"General plan of the Giza Plateau." Printed drawing from the Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. View item.
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Ancient Egyptians lived in Egypt and Sudan from 5000 BCE to about 300 CE.
They lived mostly along the Nile River, because it was the primary source of water for drinking and growing crops. The rest of the countries are generally a desert, quite dry and sandy and rocky.
Most of the people were farmers and their chief crops were wheat and barley. They also had orchards and vineyards for growing grapes, figs, dates, nuts and olives. Farmers also grew vegetables and watermelon.
Ancient Egyptian farmers in the Tomb of Nakht.
Farming in Ancient Egypt
In the spring of each year, the Nile would reliably flood and spread out as much as one mile wide. It would recede and leave fertile mud/soil behind. The farmers would then prepare the soil with a plow pulled by two men or two cattle.
Next they would go through the field with a mattock, a pick-ax like tool, to break up the large clumps of soil. After the soil was prepared, women would scatter seed in the furrows by hand from wicker baskets. A herd of sheep would then walk over the field to bury the seed.
The fields were irrigated after planting by using ditches and canals, sometimes putting water into a canal by hand, one bucketfull at a time. They also weeded and worked to protect the crops from birds and rats.
After three months they would harvest the grain, sometimes using a sickle, a hand tool with a curved blade. The plant stems were used as straw for the livestock.
The seed heads with grain were threshed. This involved cattle walking over the grain heads to separate the seeds from the stem tops and the chaff. The farmer would then use a large fork-shaped tool to throw the grain into the air, and the wind would blow away the chaff. The seed would fall to the ground and be collected. The grain was then ground to make flour for bread. Some grain was also used to brew beer.
Beer was safer to drink than the water, which could be, and probably was, contaminated with bacteria. The alcohol in the beer would kill at least some of the germs, just as alcohol-based hand sanitizer kills germs on the skin. The Egyptians also made wine from grapes. The wine was generally consumed by the upper classes and beer by the common folk.
Other Occupations of Ancient Egyptians
There were many other occupations in Ancient Egypt.
The second most prevalent occupation was “scribe”. The scribes were bureaucrats, government officials, copiers of documents and they were also involved in decorating tombs with hieroglyphics and stories. They were taught in private schools, as there was no public school system. In general it is estimated that only 1-2% of the population could read and write.
Other occupations in Ancient Egypt included soldiers, priests, personal servants, craftsmen, artists, miners in quarries cutting stone blocks, and miners in mines searching for gold and turquoise. The craftsmen included sculptors, furniture makers and tool makers.
The builders primarily made buildings out of sun-dried mud bricks. These bricks have since deteriorated. The builders also made stone temples with columns and walls and also the stone pyramids. Many of these have survived for thousands of years and are still standing today.
The temples and stone-cut underground tombs often had hieroglyphics and stories written on the walls and many of these have survived and teach scholars much about Ancient Egyptian life and religion and history.
There were also shepherds of cattle, goats and sheep. The livestock produced meat and wool and milk and were also used for sacrifices at the temples. The shepherds led the flocks and also protected them from hyenas and crocodiles.
A tomb painting depicting ancient Egyptian craftspeople in their various industries.
Marshmen also worked along the river. They hunted and fished and collected papyrus, a marsh grass that grew 10-12 feet tall. Papyrus was used to make paper and small boats and it was also used in the construction of houses. The marshmen speared fish, which were plentiful in the Nile and caught birds in nets.
The business people were a small portion of the population. There was no money in Ancient Egypt until approximately 300 BC (BCE), so business was done by bartering, exchanging objects for other objects. Some of the business men were involved in international trade, which included copper and tin, tall lumber and spices. Egypt was a large exporter of grain. Due to the water of the Nile and the fertile soil along the river Egypt was able to grow more food with less manpower than any other country at the time.
Mining was considered the worst occupation because the work was exhausting, and they worked in dusty, dark and dangerous conditions. Workers in the quarries cut stone blocks out of rock formations of limestone and sandstone primarily. Some of those stones weighed as much as 60 tons and were used to make the pyramids and other buildings.
The average Egyptian had to work to survive, and they worked almost every day. Days off were generally only for religious holidays, when people would gather to watch a procession of idols and feast on free food provided by a temple.
What did Ancient Egyptians Eat?
Food in Ancient Egypt was not “meat and potatoes” for the average person. It was “bread and beer’. Protein usually came from fish or plant sources. Meat was quite expensive, so it was only eaten on special occasions.
They had no sugar, so honey was used as a sweetener. They did use salt and spices. Salt was used to preserve fish, which were also preserved from spoiling by pickling and drying in the sun.
Egyptians were thought to have invented beer, which was made by fermenting grain. Eggs and milk were also consumed, and possibly cheese was made.
What did Ancient Egyptians do for fun?
Recreation in Ancient Egypt took many forms. These included banquets and hunting and fishing. They went sailing on the Nile river and they enjoyed music and dancing. Games included board games, games with balls, and tug-of-war. They also performed wrestling and juggling. Children played with dolls and had mechanical toys with moving parts.
Their homes were built to deal with the extremes of the climate. The weather could be up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees C) on a summer afternoon and as cold as the 30s in degrees Fahrenheit ( around 2 degrees C) on a winter night.
Homes generally had an open courtyard, a porch held up by columns and covered with a roof, along with private rooms for the family. They might also have a pool. Silos for grain and stables for livestock were added to farm houses. In cities the houses might be 3-4 stories tall and be arranged as row houses.
Religion in Ancient Egypt
Nothing affected the everyday lives of Egyptians more than their religion, which differed considerably from anything that we know today.
They worshiped a vast array of gods, perhaps over 1,000, from which they could pick and choose.
Egyptians believed that whatever occurred in their lives or environment had a supernatural cause. They believed in an afterlife as a real and definite destination and they believed that this afterlife was similar to life in this world.
Attaining eternal life did not require performing any good acts, but it simply required doing no wrong. Their religion told them that the gods would recreate whatever the gods saw on a tomb wall, therefore the tomb walls included paintings of what the people most enjoyed. They also believed in magic.
The pharaoh was thought to be divine, or to have god-like properties. The pharaoh was thought to be the offspring of a god, and they believed he or she was immortal and would continue to live after death.
The pharaoh served as the people’s protector, and they believed that society’s order and prosperity depended on their unquestioned obedience to him. The pharaoh had more power than any other monarch in history, and he was considered the owner of all of Egypt.
Illustration of tomb painting at Giza.
The Social Classes
There were three social classes in Egypt. There was the royalty, such as the pharaoh and his extended family. There were “free” people, such as government officials, priests of the gods, soldiers and some civilians.
The lowest class included serfs and slaves. Serfs belonged to the land and were bought and sold with the land. At one point early in Ancient Egypt almost all of the people in the country were serfs. Slavery originally did not exist in Ancient Egypt, but it began with foreign troops captured in battle and with the children of the captives .
(Were the pyramids built by slaves? No, archaeologists believe that pyramids were built by Egyptians during the season when they had time to work on projects after the harvest and before the next planting season.)
Did people get married in Ancient Egypt?
Marriage in Ancient Egypt was not a religious matter. It was based on a contract between the groom and the bride’s family, and it involved an exchange of gifts.
Men and women were expected to marry and have children. Women managed the household and the children. They usually ground the grain into flour and did the baking of bread. They also did weaving of fabric and sewing of clothing.
Marriages were expected to last until death. Women were considered equal under the law, but were second class citizens in terms of employment outside the home. Women’s status came from their relationship to their father in their youth and their husband later in life. A woman rarely became a pharaoh in Egypt.
The Ancient Egyptian civilization is considered to be advanced compared to many others of its time. Heredotus, the Greek historian in the 5th century BC (BCE) asked Egyptian priests what was the key to Egypt’s greatness. “Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” they said.