Colour in Ancient Egypt

Modern cultures consider many of the materials used by the ancient Egyptians to be semi-precious (like turquoise) or cheap (like glass). To the Egyptians it was not just the value or scarcity of the materials that mattered (although of course gold and silver were particularly highly prized), but the symbolic meaning of the colours and the beauty of the image that they could construct from them. Colours were not used randomly, but were intended to convey meaning and imbue an image with greater power.

The word “iwn” (colour) also translates as “disposition”, “character”, “complexion” and “nature”, confirming that colour was seen as being intimately linked to the essence of being.

Column from Luxor Temple showing the bright colours used by Egyptians kairoinfo4u [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]
Column from Luxor Temple with come of the bright colour remaining

The ancient Egyptian palette was formed around six main colour groups: green (wadj); red (desher); blue (irtyu or khesbedj); yellow (khenet or kenit); white (hedj or shesep); and black (kem).

The ancient Egyptians used mineral compounds to add colour to their art. As a result, some of the colours are still vibrant and beautiful thousands of years later. They made jewellery out of amethyst, garnet, jasper, onyx, hematite, turquoise, lapis lazuli, copper, malachite (a form of copper ore), gold, silver, faience and shells.


Copyright J Hill 2010