Egyptian Social Structure: From Slaves to Pharaoh

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  • 0:27 The Pharaoh
  • 1:20 High Government Officials
  • 2:10 Nobles & Priests
  • 3:17 Soldiers & Scribes
  • 4:29 Artisans & Merchants
  • 5:02 Peasants & Slaves
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore ancient Egypt's social structure. We'll start at the top of this great pyramid with the Pharaoh and work our way to the bottom, where we'll find peasants and slaves.

A Great Pyramid

My name is Anen, and I am an Egyptian. I suppose you would call me an 'ancient Egyptian.' I lived at a time of the building of the Great Pyramids in the 2000s BCE. You might say that our Egyptian social structure looked quite a lot like a pyramid, too, and that's what I'm going to tell you about in this lesson. We'll start at the top of the social pyramid and work down.

The Pharaoh

At the top of our pyramid stands our pharaoh, our supreme ruler, who is considered a god. A pharaoh is a sovereign lord, and his word is law. None of us dares to oppose him, or it would be off with our heads. His job is to protect and govern all the people of Egypt, to direct the army, to make laws, to maintain a food supply through grain taxes, to initiate and supervise building projects (like those Great Pyramids I mentioned), and to keep the rest of the gods happy so that Egypt prospers. You've probably heard of some of our most famous Pharaohs, like Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid at Giza, Ramses the Great, and Tutankhamen (better known as King Tut). We've even had a few female Pharaohs, including the great queen Hatshepsut.

High Government Officials

Of course, our pharaoh does not do everything by himself. He appoints high government officials to help him, and they come next in our great social pyramid. The highest of these ministers is the vizier. He is the pharaoh's right hand man, who advises the pharaoh, supervises other officials, and acts as a chief judge for the most difficult court cases.

The chief treasurer supervises Egypt's wealth and is in charge of collecting taxes, which are nearly always paid in grain, animals, or cloth rather than money. Finally, the general of the armies serves as Egypt's highest military commander after the pharaoh. He gives the pharaoh plenty of advice about security matters and about making alliances with other nations.

Nobles and Priests

As we move down the social pyramid, we meet the nobles and the priests. Nobles are typically very wealthy, and they serve as lesser government officials to help the pharaoh run the country. They also govern Egypt's various regions and make sure that they stay orderly and law-abiding.

Priests keep the gods happy by performing religious rites in Egypt's many temples. Sometimes they offer advice and healings to the people. Priests are also responsible for ritual embalming. We Egyptians have a strong belief in the afterlife, and we think that the body and spirit stay together after death. Therefore, we are careful to preserve the body as much as possible (you would call the results a mummy) and place many items, like food, clothing, furniture, and even games, in the tomb for the dead person to use. The priests oversee this whole process. Priests are led by the high priest who supervises all their duties and advises the pharaoh in religious matters.

Soldiers and Scribes

Next, come the soldiers and the scribes. Soldiers, of course, fight Egypt's battles. They are divided into infantry, or foot soldiers, and chariot troops, who are excellent archers. In times of peace, soldiers have the job of supervising laborers on building projects and keeping slaves under control.

Scribes have a very important role in Egyptian life, and I should know because I'm a scribe. We are trained from a very young age, usually about five years old, and we spend about 12 years learning our hieroglyphs (Egypt's picture symbols). We have to learn more than 700 of those, and we practice writing them over and over again until we can do it perfectly. When we are finally prepared, we begin our jobs of official record keeping. We scribes write down important events and history; draw up contracts; maintain census records; figure out tax rates; document court cases; and monitor the food supply. As you can see, Egypt would have a tough time functioning if it wasn't for us scribes!

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