Has Race Always Been Significant to Identity?
Was race important in the ancient Middle East? Were Egyptians “Caucasian” or “African”? Who were the “black-headed people” mentioned in Mesopotamian literature? How were skin color and other physical features depicted in ancient art?
Race is a complex category in the modern world, considering all the population movements that have taken place through history. So race does not refer only to physical differences between groups of people, but is a culturally defined idea of physical difference.
Although it is difficult for us to imagine in a modern society in which race is not fundamental to defining who we are, the societies of the ancient Near East did not differentiate people by what we would consider racial features. Rather, cultural, linguistic, or tribal identities were the defining differences.
For most of the Middle East, this is entirely clear—ethnic descriptions, when we have them, focus on the language or cultural differences of foreign groups and not their physical features. The term “black-headed people” that occurs in Mesopotamian literary texts meant simply “all humankind,” since anything other than black hair was hardly known.
The question comes up most pointedly in discussions of ancient Egypt, with its extensive contacts with both Africa and the Middle East. Like so many questions involving identity, this topic has generated heated debate. It seems clear that the ancient Egyptians did not base their attributions of difference primarily on physical features, although they were clearly aware that Nubians to the south had darker skin. If this were truly a “racial” difference, we might expect that Egyptians would consider themselves racially more similar to Libyans and Asiatics, who were represented with lighter skin. Yet this is never the case—Libyans, Asiatics, and Nubians had equal status as enemies. Moreover, the terms Egyptians used to describe Nubians rarely had anything to do with physical features, but more with cultural ones. The earliest Egyptian term for Nubia, for example, was “the land of the bow.”
“Ancient and Modern Ethnic Groups of Nubia.” Nubianet. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
“Question of Race in Ancient Egypt, The.” Digital Egypt for Universities: A Learning and Teaching Resource for Higher Education. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
Former Chief Curator, Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago
1. How can our modern conception of race be misleading when looking at historical texts?
2. What is the significance of the idea of “race” in the modern world?