What Did the Ancient Egyptians Call Egypt?

Egyptian hieroglyphs

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Who knew that Egypt wasn't really called Egypt in its heyday? In fact, it didn’t receive that name until the archaic Greek era.

It's All Greek to the Egyptians

In The Odyssey, Homer used “Aegyptus” to refer to the land of Egypt, meaning it was in use by the eighth century B.C. Victorian sources suggested "Aegyptus" a corruption of Hwt-ka-Ptah (Ha-ka-Ptah), “home of the soul of Ptah.” That was the Egyptian name for the city of Memphis, where Ptah, the potter-creator god, was chief deity. But there was a fellow named Aegyptus who plays a big role here, too.

According to Pseudo-Apollodorus in his Library, a line of mythological Greek kings ruled over northern Africa. That false statement gave his people a right to "claim" another region's rich history. Epaphus, son of Zeus and Io, the woman-turned-cow, “married Memphis, daughter of Nile, founded and named the city of Memphis after her, and begat a daughter Libya, after whom the region of Libya was called.” Thus, huge swathes of Africa owed their names and livelihoods to the Greeks, or so they said.

Descended from this family was another name-inducing man: Aegyptus, who “subjugated the country of the Melampodes and named it Egypt.” Whether or not the original text of the Library stated he named it after himself up for debate. In Greek, “Melampodes” means “black feet,” perhaps because they walked in the rich dark soil of their land, which the annual Nile inundation/flood brought up from the river floor. But the Greeks were far from the first people to notice the black soil of the Land of the Nile.

The Duality Dilemma

The Egyptians themselves, of course, adored the fertile black dirt brought up from the depths of the Nile. It coated the land along the river with minerals amidst the soil, which allowed them to grow crops. The people of Egypt called their country “the Two Lands,” which signifies the way they viewed their home—as a duality. Monarchs frequently used the phrase “Two Lands” when discussing the realms over which they ruled, especially to stress their roles as unifiers of a large territory.

What were these two divisions? It depends on whom you ask. Perhaps the two "Egypts" were Upper (Southern) and Lower (Northern) Egypt, the way the Egyptians perceived their land to be divided. In fact, pharaohs wore the Double Crown, which symbolically represented the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt by combining crowns from both regions into one big one.

Or maybe the twosome referred to the two banks of the River Nile. Egypt was even sometimes known as the "Two Banks." The West Bank of the Nile was considered the land of the dead, home to necropolises galore—the life-giving Sun, after all, does set in the west, where Re symbolically “dies” each evening, only to be reborn in the east the following morning. In contrast to the silence and death of the West Bank, life was personified on the East Bank, where cities were built.

Perhaps it is related to the aforementioned Black Land (Kemet), the trip of arable land along the Nile, and the barren deserts of the Red Land. This last option makes a lot of sense, considering that the Egyptians often referred to themselves as “the people of the Black Land.”

“Kemet” first made its appearance around the Eleventh Dynasty, around the same time as another term, “The Beloved Land” (ta-mery) did. Perhaps, as scholar Ogden Goelet suggests, these monikers came out of a need to emphasize national unity after the chaos of the First Intermediate Period. To be fair, though, those words often appear in Middle Kingdom literary texts, many of which were probably edited centuries after the fact, so one cannot be sure how often these terms were used during the period of the Middle Kingdom itself. By the end of the Middle Kingdom, though, Kemet seems to have become the official name of Egypt, since pharaohs begin to use it in their titulary.

Invaders' Epithets

In the mid-first millennium B.C., Egypt, often torn apart by internal strife, suffered centuries' worth of conquests; this came after the already troublesome invasions of its Libyan neighbors. Each time it was conquered, it received a new name, part of its invaders' psychology of subjugation.

In this so-called "Late Period," the Egyptians fell subject to various peoples. First among these were the Assyrians, who conquered Egypt in 671 B.C. We don't have records indicating if the Assyrians renamed Egypt, but it's worth noting that, sixty years later, the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II was honored when the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal gave the former's son, Psammetichus, an Assyrian name and rulership over an Egyptian city.

The Persians took power in Egypt after Cambyses II defeated the people of Kemet at the Battle of Pelusium in 525 B.C. The Persians turned Egypt into several provinces of their empire, also known as satrapies, that they called Mudraya. Some scholars have suggested Mudraya was the Persian version of the Akkadian Misir or Musur, a.k.a. Egypt. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for Egypt in the Bible was Mitzrayim, and Misr is now the Arabic word for Egypt.

And then the Greeks came...and the rest was history!

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Silver, Carly. "What Did the Ancient Egyptians Call Egypt?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-did-ancient-egyptians-call-egypt-118072. Silver, Carly. (2021, September 7). What Did the Ancient Egyptians Call Egypt? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-did-ancient-egyptians-call-egypt-118072 Silver, Carly. "What Did the Ancient Egyptians Call Egypt?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-did-ancient-egyptians-call-egypt-118072 (accessed March 26, 2023).