10 Things About Ancient Egypt Movies And TV Got Wrong, According To One Expert
Anthony Browder, Egyptologist, reviews ancient Egyptian facts that movies and series have gotten wrong. Disney+
Movies and television shape what people think about ancient Egypt.
But they often misunderstand even the basics, from cruel pharaohs to booby-trapped pyramids.
Here are 10 things Moon Knight, The Mummy, and others got wrong, and one they got right.
Movies and television influence the way we see the world.
When it comes to ancient Egypt, they can paint the picture of the pharaohs who ruled Egypt with an iron fist, cruel torture and evil captured pyramids.
But is any of this true? Insider interviews Egyptologist Anthony Browder to find out facts about ancient Egypt in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Mummy (1999), Moon Knight (2022), Gods of Egypt (2016), The Ten Commandments (1956) and Cleopatra (1963).
A normal explorer could not casually remove the lid of a sarcophagus
The protagonist in Disney’s “Moon Knight” simply pushed the lid of this sarcophagus. Disney+
It’s a common image in movies and TV shows like Disney’s Moon Knight: one or two explorers come across a sarcophagus and, with a moderate effort, push the lid open.
“All the sarcophagi I saw in Egypt were made of stone,” said Browder, author of several books on ancient Egypt.
That means the top of the sarcophagus weighed about as much as a car — too heavy for someone of normal strength to push aside, he said.
When the robbers entered the graves, “usually there were several men and they used heavy tools,” he added.
Both men and women wore kajal eyeliner
Elizabeth Taylor plays Cleopatra. 20th Century Fox
Elizabeth Taylor wowed audiences in 1963 with her portrayal of Cleopatra. Her character’s intricate eyeliner, drawn down to her temples, quickly became iconic.
While the ancient Egyptian eyeliner, called kajal, was used in cosmetics, that was not its only use, Browder said.
“This served primarily as protection against strong sunlight,” says Browder.
“It’s the same as what you see on a football or baseball field, where the athlete puts black under their eyes to absorb the intense rays of the sun so they can see clearly,” he said.
Nor would it have been a feminine quality. Both men and women wore eyeliner, Browder said.
Queen Cleopatra would probably have been much darker than Taylor.
“Once again, using white actresses to portray Cleopatra takes liberties with historical truths based on the archaeological evidence found by Cleopatra’s siblings and other family members,” Browder said.
“She was probably closer to Halle Berry than Elizabeth Taylor,” he said.
Ushabti, figures buried with the deceased, were not found in the sarcophagus
In Moon Knight, the protagonist searches for this Ushabti to free god.Disney+
In Disney+’s Moon Light, a god is trapped inside an ushabti, a type of figure often found in ancient Egyptian tombs. The protagonist of the miniseries finds the Ushabti in the sarcophagus.
But Browder, who has funded and directed 23 archaeological missions to Egypt, said the figure was not found near the body.
“Ushabtis were never placed in a mummy’s body. They were usually buried around them, outside the sarcophagus,” he said.
Ushabtis are meant to serve the deceased in the afterlife, he said. They were not designed to capture the gods.
The tombs would be well preserved and colorful – which is what Raiders of the Lost Ark got right
In this scene, Indiana Jones discovers an ancient Egyptian tomb.Paramount Pictures
Tombs in films are often covered with hieroglyphs, and these are often depicted as colorless.
But when the tomb was first sealed, it would have been painted and colored, Browder said.
“If you walked into a well-preserved tomb, the colors would be as vivid today as they were when the tomb was created 3,000 years ago,” he said.
“One of the most spectacular tombs in Egypt, in the Valley of the Kings, is the tomb of Seti I. And the colors are so rich, so bright, that it seems it was painted recently. “
The interior of the tomb of Seti I. Andrea Comas/Reuters
When Indiana Jones enters the tomb in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the tomb looks exactly like this.
Browder was also impressed with the way the hieroglyphs were painted in the film.
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones amazed by the tomb.Paramount Pictures
“The pictures on the wall of a priest coming before Osiris, that’s a picture taken from the Hunefer Papyrus,” Browder said.
“I appreciate the attention to detail,” he said.
Imhotep, the villain in The Mummy, was a genius and had never met his love Ankhesenamun
Imhotep, played by Arnold Vosloo, in Universal Pictures’ The Mummy
In the 1999 film The Mummy, the villain Imhotep is raised from the dead to avenge the curse placed on him.
Imhotep, depicted as Seti I’s advisor, is being punished for killing the pharaoh with his mistress, the pharaoh’s mistress, Ankhesenamun.
Ankhesenamun, played by Patricia Velásquez, in The Mummy. Universal Pictures
Browder says that Imhotep and Ankhesenamun were real historical figures, but they were misrepresented by Hollywood.
“Imhotep was a priest of King Djoser in the third dynasty,” Browder said. Djoser ruled about a thousand years before Seti I.
There is no mention of Imhotep killing the king.
Statuette of Imhotep, ca. 600–501 BC. Chr. Science and Society Press Library/Getty Images
Imhotep held many more hats than just the priesthood.
“Imhotep is also considered the world’s first multi-genius. He was a doctor, idolized by the Greeks. He was also an architect and engineer,” said Browder.
Ankhesenamun on Tuthamkhamun’s coffin lid. Werner Forman/Getty Images
Ankhesenamun was also a real historical figure, but she was not a mistress. She was the wife of King Tutankhamun and lived about a century before Seti I, Browder said.
The curse that set Imhotep on his murderous path in The Mummy has no historical basis
In The Mummy, Imhotep was mummified alive. Universal Pictures
In the film, Imhotep is condemned to be mummified alive, his tongue cut out, and his body tightly wrapped in a cloth before being thrown into a sarcophagus filled with carnivorous insects.
Browder said there is no historical record of anything like this.
“The reference to Imhotep’s tongue being cut out has not been made as far as I know,” he said.
“Mummification was a time-consuming and expensive process, so there is no reason that a person would have been buried alive in the past,” he said.
Pyramids were not booby-trapped
In this scene in the Mummy, a booby trap is activated in the pyramid. Universal Pictures
Movies like The Mummy would have you believe that pyramids are often booby-trapped. But this is not based on fact, said Browder.
“The idea of booby traps in ancient Egyptian tombs came from the imagination of movie writers,” he said.
“There were false doors to some graves, a corridor designed to lead a would-be thief down a dead end street. There were false corridors and there were shafts to prevent thieves from entering to gain access to the treasure buried in a tomb, but there were no booby traps as far as I know,” he said.
The pyramids were probably not built by enslaved people
In this scene from the Ten Commandments, a slave woman pleads with her master for relief from her pyramid-building tasks. Paramount Pictures
In the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, enslaved people are seen pulling blocks from hot desert scenes to build the pyramids.
Although this topic has been much debated, “there is no evidence that slaves built the pyramids,” Browder said.
“In recent years, Egyptian archaeologists have indeed found the tombs of the builders of the pyramids near the Giza plateau. That honor was not given to a slave. We know it was built by a master craftsman, master masons, master engineer,” he said.
The pyramids were not built as tombs
Movies often show pyramids as giant tombs for pharaohs. But that’s wrong, Browder said.
“The pyramids were not used as tombs. The pyramids were built on the graves,” he said.
The ancient Egyptians were not white
Many characters in Gods of Egypt were played by white actors, which drew criticism. Lionsgate
The 2010 film Gods of Egypt was criticized because the actors playing the Egyptian gods were mostly white and spoke with English accents.
“No, there were no white British in Egypt,” Browder said.
“The original name for Egypt was Kemet. Kemet is a word that means the land of the black people,” he said.
He said the idea that the ancient Egyptians were lighter-skinned came from early Egyptologists, many of whom were white themselves and considered blacks inferior.
“Unfortunately, a lot of this has to do with racism,” says Browder.
“History has been used as a tool to subjugate people and create misconceptions of superiority and inferiority,” he said.
There is no evidence that Cleopatra died from a snake bite
Elizabeth Taylor plays the death of Cleopatra.20th Century Fox
The epic 1963 film also ends with Cleopatra holding a zipper to her chest, which bites her and leads to her death. Browder says this is “fiction” as there is very little evidence of how Cleopatra died.
“There is no evidence that Cleopatra died like that,” he said. But the ancient historians and dramatists also seem to have heard the story. In William Shakespeare’s 1606 tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra dies after being bitten by two snakes.
You can watch the full insider video with Browder here:
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