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Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

Instructor: Brian Cunningham

Brian has completed his first year of a doctoral program in Classics, and has taught at the university level. He has been published for his historical research.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the daily life of Ancient Egyptians, including their diet, clothing, home life, jobs, and leisure activities. You'll also learn how and why their lives changed during the periods known as the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, which lasted from about 2715-1069 BCE.

Ancient Egypt, Gift of the Nile

When you think about Ancient Egypt, what images come to mind? Do you imagine sailing the Nile River or staring at the pyramids of Giza? Perhaps the Sphinx or famous pharaohs like Tutankhamen come to mind? Or, maybe you're thinking about mummies, hieroglyphs, or golden, jewel-studded sarcophagi. You would be right to answer any of these amazing things. Each of these facets belonged to the powerful Egyptian civilization which began more than 5,000 years ago.

Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

However, Ancient Egypt was made up of much more than these objects and rulers. Just like modern societies, it was comprised of countless people living their day-to-day lives, contributing to society, and providing for themselves or their families. In some ways, they lived much as we do now, but in other ways, their lives were immensely different.

Social Structure & Occupations

Life in Ancient Egypt was extremely regulated and organized according to a rigid class system. Generally speaking, people belonged to one of three main categories:

  • The pharaoh, or king, his family, and court attendants
  • The nobility, such as government officials and military commanders
  • Commoners, or the peasants who made up the workforce of laborers

The majority of the population occupied the lowest tier, and made up the backbone of Egyptian society. They maintained several different core occupations, such as farmers, field workers, builders, or servants. If you were fortunate enough to belong to the upper social classes, you might be employed as a soldier, baker, priest, artist, jeweler, or even a scribe, which was one of the most important jobs in Ancient Egypt. Scribes were writers who were educated in matters of math, religion, and cultural tradition. A great deal of what historians and archaeologists have discovered about regular Egyptian citizens is due to their carefully constructed and preserved papyrus scrolls, which are sheets of stretched paper made from the leaves of the papyrus plant.

Another area of expertise for the Ancient Egyptians was medicine. In fact, one of the oldest surviving documents on surgery comes from their civilization, dating back to about 1600 BCE. Ancient Egyptian doctors were well-practiced in their craft, and often also served as priests, incorporating magic and incantations into their healing practices. They gained much of their experience preparing the dead for the afterlife, removing organs and fluids from the deceased.

Leisure Activities & Clothing

Though much of what's popularly associated with the Ancient Egyptians derives from funerary objects associated with the afterlife, their daily lives actually revolved around enjoying the time they had on Earth. They loved to play games, such as senet or mehen, which were popular board games. They also participated in sports, like swimming and wrestling, and even danced, raced, and played catch. Children had toys to play with that were usually made of papyrus reeds or leather, shaped into various animals or people. Other leisure activities included music and even public performances that were the precursors of what became theater.

For clothing, the common Egyptian man wore linen loincloths or knee length skirts. Women usually wore a simple, straight dress. These choices were practical and based on the hot, arid climate. Affluent citizens, however, wore much more elaborate and decorated clothing that reflected their social status.

Changes from the Old to the New Kingdom

The term ''Ancient Egypt'' can be misleading. It may sound like a simple and singular period of time, but in reality Ancient Egypt spanned many thousands of years and went through several different phases. This vast amount of time produced many changes for Egyptian society. Two aspects of life that changed dramatically between the Old and New Kingdoms (c. 2715-1075 BCE) were methods of food production and residential architecture.

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