Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

Each year, when the Nile River flooded its banks, all of Egypt celebrated the Opet Festival. Work in the fields stopped while people at all levels of Egyptian society joined in a great festival honoring the pharaoh and his patron, the god Amon-Re (AH-muhn-RAY). Almost everyone in Egyptian society participated in the Opet Festival. Priests decorated the god's statue with jewelry. They put the statue in a shrine and placed it on a ceremonial boat called a barque. The beautifully decorated boat was made by artisans or craftspeople. High-ranking government officials competed for the honor of carrying the barque on poles through town. Members of the lower levels of society, such as farmers, lined the streets to watch the procession. Scribes made a written record of the celebration. The Opet Festival brought all these groups together. But in everyday life, they belonged to very different social classes. These classes made up a social pyramid, with the pharaoh at the top and peasants at the bottom. In between were government officials, priests, scribes, and artisans. The daily lives of the Egyptian people were distinct for each class. In this lesson, you will learn about the various classes that made up the social pyramid in Egypt's New Kingdom (about 1600 to 1100 B.C.E.). Then you'll explore how social rank determined advantages and disadvantages, work responsibilities, and the quality of daily life for the members in each class. Though it took place long ago, there are a number of similarities between modern society and Egypt
Many have a passion for knowing a lot about the life of the ancient Egyptians and the details of their daily lives, because most of the light is shed on the details of life after death for the ancient Egyptians, and this gives the impression that the ancient Egyptian only cared about death, and this is not true.

The popular view of life in ancient Egypt is often that it was a death-obsessed culture in which powerful pharaohs forced the people to labor at constructing pyramids and temples and, at an unspecified time.

In reality, ancient Egyptians loved life, no matter their social class, and the ancient Egyptian government used slave labor as every other ancient culture did without regard to any particular ethnicity. The ancient Egyptians did have a well-known contempt for non-Egyptians but this was simply because they believed they were living the best life possible in the best of all possible worlds.



Life in ancient Egypt was considered so perfect, in fact, that the Egyptian afterlife was imagined as an eternal continuation of life on earth. Slaves in Egypt were either criminals, those who could not pay their debts, or captives from foreign military campaigns. These people were considered to have forfeited their freedoms either by their individual choices or by military conquest and so we're forced to endure a quality of existence far below that of free Egyptians.

The individuals who actually built the pyramids and other famous monuments of Egypt were Egyptians who were compensated for their labor and, in many cases, were masters of their art. These monuments were raised not in honor of death but of life and the belief that an individual life mattered enough to be remembered for eternity. Further, the Egyptian belief that one's life was an eternal journey and death only a transition inspired the people to try to make their lives worth living eternally. Far from a death-obsessed and dour culture, Egyptian daily life was focused on enjoying the time one had as much as possible and trying to make others' lives equally memorable.


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Sports, games, reading, festivals, and time with one's friends and family were as

 much a part of Egyptian life as toil in farming the land or erecting monuments and temples. The world of the Egyptians was imbued with magic. Magic (heka) predated the gods and, in fact, was the underlying force that allowed the gods to perform their duties.

Magic was personified in the god Heka (also the god of medicine) who had participated in the creation and sustained it afterward. The concept of ma'at (harmony and balance) was central to the Egyptian's understanding of life and the operation of the universe and it was heka that made ma'at possible. Through the observance of balance and harmony people were encouraged to live at peace with others and contribute to communal happiness. A line from the wisdom text of Ptahhotep (the vizier to the king Djedkare Isesi, 2414-2375 BCE), admonishes a reader:

"Let your face shine during the time that you live.

It is the kindliness of a man that is remembered

During the years that follow".



Letting one's face "shine" meant being happy, and having a good spirit, in the belief that this would make one's own heart light and lighten those of others. Although Egyptian society was highly stratified from a very early period (as early as the Presynaptic Period in Egypt of c. 6000-3150 BCE), this does not mean that the royalty and upper classes enjoyed their lives at the expense of the peasantry.

The king and court are always the best-documented individuals because then, as of now, people paid more attention to celebrities than their neighbors, and the scribes who recorded the history of the time documented what was of greater interest. Still, reports from later Greek and Roman writers, as well as archaeological evidence and letters from different time periods, show that Egyptians of all social classes valued life and enjoyed themselves as often as they could, very like people in the modern-day.


Amenhotep II - Thutmose IV from the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt


Population & Social Classes

The population of Egypt was strictly divided into social classes from the king at the top, his vizier, the members of his court, regional governors (eventually called 'nomarchs'), and the generals of the military (after the period of the New Kingdom), government overseers of worksites (supervisors), and the peasantry. Social mobility was neither encouraged nor observed for most of Egypt's history as it was thought that the gods had decreed the most perfect social order which mirrored that of the gods.

The gods had given the people everything and had set the king over them as the one best equipped to understand and implement their will. The king was the intermediary between the gods and the people from the Predynastic Period through the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) when the priests of the sun god Ra began to gain more power. Even after this, however, the king was still considered god's chosen emissary. Even in the latter part of the New Kingdom (1570-1069 BCE), when Amun priests at Thebes held greater power than the king, the monarch was still respected as divinely ordained.




Upper class

The king of Egypt (not known as a 'pharaoh' until the New Kingdom period), as the gods' chosen man, "enjoyed great wealth and status and luxuries unimaginable to the majority of the population" (Wilkinson, 91). It was the king's responsibility to rule in keeping with ma'at, and as this was a serious charge, he was thought to deserve those luxuries in keeping with his status and the weight of his duties. Historian Don Nardo writes:

"The kings enjoyed an existence largely free from want. They had power and prestige, servants to do the menial work, plenty of free time to pursue leisure pursuits, fine clothes, and numerous luxuries in their homes".

The king is often depicted hunting and inscriptions regularly boast of the number of large and dangerous animals a particular monarch killed during his reign. Almost without exception, though, animals like lions and elephants were caught by royal game wardens and brought to preserves where the king then "hunted" the beasts while surrounded by guards who protected him. The king would hunt in the open, for the most part, only once the area had been cleared of dangerous animals.




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Members of the court lived in similar comfort, although most of them had little responsibility. The nomarchs might also live well, but this depended on how wealthy their particular district was and how important it was to the king. The nomarch of a district including a site such as Abydos, for example, would expect to do quite well because of the large necropolis there dedicated to the god Osiris, which brought many pilgrims to the city including the king and courtiers. A nomarch of a region that had no such attraction would expect to live more modestly. The wealth of the region and the personal success of an individual nomarch would determine whether they lived in a small palace or a modest home. This same model is applied generally to scribes.

Ancient Egypt's Social Pyramid

 Egypt's society was structured like a pyramid and was based on an Egyptian principle called ma'at, which stressed the importance of truth, order, and balance. At the very top of this social pyramid was the pharaoh, Egypt's supreme ruler. Egyptian religion strengthened the pharaoh's authority. Because pharaohs were believed to be gods, their word was law. Next in importance were several layers of social classes. The classes near the top of the pyramid had fewer people and enjoyed higher status, while those nearer the bottom had greater numbers of people but lower status. 

Egypt's Social Classes 

Below the pharaoh were the next two highest classes in the social pyramid—government officials and priests. They were the most powerful groups in Egypt. Government officials carried out the orders of the pharaoh. Most officials came from noble families. They were powerful and wealthy, and they enjoyed a high quality of life.

 Priests were also a powerful group because religion touched every part of people's daily lives. Priests were responsible for the temples and religious rituals, as well as the elaborate ceremonies surrounding death and burial. Next on the social pyramid were scribes. Scribes held a respected position in society because they recorded information for government and religious leaders. It took many years of schooling to become a scribe. Artisans occupied the next layer of the social pyramid. This group included craftspeople like carpenters, metalworkers, painters, sculptors, and stone carvers. Artisans were highly skilled but had low social status. At the bottom of the social pyramid were the peasants, the largest social class. Peasants worked the land, providing the Egyptians with a steady food supply. When not farming, peasants worked on the pharaoh's massive building projects.

Life in Egypt's Social Classes 

Egypt's social pyramid was fairly rigid. Since most people belonged to the same social class as their parents, there was little

chance of improving their status. Members of different classes may have had some things in common, but, generally, their lives were quite different. Egyptians in all social classes cherished family life. Most Egyptians married within their social group. Men and women had different roles within the family. Men were the heads of their households and worked to support the family. Fathers often began to train their sons at a young age to continue their line of work. Women typically managed the home and raised the children. Upper-class women had servants or slaves to help them, but lower-class women did the work themselves. Men were in charge of Egyptian society, but women enjoyed more freedom and rights than most women in the ancient world. They could own land, run businesses, and even ask for divorces and represent themselves in legal matters. Some women in the middle and upper classes worked as doctors, government officials, or priestesses. Both women and men enjoyed a better quality of life the higher they were on the social pyramid. The Egyptians believed that their class system created a stable, well-ordered society. Each group had its own role to play. Let's investigate the duties and daily lives of the various social classes during the time of the New Kingdom.

Lives of Luxury 

High government officials led lives of luxury. Most were nobles who had great wealth, fine homes, and plenty of time to socialize. The lavish banquets enjoyed by these wealthy Egyptians illustrate their grand lifestyle. Hosts took pride in the meal. Cooks might roast duck, goose, pigeon, quail, antelope, sheep, and goat. Dishes were piled high with special delicacies that might include figs, dates, grapes, and coconuts. A variety of breads and cakes and honey completed the feast. Guests at banquets dressed in fine linen clothing. Both men and women wore perfume, and women often wore ropes of beads as jewelry, painted their nails, lined their eyes with makeup, and used lipstick. At the start of a banquet, it was customary for guests to offer the host lengthy blessings, such as wealth, great happiness, a long life, and good health. The host often responded simply with “Welcome, welcome,” or “Bread and beer,” as a way of saying, “Come and eat!” The feast began with men and women taking their seats on opposite sides of the room. Important guests were given chairs with high backs, while everyone else sat on stools or cushions. Servants, mostly women, waited on the guests. There were no utensils, so people ate with their fingers. While the guests enjoyed their meals, musicians, dancers, and acrobats provided entertainment. Musicians, usually women, played flutes, harps, rattles, and lutes

The Daily Life and Work of Artisans 

Artisans were a class toward the lower middle of society and lived with their families in modest homes. Their houses were usually rectangular and barely 10 yards long. Three rooms stretched from front to back, the first of which was used as a workroom or to house animals. The living room came next. The final room was divided into a kitchen and a bedroom. The roof was sometimes used as another place to work or sleep.

Artisans typically worked alongside one another in big workshops, often working for ten consecutive days before taking time off. The workers depended entirely on their employers for food. In hard times, when food was in short supply, artisans often went hungry.

Pharaohs called upon hundreds of artisans at once to work on royal projects. Artisans created fine artwork that covered temples, royal tombs, and other monuments. They worked in large groups to complete engravings, paintings, and hieroglyphics. Despite artisans' skill and creativity, the upper classes often viewed them as little more than common laborers. Even the most talented artists were rarely allowed to sign their work, but some artists did receive recognition. Employers sometimes threw a banquet for their favorite artists. Occasionally, they honored an artist by allowing him to portray himself in a painting or an engraving.

The Three Seasons of the Nile 

Peasant life revolved around the Nile River. Its three seasons were the flooding season, the planting season, and the harvest season. The flooding season lasted from June to September. During this time, the Nile overflowed its banks and fertilized the fields. Farmers had to wait for the waters to reduce before they could work the fields. Meanwhile, they labored on royal projects, such as building pyramids and temples. In October, the planting season began, and farmers sowed their fields with seeds. The most significant crops were wheat and barley, which were used to make bread. Peasants worked in pairs to sow the fields. The farmer softened the earth with a plow pulled by cattle, while a second person, often the farmer's wife, followed behind to scatter the seeds. Throughout the season, farmers carefully irrigated the land. The harvest season began in March. Usually, the farmer's entire family helped with the harvest. The men cut down the plants with sickles (metal blades with short wooden handles), and the women and children gathered the tall stalks of grain. During harvest time, everyone worked from dawn to dusk. Peasants often sang songs to make the long hours of labor pass more quickly. Occasionally, musicians played in the fields while the workers sang. 

The Daily Lives of Peasants 

Peasants had the fewest comforts of any of the social classes. They lived in plain houses that were made of mud bricks and filled sparsely with furniture, often just woven mats. Additionally, the peasants' diet was simple. A typical daily meal might consist of onions, cucumbers, fish, and homemade bread. Peas and lentils were also common. Unlike the upper classes, peasants rarely ate meat. In times of famine, they often had to boil tough papyrus plants for food. Peasants spent most of their lives working but did have some time for recreation. Men enjoyed a river game that involved knocking each other off papyrus rafts. Holidays were celebrated before planting and after the crops were harvested. Peasants also participated in festivals held to honor the Egyptian gods. A highlight of the year for peasants was the end of the harvest season. As a reward for their hard work, they were allowed to collect and keep any leftover grain. But farmers could also be punished for a poor harvest since they had to pay taxes in the form of crops. If a harvest did not produce enough to pay the required tax, a farmer might be brutally beaten.

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