Graffiti has always existed in Egypt in one form or another, and, thanks to the proliferation of this form of visual representation, the country itself has sometimes been referred to as ‘the classical land of graffiti’.
The term ‘graffiti’ is difficult to define. Visual communications in the form of symbols, drawings, or texts are found in every culture, in every setting and across many time periods. Those who make graffiti come from different backgrounds and have different motives and reasons to create it. The scholars who study graffiti also come from many different backgrounds – archaeology, history, linguistics, philology, art, anthropology, and sociology, to name a few. Their approaches and definitions vary greatly.
For ancient graffiti, some scholars have distinguished between rock inscriptions that are made on natural rock surfaces, and ‘graffiti proper’, which are found on man-made surfaces, such as temple walls. Others have discussed the question of whether both writing and images constitute graffiti, or one only and not the other. Still, there are those who prefer to blur the distinctions between both, seeing them as part of one tradition. As for graffiti from twentieth-century urban contexts: where – if at all – do graffiti and street art overlap; how do we distinguish between both; and are the boundaries fluid?
This article is hardly an attempt to define graffiti, though the term is loosely used to refer to a visual representation and message in a public space, one that has generally not been approved or requested by any authorities. Egypt has a long history of such visual representations. This article covers some specific examples from Egypt’s ‘graffiti heritage’, rather than providing a complete chronological overview of the development of the different types of markings and inscriptions that can be labelled as graffiti.
‘Graffiti’ (singular graffito) finds its etymological origin in the Greek word graphein meaning to write or to draw. The first appearance of the term in the modern sense was in 1851, when it was used to refer to writings scratched on the walls of houses in Pompeii. These ‘scratchings’ include political statements, satires, and an address of a prostitute, amongst many other items that are very similar to graffiti today. Around the same time, one of the founding fathers of Egyptology, August Pasha Mariette, began using the same term, particularly in reference to travellers’ graffiti made by his contemporaries, and even by himself!
The Cave of the Swimmers, in Egypt’s south-western corner, contains the earliest example of a visual representation in Egypt that is sometimes referred to as graffiti. Said to be some 10,000 years old, it shows human figures, most notably ones that seem to be swimming. One element that most resembles modern graffiti is the presence of sprayed hand outlines. These were made by placing the hand on a wall and splattering a watercolour made with either ochre or charcoal over the hand, leaving its negative imprint on the wall. Ironically, these ancient paintings are being damaged by graffiti. The cave walls have been covered with modern graffiti left by tourists and travellers stopping by the cave over the past eighty years since its discovery. Sadly, these paintings are not going to last long, not only because of the modern graffiti threatening them, but by tourists moistening the drawings in order to make them clearer for photographs.
Cave painting, such as that found within the Cave of the Swimmers, can be considered as a genre within rock art, a tradition that lasted thousands of years. In Egypt, images of human figures, quadrupeds (such as gazelles and cattle), hippos, giraffes, ostriches, geometric shapes and boats have been found depicted on rocks by the thousands. Rock art, sometimes called petroglyphs, is as a distinct specialization within the study of archaeology. These images are executed on natural stone surfaces and are scratched, incised or pecked using hammering stones or other similar tools. They are often found in significant locations such as watering holes, resting spots for caravans travelling through the desert, and quarries. Although rock art is loaded with meaning, and is thought to be related to religion and ideology, fully understanding its meaning is not straightforward, and interpretations and conclusions have to be drawn carefully.
As writing developed and literacy increased, texts were scratched into rocks, and, like their more symbolic predecessors, they were located mainly in the desert, in quarrying spots and resting places for travellers, sometimes even on the same rocks as the older rock art. Individuals often incised their names, and sometimes added a prayer appealing to any passersby to recite it out loud, thus serving to immortalize the name of the author. The need for one’s name to be immortalized and uttered after one’s death was a significant belief in ancient Egyptian tradition, and, along with the human desire to announce ‘I was here’, was likely to have been a strong motive for etching one’s name into the rock.
One such agglomeration of Pharaonic inscriptions is from Sehel, an island in the first cataract, south of Aswan, where one can find hundreds of rock inscriptions and drawings from the Old Kingdom to the Late Period on its massive granite boulders. Some scholars suggest that the island was a major stopping point for those travelling on the Nile, while others say that the inscriptions – which are mostly religious in content – were made by pilgrims visiting the island to worship and celebrate the goddess Anuket and her companions the gods Khnum and Satet. These inscriptions required a degree of skill, time and preparation, and could therefore have been commissioned by travellers or pilgrims, but executed by someone with more experience and the necessary tools. The preparations required to make these inscriptions are not unlike those for street art, which requires planning, time, a degree of skill, and tools.
There is one different and particularly famous example of graffiti from ancient Egypt. In an unfinished tomb at Thebes (perhaps used as a resting place by workmen in the Eighteenth Dynasty), amongst other drawings and writings, one finds an unusual image. A man and a woman are graphically depicted engaged in a sexual act. The graffito is thought to represent Queen Hatshepsut and her chief architect Senenmut, rumoured to have also been her lover. The women is wearing the royal headdress commonly reserved for pharaohs. She is also drawn without breasts in this graffiti, just as Hatshepsut was depicted as a male with a flat chest in official art. This graffito is one of the earliest surviving examples of politically satirical graffiti, poking fun at rulers. One must see an image of this graffito to fully appreciate the satirically graphic nature of it. Thousands of years after this graffito was made and considered politically taboo, it is once again considered taboo, this time culturally, and we are sadly unable to include a photo of it here. A simple internet search will suffice to find it, however.
Since the 1970s, modern urban graffiti has been seen as a form of protest against political, social and cultural constraints. Graffiti provide an insight into a society, the informal nature of it makes it more ‘real’, making the viewer closer to the people’s thoughts and feelings. But understanding the context of any graffito is just as important as understating what it says. These images, taken in 2010 near the taxi rank on Tahrir square, are a perfect example of this. They reflect many aspects of being an Egyptian and a taxi driver in Cairo. Although their context is better understood than ancient graffiti, their meanings and purpose are open to personal interpretation.
Graffiti are not stagnant. The presence of one graffito encourages others to contribute to the same space. Over time more graffiti are made around earlier graffiti, changing how people perceive them or completely eradicating them. As archaeologists, we are concerned with documenting and protecting ancient graffiti and inscriptions. But we often ask ourselves where to draw the line between graffiti that need to be saved and documented, and graffiti that are ‘modern’ and thus somehow ‘ok’ to remove or paint over. We have worked on documenting graffiti up until the 1970s and 1980s, and to us this is a part of history. Graffiti culture is continuing in Egypt at full force and we look forward to what the future holds.
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Mennat-Allah El Dorry holds a PhD in archaeobotany from the University of Münster and an MA in Egyptian archaeology from the American University in Cairo. She is currently the head of the Minister’s Scientific Office at the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt. Her interests span from social organisation in the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods, to food and agricultural traditions in monastic settlements and Pharaonic elements in Egyptian cinema.
Ilka Klose after a career as a merchandiser in the music business, obtained PhD in Egyptology, geography and art history from Mainz University, Germany. She trained as an archaeologist for several years on Elephantine Island in Aswan.