient Egyptian Science, Alchemy

The ancient Egyptians had many advanced scientific technologies, with much being found in picture form and in three-dimensional models throughout Egypt. Themes reflecting scientific knowledge and achievement can be found throughout the world in various ancient civilizations. These teachings seemed to center on electromagnetic energies.

Scenes depict scientists of that timeline able to work in fields of alchemy, biology, chemistry, dentistry, anesthesiology, air flight, and the electromagnetic energies of the Great Pyramid among other sacred sites – how that link together and to the sacred geometry that forms our universe. Much of the interpretation is left to those in our timeline to decipher.

Rare squared form of tet, at left. The heavy animal may be a ancient symbol for heavy electrons the squaring may be an ancient way of referring to water. The tet might employ magneto hydrodynamic principles like ancient Egyptian and modern transportation technology, but it may employ it in obtaining energy from certain materials as well.

The study of science and medicine were closely linked to religion as seen in many of the ancient rituals. The “pouring” and “anointing” we see in so many Egyptian works is the application of electromagnetic forces and not the application of actual fluids. Much of this was linked with ‘magic’ of some sort – as many unexplained things did occur. These were often considered miracles.

This image implies that something poured into the planet could cause spontaneous growth. The “pouring of water or an offering” and the outlandish angles at which it is being done tends to make it one of countless scenes reinforcing the idea that such scenes are instead showing the migration or transmission of electromagnetic forces. Every sacred symbol – linked to the gods – had a scientific as well as an esoteric purpose.

The cathode-ray tube or “Crookes’ tube” like object depicted in scenes from the temple of Hathor at Dendera may depict a relativistic source of these heavy electrons – which could drastically expedite the magical processes which involve these particular tubes.

The walls are decorated with human figures next to bulb-like objects reminiscent of oversized light bulbs. Inside these “bulbs” there are snakes in wavy lines. The snakes’ pointed tails issue from a lotus flower, which, without much imagination, can be interpreted as the socket of the bulb. Something similar to a wire leads to a small box on which the air god is kneeling. Adjacent to it stands a two-armed djed pillar as a symbol of power, which is connected to the snake. Also remarkable is the baboon-like demon holding two knives in his hands, which are interpreted as a protective and defensive power.

In his book The Eyes of the Sphinx, Erich Von Däniken writes that the relief is found in “a secret crypt” that “can be accessed only through a small opening. The room has a low ceiling. The air is stale and laced with the smell of dried urine from the guards who occasionally use it as a urinal.” The room is not so secret, however, as many tourists visit and photograph the room every year. Von Däniken sees the snake as a filament, the djed pillar as an insulator, and claims “the monkey with the sharpened knives symbolizes the danger that awaits those who do not understand the device.” This “device” is, the reader is assured, an ancient electric light bulb.

Electrical Lighting in Ancient Egypt

Metallurgy in particular was carried on with an elaborate technique and a business organization not unworthy of the modern world, while the systematic exploitation of mines was an important industry employing many thousands of workers. Even as early as 3400 B.C., at the beginning of the historical period, the Egyptians had an intimate knowledge of copper ores and of processes of extracting the metal. During the fourth and subsequent dynasties (i.e. from about 2900 B.C. onwards), metals seem to have been entirely monopolies of the Court, the management of the mines and quarries being entrusted to the highest officials and sometimes even to the sons of the Pharaoh.

Whether these exalted personages were themselves professional metallurgists we do not know, but we may at least surmise that the details of metallurgical practice, being of extreme importance to the Crown, were carefully guarded from the vulgar. And when we remember the close association between the Egyptian royal family and the priestly class we appreciate the probable truth of the tradition that chemistry first came to light in the laboratories of Egyptian priests.

Metal-Workers’ Workshop in Old Egypt

Copper and Iron Extraction

In addition to copper, which was mined in the eastern desert between the Nile and the Red Sea, iron was known in Egypt from a very early period and came into general use about 800 B.C. According to Lucas, iron appears to have been an Asiatic discovery. It was certainly known in Asia Minor about I300 B.C. One of the Kings of the Hittites sent Rameses II, the celebrated Pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty, an iron sword and a promise of a shipment of the same metal.

The Egyptians called iron ‘the metal of heaven’ or ba-en-pet, which indicates that the first specimen employed were of meteoric origin the Babylonian name having the same meaning.

It was no doubt on account of its rarity that iron was prized so highly by the early Egyptians, while its celestial source would have its fascination. Strange to say, it was not used for decorative, religious or symbolical purposes, which – coupled with the fact that it rusts so readily – may explain why comparatively few iron objects of early dynastic age have been discovered.

Ancient Egyptian Science & Technology - History

Egypt's Golden Empire takes students on a journey that spans over 500 years and examines all facets of life in ancient Egypt.

These lesson plans and the accompanying video clips (Requires free Real Player) are designed to showcase some of the most intriguing and historically significant people, places, and events from the film and Egyptian history.

Using interactive features such as "Virtual Egypt", "Hieroglyphics" and "A Day in the Life", students will study a wide variety of subjects, including World History, Geography, Science, Art, and Religion.

Lesson Plan 1: Hieroglyphs and Communication
The focus of this lesson is on the use of hieroglyphs as a form of communication, record keeping, and a means for preserving and passing down history.

Lesson Plan 2: Tombs and the Afterlife
The lesson focuses on the concept of the afterlife and the importance of pleasing the gods and goddesses, the significance of tombs and tomb building, and the burial customs and traditions of the ancient Egyptians.

Lesson Plan 3: The Queens of Ancient Egypt
Students will focus on learning about some of ancient Egypt's great queens like Nefertiti, Tiy, and Nefertari in this lesson. They will learn about what made these women powerful as well as how they impacted and influenced the lives of the common people by being held in such high regard by their husbands, the pharaohs.

Lesson Plan 4: Egypt's Greatest Leaders
Learning about seven of Egypt's most famous pharaohs will be the focus of this lesson. Students will also discuss leadership styles and draw conclusions about how leadership style contributed or detracted from the success of each of these pharaohs.

Egypt Lesson Plan 5: Architectural Marvels
This lesson gives students the opportunity to study pyramids, temples, and obelisks, all architectural marvels, even today. Students will learn about the purposes these structures served in Egyptian culture as well as how they were constructed and what we have learned from studying them.

Egypt Lesson Plan 6: A Day in the Life of an Egyptian
The focus of this lesson is to teach students about the daily lives of ancient Egyptians from every social class. Life varied dramatically for people based upon where they were in the social order, and students will examine how people from all walks of life lived.

Egypt Lesson Plan 7: Touring Ancient Egypt
Geographic features and the abundance of natural resources that helped ancient Egypt become the world's first superpower will be the focus of this lesson.

Egypt Lesson Plan 8: The Science and Technology of Ancient Egypt
In this lesson, students will learn about many of the key scientific and technological contributions made by the ancient Egyptians.

For 3,500 lesson plans and activities visit PBS TeacherSource

About the Author:

Lisa Prososki is an independent educational consultant who taught middle school and high school English, social studies, reading, and technology courses for 12 years. In addition to conducting workshops for teachers at various state and national meetings, Prososki also works with many corporate clients creating training programs and materials, facilitating leadership and operations workshops, and providing instructional support for new program rollouts. Prososki has authored one book and also serves as an editor for other writers of instructional materials.

Imhotep was, as far as we know, native Egyptian.

Science is a modern concept, "a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions".

Although the ideas of science came gradually, and it is not possible to point out a single moment when science was born, the first real science and the first real scientists are usually attributed to the 15th to 17th century, and the scientific revolution.

In ancient Egypt there was for example no difference between medicine and magic. The famous architect, engineer and physician Imenhotep (probably) wrote a medical text that is well known for being very practical and having very little magic in it. But it too contains magical spells, showing that Imenhotep also did not adopt a wholly scientific attitude. Instead the text is probably low on magic because most of the ailments it is concerned with are external. Much of it deals with trauma, and it is probable that it was a text book rising out of, and used in, battle-field medicine.

So there were no scientists in ancient Egypt.

Consider the flourishing of the New Kingdom:

The New Kingdom of Egypt, also referred to as the Egyptian Empire, is the period in ancient Egyptian history between the 16th century BC and the 11th century BC, covering the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Dynasties of Egypt. The New Kingdom followed the Second Intermediate Period and was succeeded by the Third Intermediate Period. It was Egypt’s most prosperous time and marked the peak of its power. [Wikipedia - New Kingdom of Egypt]

The rise of the New Kingdom was immediately preceded by the rule of The Hyksos:

The Hyksos. "foreign rulers" . were a mixed people from West Asia who took over the eastern Nile Delta , ending the thirteenth dynasty, and initiating the Second Intermediate Period of Ancient Egypt.[Wikipedia - Hyksos]

Concerning the period of Hyksos rule, Egypt made many technological advances:

The Hyksos brought several technical improvements to Egypt, as well as cultural impulses such as new musical instruments and foreign loan words. The changes introduced include new techniques of bronze working and pottery, new breeds of animals, and new crops. In warfare, they introduced the horse and chariot, the composite bow, improved battle axes, and advanced fortification techniques. [Wikipedia - Hyksos]

However, the presence of the Hyksos was not entirely negative for Egypt. They introduced Egypt to Bronze Age technology by teaching the Egyptians how to make bronze for use in new agricultural tools and weapons. More significantly, the Hyksos introduced new aspects of warfare to Egypt, including the horse-drawn war chariot, a heavier sword, and the compound bow. Eventually, a new line of pharaohs—the eighteenth dynasty—made use of the new weapons to throw off Hyksos domination, reunite Egypt, establish the New Kingdom (c. 1567-1085 b.c.e.), and launch the Egyptians along a new militaristic and imperialistic path. During the period of the New Kingdom, Egypt became the most powerful state in the Middle East

Arguably, the zenith of Egyptian power and success, the New Kingdom period, was to a large extent the result of those innovations introduced by the Hyksos. If so, although we may not be able single out particular individuals who were or were not Egyptian, we can make a reasonable assertion that the flourishing of ancient Egyptian culture, exemplified by the New Kingdom period, was the result of the non-Egyptian science and technology introduced by the Hyksos.

Disclaimer: I am by no means an Egyptologist, and I'm quite certain I've merely scratched the surface of a subject that has been discussed in far more depth in scholarly literature.

(An interesting aside concerning the Hyksos: For those seeking extra-biblical support for the presence of the ancient Hebrews in Egypt, see: The Hyksos continued to play a role in Egyptian literature:

The Hyksos continued to play a role in Egyptian literature as a synonym for "Asiatic" down to Hellenistic times. and this may have led the Egyptian priest and historian Manetho to identify the coming of the Hyksos with the sojourn in Egypt of Joseph and his brothers, and led to some authors identifying the expulsion of the Hyksos with the Exodus.

However, I believe that modern scholars have found little support for this claim.)

Science in Ancient Egypt & Today: Connecting Eras

Science is the seed to plant civilizations and to write history. This is exactly what the Ancient Egyptians realized 5,000 years ago in order to build their own civilization. Realizing the importance of science, Ancient Egyptians believed there is a god of science called T-hoth. Thoth’s body had human form but his head was the one of an ibis. His feminine counterpart was called Seshat and his wife was Ma’at. To show the importance of science in this bygone era and to show how strongly the Ancient Egyptians believed in the interconnection between different scientific fields with focus on specific disciplines and inventions, we will sail along the banks of the River Nile discovering parts of Ancient Egyptian history and how science has affected it.

The god Ra was considered the god of all gods and the second one to rule the world in Ancient Egypt. Surprisingly, Ra was the god of the sun! The sun for Ancient Egyptians was the symbol of power and life and the god of the sun was considered the king of the world. Thoth, the god of science, was the secretary and counselor of the god “Ra” due to the importance of science in this era. Not only that, but Thoth also married Ra’s daughter Ma’at.

Thoth became credited by the Ancient Egyptians as the god of wisdom, magic, the inventor of writing, the development of science and the judgment of the dead. Without his words, the Egyptians believed, the gods would not exist. His power was unlimited in the underworld and rivalled that of Ra sometimes. In the Coptic calendar nowadays, the first month is named after Thoth and known as Tout. It lies between 11 September and 10 October of the Gregorian calendar. Interestingly, Ma’at was the representative of moral and physical law. Some scholars considered her as the most important goddess of Ancient Egypt. While Ancient Egypt is sometimes rather associated with mummies and pyramids, a great number of ancient Egyptian inventions are still being used in our daily lives. Let’s focus on eight of the most important fields for us nowadays.

  • Paper and writing: Ancient Egyptians were among the first civilizations to make widespread use of the invention of writing and to keeping records of events. The earliest form of writing in Egypt was in the form of the hieroglyphics language, which consisted simply of drawings portraying a story. Papyrus was the first form of durable sheets of paper to write on. The material was named “papyrus” as it was made from the papyrus plant. To complete the writing process, one of the inventions in Egypt was, surprisingly, black ink. They were very talented at creating not only black ink, but many multi-colored types of ink and dye. The brilliant colors can still be seen today, thousands of years later.
  • Time: The Ancient Egyptian calendar was originally based on the cycle of the star Sirius, effectively applying astronomy principles to develop an accurate calendar divided into 12 months, 365 days and 24-hour units. We still use their calendar model in our tracking of the days today. They were one of the first to divide days into equal parts through the use of timekeeping devices like sundials, shadow clocks and obelisks with evidences for even water clocks. Generally, the passing of the day was determined by the position of the sun, and the passing of the night was determined by the rise and fall of the stars.
  • Construction: The Ancient Egyptians are known for their massive constructions and outstanding architecture such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The ramp and the lever were two of the most famous construction inventions they developed, and the principles that guided them are still widely used in construction today.
  • Ships and Navigation: Trade was an important part of ancient cultures, so having working ships was extremely important. The ancient Egyptians employed knowledge of the science of aerodynamics in their ship construction processes to create ships that were able to catch the wind and push vessels through water. They also developed the concept of using rope trusses strengthening the beams of their ships. They were also the first ones to use stem-mounted rudders on their ships. At first, they built small boats out of papyrus reed but eventually they began building larger ships from cedar wood.

Papyrus reeds on the banks of the mighty river Nile. Photo:© JoLin

  • Medicine: Many of their most famous inventions were based upon the scientific principles the Ancient Egyptians discovered. They had a variety of medical techniques and cures for both humans and animals, along with a vast knowledge of anatomy, as they practiced mummification and preservation of the dead. One of the earliest accounts of medical texts originated in ancient Egypt: It described and analyzed the brain, providing the earliest insight into neuroscience.
  • Cosmetics: Many people are not aware that toothpaste was actually an invention of Ancient Egyptians. As their bread had so much grit and sand in it, they experienced problems with their teeth. They invented the toothbrush and toothpaste in order to care for their teeth and keep them clean of grit and sand. The first toothpaste was made of a wide variety of ingredients, some included eggshells, ashes and ground-up ox hooves. Not only that, but they also invented breath mints to cover bad breath. The mints were made of myrhh, frankincense and cinnamon that were boiled in honey and shaped into small bite-sized pellets.
  • Make-up: Make-up originated with ancient Egyptians, where men and women both used to put it on. While the make-up was used primarily for cosmetic purposes and as a fashion statement, it had another advantage as well, in that it protected their skin from the sun. Perhaps the makeup that they are most popular for was the dark kohl that they put around their eyes. Kohl was made from soot and other minerals and is the concept from which modern eyeliner originated.
  • Mathematics: The great pyramids that the ancient Egyptians built required extensive knowledge of mathematics, especially of geometry. Math and numbers were used to record business transactions and the Ancient Egyptians even developed a decimal system. All their numbers were factors of 10, such as 1, 10, 100 and so on. Therefore, in order to denote 4 units, they would write the number “1” four times. The beauty of their development in mathematical science is especially noticeable in one of their monuments that is still awe-inspiring until this very day – The Temple of Abu Simbel in Aswan, Southern Egypt. The sun becomes perpendicular on the face of the statue of King Ramses II (one of the historical Ancient Egyptian kings) inside the temple only twice a year on October 22 and February 22. Surprisingly, these two days turned to be the king’s birthday and his coronation day respectively. The Sun first enters from the front side of the temple to a distance of 200 meters reaching the Holy of Holies, which includes a statue of Ramses II, surrounded by statues of two sun gods Ra-Hor and Amun-Ra and the Sun then stays perpendicular on the King’s face for 20 minutes. Interestingly, there’s one statue in the temple that the sun never touches: The statue of the god Ptah, who was considered the god of darkness. This is called the solar phenomenon in Abu Simbel temple.

The temple of Abu Simbel not only impresses through its appearance but also through its mathematical intricacies. Photo:

The list of wondrous achievements continues, some even speculate that the Ancient Egyptians already possessed some knowledge of electrical phenomena. Lightning and interaction with electric fish was recorded within an Ancient Egyptian text referring to “high poles covered with copper plates” that some believe to be an early reference to electric principles. Inspired by the solar phenomenon and the power of the sun, combined with mathematics and the ancient trials to discover electricity, my research work is dedicated to solar energy and its conversion to electricity. In an attempt to refocus onto the importance of the sun as a clean and everlasting source of energy in order to satisfy one of the basic needs of modern life – generating electricity – my research is based on converting solar energy to electricity or what is called the “photovoltaic effect”. In my research, I work on fabricating solar cells based on thin film absorbers that have the potential of achieving higher efficiencies at lower costs. As Ancient Egyptians were talented in using chemicals for mummification, I am using some chemical compounds based on Copper, Indium, Gallium and Selenium (CIGSe) to fabricate thin film solar cell absorbers that are characterized with a high absorption coefficient leading to high efficiencies of conversion. These absorbers are hundred times thinner semiconductors compared to Silicon wafers (current state-of-the-art technology) with lower energy needs and simpler preparation methods. Solar cells based on these absorbers with other high band gap absorber materials that I invented consisting of Copper, Silicon and Sulfur (CSiS) could be able to form a multi-junction solar cell breaking current records of efficiencies especially if equipped with a solar tracking system.

Great achievements in science and technology in ancient Africa

Despite suffering through the horrific system of slavery, sharecropping and the Jim Crow era, early African-Americans made countless contributions to science and technology (1). This lineage and culture of achievement, though, emerged at least 40,000 years ago in Africa. Unfortunately, few of us are aware of these accomplishments, as the history of Africa, beyond ancient Egypt, is seldom publicized.

Sadly, the vast majority of discussions on the origins of science include only the Greeks, Romans and other whites. But in fact most of their discoveries came thousands of years after African developments. While the remarkable black civilization in Egypt remains alluring, there was sophistication and impressive inventions throughout ancient sub-Saharan Africa as well. There are just a handful of scholars in this area. The most prolific is the late Ivan Van Sertima, an associate professor at Rutgers University. He once poignantly wrote that &ldquothe nerve of the world has been deadened for centuries to the vibrations of African genius&rdquo (2).

Here, I attempt to send an electrical impulse to this long-deadened nerve. I can only fly by this vast plane of achievements. Despite this, it still should be evident that the ancient people of Africa, like so many other ancients of the world, definitely had their genius.

Surely only a few of us know that many modern high-school-level concepts in mathematics first were developed in Africa, as was the first method of counting. More than 35,000 years ago, Egyptians scripted textbooks about math that included division and multiplication of fractions and geometric formulas to calculate the area and volume of shapes (3). Distances and angles were calculated, algebraic equations were solved and mathematically based predictions were made of the size of floods of the Nile. The ancient Egyptians considered a circle to have 360 degrees and estimated &Pi at 3.16 (3).

Eight thousand years ago, people in present-day Zaire developed their own numeration system, as did Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria. The Yoruba system was based on units of 20 (instead of 10) and required an impressive amount of subtraction to identify different numbers. Scholars have lauded this system, as it required much abstract reasoning (4).


Several ancient African cultures birthed discoveries in astronomy. Many of these are foundations on which we still rely, and some were so advanced that their mode of discovery still cannot be understood. Egyptians charted the movement of the sun and constellations and the cycles of the moon. They divided the year into 12 parts and developed a yearlong calendar system containing 365 ¼ days (3). Clocks were made with moving water and sundial-like clocks were used (3).

A structure known as the African Stonehenge in present-day Kenya (constructed around 300 B.C.) was a remarkably accurate calendar (5). The Dogon people of Mali amassed a wealth of detailed astronomical observations (5). Many of their discoveries were so advanced that some modern scholars credit their discoveries instead to space aliens or unknown European travelers, even though the Dogon culture is steeped in ceremonial tradition centered on several space events. The Dogon knew of Saturn&rsquos rings, Jupiter&rsquos moons, the spiral structure of the Milky Way and the orbit of the Sirius star system. Hundreds of years ago, they plotted orbits in this system accurately through the year 1990 (6). They knew this system contained a primary star and a secondary star (now called Sirius B) of immense density and not visible to the naked eye.

Metallurgy and tools

Many advances in metallurgy and tool making were made across the entirety of ancient Africa. These include steam engines, metal chisels and saws, copper and iron tools and weapons, nails, glue, carbon steel and bronze weapons and art (2, 7).

Advances in Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago surpassed those of Europeans then and were astonishing to Europeans when they learned of them. Ancient Tanzanian furnaces could reach 1,800°C &mdash 200 to 400°C warmer than those of the Romans (8).

Architecture and engineering

Various past African societies created sophisticated built environments. Of course, there are the engineering feats of the Egyptians: the bafflingly raised obelisks and the more than 80 pyramids. The largest of the pyramids covers 13 acres and is made of 2.25 million blocks of stone (3). Later, in the 12th century and much farther south, there were hundreds of great cities in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. There, massive stone complexes were the hubs of cities. One included a 250-meter-long, 15,000-ton curved granite wall (9). The cities featured huge castlelike compounds with numerous rooms for specific tasks, such as iron-smithing. In the 13th century, the empire of Mali boasted impressive cities, including Timbuktu, with grand palaces, mosques and universities (2).


Many treatments we use today were employed by several ancient peoples throughout Africa. Before the European invasion of Africa, medicine in what is now Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, to name just a few places, was more advanced than medicine in Europe. Some of these practices were the use of plants with salicylic acid for pain (as in aspirin), kaolin for diarrhea (as in Kaopectate), and extracts that were confirmed in the 20th century to kill Gram positive bacteria (2). Other plants used had anticancer properties, caused abortion and treated malaria &mdash and these have been shown to be as effective as many modern-day Western treatments. Furthermore, Africans discovered ouabain, capsicum, physostigmine and reserpine. Medical procedures performed in ancient Africa before they were performed in Europe include vaccination, autopsy, limb traction and broken bone setting, bullet removal, brain surgery, skin grafting, filling of dental cavities, installation of false teeth, what is now known as Caesarean section, anesthesia and tissue cauterization (3). In addition, African cultures preformed surgeries under antiseptic conditions universally when this concept was only emerging in Europe (2).


Most of us learn that Europeans were the first to sail to the Americas. However, several lines of evidence suggest that ancient Africans sailed to South America and Asia hundreds of years before Europeans. Thousands of miles of waterways across Africa were trade routes. Many ancient societies in Africa built a variety of boats, including small reed-based vessels, sailboats and grander structures with many cabins and even cooking facilities. The Mali and Songhai built boats 100 feet long and 13 feet wide that could carry up to 80 tons (2). Currents in the Atlantic Ocean flow from this part of West Africa to South America. Genetic evidence from plants and descriptions and art from societies inhabiting South America at the time suggest small numbers of West Africans sailed to the east coast of South America and remained there (2).
Contemporary scientists have reconstructed these ancient vessels and their fishing gear and have completed the transatlantic voyage successfully. Around the same time as they were sailing to South America, the 13th century, these ancient peoples also sailed to China and back, carrying elephants as cargo (2).

People of African descent come from ancient, rich and elaborate cultures that created a wealth of technologies in many areas. Hopefully, over time, there will be more studies in this area and more people will know of these great achievements.

10 Amazing Ancient Egyptian Inventions

There may be no greater tribute to a society's ingenuity and vision than Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza. Originally standing 481 feet (147 meters) tall, the Great Pyramid towers over monuments like the Statue of Liberty and Big Ben [source: PBS]. Of course, the pyramids are only part of ancient Egypt's legacy.

Over the thousands of years ancient Egyptians thrived, they ushered in perhaps the most advanced civilization the world had ever known, and many of the fixtures of their society are still commonplace. For instance, Egyptian women donned ornate jewelry and wigs, the men boxed, fenced and wrestled for sport and the children played with board games, dolls and other toys. They also thrived as inventors, and, as you'll see in this list of five amazing Egyptian inventions, their creations changed everything from fashion to agriculture so drastically that we still see their influence today.

Sure, eye makeup might not rank alongside fire or the wheel as one of the most important discoveries in human history, but it gives the Egyptians a run for longevity. Since they first invented eye makeup as far back as 4000 B.C., it's never gone out of style. Even more impressive, some cosmetically-minded cultures still create makeup using the same techniques pioneered by the Egyptians thousands of years ago. They combined soot with a mineral called galena to create a black ointment known as kohl, which is still popular today. They could also create green eye makeup by combining a mineral called malachite with galena to tint the ointment.

For the Egyptians, makeup was not limited to women. Status and appearance went hand in hand, and as far as the upper class was concerned, the more makeup the better. Fashion was only part of the reason for the Egyptians' notoriously heavy hand when applying eyeliner. They also believed that applying a thick coating of the stuff could cure various eye diseases and even keep them from falling victim to the evil eye.

Although eye makeup gave Egyptians a distinctive look that came to define our kohl-outlined image of them, they didn't stop there, developing everything from a rouge made of tinted clay to nail polish made from henna. What's more, they created perfumes from different plants and flowers, as well as deodorant produced from things like incense and porridge.

The use of drawings to tell stories is certainly nothing new cave paintings found in France and Spain date all the way back to 30000 B.C. [source: Wherely]. But drawings and paintings wouldn't evolve into the first written language for thousands of years, when the first writing systems arose out of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The Egyptian writing system began with pictograms, the first of which date back to 6000 B.C. [source: Harrow]. Pictograms were simple depictions of the words they represented, but they had limitations. Over time, Egyptians added other elements to their writing system, including alphabetlike characters that stood for certain sounds and other characters, allowing them to write out names and abstract ideas.

Today, everyone knows the Egyptians for the creation of hieroglyphics, which contained a mixture of alphabetic, syllabic symbols, as well as ideograms -- pictures that stood for whole words -- found extensively within Egyptian tombs and other places. The writing tells tales of war, politics and culture that give us a great understanding of ancient Egyptian society. Of course, we have the Rosetta stone to thank for our ability to interpret the writing. Its discovery, along with the work of French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion to decode the stone, marked the end of a 1,500-year-period during which Egyptian writing was shrouded in mystery [source: Discovering Egypt].

No one will deny that the Chinese changed the world forever with the invention of paper around 140 B.C., but what many people don't know is that the Egyptians had developed an admirable substitute thousands of years earlier from the papyrus plant [source: UCLA]. This stiff, reedlike plant grew (and continues to grow) in the marshy areas lining the Nile, among other places. Its tough, fibrous interior proved ideal for making durable sheets of writing material, along with sails, sandals, mats and other necessities of ancient Egyptian life. After the sheets were made, they were often combined into scrolls, which were then filled with everything from religious texts to literature and even music.

Ancient Egyptians kept the time-consuming process of manufacturing papyrus a closely guarded secret, allowing them to trade papyrus sheets throughout the region. Because the process was never documented, it was ultimately lost until Dr. Hassan Ragab found a way to make papyrus sheets in 1965 [source: Egyptian Papyrus].

Many of us would be lost without a calendar to help us remember dental appointments and important meetings, but in ancient Egypt, a calendar could mean the difference between feast and famine. Without a calendar, ancient Egyptians had no way of knowing when the annual flooding of the Nile would begin. Without that knowledge, their entire agricultural system would be put at risk, so a few thousand years before the common era, they started using one.

Their civil calendar was so closely tied into farming that the Egyptians divided it up into three main seasons: inundation, growing and harvest. Each season had four months, with each month divided into 30 days. Adding it all up, you get 360 days a year -- a bit short of an actual year. To make up the difference, the Egyptians added five days between the harvest and inundation seasons. These five epagomenal days, were designated as religious holidays set aside to honor the children of the gods [source: Weininger].

While historians aren't entirely certain of where the plow originated, evidence suggests that the Egyptians and Sumerians were among the first societies to employ its use around 4000 B.C. [source: Pryor]. Those plows certainly had room for improvement. Likely built from modified hand tools, the plows were so light and ineffective that they are now referred to as "scratch plows" for their inability to dig deep into the ground. What's more, the plows ran on nothing more than elbow grease. For instance, wall paintings illustrate four men pulling a plow through a field together -- not a great way to spend a day in the scorching Egyptian sun.

That all changed in 2000 B.C., when the Egyptians first hooked their plows to oxen [source: Leju]. Early designs were connected to the horns of cattle but proved to interfere with the animal's ability to breathe. Later versions incorporated a system of straps and were much more effective. The plow revolutionized farming in ancient Egypt and, combined with the steady rhythm of the Nile River, made farming easier for the Egyptians than perhaps any other society of the time.

The plow certainly made the process of planting crops much easier, but farming was still backbreaking work. Farmers used short-handled hoes to till the ground, forcing them to stoop over in the hot sun all day long. The Egyptians also carried seeds in baskets and used scythes to help them harvest their crops. Perhaps the most ingenious farming tools, however, were the pigs and sheep they used to trample seed into the dirt.

The next time you peruse the counter at the 7-Eleven for Mentos or Breath Savers, you should thank the ancient Egyptians for devising a way to conceal the unpleasant aromas our mouths sometimes exude. Just as in modern times, bad breath in ancient Egypt often was a symptom of poor dental health. Unlike us, the Egyptians didn't gorge on sugary soft drinks and foods that contribute to tooth decay, but the stones they used to grind flour for bread contributed a lot of sand and grit to their diet, which wore down tooth enamel to expose the pulp of the tooth, making it vulnerable to infection.

The Egyptians had specialists for many medical problems, but unfortunately, they didn't have dentists or oral surgeons to fix their deteriorating teeth and gums. Instead, they simply suffered, and scientists who've examined mummies have found severely worn teeth and evidence of abscesses, even in youthful Egyptians. To cope with the unpleasant odors from their rotting mouths, Egyptians invented the first mints, which were a combination of frankincense, myrrh and cinnamon boiled with honey and shaped into pellets [source: Brier and Hobbs].

Writers of the 1998 comedy film "The Big Lebowski," in which pivotal scenes take place in a bowling alley, might have had to find a different motif if it hadn't been for the ancient Egyptians. In Narmoutheos, a settlement 56 miles (90 kilometers) south of Cairo that dates back to the Roman occupation period in the second and third centuries A.D., archaeologists have discovered a room containing a set of lanes and a collection of balls of various sizes. Measuring about 13 feet (3.9 meters) long, the 7.9-inch-wide (20-centimeter), 3.8-inch-deep (9.6-centimeter) lane featured a 4.7-inch (11.9-centimeter) square opening at its center.

Unlike modern bowling, in which bowlers strive to knock down pins at the end of the alley, Egyptian bowlers aimed for the hole in the middle. Competitors stood at opposite ends of the lane and attempted to roll balls of different sizes into the center hole and in the process also knock their opponent's ball off course [source: Lorenzi].

Perhaps the Egyptians were the first ancient people to fuss over their hair, or perhaps not. But either way, they considered hair unhygienic, and the sweltering heat of their homeland made long tresses and beards uncomfortable. Thus, they cut their hair short or shaved their heads and faces regularly. Priests, who apparently were especially averse to hirsuteness, shaved their entire bodies every three days [source: Knight]. For much of their history, being clean-shaven was considered fashionable, and being stubbly came to be considered a mark of poor social status.

To that end, the Egyptians invented what may have been the first shaving implements, a set of sharp stone blades set in wooden handles, and later replaced those with copper-bladed razors. They also invented the barbering profession. The first barbers made house calls to wealthy aristocrats' houses but tended to ordinary customers outdoors, seating them on benches underneath shady sycamore trees.

Oddly, though, they also retained a fascination for facial hair, or at least the appearance of having some. The Egyptians took shorn hair and sheep's wool and fashioned them into wigs and fake beards -- which, even more oddly, were sometimes worn by Egyptian queens as well as kings [source: Dunn]. The fake beards had various shapes, to indicate the dignity and social position of their wearer. Ordinary citizens wore small fake beards about 2 inches (5 centimeters) long, while kings wore their phony whiskers to extravagant lengths and had them trimmed to be square at the end. Egyptian gods had even more luxurious long beards, which were turned up at the tip [source: King].

Whenever you lock your door at night and slide the deadbolt into place, say a prayer of thanks for the ancient Egyptian invention of door locks. The earliest such device, created around 4000 B.C., basically was a pin-tumbler lock, in which a hollowed-out bolt in the door was connected to pins that could be manipulated by insertion of a key. When the key pushed upward on the pins, they slipped away from the bolt shaft, allowing it to be withdrawn.

One drawback of these ancient locks was their size. The biggest ones were up to 2 feet (0.6 meters) in length [source: How It Works]. Egyptian locks actually were more secure than the technology later developed by the Romans, who used a simpler design with a spring rather than a bolt to hold the door in place. The Roman locks were hidden inside the door, but compared to the Egyptian locks, they were relatively easy to pick [source: de Vries].

As we mentioned previously, the Egyptians had a lot of trouble with their teeth, in large part because their bread had grit and sand in it, which wore out their enamel. While they didn't have dentistry, they did make some effort to keep their teeth clean. Archaeologists have found toothpicks buried alongside mummies, apparently placed there so that they could clean food debris from between their teeth in the afterlife. Along with the Babylonians, they're also credited with inventing the first toothbrushes, which were frayed ends of wooden twigs.

But the Egyptians also contributed a innovation to dental hygiene, in the form of toothpaste. Early ingredients included the powder of ox hooves, ashes, burnt eggshells and pumice, which probably made for a less-than-refreshing morning tooth-care ritual [source:]. Archaeologists recently found what appears to be a more advanced toothpaste recipe and how-to-brush guide written on papyrus that dates back to the Roman occupation in the fourth century A.D. The unknown author explains how to mix precise amounts of rock salt, mint, dried iris flower and grains of pepper, to form a "powder for white and perfect teeth" [source: Zoech].

The discovery of the Egyptian toothpaste concoction was presented in 2003 at a dental conference in Vienna, where some of the dentists sampled a replication of the ancient blend. "I found that it was not unpleasant," one dentist told the Telegraph. "It was painful on my gums and made them bleed as well, but that's not a bad thing, and afterwards my mouth felt fresh and clean" [source: Zoech].

Ancient Egyptian Science & Technology - History

Metallurgy is the science of separating metals from their ores, and it developed quite recently, considering the length of human history. Ancient Egyptians were neither the inventors of metallurgy, nor the most innovative in its development.[1] Yet metals, especially gold, had a very important place in their culture, and they produced some of the best-known ancient metal objects from that metal, such as the golden mask of King Tutankhamun. From the point of view of historians and archaeologists, Egypt’s importance lies in the incredible detail in which the evidence of the past was preserved in the arid climate of ancient Egypt. What was destroyed elsewhere was, in Egypt, preserved or recorded in its art.

Ancient Egypt fascinates both the general public and scholars. The study of ancient Egyptian metallurgy is a developing field, but although hundreds of analyses of the chemical composition and technology of ancient Egyptian metal objects have been done, there is no synthesis of the knowledge amassed so far.[2] The evidence available to modern archaeologists is largely determined by preselection by the past culture—in this case ancient Egyptians—by conscious and unconscious rules that were applied to the creation and production of sources. For ancient Egypt, we have data that show how much evidence is present and how other pieces of evidence are missing from the sources.

The main metals used in ancient Egypt were copper, gold, silver, and iron. Copper and gold were more abundant, while silver was relatively rare, and iron emerged very late in Egyptian history (only in the first millennium BCE, although meteoritic iron was already in use as early as the fourth millennium BCE).[3] Sources of the copper ore were found in the Egyptian Eastern Desert and Sinai, and were exploited by mining and military expeditions, as this was not the core territory of ancient Egyptians. Co-occurrence of gold and copper ore, found in quartz veins that contained both metals, was the decisive factor in the earliest explorations. Ancient Egyptian prospectors were very successful in reading the natural characteristics of rocks and discovering new sources of ore. There is hardly any modern site with ore near the surface that was not already known in antiquity. Gold was mined from the quartz veins, and ore had to be crushed. In the case of copper, Egyptians knew how to extract copper from the oxide and sulphide ores, repeatedly smelting the ore to get ever purer metal. Sources of iron ore were not very rich in Egypt, but those in Nubia, further to the south, were richer.[4] Egyptians relied on broad exchange networks, reaching both south, north, and northeast of Egypt, although these trade connections were harmed when competing neighboring states stopped the influx of the materials. More scientific analyses are needed to reconstruct these exchange networks and study their changes through time.

Metal objects have been used for the greater part of Egyptian history by the elite and for the elite. The occurrence of metals in Egypt is rather late compared to other Eastern Mediterranean cultures. Small copper objects appeared for the first time in the Badarian culture, in Upper Egypt, during the second half of the fourth millennium BCE. A wider application of copper objects can be found about five hundred years later, with the appearance of copper tools for craftsmen, copper and gold jewellery, and metal vessels. Later items included cosmetic objects, such as mirrors, razors, and tweezers. Many popular works state that early Egyptians, including the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom pyramid builders, used only tools made of pure copper, but that is not true: they were using arsenic copper as the main practical alloy, which was typical for the whole ancient Near East in the Early Bronze Age. Sometimes arsenic and copper occur naturally together in one ore but in other cases they were mixed intentionally. The addition of arsenic to copper causes the resulting alloy to be harder and gives it properties similar to those of tin bronze, such as hardness and ductility.[5] And already in the Early Dynastic Period, Egyptians certainly used tin bronze (an alloy of copper with c. 10% tin). Archaeologists know this because the oldest definitively dated tin bronze objects, a spouted jar and wash basin, were found in the tomb of King Khasekhemwy, which was built and furnished at the end of the Second Dynasty (c. 2775–2650 BCE).

Old Kingdom (Fourth to Sixth Dynasties, c. 2600–2180 BCE) evidence from the era of the pyramid builders shows in great detail how that culture decided what they would preserve and how. Had it not been for the custom of depositing copper model tools in the burial equipment, we would have almost nothing preserved from the metal tools used in that era because full-sized tools were recycled, both in that period and later. Iconographic sources indicate the use of other metal artifacts that were not preserved from the Old Kingdom, such as metal weapons. Scattered finds from Old Kingdom settlements provide artifacts which were not included in the burial equipment (or only very rarely), nor included in the iconography, such as sewing needles.[6]

Ancient Egyptians were rather conservative in their recourse to technological solutions. They used V-shaped wooden hafts and used leather thongs to attach metal blades to tools (fig. 1) even though they knew about the more practical technological solution of the socket eye for tool and weapon blades (fig. 2).

Figure 1: Metal adze blade attached to a wooden haft by leather thongs. Egypt, New Kingdom, Deir el-Bahari. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (public domain).

Figure 2: So-called duck-bill axe with a socket hole for insertion of a wooden haft. The socket is marked by an oval shape. Egypt, Second Intermediate Period. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (public domain).

Scholars know that Egyptians were aware of such technology because they depicted captured foreign soldiers with weapons of a different construction. Later, in the Second Intermediate Period (sixteenth to fifteenth century BCE), part of north Egypt was ruled by foreigners, called Hyksos, who used socket eyes on their axe blades.

Ancient Egyptians accepted innovative approaches, but only when necessary. The technology of their tools and weapons did not change much, and they held to their traditional solutions, which worked well enough. Full-size tools and model tools used similar concepts (figs. 3 and 4).

Figure 3: Foundation deposit of a temple with model tools. Deir el-Bahari, temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (public domain).

Figure 4: New Kingdom battle axe with a new blade shape, but with the traditional attachment to the blade. Asasif. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (public domain).

But Egyptians did adopt new types of weapons, such as swords and horse-drawn chariots, when it became inevitable that they would have to fight the foreign Hyksos troops.[7] Also, they adopted tin bronze very slowly. There are sites where tin bronze objects were used along with those made of arsenical copper.[8] Only from the New Kingdom and its Eighteenth Dynasty (fourteenth century BCE) do we have definitive evidence of the use of tin bronze on a large scale.[9]

Most Egyptians worked in agriculture and used stone-flint sickle blades (fig. 5) and other tools made from stone, wood, and bone.

Figure 5: Wooden sickle with inserted flint blades. Egypt, Lisht. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (public domain).

The iron agricultural tools were used on a larger scale only since the Ptolemaic Period, when a foreign Macedonian dynasty ruled over Egypt and iron was more accessible, because in nature iron ores are more widespread than ores of other metals. Only then was there a mass dissemination of metal objects in Egypt, tin bronze still being used for cast objects. Later, in Roman Egypt, this division continued, with iron tools and weapons being used massively, while bronze and brass (the latter being an alloy of copper and zinc) was used for a wide range of cast objects. It is interesting to note that both Greek and Roman authors had no doubts attributing the building of the pyramids to Egyptians, which by that time were already ancient. Wild theories, disregarding our knowledge of the ancient Egyptian technology, including metallurgy, are of much later date.

The question of cultural conservativism, apparent in the case of ancient Egypt, is characteristic for many human societies: if the solution works for the society, there is no pressing need to change it. This can be observed in the case of electric cars versus gasoline-powered cars, and more generally in the use of fossil fuels versus renewable energy sources. The school of thought researching the “success” of technologies in societies is called SCOT—social construction of technology.[10]

It was true in the past that many ancient Egyptian treasures were accessible only in Egypt or in world museums. However, in the last decade a number of credible online resources allow access to hundreds of ancient Egyptian objects just by entering the word “Egypt” in a collection search, including the oldest working Egyptological website, courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum the online collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston the British Museum in London and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College, London.

Complete documentation for excavating the famous tomb of Tutankhamun is also online at the Griffith Institute of the University of Oxford. However, online and open-access resources about ancient Egyptian metallurgy are rather scarce, and there is also misleading information in popular works. One important and credible online resource is a lavishly illustrated catalog, “Gifts for the Gods: Images from Egyptian Temples,” on ancient Egyptian metal statues.[11]

[1]. Current synthesis on the knowledge of early metallurgy is presented in Archaeometallurgy in Global Perspective: Methods and Syntheses, ed. Benjamin W. Roberts and Christopher P. Thornton (New York: Springer, 2014).

[2]. A good introduction in English is Jack Ogden,“Metals,” in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, ed. Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 148–76.

[3]. See Thilo Rehren et al.,“5,000 Years Old Egyptian Iron Beads Made from Hammered Meteoritic Iron, ” Journal of Archaeological Science 40, no. 12 (2013): 4785–92 and Diane Johnson, Joyce Tyldesley, Tristan Lowe, Philip J. Withers, and Monica M. Grady, “Analysis of a Prehistoric Egyptian Iron Bead with Implications for the Use and Perception of Meteorite Iron in Ancient Egypt,” Meteoritics and Planetary Science 48, no. 6 (2013): 997–1006.

[4]. Rosemarie Klemm and Dietrich Klemm, Gold and Gold Mining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia: Geoarchaeology of the Ancient Gold Mining Sites in the Egyptian and Sudanese Eastern Deserts (New York: Springer, 2012).

[5]. Heather Lechtman, “Arsenic Bronze: Dirty Copper or Chosen Alloy? A View from the Americas,” Journal of Field Archaeology 23, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 477–514.

[6]. For further detail, see Martin Odler, Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools, Archaeopress Egyptology no. 14 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2016).

[7]. See John Coleman Darnell and Colleen Manassa, Tutankhamun’s Armies: Battle and Conquest during Ancient Egypt’s Late 18th Dynasty (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2007) and André J. Veldmeijer and Salima Ikram, eds., Chasing Chariots: Proceedings of the First International Chariot Conference (Cairo 2012) (Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2013).

[8]. Graham Philip, Tell El-Dab’a XV: Metalwork and Metalworking Evidence of the Late Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period (Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2006).

[9]. Some analyses of Eighteenth Dynasty Amarna objects have been published in Zofia Stos-Gale, Noel Gale, and Judy Houghton,“The Origins of Egyptian Copper: Lead-Isotope Analysis of Metals from El-Amarna,” in Egypt, the Aegean and the Levant: Interconnections in the Second Millenium BC, ed. W. Vivian Davies and Louise Schofield (London: British Museum, 1995), pp. 127–35.

[10]. Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, Trevor Pinch, eds., The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1987).

[11]. Marsha Hill and Deborah Schorsch, eds., Gifts for the Gods: Images from Egyptian Temples (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007).

Ancient Egyptian Science & Technology - History

From ancient history till the sixteenth century, the Near East was leading the world in technological innovation and advance. This is not to minimize the importance of Chinese civilization and its great contributions to the world but what we want to point out is that the overall contribution of the Near East to human progress in general until the sixteenth century, surpasses anything that was achieved anywhere else in the world. This was true during the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, as it was true during the Hellenistic and the Roman periods. What is called the Greco-Roman heritage was built on the great civilizations of the Near East. Furthermore, the major achievements in science and technology that are called Hellenistic and Roman were mainly Near Eastern achievements due to the scholars and artisans of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia.

The pre-Islamic civilizations of the Near East and of all the lands extending from Central Asia and northern India to Spain were inherited by Islam and under the influence of Islam and of the Arabic language, the science and technology of these regions were greatly developed and advanced.

During the rise of Islamic civilization, Europe was still at an early stage in its technological status. Charles Singer, in the second volume of A History of Technology , observes that "the Near East was superior to the West. For nearly all branches of technology, the best products available to the West were those of the Near East. Technologically, the West had little to bring to the East. The technological movement was in the other direction". [2]

Despite these facts, the influence of the medieval Arab-Islamic civilization in formulating the Western tradition and in providing the foundation for its science and technology is hardly recognized in the mainstream of modern Western literature, except for an occasional reference. There is a resistance by the mainstream of Western historians in acknowledging this influence.

This article summarizes the debt that the West owes to the Arabic-Islamic civilization in the field of technology. It comes as a response to the sudden interest in the West in the Arabic-Islamic achievements in science and technology an interest that was awakened by the recent political and military events.

Transfer of Islamic science and technology to the West was affected through various avenues. We give below an outline of these.


There was a remarkable flow of scientific and technological knowledge from the Muslim east to al-Andalus and that was central to its cultural and economic vitality.

The most fruitful transfer to the West took place in the Iberian Peninsula, where over several centuries the generally tolerant rule of the Umayyad Caliphs and their successors permitted friendly relationships between Muslims and Christians.

The Spanish historian, Castro, argued that Christian Spain has always been an importer of technologies, and after the fall of Toledo in 1085 the exporters of technology were the Muslim Mudéjars [3] who formed enclaves of technological expertise that were geographically inside the country, but ethnically outside it. Ethnic boundaries are not hermetically sealed. Diffusion of techniques was continuous. The implantation of new techniques in Spanish Christian towns was effected through the migration of artisans, utilization of the skills of ethnic enclaves, or imitation of foreign wares. Castro is of the opinion that Christian economy was colonized by its own ethnic subordinates.

The Mozarabs [4] played also an important role in transferring Arabic culture and technology to Christian Spain. The Christian kingdoms could only continue to expand by successfully colonizing the territories that they had occupied. These territories were virtually depopulated because of the conquests and it was therefore necessary to repopulate them again. One method used was to attract Mozarab immigrants from al-Andalus. Such was the policy which enabled Alfonso III to colonize the conquered territories. The Mozarabs were to build important buildings, monasteries and fortresses that constituted typical examples of Mozarabic architecture. They brought with them their knowledge of the language that enabled them to compile Arabic glosses on Latin manuscripts, and to translate Arabic works. They provided the base of the intellectual movement of the "School of Translators of Toledo". They introduced Arabic-Islamic tastes, crafts and administrative skills. In this sense, it is undeniable that they contributed powerfully to the intellectual and cultural arabisation of the Christian kingdoms.

Muslim techniques in agriculture, irrigation, hydraulic engineering, and manufacture were an integral part of everyday life in the southern half of the peninsula, and many Muslim skills in these fields and in others, passed from Christian Spain into Italy and northern Europe. These transmissions were not checked by the crusading wars which were going on against the Muslims in Spain. Indeed, they were probably accelerated, since the Christians took over the Muslim installations and maintained them in running order in the ensuing centuries.


Sicily was part of the Muslim Empire and did not lag behind in the cultivation of a high standard of civilization including the founding of big institutions for teaching sciences and arts. Due to its proximity to mainland Italy it had played an important role in the transmission of Arabic science and technology to Europe. During the Arab era (827-1091) and the Norman one (1091-1194) Sicily was, after Spain, a bridge between the Arabic-Islamic civilization and Europe.

In the Muslim period, Palermo was a major city of trade, culture and learning. It became one of the greatest cities in the world. It was a period of prosperity and tolerance as Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in harmony and peace.

The Arab tradition of tolerance toward other religions was perpetuated under the Norman kings. Under the rule of Roger II, Sicily became a clearing house where eastern and western scholars met and exchanged ideas that were to awaken Europe and herald the coming of the Renaissance. Arabic science was passed from Sicily to Italy and then to all of Europe.

The Arab presence in Sicily was the stimulus for artistic activity which characterized Norman Sicily. Virtually all monuments, cathedrals, palaces and castles built under the Normans were Arab in the sense that the craftsmen were Arab, as were the architects. As a result, Arabic influence on architecture can be seen in several Italian cities.

The Arabs introduced many new crops: including cotton, hemp, date palms, sugar cane, mulberries and citrus fruits. The cultivation of these crops was made possible by new irrigation techniques brought into Sicily.

The revolution in agriculture generated a number of related industries, such as textiles, sugar, rope-making, matting, silk, and paper. Other industries included glass, ceramics, mosaics, arms and engines of war, ship building, and the extraction of minerals such as sulphur, ammonia, lead and iron.

The proximity of Sicily to mainland Italy made it, together with Muslim Spain, a source for the transfer of several industrial technologies to Italian cities such as the manufacture of paper and silk.

By the late 11 th or early 12 th century sericulture had been established in Muslim Sicily and by the 13 th century silk textiles were being woven on the Italian mainland itself, principally at Lucca and Bologna. These two Italian cities were also the site of the first silk-throwing machine in Europe, a technology that was transferred from the Arabs of Sicily.


The proximity of Byzantium to the Islamic lands and the common borders between them resulted in active commercial and cultural contacts. Some Arabic scientific works were translated into Greek. The discovery of the Tusi Couple in a Greek manuscript that could have been accessible to Copernicus accounts fairly well for the possible transmission of that theorem through the Byzantine route. Technology was transferred from Islamic lands to Byzantium and from thence to Europe.


The Crusades in the Near E ast

In the high Middle Ages "Orient" for Europe meant Arabic civilization, and although the influence of the Crusades on the transmission of science to Europe was small, yet the Crusaders, while in the Near East, experienced the attractive sides of Islamic life, and attempted to imitate these on their return home. These aspects of material civilization mean that the Crusaders transferred to Europe several technological ideas from the Near East [5] . The outcome was the adoption by the Christian West of some of the great achievements of Arabic civilization. This Arabic influence was to have an enormous impact on the further development of Europe.

The Crusades in Spain

The Crusades against the Muslims in Spain resulted in various kinds of technology transfer to the Christians of Spain. One of these technologies was the use of gunpowder and cannon. It is reported that this technology was transferred also to England in 1340-42 at the siege of al-Jazira in al-Andalus. The English earls of Derby and Salisbury participated in the siege and it is reported that they carried back with them to England the knowledge of making gunpowder and cannon. After few years the English used cannon for the first time in Western Europe against the French in the battle of Crecy in 1346.

Relations between Christian Europe and the Islamic World were not always hostile, and there were active commercial relations most of the time. This led to the establishment of communities of European merchants in Muslim cities, while groups of Muslim merchants settled in Byzantium, where they made contact with Swedish traders traveling down the Dnieper. There were particularly close commercial ties between Fatimid Egypt and the Italian town of Amalfi in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The ogival arch, an essential element of Gothic architecture, entered Europe through Amalfi - the first church to incorporate such arches being built at Monte Cassino in 1071.

In the Middle Ages, oriental luxury goods were indispensable to the lifestyle of the European upper classes. Significant as these luxury goods were to European culture of the Middle Ages, they were no less important to the medieval economy. Foreign trade that provided these luxury items was an economic enterprise on a grand scale.

Islamic luxury goods and pepper were transported from Syria and Egypt. Venice became the chief transfer point in Europe. With the profits from this trade, the Venetian wholesale merchants built their marble palaces. The splendid architecture of Venice, lavishly displaying its oriental influence, became a sort of monument to its trade with Islamic lands.

The Translation of Arabic Works

The translation movement which started in the twelfth century had its impact on the transfer of technology. Alchemical treatises are full of industrial chemical technologies such as the distillation industries and the chemical industries in general. Arabic treatises on medicine and pharmacology are rich also in technological information on materials' processing. Works on astronomy contain many technological ideas when they deal with instrument-making.

In the court of Alfonso X there was an active translation movement from Arabic where the work entitled Libros del Saber de Astronomia was compiled. It includes a section on timekeeping, which contains a weight-driven clock with a mercury escapement. We know that such clocks were constructed by Muslims in Spain in the eleventh century about 250 years before the weight-driven clock appeared in northern Europe.

The West was acquainted with the Muslim science of surveying through the Latin translations of Arabic mathematical treatises.

Translations of technical materials from Arabic are evident in Adelard of Baths's new edition of Mappae Calvicula . Several recipes from Arabic were confirmed by historians of science. It is known that Adelard resided in Arabic lands and was a noted translator from Arabic. Another important text of Arabic origin is the Liber Ignium of Marcus Graecus. It is now acknowledged that gunpowder was first known to the West through this treatise.

Arabic Manuscripts in European Libraries

I n his research into the avenues through which Copernicus became acquainted with the Arabic theorems on astronomy George Saliba [6] indicated that these theorems were circulating in Italy around the year 1500 and thus Copernicus could have learned about them from his contacts in Italy. Saliba demonstrated that the various collections of Arabic manuscripts preserved in European libraries contain enough evidence to cast doubt on the prevailing notions about the nature of Renaissance science, and to bring to light new evidence about the mobility of scientific ideas between the Islamic world and Renaissance Europe.

There was no need for Arabic texts to be fully translated into Latin in order for Copernicus and his contemporaries to make use of their contents. There were competent scientists in that period when Copernicus flourished who could read the original Arabic sources and make their contents known to their students and colleagues.

This information about the availability of Arabic manuscripts in European libraries and the familiarity of many Europeans with Arabic brings to light the possible transfer of Islamic technology into Europe in the sixteenth century through the possible understanding of un-translated Arabic works. We mentioned below that the Banu Musa, al-Jazari and Taqi al-Din described in their works innovations in mechanical technology much earlier than the appearance of similar devices in the West.

We may recollect in passing that Arabic was taught in academies and schools in Spain, Italy and France that were established mainly for missionary purposes, but they served other fields of knowledge as well. They were also taught in some universities.

Flow of Arabic Recipes from Spain into Europe

Beside the known Arabic works that were translated into Latin, and the Arabic manuscripts in Western libraries, there is ample evidence that there was an active traffic of recipes flowing from Spain into Western Europe.

Starting with Jabir ibn Hayyan in his book Kitab al-Khawass al-Kabir which contains a collection of curious operations some of which are based on scientific principles, physical and chemical, an Arabic literature on secrets arose. Some of these secrets are called niranjat . Military treatises also, such as al-Rammah's book, contain recipes of secrets in addition to the formulations of military fires and gun-powder.

The Arabic military and the secrets recipes found their way into Latin literature. All recipes in the Liber Ignium had their corresponding ones in the known Arabic literature. Numerous other Latin works such as those of Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, and Kyeser and Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth, contain recipes of Arabic origin

An explanation on how these Arabic recipes, military and secret, found their way into Latin literature has been suggested. There were in Spain persons with knowledge of Arabic science and technology, and of both Arabic and Latin, who embarked on compiling various collections of recipes from Arabic sources to meet the increasing demand in Europe. Jews were most active in this pursuit. These collections were purchased at high prices by European nobility, engineers and other interested parties. Some recipes were un-intelligible but they were purchased on the hope that they will be interpreted at some future time.

Migration of Artisans

An effective method of technology transfer was the migration of craftsmen and artisans. They migrated either through treaties and commercial relations, were driven westwards as a result of persecution and wars or to seek better opportunities.

As mentioned below, in the fifth/eleventh century, Egyptian craftsmen founded two glass factories at Corinth in Greece, then they emigrated westwards after the destruction of Corinth by the Normans.

The Mongol conquest of the thirteenth century AD drove large numbers of Syrian glassworkers to glass-making centres in the West.

In 1277, Syrian craftsmen were sent from Syria to Venice as a result of a treaty between Antioch, and Venice, as we shall see below.

In Spain the migration of Muslim craftsmen to Christian Spain was taking place throughout the Crusade upon the fall of Muslim cities. Al-Andalus was an emporium from which Christians were importing those products which they did not produce themselves. The techniques, however, were transferred upon the conquest of Muslim towns. The technologies were practiced by resident Muslim craftsmen who, subsequent to the conquest, became very mobile and diffused manufacturing technologies throughout the Christian kingdoms.

As mentioned above, Mozarabs immigrated northwards to Christian territories either due to enticement or because of persecution and were influential in transferring Islamic technology.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the economy of Provence in the south of France was affected by contact with the Muslim west and the Muslim east. The imported crockery from al-Andalus became popular in Provence. Archaeology attests to the importation of techniques from the Muslim west for the manufacture of ceramics in imitation to the Muslim ones. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a great proportion of artisans and workers in Marseilles and Provence were foreigners including moors and Jews from al-Andalus.

The fall of Muslim Sicily to the Normans resulted in the emigration of great numbers of Sicilian Muslims to North Africa but others remained. Around 1223 Frederick II deported the remaining Muslims to Lucera in Apulia, Italy, and some had settled in other parts of southern Italy. The Muslims of Lucera practiced several occupations including the manufacture of arms, especially crossbows with which they supplied Christian armies. They produced also ceramics and other industrial products. When the colony was destroyed in 1230 and its inhabitants were sold into slavery, the manufacturers of arms were spared this fate and were allowed to stay in Naples to practice their craft. [7]

Livorno in Tuscany expanded and became a major port during the rule of the Medici family in the 16 th century. Cosimo I (1537-1574) wanted to increase the importance of Livorno, so he invited foreigners to come to the new port.

Ferdinand I, grand duke of Tuscany from 1587 to 1609, gave asylum to many refugees - including Moors and Jews from Spain and Portugal. These immigrants were given many rights and privileges and they established in Livorno the soap, paper, sugar-refining and wine distillation industries.

Movement of Scholars, Converts, Diplomats,

Commercial Agents, Clergy and Spies

In addition to the translators who flocked to Spain during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there was a continuous movement of persons from the West to the Near East, and to al-Andalus and al-Maghrib countries, and a movement in the opposite direction also. This movement of persons contributed to the transmission of science and technology from Islamic lands to the West.

Gerbert who became Pope Sylvester II was a French educator and mathematician who spent three years (967-970) in the monastery of Ripolli in northern Spain during which he studied Arabic science. He is considered "the first ambassador who carried the new Arabic science across the Pyrenees".

Constantinus Africanus was the first to introduce Arabic medicine into Europe. He was born in Tunis (about 1010-1015 AD) and died at Monte Cassino in 1087. He traveled as a merchant to Italy and having noticed the poverty of medical literature there he decided to study medicine, so he spent three years doing this in Tunis. After collecting several Arabic medical works he departed to Italy when he was about 40 years old, and he settled first in Salerno and then in Monte Cassino where he became a Christian convert.

Constantinus translated into Latin the most important Arabic medical works that were known up to his time, and attributed them to him. But these works were later traced back to their real Arabic origin. Nevertheless he was responsible for introducing Arabic medicine into Europe and in heralding the start of proper medical education.

One of the earliest Western scholars to travel to Arab lands was Adelard of Bath who was active between 1116 and 1142. He traveled to Sicily and Syria where he spent seven years during which he learnt Arabic and became acquainted with Arabic learning. Beside his important scientific translations Adelard was instrumental in the transfer of Islamic technology. He issued a revised edition of Mappae Clavicula which is a collection of recipes on the production of colours and other chemical products. This treatise is a very important one in Western medieval technology. Steinschneider listed it among works that are mostly of Arabic origin whose authors and translators are unknown.

Another important figure from the same era was Leonardo Fibonacci who was born around 1180. He was a great mathematician and at 12 was living with his family in Bougie in Algeria. He received his education in mathematics and Arabic under an Arab teacher. This was followed by an apprenticeship period in commercial travels to the ports of the Mediterranean during which he visited Syria and Egypt and was able to have access to Arabic manuscripts in mathematics and to gain experience in Arabic commercial mathematics. He compiled his important book Liber abaci in 1228. He wrote also other works of lesser importance, one of which was Practica geometriae . In this book he explained the utilization of geometry in surveying ( `Ilm al misaha ), as it was practiced by Muslim engineers.

Another Arab convert to Christianity was Leo Africanus who was born in Granada between 1489 and 1495 and was raised in Fas. His name is al-Hasan b. Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Zayyati (or al-Fasi). He was traveling in diplomatic missions, and while he was returning from Cairo by sea he was captured by Sicilian corsairs who presented him to Pope Leo X. The Pope was able to convert him to Christianity in 1520. During his stay of about thirty years in Italy, he learnt Italian, taught Arabic at Bologna, and wrote his famous book Description of Africa which was completed in 1526. He collaborated with Jacob ben Simon in compiling Arabic-Hebrew-Latin vocabulary. Before 1550, he returned to Tunis to spend his last years embracing back his ancestral faith.

From the Renaissance period was Guillaume Postel, a French scholar who was born around 1510 and died 1581 He was well versed in Arabic and other languages, and had procured in two trips to Istanbul and the Near East a large number of Arabic manuscripts. The first trip which took place in 1536 was undertaken to collect manuscripts on behalf of the king of France. In the second trip Postel is believed to have spent the years 1548 to 1551 traveling to Palestine and Syria to collect manuscripts. After this trip, he earned the appointment as Professor of Mathematics and Oriental Languages at the College Royal. Two Arabic astronomical manuscripts from his collection are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris and in the Vatican, and they contain al-Tusi theorems and carry heavy annotations and notes by Postel himself. It is possible that among the manuscripts that he collected were some written by Taqi al-Din who was the foremost scientist in Istanbul at that time and who wrote treatises on astronomy, machines and mathematical subjects. Postel's precious collection of manuscripts went to the University of Heidelberg.

Another important scholar from this period is Jacob Golius (1590-1667). Who was appointed Professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Leiden. Golius after his appointment spent the period 1625 until 1629 in the Near East, bringing back a harvest of 300 Arabic, Turkish and Persian manuscripts. He was an Arabist as well as a scientist, and it is reported that he translated some works of Jabir into Latin and had published them.

Some Western diplomats played a role in the transfer of science and technology. Levinus Warner (1619-65) was a student of Golius in Leiden. In 1644 he settled in Istanbul. In 1655 he was appointed the Dutch representative at the Porte. During his stay he amassed a great library of manuscripts of about 1000 which he bequeathed to the University Library of Leiden.

Another important figure from the Renaissance period was Patriarch Ni'meh who immigrated from Diyar Bakr in northern Mesopotamia to Italy in 1577 AD. He carried with him his own library of Arabic manuscripts. Ni'meh was well received by the Pope Gregory XIII and by the Medici Family in Florence and was appointed to the editorial board of the Medici Oriental Press. His own library is still preserved at the Laurenziana Library in Florence, and apparently formed the nucleus for the library of the Medici Oriental Press itself. During his service with the press several Arabic scientific works were published.

In addition to scholars and diplomats many travelers and pilgrims frequented Muslim lands throughout the centuries, and they contributed to the transfer of Islamic science and technology. We shall mention only one unique person who was a traveler as well as a spy. This was the French traveler Bertrandon de la Brocquière, who visited the Holy Land and the Muslim state of Anatolia in 1432 and wrote his book Le Voyage d'Outre-mer . His mission as a spy was to assess the possibilities of launching a new crusade to be led by the Duke of Burgundy.

He was a highly competent spy and a very observant tourist and was keen to understand everything that came in his way. When he arrived in Beirut in 1432 the inhabitants were celebrating the ‘id . He was surprised to see the fireworks for the first time. He realized fully their great potential in war and he was able, against a bribe, to learn their secret and he took the information with him back to France.

We can refer briefly to the role played by the commercial missions of Italian cities in Egypt, Syria and other Muslim cities. This influence has been the subject of recent research. One such study established the Muslim influence on the architecture of present day Venice due to its commercial missions in Muslim lands.

We may refer also to the importance of the Arab Maronites who resided in Rome and other cities in Europe during the Renaissance for educational purposes and for rendering services related to their knowledge of the Arabic language and Arabic culture. Among them were great scholars who became professors of Arabic in Rome and Paris.

[1] This is a revised version of the article published in Cultural Contacta in Building a Universal Civilization: Islamic Contributions, E. Ihsanoglu (editor), IRCICA< Istanbul, 2005, pp 183-223.

[2] C. Singer, Epilogue, in C. Singer. et al. (eds), A History of Technology, Vol. II, (Oxford: Oxfod University Press, 1979), p. 756.

[3] Spanish “ mud r éjar ” (from Arabic), any of the Muslims who remained in Spain after the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (11th-15th century).

[4] From Arabic “musta'rib ”, "arabicized", any of the Spanish Christians living under Muslim rule, who, while unconverted to Islam, adopted Arabic language and culture.

[5] E. Barker, “The Crusades” in Thomas Arnold and Alfred Guillaume, eds., The Legacy of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), 40-77 Singer et al., 764-5. Two sources are particularly useful: A.S. Atiya, The Crusades, Commerce and Culture (Mass.: Gloucester, 1969) and P. Hitti, Tarikh al-'Arab, Vol. II (Beirut, 1965), 780-92, and his original English History of the Arabs, 10th ed. (Macmillan, 1970), 659-70.

[6] Saliba, George, “Mediterranean Crossings: Islamic Science in Renaissance Europe”, an article on the Internet: services/ dropoff/ saliba/document/

[7] Julie Taylor, Muslims in Medieval Italy, The Colony at Lucera (Lexington Books, 2003), 114, 203, 204.

In addition to the footnotes, references to the information outlined in this article (Parts I, II and III) are given in the following sources:

Ahmad, Aziz. A History of Islamic Sicily. Islamic Surveys 10. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1975.

Al-Hassan, A. Y. et al. (editors), The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture. Vol. IV: Science and Technology in Islam, Parts 1 and 2. UNESCO, 2002.

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. and Donald Hill. Islamic Technology, an Illustrated History. UNESCO and CUP, 1986.

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. “Potassium Nitrate in Arabic and Latin Sources”, Proceedings of the XXI International Congress of History of Science. Mexico City, 2001. Also at .

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. “Gunpowder Composition for Rockets and Cannon in Arabic Sources in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries”, ICON, Vol. 9 (2004),

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. and Donald Hill. “Ingeneria”. Storia Della Scienza, Vol. Ill, Capitolo LI. Encclopedia Italiana , 2002, 647-666.

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. “Technologia Delia Chimica”. Storia Della Scienza, Vol. Ill, Capitolo LII, Encclopedia Italiana , 2002, 667-686.

Al-Hassan, Ahmad Y. “Alcohol and the Distillation of Wine”, forthcoming article in the Festschrift in honour of Professor Andrew Watson. See also this article on the internet at www.history-science-technology . com

Glick, T. F. Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Goblot, Henry. Les Qanats. Paris: Mouton, 1979.

Hoerder, Dirk. Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium. Duke University Press, 2002.

Lopez, Robert S., and Irving W. Raymond, Medieval Trade in the Mediterranean World, , Columbia University Pres , 2001.

Partington, J. R. A History of Greek Fire & Gunpowder. John Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Sarton, George. Introduction to the History of Science. 3 vols. in five. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins, 1927-1948.

Schioler, T. Roman and Islamic Water-lifting Wheels. Odense: Odense University Press, 1973.

Smith, N.A.F. A History of Dams. London: Peter Davies, 1971.

Watt, W. Montgomery. The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1972.

Wiedemann, E. Aufsadtze zur arabischen Wissenschaftsgeschichte. 2 vols., New York: Hildesheim, 1970., coll. "Collectanea, VI", Olms.

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