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The Historian’s Toolkit—Tools of the Trade (Episode 2 of 3): Primary Sources and Manetho’s "Aegyptiaca" (History of Egypt)

posted on: Dec 8, 2021

The Historian’s Toolkit—Tools of the Trade (Episode 2 of 3): Primary Sources and Manetho’s "Aegyptiaca" (History of Egypt)
An old historical map and magnifying glass. Photo: Brewminate

By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer


Welcome to The Historian’s Toolkit! This is a three-part series focusing on the tools of the trade that historians use to study the past as well as how we can use these tools to learn about a topic of history in the Arab World. The Historian’s Toolkit will feature three articles of which each focuses on some specific trade tools as well as applying them to some form of Arab history. The Historian’s Toolkit focuses on the tools of historiography, primary sources, and the book review. In this episode, we are going to learn about primary sources by using the ancient text, Aegyptiaca (The History of Egypt) by the Egyptian historian, Manetho. By exploring his book, we will discover how it serves as a very early example of a primary source in Arab World history.

What are Primary Sources?

The Historian’s Toolkit—Tools of the Trade (Episode 2 of 3): Primary Sources and Manetho’s "Aegyptiaca" (History of Egypt)
Examples of Primary Sources. Photo: Sacramento State University Library

So, you might be asking, “what are primary sources, how are they used, and why are they important?” Well then, you are in the right place because we are going to explore the purpose of primary sources within the fields of historical research and scholarship. According to RUSA, primary sources are defined as “the evidence of history, original records or objects that were created by participants or observers at the time historical events occurred or even well after events, as in memoirs and oral histories.” Furthermore, what constitutes primary sources is quite vast, and they can include but are not limited to: letters, speeches, diary entries, statistical data, material culture such as archaeological artifacts, emails (in the digital age), meeting minutes, and records, maps, and newspapers.

The Historian’s Toolkit—Tools of the Trade (Episode 2 of 3): Primary Sources and Manetho’s "Aegyptiaca" (History of Egypt)
What are primary sources? Photo: SlideShare

Additionally, primary sources can be books if they were written during a period or by an individual who lived during that era. Items like biographies and books that were written years after an event has happened are instead called secondary sources. Primary sources are important to the field of historical scholarship because as readers we get to see what happened during a time period other than ours. Finally, primary sources are important because historians want to catch a sense of what happened in the past. These items known as primary sources serve as evidence of the past because they were produced during the time period of study.

We are going to meet the ancient Egyptian historian, Manetho. He wrote one of the earliest comprehensive works of ancient Egyptian history, that being, Aegyptiaca. Aegyptiaca is an excellent example of a primary source because it was written by a(n) historian who lived during the time of ancient Egypt, and the book’s topic was also about ancient Egyptian history.

Manetho: Ancient Egypt’s Preeminent Historian:

The Historian’s Toolkit—Tools of the Trade (Episode 2 of 3): Primary Sources and Manetho’s "Aegyptiaca" (History of Egypt)
A bust statue of Manetho, ancient Egypt’s preeminent historian. Photo: Wikipedia

So, who was Manetho and why was he important? “Manetho was a priest who lived during the Ptolemaic Kingdom which was in the early third century BC during the Hellenistic period.” Manetho was also considered ancient Egypt’s preeminent historian because of Aegyptiaca, a work that surveys the “history of the kings who reigned in ancient Egypt.” Manetho was from Egypt, but he wrote most of his works in Greek which was the dominant language during that time period. He typically wrote about science, religion, history, and he also helped to decipher the rather lengthy names of the Egyptian pharaohs. This made it easier for more people to understand what they meant, and his system also assisted scholars with matching the pharaohs to their associated kingdoms that they came from. Essentially, Manetho was one of the earliest historians and he served as a linguist as well. Now, it is time to study the wonderful primary source document of Aegyptiaca. By doing this, we will see why it was and is such an important resource for scholars who study ancient Egypt.

Applying the Tool of Primary Sources to Arab World History—Ancient Egypt Edition:

The Historian’s Toolkit—Tools of the Trade (Episode 2 of 3): Primary Sources and Manetho’s "Aegyptiaca" (History of Egypt)
The Giza Pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza. Photo: Sci-News

So, why is the work, Aegyptiaca, so important, and how does it help historians study the past? Well, for one thing, Aegyptiaca has helped historians who study ancient Egypt because of the way Manetho organized the many different dynasties. Manetho had a two-tiered level of analysis when it came to organizing the dynasties, and he did this by compiling them from both a geographical and genealogical perspective. His method was absolutely necessary due to the expansive history ancient Egypt had which contained between 30-31 dynasties that spanned hundreds, if not thousands of years!

Furthermore, Manetho’s Aegyptiaca was also categorized “chronologically and divided into three volumes.” This method was considered an “innovation” for historians because he “divided rulers into dynasties.” And finally, he provided a narrative about the kings’ bloodlines and their many different dynasties which has assisted historians in better understanding the changes of government and power during the vast time period known as ancient Egypt. Essentially, this primary source pushed the field of historical scholarship forward because of the way it categorized these numerous dynasties Also, Aegyptiaca’s status as a primary source gives historians who study the ancient world an excellent glimpse into the past which helps us continually analyze those times.


The Historian’s Toolkit—Tools of the Trade (Episode 2 of 3): Primary Sources and Manetho’s "Aegyptiaca" (History of Egypt)
A map of cities in ancient Egypt. Photo: Historical Eve

Thank you for joining me on this exciting journey to learn a little bit more about the beautiful field of history as we unravel the historian’s ‘tools of the trade’. Be on the lookout for the third and final installment in “The Historian’s Toolkit,” where we will explore the usage of the book review and relate it to another historical topic in the Arab World. I hope you have enjoyed our excursion into the wonderful and exciting world of historical scholarship.

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