Egypt’s Ancient Comedy History

Have you heard the one about the bored Pharoah? It’s literally one of the oldest jokes in the book, or the papyrus scroll in this case. It goes:

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?”

“You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.”

Well, that doesn’t exactly translate. Smithsonian Magazine consulted a London Egyptologist for a possible explanation. She said ancient “Egyptians were amused by nudity, drunkenness, slapstick and political satire. The magician’s sly suggestion appears within a political treatise; the fishing trip precipitates a convoluted narrative meant to underscore the cosmic inevitability of the new dynasty’s rule.” The same article also claims that the papyrus roll was inscribed at 2600 BC making it the oldest recorded joke. However, a BBC article reported that this joke occurred in 1600 BC and that an Iraqi joke about flatulence is in fact the oldest. Who are we to argue?

Regardless of who got there first, Egyptians are some of the lucky few who can trace their sense of humor back to ancient times. During the Tahrir Square protests earlier this year a great deal of attention was placed on this famous sense of humor. An article in the Atlantic was one of many documenting how the humor of the protestors went viral. Many protestors tweeted and posted in English allowing the rest of the world to get in on the joke to some extent. The Onion-esque online humor magazine El Koshary Today is available in English, and continues to serve as an exemplar of Egyptian satire.

One blogger pointed out that the humor was a way to break through the fear of protesting thirty years of an oppressive regime. Journalist Sarah Carr told the Atlantic reporter that humor was the “default response to everything in Egypt including state repression.” Here’s a video of protestors singing “Laugh O Revolution,” belting out “ha ha ha’s” with abandon.

Two months later, the Deborah Downers at the New York Times were reporting that humor was faltering in Egypt. Gone were the clever historical quips like “Nasser was killed by poison, Sadat by a bullet and Mubarak by Facebook,” replaced instead with malaise and fatigue. Yet, the same article reinforced the idea that Egyptians historically dealt with hardship through humor. But when the realities of rebuilding a country set in, the revolutionary humor so quickly embraced by young people was quickly vanishing.  Gone, but not forgotten. Actually, probably not gone at all.

Published fortuitously close to when the revolution broke out, an article entitled “Three Decades of a Joke That Just Won’t Die” written by Issandr El Amrani was published in Foreign Policy. The joke that wouldn’t die was Mubarak. For the last decade, Egyptians had mocked the imminent death of Mubarak, but Amrani complained that after thirty years the Mubarak joke was growing stale.

He claimed Egyptians are not just known but “notorious” for their subversive political humor.

Referencing the bored pharaoh joke, Amrani said “Making fun of oppressive authorities has been an essential part of Egyptian life since the pharaohs.” Okay, okay we get it. Egyptians are hilarious. Apparently, everyone else got it in ancient times too. According to the piece, the Romans banned Egyptian advocates from law because all of their joking disrupted the sanctity of the courts. One Egyptian comedic actor even called Egyptian humor a devastating weapon against invaders. In Egypt, you just may die laughing.

Amrani boils Egyptian’s historic sense of humor down to this: “jokes are nearly universal icebreakers and conversation-starters, and the basic meta-joke, transcending rulers, ideology, and class barriers, almost always remains the same: Our leaders are idiots, our country’s a mess, but at least we’re in on the joke together.”

While the revolution pushed Egyptian’s sharp sense of humor into the international forefront, it was hardly the birth of it. Mubarak jokes already ran rampant, the revolution just took them public.  But what about this ancient humor we keep hearing about?

Amr Kamel, an Egyptologist at the American University of Cairo, published an overview of ancient Egyptian humor. In it he claims humor was not just found in conventional jokes, but everywhere in the literature and art of the ancient Egyptians. For example, the ancient Egyptians showed off their keen sense of satire when portraying non-Egyptians. Kamel points to King Tut’s tomb, where enemies are displayed in rather compromising positions.

Another example he points to is the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The target of the joke was the wife of the leader of Punt, a civilization located in far southeast Egypt that was also a trading partner. While the leader stands “lean and dignified,” the wife  “appears grossly overweight. A small donkey waits patiently nearby with the label designation it as the transportation of the queen.” The same people who designed the great pyramids were not above fat jokes, you guys. I love it.

Apparently, Hatshepsut commissioned these hieroglyphic inscriptions for the walls of her temple to document her trading expeditions to Punt. As a kind of political statement/joke, these inscriptions included “humorous images of the Puntites and their queen…the queen has folds of fat hanging over her knees and elbows, her back is crooked and she has an aqualine nose.” But jokes weren’t always just about having fun at the expense of foreigners.

William A. Ward, a professor of ancient history, published an article about humor in the tombs all the way back in 1968. Pre-internet!!! He points out that most of the statues in Egyptian tombs…are smiling. And while that image might give some people nightmares, it also strongly indicates the irreverence of the Egyptian people. Even something as somber as burial was not meant to be taken too seriously. And Ward also references the ruler of Punt’s rather large wife portrayed in Hatshepsut’s tomb. Fat jokes for the epic win.

Ward equates visual humor in Egyptian art to the “modern cartoon.” Sometimes the image demanded an explanatory hieroglyphic and sometimes the image was enough of a joke. For example, the standing doorman sleeping on the job or an official “eating and drinking amidst the battle on the Nile.” For a non-Egyptologist, these humorous scenes might not be so readily apparent. Often they were part of a larger tableau, so if you don’t know to look for them, you might miss the jokes altogether.

Ward explains that since there was no rigorous caste system in place during ancient times, even aristocrats were fair game for a joke. Making fun was not considered a crime, and the inclusion of humorous imagery in their tombs indicated that aristocrats were good sports about all the jokes.

Both Ward and Kamel also point to the popular use of cat and mouse battles, often on papyri and ostraca. Images found on these media were your more day-to-day cartoons. Animals in human roles were a popular joke even back then.

Kamel also references a straight-up joke from the Ramesside period. A man named Thutmose told the following joke to a tax official:

You are like the wife blind in one eye who had been tied for twenty years, and then her husband decided to leave her for another woman. However, when he confronted her, he told her the reason for his defection was she was blind in one eye. She responded to him “Is this what you’ve learned in our twenty years together?”

Was this a pun on the phrase “turning a blind eye” or the origin of it? In these ancient times, your guesses are as good as mine!

Ancient Egyptian humor is a growing industry in the field of research. A few months ago, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art featured a small exhibit on ancient Egyptian art  called “Haremhab, the General Who Became King” that displayed ancient Egyptians’ propensity for humor. In his review, NY Times critic Souren Melikian noted a strong sarcastic strain popping up throughout the pieces.  He also observed that even the artists creating the humorous drawings were inclined to self-deprecation, as was the case with artist Kery who portrayed himself with puffed-up cheeks.

Somehow, everyone seems to implicitly understand that humor in Egypt is as old as the civilization itself. I myself have really only scratched the surface, but that’s kind of my point. With a canon of humor that dates back thousands of years, it’s impossible to encapsulate Egyptian humor in 1,500 words or less. And it would be a disservice to try and do so.

During the revolution, a heart surgeon with no formal training in comedy spent about $5000 on video production equipment, and started posting a show on YouTube skewering politics. 5 million views later, Dr. Bassem Youssef is now the Egyptian Jon Stewart. About half a year after Bassem Youssef ‘s B+ premiered on YouTube, he had landed another premiere: network television. El Bernameg debuted during Ramadan this year on ONTV. And Youseff turned down networks with bigger market shares like Al Jazeera. Revolution fatigue may have temporarily weakened Egyptians’ sense of humor, but the jokes lived on.

Youssef’s natural ability for sarcasm has been called “superb” by the blogging community. He still continues to make his YouTube show, and, according to the LA Times, still teaches surgery at Cairo University.  His unconventional rise to comedy stardom shouldn’t be all that surprising.

In Egypt, everyone is a comedian.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

Egypt’s Ancient Comedy History