Though there has been no historical evidence, as yet, of Ancient Egyptian musical notes, recently, a project has been undertaken by a university professor to revive the music this bygone era.
The importance of music and dance in Ancient Egyptian culture can be deduced from the musical instruments in the artifacts spread all over the world, as well as the depiction of dancers and musicians and scenes of musical feasts. In particular, the artifacts dating back to the New Kingdom of Egypt (during the period from approximately 1550 to 1069 BCE, when the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth dynasties ruled) indicated the prominent role music played.
Further, the experts find that depicting dancers at ancient Egyptian tombs implies that these dancers had a role in accompanying the dead to the afterlife.
Music was a sacred art, and Ancient Egyptians would sing hymns, anthems, and prayers during the major religious celebrations, accompanied by musical instruments. The most widely used instruments during religious rites were cymbals, bells, sistrums (which became associated with Hathor, god of music, fertility, and happiness), bow harps, and the lyre.
In his study entitled “Depictions of Musical Life in Ancient Egypt”, Professor of Egyptian Antiquities Khaled Shawqy al-Bassiouny states that a musical band was formed by priests, headed by the lyrist. The band was accompanied by female (and occasionally male) dancers and songs, and would perform during religious ceremonies.
The study, which was published in Issue 12 of the Arab Archaeologists journal, notes that music permeated all aspects of life in Ancient Egypt, playing a significant role in places of worship and in tombs, as well as holidays, weddings, parties and feasts.
Music was also a form of entertainment for the nobility, as seen in the depictions of the wife of the powerful vizier Mereruka on their mastaba (a flat-roofed tomb) in Saqqara, in which she is seen playing music to him on the lyre, according to al-Bassiouny.
According to the research conducted by Egyptologists, musicians occupied an important stature in Ancient Egypt. The most important among these were the temple musicians, followed by those of the ruling family, then the musicians who would entertain at celebrations and feasts.
Interest in Reviving Ancient Egyptian Music
The notion of reviving Ancient Egyptian music dates back to 1990. Professor of Music at the University of Helwan in Egypt, Khairy al-Malt, tells Raseef22: “During that year, I was invited to teach at the Qena governorate, which Luxor was part of at the time. This gave me the opportunity to acquaint myself well will Egyptian antiquities, and so the idea for the project was born.”
“I started at the university, where I organized the first cultural salon which was held on a monthly basis to discuss the idea of ancient Egyptian music and how to revive it. The salon was attended by specialists in other related disciplines, such as archaeology and anthropology,” he continues.
In December 2002, the university organized the first conference to revive the music, inviting 11 specialists from seven countries. The conference was followed by the formation of a working group including specialists from Spain, the UK, South Korea, and Germany.
Though we have no current knowledge of the existence of Ancient Egyptian notes, one man sought to revive their musical traditions.
In 2007, the university established the first degree in ancient Egyptian music. Graduates of the program went on to pursue their studies abroad, and a number of them have since gone on to lecture on the topic in places such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As a fresh and previously untapped topic, their studies drew considerable attention, and in time the graduates earned the skills to recreate the instruments used during the Ancient Egyptian eras, al-Malt says.
Thus, they began producing Ancient Egyptian instruments, including the 13 different types of lutes that were used at the time, with their different tones and harmonies, according to al-Malt, as well as the rabābah and mizmār, and the lyre in its different forms. The band, dubbed The Descendants of the Pharaohs, was formed in the manner of Ancient Egyptian bands, and went on to tour various countries with different shows.
“When we played on the rababah, which we recreated, we used the same musical scale that is used for the ney and the lyre, meaning that there was one musical scale and keys used in Ancient Egypt,” al-Malt says. He further notes that Arab musical institutes have been incorrectly referring to the Ancient Egyptian scale and keys as an Arab scale, which is wrong.
They performed music inspired by the ancient Egyptian environment using the reproduced instruments and scales. Moreover, they delved into the customs and traditions that were prevalent among Ancient Egyptians, as well as the tunes they played and how they were used to serve the creed.
Al-Malt also researched the existence of musical notes, but he has yet been unable to find any etchings confirming their presence. This is, however, quite usual; until just few decades ago, modern Egyptian musicians did not use notes. Composition was improvised, according to al-Malt.
The band has composed a number of pieces, inspired by the contexts and social settings. For example, the music that was played in temples during religious rites has its own characteristics, as does the music for secular celebrations.
Al-Malt concludes by saying that, in the final stage, he composed music with Ancient Egyptian lyrics that were recorded in hieroglyphic texts.
Singing in the Ancient Egyptian Language
During their concerts, the band sings in the Ancient Egyptian language. Asmaa Mahmoud Karem, a band member, tells Raseef22: “We did not run into any difficulties in this regard, since Egyptians in rural areas still use many Ancient Egyptian vocabulary and phrases. Moreover, we still use the same musical keys today," She added.
They explain the meaning of the song to the audience before beginning, and it is performed by students from the Department of Music Education who have studied hieroglyphics. "In some concerts," she adds, "we sing in the Coptic language, which is considered an offshoot of Ancient Egyptian.”
She further notes that between eight and 10 members perform in the band, including musicians and one or two vocalists, emulating the number of band members in Ancient Egypt.
Local and International Concerts
The band has participated in a number of concerts. Among the most successful of the concerts were those held in the Berlin Musical Instrument Museum, as well as three concerts in Spain, one of which coincided with a football match between Real Madrid and Barcelona FC—nonetheless, there was not an empty seat in the audience!
“I received an invitation from the Hong Kong Museum of History, asking for ancient Egyptian tunes to use at museum performances that would accompany the loaning of six mummies from the British Museum. In cooperation with the BBC, we filmed a number of pieces in a temple at Luxor.
An international electronic games company, which is designing a game about the ancient Egypt requested music from the band, to serve as the theme music of the game.
The band held concerts in front of the Luxor Temple, as well as at Wekalet el-Ghouri and the Palace of the Prince Taz in Old Cairo last December, all of which had very large audiences.
Lack of Official Recognition
With the complete lack of recognition from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, some members of the band decided to travel to Europe, including Mohamed Maged, the composer and musician in the band.
Amid this negligence on the part of the Egyptian government, Israel has attempted to jump on the bandwagon by claiming that ancient Egyptian music is part of the Jewish heritage, dating back to the building of the pyramids, al-Malt says.