Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt

Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt

By Chahira Kozma

American Journal of Medical Genetics, No. 140A (2006)

Abstract: Ancient Egypt was one of the most advanced and productive civilizations in antiquity, spanning 3000 years before the “Christian” era. Ancient Egyptians built colossal temples and magnificent tombs to honor their gods and religious leaders. Their hieroglyphic language, system of organization, and recording of events give contemporary researchers insights into their daily activities. Based on the record left by their art, the ancient Egyptians documented the presence of dwarfs in almost every facet of life. Due to the hot dry climate and natural and artificial mummification, Egypt is a major source of information on achondroplasia in the old world. The remains of dwarfs are abundant and include complete and partial skeletons. Dwarfs were employed as personal attendants, animal tenders, jewelers, and entertainers. Several high-ranking dwarfs especially from the Old Kingdom (2700–2190 BCE) achieved important status and had lavish burial places close to the pyramids. Their costly tombs in the royal cemeteries and the inscriptions on their statutes indicate their high-ranking position in Egyptian society and their close relation to the king. Some of them were Seneb, Pereniankh, Khnumhotpe, and Djeder. There were at least two dwarf gods, Ptah and Bes. The god Ptah was associated with regeneration and rejuvenation. The god Bes was a protector of sexuality, childbirth, women, and children. He was a favored deity particularly during the Greco-Roman period. His temple was recently excavated in the Baharia oasis in the middle of Egypt. The burial sites and artistic sources provide glimpses of the positions of dwarfs in daily life in ancient Egypt. Dwarfs were accepted in ancient Egypt; their recorded daily activities suggest assimilation into daily life, and their disorder was not shown as a physical handicap. Wisdom writings and moral teachings in ancient Egypt commanded respect for dwarfs and other individuals with disabilities.

The ancient Egyptian civilization originated over 5,000 years ago along the Nile river in northeastern Africa. The Nile river brought an unlimited supply of water to the desert and the yearly flood built a fertile valley along the riverbanks. The almost regular and predictable pattern of yearly flooding of the Nile river guaranteed irrigation of the fields and adequate food production which caused the civilization to flourish. The writing system using hieroglyphs was invented between 3100 and 2700 BCE, around the time when the great pyramids were being built. This was also a time of a spectacular development in mathematics, astronomy, transport, government organization, and food production. Furthermore, artists working in an array of textures and techniques created masterpieces that have lasted to the present.

The ancient Egyptians left an immense legacy about their culture, religion, gods, government’s affairs, and personal and daily life through inscriptions and representations on tomb and temple walls, documents on papyrus, and thousands of funerary objects. As a result, we are well informed about the daily life of the ancient Egyptians including that of dwarfs.

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