Daily Life – Ancient Egypt

This will be one of several posts about daily life in ancient Egypt.

While Egypt was a conservative civilization and the daily round did not change all that much in three thousand years, there was still enough difference between eras that articles about middle and upper class life during the Old Kingdom and Greco-Roman Egypt would reflect changing attitudes and styles. Plus there is that cultural hiccup known as the Amarna period.

So, we will begin in the middle somewhere. How about middle class, late Middle Kingdom Thebes;17th dynasty? (Some scholars call this the Second Intermediate Period, a term which applies to the whole country. But since we are dealing with the Theban region, we are culturally still Middle Kingdom.)

During much of this time, Egypt maintained a social element almost missing from many other ancient civilizations; a fairly large and thriving “middle class.”

Some things never seem to change.

The middle class Egyptian family had to worry about house payments. Dad went to the office to work each day. Mom may have rehearsed with, and sang in a temple choir. And they were trying to put enough aside to give their kids a good education.

Then there were the unexpected expenses, such as the air-conditioner breaking down or fixing a clogged drain from the back yard swimming pool, not to mention that the ice maker is on the fritz again.

Such were the visitudes of life in surburban Thebes during the Late Middle Kingdom.

First, we had better get that air-conditioning fixed. It looks like it will be a scorcher of a day. Try to get a plumber to make a house call at dawn. And little Amenhotep is going to be late for school again if he doesn't get his butt out the door.

The air conditioning should be fairly easy to repair – if the man ever shows up.

Ancient Egyptian air conditioning systems were along the line of what we might call “swamp coolers” today; they were evaporative units ( malqaf ).

During most of the year, the wind in Egypt is from the north. That provided two ongoing bonuses. The Egyptians could “float” downstream ( south to north ) and with the wind from the north, could use sails to get back up the river again ( north to south ). It also meant that 'wind catchers' could be placed on top of various buildings, such as homes, and as long as the north wind blew, it provided a steady stream of air into the interior. The Egyptians then placed pads of water soaked linen in the path of the moving air and the evaporation cooled the air before it entered the house. Some of these units had roof tanks which were filled with water and a slow drip kept the pads moist – – thus the need for our plumber.

80A01E0M.gifThis line copy of an ancient Egyptian drawing of a house shows two date palms behind the house and the triangles on the roof are the air catchers, the “air conditioning” units – malqaf. – – image courtesy United Nations University http://www.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/80a01e/80A01E0c.htm

The broken ice maker worked along the same principle. Egyptian winters can be downright cold. So cold at times that frozen buckets of water have been observed as far south as Aswan. Throughout the Delta and the northern Nile Valley, there are occasional winter cold snaps accompanied by light frost and even snow.

While temperatures going below freezing are rare, winter nights can still get close to that mark. Once again we deal with evaporative cooling to get the job done. When temperatures are near freezing, a combination of breezes and very low humidity can lower the temperature of a very shallow pan of water enough that a skim of ice will form on the surface. Actually our broken ice maker is no more than a crack in the bottom of the ceramic ice making tray ( jar ) which should be an easy repair. If we can get enough made ahead, we can wrap it in an insulating material, bury it, and it will keep quite a while. Nothing like fruit juice, milk and honey whipped into crushed ice on a hot afternoon.

You will find more about ancient Egyptian ice making here: http://www.bookrags.com/sciences/sciencehistory/the-advent-of-mechanical-refrigerat-scit-05123456.html

I wonder if that kid has made it to school yet. He is enrolled in an intermediate class for scribes at the Thoth Shrine. If he does well enough there, he might be able to make it into the advanced classes at Karnak Temple. The Pharaoh's own sons study there and it would be a good opportunity for social networking. It won't be cheap. Certainly hope he winds up being more than a simple clerk in a temple supply room.

Now to get to work on that clogged pool drain. That pool was one of the best ideas ever. Great place for the kids to splash around in ( no crocodile danger from swimming in the river ) we can grow fish and water lilies. It also irrigates a wonderful garden.

And my dear Nefert tried to say we didn't need one.

We now grow our own onions and garlic, melokyiah greens, fava beans, dates, figs, and pomegranates. Next year maybe we'll try one of those new fangled grape vines.

Now that there is the garden, Nefert wanted something colorful too. So, in addition to the water lilies and lotus blooms, there is a line of oleander bushes along one wall and something new from Crete called roses. What a lovely smell.

I'll bet he stopped to watch a ball game again, instead of going to classes. It seems all he wants to do is hang around a ball field, eat long sausages wrapped in bread and drink beer. At least it is our national beverage. Might be our national pastime too. ( sausage and beer vendors were a common sight at Egyptian sporting events )

If he did, I'll tan his hide when he gets home. After all, “a boy's ear is on his back.” – (quote from a student exercise for scribes.)

Now to get little Amenirdis ready for her dance class. She's not so little anymore. She's studying written language right along with the boys, and keeping ahead of most of them too.

We have made sure the girls in our family received good educations too. In this day and age, if a woman wants a good position in a palace, temple or merchant accounting house, she has to be able to read and write. Otherwise, she will just wind up being some guy's personal adornment with no real life of her own – or selling flowers, and other things, on the street corner.

Did I mention that my dear Nefert is a priestess and one of the lead singers at the new chapel at Karnak?

Because of her added income, we now have a new indoor bathing slab and comode room. No more running to the river to clean up or to the outside pits in the middle of the night. Modern technology is wonderful.

Remodeling the rest of the house too. We have just finished covering the walls with fresh whitewashed plaster and a local artist is painting one wall with flying ducks.

ducks image courtesy University College London

We have four rooms now, including the new bathroom. Sleeping quarters for Nefert and me, a large “family room” where the kids sleep and we entertain, plus a combination grainery, pantry, storeroom. We still do most of the cooking outside.

Which reminds me, I have to cut this short. Dan and his tribe are coming by later to play a game of senet ( sort of like backgammon ). We will probably play by the pool. They'd eat us out of house and home if I let them get near the pantry.

back garden Painting by HM Herget – October 1941 National Geographic magazine

We also have another large social affair coming up we need to save food and money for. We now have a handful of deceased relatives encoffined and stored under the floor of the “family room.” We will get together with the neighbors, and their deceased relatives, to hire a funerary priest to perform the rites and move our late relatives to their permanant houses of eternity. It seems only the very rich have the means to throw a funeral every time someone in their family dies. The rest of us have to make do with “group rates.”

Now, where is that game board? Dan's at the door and I haven't even picked up the beer yet.

Gotta run


5 Responses to “Daily Life – Ancient Egypt”

  1. eiffel says:

    Wow, why didn’t they teach history like this in school?

    Thanks, Digs.

  2. easterangel says:

    Now that is the the thing I like. Airconditioner without electricity!

  3. FRDE says:

    That is very impressive
    – it reminds me of a UK historian called Alfred Duggan who wrote a series of very readable books on English history from the Romans to the Middle Ages

    A deceptive simplicity of style that conveys a heck of a lot of information in a memorable way – superficially child-like, but actually multi-targeted.

    You should think about getting a publisher.

  4. padfoot1001 says:

    That’s really interesting. I am working on a project for school and I really need a picture of an Ancient Egyptian peasant’s house, preferably the interior.
    any ideas?

  5. Jose Pino says:

    Great info, I bet I can make my own “air conditioner” using the evaporative unit with some modifications.