It seems a silly question, doesn’t it? Electricity was only discovered in the 1700s by Benjamin Franklin and his kite experiments, a world very different from the ancient Egyptians who had been gone for centuries by that point.
But the answer may not be so straightforward, and there have been many pieces of evidence that point towards the use of electrical lighting in ancient Egypt. Many of the relics recovered from the ancient temples point to the use of electrical lighting in many carvings.
For example, the relief carvings recovered from the southern temple of Hathor suggest the use of electrical lighting in ancient Egypt. These carvings were found at the temple of Dendera, and date to around 50 BC.
There are also environmental clues which suggest Egyptians may have uncovered the secret of artificial light. Throughout the ruins of Egypt there are minimal traces of soot on the roofs of temples and tombs, something which would be expected in the dim interiors of these massive stone complexes.
There must have been another kind of lighting that was used in Egypt in the olden times. We know that Egyptians were master builders and some of their designs still defy our modern understanding. Could some of these structures been designed to house artificial lights?
What were the Lamps of Dendera?
The culture of Egypt was very advanced, and it is possible that they used technology in their daily lives which has since been forgotten. However, the energy source for this would not be exactly electricity.
The reliefs depict different scenes in the temple, and one particular scene depicts what is today known as the Dendera Lightbulb or Lamps of Dendera. The carvings have the image of what is widely seen as a lotus flower. Out of the lotus flower, the serpent god Harsomtus arises.
The god is also depicted as covered with magical energy. The lotus flower is depicted as being held up by miniature male figures. The male figures are dressed in a loincloth and have sun disks around their head. In the carving, there is also a full-sized carving of a man in a loincloth with energy emitting out of it.
Many people who have tried decoding the relics from time to time believe that the carvings depict the use of incandescent lightbulbs. The stem of the lotus could be an electrical wire. The magical bubble around the serpent could be the lightbulb, and the serpent itself could be the filament of the bulb.
However, this conviction is considered by many to be very far-fetched and cannot be true. There are other, more plausible explanations for what is depicted in the carvings at Dendera. But none of this is conclusive, and the fact remains that the depictions closely resemble modern incandescent bulbs.
Another major piece of evidence that points to the use of electrical lighting in Egypt is the fact that Egyptian tombs and temples do not have much soot damage on their roofs. We also know that Egyptians painted and decorated the interiors of these buildings after they were completed.
Moreover, these buildings did not have any windows or holes. The absence of windows would generally lead to the places being pitch black. The decorators bring in light sources, which helps them see the interiors as they decorate them.
The supporters of the idea that Egypt had electrical lighting routinely claim that Egyptians could not have used torches or fire for lighting inside the tombs and temples without getting soot on the ceilings. So, how did they get the corridors and walls lighted?
Therefore, they believe Egyptians must have used some kind of electrical lighting for this to happen. While one cannot completely dismiss this hypothesis, there are other problems with it. For example, although many tourists and historians believe that the Egyptian tombs and temples do not have soot on the ceiling, they are actually caked with soot.
For example, The Dendera Temple of Hathor contains a great deal of soot, hidden away in the high ceilings. Case closed, right?
Well, no: this soot does not date back to the ancient period but to later periods. Whoever brought it in here, they were reliant on fire to provide light. But whoever used the temple before had access to a more sophisticated type of lighting, one which the later visitors did not have.
What was the Light Source?
From the Byzantine period onwards, there have been cases of people taking up space in these temples as squatters. In fact, the interior walls of many of the tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings are covered with ancient graffiti.
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Some soot has also been left by visitors and explorers who visited the tombs during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The reason why you find no soot on the walls and ceiling is because of the clean restoration work that has been going on for the last few years.
The light sources that the ancient Egyptians used to decorate the interiors were most probably castor oil lamps. The castor oil lamps burn clean and do not leave any kind of soot. This can also explain the lack of soot on the ceiling.
This might not be electrical; it shows that the Egyptians had a very good understanding of the resources that they possessed before. Electrical lighting might not have been used for lighting in Egypt, but they used some great techniques of decoration and lighting.
Moreover, if the temple was using electrical lighting, there would have been some evidence of it in the historical records. Moreover, the use of electrical lighting would mean that there would be ancient mines and other deposits that supplied minerals for the light filaments.
However, there are no signs of any kind of mines in Egypt that date back to ancient times and used for that purpose. Moreover, ancient Egypt remains also have no traces of warehouses and workshops that went into the creation of such light bulbs. There are also no signs of possible power plants that would lead to power generation.
Therefore, it is not possible that the whole country was using electrical lighting. The country might be using solar lighting at some point in history using mirrors and channels. However, electrical lights are a little far-fetched to ancient Egypt and its culture. Moreover, there was no sign of any light bulb remnant in the archaeological studies of ancient Egypt.
While there is no evidence of electrical lighting in that period of history, there was definitely the use of Egyptian oil lamps that were created in massive quantities. There have been other carvings that point out the presence of light bulbs, like the Dendera light bulb. However, these carvings could have had mythological importance and not any real usage in that period. Having touched on that topic, it is, however, entirely possible that the people used advanced lighting systems that used solar light and oil for illumination.
Did the Egyptians have electrical lighting? No, they did not.
Top Image: Did the Egyptians use artificial lighting inside their tomb and temple complexes? Source: Justinas / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri