|Daily life in Ancient Egypt
Food and cooking
Hair and Jewellery
Housing and Furniture
Death and Funerals
Location: Northeast corner of the continent of Africa.
Size: 997,740 sq. km approx.
Capital: Memphis, then Tel el Amarna, then Luxor, then Alexandria, then much later Cairo
Official language Arabic (today):
Official language Combination of Semitic and Hamatic (ancient):
Major river: The River Nile separates East and West Egypt
Deserts: Eastern and Western. Form barriers of protection, shielding people against invasion.
Landscape: Highest areas in the south. Land slopes gently
towards the Mediterranean Sea. Much of the delta
land in the North is at sea level. Some mountains on
the Sinai Peninsula over 2600 metres in height. Some
hills near Alexandria, and Moqatm mountain in Cairo.
Climate: Very dry, arid and hot. Almost no rainfall on a regular basis, though some areas have lakes, oases & wells to provide water. People depended on the annual summer floods (June - October) for irrigation purposes. Without the Nile there would be no Egypt.
Ancient Egypt was a narrow strip of land running along the banks of the River Nile. Each year the river flooded its banks, leaving a fertile fringe of soil on either side, which was called “the Black Land.” The desert all around the Nile valley was called “the Red Land”. It was here that the Ancient Egyptians built their homes, and developed their great civilisations.
The people of Ancient Egypt valued family life highly. They treasured children and regarded them as a great blessing. In the poorer families, the mother raised the children. The wealthy and nobility, had slaves and servants to help take care of the children by looking after their daily needs. If a couple had no children they would pray to the Gods and Goddesses for help. They would also place letters at the tombs of dead relatives asking them to use their influence with the Gods. Magic was also used as an attempt to have children. In the event that a couple still could not conceive, adoption was always an option.
Although women were expected to obey their fathers and husbands, they were equal to men in many ways. They had the legal right to participate in business deals, own land and were expected to represent themselves in court cases. Women even faced the same penalties as men. Sometimes the wives and mothers of pharaohs were the ‘real’ ruling power in government, though they ruled unbeknown to the ordinary people. Queen Hatshepsut was the only woman who ruled outright by declaring herself pharaoh. An Egyptian wife and mother was highly respected in this ancient society.
Young boys learned a trade or craft from their fathers or an artisan. Young girls worked and received their training at home with their mothers. Those who could afford it sent their sons, from about the age of seven, to school to study religion, reading, writing and arithmetic. Even though there is no evidence of schools for girls, some were taught to read and write at home, and some even became doctors.
Children were expected to look after their elderly parents. Upon their parent’s death, the sons inherited the land, while daughters inherited household goods such as furniture and jewellery. If there were no sons in the family, there was nothing to prevent daughters from inheriting the land. There is evidence of some women inheriting entire homes.
Although women were expected to raise the children and take care of household duties, there were some jobs available to them. Women ran farms and businesses in the absence of their husbands or sons. Women were employed in courts and temples as acrobats, dancers, singers and musicians. Wealthy families hired maids and nannies to help with household chores and the raising of children. Noblewomen could become priestesses. Women also worked as professional mourners and perfume makers.
Peasant girls usually married around the age of 12, the boys being a few years older than the girls. Girls of more affluent families usually married when they were a few years older. The marriages were arranged by the parents of the children, although some young people chose their own partner. Ordinary men normally had just one wife, but the kings always had several. Before the marriage ceremony, the couple signed an agreement. This pre-nuptial agreement stated that the wife was to receive an allowance from the husband. It also stated that any material goods that the wife brought into the marriage were hers to keep if the marriage ended for any reason. Both could own land separately from each other but the wife usually let her husband administer her land along with his.
Divorce was an option, although it was not common. If a husband treated his wife badly, she would go to her family for help. The wife’s family would try to persuade her partner to change his behaviour but if it did not improve the divorce took place. The divorce was a straightforward procedure consisting of making a simple statement to annul the marriage, in front of witnesses. The wife was given custody of the children and was then free to remarry.
Food and cooking
Cooking was done in clay ovens as well as over open fires. Wood was used for fuel, even though it was a scarce commodity in Egypt. Food could be baked, boiled, stewed, fried, grilled or roasted. What is known about kitchen utensils and equipment is from items that have been found in tombs. Storage jars, bowls, pots, pans, ladles, sieves and whisks were all used in the preparation of food. Most of the ordinary people used dishes that were made of clay, while the wealthy used dishes that were made of bronze, silver and gold.
Beer was the most popular beverage, and bread was the staple food in the Egyptian diet. The beer was made with barley. The barley was left to dry, and then baked into loaves of bread. The baked barley loaves were then broken into pieces and mixed with the dried grain in a large jug of water and left to ferment. To make the bread, women ground wheat into flour. The flour was then pounded by men to make a very fine grain. Sesame seeds, honey, fruit, butter and herbs were often added to the dough to help to flavour the bread. Wine was a drink produced by the Egyptians, although it was only usually found at the tables of the wealthy.
Cleansing rituals were very important to the Egyptians. Most people washed daily in the river or using a water basin at home. The wealthy had a separate room in their home to bath. Servants would pour jugs of water over
their master (the equivalent of a modern day shower). The runoff water drained away through a pipe that led to the garden. Instead of washing with soap, a cleansing cream was used. This cream was made from oil, lime, and
People rubbed themselves daily with perfumed oil. Perfume was made from flowers and scented wood mixed with oil or fat, and was left in a pot until the oil had absorbed all the scent. The perfumed oil was used to prevent the skin from drying out in the harsh climate. At parties, servants put cones of perfumed grease on the heads of the guests. As the grease melted, it ran down their face with a pleasing cooling effect.
Men, women and children of all ages and classes wore makeup. Mirrors of highly polished silver or copper were used to aid the application of makeup. Eye paint was made from green malachite, and galena a grey lead ore. They were ground into a fine powder and mixed with oil to make eye color called Kohl. The Kohl was kept in jars and applied to the eyes with a small stick. The upper and lower eyelids were painted with the black kohl so that it extended in a line out to the sides of the face. It was believed the makeup had magical and even healing powers. Some even believed that wearing it would restore poor eyesight. It was also used to fight eye infections and reduce the glare of the sun.
Other cosmetics used included colors for the lips, cheeks and nails. A type of clay called red ochre was ground up and mixed with water, and then applied to the lips and cheeks. Henna was used to dye the fingernails yellow and
orange. Makeup was stored in special jars and the jars were stored in special makeup boxes. Women would carry 'their makeup boxes with them to parties and keep them under their chairs.
Hair and Jewelry
Hairstyles were very similar to that of todays. The ordinary people wore their hair short. Young girls usually had their hair in pigtails. Boys had shaved heads, except for one braided lock worn to one side.
Wigs were worn by both men and women. The wigs, made of sheep's wool or human hair, were for decoration and for protection from the heat. Wigs were usually worn at parties and official functions. Hairpieces were also added
to real hair to enhance it. When not in use, wigs were stored in special boxes on a stand inside the home.
Everyone in Egypt wore some type of jewelry. Rings and amulets were especially popular to ward off any evil spirits, and to protect from injury. Both men and women wore pierced earrings, armlets, bracelets, and anklets. The rich also wore jeweled or beaded collars, called a wesekh, necklaces and pendants.
For the rich, jewelry was made of gold, silver or electrum (gold mixed with silver) and inlaid with semi precious stones such as turquoise, lapis lazuli (a
deep blue stone), and carnelian (a copper or reddish orange stone). The poorer people wore jewelry that was made of copper or faience (made by heating powdered quartz).
Egyptian clothing styles did not change much throughout ancient times. Clothes were usually made of linens, ranging from course to fine texture.
During the Old and Middle kingdoms, men usually wore a short skirt called
a kilt. Women wore a straight fitting dress held up by straps. The wealthy men wore pleated kilts, and the older men wore a longer kilt. When doing hard work, men wore a loincloth, and women wore a short skirt. Children usually ran around nude during the summer months, while in the winter, wraps and cloaks were worn. Noblewomen sometimes wore beaded dresses.
During the New Kingdom, a nobleman would sometimes wear a long robe over his kilt, while the women wore long pleated dresses with a shawl.
Some kings and queens wore decorative ceremonial clothing with feathers and sequins.
Most people went barefoot, but wore sandals on special occasions. The king wore very elaborately decorated sandals, and sometimes decorative gloves on his hands. Clothing styles were chosen for comfort in the hot, dry climate of Egypt.
Housing and Furniture
Egyptian homes were made from bricks of sun-dried mud, called adobe, because wood was scarce. A nobleman's home was divided into three areas: a reception area, a hall, and the private quarters. The windows and doors on the house were covered with mats to keep out the flies, dust, and heat. The inside walls were decorated with wall hangings made of leather, and the floors were covered with tile. Sometimes there was a room on the roof with three walls where the family slept on hot summer nights.
The poorer people lived in town houses usually two to three stories high. The first story of the town home was usually reserved for business, while the second and third floors provided the family living space. Many people slept on the roof during the summer to keep cool.
Most people had some furniture, which usually included a stool, small boxes for jewelry and cosmetics, chests for clothing, pottery jars, and oil lamps.
Each home was equipped with at least one flycatcher. Sewage had to be disposed of by each household in pits, into the river, or out into the streets.
Egyptians spent their spare time doing a wide variety of things, and many of these activities are shown on the tomb walls. Dramatizations were held in the temples, but the most important source of entertainment & relaxation was the Nile river. Activities on the river included fishing, riverboat outings, swimming, hunting crocodiles and hippopotami. Boat games, where two teams of men in boats with long poles would try to push each other into the water, were also popular. Hunting in the desert was another great pastime, especially for the noblemen. Men first hunted on foot, however, by the time of the New Kingdom, men used horses and chariots. Some of the animals the Ancient Egyptians hunted include fox, hare, and hyena.
Wealthy Egyptians often entertained by holding extravagant parties with plenty of food to eat and beer and wine to drink. Singers, dancers, acrobats, and musicians were hired to entertain. The Egyptians loved music, and played instruments such as the lute, harp, and lyre. Other favorite pastimes included board games like Hounds & Jackals, and Senet. Children kept themselves entertained with toys like carved ivory animals, wooden horses on wheels, and balls.
Festivals held in Ancient Egypt were usually holidays in honor of the gods. The important gods had festivals in their honor that were held by the priests. A statue of the god was carried through the streets.
More friendly gods had celebrations held by the people, not just the priests. Bes was one of the most popular Gods and one of the gods the people held a festival for. On the day of Bes, no work was done on the pyramid, and people would parade down the street dressed in masks of Bes, while dancers and tambourine players followed. The townspeople joined in the singing from their rooftops, and the children would run along beside the dancers singing and clapping their hands. The whole town enjoyed the festival and feast.
In pre dynastic times, people found that living in the Nile River Valley provided them with a safe environment. The Nile River Valley was a rich area because of the annual flooding of the river.
Over time the various groups organized themselves into two separate governments called the Upper Kingdom and the Lower Kingdom. About
3,100 BC., Menes, the ruler of Upper Egypt, conquered the Lower Egyptian Kingdom. Menes united Egypt and became the first ruler of both Upper and Lower Egypt. Where the two kingdoms met, Menes built the capital of Memphis.
To the people of Egypt, the ruler, later called pharaoh, was more than a king. He was considered by many to be a god. As a god, the pharaoh was believed to posses all the secrets of heaven and earth, he was the living embodiment of the Gods. This is why the Egyptians considered his power absolute.
The pharaoh was responsible for all aspects of Egyptian life keeping the irrigation works in order, directing the army, keeping peace, and issuing laws. He also controlled trade and the economy. The base of the pharaoh's power was his control of the land. The pharaoh owned Egypt’s mines, quarries and the trading fleets that sailed to foreign lands. Foreign merchants had to deal with royal officials, not with the merchants of Egypt.
Many officials were appointed to supervise the details of the government. The most important was the vizier, also known as the Chief Overseer (a bit like a Prime Minister.) His job was to carry out the orders of the pharaoh, he acted as a diplomat in the royal court, and was in charge of tax collection and
Under the vizier were the governors who controlled the local areas into which Egypt was divided. Beneath the governors were the scribes and overseers. The scribes were the keepers of the records. The overseers supervised the farming of the land, and the peasants. Government and religion were inseparable in Egypt.
Many of the great architectural, achievements of the past are built of stone. Stone quarries supplied the large blocks of granite, limestone and sandstone that were used for building palaces, temples and tombs. Architects planned carefully as building was done without mortar. The stones had to fit together precisely. At the temple of Karnak, a ramp of adobe brick can be seen leading to the top of the temple wall. Such ramps were used to allow workmen to carry stones to the top of structures and allow artists to decorate the tops of walls and pillars. Pillars were built in the same way. As height was added, the
ground was raised. When the top of the pillar was completed, the artists would decorate from the top down, removing ramp sand as they went along.
As soon as a pharaoh was named, construction on his tomb would begin. Tomb building continued throughout his life and stopped only on the day on which he died. As a result, some tombs are very large and finely decorated, while other tombs, like that of King Tutankhamun, are small because he ruled as a pharaoh for such a short time.
The architecture was based upon perpendicular structures and inclined planes since there was no structural assistance except the strength and balance of the structure itself. For this reason, the square and the plumb line were very important tools.
One of the most notable and lasting achievements of the Ancient Egyptians are their pyramids. The size, design, and structure of the pyramids reveal the skill of these ancient builders. The pyramids were great monuments and tombs for the kings. The Egyptians believed that a king's soul continued to guide affairs of the kingdom even after his death. To ensure that they would continue to enjoy the blessings of the gods, they preserved the pharaoh's body through the mummification process. They built the pyramids to protect the preserved body. The pyramid was a symbol of hope, because it would ensure the pharaoh's union with the gods.
The largest pyramid in existence is the Great Pyramid built by King Cheops (Khufu) at Giza. The Great Pyramid measures 481 feet high, by 775 feet long at each of its four bases. Other notable pyramids include the Step Pyramid built for King Zoser, and the pyramid built for King Huni, that was a transition between the step pyramid and the smooth sided pyramid we know today.
The art of the Egyptians reflects every aspect of their lives. Depicted in tomb and temple drawings are scenes of everyday living, models of people and animals, glass figures and containers, and jewelry made from gold and
semi precious stones.
The wall and pillar drawings are perhaps the best known. In these drawings, it can be seen that people are going about the everyday business of baking, fishing, boating, marketing, and meeting together in family groups.
Such drawings were also thought to help the dead to live on forever by giving them all of the instructions they would need as they met the gods on their way to eternal life. The good deeds were recorded and the art that surrounded their mummified body was to help their spiritual self in solving the problems related to life after death. Pictures of food, clothing, servants, and slaves could be used by the deceased just as the real things were used by the person when living.
A variety of perspectives are often combined in Egyptian art. However, the side view is the most often seen. The artists used bright colors of blue and red, orange and white to develop pictures that tell of the life of the deceased individual. The artist would first sketch a design on a piece of pottery, and if the design was satisfactory, it would be sketched on the wall with charcoal. Colors could then be used to fill in the completed picture. Paints were made from naturally occurring minerals and artificially prepared mineral substances. Paintbrushes were sticks of fibrous wood with frayed ends. Walls were covered with mud plaster, then with lime plaster. By the time of Ramses II, artists were able to shade colors to achieve a layered effect. Wall paintings were then protected by a thin layer of varnish (the composition of which is still not known).
Sculptors were important artists in Egypt. Statues were made of kings, queens, scribes, animals, and gods and goddesses. Frequently, human and godlike attributes and symbols were combined. The work of the artist was seen in other media as well. Alabaster, a white translucent stone, was often used for making vessels and containers. Pottery was made of ceramics and clay. Pottery glazed with minerals was used to make beads, amulets, pendants, and other jewelry. A vivid blue glaze was very popular during the reign of Ramses II. Craftsmen made glass for inlayed designs and for some containers. Workers were able to make articles out of lead, gold, silver, and copper. Such metals were used to make pins, tweezers, razors, axes, knives, spears, sculptures and jewelry. The stability of the government during the reign of Ramses II allowed the skills of the artist and architect to flourish.
Religion was often the subject of Egyptian literature. Prayers and hymns were written in praise of the gods. The most important book was ‘The Book of the Dead.’ This book contained over 200 prayers and magic formulas
that taught the Egyptians how to reach a happy afterlife. The Egyptians also wrote adventure stories, fairy tales, myths, love stories, poems and proverbs.
Religion in Ancient Egypt
Religion guided every aspect of Egyptian life. Egyptian religion was based on polytheism, or the worship of many deities, except for during the reign of Akenaton. The Egyptians had as many as 2000 gods and goddesses. Some, such as Amun, were worshipped throughout the whole country, while others had only a local following. Often gods and goddesses were represented as part human and part animal. For example, Horus the sky god, had the head of a hawk, and body of a human. They considered animals such as the bull, the cat and the crocodile to sacred. Their two chief gods were Amon Ra and Osiris. Amon Ra was believed to be the sun god and the lord of the universe. Osiris was the god of the underworld. Stories about him revolved around the idea of immortality. Osiris was the god that made a peaceful afterlife possible. The Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ contains the major ideas and beliefs in the ancient Egyptian religion. Because their religion stressed an afterlife, Egyptians devoted much time and wealth to preparing for survival in the next
The Egyptians had many tales about how the world began. According to one legend, it started with an ocean in darkness. Then a mound of dry land rose up and the sun god Re appeared. He created light and all things. Another version has the sun God emerging from a sacred blue lotus flower that grew out of the mud, while a third version has him appearing as a scarab beetle on the eastern horizon.
Temples were considered dwelling places for the gods. They were everywhere. Each city had a temple built for the god of that city. The purpose of the temple was to be a cosmic centre by which men had communication with the gods. As the priests became more powerful, tombs became a part of the great temples.
The priests’ duty was to care for the gods and attend to their needs. The priests had many duties such as funeral rites, teaching school, supervising the artists and works, and advising people on problems.
Death and Funerals
The Egyptians saw death as a transitional stage in the progress to a better life in the next world. They believed they could only reach their full potential after death. Each person was thought to have three souls, the ‘ka,’ the
‘ba,’ and the ‘akh.’ For these to function properly, it was considered essential for the body to survive intact. The entire civilization of Ancient Egypt was based on religion, and their beliefs were important to them. Their
belief in rebirth after death became the driving force behind their funeral practices.
When a person died, the priests recited prayers and a final attempt was made to revive the deceased. The body was then washed and purified in a special shelter called an ibu. The body was then taken to the wabet, which was
the embalmers workshop. A cut was made in the left side, and all the organs were removed, dried out and stored in containers known as canopic jars. The body was then packed with a salt called natron for a period of forty days to dry it out. After the forty days had passed, the insides were filled with linen or sawdust. The body was then wrapped in linen bandages. Jewelry, shabtis and amulets were placed between the layers. The Chief Embalmer, who wore a jackal mask to represent the god Anubis, placed a portrait mask over the head of the deceased. The wrapped body, or mummy, was then placed into a cartonnage casing and / or a coffin.
After a period of about 70 days, in which the mummification process took place, the mummy was placed in a decorated coffin. Furniture, carved statues, games, food, and other items useful to the next life were prepared to
be buried with the mummy. The last ritual performed by the priest on the mummy was called the ‘Opening of the Mouth.’ This ceremony was believed to magically give the deceased the ability to speak and eat again, and to have
full use of their body again in the Afterlife. After placing the mummy in its final resting place, the tomb was sealed.