Life in Ancient Egypt

By Tim Lambert

Egypt was said to be the gift of the Nile. Each summer the Nile flooded and provided water to grow crops. For irrigation Egyptians used a device called shaduf. it was a ‘see-saw’ with a leather container at one end, which was filled with water, and a counterweight at the other. When the Nile flooded it also deposited silt over the land near the banks, which made the land very fertile once the water had subsided. The Nile also provided a way of transporting people and goods. Prevailing winds in Egypt blew south so boats traveling in that direction used sails. Boats heading north used oars.

Egyptian Society

Ancient Egypt was ruled by a king. By about 1500 BC he was called the Pharaoh (from the word per ao meaning great house. Originally it meant the palace he lived in but it came to mean the ruler himself). The Pharaoh was assisted by a kind of prime minister called a vizier (sometimes there was more than one). Furthermore, for administration, Egypt was divided into areas called nomes.

Below the Pharaoh were the nobility, priests, scribes, and merchants. Then came soldiers and craftsmen then peasants and finally slaves. A slave’s life was very hard. Ordinary Egyptians who were not slaves also had to work for the Pharaoh each year building or mending irrigation canals. This was done when the Nile flooded and farm work was impossible. Farmers also had to pay part of their crops to the Pharaoh in tax.

In Egypt women had a great deal of freedom. They could come and go as they pleased. They could own property and they could sign contracts. Women could also divorce their husbands.


However, most women worked in the home. There was a great deal of work to do as most homes were largely self-sufficient. The woman made the family’s clothes and prepared food such as grinding grain to flour to make bread. Even in a rich family, the woman was kept busy organizing the slaves. There were some women doctors in Egypt. A woman called Sobekneferu ruled Egypt around 1800 BC. Later a woman named Hatshepsut ruled Egypt c. 1479-1458 BC. Another woman, Twosret ruled Egypt c. 1191-1189 BC.

Food and Farming in Ancient Egypt

The staple diet of the ordinary people in Ancient Egypt was bread and beer. The bread was baked outside. Because of the desert sand was often blown into the dough. In time eating bread with grains of sand in it wore down people’s teeth. In Ancient Egypt as in all early civilizations, meat was a luxury and only the rich could afford to eat it frequently. The Egyptians ate sheep, pigs, cows, and goats but meat often came from ducks and geese. However fish were plentiful in Egypt.

The Egyptians ate many vegetables including, marrows, beans, onions, lentils, leeks, radishes, garlic, and lettuces. They also ate fruit like melons, dates, and figs. Pomegranates were quite expensive and were eaten mainly by the rich. The Egyptians also grew herbs and spices and they made cooking oil. Beer was made from crumbled barley bread and barley with water so it was lumpy. It was strained before it was drunk. Even so, it was still lumpy so it had to be drunk through a wooden straw with a filter. Better off Egyptians drank wine.

Ancient Egyptian farmers dug irrigation canals to take water from the Nile when it flooded and to hold it when the flood subsided. In Ancient Egypt, oxen pulled plows and farmers used simple tools such as hoes, sickles, rakes, and winnowing fans (used to throw wheat into the air to separate light chaff from heavier grain).

In Egypt, there were three seasons. From July to October was the season when the Nile flooded. Seeds were planted from November to February. The harvest lasted from March to June. Egyptians divided days into 24 hours and they measured time with water clocks. (Water was allowed to drip into a container at a steady rate. The container was marked at intervals and it took one hour for the water to rise from one mark to another).

Like all early civilizations Ancient Egypt was an agricultural society. Most people lived in the countryside and made their living by farming. The most important crops were wheat and barley.

Clothes in Ancient Egypt

Not surprisingly given the hot climate Egyptians wore only light clothing. Men wore a loincloth and a kind of kilt. Women wore dresses with shoulder straps. Clothes were made of linen or cotton. Later in Egyptian history clothes became more elaborate and colorful.

Egyptians shaved their hair and wore wigs. Children had their heads shaved to prevent lice (although they usually had a braid left at the side of their heads). It was normal for children to go naked. Most people went barefoot much of the time but they sometimes wore sandals made from papyrus.

Egyptians wore jewelry. Those who could afford it wore jewelry of gold, silver, and precious stones. Poor people wore jewelry made of copper or bronze. Both men and women wore makeup.

Houses in Ancient Egypt

Rich Egyptians lived in large, comfortable houses with many rooms. Walls were painted and the floors had colored tiles. Most wealthy houses had enclosed gardens with pools. Inside their homes, rich Egyptians had wooden furniture such as beds, chairs, tables, and chests for storage. However, instead of pillows, they used wooden headrests. Toilets consisted of a clay pot filled with sand. It was emptied regularly.

Ordinary people in Ancient Egypt lived in simpler homes made of mud bricks with perhaps four rooms. People may have slept on the flat roof when it was hot and they did most of their work outside because of the heat. The furniture was very basic. Ordinary Egyptians sat on brick benches around the walls. They used reed chests or wooden pegs on walls to store things.

Pastimes in Ancient Egypt

For entertainment the Egyptians loved parties. If a rich person invited you to a feast you would be entertained by singers, musicians, dancers, jugglers, wrestlers, and jesters. Musicians played wooden flutes, harps, lutes, drums, and clappers. At a rich person’s banquet, guests were given a cone of perfumed fat to put on their heads. It slowly melted leaving the wearer smelling nice.

Egyptians loved hunting and fishing. (For the rich hunting was for pleasure. For the poor it was for food). Men caught birds with nets or by throwing curved sticks. Fish were caught with hooks or harpoons.

Men and women went swimming. Men also enjoyed boxing, wrestling, and archery. They also played a game that involved standing on a boat and trying to knock the opposing team into the water with a stick. Egyptians also played a board game called senet. The board was divided into squares with counters. You threw sticks rather than dice. Ancient Egyptian children played similar games to the ones children play today. They also played with dolls, toy soldiers, wooden animals, balls, marbles, spinning tops, and knucklebones (which were thrown like dice).

Education in Ancient Egypt

Most boys and girls in Egypt did not go to school. Instead, boys learned farming or other trades from their fathers. Girls learned sewing, cooking, and other skills from their mothers. However, boys from wealthy families sometimes went to school and learned to be scribes. They learned by copying and memorizing and discipline was strict. Teachers beat naughty boys. The boys learned reading and writing and also mathematics. Girls from well-off families were sometimes taught at home.

Ancient Egyptian writing consisted of symbols called hieroglyphs. Originally they were pictures but in time they evolved into standard symbols. However, the hieroglyphs were very complicated and so they were only used for religious books and for carving on buildings. For everyday use, a simpler form of writing called hieratic was developed.

Weapons in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian soldiers went into battle protected only by wooden or leather shields. They fought with spears, swords, axes, daggers, and maces. They also used slings and bows and arrows. Most men fought on foot but after about 1,700 BC the army also had chariots. Each chariot carried two men, one to drive and one to shoot arrows. (In Ancient Egypt horses were mainly used for war. Donkeys were used as pack animals). Only the most important soldiers wore armor made of bronze. Prisoners of war were usually made slaves.

Medicine in Ancient Egypt

The first doctor known to history was Sekhet-eanach who ‘healed the pharaoh’s nostrils’. (We do not know what was wrong with them).

Much of Egyptian medicine still relied on magic. However, at least they could keep written records of which treatments worked and which did not. In this way, medicine could advance. The earliest known medical book is the Ebers Papyrus, which was written about 1500 BC.

Doctors in Ancient Egyptian used a huge range of drugs obtained from herbs and minerals. They were drunk with wine or beer or sometimes mixed with dough to form a ‘pill’. Egyptian doctors also used ointments for wounds and they treated chest complaints by getting the patient to inhale the steam. The Egyptians believed that the human body was full of passages that acted like irrigation canals. The Egyptians knew that irrigation canals sometimes became blocked. They reasoned that if the passages in a human body became blocked it might cause illness. To open them Egyptians used laxatives and induced vomiting.

However, the Egyptians still believed that spells would help the sick and they carried amulets to ward off disease. Nevertheless, they were beginning to seek a physical cause for illness.

The Egyptians did have some knowledge of anatomy from making mummies. To embalm a dead body they first removed the principal organs, which would otherwise rot. However Ancient Egyptian surgery was limited to such things as treating wounds and broken bones and dealing with boils and abscesses. The Egyptians used clamps, sutures, and cauterization (burning with red hot metal). They had surgical instruments like probes, saws, forceps, scalpels, and scissors.

They also knew that honey helped to prevent wounds from becoming infected. (It is a natural antiseptic). They also dressed wounds with willow bark, which has the same effect. The Ancient Egyptians were clean people. They washed daily and changed their clothes regularly, which must have helped their health.

Egyptian Religion

The Ancient Egyptians were polytheists. That is, they worshiped many gods. Gods and goddesses were usually depicted as human beings though sometimes they had animal heads. Among Ancient Egyptian gods were Amun-Re, the sun god and the leader of the gods. Nut was the sky goddess. Her brother Geb was the earth god. Osiris was in charge of the underworld. His wife was Isis and his son was Horus (who was sometimes depicted with a falcons head). Hathor was the goddess of joy and love. She was also the goddess of music and dance.

They also worshiped Anubis, god of the dead, and mummification. He was a man with a jackal’s head and Egyptians believed he guarded the places where the dead were buried. Other gods included Thoth, a man with an ibis head, who was the god of the moon and wisdom. Ptah was the god of craftsmen. Taweret, a pregnant hippo, was the goddess of childbirth. Maat was the goddess of justice and truth. Hapi was the god who made the Nile flood. The Ancient Egyptians had a goddess of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her name was Seshat.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that the gods ‘lived’ in temples (the god’s spirit was believed to inhabit a statue). Three times a day priests cleaned the statue, changed its clothes, and placed fresh food before it for it to ‘eat’. (After a while priests removed the food and ate it). After death Egyptians believed they would be judged. Their heart was placed in a balance and weighed against an ostrich feather (a symbol of truth and justice). If the heart was good it would balance the feather and the person was granted eternal happiness. If it was evil the feather would outweigh it. In that case, the heart was fed to a monster called Anmit, who was a part lion, part crocodile, and part hippopotamus. If Anmit ate your heart you ceased to exist.

Ancient Egyptians tried to preserve dead bodies by mummifying them so the owners could use them in the next life. The dead were also buried with ‘grave goods’ to use in the next life. Animals, especially cats, were also mummified. To mummify a body the Egyptians first removed its internal organs (otherwise they would rot). They rinsed the cavities with palm wine then covered the body with a salt paste called natron to dry it. After 70 days the body was washed and wrapped in linen bandages.

An Egyptian sarcophagus