-> Return to main Index (The Ancient Egypt)
Old Egyptian life:
The ancient Egyptians viewed men and women, including people from all social classes except slaves, as essentially equal under the law, and even the lowliest peasant was entitled to petition the vizier and his court for redress. Both men and women had the right to own and sell property, make contracts, marry and divorce, receive inheritance, and pursue legal disputes in court. Married couples could own property jointly and protect themselves from divorce by agreeing to marriage contracts, which stipulated the financial obligations of the husband to his wife and children should the marriage end. Compared with their counterparts in ancient Greece, Rome, and even more modern places around the world, ancient Egyptian women had a greater range of personal choices and opportunities for achievement. Women such as Hatshepsut and Cleopatra VI even became pharaohs, while others wielded power as Divine Wives of Amun. Despite these freedoms, ancient Egyptian women did not often take part in official roles in the administration, served only secondary roles in the temples, and were not as likely to be as educated as men.
Egyptian society was highly stratified, and social status was expressly displayed. Farmers made up the bulk of the population, but agricultural produce was owned directly by the state, temple, or noble family that owned the land. Farmers were also subject to a labor tax and were required to work on irrigation or construction projects in a corve system. Artists and craftsmen were of higher status than farmers, but they were also under state control, working in the shops attached to the temples and paid directly from the state treasury. Scribes and officials formed the upper class in ancient Egypt, the so-called "white kilt class" in reference to the bleached linen garments that served as a mark of their rank. The upper class prominently displayed their social status in art and literature. Below the nobility were the priests, physicians, and engineers with specialized training in their field. Slavery was known in ancient Egypt, but the extent and prevalence of its practice are unclear.
The head of the legal system was officially the pharaoh, who was responsible for enacting laws, delivering justice, and maintaining law and order, a concept the ancient Egyptians referred to as Ma'at. Although no legal codes from ancient Egypt survive, court documents show that Egyptian law was based on a common-sense view of right and wrong that emphasized reaching agreements and resolving conflicts rather than strictly adhering to a complicated set of statutes
Local councils of elders, known as Kenbet in the New Kingdom, were responsible for ruling in court cases involving small claims and minor disputes. More serious cases involving murder, major land transactions, and tomb robbery were referred to the Great Kenbet, over which the vizier or pharaoh presided. Plaintiffs and defendants were expected to represent themselves and were required to swear an oath that they had told the truth. In some cases, the state took on both the role of prosecutor and judge, and it could torture the accused with beatings to obtain a confession and the names of any co-conspirators. Whether the charges were trivial or serious, court scribes documented the complaint, testimony, and verdict of the case for future reference. Punishment for minor crimes involved either imposition of fines, beatings, facial mutilation, or exile, depending on the severity of the offense. Serious crimes such as murder and tomb robbery were punished by execution, carried out by decapitation, drowning, or impaling the criminal on a stake. Punishment could also be extended to the criminal's family. Beginning in the New Kingdom, oracles played a major role in the legal system, dispensing justice in both civil and criminal cases. The procedure was to ask the god a "yes" or "no" question concerning the right or wrong of an issue. The god, carried by a number of priests, rendered judgment by choosing one or the other, moving forward or backward, or pointing to one of the answers written on a piece of papyrus or an ostracon.
The ancient Egyptians used donkeys and oxen as beasts of burden, and they were responsible for plowing the fields and trampling seed into the soil. The slaughter of a fattened ox was also a central part of an offering ritual. Horses were introduced by the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period, and the camel, although known from the New Kingdom, was not used as a beast of burden until the Late Period. There is also evidence to suggest that elephants were briefly utilized in the Late Period, but largely abandoned due to lack of grazing land. Dogs, cats and monkeys were common family pets, while more exotic pets imported from the heart of Africa, such as lions, were reserved for royalty. Herodotus observed that the Egyptians were the only people to keep their animals with them in their houses. During the Predynastic and Late periods, the worship of the gods in their animal form was extremely popular, such as the cat goddess Bastet and the ibis god Thoth, and these animals were bred in large numbers on farms for the purpose of ritual sacrifice.
The ancient Egyptians placed a great value on hygiene and appearance. Most bathed in the Nile and used a pasty soap made from animal fat and chalk. Men shaved their entire bodies for cleanliness, and aromatic perfumes and ointments covered bad odors and soothed skin. Clothing was made from simple linen sheets that were bleached white, and both men and women of the upper classes wore wigs, jewelry, and cosmetics. Children went without clothing until maturity, at about age 12, and at this age males were circumcised and had their heads shaved. Mothers were responsible for taking care of the children, while the father provided the family's income.
Circumcision was practiced in Ancient Egypt with one record as far back as over 4,200 years ago mentioning the circumcision of 120 boys in a single ceremony. It appears to have been carried out at puberty and on reaching adolescence the side-lock worn by young male children also disappeared. The rite was called the Sebi and became compulsory for all priests of the temples if not for all youths. It may have been for 'cleanliness' in a hot dusty land as Herodotus said, but it also appeared to have religious and ethnic significance as it differentiated them from foreigners. A religious custom, as we know, also adopted by the Israelites.
Hieroglyphic writing dates to c. 3200 BC, and is composed of some 500 symbols. A hieroglyph can represent a word, a sound, or a silent determinative; and the same symbol can serve different purposes in different contexts. Hieroglyphs were a formal script, used on stone monuments and in tombs, that could be as detailed as individual works of art. In day-to-day writing, scribes used a cursive form of writing, called hieratic, which was quicker and easier. While formal hieroglyphs may be read in rows or columns in either direction (though typically written from right to left), hieratic was always written from right to left, usually in horizontal rows. A new form of writing, Demotic, became the prevalent writing style, and it is this form of writing along with formal hieroglyphs that accompany the Greek text on the Rosetta Stone.
The Egyptians believed that every human being was composed of physical and spiritual parts or aspects. In addition to the body, each person had a wt (shadow), a ba (personality or soul), a ka (life-force), and a name. The heart, rather than the brain, was considered the seat of thoughts and emotions. After death, the spiritual aspects were released from the body and could move at will, but they required the physical remains (or a substitute, such as a statue) as a permanent home. The ultimate goal of the deceased was to rejoin his ka and ba and become one of the "blessed dead", living on as an akh, or "effective one". For this to happen, the deceased had to be judged worthy in a trial, in which the heart was weighed against a "feather of truth". If deemed worthy, the deceased could continue their existence on earth in spiritual form. By the New Kingdom, the ancient Egyptians had perfected the art of mummification; the best technique took 70 days and involved removing the internal organs, removing the brain through the nose, and desiccating the body in a mixture of salts called natron. The body was then wrapped in linen with protective amulets inserted between layers and placed in a decorated anthropoid coffin. Mummies of the Late Period were also placed in painted cartonnage mummy cases. Actual preservation practices declined during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, while greater emphasis was placed on the outer appearance of the mummy, which was decorated. Wealthy Egyptians were buried with larger quantities of luxury items, but all burials, regardless of social status, included goods for the deceased. Beginning in the New Kingdom, books of the dead were included in the grave, along with shabti statues that were believed to perform manual labor for them in the afterlife. The New Kingdom saw the Book of the Dead develop and spread further. The famous Spell 125, the 'Weighing of the Heart', is first known from the reign of Hatshepsut and Tuthmose III, c.1475 BC. From this period onward the Book of the Dead was typically written on a papyrus scroll, and the text illustrated with vignettes.During the 25th and 26th dynasties, the Book of the Dead was updated, revised and standardised. Spells were consistently ordered and numbered for the first time. This standardised version is known today as the 'Saite recension', after the Saite (26th) dynasty. In the Late period and Ptolemaic period, the Book of the Dead remained based on the Saite recension, though increasingly abbreviated towards the end of the Ptolemaic period.
Sinuhe is an official who accompanies prince Senwosret I to Libya. He overhears a conversation connected with the death of King Amenemhet I and as a result flees to Upper Retjenu (Canaan), leaving Egypt behind. He becomes the son-in-law of Chief Ammunenshi and in time his sons grow to become chiefs in their own right. Sinuhe fights rebellious tribes on behalf of Ammunenshi. As an old man, in the aftermath of defeating a powerful opponent in single combat, he prays for a return to his homeland.: "May god pity me..may he hearken to the prayer of one far away!..may the King have mercy on me..may I be conducted to the city of eternity!". He then receives an invitation from King Senwosret I of Egypt to return, which he accepts in highly moving terms. Living out the rest of his life in royal favour he is finally laid to rest in the necropolis in a beautiful tomb.
Parallels have been made with the biblical narrative of Joseph. In what is seen as divine providence, the Syro-Canaanite Joseph is taken to Egypt where he becomes part of the ruling elite, acquires a wife and family, before being reunited with his Syro-Canaanite family. In what as seen as divine providence, Sinuhe the Egyptian flees to Syro-Canaan and becomes a member of the ruling elite, acquires a wife and family, before being reunited with his Egyptian family. Parallels have also been drawn with other biblical texts: Sinuhe's frustrated flight from the orbit of god's power (=King) is likened to the Hebrew prophet Jonah's similar attempt, his fight with a mighty challenger, whom he slays with a single blow, is compared to the battle between David and Goliath and his return home likened to the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The story also formed part of the inspiration for the 1945 novel by Mika Waltari, and the 1954 Hollywood film epic, both titled The Egyptian, which although set during the reign of 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten, features a lead character named Sinuhe who flees Egypt in disgrace, to return after achieving material success and personal redemption in foreign lands.