Our knowledge of life in ancient Egypt is derived chiefly from the reliefs and contents of the tombs of the nobles at Giza, Saqqara and Luxor. They provide a rich saga of the daily lives of wealthy families as well as of poorer folk.
The ancient Egyptians thought of the eternal life as a natural sequence to their earthly existence and decorated their tombs with every aspect of their experience on earth that they wished to repeat. Naturally, the most pleasant memories were chosen: the perfect harvest, feast, catch on the hook, or fowl brought down with a throw stick. The tombs shed a flood of light on the life and times of the enduring Nile culture, and what comes across most strongly is a sense of family.
Many are the scenes of a nobleman seated with his loved ones beneath an arbour enjoying the mild north breeze, or accompanying them on a fishing trip in the marshes of the Delta. Among the upper classes, a man had one legal wife who was ‘mistress of the house’ and mother of his legal heirs. No marriage contracts are known to exist, nor is there any indication of a special ceremony. It would appear that the bride simply made her way to the house of her appointed or approved husband. His duties towards her are clear: ‘If you are a successful man establish your household’, wrote Ptahhotep, a Fifth-dynasty vizier some 4,500 years ago. ‘Love your wife in the house as is fitting … fill her body, clothe her back … the recipe for her limbs is ointment. Gladden her heart so long as she lives … she is a fertile field for her lord’. Ptahhotep stressed the togetherness of husband and wife, the closeness of brothers and sisters, and good behaviour towards friends and neighbours.
Large estates were usually self-supporting, and there is every indication that noblemen and women were proud and motivated. They were frequently borne on tours of inspection in carrying chairs on the shoulders of pole-bearers, from which vantage they could inspect vineyards, granaries, and fisheries, as well as leather, papyrus, furniture, and weaving factories. The country house was airy and spacious, well-suited to the warm climate, with latticed windows and large open courtyards. Floors were frequently paved with brick tiles. Houses were whitewashed inside and out, as attested by the ruins of some wealthy houses excavated at Giza, and they appear to have had well developed drainage systems. It may surprise the reader to learn that the earliest evidence of a bathroom comes from a Second Dynasty tomb at Saqqara dating to the third millennium BCE. It reveals that water was drained off into pits that could be closed with a metal plug or emptied through a copper conduit. There was essentially no garbage problem in ancient Egypt. All food waste was eaten by domesticated animals, and broken pots were used as note pads.
Ancient Egyptians were fastidious about cleanliness. Both men and women took great pains with their toilet. They washed their bodies with particular attention before meals, using a basin and a vessel with a spout. They shaved their limbs with bronze razors with curved blades, and used tweezers and scrapers. Special care was taken with the hair, which was washed, anointed with oils, and fashioned into curls and plaits. Wigs and extensions were used extensively. Even as early as the First Dynasty, there is evidence that women sometimes padded out their own hair with artificial tight curls and braids to make it appear thicker.
Egypt was an agricultural country and the bulk of its people were peasant farmers. Their shelters of sun-dried brick or reeds daubed with clay comprised a single room (oblong or square), one door, and no windows. Reed mats were hung from the walls and baskets and earthenware pots were used for storage. Furnishings were sparse. The tombs of nobles contain numerous scenes of the lives of people less fortunate than themselves. They include fishermen drying their catch in the sun or repairing nets and snares, farmers fattening geese or sowing the crops, workers from the vineyard vigorously treading grapes. A naked peasant goes to market with his sandals in his hand and his shoulder slightly bent beneath the weight of the bag slung over it. A baker and his wife knead dough.
Small statues dating from the Old Kingdom and excavated in Giza, depict an array of good-natured folk, and both reliefs and inscriptions indicate that they were happy. The men who carry the nobleman around his estate in his carrying chair sing that it is as light to bear with their master seated in it as it is when empty. A musician follows a line of reapers and, as he plays his flute, one of the reapers simultaneously holds a sickle and claps his hands, singing the ‘song of the oxen’. The ancient Egyptians had a great sense of rhythm and love of music. During important events, a line of women clapped in unison. A piper or singer often entertained fishers and farmers as they worked.
The depiction of children in tombs and temples gives us an appealing insight into their lives, which seem to have been happy. With plenty of fresh air and sunshine, they went swimming in canals, fishing on the lakes, and dancing in the streets during festivals. Children are the stuff of future generations, and what they are taught is an indication of what is regarded as important in society. The texts and model compositions that were given to them in scribal schools, to practise their hand-writing, show that they were urged to remember the names of ancient sages who taught behaviour and morals. They did not copy texts extolling the exploits of heroes who fought wars, nor did they copy texts lauding physical strength.
The father was the chief authority in a strictly disciplined home, and the upbringing of boys was left largely in his hands. ‘Be not proud because of your learning’, wrote Ptahhotep. ‘Take council with the unlearned as with the learned, for the limit of a craft is not fixed and there is no craftsman whose worth is perfect. Precious to a man is the virtue of his son, and good character is a thing remembered’. The upbringing of girls was left in the hands of their mothers. They were encouraged to sing, dance and play musical instruments. The main professions open to them were midwifery – which was held in high esteem – spinning and weaving.
Early marriages were recommended as a solution to immorality. ‘Happy is the man who has a large household and who is respected on account of his children’, wrote Ptahhotep, and tomb inscriptions indicate that youths had great respect for their parents. No effort was spared by a loyal son to ensure proper burial for a departed father. Ptahhotep warned his son, ‘Beware of a woman from abroad (i.e., a stranger) … Look not upon her when she comes and know her not … If you desire to establish friendship in a house into which you enter … beware of approaching women … A thousand men are undone for the enjoyment of a brief moment like a dream’.
Leisure was made possible by the economy, exceptional opportunities, and favourable climate. The panorama of everyday life shows how vitally conscious people were of the animal and bird life teeming around them, and how much they esteemed the great outdoors. Among their greatest pleasures was venturing into the marshes in search of aquatic birds, hunting in the undulating plains of the desert, and fishing in canals and lakes. The past becomes more understandable through an awareness of how closely it might resemble the present.
Today we often make the mistake of assuming that a sense of moral behaviour was not common in early societies. In fact, the ancient Egyptian words ‘custom’ and ‘behaviour’ refer to the modern ideas of morals and ethics. Anthropological studies have shown that the concept of right and wrong, even in preliterate societies, springs from a subconscious social feeling, which is compulsive and strong. Whatever occurs with consistency and is found to be pleasant or useful, is passed on from generation to generation until it becomes a spontaneous duty – a standard of behaviour. Right and wrong were a civil question, not a religious one, passed from father to son. ‘Every man who instructs’, writes an ancient sage, ‘is like a sire … he speaks with his children, and then they speak with their children … (who) attain character … and make maat to flourish. Maat was an abstract concept that developed into the spirit of national guidance. It referred to the harmonious state of the universe which is seen to be in order – the sun reborn daily in the eastern sky, and the land unfailingly reborn after the death of the crop each year – as well as good rule, social justice and behaviour. Even when national harmony was temporarily disrupted at the death of a king, maat was inevitably reinstated at the coronation of his successor. Ancient Egyptians had total confidence in the order of things as they were.
Representations of tables laden with large varieties of food and drink show that the upper classes ate heartily. Great piles of fish, beef and fowl, along with bread and honey, weighed down a table. Wine was served. Eating was a sensual delight, both as regards smell and taste. A well-stocked larder included lentils, chickpeas, cow peas, and ordinary peas, as well as beans. Eggs were stacked in earthenware dishes. Goats and cows supplied milk, butter and cheese. The sesame seed oil and refined butter (ghee) were used for cooking. Vegetables included onions and garlic, cucumbers and leeks. Among the fruits were watermelons, pomegranates, and grapes. Fish was very popular and it seems that no larder was complete without its assortment of mullet, catfish, perch, and tilapia, a firm favourite.
Most cooking was done outdoors, in a courtyard partly roofed with matting or palm thatch. Palm leaves, and animal dung were used for fuel, along with branches of acacia and tamarisk. Geese, the favourite among farm birds, were generally roasted over live embers, placed on a low slab of limestone that served as a hearth, or on a metal brazier. Beer was the national drink, made from coarse barley bread lightly baked so as not to destroy the yeast. This was broken up, mixed with water and malted barley, and left to ferment; it was sometimes sweetened with dates.
The diet of the ordinary people consisted mainly of bread, onions, lentils, vegetables, and dried Nile fish, along with sycamore figs and dates. They loved garlic, and bartered for their needs. In one tomb representation, a loaf of bread is exchanged for some onions, a carpenter’s wife gives a fisherman a small wooden box for some of the day’s catch, and a potter’s wife obtains a jar of fragrant ointment for two bowls from her husband’s kiln.
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