Note: This essay is based on the topic covered in the textbook People and Nations: A World History, specifically Chapter 2, Section 2, titled “The culture of ancient Egypt reached impressive heights”.
Culture and Society of Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptian Civilization is very well-known of, in fact, it is one of the most famous civilizations in history. From the pyramids at Giza to mummies and sarcophaguses, Ancient Egypt has certainly made its mark. But besides those two main things, most people really don’t know that much about Ancient Egypt. Well, this paper is meant to inform those about the culture and society of this great civilization from 3,500 years ago.
An important thing to know before culture is even mentioned is that the Nile River dominated how the Ancient Egyptians lived; it was pretty much the backbone of Egyptian civilization. Each and every June, the Nile would flood due to an entry of melted snow from the mountains of Ethiopia, where one of the Nile’s tributaries originates. During this time, the water kept getting higher and higher until the middle of September, when the water slowly receded until river was back to normal in October. Since the water receded so slowly, a layer of moist, fertile soil (which the river brought with it) was left behind, allowing the next crop of grain to be grown. This process has happened for millennia and still happens today. In addition, since only one planting could happen per year, the Egyptians quickly discovered their ability to dig canals and irrigate the river so more crops could be grown. In addition, the climate was favorable, there were deposits of limestone, granite, and sandstone available for building purposes, and the Nile River flowed from south to north so the Egyptians could sail to and across the Mediterranean and trade with other peoples. Another thing is that while society did progress and change did occur, the change was gradual. This helped contribute to the remarkable stability of Ancient Egypt, along with relative geographic isolation; the only land bridge available to get to the Nile River valley was the Isthmus of Suez, which was risky to begin with. The rest of Egypt was separated by deserts and seas, which were barriers for invaders.
For the most part, Egypt was a farming culture, so it makes sense to put this paragraph next. The majority of Egyptian farms were, essentially, large estates where peasants worked the fields with crude hoes and plows, which assisted them in growing wheat and barley, which were staples in most ancient civilizations. Most of this grain went to the pharaoh as payment of rent and tax, but the peasants who grew the crops still got enough for their families, as it was a pharaoh’s job to take care of his people. The Egyptians could also pay the pharaoh’s taxes with wine and cattle too. Egyptian farmers also grew flax and cotton, both of which were woven into linen and cloth, respectively, so clothing could be made. However, Egypt had a surplus of grain, so traders sailed the Nile River and traded grain with other peoples to get supplies and commodities that they needed. Egyptians were also one of the first peoples to build ships, but trade was done overland too. The Egyptians rode in camels and donkeys in large groups called caravans (for safety against robbers) and travelled to the Middle East and deeper into Africa.
Egypt, like all other societies, had its own social classes. The system of social standing in Egypt was very simple; at the top there was an upper class consisting of the pharaoh, his family, nobles, and priests, and at the bottom there was everyone else. It was rare, but not impossible for someone to advance their status within the lower class; however nobody could advance into the upper class. A more positive note on the other hand was that women were given a larger degree of rights in Egypt versus anywhere else. Women could own property and pass it on to their daughters just as a man could pass his property down to his son. In addition men and women were also equals in social and business affairs. An important note is that while the pharaoh was the ruler in name (and thus at the top of the social pyramid), most pharaohs were weak puppets of the priests and nobles. Only the strong rulers like Ramses II were actually able to circumvent the nobles’ de facto authority, so the pharaoh’s so-called divine heritage, really didn’t matter much.
Another important aspect of Egyptian society and culture was religion. Egyptian religion was polytheistic; meaning there were many gods worshipped. Each one of these had an animal symbol that was sacred. An example would be Thoth, the God of Knowledge, being represented by a baboon. The Egyptians also worshipped gods representing the sun and moon, both of which, particularly the sun, were considered to be very important. Early on, each village had its own god, and as time passed, some of these began to be universally recognized. Education was also partly influenced by religion. Most schools were located in temples, however the main purpose for these schools was to train scribes for the government. These scribes got paid for writing things that others couldn’t, and they were well-respected among Egyptian society.
However Egyptian mythology couldn’t be complete without mentioning the afterlife. What we know as death, to the Egyptians, was simply a transformation from a corporeal existence to a spiritual one. At first, the ancient Egyptians only thought that this journey was reserved for the pharaoh and a few whom he selected. However as time passed, Egyptians began to believe that the afterlife was for everyone, even animals. They also believed that a person’s soul would be happier if the body was preserved, so the Egyptians developed a mummification process to dry out and store the soul’s body. The mummy was then placed in a tomb filled with food, jewelry, tools, weapons, clothing, and even little figures that were meant to be servants. The Egyptians thought that these were necessary for the soul to have in a long journey to a place known as the Realm of the Dead. Social status also had an importance in how much of these items one got. An upper class priest got a more luxurious tomb than a lower class peasant. Obviously then the pharaoh got the most luxurious tomb. Each tomb also had a collection of hymns, prayers, and chants known as The Book of the Dead placed in it. This so-called book was a sort of guide to the afterlife, and it was supplied to protect the soul from serpents and demons that would attack the person on the journey to the Realm of the Dead. Once the soul completed the journey through the Realm of the Dead, it entered the Hall of Truth, where the god Osiris judged the soul. Before the judging, the soul had to make a pledge that it hadn’t lied, murdered, or become proud (boastful and excessively showy) during its life on Earth. Then the soul was weighed on a scale next to a feather, the symbol of truth. If the scales were balanced, then the good deeds had outweighed the bad and the soul was telling the truth, and could enter into the presence of the sun-god and enjoy eternal happiness. However if the soul was lying and the scales weren’t balanced, then the soul was thrown to a monster known as the Eater of the Dead. This encouraged good character in Egyptian society. Unfortunately, most of the Egyptian tombs have been ransacked by tomb robbers, particularly the Great Pyramids of the Old Kingdom. So during the New Kingdom, most tombs were dug in mountains and the faces of cliffs. However robbers still found most of these as well. The one well-known exception was the tomb of Tutankhamen, which was discovered in 1922.
An interesting, skipped-over aspect of Egyptian culture is pets. Egyptian pets were an integral part of Egyptian lifestyle, and many Egyptians had pets. In particular there were three different kinds of pets kept by Egyptians. They were dogs, cats, and monkeys and/or baboons. Dogs are one of, if not the most heavily domesticated animal on the planet, and this was no less true in ancient times. Egyptians had all sorts of dogs, from hunting dogs to sheepdogs to guard dogs to even house dogs. There was a kind of dog for everybody in ancient Egypt. Dogs were very popular pets considering that there are paintings on the walls of tombs showing dogs hunting alongside their masters, and there is large evidence suggesting that they wore ornate collars and leashes. Curiously, however, no evidence has been found to show that Egyptians stroked their dogs, groomed them, or played with them either. While dogs may join their masters in hunting wildlife, cats usually stayed home and hunted down pests like rats and snakes. Cats were well-known for the efficiency and prowess in hunting down pests, and were also popular among the royal families of Egypt. The last popular pet of Egypt was the monkey. Monkeys, and baboons, were largely regarded as entertainers. Many Egyptians enjoyed watching their antics, and to find someone who had spent hours watching them wasn’t uncommon. Most monkeys and baboons had their canine teeth removed in order to prevent serious bites. Due to those bites, monkeys were often times seen walking alongside the Egyptian police force called the medjay. Animals were often mummified in a similar fashion to their owners and either put in their own sarcophagus or inside their master’s.
The Egyptians were also known for their mathematical advancements. One of those was creating a 365-day calendar with 12 months. This was done to replace the lunar calendar, which was harder to follow. The calendar began in June every year when the Nile flooded and the star now known as Sirius appeared in the sky. Since there were 365 days between each flood, the Egyptians devised a calendar with 12 months with 30 days each. The five days left over were used for holidays and feasting. Egyptians then marked the years based on what year it had been since the pharaoh had begun his reign. An example would be the twentieth year of some pharaoh. Using these two methods, the earliest known date the ancient Egyptians recorded is somewhere around 2780 B.C. In addition, the ancient Egyptians developed a numbering system based on tens, used both fractions and whole numbers, plus they used geometry to fix the boundaries of fields for growing crops. Lastly, the Egyptians were also able to diagnose some diseases and prescribe treatments. Some were just magic spells, but others were taking herbs or drugs.
In conclusion, for its time, ancient Egyptian civilization was remarkable and ahead of the pack in terms of scientific, mathematical, and cultural advancement. People in what is now the Northeastern United States at this time were just learning how to farm. While their religion is no longer practiced, we no longer have a rigid class system, and we don’t mummify our dead, we still have a 365-day calendar with 12 months and many of the diseases Egyptians diagnosed we can diagnose today. In fact, some are quite common. In addition, both dogs and cats are kept as pets and are (sometimes stereotypically) known for the same things as in ancient Egypt. It’s quite amazing how similar a civilization from 3,500 years ago can be so similar to civilization today; we’re not that far off from 1500 B.C.
Mazour, Anatole G., John M. Peoples, and Theodore K. Rabb. People and Nations: A World History. 1968. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, 1983, Print.
Juan José Sánchez Arreseigor. “Pets for Life – and the Afterlife.” National Geographic History Aug. 2015. 12-15. Print.