EVERYDAY LIFE IN ANCIENT EGYPT
By Tim Lambert
Civilisation in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was the first African civilisation. The curtain rose shortly before 3,000 BC when writing was invented and records began. The Egyptians went on to create a great civilisation known for its monuments such as the pyramids. The pyramids were developed in stages. Originally pharaohs were buried in buildings made of mud bricks called mastabas. Then a man named Imhotep designed a stone tomb. He built a large mastaba and then built five more on top, each one smaller than the one below. In this way he created a step pyramid. Later pyramids had straight sides. Later still pharaoh's tombs were dug out of cliffs.
Egypt was said to be the gift of the Nile. Each summer the Nile flooded and provided water to grow crops. For irrigation Egyptians used a device called shaduf. it was a 'see-saw' with a leather container at one end, which was filled with water and a counterweight at the other.
When the Nile flooded it also deposited silt over the land near the banks, which made the land very fertile once the water had subsided.
The Nile also provided a way of transporting people and goods. Prevailing winds in Egypt blew south so boats travelling in that direction used sails. Boats heading north used oars.
Society in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was ruled by a king. By about 1500 BC he was called the pharaoh (from the word per ao meaning great house. Originally it meant the palace he lived in but it came to mean the ruler himself).
The pharaoh was assisted by a kind of prime minister called a vizier (sometimes there was more than one). Furthermore for administration Egypt was divided into areas called nomes.
Below the pharaoh were the nobility, priests, scribes and merchants. Then came soldiers and craftsmen then peasants and finally slaves. A slaves life was very hard.
Ordinary Egyptians who were not slaves also had to some work for the pharaoh each year building or mending irrigation canals. This was done when the Nile flooded and farm work was impossible. Farmers also had to pay part of their crops to the pharaoh in tax.
This great civilisation lasted for more than 3,000 years before it was finally absorbed into the Roman Empire after 30 BC.
A history of slavery
Food and Farming in Ancient Egypt
The staple diet of the ordinary people in Ancient Egypt was bread and beer. Bread was baked outside. Because of the desert sand was often blown into dough. In time eating bread with grains of sand in it wore down peoples teeth.
In Ancient Egypt as in all early civilisations meat was a luxury and only the rich could afford to eat it frequently. The Egyptians ate sheep, pigs, cows and goats but meat often came from ducks and geese. However fish were plentiful in Egypt.
The Egyptians ate many vegetables including, marrows, beans, onions, lentils, leeks, radishes, garlic and lettuces. They also ate fruit like melons, dates and figs. Pomegranates were quite expensive and were eaten mainly by the rich. The Egyptians also grew herbs and spices and they made cooking oil.
Beer was made from crumbled barley bread and barley with water so it was lumpy. It was strained before it was drunk. Even so it was still lumpy so it had to be drunk through a wooden straw with a filter. Better off Egyptians drank wine.
Ancient Egyptian farmers dug irrigation canals to take water from the Nile when it flooded and to hold it when the flood subsided.
In Ancient Egypt oxen pulled ploughs and farmers used simple tools such as hoes, sickles, rakes and winnowing fans (used to throw wheat into the air to separate light chaff from heavier grain).
In Ancient Egypt there were three seasons. From July to October was the season when the Nile flooded. Seeds were planted from November to February. The harvest lasted from March to June.
Egyptians divided days into 24 hours and they measured time with water clocks. (Water was allowed to drip into a container at a stead rate. The container was marked at intervals and it took one hour for the water to rise from one mark to another).
Like all early civilisations Ancient Egypt was an agricultural society. Most people lived in the countryside and made their living by farming. The most important crops were wheat and barley.
The history of food
The history of drinks
Clothes in Ancient Egypt
Not surprisingly given the hot climate Egyptians wore only light clothing. Men wore a loincloth and a kind of kilt. Women wore dresses with shoulder straps. Clothes were made of linen or cotton.
Later in Egyptian history clothes became more elaborate and colourful.
Egyptians shaved their hair and wore wigs. Children had their heads shaved to prevent lice (although they usually had a braid left at the side of their heads). It was normal for children to go naked.
Most people went barefoot much of the time but they sometimes wore sandals made from papyrus.
Ancient Egyptians wore jewellery. Those who could afford it wore jewellery of gold, silver and precious stones. Poor people wore jewellery made of copper or bronze. Both men and women wore make-up.
To read more about the history of clothes click here.
Houses in Ancient Egypt
Rich Egyptians lived in large, comfortable houses with many rooms. Walls were painted and floors had coloured tiles. Most wealthy houses had enclosed gardens with pools. Inside their homes rich Egyptians had wooden furniture such as beds, chairs, tables and chests for storage. However instead of pillows they used wooden head rests.
Toilets consisted of a clay pot filled with sand. It was emptied regularly.
Ordinary people in Ancient Egypt lived in simpler homes made of mud bricks with perhaps four rooms. People may have slept on the flat roof when it was hot and they did most of their work outside because of the heat. Furniture was very basic. Ordinary Egyptians sat on brick benches around the walls. They used reed chests or wooden pegs on walls to store things.
A history of houses
Pastimes in Ancient Egypt
For entertainment the Egyptians loved parties. If a rich person invited you to a feast you would be entertained by singers, musicians, dancers, jugglers, wrestlers and jesters. Musicians played wooden flutes, harps, lutes, drums and clappers.
At a rich person's banquet guests were given a cone of perfumed fat to put on their heads. It slowly melted leaving the wearer smelling nice.
Ancient Egyptians loved hunting and fishing. (For the rich hunting was for pleasure. For the poor it was for food). Men caught birds with nets or by throwing curved sticks. Fish were caught with hooks or harpoons.
Men and women went swimming. Men also enjoyed boxing, wrestling and archery. They also played a game which involved standing on a boat and trying to knock the opposing team into the water with a stick.
Egyptians also played a board game called senet. The board was divided into squares with counters. You threw sticks rather than a dice.
Ancient Egyptian children played similar games to the ones children play today. They also played with dolls, toy soldiers, wooden animals, ball, marbles, spinning tops and knucklebones (which were thrown like dice).
The history of games and leisure
Education in Ancient Egypt
Most children in Ancient Egypt did not go to school. Instead boys learned farming or other trades from their fathers. Girls learned sewing, cooking and other skills from their mothers. However boys from wealthy families sometimes went to school and learned to be scribes. They learned by copying and memorising and discipline was strict. Teachers beat naughty boys. The boys learned reading and writing and also mathematics.
Ancient Egyptian writing consisted of symbols called hieroglyphs. Originally they were pictures but in time they evolved into standard symbols. However the hieroglyphs were very complicated and so they were only used for religious books and for carving on buildings. For everyday use a simpler form of writing called hieratic was developed.
The history of education
Weapons in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptian soldiers went into battle protected only by wooden or leather shields. They fought with spears, swords, axes, daggers and maces. They also used slings and bows and arrows. Most men fought on foot but after about 1,700 BC the army also had chariots. Each chariot carried two men, one to drive and one to shoot arrows. (In Ancient Egypt horses were mainly used for war. Donkeys were used as pack animals).
Only the most important soldiers wore armour made of bronze.
Prisoners of war were usually made slaves.
The history of weapons
Medicine in Ancient Egypt
The first doctor known to history was Sekhet-eanach who 'healed the pharaoh's nostrils'. (We do not know what was wrong with them). The second doctor we know of was Imhotep (c. 2,600 BC) who was vizier or prime minister to the pharaoh. He was also a doctor and he was so famous that after his death he was worshipped as a god.
Much of Egyptian medicine still relied on magic. However at least they could keep written records of which treatments worked and which did not. In this way medicine could advance.
The earliest known medical book is the Ebers Papyrus, which was written about 1500 BC.
Doctors in Ancient Egyptian used a huge range of drugs obtained from herbs and minerals. They were drunk with wine or beer or sometimes mixed with dough to form a 'pill'. Egyptian doctors also used ointments for wounds and they treated chest complaints by getting the patient to inhale steam.
The Egyptians believed that the human body was full of passages that acted like irrigation canals. The Egyptians knew that irrigation canals sometimes became blocked. They reasoned that if the passages in a human body became blocked it might cause illness. To open them Egyptians used laxatives and induced vomiting.
However the Egyptians still believed that spells would help the sick and they carried amulets to ward off disease. Nevertheless they were beginning to seek a physical cause for illness.
The Egyptians did have some knowledge of anatomy from making mummies. To embalm a dead body they first removed the principal organs, which would otherwise rot.
However Ancient Egyptian surgery was limited to such things as treating wounds and broken bones and dealing with boils and abscesses. The Egyptians used clamps, sutures and cauterisation (burning with red hot metal). They had surgical instruments like probes, saws, forceps, scalpels and scissors.
They also knew that honey helped to prevent wounds becoming infected. (It is a natural antiseptic). They also dressed wounds with willow bark, which has the same effect.
Moreover the Ancient Egyptians were clean people. They washed daily and changed their clothes regularly, which must have helped their health.
The history of medicine.
Religion in Ancient Egypt
The Ancient Egyptians were polytheists. That is, they worshipped many gods. Gods and goddesses were usually depicted as human beings though sometimes they had animal heads.
Among Ancient Egyptian gods were Amun-Re , the sun god and leader of the gods. Nut was the sky goddess. Her brother Geb was the earth god. Osiris was in charge of the underworld. His wife was Isis and his son was Horus (who was sometimes depicted with a falcons head). Hathor was goddess of joy and love. She was also the goddess of music and dance.
They also worshipped Anubis, god of the dead and mummification. He was a man with a jackal's head and Egyptians believed he guarded the places where the dead were buried. Other gods included Thoth, a man with an ibis's head, who was god of the moon and wisdom. Ptah was god of craftsmen. Tawaret, a pregnant hippo, was goddess of childbirth.
Maat was goddess of justice and truth. Sekhmet was goddess of war. She was a woman with a lion's head. Hapi was the god who made the Nile flood. Egyptians believed he lived in a cave from where he sent out the flood waters.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that the gods 'lived' in temples (the gods spirit was believed to inhabit a statue). Three times a day priests cleaned the statue, changed its clothes and placed fresh food before it for it to 'eat'. (After a while priests removed the food and ate it).
After death Egyptians believed they would be judged. Their heart was placed in a balance and weighed against an ostrich feather (a symbol of truth and justice). If the heart was good it would balance the feather and the person was granted eternal happiness. If it was evil the feather would outweigh it. In that case the heart was fed to a monster called Anmit, who was part lion, part crocodile and part hippotomus. If Anmit ate your heart you ceased to exist.
Ancient Egyptians tried to preserve dead bodies by mummifying them so the owners could use them in the next life. The dead were also buried with 'grave goods' to use in the next life.
Animals, especially cats, were also mummified.
To mummify a body the Egyptians first removed its internal organs (otherwise they would rot).They rinsed the cavities with palm wine then covered the body with a salt paste called natron to dry it. After 70 days the body was washed and wrapped in linen bandages.
A Brief History of Ancient Egypt
Life in Ancient Greece
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