Ancient Egyptian
Social Life


In Ancient Egypt there were definite social classes which were dictated by an egyptian's profession. This social stratification is like a pyramid. At the bottom of the "Social Pyramid" were soldiers, farmers, and tomb builders, who represented the greatest percent of the Egyptian population. The workers supported the professionals above them, just as the base of the pyramid supports the rest of the structure. Above the workers were skilled craftsmen, such as artists, who used primitive tools to make everything from carts to coffins.
Above the craftsmen were the scribes. The scribes were the only Egyptians who knew how to read and write, and therefore had many types of job opportunity. A scribe's duties ranged from writing letters for townspeople, to recording harvests, to keeping accounts for the Egyptian army. Above these scribes were more scholarly scribes, who had advanced to higher positions such as priests, doctors, and engineers. Priests were devoted to their religious duties in the temples at least three months out of every year, during which time they never left the temple. At other times the worked as judges and teachers.
The medical profession of Ancient Egypt had its own hierarchy. At the top was the chief medical officer of Egypt. Under him were the superintendents and inspectors of physicians, and beneath then were the physicians. Egyptian doctors were very advanced in their knowledge of herbal remedies and surgical techniques. Also part of Egyptian medicine were magic, charms, and spells, which had only psychological effects, if any, on a patient.
Engineers, with their mathematical and architectural knowledge, were responsible for the planning and building of the monuments, temples, and pyramids of Egypt. The architects were not the actual builders, insttead they were in charge of the branch of government involved. Then men who did calculations, drew up the plans, surveyed the sites, and supervised the work day were scribes.
Above the priests, doctors, and engineers were the high priests and noblemen whom the pharaoh appointed as his assistants, generals, and administrators, who together formed the government. The vizier was the pharoah's closest advisor. Finally, at the top of the social pyramid was the pharaoh. The pharoah of egypt was not simply a king and a ruler, but was was considered a god on earth.


Villagers (tomb builders, farmers, and the like) lived in cramped villages with narrow streets near the tombs sites or farmlands. The houses they occupied were made of bricks. The bricks were made of mud and chopped straw, molded and dried in the hot Egyptian sun. These dwellings deteriorated after time, and new ones were built right on top of the crumbled material, creating hills called tells. Only buildings that were meant to last forever were made of stone.
The homes themselves were squarish in shape, with a vent on the roof and narrow windows. The front space of hte house was used by the villager for his trade and possibly for keeping some livestock. The living area was shared by the family. There was little furniture save beds and small chests for keeping clothes. The kitchen was at the back of the ouse where there might be an underground cellar for storage. There was no running water and sometimes a single well served an entire town. Egyptian villagers spent most of their time out of doors. They often slept, cooked, and ate atop their houses' flat roofs.
Two examples of actually excavated villages were El-Amarna, and Deir el-Medinah. The workers village at El-Amarna was laid out along straight narrow streets, within an boundary wall. The houses were small, barrack-like dwellings, where animals lived as well as people. Many houses had keyhole-shaped hearths and jars sunk into the floor. There was no well in the village and the water had to be brought from some distance away. Life must have been far more pleasant in the village of Deir el-Medina, home to the workers of the Theban royal tombs. There was a single street with ten houses on either side. The houses in this village had three large rooms, a yard and a kitchen, underground cellars for storage, and niches in the walls for statues of household gods.


The layout of the Egyptian homes of the tomb-builders' town, called Armana Clearly the living conditions were better in the more well-planned town of Deir el-Medina

Wealthy Egyptian people had spacious estates with comfortable houses. The houses had high ceilings with pillars, barred windows, tiled floors, painted walls, and stair cases leading up to the flat roofs where one could overlook the estate. There would be pools and gardens, servant's quarters, wells, graneries, stables, and a small shrine for worship. The wealthy lived in the countryside or on the outskirts of a town.
The ancient Egyptians, even the wealthy ones, had a very limited assortment of furniture. A low, square stool, the corners of which flared upwards and on top was placed a leather seat or cushion, was the most common type of furnishing. Chairs were rare and they only belonged to the very wealthy. Small tables were made of wood or wicker and had three to four legs. Beds were made of a woven mat placed on wooden framework standing on animal-shaped legs. At one end was a footboard and at the other was a headrest made a curved neckpiece set on top of a short pillar on an oblong base. Lamp stands held lamps of simple bowls of pottery containing oil and a wick. Chests were used to store domestic possessions such as linens, clothing, jewelry, and make-up.


Fashion for men and women, rich or poor, changed very little over the centuries in Ancient Egypt. The clothing worn by men and women was made of linen, and it was very lightweight for the hot climate. All men, from the tomb worker to the pharaoh, wore a kind of kilt or apron that varied in length over the years, from halfway above the knee, to halfway below it. It was tied at the front, folded in at the side, or in two knots at the hips. A sleeved, shirt-like garment also became fashionable. Men were always clean-shaven, they used razors made from bronze to shave their beards and heads. Women wore straight, ankle-length dresses that usually had straps that tied at the neck or behind the shoulders. Some dresses had short sleeves or women wore short robes tied over their shoulders. Later fashions show that the linen was folded in many tiny vertical pleats and fringes were put at the edges. Wealthy people wore sandals made of leather that had straps across the instep and between the first and second toes.
Egyptians adorned themselves with as much jewelry as they could afford. Wealthy people wore broad collars made of gold and precious stones liked together, which fastened at the back of the neck. Pairs of bracelets were worn around the wrist or high on the arm, above the elbow. Rings and anklets were also worn. Women wore large round earrings and put bands around their heads or held their hair in place with ivory and metal hair pins. Ordinary people wore necklaces made of brightly colored pottery beads.
The Egyptians cared about their appearance a great deal. The women spent a lot of time bathing, rubbing oils and perfumes into their skin, and using their many cosmetic implements to apply make-up and style their wigs. Using a highly-polished bronze hand mirror, a woman would apply khol, a black dye kept in a jar or pot, to line her eyes and eyebrows, using an "brush" or "pencil" made of a reed. Men wore this eye make-up as well, which was not only a fashion but also protected against the eye infections which were common in Egypt. They would use a dye called henna to redden their nails and lips. Wigs were worn by men and women. A woman would place a cone made of fat soaked in sweet smelling ointment on her head, which slowly melted over her wig during a warm evening. (ew!)


Egypt's society was typically male-dominated. The word of the man of the house was law, and a wife was in many ways her husband's servant. On the other hand, Egyptian women enjoyed far more rights and privileges than in other lands, modern as well as ancient.
On the down side, Egyptian wives had to share their husbands with other women. Most men could not afford a harem, as the pharaoh could, but had a primary wife and one or more concubines, who were permanently locked into a subordinate position that could leave them helplessly open to humiliation. At banquets wives and husbands were usually seated separately. A husband who was angry with his wife could banish her to her quarters, and could beat her- within limits. An Egyptian woman paid for adultery with her life, even by burning at the stake, while it was no crime at all for a man. The Egyptian portrayal of men was upstanding, heroic, and true, while women were portrayed as frivolous, spiteful, and false.
On the up side, reliefs and pictures show the important role of housewives and that Egyptian husbands were aware that it took two to make a marriage. Some sagely advice to a husband was "Thou shouldst not supervise they wife in her house, when thou knowest she is efficient. Do not say to her: 'Where is it? Fetch it for us!' when she has put it in the most useful place. Let thine eye have regard, while thou art silent, that thou mayest recognize her abilities." In ancient Greece, women were second-class creatures who led lives apart, closed off in a special area of the house. Entertaining, sports, and even casual passing of time were for men only, as in Islamic countries today. In ancient Egypt, husband and wife chatted together, listened to music together, and threw parties together. A wife even went along on her husband's hunting forays to keep him company. Egyptian women shared with men important legal rights that in many other nations were totally denied them. They were allowed to own land, operate businesses, testify in court, and bring actions against men. Egyptian women enjoyed a dimension of freedom greater than any of their counterparts from other places in ancient times.


The egyptians were very secure in that the Nile valley always yeilded enough to feed the country, even when famine was present in other nearby parts of the world. The Egyptian's basic food and drink, bread and beer, were made from the main crops they grew, wheat and barely. There were many types of bread, including pastries and cakes. Since there was no sugar, honey was used as a sweetener by the rich, and poor people used dates and fruit juices. Egyptians liked strong-tasting vegetables such as garlic and onions. They thought these were good for the health. They also ate peas and beans, lettuce, cucumbers, and leeks. Vegetables were often served with an oil and vinegar dressing. Figs, dates, pomegranates and grapes were the only fruits that could be grown in the hot climate. The rich could afford to make wine from their grapes. Ordinary people ate fish and poultry. On special occasions they ate sheep, goat, or pig; but there was little grazing land available so meat was expensive and most people ate it only on festive occasions. Egyptians stored their food in jars and granaries. Fish and meat had to be especially prepared for storage. One method was salting. Another was to hang up the fish in the sun, which baked them dry.
In ordinary families the cooking was done by the housewife, but larger households employed servants to work in the kitchen and a chef - usually a man - to do the cooking. The Egyptians had ovens, and knew how to boil roast, and fry food. There were few kitchen tools: pestles, mortars, and sieves.

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By: Lisa Kremen, last modified 4/29/97