Egypt’s pharaohs have left a powerful legacy of stone architecture, monumental inscriptions, and none secular art, allowing us to reconstruct their achievements with a reasonable degree of certainty. But what was lifestyle like for the standard Egyptian? Here, Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley shares ten lesser-known facts.
Who were the ‘ordinary people’?
Imagine the population of ancient Egypt arranged during a social pyramid: the pyramid base is supported by slaves, servants, and therefore the serfs, and tenant farmers work the estates owned by the king, the elite, and thus the temples.
Next, come the skilled and semi-skilled artisans; the soldiers, sailors, and people employed on the first state projects (the building sites, tombs, and temples). Above them are the educated professional classes, including scribes, accountants, and doctors. Finally, comes the nobility; the elite who control Egypt’s wealth.
The royalty remains exclusive and reserved at the highest of the pyramid. At the same time, the king, or pharaoh – the sole mortal who is deemed ready to communicate effectively with the state gods – is superior to everyone.
Egypt had the very best birth rate within the ancient world. And yet, things were far away from perfect. Illnesses and accidents couldn’t be avoided, and there was no welfare program to guard the unfortunate. The family provided the sole reliable support mechanism and was, therefore, an establishment of immense importance, with marriage a practical instead of a romantic bond, designed to make a viable economic unit.
Everyone, even the gods and goddesses, married. A bachelor 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 within the trades and professions by their fathers and uncles, while girls stayed reception to find out from their mothers. In their early teens, girls would marry, and therefore the cycle would start again.
Mistress of the house
Husbands and wives had complementary but differing roles within the wedding. While the husband worked outside the home, earning the rations that might feed his family, the wife or’ mistress of the house’ ran the household, providing food, drink, clothing, and cleaning services as required.
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 significant, but they need little impact on the archaeological or written account. Consequently, we all know less about Egypt’s women than we do about its men. One thing we do know, however, is that ladies had equivalent legal rights as men of comparable social station. This allowed them to have their own property and to measure alone without the intervention of a male guardian.
Most married women spent much of their lives, either pregnant or breastfeeding. With little medical advice available, amulets and charms bearing the figures of the pregnant hippopotamus goddess Taweret and, therefore, the dwarf demi-god Bes were wont to protect both the mother and her unborn child.
The mother prepared for birth by removing her clothing and loosening her hair. During 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 pointy obsidian or flint knife to chop the duct. If something went wrong, there was little, or no the midwife could do to assist.
Mothers breastfed their babies for up to 3 years.
The Egyptians built their towns and cities from mudbrick, reserving stone for his or her temples and tombs. Building with this material was both cheap and fast, but unfortunately, over time, most of 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 entrance opening directly onto the most street. Each house included two living or public rooms, a storeroom or bedroom, and a kitchen equipped with a mudbrick oven. The roof over the kitchen was made up of matting that might allow smoke and cooking smell to flee. Stairs gave access to the rest of the roof, which could be used as an additional living space.
Food and drink
Egypt was a fertile land, and under normal circumstances, nobody went hungry. Food might be homegrown, earned within the sort of rations (there was no money), hunted, fished, or bartered at the market. Water might 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 many loaves. Vegetables and fish were widely available, and therefore 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, wasn’t available.
Beer, a mild, thick, slightly sweet beverage best drunk through a filtering straw, was the most drink of the masses, consumed at every meal. Wine made up of grapes grown within the Nile Delta was a privilege of the elite.
Many painted tomb walls show Egypt’s elite wearing gleaming white, intricately pleated garments as they rehearse the fields or enjoy a tasty banquet. This is often considered an idealized image. Archaeological evidence indicates that the majority of women wearing practical, every day, sleeved dresses similar a la mode to the straightforward galabiyahs worn by modern Egyptian villagers. These dresses were made up of linen, cotton, and silk being unknown in ancient Egypt. Woven sandals and a shawl for warmth completed the outfit.
Men had an identical wardrobe, although the long overgarment would be removed and replaced by a kilt when working within the fields. These simple garments would are precious; they might are handed down, patched, and darned until, at the top of their useful life, they were used as mummy wrappings.
Laundry was wiped out the canal or the Nile, with natron, a salt-rich mineral, as a cleaning agent.
Egypt’s doctors were considered the simplest within the ancient Mediterranean world. They employed a mixture of scientific techniques (observation and diagnosis) and magical rituals (spells and charms) to cause their cures. Patients could be treated with a prescription – human milk is considered a very active ingredient – or by the operation.
There was some specialization among doctors, with Egypt’s gynecologists offering not only the treatment of female illnesses but also the supply of fertility and pregnancy tests and (unreliable) contraceptive measures.
Although mummification made the Egyptians conscious of the arrangement of the interior organs, their understanding of the body systems was inaccurate. They believed that there was a network of ‘canals’ centered on the guts, including the blood vessels, tear-ducts, and nerves. Obstructions within this technique would cause floods and droughts in several areas of the body.
The Egyptian pantheon included several thousand deities. These gods could be arranged during a loose hierarchy, with nationally recognized state gods at the highest, locally significant gods within the middle, and demi-gods and supernatural beings at rock bottom.
While the king and his priests worshipped the important state gods in their state temples, his subjects were almost entirely excluded from the state religion. Instead, they worshipped an eclectic mixture of local gods, demi-gods, and supernatural beings, the spirits and ancestors who never developed formal cults but who undoubtedly had a significant influence on the lives of the standard people.
Magic was, in the least levels of society, a pure and potent power that would be wont to protect the innocent and keep off harm. It couldn’t be separated in any meaningful way from either formal religion or science.
Life after death
In Ancient Egypt, death wasn’t necessarily the top of life. The Egyptians believed it had been possible to measure again if the corpse was preserved during a lifelike form in order that it’d form a bridge between the spirit of the deceased and, therefore, the land of the living. So, as soon as possible after death, the body was taken to the undertaker’s workshop. Here it had been laid on a sloping embalming table, stripped, and washed.
The brain was immediately discarded. This was usually achieved by breaking the ethmoid (the bone separating the cavity from the skull cavity) and poking a long-handled spoon up a nostril. The heart, in contrast, was left in situ. Next, an incision was made within the left flank, then the stomach, intestine, lungs, and liver are drawn out. The finger- and toenails were tied in situ and, therefore, the corpse full of natron salt. It had been 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 overwhelming majority of the population was buried unmummified, in simple desert graves. What quite an afterlife did these Egyptians expect? We’ll probably never know.
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