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6-08-2015, 16:39

Everyday Life in Egypt

along the Nile blossomed into towns and cities, with districts for temples,
tradesmen, artisans, and laborers. But most people lived in rural
areas and villages. At most, 5 percent of the people were city dwellers.
Walled or fortified towns, common elsewhere, were rare in Egypt. Cities
and towns were hot, dry, and dusty, teeming with people and animals.
Streets were cramped and narrow. Flies and biting insects swarmed and
buzzed. Smoke from dung-fueled cooking fires hung heavily in the air.
Although clean in their homes and persons, the Egyptians, like
other ancient peoples (and some modern ones), saw any space outside
their front doors as a convenient dump. Trash and garbage were carted off
to the nearest canal, thrown into alleys or temporary pits, or piled in
heaps wherever there was space. Heated by the broiling sun, rubbish
heaps quickly became noxious pest- and vermin-ridden nightmares.
Once the Egyptians domesticated the cat (during the Middle Kingdom),
urban conditions improved. Cats quickly went to work killing rodents
and other pests in alleys, dumps, homes, and granaries, improving
health and preserving precious food supplies.

Homes and Other Buildings

Most homes and villages were set on high ground to protect them from the
inundation. Settlements in low-lying areas were surrounded by dams and
berms (a wall of earth) that required constant inspection and maintenance,
lest water flood in.
Good-quality timber had to be imported, and building with stone
was expensive and labor-intensive. Limestone, granite, massive wooden
pillars, and other expensive, durable materials were reserved for homes for
the dead and homes for the gods.
Houses and other buildings for the living, from peasant’s hut to
king’s palace, were built of mud-brick: clay-heavy mud from the Nile,
mixed with chopped straw or sand and dried in the sun. By 3000 B.C.E.,
Egyptian builders were already expert mud-brick builders. They had even
standardized brick sizes and shapes. The Egyptians knew how to fire
bricks in a kiln. But sun drying was so easy and efficient, and made such
strong, durable materials, they saw no need to go to the extra trouble.
Sun-dried mud-brick was cheap, versatile, readily available, and could
be worked quickly into structures of any size. In the hot, dry climate,
mud-brick buildings lasted several generations.

Home for a peasant farmer or
workman was just a few small
rooms. At sites of major public projects,
like the Giza plateau during
the Fourth Dynasty pyramid age,
the government built “workers’ villages”:
rows or terraces of simple
houses, much like the row houses
in New England factory towns of
the 1800s.
The typical home, humble or
grand, followed a model still common
in Egypt and other hot climates.
To the street, the home
presented a blank wall with a door.
A visitor passed through a reception
area before reaching a courtyard
that was open to the sky.
Several rooms surrounded
the courtyard. The most private
ones were reserved for the women.
The arrangement, size, number, furnishings,
and decorations of rooms
varied greatly, according to homeowner’s
wealth, status, and taste.
Some homes had a second story or
additional courtyards. Flat roofs
accessed by staircases or ladders became breezy outdoor sleeping places
on hot nights.
Thick walls of mud-brick helped keep interiors comfortable. Tiny
windows set high in the walls helped heat escape. Some homes had small,
triangular roof structures (called “wind towers”) that funneled cooling
north winds into the home. These were common features of Egyptian
homes well into the 20th century. The few small openings were covered
with linen hangings or wood shutters to help keep out dust and insects.
Pots of scented oils sweetened the air.
Interiors were quite dark. They were lighted at night with small
pottery oil lamps. (Herodotus found the scent of the Egyptians’ castor
oil lamps unpleasant.) Fancier homes were lit with elaborate lamps of
carved translucent stone, such as alabaster. Most cooking was done in
outdoor kitchens on stone hearths or metal braziers. The most common
cooking fuel, still used in rural Egypt today, was cow dung. Charcoal and
wood scraps were also occasionally burned.
Egyptians were fond of plants and flowers, and grew a great variety
for home decoration, personal adornment, and offerings to the gods and
the dead. Many herbs and flowers were used in food, cosmetics, and medicines.
Country villas of wealthy families boasted lush gardens, irrigated
year round with water carried in stone jars from a canal or the river. The
courtyard was a pleasant retreat from the dirt, insects, and noise of the
street. It might have a pool of cool water surrounded by flowering and
vining plants, date palm and fig trees, and other fruit and shade trees.
Some families planted sycamore trees, sacred to the goddess Hathor.
Many families plastered their interior walls and had them painted
with colorful designs, flowers, animals, and nature scenes. Many homeowners
laid floors of pressed clay or brick paving tiles, coated with smooth
plaster. Floor coverings woven of reeds, papyrus, or palm straw helped
trap the ever-present dust and sand, and served as sleeping mats.

Interior Decor

The Egyptians’ clean, uncluttered interior decor would not look strange
in an ultra-modern decorating magazine. Furnishings were few and simple:
low tables, wood stools with woven rush seats, and stands or pedestals
to hold platters of food. Chairs with arms were rare, and were reserved for
important guests.
Most people slept on the floor on woven mats, although some used
low, built-in platforms of brick or wood. According to Herodotus, people
in Upper Egypt slept on raised platforms, above the clouds of flies and
gnats, while in Lower Egypt, sleepers draped their mats with fine netting—
which they used by day to catch fish.
During the prosperous New Kingdom, upper-class homes were
more lavishly furnished, with beds, chairs, and couches topped with soft
cushions. Furniture legs were carved in fanciful shapes, like animals’
paws. Although their furnishings must have seemed luxurious to them,
the homes of even the wealthiest Egyptians would look somewhat empty
to modern eyes.
Mud-brick construction made it easy to build in handy wall niches
for linens, pottery, and other household goods. Jewelry, linens, clothing,
cosmetics, perfumes, toys, and other personal possessions were stored in
wooden chests, boxes, or woven baskets.

The Egyptian Family and Household

The Egyptians highly valued marriage and family. The basic family unit was
the nuclear family of father, mother, and children. Households often included
unmarried or widowed female relatives, providing support for
them and gaining extra hands for childcare and housework. Couples
wanted as many healthy children as possible. If a married couple was unable
to have children, they often divorced. Childless couples sometimes
adopted children.
Women had a great deal of freedom, independence, and status
under law and custom. Unlike women of most ancient societies, they
could own or rent property, inherit wealth, own slaves, leave property to
(or disinherit) their children, take legal cases to court on their own, operate
businesses, work outside the home, and live alone without a male
guardian. Their lives were not easy, though. Girls were married by age
12 to 14, as soon as they could have children. Many babies died in infancy,
so it was important to make the most of a woman’s fertile years.
Marriage was an agreement between a man and a woman to live
together and have children. There was no official ceremony. Divorces,
separations, and remarriages all occurred. Adultery was punished harshly,
especially in women. Polygamy (a man taking multiple wives) was accepted,
but in practice only wealthy men had multiple wives. Polygamy was
too expensive for the average working man.
A married woman was called “mistress of the house.” She was responsible
for child care, cooking, hauling water, grinding grain, baking
bread, brewing beer, spinning and weaving, making and repairing cloth-
ing, and tending the shrines of domestic gods and goddesses. Wealthy
woman supervised many servants.
Pregnancy and childbirth were extremely dangerous for both mother
and baby. Physicians could offer little help. Pregnant women recited
magical spells and prayers, made offerings to Bes, Taweret, and Bastet,
and wore protective charms and amulets. A woman gave birth in a squatting
or kneeling position, balanced over a platform. A midwife stood by
to help. Afterwards, the woman and her child had to leave home for several
days for purification in a special “birth tent.” Similar practices are
still enforced in many societies around the world.

An Egyptian Child’s World

A few Egyptians enjoyed long lives. Pepy II, last king of the Sixth Dynasty,
ruled for more than 90 years. But most people did not live past 35
or 40. Three or four out of every five children did not survive to adulthood.
A child who lived to celebrate his fifth birthday was lucky. Because
so many children died young, children were only gradually included in
the life of the family and community.
Childhood was brief but happy, with games, toys, and freedom.
Egyptians often named (or nicknamed) their children after animals, such
Monkey, Cat, Frog, Mouse, Hound, or Gazelle, based on the child’s behavior.
Miit (cat) was a popular name for girls.
Children played games much like today’s: leap frog, running and
jumping, swimming, tug-of-war, ball games of many kinds, and a form of
hopscotch. Gymnastics, vaulting, and handball were popular with both
boys and girls. One ancient game, “goose steps,” is still played in rural
Egypt. Girls played with dolls and small animal figurines. Children fished,
swam, and rowed small boats. Some wealthy families had swimming pools.
Late childhood was devoted to preparations for adulthood. There
was no such thing as a “teenager” as we know it. A peasant child’s life
of hard manual labor began early, helping with planting, harvesting, and
threshing. Boys were considered fully adult by age 15 or 16. They were expected
to take on adult responsibilities, adopt a profession, and support
their families.
Girls almost never learned to read and write. Priests, nobles, and the
wealthy sent their sons to temple schools to study under the strict guidance
of priest-scribes. A peasant boy who showed extraordinary intelligence
and promise might be sent to school—a major turning point in his
family’s fortunes, because the literate minority ran the country.
Most of a young man’s higher education was on-the-job training,
alongside a master in his chosen field. Youngsters studying to become
priests, and students of mathematics, medicine, or astronomy, stayed at the
temple school for advanced education.

Bread and Beer for Peasant and King

The staples (basic foods) for everyone, peasant to king, were bread and
beer. Emmer and spelt, the two kinds of wheat grown in Egypt, were
ground on a grinding stone called a saddle quern. This work was done
by women, and was very hard on the back and knees. Bakers created
dozens of kinds of bread, to be served with thick spreads of fava beans,
lentils, or chickpeas.
Even humble homes had a kitchen brewery. To make beer, barley
flour was formed into loaves, which were lightly baked. The baked loaves
were soaked in tubs of water and allowed to ferment. Other varieties of
beer were made from fermented wheat, wheat loaves, or plain ground,
unbaked barley. Beer was sweetened with honey, dates, or fruit juices.
Wine made from fermented palm sap or grapes was also popular
and widely available. Vineyards in the Delta produced the choicest wines,
but several regions of Egypt and the western desert oases also produced
distinctive vintages. Imported wines had snob appeal, just as they do
today. Wealthy families grew grapes in their gardens and pressed their
own wines. The Egyptians preferred their wine, like their beer, sweet, so
they added honey or fruit juices. Beer and wine stayed cool in large, semiporous,
sealed earthenware jugs.
Even the poorest peasant could supplement his bread and beer
with onions and eggs. Also on the regular menu was fish, caught in the Nile
or in the many irrigation canals. Nile perch, catfish, and tilapia were spitroasted
over coals. Fish and pork were considered ritually impure, but
both were common in peasants’ diets.
Farm families kept flocks of fowl for the table. Goose, duck, crane,
and pigeon, spit-roasted over glowing embers, were favorite menu choices
and available to all but the poorest. Wild birds of the marshes were
snared or trapped in nets, or brought down with boomerang-like throwsticks.
Some were killed and eaten; others kept in small flocks for eggs.
Wealthy families had a much richer and more varied diet. They regularly
enjoyed milk, butter, and cheese from herds of cows and goats. They
frequently ate beef, goat, lamb, and mutton (sheep), all rare in a peasant’s
diet. Nobles also dined on exotic meats such as gazelle and antelope.

A Wealth of Produce

Irrigated gardens around villas produced a bounty of fruits and vegetables:
melons, figs, pomegranates, dates, onions, peas, chickpeas, beans, lentils,
lettuces, leeks, cucumbers, cabbage, horseradish, spinach, turnips, carrots,
eggplant, and radishes. Vines on trellises produced raisins, wine,
and table grapes. Herb gardens featured dill, coriander, chicory, cumin,
parsley, and various varieties of mint (possibly including catnip). Juniper
berries were grown as a spice.
The Egyptians pressed oils from sesame seeds and castor beans for
cooking, flavoring foods, and making medical and cosmetic potions. They
pressed flax seeds for linseed oil. The most common oil was pressed from
the fruit of the moringa tree.
Rich or poor, people ate with their fingers. In wealthy households,
servants poured water over their masters’ hands between courses and offered
clean linen towels to dry them. Poor folks had to wash up all by
themselves. Most households were well-equipped with earthenware jugs,
pitchers, bowls, platters, and mugs. Wealthy families had sets of fancy
dishes made of fine alabaster, schist, or other
decorative stone.
Until the New Kingdom, there were no dining
room tables. Diners squatted on rush mats at
low, multi-purpose tables, or stood up and plucked
food from bowls or platters on stands, buffet style.
The elite of the New Kingdom perched on high
stools at large tables, or reclined on couches, while
servants brought them food and drink.

Personal Appearances

Appearance, cleanliness, and good grooming were
important. Even mummies were carefully manicured.
Medical papyri include formulas for preventing
baldness, fighting wrinkles, and coloring
gray hair. The Egyptians washed with natron-andoil
soaps, shaved with copper or bronze razors, and
plucked stray hairs with copper or silver tweezers.
They applied eye paint (called kohl), scented oils,
and deodorant made of powdered carob. They admired
the results in hand-held mirrors of highlypolished
Egyptian clothing was light, simple, and elegant,
especially in the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
Egypt was almost always hot, so both men and
women wore as little as possible. Men wore plain
linen loincloths that hung to the knees. Women wore linen shifts. Children
generally ran about naked, wearing only amulets or charms (often depicting
the god Bes) to protect them from harm.
Many men shaved their heads—a sensible choice in a hot, dry, dusty,
insect-infested land. Many women, including legendary beauty Nefertiti,
did too. For dress-up, both men and women wore wigs made of human
hair, or a mixture of hair and plant materials, stiffened with beeswax.
Wigs came in many styles. Some included braids, plaits, ribbons, and jeweled
ornaments. Wig fads came and went. Nefertiti favored a short, curly
Nubian-style wig, widely copied by her subjects.
Children had shaved heads except for what was known as the “sidelock
of youth” (also called the “Horus lock”), a narrow shock of hair left
hanging to one side. The falcon-god Horus was the Egyptian archetype of
the good son, and the Horus lock was worn as a pious reminder of Horus’s
role as a virtuous and devoted child. Cutting off of the side-lock was a
rite of passage when a child became an adult.
During the New Kingdom, enormous wealth flowed into Egypt.
The elite adopted colorful, elaborate clothing, jewelry, and personal adornments.
Increased contact with the Near East, where colorful, ornamented
textiles were popular, influenced
Women enjoyed the opportunity
to dress up in elaborately
pleated, embroidered, and decorated
gowns, capes, and shawls in
many colors. Even men got into the
act, wearing richly pleated kilts,
capes, and long skirt-like garments
emblazoned with decorations and
rich embroideries.
Even at their fanciest, Egyptian
fashions were graceful, tasteful,
and (almost) never overdone. Most
clothing was made of natural-colored
linen, spun and woven from
flax, one of Egypt’s major crops.
Figurines and paintings show
women in multi-hued sheaths with
geometric patterns of red, yellow,
and blue.
Egyptians went barefoot most
of the time. During the prosperous
years of the empire, royals and the
elite completed their outfits with
rush or papyrus sandals, leather
shoes, or leather slippers. Both men
and women wore clothing and accessories
made of wool and leather.
But these materials were not considered
ritually pure, so leather and
wool are seldom depicted in art

Jewelry and Amulets

Everyone wore jewelry. The wealthy
had rich ornaments made of gold
and decorated with amethyst,
turquoise, lapis lazuli, and other
gemstones. Less exalted folks wore
strings or collars with faience beads
and amulets (faience is pottery coated
with brightly colored glazes).
Jewelry, especially amulets and
charms, had magical and protective
powers. Carnelian, turquoise, and
lapis lazuli brought luck. (These beliefs
endure today, as the modern
fashion of “power bead” bracelets.)
Even the poorest peasant child
wore a pottery or bone ring or
amulet with a crude image of Bes.
Amulets magically attracted
good luck and warded off evil. They
protected the wearer from accidents, hunger and thirst, snakes, demons,
and other everyday dangers. Amulets were made in many forms: scarabs
and the ankh (symbols of eternal life), animals, gods and goddesses,
crowns, and the Eye of Horus (symbol of wholeness).

The Egyptians and Animals

Most Nile Valley animals were not dangerous, and were easy to hunt,
herd, or domesticate. Egyptians trusted amulets and magic spells to protect
themselves from the exceptions: crocodiles, scorpions, and several
kinds of snakes with deadly bites. When hippos were common, they
caused much damage to crops and fields and were hunted as nuisances.
Rats and mice that consumed and fouled stored grain were a huge problem
until the cat was domesticated during the Middle Kingdom.
Hunting, fowling, and fishing in the marshes was a popular sport and
a source of food. Subsistence hunting (hunting for daily food consumption)
by large numbers of people became less important as farming and animal
husbandry (raising domesticated animals) became widespread.
In Predynastic times, settlers rounded up the wild cows, bulls, oxen,
gazelles, oryxes, and goats that roamed the Nile Valley into domestic and
temple herds. Animals were raised for milk, hides, meat, and sacrifice to the
gods. Geese, ducks, cranes, and pigeons were bred and fattened for food.
The Egyptians practiced selective breeding to improve domestic animals.
Hunters speared and netted fish. They brought down game birds
with boomerang-like throw sticks. They captured birds for domestic flocks,
or to be fattened as religious sacrifices. Nobles and the wealthy continued
to hunt for sport. They speared hippos and crocodiles. Royals and the elite
enjoyed game drives in the marshes and desert edges, especially in the early
years when there were still plenty of large animals. They took hippos, lions,
leopards, antelopes, gazelles, ibexes, oryxes, giraffes, and elephants.
Like us, the Egyptians cherished pet dogs and cats as companion
animals. From ancient times, dogs guarded herds and helped in game drives.
Later Egyptians were great dog fanciers, breeding companion animals that
looked much like modern Salukis. Dogs, usually depicted in the company
of men, were named for their looks: Ebony or Big were common names.
Cats, who arrived in the Nile Valley during the Middle Kingdom,
were originally prized for their ability to kill rodents and protect food supplies.
But they were soon adopted as household pets. They not only controlled
rats, mice, and snakes, but also offered companionship and pleasure.
In Egyptian art, cats were usually shown with women.
After the Hyksos introduced horses, the Egyptians became famous
horse breeders and charioteers.
They did not ride the horses, however;
scholars believe the spines of
their horses were too weak to support

Sports, Games, and Fun

Egyptians loved competition. The
work gangs building the Great Pyramid
engaged in rivalries, adopting
team names and slogans, bragging
about their own stone-hauling abilities,
and taunting other crews for
being lazy. Farmers harvesting crops
lightened their burdens by choosing
up sides and trying to outdo the
other guys in cutting, threshing, and
The king and wealthy nobles sponsored sporting events, providing
equipment, announcing winners, and awarding prizes such as special collars.
Players wore uniforms and shouted down the calls of supposedly
neutral referees. Participants were cheered not only for winning, but for
showing ability, grace, and good sportsmanship.
Older children and adults pursued athletic activities that resemble
modern sports: handball, hockey, boxing and wrestling, long-distance
running, weight lifting, long jump and vaulting, archery, javelin throw,
sport fishing, and hunting. Drawings on tombs at Beni Hasan depict a
sport much like hockey. Players wield bats made of palm branches, bent
at the ends like hockey sticks. The ball was compressed papyrus fiber,
covered in dyed leather. Rural Egyptians still play a similar game.
Egyptian team rowing resembled modern rowing sports. The leader,
sitting at the rudder of the rowboat, called out high-pitched, rhythmic signals
to synchronize the rowers and encourage them to greater speed. An
ancient Egyptian rower, standing on the banks of the Charles River at
Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, would instantly recognize
his sport.
Long-distance running was a popular sport. It also had ritual significance
for the king. As part of the heb-sed festival, held at intervals
during each king’s reign, the king ran a special course around the temple
grounds. This ritual run confirmed that he was still physically and mentally
fit to rule.
Egyptians enjoyed playing board games such as dog-and-jackal,
mehen (“coiled serpent”), and senet. According to the Book of the Dead,
they even played senet in the afterlife. Peter Piccione, professor of comparative
ancient history at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South
Carolina, thinks they played senet both for fun and for religious reasons.
Senet, played with bone or ivory pieces on a board with 30 squares, enabled
living players to communicate with the dead. When played in the
afterlife, senet let the dead player’s spirit move freely between heaven
and earth. Four senet boards were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Music and Dancing

Music and dancing, originally part of religious rituals, quickly became
popular in everyday life. The wealthy hired small orchestras and troupes
of dancing girls to entertain at banquets. Musicians played wooden harps,
flutes, pipes, clarinets, and trumpets. They clicked finger-clappers, shook
the sistrum, and rattled their bead necklaces and other jewelry in time
to the music. In later years, they played lyres, lutes, oboes, and tambourines—
all introduced by the Hyksos.
The sistrum, a hand-held instrument of wires threaded with metal
disks and beads, was used in religious rituals, to accompany everyday
music, and for magical purposes. The sistrum’s shaking sounds were
handy for driving away demons and bringing good luck to women in
childbirth. The sistrum was sacred to the goddess Hathor.
The cat goddess Bastet is often depicted rattling her sistrum, and
many sistra include small cat figures.