Egypt – An Ancient Civilisation : The Life Here…

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The large majority of Egyptians were peasants, i. e. people who worked at farming. They were not really landowning people, but dependent on big landowners. The peasants had to work hard to grow enough food to live on. Like everybody else they also had pay taxes, usually in the form of farm produce, such as animals or corn. Many lived in fear of the tax-gatherers. Each year these officials measured the fields and counted the animals. Some peasants managed to drive their goats or sheep into desert or mountain areas before the arrival of the officials. If they were caught, they were punished severely*. However, if the harvest was bad, the pharaoh took care that people were given corn from his store houses. Workers were usually also supported and paid with natural produce. At certain hard times the pay seemed to have become a problem; corruption of officials was part of the problem, too. So in the year 1156 BC the first recorded strike in history took place. As workers had not been given their rations for two months they walked out of the building site of a temple for Ramses III. The conflict was settled when the rations were handed out regularly again.
Most of the poorer people (peasants, farmhands and labourers) lived in houses made of brick or mud. The roofs were covered with palm leaves. Well-to-do people often had two-storey houses (ground floor and an upper floor) and gardens and trees to protect them from the sun. They also owned a pool. Their servants lived in separate buildings.
Often silos for storing corn also belonged to the estates. Except for fairly comfortable beds, there was little furniture in the rooms. There were no drains under the house, with no pipes for dirty water to flow off; servants had to empty the toilet bowl into a canal.
Egyptians loved parties very much so the records tell us. In the houses of wealthy people singers and dancers entertained their guests; servants brought food around which was eaten with the fingers. Bread, a basic food in ancient Egypt, was served along with the meal. Ducks* and geese seemed to have been the favourite meat courses. Wine was offered at the parties of richer people. Grape vines* were grown on the estates of wealthy landowners. Most Egyptians, however, drank beer which was made from barley* or wheat, mixed with date* juice. People drank a lot, especially beer. So it is no wonder that men’s figures seemed to be rather well-rounded.
In contrast to most ancient civilizations women could take part in public life and had a strong position in the household. The wife of a wealthy man, such as a landowner, for example, was called ‘mistress of the house’. All furniture and household goods belonged to her. Her main task was to take care of the children. It was a custom to have only one wife; high officials and pharaohs, however, could have several wives at the same time. In general families had numerous children. The pharaoh Ramses II is said to have been the father of 162 children. But one has to keep in mind that the death rate among babies was very high.
Most children never went to any kind of school. Sons learned from their fathers and mothers taught their daughters how to organise the home. As noted earlier, people had a high opinion of scribes. So fathers tried to get their sons into temple schools to become civil servants or scribes. In school you had to study the classical Egyptian writing (hieroglyphics*), classical texts and stories about the gods. A young civil servant also had to get a good knowledge in various fields of life which could be ship building or the digging of canals or other similar tasks. School was no fun really for young boys. Teachers were very strict. If the students did not study hard enough they were beaten. Much time during the first years of learning was taken up by studying hieroglyphics.
Questions like how to send messages to other people or places or how to keep a record of what was stored could perhaps explain why writing was invented. At first the Egyptians began using small pictures for words, i. e. depicting* objects in the real world. This was enough for very simple messages, but to express more abstract ideas, such as colours or references to time, was difficult. Eventually people began to use pictures to stand for certain sounds. But still, writing took up much time. In the classical period of writing (Middle Kingdom) a scribe had to know at least 700 different signs. From the beginning up to the end of pharaonic Egypt the number of hieroglyphs used in texts numbered more than 2,500, even up to 7,000 if all the known variations are included. Gradually a quicker form of writing developed, called hieratic*, which was used on papyrus sheets. The traditional hieroglyphs were reserved for stone tablets or walls, and especially for holy texts. After the end of pharaonic rule the knowledge of ancient Egyptian writing was lost for centuries. Only in the 19th century did a French scholar succeed in deciphering the script. A stone found in Rosetta (Egypt), which contained a message in Greek and two kinds of Egyptian writing, was the key to the success.
Not everybody was able to become a civil servant or scribe or a trader and merchant. There were other possibilities, such as learning a craft. Craftsmen made all sorts of things such as furniture, boats, pots (from clay), and jewellery from silver, gold and precious stones. The Egyptians were not only great architects, as the pyramids show, but also knew the technique of stone working. Sculpture, the art of modelling figures in stone or metal, was probably the field in which they had the most impressive results. The statue of Ramses II at Thebes, near Luxor, is a well-known example. The age of Ramses II (1279 BC – 1213 BC) was an age of prosperity and power. All across Egypt this pharaoh built new temples, such as the one at Abu Simbel, which was cut into the rocky sides of the Nile Valley. The upper body of the Ramses statue from Thebes is about 2.5 metres high and weighs about 7 tons. The granite for this statue was taken from the quarry* at Assuan, about 150 km up the Nile. The whole statue must have weighed about 20 tons. The huge single block was first roughly shaped and then moved on wooden sleds* to a boat and floated down the Nile to Luxor, where the fine stone working took place. To put up the statue an enormous number of workers and a huge organisation was needed. Thousands of people had to be fed and housed.

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