Many of the instruments used by Egyptian musicians today have their roots in Pharaonic times, from drums and cymbals through to lutes, harps and trumpets.
Today, the lives of Mert-ekert and her sister Amenirdis are going to change forever. The young girls have been selected to perform at a banquet, hosted by the nobleman Nebamun.
Their mother has dressed them in ﬂowing pleated white linen dresses, secured delicate black wigs on their shaven heads, artfully painted their eyes with blue-black kohl, and tied turquoise-studded golden necklaces around their willowy necks.
The two sisters take their place in the orchestra. Amenirdis places her harp in front of her. Mert-ekert nervously holds her ﬂute. She glances at the guests who are sipping wine and nibbling figs, grapes, cakes and biscuits. A group of dancing girls enter the banquet hall. The master of ceremonies announces, ‘Let there be music!’ The banquet room is flled with sounds: the ring of clapping hands … the beats of tambourines … the jingling of the sistra … the sweet tunes of the harp and the melodious ﬂutes.
Dressed in a single ribbon – tied loosely about the waist – or small, fringed, transparent tunics, the dancing girls perform amazing feats, ‘leaping, twirling and bending their bodies in time with the music’.
Since dancing played such a vital role in their lives, ancient Egyptians developed a variety of musical instruments to create tempo, cadence and beat for the rhythmic motion of the dancers.
The many pictures on the walls of temples and tombs show that music and dance were integral to religious rituals and royal court ceremonies. At the same time, music and dance were social entertainment in private homes. No celebration would have been complete without music and dance. From birth to death, and from the fields to the temples, people from every social class listened to music and danced. Professional musicians and dancers performed in public squares and travelled all around the country to entertain the music-loving Egyptians.
The instruments used by musicians in the Old Kingdom were relatively ‘primitive’ in terms of their shape and form. Yet they produced the sounds and rhythms needed to entertain audiences and provide the solemn character required for religious rituals or military operations.
Most of these instruments have travelled through time to reach us, transformed, or in their original form. A few string and wind instruments, drums, and tambourines have been recovered in excavations at Thebes, Memphis and other archaeological sites of Upper Egypt. And all these instruments are magnifcently represented on the walls of tombs and temples.
Hand clapping is the basis of all rhythms and clappers were the frst musical instruments used by musicians in Ancient Egypt. They provided cadence and beat. Made of wood and boomerang shaped, the clappers were always in pairs. They emphasized and sometimes replaced hand clapping in many rites and ceremonies. Later instrumentalists added a bit of luxury by fabricating them in precious ivory and carving one end in the shape of a hand. Cartouches were also carved on clappers. Samples of this very imaginative instrument were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, and these can be seen in the Egyptian Museum. They are the ancestors of today’s loud clackers or noise-makers football fans take to games.
‘Let me tell you how it was at the Battle of Meggido. I was there. Not as a soldier, but as one of the drummers in the armies of our great Pharaoh, Tuthmosis III, Son of Thoth. On the eve of the battle, Pharaoh recommended us to “… Be steadfast … be vigilant!” So on the morning of the battle amidst shouts of acclaim and banners carried aloft we paraded past Pharaoh. The soldiers resplendent in their armours, glittering in the sun and the horse plumes were ﬂuttering in the breeze. When the sound of war trumpets started echoing in the valley, I, the drummer started beating the drum, harder and harder. I wanted our enemy to know that we were strong and I also wanted to buttress the courage of our soldiers.’ (An Egyptian account of the Battle of Megiddo, Pharoah Menkheperre, Tuthmosis III, 1482 BCE)
Ancient Egyptian musicians knew that percussion is basic to any orchestra. In addition to clappers and rattles, they played drums of different sizes, as well as hand tambourines. Drums were particularly associated with sacred ceremonial events, but they were also used during battles to rally the troops or to spread panic among the enemy forces. Tambourines were considered a feminine instrument, and most drums were played by male musicians, in particular, the largest barrel-shaped or round drums.
Braced with braided cords made of animal skin, they looked very similar to the drums of today’s military fanfares. But in the temples dedicated to the goddesses Isis and Hathor at Dendera, Philae and Edfu, the priestesses played the frame drum in praise of their deities. Frame drums were also played by women during burial rituals. Covered with parchment at both ends, they were often painted with symbolic scenes evoking resurrection, creation and the natural rhythms of the universe.
Used mainly in religious rituals, the sistrum is depicted prominently in a great relief of Amenhotep III. Made of wood, metal or ceramic the sistrum had a handle which branched into a Y shape. Bands of metal were fixed between the two stems and smaller pieces of metal were attached so they jingled when the sistrum was shaken. The sistrum travelled from Egypt to Ethiopia where it is still used in church ceremonies.
Cymbals, Castanets, Crotals
Cymbals and crotals accompanied drums and sistra. Crotals were clappers with two small cymbals attached to one end. Crotals were made of wood or ivory and used widely in military, spiritual and religious events. Another percussion instrument used in ceremonies performed for healing and restoring equilibrium was the Menat necklace – strands of beads gathered into a counterpoint.
This instrument has evolved and is today a belt made of seashells and goat hooves mainly used in zar rituals. In the times of the pharaohs, a full ensemble or orchestra would include wind and stringed instruments and pipes resembling the clarinet. End-blown ﬂutes, harps, lutes and lyres are also prominent among the instruments portrayed on ancient walls.
‘I am the king of the stringed instruments, and I originated in Ancient Egypt. Pinch my strings with your delicate fingers, and vibration will echo in the sound box. You may say that with my strings, my neck and my resonator I looked like a musical bow. You can still see me in that shape on wall paintings of Ancient Egypt dating back to 3000 BC. Later, in the New Kingdom, I grew up to two metres in height and got nineteen strings. Young girls pinched my strings, either seated or standing up.’
The harp is one of the oldest musical instruments – depicted on wall paintings in Ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to 3000 BCE. Harps had a variety of shapes and sizes, generally built from a sound box and string-arm joined at an angle. Some harps had a bow shaped or arched frame. The strings were attached to a diaphragm at one end and tied around the string arm or neck at the other. The strings were tuned by sliding or rotating the knots that held them.
Many of these instruments were made with precious materials. An ebony, gold and silver harp was made for King Ahmose. And the harp believed to have been commissioned by Tuthmosis III is described as ‘wrought with silver, gold, lapis lazuli, malachite, and every splendid costly stone’. Some musicologists think the harp has developed from the ancient hunting bow. Whatever its origins, the harp is still one of the most elegant and melodious musical instruments around.
The lute is thought to have originated among the West Semites of Syria and was introduced to Egypt as a result of Hyksos inﬂuence. Lutes were discovered on wall paintings in the tombs of the New Kingdom. These lutes have two or three skin leather strings, stretched along a long neck, attached to a drum-like resonating body covered with animal skin. As an instrument, the lute was in the domain of female musicians, but some frescoes – including the royal tomb of Ramses III – show male musicians playing lutes.
Pipes, Double-pipes, Trumpets
Many of the wind musical instruments used by musicians in the past may be the ancestors of some of today’s folk musical instruments played in Egypt. For example, the arghoul, is made of ‘two reed pipes of unequal lengths bound together by means of waxed thread’, and it looks very much like the double pipes of Ancient Egypt. The arghoul produces two sounds: one by the main reed pipe, which is pierced with six finger holes; and a different sound by the non-pierced pipe, which produces one single tone.
Today, learning how to play the arghoul requires painstaking efforts and long hours of practice. And, one can imagine that similar conscientious and meticulous apprenticeship was required from the beautiful young musicians who played the double pipes in antiquity.
The trumpet was a complex instrument to produce. The most striking examples of trumpets were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. These were made of silver and bronze with mouthpieces of gold or silver. Some trumpets were also made simply of gold or terracotta. There have been various theories about the origin of Ancient Egyptian musical instruments. However, since it is accepted that all cultures advance at different levels and have access to different materials, scholars of musicology agree that there are no reliable methods of determining the exact chronology of musical instruments across cultures, or arranging the development of musical instruments by workmanship.
From the Past to the Present
The making of a musical instrument is a very specialized trade. It requires years of training, practice, and, sometimes, a long apprenticeship. Most makers of musical instruments specialize in one genre of instruments. In Egyptian Wind Instruments of the Nile Delta, Dominik Huber write, ‘One can still discover pockets of artistic creativity in the Nile Delta villages that call back to Egypt’s Pharaonic past’. Another particularity is that the craft remains a family trade. Craftsmanship is passed down from father to son.
Most of the string and wind instruments continue to this day – in the original form or transformed. The ancient instruments were mainly actors in the drama of religious ceremonies, but today, for the most part, their ancestors are entertainers continuing to inspire concert audiences and dancers in Egypt today.
Music remains an essential part of traditional religious Muslim and Coptic celebrations in Egypt. and some of the musical instruments of the past, such as the ney, are very much appreciated at moulids. Musicologists reckon that Egyptian folk music, including the zikr and the zar rituals, is the closest contemporary music genre to ancient Egyptian music, having preserved many of its features, rhythms and instruments.
We know that musical life was undoubtedly rich in Ancient Egypt, based on images of ancient instruments and musicians, but nothing has survived from the musical repertory of those days. We do not yet know whether the Ancient Egyptians had musical notations. And perhaps the melodies of their music are lost forever. But the musical instruments – which provided much enjoyment to the pharaohs and to the common people of Egypt in the past – have survived. And from these, musicologists imagine that one day we may be able to reconstruct at least the range of possible sounds.
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Eva Dadrian (1944-2018) an Emmy Award-winning British-Egyptian independent broadcaster and writer with extensive experience in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Dadrian worked as a political risk analyst for Arab Africa Affairs (London/ Cape Town). She also wrote for al-Ahram Weekly and al-Ahram Hebdo (Cairo) covering issues ranging from art and science to environment and religion for the BBC World Service.