Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt Daily Routines

Daily life in ancient Egypt involved farming, artisan work, family duties, and religious practices, shaped by the Nile's rhythms.

daily routines in ancient egypt

Egypt’s pharaohs are renowned for their grand stone structures, grandiose inscriptions, and stunning religious art. These remnants of a bygone era give us a vivid picture of their accomplishments. However, the everyday life of an average Egyptian remains less known. Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley sheds light on this aspect with 10 intriguing, less familiar facts.

People classification

Envision ancient Egypt’s society as a structured social pyramid. At its base, you find the foundation of the workforce: slaves, servants, and serfs, alongside tenant farmers laboring on lands owned by the king, the elite, and temples.

Climbing up, there are skilled and semi-skilled artisans, followed by soldiers, sailors, and workers engaged in major state projects like constructing buildings, tombs, and temples. Higher still are the educated professionals: scribes, accountants, and doctors.

Near the apex sit the nobility, the elite class holding significant wealth. At the very top, distinct and distant, is the royal family. The king, or pharaoh, stands alone above all, revered as the sole mortal capable of effective communication with the state gods.

The Family

In ancient Egypt, the birth rate was notably high, but life was far from ideal. People faced inevitable illnesses and accidents, and there was no state welfare system to support those in misfortune. The family unit served as the primary source of security and support, making it a crucial societal institution. Marriage, more practical than romantic, was intended to form a strong economic unit.

Marriage was universal, extending even to the realm of gods and goddesses. An unmarried man was considered incomplete, and young boys were encouraged to marry early and have many children. Children typically followed their parents’ footsteps: boys learned trades and professions from their fathers and uncles, while girls were taught household skills by their mothers. Girls often married in their early teens, perpetuating this familial cycle.

Mistress in house

In ancient Egyptian marriages, husbands and wives had distinct yet complementary roles. The husband typically worked outside, earning the necessary provisions for his family, while the wife, known as the ‘mistress of the house’, managed the household. Her duties included preparing food and drinks, making clothing, and keeping the house clean.

This division of labor was visually represented in Egyptian art, where women were often depicted with paler skin, indicating their indoor roles, while men were shown with darker skin, a nod to their outdoor activities.

Despite their significant contributions to daily life, tasks like childcare, cooking, and cleaning have left a minimal trace in the archaeological and historical records. As a result, our knowledge about the lives of Egyptian women is less comprehensive than that of men. However, it is known that women enjoyed legal rights equal to men of similar social status, allowing them to own property and live independently without a male guardian.

Delivering a Child

For most married women in ancient Egypt, a significant part of their lives revolved around pregnancy and breastfeeding. Due to the limited medical knowledge of the time, they often relied on amulets and charms for protection during pregnancy. These often bore images of Taweret, the hippopotamus goddess associated with childbirth, and Bes, the dwarf demi-god.

When preparing for childbirth, the mother would remove her clothing and loosen her hair. In wealthier families, she might have had access to a specially built birthing hut, but this was a luxury not available to most. The typical birthing process involved the mother squatting on special bricks. A midwife, equipped with a sharp obsidian or flint knife, would assist with the delivery and cut the umbilical cord. However, in cases of complications, there was little the midwife could do.

Mothers commonly breastfed their children for up to three years, further emphasizing the central role of women in nurturing and sustaining the family’s next generation.

Building Home

The ancient Egyptians primarily constructed their towns and cities using mud-brick, reserving stone for more enduring structures like temples and tombs. Mud-brick was a cost-effective and quick building material. However, its drawback was its lack of durability; over time, most of these mudbrick structures have deteriorated and disappeared.

An exceptional case is the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina, where the builders of royal tombs resided. Remarkably, this village has remained relatively intact. The houses here were designed with a long, narrow, and dark layout. Each featured a wooden front door that opened directly onto the main street. Inside, the typical house consisted of two living or public rooms, a storeroom or bedroom, and a kitchen equipped with a mud-brick oven. The kitchen’s roof was crafted from matting, allowing for the escape of smoke and cooking odors. Additionally, stairs provided access to the roof, which served as an extra living space, a feature indicative of the resourcefulness and adaptability in ancient Egyptian domestic architecture.

Food and Drinks

Egypt’s fertile land ensured that, under normal conditions, its inhabitants were well-fed. Food was acquired through various means: homegrown, earned as rations (since there was no concept of money), or obtained via hunting, fishing, or bartering in markets. Water sources included wells, the Nile River, and irrigation canals constructed by the Egyptians.

Grain, particularly wheat and barley, was the primary carbohydrate source. Bread consumption was widespread across all social classes, including the gods, who were offered hundreds of loaves daily in temples. Vegetables and fish were commonly available, leading to a predominantly healthy diet for the average peasant family, which included bread, fish, onions, and pulses, occasionally supplemented by small game and fowl. In contrast, the elite enjoyed meat more regularly. Interestingly, chicken, a staple in modern Egypt, was not part of the ancient Egyptian diet.

Painted limestone mural showing the preparation and baking of bread.
Painted limestone mural showing the preparation and baking of bread. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

As for beverages, beer was the drink of choice for the masses. This mild, thick, slightly sweet drink was typically consumed through a filtering straw at every meal. Wine, made from grapes grown in the Nile Delta, was a luxury enjoyed mainly by the elite. This vivid picture of ancient Egyptian cuisine highlights a diet that was both diverse and tailored to different social strata.

How They Dressed

The elite of ancient Egypt are often depicted in tomb paintings wearing gleaming white, intricately pleated garments, strolling through fields or enjoying banquets. However, this portrayal is more idealized than realistic. Archaeological findings suggest that most women wore practical, plain, sleeved dresses, akin to the galabiyahs donned by modern Egyptian villagers. These dresses were crafted from linen, as cotton and silk were unknown in ancient Egypt. The attire was typically completed with woven sandals and a shawl for warmth.

Men’s clothing followed a similar pattern, though they often replaced their long outer garments with kilts while working in the fields. These garments were highly valued, being passed down, patched, and mended through generations. Eventually, when they were no longer wearable, they found a final use as mummy wrappings.

Laundry practices involved washing clothes in the canal or the Nile, using natron, a mineral rich in salt, as a detergent. This insight into ancient Egyptian attire and laundry methods reveals a contrast between the idealized depictions of the elite and the more practical, everyday clothing of the general population.

Healthcare

Egyptian doctors in the ancient Mediterranean world were highly esteemed for their medical expertise. Their approach combined scientific methods, like observation and diagnosis, with magical practices, including spells and charms, to treat their patients. Treatment options varied from prescriptions, with human milk often considered a notably effective ingredient, to minor surgical procedures.

These physicians also exhibited some degree of specialization. For instance, gynaecologists in Egypt not only dealt with female health issues but also provided fertility and pregnancy tests, along with contraceptive methods, though these were not always reliable.

Papyrus reconstruction of a fresco from the Theban tomb of Ipi, showing an ophthalmologist treating a patient.
Papyrus reconstruction of a fresco from the Theban tomb of Ipi, showing an ophthalmologist treating a patient. 

However, despite their advanced practices, the Egyptians’ understanding of human anatomy and physiology was not entirely accurate. The process of mummification did give them some knowledge about the arrangement of internal organs, but they mistakenly believed that the body contained a network of ‘canals’ centered around the heart. This network was thought to include blood vessels, tear ducts, and nerves. They theorized that any obstructions within this system could lead to ‘floods’ and ‘droughts’ in different areas of the body, a concept reflecting their integration of medical and mystical beliefs.

Belief

The pantheon of Egyptian deities was extensive, encompassing several thousand gods. These were organized in a sort of hierarchy, with nationally recognized state gods at the top. Below them were gods of local significance, followed at the lower end by demi-gods and various supernatural beings.

While the pharaoh and the priesthood conducted rituals for the major state gods within the grand state temples, the common people were largely excluded from these state religious practices. Instead, they engaged in the worship of a diverse array of local gods, demi-gods, and supernatural entities. This included spirits and ancestors who, despite not having formal cults, played a significant role in the daily lives of ordinary Egyptians.

Magic was an integral part of Egyptian society, perceived as a real and powerful force across all social strata. It was used for protection and to avert harm, and was inextricably linked with both formal religion and what was understood as science in ancient Egypt. This seamless integration of magic, religion, and science reflects the unique worldview of the ancient Egyptians, where the mystical and the practical often blended together.

The Afterlife

In Ancient Egypt, death was viewed not as a final cessation but as a transition to another form of existence. Egyptians believed that preserving the corpse in a lifelike state was essential for the deceased’s spirit to bridge the gap between the living world and the afterlife. Consequently, following death, the body was swiftly taken to an undertaker’s workshop for embalming.

The first step in this process was the removal and disposal of the brain, typically done by breaking the ethmoid bone and inserting a long-handled spoon through the nostril. In stark contrast, the heart was considered essential and left intact. The embalmers then made an incision in the left flank to remove the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver. The body’s finger- and toenails were secured in place, and the corpse was packed with natron salt, a substance used for its drying properties. This stage could last up to 40 days, ensuring the body was thoroughly desiccated. After this period, the body was washed, oiled, and wrapped in bandages, completing the mummification process.

However, such elaborate burial practices were beyond the means of most Egyptians. The majority were buried without mummification, in simple graves in the desert. The nature of the afterlife these individuals anticipated remains largely a mystery, as their expectations and beliefs were not documented with the same detail and care as those of the wealthier classes.

Sarah El-Masri writer on ancient egypt
Sarah El-Masri
Sarah El-Masri, our esteemed writer for the ancien time, is a dedicated history enthusiast from Alexandria, Egypt. Her fascination with ancient worlds began in her childhood, inspired by the rich heritage surrounding her. Though her professional background is in architecture, Sarah's passion for antique history has driven her to become a self-educated expert in the field.

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