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Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

When we think of ancient Egyptians, the image that most readily pops into our minds is hordes of workers labouring to build a colossal pyramid, while whip-wielding overseers brutally urge them onwards. Alternatively, we imagine Egyptian priests chanting invocations as they conspired to resurrect a mummy.

Happily, the reality for ancient Egyptians was quite different. Most Egyptians believed life in ancient Egypt was so divinely perfect, that their vision of the afterlife was an eternal continuation of their earthly life.

The artisans and labourers who built Egypt’s colossal monuments, magnificent temples and eternal pyramids were well paid for their skills and their labour. In the case of the artisans, they were recognized as masters of their craft.

Facts About Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

  • Ancient Egyptian society was very conservative and highly stratified from the Predynastic Period (c. 6000-3150 BCE) onwards
  • Most ancient Egyptians believed life was so divinely perfect, that their vision of the afterlife was an eternal continuation of their earthly existence
  • The ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife where death was merely a transition
  • Up until the Persian invasion of c. 525 BCE, the Egyptian economy used a barter system right and was based on agriculture and herding
  • Daily life in Egypt focused on enjoying their time on earth as much as possible
  • Ancient Egyptians spent time with family and friends, played games and sports and attended festivals
  • Homes were built from sun-dried mud bricks and had flat roofs, making them cooler inside and allowing people to sleep on the roof in summer
  • Houses featured central courtyards where the cooking was done
  • Children in ancient Egypt rarely wore clothes, but often wore protective amulets around their necks as child mortality rates were high

Role Of Their Belief In The Afterlife

Egyptian state monuments and even their modest personal tombs were built to honour their life. This was in recognition that a person’s life mattered sufficiently to be remembered across all eternity, be they the pharaoh or a humble farmer.

The fervent Egyptian belief in the afterlife where death was merely a transition, motivated the people to make their lives worth living eternally. Hence, daily life in Egypt focused on enjoying their time on earth as much as possible.

Magic, Ma’at And The Rhythm Of Life

Life in ancient Egypt would be recognizable to a contemporary audience. Time with family and friends was rounded out with games, sports, festivals and reading. However, magic permeated the ancient Egypt world. Magic or heka was older than their gods and was the elemental force, which enabled the gods to carry out their roles. The Egyptian god Heka who did double duty as the god of medicine epitomized magic.

Another concept at the heart of daily Egyptian life was ma’at or harmony and balance. The quest for harmony and balance was fundamental to the Egyptian’s understanding of how their universe worked. Ma’at was the guiding philosophy that directed life. Heka enabled ma’at. By maintaining balance and harmony in their lives, people could peacefully coexist and collaborate communally.

Ancient Egyptians believed that being happy or allowing one’s face “shine” meant, would make one’s own heart light at the time of judgment and lighten those around them.

Ancient Egyptian Social Structure

Ancient Egyptian society was very conservative and highly stratified from as early as Egypt’s Predynastic Period (c. 6000-3150 BCE). At the top was the king, then came his vizier, members of his court, the “nomarchs” or regional governors, military generals after the New Kingdom, overseers of government worksites and the peasantry.

Social conservatism resulted in minimal social mobility for the majority of Egypt’s history. Most Egyptians believed the gods had ordained a perfect social order, which mirrored the gods own. The gods had gifted Egyptians with everything they needed and the king as their intermediary was the best equipped to interpret and enact their will.

From the Predynastic Period through to the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) it was the king who acted as the mediator between the gods and the people. Even during the late New Kingdom (1570-1069 BCE) when the Thebian priests of Amun had eclipsed the king in power and influence, the king remained respected as being divinely invested. It was the king’s responsibility to rule in keeping with the preservation of ma’at.

Ancient Egypt’s Upper Class

Members of the king’s royal court enjoyed similar comforts to the king, although with little former responsibilities. Egypt’s nomarchs lived comfortably but their wealth depended on the wealth and importance of their district. Whether a nomarch lived in a modest home or a small palace hinged on the wealth of a region and the personal success of that nomarch.

Physicians And Scribes In Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian doctors needed to be highly literate to read their elaborate medical texts.  Hence, they started their training as scribes. Most diseases were believed to emanate from the gods or to teach a lesson or as punishment. Doctors thus needed to be aware of which evil spirit; ghost or god could be responsible for the illness.

The religious literature of the time included treatises surgery, setting broken bones, dentistry and treating illnesses. Given religious and secular life was not separated, doctors were typically priests until later when the profession became secularized. Women could practice medicine and female doctors were common.

Ancient Egyptian believed Thoth the god of knowledge selected their scribes and thus scribes were highly valued. Scribes were responsible for recording events ensuring they would become eternal Thoth and his consort Seshat were believed to keep the scribes’ words in the gods’ infinite libraries.

A scribe’s writing drew the attention of the gods themselves and thus made them immortal. Seshat, the Egyptian goddess of libraries and librarians, was thought to personally set each scribe’s work on her shelves. Most scribes were male, but there were female scribes.

While all priests qualified as scribes, not all scribes became priests. Priests needed to be able to read and write to perform their sacred duties, particularly mortuary rites.

The Ancient Egyptian Military

Until the beginning of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom’s 12th Dynasty, Egypt had no standing professional army. Prior to this development, the military comprised conscripted regional militias commanded by the nomarch usually for defensive purposes. These militias could be assigned to the king in times of need.

Amenemhat I (c. 1991-c.1962 BCE) a 12th Dynasty king reformed the military and created Egypt’s first standing army and placed it under his direct command. This act significantly undermined the prestige and power of the nomarchs.

From this point onwards, the military consisted of upper-class officers and lower class other ranks. The military offered an opportunity for social advancement, which was not available in other professions. Pharaohs such as Tuthmose III (1458-1425 BCE) and Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) conducted campaigns far outside Egypt’s borders so expanding the Egyptian empire.

As a rule, Egyptians avoided travelling to foreign states as they feared they would not be able to journey to the afterlife if they died there. This belief filtered through to Egypt’s soldiers on campaign and arrangements were made to repatriate the bodies of Egyptian dead to Egypt for burial. No evidence survives of women serving in the military.

Ancient Egyptian Brewers

In ancient Egyptian society, brewers enjoyed high social status. The brewer’s craft was open to women and women owned and managed breweries. Judging by early Egyptian records, breweries seem to have been also entirely managed by women.

Beer was by far the most popular beverage in ancient Egypt. In a barter economy, it was regularly used as payment for services rendered. Workers on the Great Pyramids and mortuary complex on the Giza Plateau were provided with a beer ration three times each day. Beer was widely believed to have been a gift of the god Osiris to the people of Egypt. Tenenet, the Egyptian goddess of beer and childbirth, oversaw the actual breweries themselves.

So seriously did the Egyptian population view beer, that when the Greek pharaoh Cleopatra VII (69-30 BCE) levied a beer tax, her popularity dropped more precipitously for this sole tax than it did during all her wars with Rome.

Ancient Egyptian Labourers And Farmers

Traditionally, the Egyptian economy was based on a barter system right up until the Persian invasion of 525 BCE. Based predominantly on agriculture and herding, the ancient Egyptians employed a monetary unit known as a deben. A deben was the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the dollar.

Buyers and sellers based their negotiations on the deben although there was no actual deben coin minted. A deben was equivalent to roughly 90 grams of copper. Luxury goods were priced in silver or gold debens.

Hence Egypt’s lower social class was the powerhouse producing goods used in trade. Their sweat provided the momentum under which Egypt’s entire culture flourished. These peasants also comprised the annual labour force, which built Egypt’s temple complexes, monuments and the Great Pyramids at Giza.

Each year the Nile River flooded its banks making farming impossible. This freed up the field labourers to go to work on the king’s construction projects. They were paid for their labour

Consistent employment on constructing the pyramids, their mortuary complexes, great temples, and monumental obelisks provided perhaps the sole opportunity for upward mobility available to Egypt’s peasant class. Skilled stonemasons, engravers and artists were in high demand throughout Egypt. Their skills were better paid than their unskilled contemporaries who provided the muscle to move the massive stones for the buildings from their quarry to the construction site.

It was also possible for peasant farmers to enhance their status by mastering a craft to create the ceramics, the bowls, plates, vases, canopic jars, and funerary objects people needed. Skilled carpenters could also make a good living crafting beds, storage chests, tables, desks and chairs, while painters were needed to decorate palaces, tombs, monuments and upper-class homes.

Egypt’s lower classes could also discover opportunities by developing skills in crafting precious gems and metals and in sculpting. Ancient Egypt’s sublimely decorated jewellery, with its predilection for mounting gems in ornate settings, was fashioned by members of the peasant class.

These people, who made up the majority of Egypt’s population, also filled out the ranks of Egypt’s army, and in some rare cases, could aspire to qualify as scribes. Occupations and social positions in Egypt were usually handed down from one generation to another.

However, the idea of social mobility was seen as one worth aiming for and imbued the daily lives of these ancient Egyptians with both a purpose and a meaning, which inspired and suffused their otherwise highly conservative culture.

At the very bottom of Egypt’s lowest social class were its peasant farmers. These people rarely owned either the land they worked or the homes they lived in. Most land was the property of the king, nomarchs, members of the court, or the temple priests.

One common phrase peasants use to start their working day was “Let us work for the noble!” The peasant class consisted almost exclusively of farmers. Many worked other occupations such as fishing or as a ferryman. Egyptian farmers planted and harvested their crops, keeping a modest amount for themselves while giving the majority of their harvest to the owner of their land.

Most farmers cultivated private gardens, which tended to be the domain of the women while the men worked each day in the fields.

Reflecting On The Past

Surviving archaeological evidence suggests Egyptians of all social classes valued life and looked to enjoy themselves as frequently as possible, much as people do today.

Header image courtesy: Kingn8link [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons