The ankh is one of the oldest symbols to have survived up till today, originally used by the ancient Egyptians to represent life and living, the essence of existence. It stood for consciousness, well-being and simply being, as opposed to not being. The ankh was the symbol for energy and vitality in this life, and the revival and continuity in the hereafter. In his Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs (2000), James Allen confirms that all these meanings were not just arbitrarily added to the icon, but that in fact, the ankh was the hieroglyph standing for the sequence ‘-n-ḫ. These consonants were indeed found in the verb meaning “live”, the noun meaning “life”, and words derived from them, such as s’nḫ, which means “cause to live” or “nourish”. The original connection between the ankh’s image and this hieroglyphic meaning is still shrouded in mystery and debated by scholars. An accepted opinion is that the ankh originally represented a knot formed of cloth or reeds. American Egyptologist Henry Fischer proposed in Some Emblematic Uses of Hieroglyphs with Particular Reference to an Archaic Ritual Vessel (1972) that these earliest ankh knots were actually used as amulets rather than for any practical purpose.
In conclusion to its hieroglyphic meaning, wherever the ankh was written, it stood for life. The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut for example, features lots of ankh hieroglyphs on its walls, relief sculptures and friezes. The temple is situated near the Pharaonic tombs in the Valley of Kings and adjacent to the tomb of Mentuhotep II, making the appearance of the ankh signs all the more logical. The ankh however, was not limited to merely a hieroglyph of the Egyptian language. It grew rapidly into one of the most used symbols in Egyptian religion across the realm. For the ancient Egyptians, life was an actual force which every living being and every natural occurrence was connected to, from the rising of the sun to the birth of a child. The concept of life was intimately related to the sun, light and nourishment, being the primary antagonist of darkness, death and disease. Since creation, resurrection and life in the Hereafter were divine responsibilities, the ankh was often depicted being held in specific gods’ hands, representing their life-giving power.
On the temple built by Pharaoh Ramses II in Abydos circa 1275 BC, Ramses II is pictured receiving the gift of life from the gods, Horus in this case. This imagery symbolizes his birth, but because he represented the entire nation as a Pharaoh, also the grant of life by the gods to the entirety of Egypt. Lastly, the depiction of him receiving life by Horus is an expression of hope for his fate in the hereafter. To die and to live again, eternally dwelling on the fields of Aaru. That’s the reason why several papyrus scrolls, like the Papyrus of Ani (ca. 1250 BC) or the Papyrus of Hunefer (ca. 1300 BC), depict respectively the gods Horus and Anubis guiding the dead while holding an ankh in their left hand. It symbolizes the proces of resurrection, the journey away from this realm towards revival in the afterlife.
Although early examples of the ankh sign date to the First Dynasty (c. 3000 BC), tangible ankh-shaped amulets only first appeared in the late Old Kingdom (2nd millennium) and continued to be used into the late first millennium BC. They were meant to impart to the wearer the qualities of life and vitality. The Egyptians wore them in daily life and also placed them in tombs to ensure the well-being of the deceased. Despite the importance of the symbol and its abundant occurrence in art and architecture, ankh-shaped amulets were rather rare.
The ankh lived on after the introduction of Christianity in Egypt throughout the first century AD. According to Jonathan Bardill in his Constantine, Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age (2012), the earliest Egyptian Christians found the ankh signs to resemble the Staurogram symbol, a monogram for Christ on the cross. As a result, the oldest Coptic crosses where formed by the ankh symbol’s legacy, becoming a local interpretation of the Christian cross. This type of cross is known as crux ansata (handled cross). The cross appears in several early Coptic manuscripts, as early as the 3rd century AD. The 4th or 5th century Codex Glazier for example, a manuscript of the New Testament in the Coptic language, ends with the picture of a crux ansata. It also regularly appears weaved on tapestry and painted on church walls. In terms of developing iconography, the crux ansata was an accepted Christian symbol from at least the early fourth century.
The resemblance of the ankh with the Staurogram was not the only reason the Coptic community adapted it as their cross. Since many of the former (or contemporary) pagan Egyptians confirmed that the ankh symbolized life and vitality in the old religion, the new Christians adopted this into their crux ansata, representing both Jesus on the cross but also life and resurrection. After all, in Christian belief Jesus was resurrected, healed others and abolished death itself, making the crux ansata an appropriate symbol in the Coptic mindset.
Since the emergence of Pan-Africanism, a movement aimed at promoting the unity and shared history of all people of continental African descent, the ankh plays an important part among many Pan-African activists. They consider it a symbol for the ancient Egyptian and Nubian dynasties, which they see as part of the indigenous African identity. Several Black scholars have even suggested that the ancient Egyptian society was mostly Black, and should be viewed as a Black civilization. Although this debate remains controversial, this so-called Black Egyptian hypothesis only adds to the value of the ankh symbol among Pan-African supporters. A variation on the Pan-African flag depicts a golden ankh in the center on a background of its agreed upon colors red, black & green.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.