Ancient Egypt has long held tremendous fascination and symbolism for African Americans as a source of identification and pride. Ancient Egyptian imagery appears in African American popular culture and religion, and narratives of ancient Egyptian grandeur and glory hold a special resonance for many African Americans. On any given day on Harlem’s bustling 125th Street, for example, one might encounter a religious group called the Islamic Hebrew Nubians who don “Pharaonic” robes and turbans and preach to pedestrians about the lost tribes of Egypt, while young African Americans shop for clothing at Nefertiti Fashions or marvel at the artifacts displayed in a store called Yaiqab’s Treasures of Egypt.
Although many African Americans seem to take Egypt’s African heritage for granted, scholars have long debated the origins of ancient Egyptian culture and society. Confronted with the archaeological remains of an obviously impressive and advanced ancient culture in Africa, many 19th century European scholars insisted that Egyptian civilization must have originated in Europe or the Near East. This idea has been challenged by many subsequent researchers, perhaps most influentially by Martin Bernal, whose Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Vol. 1 (Rutgers University Press, 1989) triggered numerous debates. Bernal not only rejected the idea that ancient Egypt was a poor cousin to ancient Greece, as had often been proposed, he argued that in fact, Greek civilization was massively indebted to African and Asian influences, primarily to the Egyptians and Phoenicians. Recently, Bernal’s thesis has received strong support from unlikely quarters, from conservative political commentator Richard Poe.
In Black Spark, White Fire: Did African Explorers Civilize Ancient Europe? (Prima Publishing, 1999), Poe, an award-winning author, follows historical and archaeological clues from southern Egypt as far north as ancient Colchis, the modern nation of Georgia. He demonstrates that the ancient Egyptians were a seafaring people, who traveled as far as southern Russia and colonized parts of southern Europe, including Greece.
Poe scrutinizes the words of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (450 BC), who observed that the Colchians looked like the Egyptians (he described them as “melagchroes,” which means “black-skinned,” and “onlotriches,” which means “woolly-haired”) and, like them, practiced circumcision. Poe discusses archeological evidence including Colchian linen, which, like Egyptian linen, was woven on “a vertical two-beam loom, whose distinctive pyramid-shaped weights have been found in abundance in Georgian archaeological sites.”
In light of such evidence, Poe asks, “If the Egyptians would sail 250 miles to buy pine wood in Byblos, and 900 miles to obtain gold, incense, and exotic beads of Ethiopia, why would they not have sailed 560 miles to Greece in whose markets all the riches of Europe could be found? Scholars have never provided a satisfactory answer to this question.” Poe draws our attention to astonishing evidence of an Egyptian presence in ancient Greece, including the Pyramid of Amphion.