What everyday life was like in ancient Egypt

Stretching as far back as 3,000 BC, ancient Egypt was truly a remarkable civilization that could boast of many innovations in areas such as agriculture, writing, astronomy, and other scientific disciplines. Sprawling along the great Nile River in northeast Africa, this civilization went on to become one of the most dominant in the ancient world, as it conquered many territories and civilizations in the region.

And what held all of that together was its rich culture, which included a remarkable kingship and governance structure, architectural marvels, religion, and arts. Take for example the Great Pyramid in Giza – it’s been estimated that the structure held the record of being the tallest building in the world for close to four millennia. Structures of those nature took at least four decades to construct, involving several thousands of laborers, craftsmen and architects.

The question that begs to be answered is: what was everyday life really like in ancient Egypt.  As you shall see below, life in ancient Egypt very much depended on the socio-economic class one was born into. It also depended on the time period one was born in. Bear in mind, ancient Egypt lasted for many centuries, from the Early Dynastic Era and Old Kingdom, which began in the late 4th millennium BC, to Ptolemaic Era which ended around 30 BC.

World History Edu explores what it was like living in ancient Egypt. It views it through the lenses of kings, priests, craftsmen, and women and other traditionally neglected sections of the population like tenant farmers, the builders of the pyramids, and slaves.

Ancient Egypt – an Early River Valley civilization

In summary, the Nile shaped the early world view of the Egyptians. Without a shred of doubt, had it not been for the Nile and its annual flooding, ancient Egypt would not have attained such meteoric feats.

Before we begin our exploration of what life was like for an individual in ancient Egypt, let’s take a look at the advantages that ancient Egypt accrued for being located along the mighty Nile River – what is today the longest river in the world, after the Amazon River.

Known to the ancient Egyptians as Iteru (“the Great River”), the Nile was the primary source of water for the Egyptians. It was also the interstate of ancient Egypt so to speak. This is because it allowed for easy transportation of people and goods from both the south and north. For example the heavy stones that the Egyptians used to build the pyramids were transported on the Nile, a navigable river regarded by the inhabitants as a benign gift from the gods.

The Nile was absolutely crucial to the survival and development of ancient Egypt. As a matter of fact, the ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile was divine as its flow was regular. The Nile, unlike the two mighty rivers in the Euphrates, was navigable as well. What this means is that Egyptians did not necessarily need powerful hydraulic technologies to tame it.

Next to the sun, the Nile was the most important thing in ancient Egypt. It’s not surprising that the Egyptians took to worshiping it as a god. It was predictable in the sense that every time it flooded it deposited nutrient-rich silk on the farms for Egyptians to grow a variety of crops, including melons, grains, wheat, and pomegranate. With those bountiful harvests, the Egyptians could then devote some of their energy and time into pursuing other projects, including constructing magnificent pyramids, royal palaces, and temple complexes. It was easy for ancient Egyptians to transport valuable resources – such as gold and timber – from places in the south (i.e. Nubia) along the Nile to erect those superimposing structures in the north.

In summary, the Nile shaped the early world view of the Egyptians. With its flow being regular and navigable, the Nile was viewed as a benign deity that turned ancient Egypt into one of the richest places in the world at the time. Without a shred of doubt, had it not been for the Nile and its annual flooding, ancient Egypt would not have attained such meteoric feats; it would have been an uninhabitable landscape at best.

Three seasons of the flow of the Nile

Ancient Egypt’s admiration of the flooding of the Nile was so immense that they built their calendar around the flow. There were three main seasons – Akhet, the inundation; Peret, the emergence; and Shemu, the harvest. Historians and scholars estimate that the inundation season brought about 3.5-4 million tons of rich silt, which then covered the nearby lands.

The silt from the Nile was gold to the ancient Egyptians, as without that high quality dark soil, hardly anything would have grown in those lands. Silt might have even been more revered than gold by the ancient Egyptians.

Religiously speaking, silt represented the rejuvenation feature of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris. This god was murdered by his brother Seth, the god of chaos, and then brought back to life by his very devoted wife the goddess Isis. The flooding of the Nile therefore symbolized Osiris, the green-faced god of vegetation, the underworld, and resurrection.

The history of ancient Egypt

The history of ancient Egypt is often placed into three broad categories – Old Kingdom (also known as the Age of Pyramids), Middle Kingdom (i.e. the Classical Age of ancient Egypt), and New Kingdom (i.e. the Golden Age of ancient Egyptian civilization). The periods between those kingdoms are what historians like to call intermediate periods, which were rife with climatic, religious, and most importantly geopolitical turbulence. For example, the First Intermediate Period – the period between the demise of the Old Kingdom and the rise of the Middle Kingdom – lasted for about a century and a half.

Historians also estimate that there were about 30 dynasties throughout ancient Egypt’s timeline. The last dynasty was the Ptolemaic Dynasty, of which the famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII was a member of. The Ptolemaic Dynasty ended around the late first century BC.

Basically, daily life in ancient Egypt also depended very much on the ruler and the time periods.

Makeup, jewelry, clothes and other fashion accessories

Ancient Egyptians wore all kinds of jewelries, from collars and necklaces to bracelets and rings. The wealthy in the society would make their jewelries from gold or silver or both. It was also common for precious minerals such as turquoise and lapis to be used in the jewelries. Image: The Bust of Nefertiti, by the sculptor Thutmose, is often considered as one of the most famous masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art

In ancient Egypt, it was completely fashionable for men and women to wear makeup. The Egyptians believed that the powder and cream they smeared on their faces contained charms that could ward of evil spirits. Then there was the obvious reason of using creams and oils to protect the skin from the sun. Egyptians also made assorted fragrances from a variety of flowers and citrus fruits.

Eye paint was the most commonly used makeup in ancient Egypt. Known as kohl, the eye makeup, which is basically antimony sulphide or lead sulphide, came in a black powder form.

With respect to clothes, Egyptians often wore light and white linen clothes. However, the quality of clothes obviously depended on the class and economic status one belonged in. The very affluent ancient Egyptians could import fine and soft clothes and fabrics from foreign lands, while tenant farmers, servants and slaves wore simple patterned fabrics which were often made from thicker fibers. The reason why the fabrics had to be light had to do with the hot climate of Egypt.

Kohl

An 18th Dynasty Ancient Egyptian kohl container with the name of Queen Tiye (1410–1372 BCE), the Great Royal wife of Amenhotep III, inscribed on it

Ancient Egyptian men generally wore wrap around skirts, almost like kilts, while women donned straight lose fitting dress that often reached their ankles. Obviously there were some variations in the clothes.

The wealthy ancient Egyptians used a lot of magnificent jewelry, which were usually made from precious stones and minerals. This was obviously intended to show one’s economic status. It was the case that both men and women wore necklaces, neck collar, and bracelets. Men also wore wig. As a matter of fact the higher a man’s standing in the society the more elaborate his wig was.

The Egyptian pharaoh wore a fake beard to symbolize his royalty and power in the land. They maintained a clean shaven face and then wore their fake beard. Regardless of the gender of the pharaoh, the fake beard was a must. For example, the famous female pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut can be seen in many Egyptian artworks donning a fake beard.

Read More: 12 Major Facts about Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut

Education

Basically, education was reserved for people from wealthy and powerful families, which included the royal family. The educated people then went on to occupy top social and religious positions in the land, for example priests, royal scribes, royal masons and architects, and army generals.

For the unlucky children born into poor background, their free time, which was a lot, was spent playing outdoors. The boys would engage in wrestling, while the girls danced and played with their dolls. From a strict Western lens, this looks very bad; however, it’s worth pointing out that many ancient Egyptians must have taken immense enjoyment in those activities.

Once the male child had reached a certain age, he would be introduced into his father’s profession and shown the ins and outs. As for the girls, they would shadow their mothers in the house and learn how to be a good future wife and mother.

Life in ancient Egypt

Vizier Ptahhotep, an official of King Djedkare Isesi (2414-2379 BC) from the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt, in The Maxims of Ptahhotep

Marriage

One of the approaches that ancient Egyptian men used in proposing to a woman was to bring the bundle of items, which was seen as some sort of dowry. Young men would take all their property to the woman’s house to show their interest. Once the woman accepts the man’s bundle, the man simply moved in with her. Thus the ancient Egyptians did not have our kind of marriage ceremonies.

It was also not uncommon for love poems and tokens to be exchanged between young couples. Some of those tokens included rings and necklaces.

It’s been said that women married around the age of 12, while men had theirs around 13. Perhaps rising out of their contempt for non-Egyptians, ancient Egypt did not allow their women to marry foreign kings. They held the view that the woman would be unhappy away from Egypt. However, the did allow foreign women, including princesses, to come to Egypt as brides. For foreign princesses, those women were used to seal peace treaties.

Houses in ancient Egypt

Houses were built of mud bricks with pits placed underground to store food and other items. Image: Ruins of Deir el-Medina, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was an ancient Egyptian workmen’s village which was home to the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the 18th to 20th Dynasties of the New Kingdom of Egypt (ca. 1550–1080 BCE)

While the Egyptian pharaohs and royal families lived in magnificent palaces in cities like Thebes and Memphis, the ordinary Egyptian folks lived in houses primarily made from mud. They would sun bake the mud and then later use blocks in constructing their houses, which only a few meters wide with small windows and simple furniture. The roofs of those mud house were purposely made flat so that people could sleep on top of it in the summer as the weather could be unbearably hot in that season. When building those mud houses, the doors were intentionally placed to face north in order to benefit from the cool breeze from that direction.

Since baking bread was a common activity in many households, especially among the commoners, in ancient Egypt, almost every house came with a stone oven. The middle class ancient Egyptians even lived in houses that had some kind of a built-in cold storage to keep drinks cold. They were able to make those storages cold by digging them deep in the ground and then covering the top to keep the swelling heat above from reaching the pits.

Read More: Top 12 Most Famous Ancient Egyptian Cities

The power of cats in ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians believed that cats wielded divine powers. Just take the example of the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet (or Bast), who was often depicted as a cat or a woman with a cat head. Egyptians prayed to Bastet to ward off demonic spirits from the home. By keeping cats in the home, ancient Egyptians believed that no weapon fashioned against them or their families could prevail. This point also explains why the Egyptians mummified cats as they believed that they counted on the cat’s protection even in the afterlife.

Ancient Egyptian social structure

Ancient Egypt had a very strict social structure. The quality of one’s life in ancient Egypt depended on the socio-economic class and trade he/she was born into. Image: A tomb relief depicts workers plowing the fields, harvesting the crops, and threshing the grain under the direction of an overseer, painting in the tomb of Nakht.

Basically the slaves that were captured from foreign lands found themselves bottom on the social structure in ancient Egypt. What this means is that slaves in ancient Egypt were not of a single race. Slaves had no rights whatsoever and were tied to backbreaking jobs for large parts of their lives. In exchange for their labor, their masters would provide them food, clothing and shelter.

Slightly above the slaves were the tenant farmers, who worked all day on the fields planting a host of crops, including barley which were then used to make beer, and wheat which was ground to make bread. The farmers also planted crops like cucumbers and onions. Farmers also spent their day fixing the canals that brought water to the farmlands. The farmers used very simple machines in farming such as an oxen that dragged a plough through the ground. When that was done, the farmers would then scatter seeds on the field. This would then be followed by herding sheep over the land in order to bury the seeds in the ground. To irrigate their farmlands, the ancient Egyptian farmers used a tool called Shaduf, a long pole with a water bucket on one end and a counterweight on the other side of the pole.

Next were the craftsmen and artisans. These people were trained specialists that had relatively better lives than the tenant farmers and the servants in the royal palaces and temples. Ancient Egypt could boast of craftspeople like jewelers, stone masons, foremen, draftsmen, carpenters, potters, and weavers. The extremely skilled ones often received very lucrative commissions from the pharaohs. As a matter of fact, it was these craftspeople who added the finishing touches to the various monumental buildings and structures that the pharaohs and priests built. They were the ones who designed the jewelries of the elites. They weaved the clothes that the royal family members wore. Ancient Egyptian craftsmen were very highly regarded because their craftworks found their way into the tombs of the elites and pharaohs of Egypt. Many of their designed and sculpted items were believed to sustain the pharaoh’s soul for eternity in the afterlife. In return for their services and works, craftsmen were housed in villages, which included a home, a tomb, water, grains, meat, and wine. Their children were also given education, and in some cases, some even had servants to serve in their households.

The major classes that existed in the social hierarchy included slaves, servants, tenant farmers, specialist like craftsmen and soldiers, scribes and educational professionals, and finally the priests, priestesses and the Egyptian pharaohs. Image; Measuring and recording the harvest is shown in a wall painting in the tomb of Menna, at Thebes (Eighteenth Dynasty).

Coming right above the craftspeople were the soldiers – a well-trained and well-oiled fighting force that marched to the orders of the rulers of Egypt. Being an Egyptian soldier offered immense opportunity to rise to a position that would enable the person at least interact with persons in the upper echelons of the society. And when a soldier was not away on some military campaign in a foreign land, or quelling a rebellion, the soldier was put to good use in the pharaoh’s construction projects. It’s been stated that Egyptian soldiers were involved in a great number of architectural projects, especially during peacetimes.

An ancient Egyptian scribe was very much a respected member of the society. He or she was regarded as extremely knowledgeable in civil, administrative and religious activities, meaning that they worked in positions that involved the assessment and collection of taxes and records keeping. To become a scribe, the individual underwent years of training. What this means is that only people from wealthy and influential Egyptian families could enroll in such schools. The scribe could read and write the two main forms of Egyptian writings – hieroglyphics for sacred writing and demotic scripts for contracts and agreements.

The priests and priestesses that run the various temples in ancient Egypt were considered important and special members of the upper class. The priests and priestesses were responsible for making sure the gods received all the honor and adoration on a daily basis. Failure to do this meant that the forces of evil and chaos would overpower the forces good, balance and order (i.e. ma’at). Unlike the priests and clergy we have in our modern day, ancient Egyptian priests and clergy did not go about preaching or having weekly religious services. What they did was to take of the gods so to speak, meaning they attended to the shrines and temples of those god. Both women and men were allowed to serve the gods as priestess and priests, respectively. However, it was the case that women often served in temples of Egyptian goddesses like Isis, Bastet, Hathor and Sekhmet, while men generally tended to male deities. In the case of the Egyptian deity Amun, also known as “the Hidden One”, it was absolutely fine for both women and male priests to serve in the god’s temple, as in some cases, Amun was seen as a gender neutral deity.

The position of high priest in ancient Egypt was not just a religious position, it was also a political one. Chosen by the rulers of Egypt, the high priest job was to ensure that the people performed the necessary religious rites and maintained their belief, least the forces of chaos destroy their land.

Finally, the Egyptian kings and queens were the ones who sat at the very top of social and economic hierarchy. In its over 3000-year existence, historians and archaeologists estimate that there were at least 300 Egyptian rulers, with about seven being female pharaohs (more on this later). The rulers of ancient Egypt were revered as divine links between the Egyptian gods and the people. This explains why the pharaohs were given unbridled adulation and reverence in their lifetime. As a matter of fact, the Egyptians believed that disrespecting the memory of a deceased king or queen could spell doom for their entire land.

In the nutshell, when it came to the social standing of the population in ancient Egypt, there were broadly three levels: one was either part of royalty, a free citizen or a slave. The free citizens were priests, merchants, noblemen, traders, skilled craftsmen, and farmers.

Read More: Top 10 Most Important Ancient Egyptian Festivals

The Egyptian pharaohs

Head of a statue of ancient Egyptian pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut with her fake royal beard

As stated above, the Egyptian pharaoh sat atop the social and religious structure in ancient Egypt. What this means is that he was both the head of the state and religion. Concerning the latter, the Egyptians saw their kings and rulers as the human representation of the gods. In other words, ancient Egyptian kings and queens were worshiped as gods, both in life and in death.

The administrative part of the state was placed in the hands of the pharaoh’s most trusted adviser, the vizier. Representatives or governors from across Egypt reported to the pharaoh’s vizier.

Read More: 10 Most Famous Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs

The life of a woman in ancient Egypt

Like many ancient civilizations, one’s everyday life and the quality of life largely depended on one’s gender, with men having all the rights and women languishing at the bottom. However, this was slightly different in ancient Egypt.

As stated above, women were allowed to become priestess of temples of many important Egyptian gods and goddesses. Ancient Egypt was definitely not a bastion of women rights so to speak; however, compared to the civilizations that existed at the time, ancient Egypt was certainly advanced when it came to defending some rights of women. In addition to being able to hold jobs like lower-ranking administrators, supervisors and priestess, women were allowed to own property. And most importantly, there were a few cases (at least seven times per the records that survived) where women went on to become overall rulers of the land of Egypt. Egyptian pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut is a case in point. There were also other powerful women and wives of the pharaohs, like Queen Nefertiti, who may have ruled as co-pharaohs or regents.

Women’s rights in ancient Egypt

Women were in charge of child care and handling all the household chores, which included cleaning, laundry, dishes, and weaving. They were also the ones who took care of the elder relatives of the family, thus in addition to taking care of the of the family’s altar. Image: Painted limestone relief of a noble member of Ancient Egyptian society during the New Kingdom

Women weren’t considered equal to men in terms of rights and privileges in ancient Egypt. However, they had rights that were far advanced than the ones seen in comparable civilizations of the era. Some historians believe that ancient Egyptian women even had more rights than the ones women had in the Middle Ages, a diseased and poverty ridden time in much of Europe and some parts of Asia. This point shows just how way ahead the Egyptians were in terms of protecting women.

For example, women were allowed to own properties, initiate divorce, and own and manage their own businesses. Women were also allowed to enter into contacts with men. They could dispose of their own how and when they saw fit. With those property rights bestowed upon them, women could even make legally binding wills.

Women received almost the same pay as men for the same work, and they received the same punishments for the same crimes alright. They also had far more personal and sexual freedom than other ancient civilizations. When Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt, he was amazed by the level of freedom women we had in their everyday social and economic lives.

It’s been revealed that ancient Egyptian women could work as doctors, female sears, gynecologists, and dentists. Some put their weaving skills to good use and set up textile manufacturing businesses.

Women weren’t just household managers. They were given ample freedom to pursue their dreams and become say musicians, singers and dancers. Often times it was considered a huge honor for a woman to perform for the royal family in ceremonies and large royal banquets.

Gender roles in ancient Egypt

Make no mistake, although women had those admirable advantages for a civilization as ancient as Egypt, women were still regarded as second class citizens. At the end of the day, men were in charge. For example, there were some positions that women could not hold, notably high-ranking government jobs. And out of the over 300 pharaohs of Egypt only seven were females. But then again, that’s very impressive, considering the fact that our nation, in its more than two centuries of existence, is yet to have a female POTUS.

Women in ancient Egypt were expected to get married once they hit puberty. It was also absolutely normal for those young women to marry men who were many years older than them.

At the end of the day, men were the undisputed head of the household; men had the final word, while women played second fiddle to them. A woman’s job was to have children, and having as many as possible was highly preferred.  And in times of divorce, women often times took full custody of the children. Talk about leaving all the burden on women!

Ancient Egyptians completely detested adultery. As a result, women were allowed to simply pick up their luggage and leave the marriage whenever they wanted to bail out. Even though marriage greatly enhanced women’s social and economic status, divorced women weren’t considered outcasts.

A typical married woman or housewife (“lady of the house”) in ancient Egypt was primarily in charge of keeping the house. At the crack of dawn, the woman would begin her day by hauling water from the well. She would then tend to the family’s breakfast and feed the children. After that she would attend to family’s livestock or attend to the crops in the garden, which included controlling pests. This was then followed by the preparation of lunch and finally dinner. Women were responsible for doing the doing the laundry, the dishes and attending to all the household chores. If the woman was fortunate enough to have the means to afford servants and slaves, then all she had to do was to organize the household activities. Women also spent their day grinding wheat for bread and/or brewing beer.

A man’s life in ancient Egypt also depended on his class and profession. Say one was born into the elite class, then the man began his day by riding his chariot down to the banks of the Nile to tour estate. After that was done, the man would go hunting with his friends. And come sunset, the men would head home and get themselves prepared for lavish banquets and ceremonies.

The life of man in the lower levels of the social hierarchy was not as pleasing or grand as the wealthy folks. Say you were a male tenant farmer, your daily life would involve working in the fields and herding cattle or other domestic animal. And when it was time to pay one’s taxes, the tenant farmer would take some of his produce to the temple as payment of the land.

How ancient Egyptians viewed death

Ancient Egyptians believed that life could go on forever, and speaking the name of the dead is to make them live again. Image: The Book of the Dead was a guide to the deceased’s journey in the afterlife.

The average life expectancy in ancient Egypt was in the region of 40 years. It being an ancient civilization, pregnancy and childbirth were particularly very dangerous for women. The infant mortality rate was so high that it was absolutely crucial for ancient Egyptians to pray to Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of childbirth and motherhood. They would combine pseudo-scientific medical practices with religious amulets in hopes of keeping the mother and unborn child healthy.

So granted one made it all the way to adulthood, his or her life could be cut short by many things, particularly diseases, which were common due to the poor sanitary condition in the land – rubbish was thrown haphazardly outside; in most cases in the Nile, the very river that served as Egypt’s source of drinking water. And since many of the people took baths in the Nile, one could easily end up being the lunch of a deadly Nile alligator or hippo. Daily disappearances in the Nile was therefore not an uncommon phenomenon. It was even said that the Pharaoh Menes (sometimes known as Narmer) was killed by a wild hippo while traveling on the Nile.

Assuming one survived all of the above, then he or she had to contend with the below par safety precautions that existed at pyramid building sites. Daily accidents and deaths were very common occurrences while the pyramids and tombs were being built for the pharaohs and their family members.

And even if one was extremely lucky to have evaded all of those things stated above, it was only a matter of time before the harmful effects of the backbreaking job began to manifest themselves. All of that combined was just one of the reasons ancient Egyptians, like any other ancient civilization, had such a low life expectancy.

The concept of an afterlife in ancient Egypt

The reason why ancient Egyptians buried their dead with things that were useful and pleasurable to the deceased person while alive had to do with the religious belief that death was simply a transition into another life. Ancient Egyptians believed that soul lived on after death. Therefore it was absolutely important that the deceased be buried with model items and things like gold, foodstuffs, amulets, clothes, furniture, coffers packed with cosmetic items, and mummified pet animals. If the afterlife was a continuation of life, then those items were deemed necessary.

For ancient Egyptians in the upper social structure, like the pharaohs, royal family members, and chief priests, the deceased was buried in magnificent tombs and giant pyramids.

Starting around the end of the Middle Kingdom era, Egyptians took to burying many of the Egyptian pharaohs at the Valley of the Kings, which was a massive burial ground in the west of Thebes. It means that they discontinued the use of great pyramids in favor of tombs carved out of the valley located on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor (present-day Luxor Governorate, Egypt). This practice continued for about half a millennium, i.e. throughout the New Kingdom Era (16th century BC to 11th century BC). Archaeologists estimate that there are at least 60 tombs and more than 110 underground chambers at the Valley of the Kings.

Over the centuries, many of those tombs and chambers were looted by grave robbers. Some of the items buried with the pharaohs and their royal families were damaged as well. Notable pharaohs that were laid to rest in the Valley of the Kings include Rameses II, Queen Hatshepsut, Amenhotep I, Amenhotep III, and Tutankhamun.

Take the example of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, which was left intact for several millennia, only to be discovered in the early 1920s. Archeologists, led by famous English researcher and archaeologist, found a treasure trove of many items buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

The ancient Egyptians had the habit of placing models of all shapes and sizes in the tombs of a deceased. The models were of things that the dead person frequently used while alive. It was believed that the models would be used by the dead in his journey into the afterlife. Typical models that were made were boats, granaries, and wine jars.

The Egyptians placed priceless items in royal tombs because it was believed that they would help the pharaoh make a smooth transition into the afterlife. A restless pharaoh in the afterlife spelled doom for the land of Egypt, as it was believed that the pharaoh was the embodiment of the gods – gods whose primary role was to keep the order and balance in cosmos.

Read more: The concept of the soul in ancient Egypt

The life of a pyramid builder in ancient Egypt

The Giza pyramid complex – the site includes the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, along with their associated pyramid complexes and the Great Sphinx of Giza.

Next to a slave, the work of a pyramid builder was perhaps the most daunting kind of job in ancient Egypt. Contrary to popular opinion, the ancient Egyptian pyramids weren’t entirely built by slaves brought from foreign lands. In other words, a significant number of the pyramid builders were not slaves. In building their magnificent pyramids, ancient Egyptian rulers used thousands of devoted workers. As an average sized pyramid took several decades to complete, a typical pyramid builder could spend his entire life working on one pyramid. This was perfectly normal as the life expectancy of a pyramid builder was relatively shorter than say tenant farmers or domestic household servants.

Perhaps the only good thing about being a pyramid builder had to do with the fact that the ancient Egyptians considered it a very honorable thing building structures for the kings, whom were considered divine manifestations of the gods. Pyramid builders were often given their own quarters next to the pyramid sites. And when they died, they were given a honorable burial at sites outside the pyramid complexes that they themselves built.

What did ancient Egyptians eat and drink?

The upper echelons in the society had a lot of meat protein-based diet. The male members of the royal family and high-ranking government officials would hunt wild fowl on their estate. The wives of those men were mainly in charge of organizing and supervising plans for banquets. The elites also ate bread and a variety of fruits, including pomegranate and melons. They also had garlic and a bit of meat from goats and lamb. They also used a number of spices to garnish their foods, which sometimes included a bit of fresh water fish and hunted wild birds like ducks and geese.

So while the kings and chief priests feasted on a variety of foods, the people down the food chain, so to speak, like farmers and servants had to contend with grinding wheat and baking bread in mud brick ovens.

For drink, they drank beer, which was brewed from barley. They drank the beer through a straw. It’s been said that even children drank beer. That might sound very shocking, but at least it was more hygienic than the drinking water that came from the Nile, which mind you served as Egypt’s toilet.

The bread was said to be very course and brown in nature. This was due to it being filled with broken earthen wear and small stones from the grinding mill.

And since they did not have any decent form of oral hygiene, it’s safe to say that their teeth were quite terrible. The good thing is that they constantly had access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which helped improve their health. Fresh goat milk and duck eggs were also good sources of protein for the ancient Egyptians.

For dessert, women would add honey to the bread and make very delicious sweet bread and cakes. In ancient Egypt, the sweeter the bread, the better, in terms of it being a dessert.

Since meat was a scarce commodity, the average ancient Egyptian at fresh fruits and vegetables, including garlic, onions, lettuce, peas, beans, nuts, melons, and figs.

Beer in ancient Egypt

The kind of beer ancient Egyptians brewed was not the kind that we have today, obviously. First and foremost it was said to come like a thick sweet soup, which Egyptians considered very nutritious as it was made from barley. The alcohol content was also lower compared to the beer we have today. Beer was really a very important commodity in the land. It’s no wonder workers on the fields sometimes received their pay in beer, as there was no form of money or coins in ancient Egypt.

In ancient Egypt, beer was a staple which was drank by both children and adults. With no established currency, wages were sometimes paid in beer or other forms of grains. Image: Harvest scene from the Tomb of Sennedjem

According to the myths, beer once saved ancient Egyptians from complete annihilation. The Egyptians believed that Ra, the sun and creator god, sent his daughter Sekhmet to inflict the harshest form of punishment on the Egyptians, who were said to have departed from the ways of the gods. Unfortunately, Sekhmet went completely ballistic and rampaged throughout the land. Worried that Sekhmet might cause the human species to go extinct, Ra intervened by asking the people to poor red dye in the beer and leave it out for Sekhmet, who by the way had developed a strong appetite for blood. Thinking the beer was blood, Sekhmet quickly gulped it.

Another point worth mentioning is the fact that the beer breweries were usually operated by women. This point further highlights just how much freedom women had in ancient Egypt, compared to their contemporaries in other parts of the ancient world.

Did you know?

Daily life in ancient Egypt | Ancient Egypt spanned for more than three millennia. And in its long years of existence, there were three major periods of prosperity – the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom – and two periods of instability.

Egyptian workers were allowed to bring their pet cats to work. Aside from the religious belief that cats warded off evil spirits, the presence of cats makes absolute sense since the cats were useful in controlling pests and other rodents that could devastate farmlands and silos (i.e. granaries) which housed several thousands of bags of grains.

Not until the Greco-Roman era, ancient Egyptians did not have coins or money. The closest thing they had to facilitating trade was a barter system, where goods were exchanged for one another. With no money, a worker’s service or labor was paid for with goods, mostly staple foods such as bread, wine and onions.

To pass the time, ancient Egyptians played a number of board games, including Mehen and Senet. The latter was played on a chess-style board with sticks for movement. There are wall paintings of Queen Nefertari, the Great Royal Wife of Ramesses II, that show her playing Senet.

Not working on the weekends would have been something very alien to the ancient Egyptians. This is because Egyptians toiled all week long, except on public religious days. It also happened that those public holidays fell on the days that one could not even work because the weather was bad.

Wood and timber in ancient Egypt were seen as the black gold as it was an extremely rare commodity. Bear in mind, Egypt is technically a desert region. Therefore, only the rich could afford having houses well stocked with furniture.

As horrible as this may sound, the Egyptians did not have proper indoor plumbing system. Therefore, majority of the houses used buckets to relieve themselves. Those buckets would then be emptied in the Nile. It is also worth mentioning that the Egyptians took their baths in the Nile.

It was also common for ancient Egyptian physicians to make medicines (from moldy bread) for all kinds of infections. Therefore long before we in the West discovered penicillin, the ancient Egyptians were fully aware of this medicinal technique, even though of course they could not grasp how it worked.

The demise of ancient Egypt is said to have begun around the 7th and 8th century BC, when it was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. A few centuries later, in the late 6th century BC, the Persians, under the leadership of King Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, handed the Egyptians further blow, weakening what was once a colossal civilization. After the Persians, Alexander the Great of Macedonia and later the Roman Empire hit the final nail into the coffin of ancient Egypt. What was once a powerful kingdom was reduced to a mere province of Rome, with the Roman Emperors ruling as the new pharaohs of Egypt.

Major feats attained by ancient Egypt

The New Kingdom of Egypt lasted from the Eighteenth to Twentieth Dynasties (16th century BC to 11th century BC). It was seen as the golden age of ancient Egypt, as the land reached its most prosperous time. Some famous and powerful pharaohs that ruled in this period include Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun and Ramesses II. Image: Map of Egypt’s territorial control during the New Kingdom – around the 15th century BC

One of the most significant achievements of ancient Egypt came in the form of writing. Historians credit ancient Egypt as one of the first civilizations to come out with a writing system. They mainly used hieroglyphics for sacred writing and demotic scripts for contracts and agreements. The writing system of ancient Egypt proved extremely useful in making the culture of the people even more sophisticated. And much of what we know about ancient Egypt was deciphered from tomb walls, tablet, and obelisks covered with those ancient Egyptian writings.

Facilitating ancient Egyptian literacy was the papyrus – a kind of paper fashioned out of the papyrus plant, which is a tall plant-like grass that grew mainly along the Nile. The papyrus is considered as the first writing material that ancient Egyptians used to preserve the knowledge and culture of their time.

Writing was not just the only area that ancient Egypt achieved significant progress. As a matter of fact, ancient Egyptians made many scientific and technological breakthroughs in a host of areas, including musical instruments, irrigation and farming, architecture, mathematics, medicine, and even beauty products. The latter item may have contained some very harmful substances, but the mere fact that a civilization several millennia old could think of such products is what makes ancient Egypt a truly remarkable civilization.

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