31 January 2008

Daily Life: Ancient Egypt

By Jean Adams

Throughout the history of the world, no region has been more influenced by the natural attributes of the land than Egypt. The rhythm of the river Nile reflected the rhythm of life in Egypt for thousands of years.

The Nile was their main source for survival and for the great triumph of their civilization. The Nile was not only the source of water but the ancient Egyptians also had religious beliefs that focused on the Nile.

They relied on the gods to control the annual ebb and flow of the river. They built their homes from the soil of the Nile, and in proximity to the river. When describing the life of ancient Egyptians, it is virtually impossible not to consider the river as part of their way of life. Many of the major settlements in Egypt, such as modern Cairo and Giza, were located right along the corridor of the river Nile.

Houses of the ancient Egyptians were built of bricks made from mud. The mud was collected in leather buckets and taken to the building site. Workers added straw and pebbles to the mud to strengthen the bricks. This mixture was then poured into wooden brick frames or molds and the bricks were left out in the sun to dry and to cure.

After a time these dwellings deteriorated 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. After the house was built it was covered with plaster, very similar to the technique used in adobe housing in the American Southwest.

Inside the house, the plaster was often painted with either bright geometric patterns or scenes from nature. The interior of the houses were cool as the small windows let in only a little light.

Egyptian houses were typically built in along the Nile. They had to be built high in order to avoid annual flooding (inundation) from the Nile. The living areas were often on the top floors and many activities were done on the roof of the houses. High sand dunes were erected as barriers from to protect them from flood water.

There were two types of homes typical in Egypt, the home of the workers and the town house. The average dimension of the workers house was approximately 4m by 20m. A typical workers home ranged from two to four rooms on the ground level, an enclosed yard, a kitchen at the back of the house and two underground cellars for storage. Niches in the walls held religious objects. The roof was also used as living space and storage.

There was little furniture save beds and small chests for keeping clothes. There was no running water and sometimes a single well served an entire town. Egyptian villagers spent most of their time outdoors. They often slept, cooked, and ate atop their houses' flat roofs.

Entering from the street, there were steps into the entrance hall. The entrance hall had a cupboard bed, the use of which is uncertain. The next room had a distinctive wooden pillar in the middle supporting the roof. This was the main room of the house, and it was used as a shrine or a reception area.

The master of the house had his master’s chair sitting on top of a raised platform. There were several stools and one or two tables for the guests, and the room was lit by a high small window above the roof of the first room. This room was decorated with holy images along the walls, and a table with offerings in front of a false door. Underneath the master's raised platform (dais), a trap door led down a flight of stairs into the cellar where valuables could be kept.

Behind the central room was a hall with a door on the side leading to a bedroom. The bedroom and the roof were used interchangeably as resting areas. At the end of the hall was the kitchen with an open roof and from the kitchen a door led to another cellar that served as a pantry. Different heights in the rooves allowed for more private windows in the house.

The homes of the wealthy and noble classes were large. The typical town houses of ancient Egypt had many features similar to the workers houses. Town houses were typically two to three stories high. They were typically more spacious and more comfortable than the worker's houses.

They had high walls that supported multiple-story buildings by reinforcing them with beams. In multi-story homes, stones were often used in the first floor for greater strength at the base. The first level of the house was usually the working area where business was conducted, and servants would remain. The second and third floors are more adorned and were the living areas of the house with similar features to the worker's home.

The food was prepared on the roof and brought down to the rooms by the servants. Cooking was done outside because it was considered dangerous to cook in an enclosed area inside the house. Cooling was also a factor to keeping cooking outside.
Egyptians tried to keep their houses cool from the prevalent warm temperatures. Windows were built close to the ceilings in order to maintain cool temperatures indoors. Also mats were often spread on the floors for cooling.

Proper sanitation was a luxury that only the wealthier townspeople could have. They would have toilets carved of limestone, and the sewage would be disposed of into pits in the streets.

Even wealthy ancient Egyptians had a very limited assortment of furniture. A low, square stool, the corners of which flared upwards and had a leather seat or cushion on top, was the most common type of furnishing. Chairs were rare and belonged only 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 of 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, jewellery, and make-up.

The garden had a formal pool and rows of trees and shrubs. The well was conveniently located near the garden and the cattle yard. It consisted of a wide hole in which a flight of steps led down to a platform. Water was drawn up from this using a rope and bucket. Foundations were generally non-existent.

Virgin soil above groundwater level was baked rock hard by the sun and needed just some levelling. In order to build on top of collapsed dwellings, the clay rubble was well watered and let to set and harden.

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 rooves where they could overlook the estate. There would be pools and gardens, servant's quarters, wells, granaries, stables, and a small shrine for worship. The wealthy lived in the countryside or on the outskirts of a town.

There are two examples of excavated villages, one at El-Amarna, and the other at Deir el-Medina. The worker's village at El-Amarna was laid out along straight narrow streets, within a boundary wall. The houses were small, barrack-like dwellings, where animals lived side by side with 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.

For all that, I would still like the chance to visit there. When I go time travelling.