The Lives of Middle-class Ancient Egyptians During the New Kingdom

by B.R. and A.D.


The nation of Egypt is located in northeast Africa, along the banks of the mighty Nile River. In modern times, Egypt is a desert country of fifty million people. However, the history of this nation goes back nearly five thousand years.

Ancient Egypt was located in Africa and was divided into Upper and Lower Egypt. Mertz (1966) described Upper Egypt as the Nile Valley and Lower Egypt as the Nile River Delta.

Just as Ancient Egypt was divided into two separate regions, the people were divided into upper, middle, and lower classes. Under the pharaoh, there were five different groups, according to Wilkinson (1988). The first group consisted of priests, the second of soldiers. These groups made up the upper-class. The third group consisted of husbandmen, gardeners, huntsmen, and boatmen. The fourth of tradesmen, shopkeepers, carpenters, boatbuilders, masons, and porters. The third and fourth groups were the middle-class. Finally, the lowest class was made up of the fowlers, fishermen, laborers, and pastors (swineherds, sheperds).

Religion

Ancient Egyptian religion had ethical content and was also full of animism and magic. Religion played a much more important role in their daily lives than it did to most other Occidental peoples.

The Nile Valley once consisted of hundreds of separate tribes with their own local religions. They had their folk myths that explained the origin of the world, believing that in the beginning, only the ocean existed, in which an egg, appearing as a flower, gave forth the sun god. Egyptian cults possessed moral attitudes: evil was punished and good always triumphed.

Many animals were also worshipped along with sacred stones, trees, and pillars. Gods were commonly depicted in drawings, engravings, sculptures and the like with heads or other body parts of animals. According to Casson (1975), Herodotus, a Greek traveler, once wrote, "Anyone who deliberately kills an animal is punished with death while the penalty for accidental killings is whatever the priests choose to impose." (p. 79) Corpses of cats and dogs would be enbalmed and buried in sacred tombs.

The pharaoh, himself, was a god, a sacred representative of the divine on earth. When the pharaoh died, he was leaving to join his fellow gods. His son replaced him as the same god. Despite the many deities in Egypt, local gods never lost their importance; and in each locale, temples rose to house the divinity.

Isis, the goddess of fertility and healing, as shown by Casson.(p.83)

Re, the god of the sun as shown by Casson.(p. 81)

Egyptians' artistic creations were inspired by religion. They believed a statue erected in a tomb or temple would insure one's existence for eternity after death. Some common and popularly celebrated gods among the ancient Egyptians were Osisris, god of resurrection and the underworld; the Pharaoh, who represented the common people on the gods' councils; Isis, the goddess of fertility and healing; Re, the god of the sun; Sobek, god of the tides; and Sekhemt, the goddess who caused and cured the plague. Bast was also frequently worshipped in being the god who guard against illness and brought joy.

"Egyptians cheerfully accepted foreign immigrants" (Casson 1975) and their deities. "When thousands of prisoners of war, mercenaries, traders, and other non-Egyptians came to settle in the Nile Valley, bringing their gods with them," (p. 83) they were accepted eagerly into the Egyptian religions. Often, the foreign gods would be accepted, also, because they were similarly identified with those of the Ancient Egyptians.

According to Casson (1975), an important belief of the Egyptian people was life after death along with a "vague, ill-defined belief in one single supreme god." Also, they believed that at creation, a divine order was established - one that contained maat, a term meaning "right, just, and true in order."(p. 85) It was their belief that the relationship of beings was not one worked out through evolution toward better conditions, but was free from change and experiment, since it had been perfect from the beginning and only needed to be reaffirmed in its rightness.

Egyptian temples were not designed as places of worship, but were rather to house a small image cult of a god. Civilians, for example, scribes, singers, musicians, and temple artisans, forsook their secular lives one month out of every year in order to live in the temple and serve the god. Temples would also have schools attached to them for boys intending to become priests. It was a ritual for them to be circumcised and to take a class to learn skills as a scribe.

Every god, whether local or national, had at least one annual festival. Festivals were of great importance to the peasants and workmen. During these festivals they were able to relax and eat and drink their full, because the god being celebrated was paying for it. There was always a heavy amount of drinking. Workmen would occasionally hold celebrations for gods and for the founding father, Pharaoh Amenhotep I. Despite the carnival atmosphere, there were moments during the festival that were serious. During these times, the people could ask the god vital questions as how to settle conflicts over the successors to the throne or decide bitter lawsuits.

Housing

Due to the warm climate of ancient Egypt, there was a need for shelter from the hot sun. The Egyptians used mud from the banks of the Nile to build their homes. They strengthened the mud with straw and cattle dung.

While the mud made up the outside walls, the floors of the houses were of stone and lime. Wilkenson (1988) described the roofs as consisting of palm branches across a beam. Mats and mud covered the branches.

Middle-class homes often had three floors. On the ground floor, there was an interior courtyard. In addition, there were workrooms for the purpose of weaving or baking bread. The first floor had dining and living rooms. Finally, the second floor included the bedrooms. The rooms were lighted through small square windows.

Ancient Egyptians were fond of furniture. The people often included stools, chairs, and three-legged tables in their interior decorations. Often, the beds and chairs were of woven leather.(Wilkinson,1988,p.70)

Finally, the Egyptians decorated their doorways. According to Wilkinson(1988), they frequently painted the name of the pharaoh or wrote "the good house" over the door.

Leisure Activities

Ancient Egyptians enjoyed spending their free time with each other. Casson (1975) described the garden as "an essential part of any dwelling, though it had its utilitarian side - it produced the household's fruits and vegetables- was primarily intended for the family's leisure moments." (p. 43)

Indoor activities included board games and informal chatting. Egyptian board games often consisted of pieces to be moved according to the casts of a dice. Artisans would try to create beautiful and unusual game pieces because of the popularity of board games. A popular game was senet in which 12-14 pieces were played on a rectangular board with thirty squares. Husband and wife played this game while the children watched. Children were frequently occupied with toys including shells and strings.

When company was in a workman's or peasant's home, drinking was an enjoyable leisure activity for both men and women. Consumption of wines and such was encouraged in quantities leading to drunkenness. Yet, song and dance were about the most exciting entertainment. Common instruments present at small gatherings or religious celebrations were banjos, flutes, and differing types of harps.

Despite all of the leisure options, the poor family would often have to wait for a festival to experience entertainment. Men indulged in horseplay, jousting, and canoeing through marshes. Boys, on the other hand, would engage in tug-of-war without ropes, but, instead, by clutching each other's waists. Leapfrog and playing ball were also very popular. Girls played ball and gave each other piggy back rides, but dancing was their favorite pastime.

Diet

Among the lower and middle class ancient Egyptians, such luxuries as wine were mainly consumed in great quantities during festivals and religious celebrations. When offered wine, it was considered rude to refuse it. An endless supply of vegetables was required on all occasions and at all meals. In fact, vegetables made up a large portion of the food in the ordinary Egyptian diet. The middle-class obtained vegetables through growing them in their tiny garden; or if necessary, from a market. In the lowest of Egyptian classes, the people were accustomed to an abundance of roots, acquired from irrigated lands of the Nile. Roots were commonly roasted in ashes, boiled, or stewed. Milk and cheese, leguminous and other types of plants were the fruits of the country for these classes. The food of the workmen, mainly those who built the pyramids, consisted of onions, garlic, lentils, a chief vegetable of the common diet and raphanous, which in taste is similar to the turnip and the radish. The onions were eaten raw and cooked. In preparation, these classes were accustomed to the habit of salting various kinds of bird. For example, ducks and quail, and fish, when obtained, were dealt with in the same way.

Finally, before a meal it was sometimes customary to take the animal chosen to be slaughtered and drain the blood into a basin for cooking purposes. Also, parts of the carcass would be sacrificed to the gods.

Clothing

Middle-class ancient Egyptians wore linen clothing. The linen was woven from flax, one of the main agricultural products of the area. The most common article of clothing for women was a sleeveless, form-fitting dress that reached form the shoulder straps to the ankles. Men, however, had more options. According to Mertz (1966), they wore linen skirts to the ankles or a kilt that wrapped around the waist held by knots. " He might also wear a two-piece outfit, consisting of a pleated skirt and a plain shirt with wide pleated sleeves. The shirt was collarless, and tied at the neck." (Mertz, 1966, p. 70)

Over their outfits, both genders wore ankle-length robes. A female's robe was thin and sheer, and the ends tied around the neck. Much the same as the woman's, a man's robe was also long and sheer.

Egyptians wore necklaces in order to accent their outfits. This is shown by Mertz(1966, p.79)

As described by Mertz (1966), "Egyptians usually preferred to wear white clothing and depend on their ornaments for color." (p. 79) Common metals used in jewelry were copper and gold. Along with the metals, semiprecious stones such as carnelian, turquoise, and garnets were used. These items were made into decorative collars, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and rings. The collars were "made of concentric rows of beads, some of which might be shaped like animals or flowers or leaves. It covered the front of the wearer's body from the base of the neck to the middle of the breast." (Mertz, 1966, p. 80) The necklaces often were pendants hung on cords or gold.

Finally, ancient Egyptians frequently wore no foot coverings. However, on more formal occasions they wore sandals of leather or papyrus.

In conclusion, the ancient Egyptians lived well, indulging themselves in food, wine, and nice clothing. If a middle-class family was able to afford such things, they would certainly take advantage of the situation.


REFERENCES


This page was created by B.R. and A.D., 5/22/97, for History & Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.

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