Ancient Civilizations: Egypt

Figure 1.--There are many illustrations and idealized paintings of ancient Egypt. This one is by French illustrator Pierre Joubert. Ancient Egyptian art shows this to be a partisalluy accurate, if somewaht dramtic depiction of how a young prince in ancient Egypt might dress. One serious inaccuary is the hair style.

No ancient civilization has so captured the Western mind as that of Egypt. The impressive archetectural remains and the the close connection with Greece and Rome, and the Biblical links probably explain this fascination. Another factor surely is the Egyptian obsession with the after life leaving vast treasure troves of archeolohical evidemce including mummies which have fuled the popular interest in Egypt. All of this has attracted the interest of both scholars as well as the wider public. There is cerainly much to ponder with ancient Egypt. The origins of ancient Egypt are still clouded in mystery. Even what we know inspires considerable awe: a mysterious religion with inspiring monumental architecture, including temples, pyramids and the enigmatic Sphinx.

The Nile

Egypt as the other great ancient civilizations developed in river valleys. This was of course the advantages to agriculture in such vallys eased the transition from hunter gathering to more settled agricultural societies which could generate the wealth needed for civilization. Egyptian civilization was based on the Nile River and the annual flooding determined the patterns of daily life in ancient Egypt. The Nile is one of the great rivers of the world. It is the longest river in the world and one of the few which flow north. The Nile headwaters rise in the hear of Africa and were a mystery to the West until the 19th century. The River is fed by the tropical rains of central Africa and flow north through the Sahara dessert, finally exiting into the Mediterranean Sea. The long, narrow flood plain was a slender green sliver slicing through the parched desert. The Nile first attracted nomadic hunters seeking the animals watering along the River. Gradually these nomads settled in the valley and began to grow crops to supplement what they were able ton hunt and gather. The annual Nile floods came like clockwork and seemed a bountiful gift from the gods. The Nile floods each year deposited nutrient rich silt over the land, creating nearly perfect conditions for growing wheat, flax and other crops. Gradually these people began to build build irrigation canals to support their agriculture. The construction and maintenace of these canals required the development of social structures which led to the Egyptian civilization as we know it today.


Traditionally Egypt is composed of Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) regiins. They were once separate politically, but eventually united by Menes the ruler of Upper Egypt in the 35th century BC. Lower Egypt comprised the region from the Nile Mediterrean Delta south to a imaginary line at about the 30° N lattitude. Upper Egypt is the region south of this line. This is confusing to our modern concept of gepgraphy, but of course to the Egyptians what was important was the flow of the Nile.

Dynastic History

Ancient Egypt is one of the principal fountainheads of Western civilization. Egypt was not the first of the great civilizations to emerge. Cities and advanced civilizations first develoved in Mesopotamia in the Tigris-Euprates Valley. Summerian cities emerged in the 5th millennium while culture in the Nile Valley had not emerged from the stone age. Egypt in the pre-dynastic era was settled by Hamitic people of the Caucasian race. Gradually once the Upper and Lower Kingdoms were united Africans played a significant role in Egypytian society as can be discerned by the African features on art work representing some pharaohs. This was an aspect of Egyptian civilization largelyignored or even suppressed by Egyptologists and the racial aspect of ancient Egypt is still a poorly understood area. Early Egyptian civilization must have borrowed heavily from Mesopotamia. Scholars differ, however, on the extent and nature of the exchanges between Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. The chronological dating of Egyptian dynasties after about 2,000 BC is increasingly relaible. The dating of earlier dynasties is much more open to conjecture. The dating of New Kingdom dynasties for the most part are believed to be realtively reliable. One factor that has to be considered in dating the reigns of specific momarchies is the overlap as a result of coregencies. Government through coregencies is a matter of debate among Egyptologists, but was prevalent during most Egyoptian dynasties. The role of Egyptian princess is another distinctive dynastic development of some importance. Egyptian history generally begins with the foundation of Dynasty I and the Old Kingdom, the unification of the Lower and Upper Kingdoms by Menes about 3,500 BC. Also attributed to Menes is the foundation of Memphis and the introduction of the basin system of irrigation. The pyramids were built at the highth of the Old Kinddom. There was monumental archetecure in the Middle and New Kindom, but nothing approching the scale of the pyramids. These three eras of Egyptian civilization extended over more than two and a half millenia--the longest cultural epoch in human history. The last dynasties were actually a period of Persian rule. The period of Persian rule ended when Alexander thre Great after defeating the Persians occupied Egypt in 332 BC. Alexander died in 323 BC and Ptolemy, one of his generals, was appointed governor of Egypt and Libya. After a series of battles with other contending Greek genrals, Ptolemy decalred himself king of an independent Egypt in 305 BC. Alexandria under his rule became the foremost commercail and cultural center of the world. Under the reign of Ptolemy IV, Egypt became a virtual protecorate of Rome. This continued until Julius Ceasar met Cleopatra. After Ceasar's assasination, Cleopatra who has a son Ceasrion by Ceasar, attempted to establish independence by supporting Anthony in the developing Roman civil war with Octavian (Augustus). Cleopatra and Anthony were defeated at Actium. With this Egypt became a proivince in the Roman and later Byzantine Empires until conquered by the Arab general Anru ibn-al-As during 640-646 AD and coming under the control of the Caliphate.


Ancient Egypt as a destinct civilization endured over an almost incomprehensible 5,000 years. It is the longest enduring of all the ancient civilizations. Over this time there were changes in the details of Egyptian culture. Egyptologists can date many artifacts from the stylistic details. Egyptian culture is, however, notable for the slow pace of change over the 5,000 years for which it endured. In fact the basic outlines of Egyptian culture is remarkably consisted over the span of many centuries. [Stewart, p. 75.]


Hieroglyphics were the pictographic writing of the ancient Egyptians. It was a complicated syste, Any given glyph could be used in one of three different ways. They could be used as an 1) ideogram, 2) phonograph, or a 3) determinative, although very few were used for all three. Phonograms formed the basis of a developing alphabet. Even in ancient Egypts, few could read Hieroglyphics. This knowledge was reserved primarily to the priests and nobility. A developing cursive form the hieatic was more commonly used in the Middle Kingdom. This was supplemented by the demotic which although based on hieroglyphics was so conventionalized that it was not apparent. A primitive form of hierogluphics was already in use in the 1st dynasty. They were used less in the Middle Kingdom and by the New Kingdom they were no longer well understood. The last known glyph was incribed 394 AD. It may seem strange that a script used for three millenia so completely disappeared. The reason of course is that even when used, the secrets of its meanings were shared by only a ssmall number of priests and aristocrats. [Vernus] When Emperor Theodosious banned the ancient religion (394 AD), knowledge of hierglyphics quickly disappered. For centuries the meaning of hieroglyphics was lost until French scholar Jean-François Champollion using the Rossetta Stone dechipered it.


The sun was ancient Egypt's principal deity. The sun's passage daily across the sky from sunrise to sunset represented the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The kings or pharaohs were seen as gods by the common people. The pharoh was in fact the god's representatives on earth, most commomly Horus. Egypt had an exotic pantheon of gods. One of the most important was Horus who is easily recognized because he is often depicted with a falcon head. It was the rituals and religious ceremonies overseen by pharaoh and the priests guaranteed the continuation of Egyptian civilization and indeed life itself. A pharaoh at death became imortal, joining the gods after a journey through the afterworld. The ancient Egyptians believed that both the body and soul were essential aspects of human existence, during life and after death. The Egyptian funerary ceremonies which so fascinate the modern mind, especially mummification and burial in tombs with valuable artifacts, served the purpose of assisting the deceased pharaoh find his way in the afterworld. It is of course the gold and other precious artifacts that capture the imagination, but a pharaoh's tombs were filled primarily with more mundane items such as food, tools, domestic wares, and other necessities of life so that the pharaoh soul's could naviagte the many dangers of the afterworld in comfort. The outward form of Egyptian religion seems exotic to the Western mind. In fact there are many aspects which were first adopted by the Hebrews and through the Hebrews modern Christianity. Here Akhenaten may have played an important role.


Egypt, like all the great early civilizations, was an agricultural society. The wealth of Egypt and the richness of the civilization which it spawned was based fundamentally on agriculture. Egyptian agriculture was organized around the annual Nile flood. For 3 months out of the year the fields along the Nile were flooded and fertilized by rich silt brought by the flow okf the river. The Nile water, rich silt, and semi-troical climate resulted in highly productive harvests that served as the basis for Egyptian civilization over several millenia. The average Egyptian lived and worked in his village and knew little of the wider world. Egypt was a closed society in which a son followed his father's calling. Generations of of Egypt's toiling masses over millenia worked in the fields. Even in the New Kingdom the only opportunities offring advancement outside of the laboring caste was the army. [Aldred, p. 23.] Egyptian peasants were iliterate and attended no schools. The whole family toiled in the field. The younger children were assigned tasks such as protecting the crop from birds or gleaning the stubble aftr harvest. Some Egyptians owned their own land, many toiled as tennants on the estates of the great temples or nobility. Officials would assess the yield for taxation. Later after the harvest officals would arrive to collect the tax as a share of the harvest to fill the state graneries. [Aldred, p. 22.]

Social Class

The vast majority of the Egyptian people lived an existance tied to the land and working in the field. They were essentially tennant farmers working land owned by the state. [Stewart, p. 78.] Ownership varied over time. Land belonged to the phraoh, arustocrats, and temples. The population was contolled by a small hereditary eliete whose primary qualification was literacy. A noted Egyptologist writes, "The business of the Egyptian state in the late Bronze age was conducted by paper-work of a volume and complexity that it would be hard to match until recent times." It was this class that ruled Egypt in the name of Pharaoh and conducted affairs of state and was responsible for organizing Egyptian civilization. It was when the authority of Pharaoh and this class weakened that Egypt declined into chaos and, anarchy, and civil war and was vulnerable to foreign invason. [Aldred, pp. 22-23.] This was the cause of the great breaks in Egyptian civilization between the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Often the roblem was essentially the nobility gaining power and weakening the authority of the Pharph or the central govern,ent. Position in Egyptian society was strictly hereditary. The son was appointed to the position of the father. Fathers taught sons. Peasants taught their sons agricultural skills. Caraftsmen taught their sons their trades. Scribes taught their sons to read and write. [Aldred, p. 23.]


Slavery in Egypt seems to have followed the basic pattern set in Mesopotamia. Slavery in ancient Egypt is a poorly understood subject. It is not well understood how slavery fit into the overall social-class structure. One problem is that there does not seem to be a Egyptian cartouche for slave as destinct from servant. Nor is there any known way of identifying slaves in the reliefs and tomb paintings of ancient. Egyptian. It was once commonly thought that major construction projects were undertaken by large gangs of slaves. This is generally dismissed today. It is now thought that labor at major projects was more likely peasants who had a labor obligation after the planying or harvest seasons. They might be used in the maintenance of irrigation canals or in other important projects such as the famous pyramids. This of course is not to say that there were not slaves in ancient Egypt. The major source of slaves was war captives. This would include both the captured warriors as well as the general civilian population of conquered lands. The most famous Egyptian slaves were the Hebrews who apparently migrated to Europe because of drought. Slaves also came from law violaters. And some people sold thmselves or family members into slvery. No one knows the precise extent of Egyptian slavery. Records on such matters are not known. Most of the Egyptian population appears to have been a peasantry tied to the land, probably similar to Feudal European serfdom, but precise details on this are unavailable. Certainly slaves were also used for agricultural labor. In fact this was probsably their major use. How theur treatment and status differened from the Egyptian peasantry is not well understood. The Egyptians appear to have enslaved whole peoples. The ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt during the second half of the 2nd millennium BC. Here the historical records is based on the Old Testament and not on Egyptian records. It might be thought that slaves would obviously fill the lowest rank of society. It should be remembered that as the major source of slaves were captured prioners and the people of conquered cities, these people probably came from a social strata and probably possed skills superior to the field peasant. We do know that the child of a slave inherited the slave status, even if the farher was free born. We also know that Egypt imported slaves and negotiated fugative slave treaties with neighboring states. There does not appear to have been any racial component to Egyptian slavery. In fact, some pharoes appear to have had African features. (This was a fact ignored when Egyptology became a subject of great interest in the 19th centutry.)

The Arts

The fine arts were well developed in ancient Egypt. Egypt thus made a huge contribution to art history. In part this was the result of the richness of ancient Egypt which could afford the devote the resources needed to create great art. Egypt was not the earliest of the great rivel valley civilizations, but followed closely the development of agriculture and civilization in Mesopotamia. It was the longest living of all the the Mediterranean cultures by milenia and until the classical era by far the richest. Geography provided stability. Egypt was secure from foreign invaders because of its baren desert borders. And the sustaining waters of the Nile provide boutiful harvests that made for domestic tranquility. Egyptian culture and art developed in this stable environment over milenia. The visual arts were dominated by a unique hieratic style of painting and stone carving. Because much of the painting was to decorate tombs, a great deal of it has survived. We are most familiar with the visuals arts and arhitecture because so much of it has survived. Egypt also had a rich tradition of dance and music, but only visual depictions have for the most part survived. Scholars differe as to ghe existence of drama. The arts had two functions in ancient Egypt and they were not dissimilar to he role of art in other eras. First, art was to glorify the many and this included the reining Pharaoh. Here are was used to ease the human passage of the pharoah into the after-life. And the nobels and other well-to-do wanted to also make the passage. Second, art was used to assert, propagandize and preserve the cultural values of the day. The general stability of Egyptian society led inevitably to highly conservative forms with rigid rules which ovr time put little value on creativity and concentrated on order and form. Egyptian art played a major role in the development of art in clasical Greece and Rome.


The family was central to Egyptian life and society. The Egyptians were committe to the scantity of thefamily. The Egyptians even tend to arrange their gods in family groupings. Egyptians took great pride in their family and ancestors. And they traced lineage through both their mother's and father's lines. Archeologists have found numerous genealogical lists detailing one's ancestors. Modern kinship relationships do not emerge in the records of ancient Egypt. There seems to be a curious absence of words identifying blood relatives outside the basic nuclear family. The Egyptian word used for 'mother' was also used for 'grandmother' and the same was true for 'father'. The words for 'son' and 'daughter' was also used for 'grandson' and 'nephew' and simiarly 'daughter', 'granddaughter', and 'niece'. Uncle/brother and aunt/sister also used the same words. And the term 'sister'" was commonly used for 'wife', an indication according to some Egyptologists a testimony to the bond between husband and wife. Respect for elders, especially one's parents, at the core of Egyptain morality. The eldest son had the duty, perhaps honor, of caring for his parents as they grew older and then after death a respectful burial. Family life began early in ancient Egypt. Life spans were shorter. Thus marriags took place at rather young ages, commonly in adolescene. Presumably the male partner was older because he needed to be established enough to support a wife, perhaps16 -20 years of age. The female was commonly a younger teenager who had a least experinced their first menses. Marriage bonds were very strong. Divorce was possible, but apparently not very common. Royal andaristocratic marriages were polygamous. Common practices are less clear, but there does not appear to have been any religious prohibition on polygamy. In fact marriages were essentially a commercial rather than a religious contract. conomics was probably a factor. Many if not most marriages were monogamous probably because many peasants coul not support a second wife. Children were a very important element of family life and seen as a blessing from the gods. We see this in royal depictions, especially notable are the paintings of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife, Queen Nefertiti, showing a very tender bond with their six daughters. Their is every reason to believe that the same relations were at play among the Pharaoh's subjects.

Everyday Life

Most Egyptians lived in unbaked mud-brick houses. Trees were too scarce to be used to build houses. The tenant farmers who made up the vast mass of the populkation tilled the fields. Women prepared food which included grinding grain, baking bread, and brewed bear. Women also wove flax into linnen garments and washed these garments. The role of women in Egyptian life was especially interesting. For the most part, women had no role in Egyptian pulic life. With few exceptions, pharaohs were always men. Women could, however, buy, inherit, and bequeath property. The most important woman pharoah always had herself portrayed with a man's beard. Marriage in Egypt was a simple matter requiring no civil or religious sanction. Men and women just began living together. Divorce was also a simple matter, one simply moved out. They coud then remarry. Egyptian woman with property commonly insisted on prenuptial agreements. This was virtually unheard of elsewhere in the ancient world. [Stewart, p. 82.] Archeologists have unearthed a variety of records and grafiti giving us a fascinating record of Egyptian life. We know about many intimate details of life, including loves and seductions, labor conditions, and crimes. We have the record of perhaps the world's first known labor strike. One archeologist even believes he has discovered a kind of political cartoon. [Stewart, p. 82-83.] Children had toys, including games, dools, and balls. The peasant class would have had very basic toys while the ruleing class may provided more elaborate toys to children.


Egyptian children like all children liked to play. We do not know much about this because the surviving texts do not address the topic. And the images do not normally depict children playing. The imagery is much more formal, showing activies like farming that were imoortanht economically or culturally. We know, however, that the children did play because archeologists have found the toys boys and girls played with. We suspect that these were for younger children because the children began working at a fairly young age, leaving less time for play than modern children. We do not know of sports in the modern sence. Activities like fishing and hunting were practiced, but they were not entirely recreational.


We have just begun to learn about education in Egypt. Few children went to school in Egypt. Most boys followed their father's roles. As most Egyptians tilled the land, most boys became farmers, learning skills by working along side their fathers in the fields. The much smaller number of craftmen similaly learned their crfts at their athers' sides. Government offices were also often passed from father to son. There were schools for upper-class boys. I think the schools were mostly for boys. In these schools boys learned to read and writes to become scribes and priests. I'm less sure about upper-class boys being trained to become warriors. The boys chosen were normally the sons od scribes and priests. Discipline was strict at these schools. An Egyptian school master explained that his approach to teaching, "The ear of a boy is on his back. He listens when he is beaten." [Stewart, p. 82.]


Clothing in ancient Egypt was almost always linen which is made from flax. Clothes were made of linen because flax was the only plant growing in Egypt that was used for clothing. The actual weaving of linen fabric was done on a loom, usually by women. Textile manufacture and dressmaking were actually the only areas of the economy that remained predominantly in female hands. White linen needed constant washing. It was washed in the river or canal, rinsed, then pounded on a stone, and, bleached in the sun. Linen clothes needed to be repleated every time they were washed. Important Egyptians were often depicted with pleated skirts. Only high status individuals had pleated clothes because the pleating process involved so much labor. Pleating required pressing the linen into grooves on a wooden board and letting it dry. The most interesting feature of Egyptian clothes is that styles changed so little over the long sweep of Egyptian history. Since there were no new styles, Egyptians took great pride in keeping themselves and their garments immaculately clean. Of course clothing is affected by climate. The warm weather in Egypt meant that ancient Egyptians wore little or no clothes at all. If they did wear clothes they were very thin and light. Even in Egypt, however, it could be cool at night during the winter. The basic garments worn by men was a loincloth or a shenti. A shenti was a kilt-like piece of linen fabric tied around the waist and kept in place by a girdle. While poor Egyptians had a simple shenti, the wealthy had shentis pleated and decorated with gold thread. Women might wear a simple shift for women. Many low status individuals, like slaves and children, did not wear any clothes at all. Children might earrings or protective amulets. In general, shoes were not worn. Egyptian children in the summer usually went around without any clothing at all. During the winter the children might be wrapped in cloaks and other wraps. One interesting aspect of Egyptian clothing is how little fashions changed over very long periods of time.

Hair Styles

Most of what we known from how Egyptian children wore their hair is based on tomb paintings. The tomb paintings are important because these are the Egyptian paintings most likely to have survived. There is virtually no written information about childrens's hair styles. Thus information must be deduced from studying the paintings. Fortunately several are very detailed and realistic. We do not yet have enough information to know how styles changed over time. Children are often depicted in New Kingdom paintings with shaved heads and a side lock on the right side of the head. I am not sure if there were gender difference here. This style may be the origin of the side lock worn by Hasidic Jewish children. Egyptian mothers often braided these side locks. There are many depictions of Egyptian children standing naked by their parents, sucking their right index finger (not their thumb), and with a sidelock. [Springer] Girls might wear amaulets in their hair. Young girls wore amaulets in their sidelocks. Older girls after puberty wore long hair. Hair styles in a society where people wore little clothes can be used to identify foreigners in Egyptian art.


Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt--A New Study (McGraw-Hill: New York, 1968), 272p.

Breasted, James Henry. Ancient Records of Egypt (Chicago 1906 Part One).

Brown, John Russell. The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Springer, Ilene. "A Kid in Ancient Egypt," Tour Egypt Monthly (December 1, 2000).

Stewart, Doug. "Eternal Egypt," Smithsonian, date missing, pp. 74-84.

Strouhal, Eugen. Life in Ancient Egypt.

Vernus, Pascal. A History of Writing from Hieroglyophs to Multimedia.


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Created: November 9, 2002
Last updated: 1:06 AM 12/15/2013