Ancient History & Civilisation




Quite a number of people claim that they were, and they can prove it. One technique is called, among other things, “past-life regression” what happens is that the subject is put into a trance and sent back in time, following the hints of the hypnotist, to childhood and infancy—and if the claims of the persons involved are to be believed, back into the womb and further back still, until he or she recalls events that happened during a previous incarnation.

Ancient Egypt has always been popular with those who believe they have lived before. Most of them believe they were royalty. Nefertiti’s ka must have cloned itself a thousand times in order to accommodate all the ladies who claim to have been she. I don’t know of anyone who thinks he was privy-cleaner for Ramses III.

One of the most intriguing cases is that of a woman named Dorothy Eady, who was born in En gland in 1904. Fascinated since childhood by ancient Egypt, she believed she had been the lover of King Seti I. (His is unquestionably the best-looking mummy to have survived.) Miss Eady finally got to Egypt by marrying an Egyptian (they were later divorced) and worked as a draftsman and clerk for the Antiquities Department and for various Egyptologists. Not until seventeen years later did she reach Abydos, the home of her dreams, where Seti’s magnificent funerary monuments still stand. Known in the village as Omm Seti, Mother of Seti—she had named her son after her dream lover—she lived in great happiness and considerable squalor until she died at the age of seventy-seven. She is still fondly remembered by many Egyptologists who enjoyed her caustic wit and respected her knowledge of the Abydos complex.

Omm Seti had worked out the details of her former life as the daughter of humble parents who left her at the temple of Isis to be raised by the priests. However, if she—or you, or I—had lived in the Nineteenth Dynasty, it is extremely unlikely that we would have caught the eye of Seti or been raised as a priestess of Isis. The temples didn’t serve as orphan asylums or demand eternal celibacy. Miss Eady was sufficiently dedicated to her dream to live like a Nineteenth Dynasty peasant in a mudbrick shack without modern amenities except for the gifts she accepted from her friends. Give her credit for consistency at least. I wouldn’t have done it, and I doubt you could have stuck it out all those years either.

If we had lived in ancient Egypt our father would probably not have been a priest or an official—much less a pharaoh—but a farmer. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that practically everything we have discussed so far relates to the upper classes of society—kings, nobles, scribes, craftsmen, skilled artisans. Even the workmen’s villages connected with tombs and pyramids were inhabited by people several cuts above the ordinary peasant. The peasants didn’t build tombs or prepare elaborate funerary equipment, and it is from these sources that we derive much of our information about “daily life.” In other words, this is going to be a short chapter. However, we can make a few generalizations.

We would have lived in a one-room hut built of sun-dried mud brick roofed with reeds and shared it with the domestic animals, if Dad was lucky enough to own any. It doesn’t rain often in Upper Egypt, but when it does rain it can rain hard. A heavy downpour would reduce a peasant’s house to a pile of mud. On the positive side, such domiciles were easy to build.

On the face of it, farming in ancient Egypt sounds like a pretty good deal. Every year, regular as clockwork, the Nile overflowed onto the strips of cultivated land bordering the river, depositing the rich silt picked up during its long journey from the highlands of Africa, fertilizing and irrigating at one and the same time.

It wasn’t as easy as that. In times of low Nile, there was not enough water. Excessively high Niles destroyed villages and flooded the fields. Even in good years, irrigation ditches and dikes were necessary to regulate the flow of water and increase the land available for cultivation. To be effective, these activities had to be communal and cooperative. Sooner or later, probably sooner, they were organized and run by the local governor. Eventually the system of land and water control came under state management, and a percentage of the crops went to the king, the local officials, and the temples. The biblical story of Joseph suggests that a strong, benevolent government could store grain in good years and and distribute it when times were bad. State socialism in ancient Egypt?

The three seasons of the Egyptian year were based on agriculture: “inundation” (akhet), when the Nile overflowed; “emergence” (peret), when the water receded and the crops were planted; and “drought,” or “summer” (shemu), the dry season, the season of harvest. Most of the land came to be owned by the king or the temples or the local princes. All of the work was done by the peasants—digging canals, sowing seeds, harvesting the crop. The main crops were barley and emmer wheat, used for the staples of the Egyptian diet, bread and beer, and flax, for the vast quantities of linen needed in life and in death. Even the poorest wore linen, though theirs was more coarsely woven than the delicate fabrics worn by the elite.

The agricultural processes are shown in a number of tomb scenes, since the noble owner of the tomb expected they would continue in the hereafter, supplying him with the good things of this world. A common scene in later funerary papyri shows him and his wife, doggedly hacking away at stalks of grain that extend a depressingly long distance. It is a safe assumption that the noble gentleman hoped he would never have to do this. In the earlier tomb scenes the nobleman isn’t doing anything except looking on. There he sits, several sizes larger than the toiling workmen while they hoe and plow and harvest, and by depicting them doing these chores he probably expected they would go on doing them in the next world. If all else failed, the dead were supplied with little servant statues that could be animated with a magic spell and forced to work for their owner.

After the water had subsided and the soil was dry it had to be prepared for planting. Farming is hard work, even with mechanized tools. It was a lot harder when a plow had to be dragged by men or oxen through the resistant earth, and then hoed—by hand—to prepare it for sowing. It may be necessary to remind those who have never done it that the plowman’s job was not just to stroll along behind the oxen. He had to keep pushing down so that the point of the plow wouldn’t pop up out of the ground. It was a great way to develop the pecs. Hoes were unlike ours; the handle was set at an acute angle to the part that went into the ground. It was a great way to develop backaches. (It’s amazing how long it took people to figure out that long-handled implements were more effective and a lot easier on the back.) By the New Kingdom another device made the peasant’s labor somewhat easier. The shaduf was used to raise water from a lower to a higher level. A pot was attached to one end of a long pole and a weight to the other; the weight lessened the strain of lifting the filled pot. These devices were used up till modern times.

If it was a good year, the season of “drying out” or “summer” brought a bountiful crop. Reaping was done with wooden sickles set with flint chips, and only the heads of the grain were whacked off—a considerable saving of time and back strain—leaving the straw to be harvested later. The reapers were followed by women who picked up the grain that had fallen. This seems to have been a “perk” which was jealously guarded; one tomb scene shows a pair of women fighting over their shares.

The grain was then taken to the thrashing floor and trodden by oxen to remove the husks, then winnowed by men who tossed it into the air so that the wind would blow the chaff away.

All these activities are shown in several Eighteenth Dynasty tombs—not those of the men and women who did the dirty work, but those of the nobles for whom they worked. Often these scenes are enlivened by snatches of dialogue, written above the workers like cartoon balloons. “Let’s work,” one man exclaims enthusiastically, and another declares that he will do even more than is expected of him “for the noble.” One is entitled to harbor a certain amount of skepticism about these admirable sentiments.

We don’t know what percentage of the land was “privately owned,” if that word has any meaning in ancient Egypt. Part of the land belonged to the nobleman and part to the king or, particularly in later periods, to the temples of the gods. Even when the farmer kept part of the results of his labor, he had to pay taxes. “Nothing is certain except death and taxes” is a saying that might have originated in ancient Egypt.

The amount of tax due was estimated by the scribe who worked for the temple or the government. It was paid in kind, and woe betide the unhappy laborer who could not come up with the right number of bushels. “He is beaten hard. He is tied up and thrown into a pool. He is ducked and thoroughly soaked, and his wife is tied up in his presence.”

It could be worse, I suppose. One would like to believe that harsher penalties would have violated some code of justice or morality, but there was probably a practical reason; death or mutilation would have deprived the state of a worker.

The peasant also had to contribute a certain percentage of his time to communal activities such as digging ditches and maintaining dikes. One document lists the punishment for men who deserted or “ran away”—seized, one must suppose, by a fit of temporary insanity, since the penalty for the last misdemeanor is less grave than the one for a deserter.

There was a certain amount of free enterprise, however. Some people were paid, not in money—there was no coinage in ancient Egypt before the Persian period—but in goods. The well-off workers of Deir el Medina were supplied by the state not only with living quarters and food, but with other necessities and even luxuries, including laundresses. Not so the peasant, but it was possible for industrious (and lucky) individuals to accrue wealth in the form of produce or manufactured goods. They could trade linen or grain or pots for other things they needed, as the “Eloquent Peasant” we met in chapter 7 hoped to do. A few papyri give relative values—a piece of linen was worth so many measures of wheat or so many weights of copper—but these varied from period to period and obviously depended on scarcity and need. In other words, an object was worth what ever you could get for it. (The same thing is true today in flea markets and auction houses.) There are references to a unit of value called a deben—a certain weight of copper—but it is unlikely that the metal itself often changed hands.

Many of the markets were set up near the docks, where incoming ships brought exotic goods from abroad and men long at sea (or Nile) made good customers. One such scene shows the boat being unloaded, and three small booths where private merchants offer sandals, cloth, and other commodities. An even more intriguing scene (from a tomb, of course) shows a lively open-air market with stalls offering all sorts of things, from fish to fabric. This one is fun because it provides dialogue. “Give [me] your property” is one stallkeeper’s introductory “pitch” to a prospective customer. He goes on to tell what he will give in exchange—figs or fish or excellent vegetables.

Even these scenes, which surely represent a common activity, may show only the more prosperous members of the working class. The ordinary farmer didn’t have time to accumulate much beyond bare subsistence. However, there must have been small village markets, as there are even today.

Skilled workers had a number of perks, including days off and possibly medical care. Not the peasant. His working day began at sunrise and ended at sundown. Artificial means of lighting in the humble quarters of the peasant consisted, at most, of a rag floating in a vessel of oil, and oil was expensive. The means of entertainment were limited, but storytelling and gossip and the pleasures (and aggravations) of family life were available to all. The national religious festivals, of which there were a great many, gave the peasant a little holiday and a little excitement and perhaps free beer.

It’s no wonder the life span of these toilers was approximately thirty-five years. Studies of Egyptian mummies show that these people suffered from a number of diseases, most of which went untreated. Poor nutrition and inability to cope with infection contributed to high infant mortality. The flour ground on stone querns contained large quantities of grit that wore away tooth surfaces. Cavities were fairly infrequent, since the Egyptians didn’t have refined sugar, but a number of mummies have hideous gum abscesses. In at least one case the bursting of the abscess caused blood poisoning, which brought to an end a life that must have been agonizingly painful. The skeletons of the stone workers at Giza show the effect of long years of heavy labor, including fractures.

Recent studies of mummies have turned up a variety of other diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, and smallpox. Black lung disease resulted from the smoke-filled, poorly ventilated houses, and desert lung disease from the constantly blowing sand. Perhaps the worst and most common illness was parasitic infection, which still occurs in Egypt today. The most pervasive parasite goes by two names, bilharzias or schistosomiasis. I won’t go into the details, since they are really revolting, but if not treated the infection produces calcification of the bladder, fibrosis of the intestine, scarring of the liver, serious anemia, chronic fatigue, and possibly heart disease. It isn’t fatal except in rare cases, but the sufferer probably wishes it were. Can you imagine hoeing the fields and hauling stones for pyramids when you are suffering from something like this? Some mummies suffered from not one but several potentially fatal diseases or infections.

So who wants to be an ancient Egyptian? Any ancient Egyptian? Even the mighty pharaohs had to do without many of the comforts we take for granted—antibiotics, plumbing, air conditioning, dentists, television…. Well, maybe the absence of television wouldn’t have been all that bad.

Before we start feeling superior to our “primitive” predecessors, we should bear in mind that a good many people in today’s “civilized” world live under conditions that are as bad or worse as those the ordinary ancient Egyptian endured. No, like most of us I am too spoiled to live that way, even for a short time, even as Nefertiti. But if I could pick my time and place…a conference with Hatshepsut and her chief advisers just before she announced her kingship…a private chat with Akhenaton about his reasons for elevating a new god (and the real meaning of those egg-shaped heads)…a safe vantage point at the battle of Kadesh to see what Ramses II really did….

It will never happen, and that’s probably just as well. Nobody would believe me anyhow.

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