Honestly, it does not take too much to get the mind wandering when looking at today’s word, does it?
For some, it may be the value of the Rosetta Stone or the discoveries of Howard Carter, while, for others, it is the romance of Mark Antony and Cleopatra or the awe-inspiring vision of the pyramids of Giza, with the Pyramid of Khufu being the oldest and only remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Before getting wrapped up in its history though, we must remember that we are also talking about a modern, ethnically diverse, regional power of almost 90 million people. Regardless of whether our minds conjure an idealised life of Pharaoh from 3 millennia ago or a recent diplomatic move, Egypt has always had a way of capturing our collective interest.
However, beyond the specific interest itself, what about the word Egypt?
Unsurprisingly for such an ancient civilization, the word Egypt has always been in our English vocabulary. Entering Old English as Egipte, the basis for our word comes from the Latin Aegyptus and, prior to that, the ancient Greek Aigyptos (Αἴγυπτος). Going back further, the ancient Greek word is derived from a word in its Greek progenitor, Linear B, a-ku-pi-ti-yo, which dates to 1450 BC, or, to give an idea of time, 16 centuries after the Egyptian Dynastic Period began. Both Greek terms are derived from the name of a temple to the god Ptah which later became synonymous with the name of the ancient city of Memphis, Hikuptah, or previously, Hwt-ka-Ptah, literally translated as ‘home of the soul of Ptah.’
As could be imagined, our word is not how the ancient nor modern Egyptians refer to themselves. The ancients referred to their land with a name, which sounded as kemet, and meant ‘black earth,’ both as a reference to the fertile Nile River Valley and as a contrast to the dry ‘red earth’ deshret of the Sahara Desert. Modern Egypt refers to itself as Maṣr, which is a local pronunciations of the Classical Arabic Miṣr and, interestingly, derived from the Hebrew word for ‘country,’ (Mitzráyim).
With Egypt being an old civilization at the dawn of Western civilization, there are virtually no known first usages of the word. However, considering the prominence of Egypt in the Bible and the prominence of Christian writing in Old English, it is safe to assume that our word has long been familiar in the English language. As for Egypt itself, perhaps it was best explained by Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, who said: “Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us.”