Ramesses Flikko

Today, my 9-year-old went out and bought a hamster with his pocket money. He’d been planning this all week. The critter’s name was to have been Ramesses, a rather magnificent name for a hamster, but this was changed to an unassuming Flikko at the last moment. Don’t know why. But I do know why he chose Ramesses.

A couple of weeks ago, we’d been talking about Ancient Egypt. Both kids are very interested because you get to play Egyptians in Age of Mythology. I explained to them that (the) Ramesses did not, in fact, look anything like Yul Brynner but more like Eddy Murphy, and that Nefertiti actually looked a bit like Iman. They liked that – they’re both MJ fans. The hamster thus became the great Ramesses, before his relegation to a mediocre Flikko.

Ramesses II

So, did Ramesses and the rest of the Egyptian ancients actually look like Eddy Murphy? It is a concept that Afrocentrists have been advocating with much emotion for decades and Eurocentrists have been repudiating with equal passion. The former have been overenthusiastic to demonstrate that the ancient Egyptians were black, and in so doing have shot themselves in the foot. The latter, having for centuries flogged the notion that the ancient Egyptians were – at the very least – Caucasoid, suddenly argue that the issue of race is incoherent and anachronistic. However, they add sanctimoniously, the ancient Egyptians were not black. This claim is supported by Dr. Zahi Hawaas, among others, who seems far more interested in appealing to National Geographic television audiences than getting his hands dirty in the black Egyptian soil. This controversy is inexhaustible, it has been raging for centuries. Below is a very short synopsis of a very long debate.

The controversy surrounding the race of the Egyptians began as a product of scientific racism, which typically adopted Eurocentric racial hierarchies. This was necessitated by the fact that Ancient Egypt preceded all European civilisations by several millennia and that the Greeks learned, borrowed and adopted from a superior Egyptian culture. And the Greeks, as we know, form the bedrock of all European civilisation. Therein lies the problem. Currently, the majority mainstream view is that the ancient Egyptians were neither black nor white. But what are the facts?
When the last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago, people from the surrounding areas moved into the Sahara and lived there for millennia. By around 3400 BCE, the wet phase of the Sahara came to an end, leading to its gradual desertification. The Saharan population retreated south towards the Sahel and east towards the Nile Valley. These populations brought their food crops, sheep, goats and cattle to the Nile Valley, and together with the indigenous Merimde and Badari, were the progenitors of the proto-Egyptians and founders of the Egyptian state. By about 3150 BCE, the first of the Dynastic pharaohs solidified their control over lower Egypt and founded Menfi, or Men-nefer, the Greek corruption of which is Memphis. Memphis was also known as Hi-Ka-P’tah, rendered into Greek as Ai-gy-ptos. The rest, as they say, is history. This is the African origin of the ancient Egyptians.
The Egyptians spoke a Semitic, Afroasiatic language, members of which include e.g. Arabic and Hebrew. The Afroasiatic language family’s Urheimat, its original homeland, is generally believed to have originated in a region stretching from northeast Africa to Kenya (no, seriously). There are other theories as to the origin of Afroasiatic languages but the African hypothesis is accepted by most linguists because of the greater diversity of languages. This is the African origin of the ancient Egyptian language.
These two hypotheses have been widely accepted by the scientific community.


Attention then shifted to the portrayal of the ancient Egyptians by themselves, in their art. There are all shapes, forms and colours of Egyptians depicted in Egyptian art, from rather pale to pitch black, but the vast majority are a reddish-brown. This is the basis for interpreting Egyptians as non-black, non-African, indeed, Caucasoid or even Caucasian.
Originally, the entire population of this planet was black. Following the Out of Africa migration of mankind, necessities and redundancies arising from a changing local environment triggered genetic mutations that resulted in, for example, a paler skin or straight hair or slanted eyes. Such major mutations require about 20,000 years to take root in a specific population.
As there is no indication – not a shred of evidence – to suggest otherwise, it must be assumed (as logic dictates) that the Saharan and Nile Valley populations were originally black. Under the scorching African sun, Nature had no incentive whatsoever to lighten their skins. The fact that the ancient Egyptians portrayed themselves as fairer-skinned than their Nubian neighbours, a people still considered as black as coal even by African standards, is something I can very easily relate to. No ancient Egyptian was ever portrayed as Caucasoid or Asiatic. The pigment they used was actually reddish-brown, something akin to the Amhara or Somalians today.
The argument, therefore, is that the Egyptians were too light – not black enough – to be considered black. The problem with this theory is that is pigeonholes Africans into a rigid type, existing somewhere south of the Sahara. Africans vary widely in skin colour, facial shape, hair type, etc., more so than other racial types. There is more human genetic diversity in Africa than anywhere else on Earth. The theory defines Black Africans as narrowly as possible, as an extreme sub-Saharan race that excludes anyone who doesn’t fit the African racial stereotype as perceived by the West. This would mean that present-day Ethiopians, Somalians and a host of other African peoples are not African per se, merely African by chance, much like the Boers of South Africa, the Asians of East Africa and the Lebanese of West Africa. And much if not all of North Africa. This, of course, is a perversion of the truth and reality. It just doesn’t sell. By the same logic, the blond Scandinavian, freckled Caledonian and swarthy Sicilian cannot be regarded as belonging to the same European race. But the definitions of Caucasoid groupings have been expanded as broadly as possible to include the Egyptians.
A majority of academics disavow the term “black” for the Egyptians, but there is no substitute terminology. They could, one imagines, belong to their own unique racial grouping. The Reddish-Browns.
This is a controversy that will not soon end. The Egyptians did not understand the concept of racism and distinguished themselves from all their neighbours. Like most ancients, they considered themselves the Chosen People, and their cultural, scientific and military dominance served to reiterate that belief. Perhaps it really is senseless to attach a racial tag to the Egyptians, they would be puzzled as to what we meant. But a perversion of history is equally senseless. And why study history if it makes no sense?
If Alexander was Greek, if Caesar was Italian, if Charlemagne was French, if the Lionheart was English, then Ramesses was most certainly African. The only question is whether he was black. I guess that depends on what “black” means to you.
Thank you, Cheikh Anta Diop, Shomarka Keita and others. And Shelley.
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
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