Becoming Egyptian

Sarcophagus of Wahibre-em-akhet, via Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (Egypt, possibly Giza, currently Rijksmuseum van Oudheden; basalt; 664-525 BCE)
Sarcophagus of Wahibre-em-akhet via Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (Egypt, possibly Giza, currently Rijksmuseum van Oudheden; basalt; 664-525 BCE)

The sarcophagus of Wahibre-em-akhet, from Egypt in the seventh or sixth centuries BCE, is a typical Egyptian sarcophagus, not for a king but for a man of wealth and status in Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. The Egyptian iconography is easily recognized: the long beard and braided wig of the portrait; the conventional Egyptian ways of depicting eyes, ears, and other features; the winged protective goddesses; the hieroglyphic text. There is nothing about this sarcophagus to suggest its owner was anything other than a native Egyptian, born and bred, from a people who had lived in the Nile valley since time immemorial. Nothing, that is, until you read the hieroglyphic text and find out that Wahibre-em-akhet’s parents were named Alexicles and Zenodote; both are Greek names.

We know nothing else about Wahibre-em-aket or his parents. We can’t say definitively where they came from, where they grew up, what language or languages they spoke, or how they identified themselves in daily life. It seems very likely, though, that we are looking at someone who was born to Greek parents but lived as an Egyptian.

Wahbire-em-akhet’s family probably had connections to Naukratis, a Greek city founded in Egypt with royal permission. The original settlers of Naukratis were Greek mercenaries who had served the Egyptian pharaohs in their war for freedom from the Assyrian empire. Alexicles may have been one of those mercenaries or the descendant of one. The mercenaries and their descendants continued to serve the kings of Egypt and seem to have gradually assimilated into Egyptian culture. One gang of soldiers left graffiti on the temple of Abu Simbel in upper Egypt while on campaign, including a soldier who identified himself as Psammatichus, son of Teocles, another Egyptian-named son of a man with a Greek name.

Whatever role he played, Wahibre-em-akhet must have done well for himself to afford such a fine sarcophagus. Like many other later-generation immigrant communities, the Greeks in Egypt probably found that assimilating to local customs, names, and languages was useful for getting ahead. They were not the first people to do so. We tend to think of Egypt as isolated, even xenophobic, but Egypt was also a powerful and wealthy kingdom that needed foreign trade connections and could afford to supplement its army with mercenaries from abroad. Greeks, Carians, Jews, Nubians, and Libyans are all well documented as traders and soldiers in Egypt. Many other peoples certainly found their way to the Nile valley as well. As they assimilated into the local culture, adopting Egyptian names and presenting themselves according to Egyptian traditions, these peoples become hard to discern in the archaeological record, but the occasional find like Wahibre-em-akhet’s sarcophagus reminds us that they were still there.

Thoughts for writers

Traditional histories have conditioned us to think of ancient cultures as discrete units: this is Greek, that is Egyptian, that over there is Persian, and the other thing in the corner is Etruscan. It’s useful to be reminded that the lived experience has always been more complicated. Wahbire-em-akhet was, in some ways, both Egyptian and Greek. Most likely his parents were, too. They must have faced many of the same challenges and intersections that immigrant families still face today.

People like Wahbire-em-aket and his parents existed in history. They belong in our stories, too. There is nothing new about multiculturalism.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.