Circumcision in ancient Egypt

Relief from Mastaba of Ankhmahor depicting mortuary priests using flint knives to perform the rite of circumcision on a group of boys. It is the oldest extant depiction of the act of circumcision from Ancient Egypt.

Here is a line-art version of the depiction, which appears on the east thickness of a doorway in the tomb. Old Kingdom, 6th Dynasty, reign of king Teti, ca. 2345-2333 BC. Tomb of Ankhmahor, Saqqara necropolis.

Scene of Circumcision in ancient Egypt. Tomb of Ankhmahor, Saqqara necropolis.
Scene of Circumcision in ancient Egypt. Tomb of Ankhmahor, Saqqara necropolis.

Circumcision was done by the Egyptians possibly for hygienic reasons, but also was part of their obsession with purity and was associated with spiritual and intellectual development.

No well-accepted theory explains the significance of circumcision to the Egyptians, but it appears to have been endowed with great honor and importance as a rite of passage into adulthood, performed in a public ceremony emphasizing the continuation of family generations and fertility.

It may have been a mark of distinction for the elite: the Egyptian Book of the Dead describes the sun god Re as having circumcised himself.

Related: Edwin Smith Medical papyrus

Male circumcision in ancient Egypt is well documented in representative scenes in tombs, as well as in physical remains of Egyptian people from various periods.

Circumcision of males involves removal of the foreskin. It has been practiced for thousands of years by diverse cultural groups globally. Male circumcision is both an ancient procedure and one of the most widespread practices in the world.

Scenes showing the operation of circumcision are however very rare and only a few examples have been preserved from millennia of ancient Egyptian history.

Circumcision was commonly practiced among Egyptian males as evidenced by examinations of mummies. Current evidence shows that it was conducted in the pre-adolescent stage, possibly as an initiation rite between boyhood and manhood.

There is however no evidence that circumcision was a universal male practice in Egypt, or that it was governed by one’s social class or status. There is also no evidence that female circumcision was practiced. The origin of circumcision is not known with certainty; the oldest documentation comes from ancient Egypt.