Yasser Metwally

My life…and the world

Parties and ceremonies among ancient Egyptian

Click here to see the online version of parties and ceremonies among ancient Egyptian

Click here to download the offline version of parties and ceremonies among ancient Egyptian


Music in all its forms, be it simple clapping, singing or playing instruments had an important place in ancient Egyptian life. It was heard in temples as part of worship, during processions and holidays, at parties, and, as one may suppose, in the evenings when the light had become too low to do any work and people continued to sit together for a while. It also had economic importance: Boring drudgery was made more bearable by chanting or by listening to music, making workers more efficient.


Workers harvesting flax are being accompanied by a fluteplayer. The overseer Iankhef leaning on his staff of office exhorts the musician: “O fellow, blow and do not oppose our officialdom!”

  • Musical instruments

Egyptian musical instruments were well developed and varied. They included string instruments such as harps, lyres, lutes, percussion instruments like drums, rattles, tambourines, bells (first used during the Late Period) and cymbals (Roman Period), wind instruments like flutes, clarinets, double pipes, trumpets, and oboes.

Singers and flute player, Tomb of Nebamen
  • Wind instruments

Flutes were among the first musical instruments used. Double flutes were at first made of two parallel pipes, but later the two pipes were separated and set at an acute angle. They are still used in Egypt today.

Double oboes were known since about 2800 BCE. They had two pipes of unequal length, the longer was used as a drone or to play notes that the shorter pipe couldn’t hit.

A man playing the flute

In the second century BCE the Alexandrian Ctesibios invented the hydraulic organ which used water pressure to deliver air to the organ-pipes.

  • String instruments

Harps, developed from the hunting bow and used since the Old Kingdom, were triangular or arc-shaped. They usually had eight to twelve strings made of animal gut; and both men and women played them – sitting, standing or kneeling. At times their soundbox was tapped or beaten, described in inscriptions as sqr bn.t – striking the harp. They were generally made of wood and probably did not project very far. Harps were often decorated and could be expensive works of art

During the New Kingdom there were harps of various shapes and sizes, the number of their strings was increased, and their sound boxes were improved. Some of the harps had columns, but these were rare.

The large sized instruments were often covered with flowery or geometrical ornamentations. In one picture on a tomb, a harp is shown with a jaguar’s skin, an instrument for rich people. Harps were played at parties, social gatherings, and ceremonial events, often in conjunction with other instruments, such as double pipes and rattles.

A man playing a string instrument

The marks on the instrument’s neck have been interpreted by some as being frets.

The New Kingdom lute consisted of a small oblong wooden sounding box, flat on both sides, with six or eight holes, and a long neck, often decorated with ribbons, from which two to four strings were strung. It was played with a plectrum or bare fingers. Similarly to modern string instruments different notes were played by pressing the strings against the neck of the instrument at various spots seemingly marked by frets.

Three women playing string instruments, the woman in the middle is almost naked

Another string instrument classified as a guitar because of its flat back and curving sides, may not have looked much like a modern guitar. It was improved if not invented by the Egyptians.


String instruments

  • Percussion instruments

Sekhmet and Bes were sometimes associated with percussion instruments, in particular with frame drums. The sistrum and the menat, two small flat slabs of wood or ivory similar to a castanet, were generally dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of banquets and music making. But the sistrum was alsoused in the worship of the other gods, the Aton during the Amarna Period

Percussion instruments

Tambourines were either round or square, played by hand, and were mainly used during popular or religious festivals. They came into use during the New Kingdom.

Percussion instruments


Music was part of religious ceremonies and musicianship was highly valued .

  • The sound

Ancient Egyptian music was based on a minor pentatonic scale of five full tones without halftones. This fact can be inferred from the positions of the holes on flutes.

During the New Kingdom, when foreign conquest brought Egyptians into closer contact with Asiatic peoples and their music and many new instruments and with them new sound qualities were introduced, they also encountered the scales prevailing in the Near East. On the whole they seem to have preferred keeping their traditional tonality, although some musicologists think that during this period they began to use a heptatonic scale.

The Greeks who settled first in the Delta, and since the third century BCE in many places upstream, above all in the Fayum, must have had an even greater impact on Egyptian music. These influences were mutual. Pythagoras (c.580-500 BCE) who created a musical theory based on mathematics, was brought up in Egypt.

Egyptian music must have changed a great deal during the last couple of millennia. We have even less clues to what the music sounded like than we have to how the Egyptian language was pronounced. One should therefore be very wary when extrapolating.


There were many occasions for ancient Egyptians to display their joy of life, one of them was the enthronement of a new king:

Mixed gender pair dancing as we know it today was unknown. Egyptian dancing may heve been influenced by the Nubian tradition, which became very popular in Rome during the days of the empire, and is still alive in parts of the Sudan today. Dancers from the south were brought to Egypt and seemingly much admired.

Egyptian choreography appears to have been complex. Dances could be mimetic, expressive – similar to modern ballet with pirouettes and the like, or gymnastic, including splits, cartwheels, and backbends.

A few pictures of acrobatic dancers have been found, generally depicting a number of dancers performing the same movement in unison.

For sociable banquets the dancing girls were often selected from among the servants or the women living in the harem of the nobleman in whose house the party was held; possibly professional dancers were also hired for these occasions. Pictures of such gatherings show girls performing slow elegant dance steps, which may have alternated with wild acrobatic movements.

Public celebrations were accompanied by dancing, be it spontaneous or orchestrated

Dancing was also part of religious functions. According to tomb depictions staid ritual dances seem to have been performed by the muu, men wearing crowns of reeds.

The dancing women at the festivities of Hathor were less restrained, if depictions are anything to go by. One of the highpoints of these celebrations were energetic dances similar to those depicted in the tomb of Nenkhetifkai at Sakkara (see picture in the left margin).

Slide show 1. Parties and ceremonies 5000 years ago

The author

Professor Yasser Metwally

Visit my web site at: http://yassermetwally.com


November 29, 2007 - Posted by | Ancient Egyptian panorama

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: