by Jimmy Dunn
How many ancient people worshipped the sun, or a deity represented by the sun? We may never know, but certainly Egypt and many others. The sun was often recognized as a giver of life and even within pagan religions where many gods were worshipped, the sun god was often given a high status. To many civilizations that worshipped the sun, it comes as no surprise that gold was seen as a valuable representation of the sun, given its shinny yellow attributes.
In Egypt, gold was considered the skin of the gods, particularly RA. During the earliest periods of Egyptian history, only kings were allowed to where gold, but later the privilege was extended to priests and some other members of the royal court. The chamber that held the king's sarcophagus was known as the 'house of gold'. Never tarnishing, is was used extensively in the statues of gods and even to adorn temples. Mixed with other metals, it coated the pyramidions atop the Pyramids and obelisks.
Because of gold's religious significance, it also became an idea material in funerary art. A grand example is the mask of Tutankhamun, but even lesser officials imitated the king with gilded masks, or masked painted gold. Actually, goldsmiths seldom cast anything from the pure metal but rather gilded objects made from other materials.
Even in modern times, Egypt can thank gold for its popularity among many travelers and those who love to discover her past. When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, it wasn't the grand nature of a complete tomb that so intrigued the world, but rather the golden riches of the find. But even in ancient times, Egypt was envied for its treasure.
Up until the Middle Kingdom, silver was considered as valuable to the Egyptians as gold, but after that time frame Egyptians seem to have become fanatical over gold. The earliest geological map, known as the Turin Papyrus, diagrams the bekhen stone quarries and the gold mines in the Wadi Hammamat near Naqada, once known as Nubt (gold town). The king even carried the "Golden Horus" name as part of his or her Royal Titulary.
The ancient Egyptians filled their treasuries with gold any way they could come by it, including mining, tribute or plunder. It was also the primary cause of ancient tomb robbery and therefore a path to riches for some of the common people of Egypt.
Mining was often carried out by convicts under military control. This was a dangerous endeavor from which many of the laborers probably never returned. Rock embedded with gold had to be broken up and washed prior to the actual refining. Early mining operations were carried out in the Eastern Desert and Nubia to the south. Some scholars believe that the name Nubia derives from an early name for gold, and there is little question that much of the warfare between Egypt and Nubia resulted from the Egyptian thirst of this precious metal.
But much of Egypt's gold wealth was probably obtained first by plunder and then as tribute. We know this from tombs such as that of Sobekhotep which depict Nubians bringing gold as tribute. Other sources tell us that Syria/Palestine also paid gold as tribute. Such gold was often cast into rings for ease of transport.
And today we wonder about what Egyptologists tell us is the other 75% of antiquities that are still buried in the sands of Egypt. What riches are yet to be found? Each year there are new, grand discoveries made such as the golden mummies in the Western deserts. We can only wait to see what the future brings us from Egypt's past.