Ancient Egypt is well know for its rich history and culture, yet no one really understands what daily life was like, how the government was structured, or they were taught that Egypt was built on the backs of slave labor. There are those people that believe Ancient Egypt may have been ruthless and uncivilized, and then there are the others that want to see how it contributed to modern Western Civilization. Either way it goes Egyptian life cannot be looked at as easy-going or hard working without answering a few questions. Where is Egypt? Who were the Egyptians? What was daily life like? Questions like these and more need to be answered in order to gain a full understanding of this empire.
Many Egyptians centered their lives on the Nile River. Before and during the use of canal irrigation in Egypt, the Nile could be separated into two parts: the River Basin and the Red Land. The River Basin is also known as the flat alluvial, which consisted of black land soil. Furthermore, it was rich in wild life and waster fowl "depending on the waxing and waning cycles of the Nile." The Red Land contained red desert land, which was scarce of most wild life and water, regardless of the season.
Agricultural crops were not the basis of Egyptian diet because the Nile provided a continuous quantity of fish which were tended year round; not only was fish cultivated year round, cattle and water fowl were also. Geese were also raised to supply eggs, meat, and fat. Cattle, the Egyptian staple diet, were often used for grazing land at the times the Nile receded; however, during the inundation, cattle were brought to higher land and were often fed the grains that had been harvested from the previous year.
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Many may speculate that the Egyptian diet consisted of nothing more than tree crops and vegetables or animal and vegetables, however this is completely false. They also farmed and harvested crops such as barley, emmer wheat, beans, chick peas, flax, and many other vegetables; the farming of grains was not entirely for consumption and was usually turned into one of Egypt‘s most prized possessions, oil. Oil was often used as payment t workmen employed by the province or state. It depended on what type of oil it was as to what value it possessed; certain oils possessed a very high value, such as Sesame oil.
Grain was essential to the Egyptian diet because it was extremely difficult to raise grazing animals because of seasonal conditions; therefore they relied heavily on grains that they harvested throughout the year. Beef was only eaten on special occasions because of the arid land and the very expensive price only made conditions worse. Grain was vital because it offered an endless supply of food and it rarely spoiled. Each community had a special storage unit for the grain called a granary. Grain was stored in this facility until it was ready to be used for making breads, cakes, or pastries.
Little has anyone realized but to turn grain into flour for pastries, cakes, or breads is a long, daily process. First the grain must be pounded then ground; afterwards, it t would put into a basic mill that would refine the grain even more until it became the consistency of flour. One of the most common breads that were made by this method was sour dough. It was often used in replacement of yeast and even barm from the last brewing of beer would be used as a replacement. Using honey, fruits, nuts, and oils to the dough before baking often flavored breads.
Another important part of the Egyptian diet was fruits and vegetables. They were grown year round because of the hot climate and irrigation, thus there was an abundance of food. The Egyptians grew various vegetables, which included onions, leeks, garlic, lettuce, cucumber, radishes, cabbage, and raphanus (a wild radish). Onions and garlic were the main source of vegetables for them because they believed it had very powerful health benefits. Cabbage, like beef, was considered a delicacy. It was boiled and eaten before the rest of the meal.
The most popular fruits grown at this time were grapes, melons, figs, pomegranates, and dates. These were the fruits that were able to withstand the Egyptian climate. If one were rich then they could other fruits imported, such as coconuts, peaches, and pears. But if you were poor, or “common”, then you rarely saw such fruit. In later years some imported fruits, such as peaches and apples, became staple crops.
The common people ate meat only on special occasions, because of the high price and scarceness of cattle. The rich could afford to have meat with every meal, and did so. The different kinds of meat include beef, pork, duck, various birds, sheep, and goats. Meat would be prepared in many different fashions like boiling for stew, roasting, salting, drying, and smoking.
Honey was a great addition to the Egyptians diet, used for many different applications. It was commonly used as a substitute for sugar, and would be added to different breads and cakes to enhance their sweetness. Honey was also used in many different medicines because it was believed to have healing powers. The bee’s wax was also used for mummification, medicines, ship building, and for other bonding purposes.
Of course growing crops to farm would have been impossible without tools to work with and thus many inventions (and jobs) came into effect. Around 5000 BCE, Egyptians began figuring out a way to control the overflow of the Nile River. In doing so, they created the world’s first irrigation systems and they also created the very fist official position in the Egyptian government called the “Canal Digger.” They began digging canals to direct the floodwater to distant fields and later, they would construct reservoirs, or lakes, to save and contain water for use during the dry season. Fayum was a low-lying area of the desert and it also happened to be the world’s first reservoir. During the flood the Fayum would become a lake; the Egyptians constructed about twenty miles of embankments around the low-lying vicinity. When the embankment, or dike’s, gates was open, water flowed through the canals and dampened the fields. The tops of the dams were usually level and were used as roads; during flood season, however, the dams were broken so that the waters could rush into the canals.
Another invention that came along was the Shaduf; it was constructed around the sixteenth century BCE. The Shaduf was a long pole equalized on a horizontal wooden beam. At one end of the pole was a weight and on the other was a bucket. The weight was helpful because it was made easier to raise less than three liters of water for irrigation or drinking purposes. Some researchers believe the Egyptian civilization may have been the first to use a plow. Early hieroglyphics show a bow-shaped stick that was dragged across the ground; later on, humans could be seen harnessed to the plow. One wall painting depicted several people hauling and one directing the tool. Around 2000 BCE, oxen had taken over the heavy workload. A harness was slipped over the animal’s horn and a neck collar was later invented that did not disrupt or interfere with the animal’s respiration.
It appears likely that most of Egypt’s adult population spent some time farming. Although there were full time farmers, during the inundation most men were drafted through forced labor by the government as taxation, or corv’ee, to amplify the personnel available for scouring irrigation canals, surveying land precincts, and preparing the ground for planting. Evasion of corv’ee carried stiff consequences for the individual and occasionally his family. People such as Noblemen and scribes, the literate upper class, were the only people excluded from the corv’ee. The majorities of noblemen were inevitably involved in the agricultural system because they possessed farms and administered royal or temple agricultural land.
Most importantly, there was family; family was important to Egyptians because life was short and difficult. In fact, newborn children were not expected to survive their first year. The infant mortality rate and the rate of women during or after childbirth was around sixty to seventy percent. It was seen as special blessing from the gods if they survived their first year.
At about five years of age boys and girls were separated in their "learning experiences", in other words, they began to take on gender roles. If the boy came from a wealthy family then he had the advantage of being taught in school; if the boy was poor then he had to help tithe the men’s jobs in the fields or whatever occupation his father held. They boys’ education lasted between the ages of twelve and sixteen; this is about the time the adolescent male was considered grown and could begin work for himself. This was also the earliest age for men to marry but they normally would not seek a wife until they reached the ages of seventeen through twenty. A man could have more than one wife, but he had to be able to support each of then and their children. Consequently, only the wealthy members of the community usually did this. Most men continued to work until their death; unfortunately the average life span was approximately thirty years of age for the underclass. Men who made it past the age of forty received a special blessing and were greatly rewarded. Each year the men were contracted a stipend, or take-home-pay, from the government that consisted of vegetables and grain. The ration was smaller than what he would have earned than if he had continued to work, but it was enough to keep him alive.
Girls’ lives were centered on the home and family. There were no formal schools for girls; therefore the mothers educated their daughters at home. At the age of four, girls began to learn how to maintain the house, how to sew, make foods, and spend hours at a time doing domestic chores with their mother. The hours that the female spent doing domestic chores were far longer than that of the educational hours of the boys. The females had to also learn to make cloth and sew it into clothing and tend the fields and crops along with other countless chores.
Women did attend professional schools, such at Heliopolis, a school for medicine and Sais, where they learned to become doctors. Egyptian women did seek employment outside of their homes and many of them worked as dancers or musicians in temples and during festivals. If the woman belonged to a wealthy family, she would hire a nanny or a professional mourner for funerals.
Other women spent their time and resources on operating a small business out of their home; these businesses would include things such as perfume or linen manufacturing. Such businesses increased the household income because such things were in great demand for funeral rights.
Those that attended the medical schools sought employment as a midwife, gynecologist, or physician. Those that took up dancing and music became the director of a dancing or singing troupe. Most women chose the occupation of being a gynecologist and their skills included cesarean sections, more commonly called a C-Section today, and the surgical removal of a cancerous breast.
As soon as a girl began menstruating around the age of twelve or thirteen, she was expected to marry; they were also expected to have a child within the first year of marriage. Marriage was a secular activity and was regulated by custom instead of law. Instead of a marriage contract, men and women drew up property agreements at the time of marriage in the event that there would be a divorce or a death. Women would then travel to the home of their new husband. Pregnancy was a widely celebrated occasion among ancient Egyptians; even if the girl was not married, her pregnancy was celebrated.
Women did, and needed to, have the same legal rights und the law as men who were away from home for much of the time due to recurrent projects or warfare. Many responsibilities, legal rights, and status were divided among class lines rather than gender lines. In certain classes women were allowed to enter and execute contracts, file lawsuits, and free to buy and sell property. She could also gain possessions, property, and debt separate from her husband through either inheritance or labor. A woman was entitled to one third of their joint property on the death of her husband and the remainder of the property would be divided among their surviving children and siblings of the deceased man.
Under Egyptian law, women were equally accountable for their actions and misdoings as the men were. A woman who was convicted of a capital crime in a court of law, was sentenced to death, but only after the court determined whether or not the woman was pregnant. If she was, then her execution was stayed until she gave birth to the child, then she was executed.
Women’s lives were relatively short and averaged about the same as a man’s (about thirty years); if the woman or man were rich, then their life expectancy was slightly higher. When a female retired she was taken care of by her sons, if she had no sons she would be taken care of by her daughter and son-in-law. This was very rare and only happened if the daughter married into a wealthy family; other than that, the mother would be forced into living as a beggar.
Just as society was divided into classes, so were the house; there were two types of homes : the workers’ and the town houses.
Houses were built out of bricks made of mud, straw, and stone. The mud was collected in a leather bucket and taken to a building site. This is were the straw and stone were added to the mud to reinforce or strengthen the bricks. They, the bricks, were then poured into frames or molds and left in the sun to dry and cure. These dwellings were not very stable and would often crumble or deteriorate after a certain amount of time; when this happened a new home was built on tope of the crumbled material, called tells or hills.
If the building was meant to last forever it was built out of stone, other than that the houses were made of mud and covered in plaster. This technique was similar to that of the adobe used in the American Southwest. The workers’ homes were usually four meters by twenty meters. The interior of the house was usually painted with geometric patterns or scenes of nature; windows were often placed close to the ceiling to keep the inside of the house cool. Unfortunately, with such high windows, very little light was let into the home.
The workers’ home ranged from two to four rooms on the ground level, and enclosed yard, a kitchen at the back of the house, and two underground cellars that were used for storage purposes. Niches, or slots, in the walls were often used to hold religious items; the roof was also considered to be a living and storage space. There was very little furniture. The most furniture a worker would earn would consist of a bed, a chest for clothing, and a table that stood on three or four legs.
Most of the villagers spent their time out doors and often slept, cooked, and ate on the top of their houses; this was possible because the roofs of the houses were flat. Upon entering a person’s home there were steps that led to an entrance hall with a cupboard bed (there is no known use for this object); the next room contained a pillar in the middle of the room. This pillar was used to support the roof. This was the main room, or entertainment room, that was used for receptions or as a shrine. The master of the house had his own chair, called a dais, that atop a raised platform. There were several stools and one or two tables that were designated for guests; there was also a false door within the room that was accompanied holy images along the walls, and a table with offerings.
In the town house features were very similar to that of a workers’ home, the only difference was it was a lot more spacious, it was usually three stores high, and more comfortable than the workers’ house. Stones were often used in the first floor for more strength at the base. The first level of the house was more commonly used as a working area to conduct business and where the servants remained. The second and third levels of the house were used as living quarters. The food would be prepared on the roof and brought down to the rooms by servants because it was considered dangerous to cook in an enclosed area. It also kept the house cool, as did the windows, which were close to ceiling, as they were in the workers’ homes. Mats were also kept on the floor to keep it cool.
Only the rich could afford a toilette; the toilettes would be carved out of limestone and proper sanitation was considered a luxury. Sewage was disposed of into pits that were located in the streets. Among a toilettes, the wealthy also owned a stool that was curved upwards in the corners; when sat upon a leather cushion was provided for support of the back. This was the most typical piece of furniture that a wealthy family owned. Chairs were considered rare only the “elite of the elite” could afford. Small tables and chairs were frequently made of wicker or wood and had three to four legs. Beds were made of a woven mat and placed on a wooden frame standing on animal-shaped legs. At one end of the bed was a footboard and at the opposite end was a headrest that had a curved neckpiece that sat on top of a short pillar on an oblong or quadrilateral base. As one can imagine, the elite of ancient Egyptian society lived quite comfortably compared to the low-income families that they often employed.
Who was there to run Egypt? The ancient Egyptians had a government ruler called the Pharaoh, who today would be considered a king. He was believed to have received his authority from the gods. He was both political and religious leader; His job was to help keep balance to what the Egyptians referred to as Maat; according the people of Egypt, Maat would be in tact as long as the Pharaoh and the people kept their religious ceremonies and obey the laws that were set for them.
As political ruler, the Pharaoh he had to do things such command the army and settle legal disputes. The Pharaoh Menes is credited with uniting Upper and Lower Egypt into one nation, and thus earned the Pharaoh the title of “Lord of the two Lands.”
He, the Pharaoh, was also known as the “The High Priest of every temple”; it was his duty to lead sacred rituals and he also decided what religion was right for his people. Egypt was regarded as a polytheistic society; this was true until the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. This Pharaoh imposed a monotheistic religion on the people of Egypt; he tried to make them worship the god Amen. After Akhenaten’s death, Egypt returned to its polytheistic religion and tried to remove every trace of Akhenaten’s existence.
Beside every Pharaoh was his beloved wife. In fact they are often regarded as the most important characters in ancient Egyptian. Some of these women were destined to take throne and rule as Pharaoh or they were very highly respected among the people. In most cases the “Great Royal Wife” of the Pharaoh was either his sister or his daughter. The Pharaoh would marry someone of his blood to keep the linage pure. Most surprisingly, the Great Royal Wife was not really expected to bear her husband’s children.
Egyptian troops were drafted into the military, unlike today’s volunteered soldiers. “Recruiting” agents were sent from village to village to look for young, able-bodied men, who had not be conscripted or drafted, to help defend them in times of combat. After the agents were done recruiting, the young men were sent before a governor who set selected a set number of qualified looking men; the rest were sent back home. This is the way Egyptians built their infantry.
Later on the Hyksos introduced chariots, during their occupation of Egypt. It had become customary that men of the upper class become charioteers. By the New Kingdom, the military was divided into archers, infantry, and charioteers. Around the year 1275 BCE, Ramesses II, divided his army of twenty-thousand, into four divisions; each division was named after an Egyptian god. They were divided into four sets of five thousand and called Amen (or Amun), Ra (also spelled Raa), Set, and Ptah. The divisions were then set into twenty companies of two hundred fifty men; from there the companies were divided into five platoons of fifty men each.
Weapon development is crucial to any military force. During the Old Kingdom, weapons were small and crudely mad than the weapons of later years. Clubs, stone-headed maces, daggers, and spearheads of copper were extremely common; when the Hyksos invaded Egypt, they produced a “renaissance in military technology.” At this time the composite bow was introduced, as well as the horse and chariot. The composite bow could shoot a lot further and was sturdier than the bow that the Egyptian were using at the time.
Egyptians began making changes to the chariots, just as they had done with their bows. They left the back of the chariot open for quick exits, if needed, and the driver’s area was moved closer to the axle, which helped reduce weight. This, in turn, took a lot of weight off the horse and the horse could now move faster. The chariot was by far one of the most formidable components of the Egyptian military.
A skilled driver could elude enemy lines while a bowman shot brandish a large quantity of arrows at a short range; at the same time, the driver would carry a shield to protect himself from the arrows.
In the heat of battle, the charioteer could crash right into the fray and wreakhavoc on condensed masses of enemy troops and set the bowmen and the spearmen apart. The military of the Egyptians continued this way for the next 1500 years before it was engulfed by foreign mercenaries.
Around 30 BCE, the Battle of Actium, was the end of ancient Egyptian civilization. Egypt had fallen to the Romans and the polytheistic ways and Pharaohs disappeared forever.
Armor was improved around the time of the military build-up. Before the Hyksos invaded, no body armor or head protection was used by the Egyptian army. Once again the Hyksos introduced several more inventions: the skull-cap, metal helmets, and leather body armor.
As one can see, Egypt is rich in history and culture. It was one of the few countries or nations of the time that gave women some type of equality. Most nations of the epoch gave women very little of no power at all. Egypt has given the Western world many useful tools for both farming and the military weaponry. Irrigation still exists in many parts of this world and has helped farmers for many centuries with their crops. The hoe and the plow are still used to help plant crops for the growing season. The horse and chariots used gave way to modern day technology such as the tanks used today. Helmets and weapon-proof vests were even used during their time and are still used today to help protect our soldier’s head during training and in times of war. They also contributed to the division of military as far as the infantry and the platoons go.
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