Life in Ancient Egypt: what was it like?
Egypt's pharaohs have left an impressive legacy of stone architecture, monumental inscriptions and religious art, allowing us to reconstruct their achievements with a fair degree of certainty. But what was daily life like for the ordinary Egyptian? Here, Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley shares 10 lesser-known facts
Who were the ‘ordinary people’?
Imagine the population of ancient Egypt arranged in a social pyramid: the pyramid base is supported by slaves, servants and the serfs; and tenant farmers work the estates owned by the king, the elite and the temples.
Next come the skilled and semi-skilled artisans; the soldiers, sailors and those employed on the great state projects (the building sites, tombs and temples). Above them are the educated professional classes, including scribes, accountants and doctors. Finally come the nobility; the elite who control much of Egypt’s wealth.
The royal family remain exclusive and aloof at the top of the pyramid, while the king, or pharaoh – the only mortal who is deemed able to communicate effectively with the state gods – is superior to everyone.
Egypt had the highest birth rate in the ancient world. And yet, things were far from perfect. Illnesses and accidents could not be avoided, and there was no welfare programme to protect the unfortunate. The family provided the only reliable support mechanism and was therefore an institution of immense importance, with marriage a practical rather than a romantic bond, designed to create a viable economic unit.
Everyone, even the gods and goddesses, married. An unmarried man was seen as incomplete, and schoolboys were advised to wed early and father as many children as possible. Destined to follow in their parents’ footsteps, boys were trained in the trades and professions by their fathers and uncles, while girls stayed at home to learn from their mothers. In their early teens girls would marry and the cycle would start again.
Mistress of the house
Husbands and wives had complementary but differing roles within the marriage. While the husband worked outside the home, earning the rations that would feed his family, the wife or ‘mistress of the house’ ran the household, providing food, drink, clothing and cleaning services as needed.
To reflect this traditional allocation of duties, the Egyptian artists depicted women as pale skinned ‘indoor’ people, while men appeared as darker skinned ‘outdoor’ workers.
Childcare, cooking and cleaning were considered important, but they have little impact on the archaeological or written record. Consequently we know less about Egypt’s women than we do about its men. One thing we do know, however, is that women had the same legal rights as men of equivalent social status. This allowed them to own their own property and to live alone without the intervention of a male guardian.
Most married women spent much of their lives either pregnant or breast-feeding. With little medical advice available, amulets and charms bearing the figures of the pregnant hippopotamus goddess Taweret and the dwarf demi-god Bes were used to protect both the mother and her unborn child.
The mother prepared for birth by removing her clothing and loosening her hair. In a wealthy household she may have retreated to a specially constructed birthing hut; this was a privilege available to few. The mother squatted on birthing bricks for the delivery, and a midwife used a sharp obsidian or flint knife to cut the umbilical cord. If something went wrong, there was very little the midwife could do to help.
Mothers breastfed their babies for up to three years.
The Egyptians built their towns and cities from mud-brick, reserving stone for their temples and tombs. Building with this material was both cheap and fast, but unfortunately, over time, almost all the mudbrick houses and palaces have crumbled and dissolved.
Fortunately, the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina – home of the royal tomb-builders – has survived relatively intact. Here the terraced houses were long, narrow and dark, with a wooden front door opening directly onto the main street. Each house included two living or public rooms, a storeroom or bedroom, and a kitchen equipped with a mud-brick oven. The roof over the kitchen was made from matting that would allow smoke and cooking smells to escape. Stairs gave access to the rest of the roof, which could be used as an additional living space.
Food and drink
Egypt was a very fertile land, and under normal circumstances no one went hungry. Food could be homegrown, earned in the form of rations (there was no money), hunted, fished or bartered at market. Water could be obtained from wells, the Nile, or irrigation canals built by the Egyptians.
Grain – wheat or barley – was the principal source of carbohydrate. Everyone ate vast quantities of bread, even the gods, whose temples received daily offerings of hundreds of loaves. Vegetables and fish were widely available, and the typical peasant family ate a healthy diet rich in bread, fish, onions and pulses supplemented by occasional small game and fowl. The elite ate meat on a more regular basis. Chicken, which is consumed in vast quantities in modern Egypt, was not available.
Beer, a mild, thick, slightly sweet beverage best drunk through a filtering straw, was the main drink of the masses, consumed at every meal. Wine made from grapes grown in the Nile Delta was a privilege of the elite.
Many painted tomb walls show Egypt’s elite dressed in gleaming white, intricately pleated garments as they walk through the fields or enjoy a tasty banquet. This is very much an idealised image. Archaeological evidence indicates that most women dressed in practical, plain, sleeved dresses similar in style to the simple galabiyahs worn by modern Egyptian villagers. These dresses were made from linen; cotton and silk being unknown in ancient Egypt. Woven sandals and a shawl for warmth completed the outfit.
Men had a similar wardrobe, although the long outer garment would be removed and replaced by a kilt when working in the fields. These simple garments would have been very valuable; they would have been handed down, patched and darned, until at the end of their useful life, they were used as mummy wrappings.
Laundry was done in the canal or the Nile, with natron, a salt-rich mineral, as a cleaning agent.
Egypt’s doctors were considered the best in the ancient Mediterranean world. They employed a combination of scientific techniques (observation and diagnosis) and magical rituals (spells and charms) to bring about their cures. Patients might be treated with a prescription – human milk being considered a particularly effective ingredient – or by minor surgery.
There was some specialisation among doctors, with Egypt’s gynaecologists offering not only the treatment of female illnesses, but also the provision of fertility and pregnancy tests and (unreliable) contraceptive measures.
Although mummification made the Egyptians aware of the arrangement of the internal organs, their understanding of the body systems was inaccurate. They believed that there was a network of ‘canals’ centred on the heart, which included the blood vessels, tear-ducts, and nerves. Obstructions within this system would cause floods and droughts in different areas of the body.
The Egyptian pantheon included several thousand deities. These gods might be arranged in a loose hierarchy, with nationally recognised state gods at the top, locally significant gods in the middle, and demi-gods and supernatural beings at the bottom.
While the king and his priests worshipped the important state gods in their state temples, his subjects were almost entirely excluded from state religion. Instead, they worshipped an eclectic mix of local gods, demi-gods and supernatural beings; the spirits and ancestors who never developed formal cults, but who undoubtedly had an enormous influence on the lives of the ordinary people.
Magic was, at all levels of society, a real and potent power that could be used to protect the innocent and ward off harm. It could not be separated in any meaningful way from either formal religion or science.
Life after death
In Ancient Egypt death was not necessarily the end of life. The Egyptians believed it was possible to live again, if the corpse was preserved in a lifelike form so that it might form a bridge between the spirit of the deceased and the land of the living. So, as soon as possible after death, the body was taken to the undertaker’s workshop. Here it was laid on a sloping embalming table, stripped, and washed.
The brain was immediately discarded. This was usually achieved by breaking the ethmoid bone (the bone separating the nasal cavity from the skull cavity) and poking a long-handled spoon up a nostril. The heart, in contrast, was left in place. Next an incision was made in the left flank, then the stomach, intestine, lungs and liver drawn out. The finger- and toenails were tied in place and the corpse packed with natron salt. It was left for up to 40 days, until entirely dry. Finally the desiccated body was washed, oiled and bandaged.
Not everyone could afford this treatment, however. The vast majority of the population were buried unmummified, in simple desert graves. What kind of an afterlife did these Egyptians expect? We will probably never know.
Joyce Tyldesley, senior lecture in Egyptology at the University of Manchester, is the author of Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt (Allen Lane 2010) and Tutankhamen’s Curse: the developing history of an Egyptian king (Profile 2012). You can follow Joyce on Twitter @JoyceTyldesley