Ancient Egypt

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The Mesopotamians regarded the gods as cruel and arbitrary and thought that human existence was not a very pleasant experience.  This attitude was not only shaped by all of the things that ancient people did not understand, like disease, weather, and death itself, but by the simple fact that it was often difficult to live next to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flooded unpredictably and necessitated constant work in order to be useful for irrigation. Likewise, the threat of invasion from both rival cities and from foreigners (both “barbarians” and more organized groups) threatened to disrupt whatever stability existed.  Life for most Mesopotamians, especially the vast majority who were common farmers, was not easy.

Things were a bit different in the other great ancient civilization of the eastern Mediterranean: Egypt, whose civilization developed along the banks of the Nile river.  The Nile is the world’s longest river, stretching over 4,000 miles from its mouth in the Mediterranean to its origin in Lake Victoria in Central Africa. 

Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom came into being with the unification of Lower Egypt, where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean, and Upper Egypt, where the Nile leads into Nubia (present-day Sudan).
Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom came into being with the unification of Lower Egypt, where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean, and Upper Egypt, where the Nile leads into Nubia (present-day Sudan).

Because of consistent weather patterns, the Nile floods every year at just about the same time (late summer), depositing enormous amounts of mud and silt along its banks and making it one of the most fertile regions in the world.  The essential source of energy for the Egyptians was thus something that could be predicted and planned for in a way that was impossible in Mesopotamia.  There is a direct connection between this predictability and the incredible stability of Egyptian civilization, which (despite new kings and new dynasties and the occasional foreign invasion) remained remarkably stable and consistent for thousands of years. 

The Egyptians themselves called the Nile valley “Kemet,” the Black Land, because of the annually-renewed black soil that arrived with the flood.  For the most part, this was ancient Egypt: a swath of land between 10 and 20 miles wide (and in some places merely 1 or 2 miles wide) made up of incredibly fertile soil that relied on the floods of the Nile.  This land was so agriculturally productive that Egyptian peasants could bring in harvests three times as bountiful of those in other regions like Mesopotamia.  In turn, this created an enormous surplus of wealth for the royal government, which had the right to tax and redistribute it (as did the Mesopotamian states to the east).  Beyond that strip of land were deserts populated by people the Egyptians simply dismissed as “bandits” – meaning nomads and tribal groups, not just robbers.

There were three major periods in ancient Egyptian history, the time during which Egypt was not subject to foreign powers and during which it developed its distinctive culture and built its spectacular examples of monumental architecture: the Old Kingdom (2680 – 2181 BCE), the Middle Kingdom (2055 – 1650 BCE), and the New Kingdom (1550 – 1069 BCE).  There were also two “intermediate periods” between the Old and Middle Kingdoms (The First Intermediate Period, 2181 – 2055 BCE) and Middle and New Kingdoms (The Second Intermediate Period, 1650 – 1550 BCE). The dates shown are approximate!

Click on the timeline to see a larger image:

These were periods during which the political control of the ruling dynasty broke down and rival groups fought for control.  The very large overarching story of ancient Egyptian history is that each of the different major kingdoms was quite stable and relatively peaceful, while the intermediary periods were troubled, violent, and chaotic.  The remarkable thing about the history overall is the simple fact of its longevity; even compared to other ancient cultures (Mesopotamia, for instance), Egyptian politics were incredibly consistent. 

The concept of these different periods was created by Manetho, an Egyptian priest who, in about 300 BCE, recorded the “definitive” history of the ancient kings and created the very notion of the old, middle, and new kingdoms.  While that periodization overlooks some of the specifics of Egyptian history, it is still the preferred method for dating ancient Egypt to this day because of its simplicity and clarity.

Also, a note on nomenclature: the term “pharaoh” means “great house,” the term used for the royal palace and its vast supporting bureaucracy.  It came to be used to refer to the king himself starting in the New Kingdom period; it would be as if the American president was called “the White House” in everyday language.  This chapter will use the term “king” for the kings of Egypt leading up to the New Kingdom, then “pharaoh” for the New Kingdom rulers to reflect the accurate use of the term.

The Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BCE)

This tablet is thought by some to depict the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the king Narmer.
This tablet is thought by some to depict the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the king Narmer.

Egypt was divided between “Upper Egypt,” the southern stretch of the Nile Valley that relied on the Nile floods for irrigation, and “Lower Egypt,” the enormous delta region where the Nile meets the Mediterranean.  The two regions had been politically distinct for centuries, but in roughly 3100 BCE Narmer, a king of Upper Egypt, conquered Lower Egypt and united the country for the first time. 

The date used for the founding of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, 2680 BCE, is when the third royal dynasty to rule all of Egypt established itself.  Its king, Djoser, was the first to commission an enormous tomb to house his remains when he died: the first pyramid. 

The Old Kingdom represented a long, unbroken line of kings that presided over the first full flowering of Egyptian culture, architecture, and prosperity.

The Old Kingdom united Egypt under a single ruling house, developed systems of record-keeping, and formed an all-important caste of scribes, the royal bureaucrats who mastered hieroglyphic writing. 

“Writing for him who knows it is better than all other professions. It pleases more than bread and beer, more than clothing and ointment. It is worth more than an inheritance in Egypt, than a tomb in the west.”
Quote from “Advice to Ambitious Young Egyptians: Rise Above the Masses, Become a Scribe” – written in ancient Egypt c. 1350-1200 BCE
Miriam Lichtheim, trans. and ed.,Ancient Egyptian Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press), 3:168-172.

Likewise, the essential characteristics of Egyptian religion emerged during the Old Kingdom, especially the idea that the king was actually a god and that his rule ensured that the world itself would continue – the Egyptians thought that if there was no king or the proper prayers were not recited by the priests, terrible chaos and destruction would reign on earth.

The Old Kingdom was stable and powerful, although its kings did not use that power to expand their borders beyond Egypt itself.  Instead, all of Old Kingdom society revolved around the production of agricultural surpluses from the Nile, efficiently cataloged and taxed by the royal bureaucracy and “spent” on building enormous temples and, in time, tombs.  The pyramids of Egypt were all built during the Old Kingdom, and their purpose was to house the bodies of the kings so that their spirits could travel to the land of the dead and join their fellow gods in the afterlife (thereby maintaining ma’at – sacred order and balance).

Giza Pyramids
Giza Pyramids

The pyramids are justly famous as the ultimate example of Egyptian prosperity and ingenuity.  The Great Pyramid of Khufu, the single largest pyramid of the period, contained over 2.5 million stone blocks, each weighing approximately 2.5 tons.  The sheer amount of energy expended on the construction of the pyramids is staggering; it was only the incredible bounty of the Nile and its harvests that enabled the construction of the pyramids by providing the calories consumed by the workers and draft animals, the wealth used to employ the supporting bureaucracy, and the size of the population that sustained the entire enterprise.  Likewise, while the details are now lost, the Old Kingdom’s government must have been highly effective at tax collection and the distribution of food, supplies, and work teams.  Pyramids on the scale of the Old Kingdom would have been all but impossible anywhere else in the world at the time.  

A major factor in the stability of Old Kingdom Egypt was that it was very isolated.  Despite its geographical proximity to Mesopotamia and Anatolia, Egypt at the time was largely separated from the civilizations of those regions.  The Sinai Peninsula, which divides Egypt from present-day Palestine and Israel, is about 120 miles of desert. With a few violent exceptions, no major incursions were able to cross over Sinai, and contact with the cultures of Mesopotamia and the Near East was limited as a result.  Likewise, even though Egypt is on the Mediterranean, sailing technology was so primitive that there was little contact with other cultures via the sea.

First Intermediate Period (2181-2055 BCE)

Around 2200 BCE, two hundred years after the last pyramids were built, the Old Kingdom collapsed, leading to the First Intermediate Period.  The reason for the collapse is not clear, but it probably had to do with the very infrequent occurrence of drought.  There are written records from this period of instability, known as the First Intermediate Period, that make it clear that Egyptians knew very well that things had been fundamentally upset and imbalanced, and they did not know what to do about it.  The kings were supposed to oversee the harmony of life and yet the royal dynasty had collapsed without a replacement.  This disrupted the entire Egyptian worldview.

In turn, this disruption prompted a development in Egyptian religion.  The Egyptian religion of the Old Kingdom had emphasized life on earth; even though the pyramids were tombs built to house the kings and the things they would need on their journey to the afterlife, there are no records with details about how most people would fare after they died. 

Weighing of the heart scene from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer:
Hunefer is conducted to the balance by jackal-headed Anubis. The monster Ammut crouches beneath the balance in order to swallow the heart should a life of wickedness be indicated. Anubis conducts the weighing on the scale of Maat, against the feather of truth. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. If his heart is lighter than the feather, Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, he is eaten by the waiting chimeric devouring creature Ammit, which is composed of the deadly crocodile, lion, and hippopotamus.

This changed during the First Intermediate Period, when the Egyptians invented the idea that the suffering of the present life might be overcome in a more perfect world to come.  After death, the soul would be brought before a judge of the gods, who would weigh the heart on scales against the ideals of harmony and order.  At this point, the heart might betray the soul, telling the god all of the sins its owner had committed in life. 

The lucky and virtuous person, though, would see their heart balance against the ideal of order and the soul would be rewarded with eternal life.  Otherwise, their heart would be tossed to a crocodile-headed demon and devoured, the soul perishing in the process.

Monumental building ceased during the Intermediate Period – there were no more pyramids, palaces, or temples being built.

The Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE)

The Middle Kingdom was the next great Egyptian kingdom of the ancient world. One major change in Egyptian belief during this time is that the Middle Kingdom rulers still claimed to be at least partly divine, but they also emphasized their humanity.  They wrote about themselves as shepherds trying to maintain the balance of harmony in Egypt and to protect their people, rather than just as lords over an immortal kingdom.  Their nobles had more power than had the nobility of the Old Kingdom as well, playing important political roles on their lands.

A painted relief depicting pharaoh Mentuhotep II - the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom
A painted relief depicting pharaoh Mentuhotep II – the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom

Starting during the Middle Kingdom, the kings made a major effort to extend Egyptian power and influence beyond the traditional “core” of the kingdom in Egypt itself.  Egypt exerted military power and extracted wealth from the northern part of the kingdom of Nubia (in present-day Sudan) to the south, and also established at least limited ongoing contact with Mesopotamia as well.  The kings actively encouraged immigration from outside of Egypt, but insisted that immigrants settle among Egyptians.  They had the same policy with war captives, often settling them as farmers in the midst of Egyptians.  This ensured speedy acculturation and helped bring foreign talent into Egypt. 

Land annexed during the Middle Kingdom
Land annexed during the Middle Kingdom

While no more pyramids were ever built – it appears that the nearly obsessive focus on the spirit of the king after death was confined to the Old Kingdom – the Middle Kingdom was definitely a period of stability and prosperity for Egypt as a whole.  A fairly diverse body of literature survived in the form of writings on papyrus, the form of paper made from Nile reeds monopolized by Egypt for centuries, that suggests that commerce was extensive, Egyptian religion celebrated the spiritual importance of ordinary people, and fairness and justice were regarded as major ethical imperatives.

Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550 BCE)

Things spun out of control for the Middle Kingdom starting in about 1720 BCE, roughly 300 years after it had been founded, leading in turn to the Second Intermediate Period.  Settlers from Canaan (present-day Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and parts of Syria) had been streaming into Egypt for generations, initially settling and assimilating into Egyptian society.  By about 1650 BCE, however, a group of Canaanites founded what was known as the “Hyksos” dynasty, an Egyptian term which simply means “leaders of foreigners,” after they overthrew the king and seized power in Lower Egypt.  While they started as “foreigners,” the Hyksos quickly adopted the practices of the Egyptian kings they had overthrown, using Egyptian scribes to keep records in hieroglyphics, worshiping the local gods, and generally behaving like Egyptians.

The political situation in the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1650 — c. 1550 BC) Thebes was briefly conquered by the Hyksos c. 1580 BC
The political situation in the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt (c. 1650 — c. 1550 BC) Thebes was briefly conquered by the Hyksos c. 1580 BC

The most significant innovation introduced by the Hyksos was the use of bronze (it should be noted that they introduced horses and chariots as well). 

Ancient egyptian chariot from a theban tomb of a private, probably used for hunting and sport.
Ancient Egyptian chariot from a Theban tomb of a private, probably used for hunting and sport

There was very limited use of bronze in Egypt until the Second Intermediate Period, with both weapons and tools being crafted from copper or stone.  Bronze, an alloy of copper and zinc or nickel, required technical skill and access to its component minerals to craft.  The finished product was far harder and more durable than was copper alone, however, and with the advent of large-scale bronze use in Egypt thanks to the Hyksos, the possibilities for the growth of Egyptian power increased greatly.  Bronze had already been in use for over a thousand years by the time it became common in Egypt, but when it finally arrived with Canaanite craftsmen it radically altered the balance of power.  Up to that point, Egyptian technology, especially in terms of metallurgy, was quite primitive.  Egyptian soldiers were often nothing more than peasants armed with copper knives, spears with copper heads, or even just clubs.  Egypt’s relative isolation meant that it had never needed to develop more advanced weapons, a fact that the Hyksos were able to take advantage of, belatedly bringing the large-scale use of bronze with them.

The New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE)

In 1550 BCE, the Second Intermediate Period ended when another Egyptian king, Ahmose I, expelled the Hyksos from Egypt.  Thus began the New Kingdom, the most powerful to date.  This was also when the Egyptian kings started calling themselves pharaohs, which means “great house,” lord over all things.  Using the new bronze military technology, the New Kingdom was (at times) able to expand Egyptian control all the way into Mesopotamia.  Bronze was the key factor, but also important was the adoption of composite bows: bows that are made from strips of animal bone and sinew, glued together.  A composite bow was much more powerful than a wooden one, and they greatly enhanced the power of the Egyptian military.

Pharaoh Ahmose I slaying a Hyksos
Pharaoh Ahmose I slaying a Hyksos

  Likewise, again thanks to the Hyksos, the New Kingdom was able to employ chariots in war for the first time.  One in ten men was impressed into military service, supplemented with auxiliaries from conquered lands as well as mercenary forces.   

While the Egyptians had always considered themselves to be the favored people of the gods, dwelling in the home of spiritual harmony in the universe, it was really during the New Kingdom that they actively campaigned to take over foreign lands.  The idea was that divine harmony existed only in Egypt and had to be brought to the rest of the world, by force if necessary.  By 1500 BCE, only 50 years after the founding of the new kingdom, Egypt had conquered Canaan and much of Syria.  It then conquered northern Nubia.  The pharaohs dispatched communities of Egyptians to settle conquered lands, both to pacify those lands and to exploit natural resources in order to increase royal revenue. 

The New Kingdom pharaohs enlisted the leaders of the lands they had conquered as puppet kings, surrounded by Egyptian advisors.  The pharaohs adopted the practice of bringing many foreign princes of the lands they had conquered back to Egypt.  There, a prince would be raised as an Egyptian and educated to think of Egyptian civilization as both superior to others and their own.  Thus, when they returned to rule after their fathers died, these princes would often be thoroughly assimilated to Egyptian culture and would naturally be more loyal to the pharaoh; using this technique, the New Kingdom was able to create several “puppet states,” places with their own rulers who were loyal to Egypt, in the Near and Middle East.

The New Kingdom
The New Kingdom

The New Kingdom was also the great bureaucratic empire of Egypt.  The pharaohs divided Egypt into two administrative regions: Upper Egypt, up the Nile and governed from the city of Thebes, and Lower Egypt, near the Nile delta where it drained into the Mediterranean and ruled from the city of Memphis.  Regional administrators did the important work of drafting laborers, extracting taxation, and making sure that agriculture was on track.  A single royal official of vast personal power, the vizier, supervised the whole system and personally decided when to open the locks on the Nile to allow the floodwaters out each year.

While royal officials and the priesthoods of the gods held significant power and influence during the New Kingdom, the king (now known as the pharaoh) still ruled as a living god.  The pharaohs were still thought to be divine, but that did not mean they simply bullied their subjects.  Many letters have survived between pharaohs and their subordinates, as well as between pharaohs and other kings in foreign lands.  They played tax breaks, gifts, and benefits off to encourage loyalty to Egypt rather than simply threatening people with divine power or armies. 

Abu Simbel is a temple built by Ramesses II
A relief of Ramses II at Abu Simbel

In addition to the New Kingdom’s expansionism, the governments pursued new forms of monumental architecture.  While the construction of pyramids never occurred after the Old Kingdom, Egyptian kings remained focused on the creation of great buildings. 

They continued to build opulent tombs, but those were usually built into hillsides or in more conventional structures, rather than pyramids. 

The monumental architecture of the New Kingdom consisted of huge temples and statues, most notably the Great Temple at Abu Simbel in northern Nubia, built under the direction of the pharaoh Ramses II at some point around 1250 BCE.  There, gigantic statues of the gods sit, and twice a year, the rising sun shines through the entrance and directly illuminates three of them, while the god of the underworld remains in shadow.

Detailed records of noteworthy pharaohs survive from the New Kingdom.  The New Kingdom saw the only known female pharaoh, a woman who ruled from 1479 to 1458 BCE.  Her name was Hatshepsut; she originally ruled as a regent (i.e. someone who is supposed to rule until the young king comes of age) for her stepson, but then claimed the title of pharaoh and ruled outright.  She ruled for 20 years, waged war, and oversaw a period of ongoing prosperity.  There were enormous building projects under her supervision, and it was also under her reign that large quantities of sub-Saharan African goods started to be imported from Nubia: gold, incense, live elephants, panther skins, and other forms of wealth.  When she died, however, her stepson Thutmose III took the throne.  Decades after he became pharaoh, for reasons that are unclear, he tried to erase the memory of his mother’s reign, perhaps driven by simple resentment over how long she had held power.

Another pharaoh of note was Amenhotep IV (r. 1353 – 1336 BCE).  Amenhotep was infamous in his own lifetime for attempting an ill-considered full-scale religious revolution.  He tried to focus all worship of the Egyptian people on an aspect of the sun god, Ra, called Aten.  He went so far as to claim that Aten was the only god, something that seemed absurd to the resolutely polytheistic Egyptians.  He renamed himself Akhenaten, which means “the one useful to Aten,” moved the capital to a new city he had built, sacked the temples of other gods, and even had agents chisel off references to the other gods from buildings and walls.  All the while, he insisted that he and his queen, Nefertiti, be worshiped as gods themselves as the direct representatives of Aten. Historians do not know why he tried to bring about this religious revolution, but one reasonable theory is that he was trying to reduce the power of the priests, who had steadily become richer and more powerful over the centuries at the expense of the pharaohs themselves.

Akhenaten’s attempted revolution was a disaster.  In the eyes of common people and of later pharaohs, he had fundamentally undermined the very stability of Egypt.  In the eyes of his subjects, the royal person was no longer seen as a reliable spiritual anchor – the pharaoh was supposed to be the great protector of the religious and social order, but instead one had tried to completely destroy it.  This was the beginning of the end of the central position the pharaoh had enjoyed in the life of all Egyptians up until that point.

Akhenaten’s son restored all of the old religious traditions.  This was the young king Tutankhamun (“King Tut”) (r. 1336 – 1326), who is important for restoring the religion and, arguably, for the simple fact that his tomb was never looted by grave robbers before it was discovered by a British archaeologist in 1922 CE.  It provided the single most significant trove of artifacts from the New Kingdom yet found when it was discovered, sparking an interest in ancient Egyptian history all over the world. 

Tutankhamun and his queen, Ankhesenamun
Tutankhamun and his queen, Ankhesenamun

A new dynasty of pharaohs ruled the New Kingdom in the aftermath of Akhenaten’s disastrous experiment, the most powerful of which was Ramses II (r. 1279 – 1213).  Ramses campaigned against the growing power of an empire in the north called the Hittites, one of the major empires of the Bronze Age period.

The Hittite Empire, approximate extent of the maximum area of the Hittite rule (light green) and the Hittite rule ca. 1350-1300 BC (green line)
The Hittite Empire, approximate extent of the maximum area of the Hittite rule (light green) and the Hittite rule ca. 1350-1300 BC (green line)

He ruled for an astonishingly long time and reputedly sired some 160 children with wives and concubines.  He also supervised the construction of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel noted above.  Ramses was, however, the last of the great pharaohs, with all of those who followed working to stave off disaster more so than expand Egyptian power.

The New Kingdom collapsed in about 1150 BCE.  This collapse was part of a much larger pattern across the ancient Middle East and North Africa: the collapse of the Bronze Age itself.  In the case of Egypt, this took the form of the first of a series of foreign invasions, that of the “Sea People,” whose origins have never been determined despite concentrated scholarship on the question.  Later, invaders referred to as “gangs of bandits” from what is today Libya, to the west of Egypt, further undermined the kingdom, and it finally fell into a long period of political fragmentation.  A long period of civil war and conflict engulfed Egypt, and from that point on Egypt proved vulnerable to foreign conquest.  In the course of the centuries that followed Assyria, Persia, the Greeks, and the Romans would, one after the other, add Egypt to their respective empires.

Life in Ancient Egypt

The long-term pattern in Egyptian history is that there were long periods of stability and prosperity disrupted by periodic invasions and disasters.  Throughout the entire period, however, there were many cultural, spiritual, and intellectual traditions that stayed the same.

The Egyptians had a colorful and memorable set of religious beliefs, one that dominated the lives of the kings, who claimed to be not just reflections of or servants of the gods, but gods themselves on earth.  The central theme among the great epic stories of Egyptian religion was that there was a certain order and harmony in the universe that the gods had created, but that it was threatened by forces of destruction and chaos.  It was the job of humans, especially Egyptians, to maintain harmony through proper rituals and through making sure that Egyptian society was stable.

One peculiar aspect of the obsessive focus on the person of the king was the fact that the kings often married their sisters and daughters; the idea was that if one was a god, one did not want to pollute the sacred bloodline by having children with mere humans.  An unfortunate side effect was, not surprisingly, that there were a lot of fairly deranged and unhealthy Egyptian royalty over the years, since the royal lines were, by definition, inbred. 

More writing survives from ancient Egypt than any other ancient civilization of the Mediterranean region.  There are two major reasons for that survival.  First, Egypt’s dry climate ensured that records kept on papyrus had a decent chance of surviving since they were unlikely to rot away.  Thousands of papyri documents have been discovered that were simply dumped into holes in the desert and left there; the sand and the climate conspired to preserve them.  Second, Egypt developed an important social class of scribes whose whole vocation was mastering the complex Egyptian writing systems and keeping extensive records of almost every aspect of life, from religious ritual to mundane record-keeping.  

The writing of ancient Egypt was in hieroglyphics, which are symbols that were adapted over time from pictures.  There were several different forms of hieroglyphics, including two distinct alphabets during the period covered in this chapter, all of which were very difficult to master.  It took years of training to become literate in hieroglyphics, training that was only afforded to the scribes. 

Hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I
Hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I

The writing of ancient Egypt was in hieroglyphics, which are symbols that were adapted over time from pictures.  There were several different forms of hieroglyphics, including two distinct alphabets during the period covered in this chapter, all of which were very difficult to master.  It took years of training to become literate in hieroglyphics, training that was only afforded to the scribes. 

An Egyptian scribe reads a papyrus scroll on his lap.
An Egyptian scribe reads a papyrus scroll on his lap.

Scribes recorded everything from tax records, to mercantile transactions, to the sacred prayers for the dead on the walls of the tombs of kings and nobles.  They served as an essential piece of the continuity of Egyptian politics and culture for thousands of years.  In other words, because they used the same language and the same alphabets of symbols, and because they recorded the rituals and transactions of Egyptian society, scribes were a kind of cultural glue that kept things going from generation to generation.  In all three of the great dynasties and during the Intermediate Periods, it was the scribes who provided continuity.

Like their neighbors in Mesopotamia, the Egyptians lived in a redistributive economy, an economy in which crops were taken directly from farmers (i.e. peasants) by the agents of the king and then redistributed.  Appropriately enough, many of the surviving documents from ancient Egypt are tax records, carefully recorded in hieroglyphics by scribes.  Peasants in Egypt were tied to the land they lived on and were thus serfs rather than free peasants.  A serf is a farmer who is legally tied to the land he or she works on – they cannot leave the land to look for a better job elsewhere, living in a state very near to slavery.  The peasants lived in “closed” villages in which people were not allowed to move in, nor were existing families supposed to move out. 

Egyptian society was highly stratified, and social status was expressly displayed. Farmers made up the bulk of the population, but agricultural produce was owned directly by the state, temple, or noble family that owned the land. Farmers were also subject to a labor tax and were required to work on irrigation or construction projects. Artists and craftsmen were of higher status than farmers, but they were also under state control, working in the shops attached to the temples and paid directly from the state treasury. Scribes and officials formed the upper class in ancient Egypt, known as the “white kilt class” in reference to the bleached linen garments that served as a mark of their rank. The upper class prominently displayed their social status in art and literature. Below the nobility were the priests, physicians, and engineers with specialized training in their field.

The head of the legal system was officially the pharaoh, who was responsible for enacting laws, delivering justice, and maintaining law and order, a concept the ancient Egyptians referred to as Ma’at.

Maat or Maʽat refers to the ancient Egyptian concepts of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice. Maat was also the goddess who personified these concepts, and regulated the stars, seasons, and the actions of mortals and the deities who had brought order from chaos at the moment of creation.

Maat was both the goddess and the personification of truth and justice. Her ostrich feather represents truth.
Maat was both the goddess and the personification of truth and justice. Her ostrich feather represents truth.

Interestingly, unlike many other ancient societies, women in Egypt were nearly the legal equals of men.  They had the legal right to own property, sue, and essentially exist as independent legal entities.  This is all the more striking in that many of the legal rights that Egyptian women possessed were not available to women in Europe (or the United States) until the late 1800s CE, over three thousand years later.  Likewise, Egyptian women enjoyed much more legal autonomy than did women in many other ancient societies, particularly that of the Greeks.

Egyptian harvest
Egyptian harvest

The ancient Egyptians cultivated emmer and barley, and several other cereal grains, all of which were used to make the two main food staples of bread and beer. Flax plants, uprooted before they started flowering, were grown for the fibers of their stems. These fibers were split along their length and spun into thread, which was used to weave sheets of linen and to make clothing.

Papyrus growing on the banks of the Nile River was used to make paper. Vegetables and fruits were grown in garden plots, close to habitations and on higher ground, and had to be watered by hand. Vegetables included leeks, garlic, melons, squashes, pulses (beans and lentils), lettuce, and other crops, in addition to grapes that were made into wine.

 The staple diet consisted of bread and beer, supplemented with vegetables such as onions and garlic, and fruit such as dates and figs. Wine and meat were enjoyed by all on feast days while the upper classes indulged on a more regular basis. Fish, meat, and fowl could be salted or dried, and could be cooked in stews or roasted on a grill. The grit and sand from stone-ground flour abraded teeth, leaving them susceptible to abscesses.

The diets of the wealthy were rich in sugars, which promoted periodontal disease. Despite the flattering physiques portrayed on tomb walls, the overweight mummies of many of the upper class show the effects of a life of overindulgence.

Egyptians kept cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. Poultry, such as ducks, geese, and pigeons, were captured in nets and bred on farms, where they were force-fed with dough to fatten them.The Nile provided a plentiful source of fish. Bees were also domesticated from at least the Old Kingdom, and provided both honey and wax.

Cats, dogs, and monkeys were common family pets, while more exotic pets imported from the heart of Africa, such as Sub-Saharan African lions, were reserved for royalty. During the Late Period, the worship of the gods in their animal form was extremely popular, such as the cat goddess Bastet and the ibis god Thoth, and these animals were kept in large numbers for the purpose of ritual sacrifice.

Most ancient Egyptians were farmers tied to the land. Their dwellings were restricted to immediate family members, and were constructed of mudbrick designed to remain cool in the heat of the day. Each home had a kitchen with an open roof, which contained a grindstone for milling grain and a small oven for baking the bread.

The ancient Egyptians placed a great value on hygiene and appearance. Most bathed in the Nile and used a pasty soap made from animal fat and chalk. Men shaved their entire bodies for cleanliness; perfumes and aromatic ointments covered bad odors and soothed skin. Clothing was made from simple linen sheets that were bleached white, and both men and women of the upper classes wore wigs, jewelry, and cosmetics. Children went without clothing until maturity, at about age 12, and at this age males were circumcised and had their heads shaved. Mothers were responsible for taking care of the children, while the father provided the family’s income.


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Map of ancient Egypt: By Jeff Dahl – Own work. See #References for references used creating the map.Image renamed from File:Ancient Egypt map.svg (see #Original upload log)., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5818406

Maat: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1685485

Ahmose I: By Georges Émile Jules Daressy (19 March 1864 – 28 February 1938) – This file has been extracted from another file: Pharaoh Ahmose I slaying a Hyksos (axe of Ahmose I, from the Treasure of Queen Aahhotep II).jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91822552
Giza pyramids: By Ricardo Liberato – All Gizah Pyramids, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2258048
Book of the Dead: By Hunefer – BD_Hunefer.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8748261
Abu Simbel temple: By Asoka – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12041793

Heiroglyphics: By Jon Bodsworth – http://www.egyptarchive.co.uk/html/british_museum_29.html, Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3210751

Tutankhamun and his queen: By Tiger cub – own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6220723
Ramses relief at Abu Simbel: By Warren LeMay from Cullowhee, NC, United States – The Great Temple of Ramses II, Abu Simbel, AG, EGY, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92159830
Ancient Egypt info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egypt

scribe: By Anonymous (Egypt) – Walters Art Museum: Home page  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18763294

Harvest: By Anonymous Egyptian tomb artist(s) – Scanned from The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt ISBN 0-19-510234-7, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2113956

Timeline image created by Jennifer Guest based on:
Timeline: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egypt
Narmer image: By Heagy1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78576925
Hyksos: By NebMaatRa – This file has been extracted from another file: Ibscha.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91638481
Hapshepsut: By This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57859093
Great Pyramid: By Nina – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=282496
Nefertiti: By Philip Pikart – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8433730
Cleopatra: By Louis le Grand – own work / Altes Museum Berlin (Berliner Museumsinsel), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2597825
Ramses: By Speedster – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38220820
Assyrian conquest tablet: By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91393328
Hapshepsut: By This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57859093
Middle Kingdom map: By RedTony – Translated from File:Ancient Egypt old and middle kingdom-es.svg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77345822

Hittite map: By Near_East_topographic_map-blank.svg: Sémhurderivative work: Ikonact – Near East topographic map-blank.svg for the background mapThis map for the information, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28358963
Mentuhotep: By New source, Original source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=689215
2nd Intermediate Period: By Iry-Hor – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34922151
Egyptian chariot: By Khruner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30502981
New Kingdom map: By Andrei Nacu, Jeff Dahl – Own work based on: Egypt 1450 BC.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4335117

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
    CC BY-NC-SA
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University
    CC BY-NC-SA

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest



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