At this time of the year, air conditioners growl and electric fans redistribute the hot air in your apartment, which prompts the question: How did the ancient Egyptians keep cool? Believe it or not, the ancients had A/C, too.
Magdy Shaker, chief archeologist at the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, said they had air conditioning without electricity.
“They used their engineering prowess to beat the heat,” Shaker told The Egyptian Gazette.
“One of the characteristics of all ancient Egyptian buildings was that the temperature inside them did not exceed 22C in both summer and winter,” Shaker added, pointing out that each building had openings for ventilation. Likewise, all housing, even royal palaces were built of mud bricks that control the temperature, he said.
“The material structure of the mud brick, the thickness of the wall, proximity to the Nile River waterways, canals — and, remember, there were no polluting industries and no energy sources of petro-chemicals — which stabilised indoor temperatures,” he explained. “Our ancestors knew how to ‘catch’ the breeze with wind traps to ventilate their dwellings.
“A wind catcher is a pipe that rises to the top of the house and has an opening to let in breezes that are stronger and cooler, and then this cool air is directed downward into the building.”
Evidence from 1300 BC is to be found on the wall drawings in the house of Nebamun in the tombs located in the Theban Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes (present-day Luxor), which are now on display at the British Museum.
Shaker added that the ancients fitted a malqaf (point of headwind) in their ceilings.
“This consisted of mats fixed to a wooden frame facing the wind to receive the breeze that moisturised the house, refreshed the interior air and renewed it,” he said.
“The malqaf was usually placed on top of the house’s main hall, where the roof was higher than other rooms as it was supported by two or more columns.”
Shaker added that this has been done on many models of different house designs that carry air ducts on their roofs that appear in the form of vaulted openings dating back to the era of the beginning of the dynasties, up to the era of the New Kingdom.
With the beginning of the Islamic eras, he added, using malqaf was developed and was commonly used in many places, not just homes.
“We find it used in mosques and hospitals on a large scale, especially in the Abbasid era (1261–1517). Designed in the form of towers connected to the building, its work lies in the exchange of heat between hot air and cold water running in special channels under the floor of buildings.
“It was also provided with air outlets above the facades to draw cold air from the bottom to enter the interior rooms, as the movement of air that passes at the top of the tower creates a pressure difference that helps to draw hot air from the inside.”
Therefore, he added, al-malqaf is associated with a mashrabiya (vernacular architectural balcony or oriel window) open to the inner courtyard, which ensures continuous renewal of air.
Shaker pointed out that there were malkaf equipped with fine or coarse wire mesh to purify the air from dust, impurities and insects. Others were equipped with quantities of burnt coal to absorb unpleasant odours.
Fans are also one of the most important means used by the ancient Egyptians to keep cool, Shaker said, as there are many scenes of fans on Egyptian temples, in addition to some carved models of them.
“The fan was usually made of a long wooden staff with a bunch of ostrich feathers from Nubia at one end,” he said.
Another way to cope with heat was to cover windows and doors with mats, which also kept out dust and flies.
“Wetting the mats with water cooled the air entering through the windows, and made the air more humid, which was useful in the dry desert climate,” he said.
Women in ancient Egypt wore white thin linen clothing. Shaker added that women used the so-called perfume cone or head cone, which was made of a mixture of oils, resins and fat, and containing myrrh. They wore them on wigs or on shaved heads as the slow melting of the cones due to bodily heat would have spread the fragrance.
For drinks, they served a soft drink made of “rice ice cream”, now known as boza.
The ancient Egyptians also made body deodorants, hence their interest in perfumes.