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Egyptian life, THEN and now


OK, so I've learned about pharaohs and dynasties. I've gone to the museum to see mummies and the elaborately carved sarcophagi of the pharaohs, and I've checked out the huge pyramids and temples they built to honor themselves as gods. But don't you ever wonder what life was really like? There was only one pharaoh at a time, right, but thousands of priests, workers, and even slaves. Wouldn't it be nice to know about them? But then, who are you going to ask?

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An elaborately carved sarcophagus.

Learning about these people is difficult. For one thing, the Pharaonic times lasted 3,000 years, so things certainly didn't remain the same all that time. Also, no one recorded the lives and actions of peasants on their tombs or papyrus. The vast majority of the ancient Egyptians were illiterate--they couldn't read or write in hieroglyphics!Still, there is some evidence about how they lived. Egyptologists who are interested in learning about the life of the average Egyptian are piecing this puzzle together to get a better overview. So what kind of clues have they found?

Well, one of the most famous Egyptian items that we know about is papyrus - paper made out of reeds. While Egypt has very few native trees, and none that are good for lumber, these reeds grow thick in the marshes of the Nile Valley and Delta. Papyrus is made by cutting the reeds into sections and laying them side by side, and then adding another layer crosswise and gluing it together with plant sap. Ancient Egyptians also used these fibrous stalks to make ropes, mats, boxes, sandals, and even boats!

Other clues teach us that you didn't have to be made into a mummy to live forever. The bodies of non-royal Egyptians were buried in pits in the dry desert. They dried out before they decomposed, so they are pretty well preserved.By studying these dried human remains, doctors have learned many things. (This is the part they didn't show in Indiana Jones!)

One thing they learn that way is about people's health. Ancient Egyptians only lived to the average age of 25! Despite the glorious life of the pharaohs, the life of the typical Egyptian was tough. The Nile at that time was inhabited by crocodiles and hippopotami, both deadly creatures, but what really plagued people were parasites, intestinal worms, and eye and lung diseases. Many women died in childbirth, and infant mortality was high. Also, there is evidence of times when the Nile didn't flood enough and other times when it flooded too much. Either way, it caused great famine.

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Statue of an Egyptian farmer

Additional sources of information are the statuettes of servants and slaves found in the tombs of the pharaohs. These statues were buried along with the Pharaohs, and the priests placed magic spells on them so that they would come alive when the pharaoh needed them in the afterworld. Kavitha and I saw a lot of these painted clay statues in the museum when we went to see the mummies. The gold was cool, the mummies were cool, but these simple statuettes were my favorite part of the museum, because they showed what people really looked like, and what normal people really did!

Pharaoh Meket-re's tomb in Luxor contained a miniature box of women weaving linen cloth and one of men in a carpenter shop. It also had miniature fishing boats, made of papyrus, with huge nets for catching the fish of the Nile. Meket-re is depicted on these boats listening to a flute player and relaxing! Other tombs had images of men brewing beer, cleaning a duck for dinner, and making bread. There was even an image of a woman grinding barley on a large flat stone with another, smaller stone...just the way I recently saw women grinding grain in Latin America and in Southern Africa!

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This statue depicts a woman grinding barley on a flat stone.

The greatest sources of knowledge, however, are ancient texts - carved in stone, written on papyrus, or even painted on pottery shards. Through these texts, Egyptologists learned that Egypt had a highly stratified society, with a hierarchy shaped like - what else - a pyramid! At the very top was, of course, the pharaoh, who was considered a living god. Supporting him were a small number of nobles who helped rule, such as Ti (see sidebar on the Mastaba of Ti).

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Much of the existing evidence about ancient Egyptian life has been uncovered in tombs like these in Saqarra.

Starting with what is known as the "Middle Kingdom", the temples of the sun-god Amun-Ra played an important role in the economic and social organization of a community. These temples served like the local government or a landowner in a serfdom. They rented lands to peasant farmers and ran the schools that produced the scribes, doctors, craftsmen, and artists. The separation of church and state is an unheard of idea when your king is God, you know!Only priests were allowed in the temples, and there were no "services" or "masses" that were open to the people.

Ti's tomb or mastaba was discovered in 1865, and offers one of the main sources of knowledge about life in Egypt towards the end of the Old Kingdom. Based on the decorated reliefs and other artifacts inside, researchers were able to determine that Ti was a court official - that is, a hairdresser to the royalty, during the end of the Old Kingdom, as well as controller of the farms and stock that belonged to the royal family.

Below the nobles was the class of scribes and craftsmen. Papyrus writings found in the Valley of the Kings show that this class was valued highly for their labor, and lived a fairly privileged life. In the 20th dynasty (around 1100 BC), there is evidence that the craftsmen building the royal tomb went on strike. They were frustrated with having to wait for the proper materials to complete the project.

The scribes, too, enjoyed a special status, because they had the ability to write. The local population, who were mostly illiterate, would employ scribes from the temples to draw up legal documents and compose letters. In a famous papyrus work written in mid 1900 BC called Satire of the Trades, the writer points out that scribes had the most power, since they were the only ones who knew how to write. "Everybody has a boss, except for the scribe, who is his own boss." Kinda like being a writer for the Odyssey!

The majority of people, forming the base of the pyramid, were poor, illiterate farmers.The fellahin, or peasants, who live along the Nile valley live much the same way as they did years ago, despite the changes brought about by modernization and the Aswan dam - which put an end to the annual flooding of the Nile. Their major crop was barley, but they also grew wheat, yeast to ferment beer, beans, lentils, onions, garlic, lettuce, celery, and herbs like fenugreek, thyme, majoram, liquorice, and mint.

Another social class in Egyptian society were the slaves. Not a big enough population to really be considered the "base" of the pyramid, slaves were often prisoners of the frequent wars in Asia and Nubia. Legal papyrus records also show that people sometimes sold themselves, or even their children, into slavery! Sometimes it was to pay off a debt, and other times it was a means of "social security." Part of the contract required that the owner protect and care for the slave. I was really curious about learning more about slavery in ancient Egypt, but I have found very little information.

Women in ancient Egypt had more rights than in other ancient civilizations. They could own land and hold office and testify in court. When the Greeks occupied Egypt, it is said that the Greek women would often choose Egyptian courts and practices over the Greek ones, because it gave them more freedom.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Monica - Sharing Food, Sharing Voices: Girls of the World Unite!
Jasmine - Valley of the Dead
Abeja - Egyptian Life, NOW and Then
Kavitha - Stay Tuned for More Egyptian Dynasty
I'm M.A.D. about the Acropolis
Just Do It... or forever hold your peace!

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