Epic Egypt: Popular TV & Film Depictions | History Hit

Epic Egypt: Popular TV & Film Depictions

Amy Irvine

18 May 2023
Still from 'Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark', featuring Harrison Ford
Image Credit: Flickr / Do512 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

From the iconic pyramids of Giza, including the Great Pyramid, to the magnificent temples of Luxor and Karnak, Egypt’s historic sites are awe-inspiring. The country also boasts stunning landscapes, including the Red Sea, vast deserts, and lush oases. Consequently, Egypt has served as a fascinating setting for numerous popular TV shows and films over the years, and its rich history, mythology, and cultural heritage continue to inspire storytellers and filmmakers worldwide.

Here are some popular TV and film depictions of this historic country:

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Starring Charlton Heston as Moses, this epic biblical drama tells the story of the struggle of the Hebrews against their Egyptian oppressors, culminating in the miraculous parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus from Egypt. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, the film offers a grand and majestic portrayal of ancient Egypt, from the towering pyramids of Giza to the luxurious palaces of the pharaohs.

The filmmakers consulted historical texts from the time as well as many other books, and the Bible, to make the film as accurate as possible. The film was actually filmed in Egypt, specifically Mount Sinai and the Sinai Peninsula, and is considered culturally, aesthetically, and historically significant depiction of ancient Egypt.

With its grand scale, attention to detail, lavish sets and memorable performances, The Ten Commandments became one of the highest-grossing films of its time, celebrated for its visually stunning depiction of this historic civilisation.

Cleopatra (1963)

This lavish historical epic tells the captivating story of the legendary queen of Egypt, and her tumultuous relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film famously features Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar, and Richard Burton as Mark Antony.

Spanning over four hours, the film portrays the political manoeuvrings, alliances, and romantic entanglements that shaped Cleopatra’s life and Egypt’s fate. The film delves into the complex dynamics between the characters involved, exploring both the clash between the powerful Roman Empire and the Egyptian civilisation, and Cleopatra’s relationships as both alliances of convenience and genuine love affairs. Romance was not confined to the historical characters – during filming, it was reported that co-stars Taylor and Richard Burton had an adulterous affair, making headlines worldwide.

Richard Burton as Mark Antony with Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, in the 1963 film, ‘Cleopatra’.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Courier-Gazette, McKinney, TX Photo from 20th Century Fox, producer of the film / Public Domain

The film showcases the opulence of ancient Egypt, with stunning sets, sweeping vistas, lavish costumes, and elaborate production design. From the bustling streets of Alexandria to the majestic palaces along the Nile, Egypt’s landscapes and architectural wonders are brought to life in stunning detail, reflecting the power, beauty, and exoticism associated with Cleopatra’s reign.

The estimated production costs totalled $31 million – the most expensive film ever made up to that point – nearly bankrupting the studio, yet Cleopatra received huge critical acclaim, winning 4 Academy Awards.

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (1978)

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (published in 1937) is among her most famous novels, and is brought to life in this classic film featuring Peter Ustinov as the famous detective Hercule Poirot.

The dramatic events of the murder mystery take place aboard a luxury steamer sailing down the River Nile, against the backdrop of some of Egypt’s most captivating stunning sites. Secrets and motives unravel, leading to a suspenseful, thrilling, and twist-filled climax. The film beautifully showcases the picturesque desert landscapes and iconic landmarks of Egypt, which along with the film’s intricate plot and stellar cast, make Death on the Nile highly engaging and atmospheric.

(Christie’s famous book was again turned into a film in 2022. Directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Branagh and Tom Bateman as Hercule Poirot and Bouc respectively, the film had a star-studded ensemble cast. Delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was perceived as inferior to the 1978 adaptation, yet still made a substantial profit, displaying Egypt’s historic landscapes once more.)

The ship ‘Sudan’, formerly Karnak, which features in Death on the Nile.

Image Credit: Michael Gwyther-Jones via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Egypt serves as a key setting in this famous film. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford, the film showcases iconic Egyptian landmarks including the bustling streets of Cairo, the towering pyramids, and the Temple of the Well of Souls.

From camel rides through the desert to thrilling chase sequences, Egypt’s depiction in Raiders of the Lost Ark adds an exciting and visually stunning backdrop to the action-packed narrative, immersing viewers in a world of archaeological exploration, ancient history, and intrigue.

Stargate (1994)

In this imaginative portrayal of ancient Egypt, the discovery of an interstellar portal known as the Stargate links Earth to a distant planet with humans resembling ancient Egyptians who worship the god Ra.

Egypt is depicted as a source of advanced alien technology, with Egyptian gods serving as extraterrestrial beings. The film showcases iconic Egyptian symbols, such as hieroglyphics and pharaohs, in a science fiction context, and through its blend of ancient Egyptian aesthetics and futuristic elements, creates an intriguing and visually striking depiction of Egypt.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

Whilst an animation, The Prince of Egypt offers an engaging portrayal of ancient Egypt, telling the biblical story of Moses and the Exodus, and featuring an all-star voice-cast. Egypt is depicted as a land of grandeur, with magnificent palaces, awe-inspiring temples, and bustling cities, and the film beautifully captures Ancient Egypt’s rich cultural heritage through its stunning animation, and memorable musical sequences.

The Mummy (1999)

This adventurous portrayal of Egypt was actually filmed in Morocco and the UK. However, the film’s visual effects and set designs create a sense of ancient mysticism, with its depictions of mysterious tombs, pyramids and sprawling desert. Directed by Stephen Sommers and starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, the film showcases the allure of ancient Egyptian mythology, offering an exciting journey through a fantastical version of Egypt, bringing legends and mysteries to life.

Egyptologist Dr Chris Naunton digs deep into the fascinating rediscovery of ancient Egypt.
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Egypt (2005)

This BBC documentary series, hosted by Egyptologist Dr Joann Fletcher, delves into the history, archaeology, and culture of Ancient Egypt, showcasing the country’s iconic landmarks, archaeological sites and artefacts, unveiling the secrets of its pyramids, tombs, and temples. With stunning visuals, expert interviews, and in-depth analysis, Egypt brings the fascinating civilisation to life, shedding light on its culture, religion, and daily life.

The Pyramids of Giza

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Agora (2009)

This historical drama offers a captivating portrayal of 4th-century Alexandria, in Roman Egypt, where a slave turns to the rising tide of Christianity in the hope of pursuing freedom while falling in love with his mistress, philosophy and mathematics professor Hypatia of Alexandria (played by Rachel Weisz).

From the grand Library of Alexandria to the bustling streets filled with scholars and philosophers, the film showcases Egypt’s cultural and religious diversity of the time. Historic sites and majestic architecture are depicted with attention to detail, providing an authentic backdrop. With its thought-provoking narrative, impressive performances, and captivating visuals, Agora offers a poignant portrayal of a pivotal era, capturing the essence of Egypt’s rich history and significance as a centre of learning.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Directed by Ridley Scott, this biblical epic depicts the story of defiant leader Moses (played by Christian Bale) rising up against Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II (Joel Edgerton), and leading 600,000 Israelite slaves to escape Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues.

Egypt is portrayed as a land of imposing structures, intricate temples, and vast deserts, and while the film showcases the grandeur of pharaohs and their opulent lifestyles, it also delves into the plagues and epic parting of the Red Sea. Whilst filming primarily occurred in Spain, with its stunning visuals and elaborate production design, Exodus: Gods and Kings offers a visually striking representation of Egypt, capturing the ancient civilisation’s magnitude and awe-inspiring nature.

Despite also starring A-listers including Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley, the film was banned in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for “historical inaccuracies”, and also drew criticism for its whitewashing.

Amy Irvine