09 February 2011

An Ordinary Day In: Daily Egypt




By: Jean Adams



Not much is known about everyday life in ancient Egypt. All we have to go on is the tomb paintings they left us. This can make life rather difficult for an author of ancient Egyptian stories. But as long as we treat them, and the great period in which they lived with the respect they deserve, I’m sure they will forgive us if we make up some small details. They might even smile.

Peasant women took care of their families and worked for the wealthy as servants. At home they shared the workload with other female family members. Tombs paintings depict women at various occupations such as singers, musicians, dancers, servants, beer brewers, bakers, professional mourners, priestess, and the loyal loving wife.

Dancing played a vital role in the lives of ancient Egyptians and all social classes were exposed to music and dancing. Dance troupes performed at dinner parties, banquets, lodging houses, religious temples, even in the street for passers-by.

Work in ancient Egypt was not just about building pyramids and monuments. The golden age spanned over 3000 years, during which they lived in a well-ordered society administered by people with jobs relating to government, law enforcement, judges and courts. All classes of society paid taxes, which in turn paid for the government and the army.

The following pyramid of power gives a brief overview of how it all worked.

The Pharaoh, The Great Royal Wife, Members of the immediate Royal Family, Vizier, Nobles, including Charioteers, Army Officers, Court Officials, Priests and Priestesses, Doctors, Scribes and Teachers, Artists, Craftsmen, Foot Soldiers, Fishermen and Farmers, Labourers, Tomb Builders.

A variety of jobs

Vizier—The most important court official and equivalent to a Prime Minister. He oversaw the government officials and employees included, managed the building of the royal monuments, including labour and resources, architects and engineers, legal issues—all important legal issues were documented including wills, trials and property deeds, jobs relating to controlling civil order—similar to the police of today, managed food supply and distribution, tax collectors and jobs relating to conducting a regular census of the population in order to collect taxes, managed industry such as fishing and farming, etc, recorded rainfall and water levels of the River Nile which indicated the possibility of floods or famine.

Scribes— There was considerable money to be made by scribes, who held government posts throughout the country relating to the documentation of legal matters. They were the civil servants of ancient Egypt. Scribes were also responsible for jobs relating to teaching.

Religion also required various jobs relating to religion and running the temples. These could be divided into state employment and the protection and government of the country, private employment, work on estates, jobs relating to religion and temples, doctors, artists, craftsmen and finally, labourers.

Priests/Priestesses and Astrologers--The priests and priestesses looked after the temples and conducted the religious ceremonies. Astrologers also had important jobs relating to religious observances and the location and position for temples and tombs.


Servants--There were jobs for servants who undertook important jobs in running wealthy households and palaces such as cooks, although slaves were also used for this purpose.


Engineers and Architects—The vast building programmes in Egypt necessitated the need for engineers and architects.

Builders and Artists—Contrary to popular opinion, ordinary Egyptians undertook these roles on a conscription basis, although slaves were also used. The conditions of the labouring class were hard. Kings were entitled to employ as many of their subjects as they pleased in forced labour. Craftsmen were employed for complicated stone cutting and creating sculptures. Artists were needed to decorate the homes of wealthy Egyptians and to decorate tombs and temples.



Soldiers—Commands in the army provided the opportunity for ordinary people to rise in society. The most common jobs were related to the foot soldiers. Charioteers, a respected force, usually comprised of n

oblemen because of the cost of the upkeep of chariot and horses.

Entertainers—There were entertainers who were the dancers and acrobats, who entertained wealthy Egyptians. Some dancers also had jobs relating to dancing at religious festivals.

Manual Labourers, Fishermen and Farmers—There were manual labourers who worked on the farms of the nobles, cultivating the soil or rearing cattle. There were boatmen, fishermen and fowlers, as well as weavers, metal workers, potters, carpenters, upholsterers, tailors, shoemakers, glass blowers, boat-builders, wig-makers, and embalmers.




What of the top job?




Pharaoh—Was believed to have received his authority from the gods. He was not only the political leader, but also the religious leader. Pharaoh, being a king-priest, helped keep a balance to what the ancient Egyptians referred to as Maat—Maat would be intact as long as Pharaoh and the people kept up with their religious ceremonies, and obeyed the laws set for them.

Pharaoh’s responsibilities as the political ruler of Egypt can be compared to almost any monarch around that time. His duties ranged from commanding the army, to settling legal disputes. As the religious leader of Egypt, he was known as ‘The High Priest of every temple.’ It was also Pharaoh’s responsibility to lead sacred rituals.


Jean Adams' latest contemporary romance, YESTERDAY'S DREAMS, is due out soon from The Wild Rose Press. It is the first in a two-book series set in the New Zealand seaside town of Patiki Bay. Her trilogy set in ancient Egypt is a work in progress, but her time travel Egyptian romance, ETERNAL HEARTS, is available now in print from Highland Press.

3 comments:

librarypat said...

Thank you for an informative post. The typical image of Egypt is of Pharaohs, the royal families, priests, soldiers, and slaves. Of course it was much more than that. As you point out so well, there was much more to the social structure. Slaves were a smaller part of this than usually depicted.
Thank you for giving a good overview of ancient Egyptian social structure and jobs.

librarypat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
S.L. (Samantha) Stevens said...

Thanks for this informative summary of ancient Egyptian daily life. It's nice to see emphasis on the regular people and not just the royal family.

Barbara Mertz (aka mystery novelist Elizabeth Peters) has written a book about daily life in ancient Egypt called "Red Land, Black Land" that's supposed to be really good. Studying the workmen's villages at Deir el-Medina and Giza also gives great insight into daily life.