A black actress portraying Cleopatra again re-opened a time-old debate: was Ancient Egypt a white or black civilization? The labels are not merely objective judgments based on skin color. Racial labels are subjective societal judgments that change over time. Ancient cultures recognized skin color. Race played less of a role in judging different groups than today. Ancient Egyptians genetically were related to Middle Easterners, who today are primarily Arabs. Arabs are often not labeled white or black. Not applying modern labels to Ancient Egyptians is the best answer to the question, “white or black.”
The civilization of Ancient Egypt reigned for over three thousand years from 3100 BCE until the defeat and suicide of Cleopatra in 30 BCE. We are amazed at its cultural wonders, including the pyramids, and are fascinated by its remarkable history.
It also remains a source of controversy. Multiple Hollywood epics about Cleopatra, including one with Elizabeth Taylor, starred white actresses. A Netflix drama used a black actress, resulting in a debate over a “Black Cleopatra.” Some scholars accused the series of falsehoods and misrepresentation. Other people argued Cleopatra was “culturally black.”
Let us widen our lens. Was Ancient Egypt a White Civilization?
Race is how society classifies different people by biological, cultural, and other criteria. Race is not simply skin color. “Whites” and “blacks” have a range of differences.
There are no “pure” races after repeated migrations, invasions, and intermarriage over human history. For instance, Cleopatra was the final of a line of Greek kings arising from the conquests of Alexander the Great. We do not know the identity of either her mother or grandmother. There is some evidence her mother was a local Egyptian, perhaps of black African descent.
The definition of “white” also has changed over time. Italian-Americans, for instance, were not accepted as completely “white” in the early 20th Century. A person with a small amount of black ancestry could legally be black even if they looked white. An interracial couple could have four children who appear to be of different races.
What is a “White Civilization?
Civilization is the stage of human social and cultural development containing certain aspects considered necessary for an advanced society. Ancient Egypt was a great ancient civilization.
A white civilization would have a society and way of life consisting of people considered to be white. Since definitions of “white” change over time, we should also consider how Egyptians and other ancient cultures understood Egyptian civilization.
A white civilization is partially a matter of skin color. It also is based on cultural understandings. A light-skinned person who lives in a black community and suffers discrimination is “culturally black.” The same person might live in a white community and be culturally white.
How Did Ancient Cultures Define Race?
Ancient peoples noticed differences in skin color. It was a fact of life. One famous Egyptian religious text, The Great Hymn to the Sun, proclaimed the creator god assigned skin color.
Skin color, however, was not what defined a person. Group identity was more likely to arise from environment, geography, ancestral origin, language, religion, custom, and culture. Many Egyptians today (at least on census forms) label themselves as “white.”
Skin color alone, however, was not what mattered to Ancient Egyptians.
Ancient Egyptian Art
Ancient Egyptians portrayed themselves in art and sculpture. Men often were reddish brown and clean-shaven. Women had pale, yellowish skin.
This artistic portrayal was not merely a reflection of actual appearances. It was also an artistic choice based on the color pigments available. Pale skin was a sign of elitism and accepted ideal gender roles. Darker skin represented men who labored outside in the sun.
New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE) artists often stereotyped Africans to their south as black with broad noses and curly hair, Asiatics to their northeast, and Libyans to their west as lighter-skinned and bearded. Black Africans were people they conquered.
There was some evidence of darker-skinned Egyptians. “Black Pharaohs” ruled over Egypt for a hundred years. Some statues and tomb paintings depict individuals with dark skin tones, broad noses, and coarse hair. These traits are associated with Sub-Saharan African ancestry.
Greek historians also described Egyptians with dark skin and curly hair.
The harsh climate makes it harder to obtain DNA evidence from Ancient Egypt. Nonetheless, mummies provide well-preserved samples. What can they tell us?
DNA evidence suggests Ancient Egyptians were genetically related to people who lived in modern-day North Africa and the Middle East. Sub-Saharan Africans (today usually considered “black”) only made up a tiny portion of their DNA.
Arabs are the largest ethnic group in modern-day Egypt. Arabs are often not seen as white or black. On DNA evidence alone, the answer to our question might be “neither.”
Historians have debated our question over the last few hundred years.
Some argued statues like the Great Sphinx showed signs of African heritage. Others associated Africans with an inferior race. Ancient Egyptians were white. All of these judgments had cultural biases. The conclusions were subjective judgments.
There are also debates today. For instance, Ancient Egyptians called their country “Kemet” or “Black Land.” Does this mean they thought of themselves as “black”? Or was it merely a reference to the black soil that gave their civilization life? Many debates.
The most reasonable conclusion seems to be those who argue that calling it a “white” or “black” civilization is anachronistic. They are modern labels, not appropriate for Ancient Egypt.