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6-08-2015, 16:34

Egyptian Society

conservative, orderly, and tolerant. They organized the world into categories,
with clear outlines and defined boundaries. They were suspicious
of the unknown and avoided unnecessary risks. Their government was
highly centralized and heavily bureaucratic. They were dedicated record
keepers. They loved peace and order, and had little instinct for warfare.
They were inclined to live and let live.
Although much of what we know about the ancient Egyptians
comes from tombs, temples, and mummies, they were not a people obsessed
with death. They loved the elements of their good life—festivals,
music, color, ornament, beer, wine, and sweets—and simply wanted to
make sure they could also have these things in the afterlife.
The Nile Valley is a long corridor linking Africa with the Near East.
The Egyptians reflected ethnic influences from both regions. Some had
dark skin and features typical of the peoples of central Africa. Others
were lighter or olive-skinned, with Mediterranean or Near Eastern features.
They had no notion of “race” based on skin color or appearance.
Since the earliest days when the region was settled, easy travel up and
down the Nile ensured that people from different regions and with different
ethnic backgrounds mixed and intermarried. Travelers and invaders also
intermarried and intermingled with the local people.
The Egyptians did make one major distinction: There were the people
of Kemet, who spoke the Egyptian language and followed Egyptian religion
and customs (“us”); and the people who did not (“them”),
considered misguided and inferior.

Divine Balance

The guiding principle of Egyptian
society was ma’at, which means balance,
rightness, order, justice, truth,
harmony, good behavior, and the
status quo. The stability and predictability
of the Nile contributed
to this world view.
In nature, ma’at was the rising
and setting of the sun, the orderly
progression of the seasons,
and the annual inundation. In daily
life and business, ma’at was fairness
and justice. In government affairs,
ma’at meant the status quo: following
traditions and precedents
and not rocking the boat. In religious
matters, ma’at meant living a
good life, honoring the gods and
goddesses, and being tolerant.
Everyone, even the king, was expected
to live by ma’at.
Ma’at was also the name of
the goddess of balance and order. She, and the idea of ma’at, were sometimes
associated with the cat (mit or miit), because of the balance between
fierceness and gentleness the Egyptians saw in cats.
The opposite of ma’at was isfet—chaos, mischief, disruption, and
disorder—represented by the god Seth. He was associated with the red
lands of the desert.
Egyptian society was like a pyramid. At the top, set apart like the
golden capstone on the Great Pyramid, was the king. At the broad base
of the social pyramid were peasants, 80 percent of the population. In
between were priests, government officials, artisans, tradesmen, and
Egyptian society consisted of a wealthy, privileged elite, masses of
very poor peasants, and (after the Middle Kingdom) a small middle class
of artisans and professionals. The wealthiest families enjoyed diets, clothing,
possessions, lifestyles, pleasures, and conveniences that the poorest
could not even imagine. Yet even the poorest Egyptians had advantages
not dreamed of by peasants in other parts of the ancient world. Compared
to other ancient lands, Egypt was lucky, healthy, and prosperous.

The King and His Palace

At the top of the pyramid were Egypt’s kings, who were also viewed as
gods. They were responsible for the country’s spiritual and material wellbeing.
As the living embodiment of the god Horus, the king battled
cosmic forces, upholding ma’at against isfet. As chief priest and fertility
symbol, the king was responsible for the prosperity of the land, the success
of crops, the annual, moderate inundation of the Nile, and the daily
rising and setting of the sun. As military leader, he had to keep Upper
and Lower Egypt united and content, and protect Egypt from enemies
and invaders.
He was chief rainmaker and water-finder. His coronation took
place at the beginning of akhet, the inundation season, to symbolize his
power over the river. He was Egypt’s role model for proper behavior and
ma’at. Everything he said was law. Justice in Egypt meant “what the king
loves”; wrongdoing was “what the king hates.”
The king owned everything (symbolically, if not in practice)—all
land, resources, animals, crops, people, every ounce of gold, every jar of
beer, and every mud-brick in every peasant’s hut. He held absolute power
over life and death. Everything the king touched—his clothing, crowns,
jewelry, tools, food, sandals, beer mug—was blessed with magic rituals
and reserved for his use alone. Much of his time was spent performing
magical and religious rituals to keep the universe running properly. His performance
of these rituals magically activated similar rituals performed
by lesser priests.
The palace, called per-aa (which means “great house”), was a complex
of residences for the king and his family, harem, friends, personal
staff, and government officials. It was also the seat of the central government
and the military headquarters. It housed a major temple with
its own priesthood. Many kings maintained two Great Houses (in Upper
and Lower Egypt) and also many secondary palaces.
The Great House was a place of luxury, splendor, and ceremony.
No effort or expense was spared to impress visitors. Everything the king
did followed strict protocol. He was constantly surrounded by officials,
priests, courtiers, visitors, and favor-seekers. He enjoyed the best of everything—
except leisure and privacy.
Numerous favorites and officers of the court and their families and
staffs lived at court at the king’s expense. These Honored Ones, as they
were known, were granted special favors: tombs near the king’s, and lavish
grave goods (linen, oils, wood for coffins, stone for sarcophagi). In
the Old Kingdom, these honors meant they would join the king in eternal
life—an extremely rare privilege.
Highest in status were the posts of King’s Friend and Unique Friend.
Other prized posts were Lordship of the Secret of the Royal House (keeper
of the crown jewels) and Lordship of the Secret of all the Royal Sayings
(issuer of invitations into the king’s presence). The Director of the King’s
Dress supervised a large staff, including the Valet of the Hands, Director
of Oils and Unguents, Keeper of the King’s Wigs, and Groom of the
Bedchamber. Each supervised large staffs.
The king chose his heir from among his sons—usually the son of his
chief wife. If he had no sons, the king might choose a senior official who
had married a princess. Many princes were prepared for kingship, just in
case (although some went into military or religious service, particularly
if an heir emerged early on). They studied astronomy, mathematics, civil
engineering, architecture, and magical-religious rituals and spells.
Princes participated in hunting expeditions, military tournaments,
and sporting competitions. They were expected to show exceptional talent
and ability. Some princes ruled as co-regents (co-kings) with their
fathers, although the extent of co-regency is controversial among Egyptologists.
Many princes apprenticed in the army and took part in military
While still a child, the crown prince (the one selected to be heir to
the throne) was generally married to a sister, half-sister, or cousin. This kept
the royal bloodlines “pure” and honored the god Osiris and his sisterwife,
the goddess Isis.

Royal Ladies and Harem Women

The king’s mother (known as the “great royal mother”) and the king’s
chief wife (known as the “great royal wife”) were associated with the goddess
Hathor, and enjoyed near-divine status. A few women reigned as
kings, and others reigned as co-regents with underage relatives. Royal
ladies had lavish funerals, tombs, and grave goods, though not as elaborate
as those of kings. Princesses received some education, sometimes
learning to read and write.
Wealthy and royal ladies managed multiple large estates and
supervised hordes of servants. Especially during the imperial age, they
enjoyed the best the world could offer. They anointed themselves with
costly imported perfumes, sipped the finest wines and dined on exotic
delicacies. They owned huge collections of wigs and jewels. Their clothing
chests bulged with finery, from royal linen smocks so fine they were
transparent, to pleated and embroidered gowns made especially for them.
Particularly during Egypt’s imperial age, kings kept harems of hundreds
of wives, many brought from foreign lands (along with their many
servants and attendants) to cement diplomatic ties with distant parts of the
empire. Talented female singers, dancers, and musicians were often added
to the royal harem to entertain at court.
Although she was married to the king, a harem woman might seldom
see him. Still, there was always a chance he might single her out as
a favorite. And there was a small chance that the king’s great wife would
not bear a son, and the son of a harem woman would be promoted to
crown prince. Whatever her origin, a woman whose son became king
became a queen herself—the great royal mother.

Nobles and Priests

A few hundred privileged families controlled most of Egypt’s wealth.
Wealth meant land ownership. The king (who owned everything) granted
large estates to his relatives, friends, and favorites. These large landowners
paid no taxes, but collected heavy taxes from their serfs (the peasants
on their estates). They became fabulously wealthy “little kings.” Nobles
had a moral duty under ma’at to care for the less fortunate, but were
not legally required to do so.
Priests performed daily religious-magical rituals for the dead, and for
gods and goddesses. These elaborate rituals were based on ancient traditions
and had to be carried out exactly the same way every time. If the
king—Egypt’s chief priest—did not perform the proper daily rituals, the
rituals performed by ordinary priests were worthless.
The dead and the gods required daily nourishment. Rituals included
offerings of food and drink, sacrifices of animals, and magical spells.
One important ritual in every temple was the daily washing, feeding, and
clothing of the statue of the god or goddess.
Individual priests had specialties such as teaching, record-keeping,
caring for the dead, presiding at funerals, sacrificing animals, or caring
for the god’s statue. They paid no taxes and were supported by the
government. All but the smallest temples included granaries, libraries,
healing centers, and schools. Temples also employed staffs of artisans,
craftsmen, scribes, butchers, bakers, herdsmen, cooks, guards, doorkeepers,
and janitors.
In large temples dedicated to the major gods, priests controlled
enormous wealth. At the height of their prosperity under Twentieth
Dynasty king Ramesses II, the priests of Amun-Re at Thebes controlled
90,000 serfs, thousands of acres of farmland, 500,000 head of cattle, 400
orchards, 80 ships, and 50 workshops. The Amun-Re temples received
all the revenues from 65 towns and cities in Egypt and its empire.
Most priests were part-timers, working at small temples of local
gods or goddesses. As Egypt’s most educated class, priests were physicians,
undertakers, embalmers, astronomers, mathematicians, architects,
librarians, teachers, and scribes. They also ran the temple schools.
While on duty, a priest had to be ritually pure. This meant shaving his
head and body and cleaning his mouth with natron (a drying mineral),
among other ritual practices. There were many things he was not allowed
to do, and many things he was required to do. While performing rituals,
priests wore leopard skins, masks, wands of office, and elaborate jewelry.
Women were not allowed to become priests. However, they could
be professional mourners at funerals, reenacting the grief of the goddesses
Isis and Nephthys at the death of Osiris. They could be sacred prostitutes
in the temples of the fertility god Min, or temple musicians, shaking the
sistrum (a sacred musical rattle) or playing instruments during ceremonies
and processions. They also helped tend their families’ funerary cults,
bringing offerings to the dead or burning incense at tombs. The term
“priestess” generally meant a temple prostitute or a musician.

Government Officials

The vizier, or tjaty, was the king’s top government official. He was the
king’s eyes and ears, his right-hand man, his enforcer, and his chief advisor.
Though the vizier enjoyed immense personal wealth, prestige, and power,
he also carried heavy burdens of responsibility.
He consulted daily with the king about major issues and decisions.
He planned the king’s schedule, hired and fired royal household staff,
and supervised the king’s bodyguard. As manager of the state archives,
he inspected and approved government documents, issued receipts from
royal storehouses and granaries, and dispatched palace messengers and
diplomats. As acting chief justice of the courts, he judged land disputes.
He oversaw the cattle census. Every few months, he toured the country,
inspecting canals, reservoirs, and dams. He supervised tree-felling and
shipbuilding. He made sure the border fortresses were well-supplied and
secure. He organized defenses and ordered counter-measures against
border raids. No wonder Rekhmara, vizier of Eighteenth Dynasty king
Thutmose III, was known to rise before dawn and wander the streets of
The vizier supervised a personal staff of scribes, assistants, couriers,
guards, and stewards. Many kings had two viziers—one for Upper and
one for Lower Egypt. In the early dynasties, the vizier was usually a relative
of the king. The job could be passed from father to son, but only in
cases of ability and merit. Kings were advised to appoint only very rich
men—who were less likely to be tempted by bribes—as viziers.
Some viziers were also architects, physicians, and astronomers.
One of the most famous, Imhotep, was vizier to Third Dynasty king
Djoser. Called “Egypt’s Leonardo da Vinci” because he was master of so
many subjects, Imhotep was a brilliant architect. He designed the first
pyramid, Djoser’s Step Pyramid. He was the first to do large-scale building
entirely in stone. Imhotep was also famous as a physician,
mathematician, astronomer, magician, statesman, and wise man. He was
credited with inventing the calendar. In later years, he was worshiped as
a god and was considered a son of Ptah, god of arts and learning.
Like modern bureaucrats, viziers loved to expand their departments.
Reporting to the vizier were several sub-viziers, cabinet officers, and
department heads. The chief steward, master of the horse, scribe of the recruits,
and superintendent of works also reported to the vizier, as did the
nomarchs—governors of Egypt’s 42 districts (called nomes). The chancellor
(known as director of the seal) oversaw taxes, trade, and economic
affairs. Overseers of the treasury looked after raw materials, tribute,
plunder, and commodities. Overseers of the granary managed harvesting
and storage of crops.
Egypt’s government was many-layered, bureaucratic, and very expensive
to run. It collected heavy taxes and spent lavishly. Huge departments—
in charge of farming, granaries, taxes, frontiers, trade, health, the
army, shipbuilding, foreign diplomacy, law—had branch headquarters in
Upper and Lower Egypt. Each had many sub-departments and regional
Regional officials stationed throughout Egypt and in conquered
provinces reported to the vizier. One of the most powerful regional officials
was the viceroy of Nubia. He ran conquered Nubia, oversaw military
forces and border forts, and kept the southern trade routes open. He
commanded a large bureaucracy and ruled independently, far from the
king’s eye. This job was usually passed from father to son.
Egypt was divided into 42 nomes (provinces): 22 in Upper Egypt, 20
in Lower Egypt. Throughout Egypt’s history, the nomes were the basic
administrative units of government. Nome boundaries were ancient, and
nomarchs were descendants of Predynastic tribal chieftains. The nomarch
was governor, chief judge, and high priest of the local god or goddess.
Each town or city had a Council of Elders that reported to the nomarch.

The Middle Class

Among the middle class that emerged during the Middle Kingdom were
independent artisans, tradesmen, scribes, and professional soldiers. Most
lived in towns or cities, in districts with other members of their profession.
They formed informal guilds and tradesmen’s groups. They did not own
land, but often had considerable personal wealth and many possessions.
They were dependent on wealthy customers and clients, but were not
tied to a wealthy landowner’s estate the way the mass of peasants were.

Only 2 to 5 percent of Egyptians
could read and write. They were
scribes, essential to Egypt’s diverse
agricultural economy and bureaucratic
government. When a government
official visited an outlying
district to inspect granaries, enforce
tax collections, hold a criminal trial,
open a new temple, supervise repair
of a dam or canal, or oversee a building
project, a team of scribes was
there, writing everything down.
Like modern technology workers,
scribes traveled frequently for
their jobs. Their equipment had to be
as compact, lightweight, portable, and
versatile as a modern business traveler’s
laptop and personal organizer. A scribe carried his tools in a custommade
box decorated with colorful designs. He had a small palette (like a
child’s watercolor box) with shallow pots of dry red and black ink. (He
often carried blue, green, and yellow ink, too.) He packed small pots for
gum (a binder for ink) and water, a mortar and pestle for grinding ink,
lumps of raw pigments, extra pens and papyri, brushes made of rope or
crushed twigs, tools for repairing his pens and brushes, and a clipboardlike
writing surface. He was ready for any job.
The scribe moistened his reed pen in gum and drew it across one of
the colors on his palette. In flowing hieratic script, he wrote on papyrus
propped up on his writing surface. Many statues depict the typical posture
of a scribe, sitting cross-legged, looking up alertly, pen raised, ready to write.
Scribes were always in demand and always busy. Scribes were the
glue that held Egypt together. A talented, ambitious scribe had his choice
of interesting jobs. He could work in the royal household, on the vizier’s
staff, with a professional guild, or at the estate of a nobleman. He might
work at a building site tracking labor, materials, and progress. He could
work in a temple, copying religious texts, or teaching student scribes. He
could provide sketches of hieroglyphic texts to stone carvers and painters
working on decorating a tomb or temple.
Egypt’s professionals—engineers, architects, astronomers, mathematicians,
and physicians—came from the ranks of scribes. Scribes could
become civil engineers, in charge of harbors, irrigation systems, roads,
canals, and public works. They might accompany trading or mining expeditions
to Nubia, Lebanon, or Sinai to negotiate trades, record
transactions, or carry out surveying tasks. They might join diplomatic
missions to document treaties and trade agreements.
Scribes were almost always men. The job was often passed down
from father to son, but a clever peasant boy might be selected to attend a
temple school. A Middle Kingdom literary work called Satire of the Trades
impressed upon students the advantages of being a scribe, and the miseries
of every other occupation.

Scribes generally did not pay
taxes. They were supported generously
by the government and by
temples. They were fed, housed, and
given fine clothes. They performed
no heavy labor. A scribe was sometimes
his own boss (although most
were part of a hierarchy of administration),
and often supervised important
projects. He was honored
and respected by all, held up as a
role model for the young. The
scribe’s exalted status also brought
responsibilities. He was expected to
be a man of uncommonly good
character and to live up to the reputation
of his profession. Scribes
were held in such high esteem that
wealthy men who were not scribes
often had statues made depicting
themselves as scribes.
Another way to raise one’s
status was in the military. Before
the Middle Kingdom, Egypt did not
have a standing army. Military
forces had been drafted as needed,
with each nome sending a quota of
men. Military leaders were citizen
soldiers, not professionals.

During Egypt’s imperial age, however, military service became a profitable
career. Professional officers were rewarded with tax-free estates, livestock,
serfs, gold, ceremonial weapons, and comfortable retirement jobs.
During the New Kingdom, Egypt maintained two large armies in
four divisions, stationed permanently in Upper and Lower Egypt. The
army included infantry, scouts, charioteers, marines, and archers. Officers
successfully used strategies, tactics, and innovations introduced by the
Hyksos, including horses and chariots.
New Kingdom soldiers were a privileged, prosperous class. During
peacetime, they lived in military communities. Soldiers returning from
campaigns were rewarded with land, livestock, and serfs, which they
could keep as long as at least one member of their family remained on
active duty.
A military career was one of the few paths to status and wealth for
a poor young man. Even common soldiers shared in battle plunder: cattle,
weapons, and other loot taken from defeated peoples. Ahmes
Penekhbet, a soldier who distinguished himself in battle against the
Hyksos and Asiatics, won armlets, bangles, rings, two golden axes, and two
silver axes. He also received the “gold of valor”—six gold flies and three gold
lions—from the king.
Most Egyptians were unwilling to go abroad for military expeditions.
They were terrified that if they died outside Egypt, their bodies
would not be properly mummified or buried, the proper prayers and spells
would not be said at their funerals (if they even had funerals), and they
would lose their chance at eternal life. So even at the height of empire,
much of the army was composed of mercenaries (soldiers for hire) and
troops from conquered lands, especially Nubians. Late Period armies
were manned heavily by Asiatics and Greeks. Slaves and foreign captives
often won their freedom by joining the army.
Egyptian artisans, another part of the middle class, created beautiful
work, but not for personal artistic expression. Their statues, paintings,
and carvings had specific religious, magical, or ritual purposes. In the
early days, art primarily served the dead (especially kings), and the gods.
As Egypt prospered, the skills artisans had developed and refined were
turned toward creating beautiful and useful objects for the living.
Most artisans labored anonymously in workshops as members of
efficient production teams. Their work was dedicated to the glory of
the king, the dead, and the gods and goddesses. They had plenty of
opportunity to demonstrate technical excellence and pride in their
workmanship. Their work required talent, skill, patience, and discipline.
Though it had to follow strict conventions and traditions, it was frequently
witty and inventive, and almost always graceful and elegant.
Artisans apprenticed for years in workshops of master craftsmen.
Most artisans did not know how to read or write. They copied plans and
sketches provided by scribes or priests. While excavating the ruins of
Akhetaten, king Akhenaten’s short-lived capital at Tell el-Amarna, archaeologists
discovered the remains of the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose.
Buried under rubble and sand in his storeroom, they discovered
several incomplete sculptures and models that Thutmose had probably
used in training his apprentices.
One of these models was a painted limestone bust of Nefertiti,
Akhenaten’s queen (on page 62). Now displayed in the Egyptian Museum
in Berlin, Germany, it has become one of the most treasured icons
of ancient Egypt. Because of that bust, and because his workshop had
been abandoned quickly and remained undisturbed for thousands of
years, modern scholars know more about the life of Thutmose the sculptor
than they do about many of Egypt’s kings.
Another workers’ colony, at Deir el-Medina near Thebes, was occupied
by generations of artisans and tradesmen who worked on tombs in
the Valley of the Kings. They lived with their families in a walled village,
enjoying a large measure of independence and self-government. They worked
four hours in the morning, took a lunch-and-nap break, then worked another
four hours. They enjoyed one day of rest every 10 days (an Egyptian week).
They took frequent time off for festivals and religious holidays. In their off
hours, they were free to cut and decorate tombs for themselves and their
families in the nearby cliffs. Some worked part-time as priests.
They were paid in wheat and barley. The government supplied rations
of fish, vegetables, oils, butter, salt, charcoal, wine and beer. They had
servants to do laundry, haul water, grind grain, and catch fish. They employed
cooks, butchers, rope-makers, weavers, and basket makers.

Serfs, Slaves, and Guards

Egyptian peasants were serfs, bound to their masters’ land. They could
also own their own land and animals. But most peasants owned very little,
and everything they produced was heavily taxed. Most lived in small
mud-brick houses in villages adjoining the fields. Each village had a Council
of Elders, members of the principal families who handled day-to-day
matters and minor disputes.

A peasant’s life was one of constant, backbreaking manual labor. He
planted, tended, and harvested his master’s main crop. He labored in his
master’s garden, and tended his master’s herds, flocks, and beehives. He
carried endless heavy clay jars of water, balanced in pairs on a yoke across
his shoulders, from river or canal to field and garden.
He drained marshes, removed wind-blown sand from fields, turned
over soil, and planted, harvested, and cultivated vines and vegetable crops.
Each year after the floodwaters receded, he helped local officials reestablish
field boundaries and replace markers.
He also put in regular duty on local projects: digging and clearing
canals, repairing dikes and dams, and building and repairing roads. In
his spare time, he could work in his own garden and tend his animals.
During the inundation, the fields were under water and most peasants
had nothing to do. The government took advantage of this idle labor
force, drafting conscripts to construct royal tombs, build and enlarge temples,
cut and haul stone, work mines, or for military campaigns.
Draftees had their heads shaved, said quick good-byes to their families,
and boarded boats bound for job sites. They were assigned to crews
and put to work. After the inundation was over, they usually returned
home. Conscripts were not paid, either in money or in goods. This was
forced labor, but it was not slavery. The work was often brutally hard and
dangerous, but conscripts were fed, housed, and treated reasonably well.
Evading the labor conscript was a serious offense, punished harshly. One
document calls for a punishment of 200 lashes and five open wounds. If
a conscript deserted, his family might be imprisoned or held hostage until
he returned. Conscripts who could afford to do so often hired a replacement
worker—a practice that was tolerated, if not officially approved.
The government also used conscript labor to maintain irrigation
systems. The canals, dams, dikes, and reservoirs that captured and managed
the waters of the inundation were in constant need of enhancement,
maintenance, and repair. Conscripts were put to work year round on
these projects, and were sent wherever their labor was most needed.
Conscript labor was not popular, but many draftees probably saw
their experience as an adventure. This might be their only chance to see
the world beyond their village and participate in the great works of the age.
A talented conscript might be noticed by an important official, and given
education and training.
The concept of a slave as a person totally owned by another person
did not exist. The line between “slave” and “citizen” was fuzzy. The personal
slave of a wealthy man was often better off than a peasant. The
slave could own property, and even
have servants. He could purchase
his freedom, or his master could free
him with a word. Most Egyptian
slaves were treated reasonably well,
especially compared to slaves elsewhere
in the world at the time. They
were fed, housed, and given a yearly
allocation of clothing, oils, and
linen. When it was especially hot,
their work hours were reduced.
Most slaves were foreign war
captives from Asia or Nubia. They
were considered ritually impure,
and therefore could not enter temples
or enjoy Egyptian burial rites.
When they died, their corpses were
thrown into the river for the crocodiles.
In the Late Period, many for-
eigners, including former slaves and descendants of slaves, rose to positions
of power.
The Medjay (or Medjai) were desert wanderers from Nubia who
were hired by Egypt as policemen, guards, and soldiers. The Medjay had
reputations as fearless guards and brutal law enforcers. They punished
criminals such as tax evaders and draft-dodgers, and guarded palaces,
temples, and tombs all over Egypt. But no police force, even the fierce
Medjay, was ever able to stop the robbers who looted just about every
royal tomb in the land.