Ancient History & Civilisation

Six

“COME, TELL ME HOW YOU LIVE”

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TOWNS AND HOUSES

One of the most fascinating sites in the Theban area is tucked away in a little valley west of Medinet Habu and south of Deir el Bahri. It doesn’t look like much: row upon row of dark mud brick and stone chip walls, arranged in a sort of grid. There are tombs on the hillside, some of them beautifully decorated; there is a temple, but it’s not high on anybody’s list. The interest of the site is in those mudbrick walls—the remains of a town, inhabited by craftsmen and artists.

In the early days of archaeology it was the tombs that interested excavators and collectors. The city site was not investigated properly until the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, under Bernard Bruyère, tackled it. He worked there for over twenty years, and he mentions that, at the beginning of the last century, a visitor to Deir el Medina might have seen houses with their walls still intact and tombs still capped by the little pyramids which were characteristic of the period. By the time he arrived it was all gone, wrecked by amateur archaeologists and by some professionals who did not know their trade well enough. “The passion for antiquity destroyed what the centuries had spared.”

Deir el Medina is not as well known as some of the other tourist spots, yet it is an extremely important place—one of the few town sites found in Egypt. Unlike tombs, houses were built of perishable materials, and many of the most important ancient cities are hidden under modern villages. Therefore, the town sites we have found are vital, rounding out a picture of Egyptian culture still heavily biased by mortuary material. Deir el Medina has produced more useful information about town life than any other such site. It yielded masses of ostraca and papyri, including literary works, lists of supplies, rude letters, and irritable complaints. These artifacts give unique insights into the activities and interests of a group of average men and women of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties.

The isolation of Deir el Medina explains in part why it was spared for so long. It lies in a hidden valley behind a spur of the desert cliffs, away from the regular tourist routes. The area is desolate and inhospitable; there is not even a water supply at the village. We might wonder why a town was ever located there. The answer lies in another valley, not far distant from Deir el Medina. The inhabitants of the village were necropolis workers—the stonemasons, scribes, and other craftsmen who constructed and decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

The town was probably founded in the early Eighteenth Dynasty when the first royal tomb was begun in the Valley, and it was inhabited for roughly 400 years. A wall surrounded the site, and a single gate led into the main street, which was straight and only four or five feet wide. The houses, built of mud brick and limestone chips, faced directly on the street. Most of them were small, having on the average only four rooms. The room facing the street had no windows, except for small gratings high up near the roof. Behind was an all-purpose room in which the family slept, dined, worked, and entertained; columns supported the ceiling, which was higher than that of the neighboring rooms and which thus allowed light to penetrate through clerestory-style windows. There was usually a raised platform in this room, to serve as a couch and/or bed platform—or a birth box? Behind the main room were two smaller chambers. One was the kitchen and one a storeroom or extra bedroom. Most of the houses had basements, for storage, reached by stairs from the main room. Other stairs led up to the roof, which was flat and served as extra living space. There wasn’t much privacy to be had in these smallish houses, for family units might include grandma, auntie, and other undefined relatives in addition to parents and children.

Not very glamorous, but on the whole not bad. A good many people in today’s world live in less salubrious surroundings. However, we would probably prefer a nobleman’s villa, as the Egyptians did if they could afford one. Our model comes from Tell el Amarna, which was the onetime, if short-lived, capital of Egypt. Most of the excavators of Amarna have pointed out that the name is incorrect; it is a misunderstanding of the names of two of the modern villages at the site. However, it has been used for so long that it has acquired a meaning, whether it had one originally or not, and I would rather use it than the ancient name, Akhetaton, which is confusingly like the name of its founder, Akhenaton.

Amarna was not a walled city, being bounded by the river on one side and the valley cliffs on the other. The modern road runs along the same route as the main street of the ancient city, called the “Royal Road.” Along this street the city mushroomed into three major subdivisions. The central section contained the public buildings and the Great Temple, and a palace which the king and his family occupied on ceremonial occasions, leaning out the “Window of Appearance” to receive the plaudits of the crowd and present awards to deserving officials. A southern section was primarily residential, containing some of the largest and most elegant villas. The northern suburb included a couple of palaces. There was also a workmen’s village, similar in function and general design to Deir el Medina, but much smaller, since it was occupied for such a short time.

Since the site had never been inhabited before Akhenaton’s time, his chief courtiers could lay out elegant houses with ample grounds around them. The house itself was sprawling and one-storied. Set on a low platform, it was approached by steps or ramps. The main entrance led into a reception hall with painted wooden columns. Behind it was a central hall, a sort of family room, with columns, a brazier for heat on cool evenings, and a built-in divan along one wall. The private quarters of the family were little suites separated from the public part of the house. Some had small private sitting rooms. There were bedrooms, identified by the raised platforms on which the beds were placed, and a bathroom with stone or plaster walls. The bather stood on a stone slab with a low coping and the water drained off through a hole in the floor. Since there were no closets, storage space was provided by a separate room with rows of shelves. The amenities of the villa included a lavatory—a small, walled-off space with a seat supported by bricks and a removable vessel underneath.

An important part of a wealthy man’s estate was his garden. Ideally it featured a pool, surrounded by carefully tended trees and flowers. To spend the day sitting or reclining in the shade of leafy branches, surrounded by sweet scents, and dreamily contemplating the limpid surface of a pool is, as gardeners lucky enough to possess these things know, one of the highest pleasures in life—particularly when you are watching someone else do the work. Several paintings show gardeners watering the plants; they are obviously servants, and some have been so busy that they haven’t had time to shave.

Flowers were favored offerings to the gods; they were also used for funerary bouquets and wreaths. Perhaps the most-loved flower of all was the one erroneously, but commonly, referred to as the lotus. It was not a true lotus, but a water lily, and there were two varieties, blue and white—nymphaea lotus and nymphaea caerulea, to give them their scientific names. The lotus proper is a member of another family, Nelumbo, and it is quite different in appearance and habit. However, the word has been in use for so long that it would be pedantic to insist on calling the flower a lily.

From wreaths found in burials, such as those of Tutankhamon, we can identify poppies, cornflowers, and other blossoms, as well as leaves of the olive and willow. The brilliant scarlet poppy and vivid blue cornflower were often combined with a bright yellow fruit, possibly that of the persea trea, possibly that of the mandrake, to form a spectacular color combination. The mandrake is not the kind of plant you want to fool with; not only is it poisonous, but according to medieval herbals, it screams when it is uprooted. It has not actually been found in Egypt, so maybe the pretty yellow fruits are those of the persea.

You will not find roses mentioned in any of the books on Egyptian flowers, but the plant was known in Egypt by the Roman period. In tombs of that time Petrie found wreaths that included rosebuds, some of which actually opened when they were put in water. They are described as “red” roses, but they have been identified with the Rose of Abyssinia, and the modern variety is not red, but pink.

The above is a totally irrelevant interpolation, for which I do not apologize. I like roses and I have the Rose of Abyssinia (or Rosa sacra) in my garden. That’s how I know it is pink.

If a nobleman’s villa and garden don’t satisfy you, we will offer a royal palace. Not many of them have survived, since they were built of the same brick and wood that constituted private dwellings. The plans of the Amarna palaces are known, but an even more interesting example is the palace of Amenhotep III, Akhenaton’s father, on the west bank at Thebes. The site is called Malkata.

Amenhotep’s palace was almost a city in itself; it consisted of four separate royal residences, a temple, a workers’ village, and a series of houses for officials. Possibly one palace was the king’s and the others belonged to the queens and crown prince. Amenhotep III had two important wives and a son who turned out to be Akhenaton, so the theory is neatly tempting, but of course we don’t know whether it is true or not. Let’s take a look at the building which has been called the King’s Palace.

At the northern end were three audience halls, two big and one small. Each had a dais for the throne, and the largest was reached by a wide corridor, the main entrance to the palace. The king’s private apartments consisted of a long columned hall with a throne room behind it. Behind the throne room was the king’s suite, consisting of bedroom, bath, and robing room. Archaeological evidence indicates that it had two stories. On either side of the long hall there were four suites of rooms—for ladies of the harem?—each consisting of a storeroom with shelves, a robing room with more shelves, a bedroom, a parlor, and a bath.

The glory of the palace was not only its spaciousness but its decoration. Floors, ceilings, and walls were painted in brilliant colors, and with a naturalistic skill which reached its height at this period. A favorite motif for floors was a pool, surrounded by plants and water birds, and filled with fishes, lilies, and swimming ducks. Ceilings had grape trellises or flying birds; walls might be adorned with animals or graceful court ladies. In the king’s bedroom there were prancing figures of the odd little dwarf god Bes, who was a popular house hold deity. Even the brick supports for the shelves were painted with papyrus plants and animals. The decoration of the throne rooms was more formal—figures of the king and of kneeling captives. The wooden columns which supported the ceilings of some rooms were made in the graceful shapes of plants, papyrus or lotus, and they also were brightly painted. No greater contrast to the general view of Egyptian architecture—grim, gray, and monolithic—could possibly be imagined than these palaces, aglow with color and alive with the fluttering of birds’ wings.

We have had a small sampling of Egyptian houses, from the humble dwellings of workers to the abode of the king himself, but it should be pointed out that even the humbler abodes were those of craftsmen, who were several steps up the social scale from the peasants. Deir el Medina and the workmen’s village at Amarna were planned and constructed by the government. There were similar towns at other sites—more of them than was once realized, since people keep finding new ones—designed for a similar purpose: the construction and maintainance of the royal tombs. At Giza, near the Great Pyramid, some structures were evidently food production centers, since bread and beer and, in this case, fish were part of the workers’ pay. An additional perk was the right to build a tomb. Dr. Zahi Hawass has found dozens of the workers’ tombs at Giza, and the people of Deir el Medina built theirs on the hillside near the village. (Excavators have recently identified a possible commoners’ cemetery at el-Amarna. Stay tuned.) The hamlets of lower-class folks probably grew at random and were built of even more perishable materials—and were even less comfortable.

Although the above examples may be considered “typical” in a broad sense, others do show different features. The Malkata palace, which was similar to those of Amarna, particularly in decoration, may have been exceptional; this was an exceptional period, particularly in art. Plant columns were always popular, even in private homes, but the walls, floors, and ceilings of earlier palaces were probably painted with more formal designs or covered with woven matting. Egyptian animal and bird figures are always quite charming, but animal forms of the Amarna Period have a liveliness which is lacking in earlier times. We have no evidence that such motifs, appropriate and lovely as they are, were used in earlier palaces.

One important difference between the Amarna villas and those of other periods must be noted: there were no separate women’s quarters at Amarna. Other well-to-do houses give the mistress her own suite, separate from that of the master. At Amarna, husband and wife apparently occupied the same suite. What does this mean? We could make some pretty generalizations about the changed position of women under the iconoclastic, uxorious Akhenaton, but they would only be guesses.

Villas and palaces are unusual in one important aspect—their spaciousness. The king naturally took all the room he wanted, and the villas were country houses. A town house, even one belonging to a nobleman, was more cramped because Egyptian cities were limited in space; they had to encroach as little as possible on the precious black soil used for crops. We think that houses in a city such as Thebes were several stories in height. Except in rare cases there would be no land available for gardens or “front yards,” so the family had to take their airings on the roof, which was often surrounded by screens of matting.

I imagine most of us could endure living at a place like the Malkata palace; we wouldn’t even mind the absence of plumbing if we had slaves to run back and forth carrying water jars and the ancient equivalent of chamber pots. The cramped quarters of the workmen’s village might not appeal so much. Even the humbler houses, however, were well adapted to the Egyptian climate and customs. The main features of the climate are its rainlessness and its brilliant sunshine, with resultant heat. The sun-dried brick of which most houses were built was perfectly adequate in a rainless area; sloping roofs were unnecessary. Thus, a cheap, easy source of building material was readily available, and the flat roofs could be used as terraces, which would be an agreeable addition to city houses. To keep the houses cool, sunlight was excluded as much as possible; windows were few, high, and small. Walls were thick—twenty inches in the Deir el Medina houses—and there were ventilators on the roofs to catch the prevalent north wind. The city houses were limited in space, so cooking had to be done in the house itself, but whenever possible the kitchens were outside, in separate buildings. Other outbuildings on a country estate included servants’ quarters and pens for animals, buildings for brewing, baking, and weaving, and a butchers’ shop. It was a small economic unit in itself.

FURNITURE AND HOUSE HOLD EQUIPMENT

The Egyptians did not clutter up their houses with furniture, but some of the pieces which have survived are elegant enough to stand comparison with fine modern work. In fact, they are better looking than a lot of my furniture. Like their friends the jewelers, Egyptian carpenters had reason to be proud of their skill, all the more so because of the materials they had to work with. Egypt is poor in large trees, and early in pharaonic times she began importing cedar from the Lebanon for fine woodworking. Such imports were expensive, of course, so Egyptian carpenters had to learn to work, for the most part, with their scrubby native trees—sycamore fig, acacia, tamarisk, sidder, and willow. Mortise and tenon joints, dovetailing, and wooden pegs joined together the small planks which were obtained from these local trees. The tools were of copper; they included chisels, adzes, axes, and drills. Saws were of the “pull” type, with the teeth set toward the handle. I do very little sawing myself, but I understand that our saws are “push” saws, with the teeth set away from the handle. We usually lay the wood to be cut with a saw on a table or saw horse, but the Egyptians tied theirs to a post and cut down from the top, this being the best position for using their pull saws. When the wood was cut and jointed it was “planed” by a lump of stone.

Softened as we are by our Posturepedic inner-spring mattresses, most of us would find Egyptian beds uncomfortable. They had wooden frames and springs of woven cord or leather strips. Most were higher at the head than at the foot, so they had a footboard—but no headboard—to keep the sleeper from sliding gently down onto the floor. Over the springs were placed pads of folded linen, with sheets of the same material as the covering. I imagine these beds were as comfortable as our camp beds, but the item that would finish most of us was the pillow, which was not a pillow at all but a headrest of shoulder height, with a support curved to fit the neck. I have always wondered whether the Egyptians didn’t use cushions with these devices of torture, but I know of no examples, and apparently the headrest is not as painful as it looks once you get accustomed to it. Other peoples use them, and a modern archaeologist, Herbert E. Winlock, remarked that they were surprisingly comfortable after some little practice, “if you didn’t pinch your ear.” Another intrepid scholar, who must have tried the darned thing himself, claimed that a headrest was okay if you were lying on your side. Rather him than me….

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Bed

There was very little in the bedroom besides the bed—only a few boxes and baskets for clothing. Most of these containers, though, were kept on the shelves of the storeroom next to the bedroom, if the house boasted such an arrangement. Women kept their toilet articles in a chest or a basket, and perhaps these were placed on low tables when the lady made up her face. Some storage chests could be provided with legs, forming a sort of stand. There were several such objects in Tutankhamon’s tomb, and one of them is a particularly handsome piece of furniture; someday I intend to have it copied. Unlike many of Tutankhamon’s possessions, it is of simple design, but the proportions and the row of ornamental hieroglyphs are quite elegant. Tutankhamon had some chests which are real objets d’art, especially the one painted with scenes of hunting and warfare, but of course they are not typical of those ordinarily used. Plainer wooden boxes and woven baskets were more common. Some had lids which could be tied on and—if the owner was of a suspicious nature—sealed with a blob of clay that covered the knot. The boxes were often ingeniously designed, with separate compartments for different articles. One had a shallow space under the lid for a mirror, with supporting pieces set in to hold the handle and keep the mirror from banging around when the box was moved. The hollow interior of the box held pots for unguents and perfumes.

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Chairs and stool

Living room furniture consisted of chairs, stools, and tables. The common people squatted on the floor or on the built-in divan; wealthier folk naturally had more furniture. Chairs exhibit a wide variety of forms, having long legs and short legs, arms or no arms, but most of them seem broad by our standards, especially for the slender Egyptians of the reliefs. The most gorgeous chair we have is one belonging to Tutankhamon; it was probably a throne rather than a house hold item, and it is inlaid with hundreds of little pieces of ebony, ivory, and colored wood. Stools usually had short legs and seats of woven rushes. There were no dining tables seating twenty-four, not even in the king’s palace. At banquets each guest or pair of guests had his own little table. Although most people went to bed at sunset, they did have lamps—containers filled with oil, with a wick.

A remarkable discovery made by an Italian expedition digging at Deir el Medina in 1906 gives an accurate picture of what a well-to-do couple of the Eighteenth Dynasty considered necessary for comfortable living, in this world and the next. The tomb is unique; all others, even those of Tutankhamon and Yuya and Thuya, had been broken into by thieves at least once, but Kha and his wife Merit had not been disturbed since they were laid to rest approximately three thousand years before Ernesto Schiaparelli found them, with the wooden door of the tomb still in place.

In addition to the tables, stools, baskets, chairs, and beds we have mentioned, Kha’s tomb contained large quantities of linen—sheets, tunics, and loincloths. Linens were among the first things taken by tomb robbers, since they could be recycled immediately and couldn’t be traced back to the tomb owners. Kha and Merit also had toilet articles and vessels of pottery, metal, and stone, storage chests, food of all kinds…. A complete listing would take several pages. Kha and Merit definitely did take it with them. Among the other objects (which included their coffins and mummies) were two unusual items: lamp stands as tall as modern floor lamps.

Tutankhamon’s furniture was a lot fancier than anything a commoner would own. One of his lamps is made of calcite (we used to call it alabaster) and it has a scene painted on the inside. It only shows up when the lamp is lit. His head rests are all decorated. Even the simplest are prettily colored, and except for the gold band around the “neck,” they would not be beyond the means of a moderately well-to do tradesman. One head rest was ivory, with carved heads of the grotesque god of the bedchamber, Bes, on either end, and with the legs ending in graceful stylized duck’s heads.

The imaginative talents of the artisan show up most clearly in the objects we might lump together under the heading of toilet articles. Mirrors were circles of polished metal with handles cunningly carved into the shape of an animal or a lotus flower or a slim naked girl. The little ointment spoons may be seen in many museum collections. The covered, spoon-shaped space which held the ointment might be made in the form of a duck, with a swimming girl for a handle. Even the humble baskets of the poor were finely made, with strips of colored grass woven in to form patterns. The Egyptians were very much aware of natural beauty, and their ornamental designs reflect this awareness, making frequent use of plant and animal forms and graceful poses of the human body.

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Headrest of Tutankhamon

Although the furniture was scanty, the interior of an Egyptian house was cheerful and colorful. Woven mats were used as floor coverings, wall hangings, or even ceiling covers. As we have seen, some surfaces were painted.

Kitchen furniture was limited to utensils and the indispensable oven. Strange as it may seem, the Egyptian house wife cooked without any “counter space” at all. She squatted on the ground when she ground grain, and apparently she stayed there while she mixed and kneaded her bread. Her oven was a pottery shell about thirty inches high, with two doors, one at floor level for fire building and another, fitted with a lid, on top. The fire was allowed to die down into a bed of coals before the bread was put in, via the top hole, onto a shelf about a third of the way up. The house wife could cook on top of the stove or on a brazier. She probably dunked the dishes in the river and scoured them with sand, but no painting or model has preserved this homely detail.

Some kitchens had niches built into the wall for storage, but otherwise pots and jars just stood in rows along the walls. The Egyptians made good pottery in a variety of shapes—bowls and jars, spouted jugs, pots with handles. The material was the useful Nile mud, which produced a reddish-brown pottery. From the area near Qena in Upper Egypt came a special type of light-colored clay which made especially handsome pots.

And that is all I intend to say about pottery. A detailed description of types would only interest a specialist, and to be candid, Egyptian pottery of the historic period is not exciting. It was well made and nicely shaped, but there were few types as attractive as the painted wares of other Near Eastern countries. The buff and pale blue “Malkata” pottery is easy to spot and very attractive, but most was utilitarian, meant for the prosaic functions of the house hold. Luxury ware was not made of clay. In the earliest dynasties the best tableware, the vessels designed for the service of the gods and the royal dead, was laboriously shaped out of stone—alabaster, marble, porphyry, limestone, rock crystal, even basalt. I don’t know which is more impressive, the sheer number of these stone vessels or the wonderful skill with which they were made. Walter Emery found over 1,500 stone vessels in a single First Dynasty tomb at Sakkara. The finest of the stoneware comes from the first three dynasties, and it is cut with such skill and accuracy that the walls are sometimes as thin as those of a modern dinner plate.

Metal vessels appear as early as the First Dynasty, and eventually royalty dined off gold and silver. A hoard of such vessels was found by Pierre Montet in the royal tombs of the Twenty-First Dynasty at Tanis; even as far back as the Fourth Dynasty, Queen Hetepheres I owned a gold drinking cup and several small bowls of the same metal.

The Egyptians also used glass. It seems to have appeared rather suddenly, around the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Unlike modern glass, it was not transparent; the opacity is due to the incomplete fusion of the materials. Apparently glass vases were made on a clay core which was dipped into the molten glass and then twirled rapidly to distribute the glass evenly. The hot material could be colored and rolled out into thin rods. When these were wound around a vase and dragged up and down, they produced the wavy effect which is so common in Egyptian glassware. Glass vessels are not often found, possibly because of the fragility of the material, and possibly because much of the glass made in the factories of Thebes and Tell el Amarna was used for jewelry, in the form of beads or inlay.

FOOD AND ENTERTAINMENT

What did the Egyptians eat out of all those pots? Quite a variety of things, if they could afford them. Bread was the staple food. Some loaves have survived to the present day; they are like rock, the stalest bread you can imagine. The yeast used was a wild variety, relatively impure, although one specimen from an Eighteenth Dynasty tomb turned out, upon analysis, to be as pure as modern yeast. We know about the yeast from beer, not from bread itself. There are no actual pots of that beverage still around, but it was possible to analyze it from the dried residue left in the bottoms of jars.

“A thousand [loaves] of bread, a thousand [ jars] of beer”—so the Egyptian mortuary formulas began when they listed the food items desired in the next world. The two staples of the Egyptian diet are connected in another way, for both went through the same initial process. When the dough had been mixed and shaped into loaves, they were left to rise. If the house wife wanted bread she popped the pans (pots) into the oven. If she wanted beer, she crumbled the loaves and mixed them with water to form a mash. This “sat” for a few days till it fermented; it was then strained and poured off into jars. A similar beverage, called bouza, is still being made today, with added ingredients to suit modern tastes. It has an alcoholic content of about 7 percent. Recently someone came up with a so-called version of ancient beer, called King Tut’s. I have not sampled it. It costs about $150 per bottle, when you can get it.

We know quite a lot about the ancient Egyptian diet, not only from painted and carved reliefs, but from excavation and from actual foodstuffs left in tombs for the benefit of the dead person. Meat was probably scarce in poor house holds, but well-to-do families raised cattle and such exotic animals as oryxes and gazelles for food. They also domesticated pigs and sheep. One of the many inaccuracies perpetuated by Greek historians like Herodotus was that these animals, especially pigs, were considered unclean by the ancient Egyptians. Maybe they were in some religious contexts, but a lot of pig bones have been found near village sites, and swine are mentioned in some lists of offerings. Fowl, including geese and ducks, had been domesticated; they were also available to hunters, like certain other animals. Chickens were not raised in pharaonic times; though Thutmose III brought back a few of these exotic creatures from one of his Syrian campaigns, no chicken bones have been found that date before the fourth centuryB.C.Thutmose’s chickens appear to have been roosters, which may explain why the breed didn’t survive.

Diodorus, another of those old Greek travelers, claimed that fish were also unclean. Again, the prohibition, if it existed at all, may have extended only to members of certain priesthoods; certainly the Egyptians of earlier periods ate a lot of fish—and why not? The Nile was full of the creatures, and they are excellent sources of protein. Milk and the cheese made from it were also consumed.

The main source of protein, at least for the poorer classes, came from legumes—beans, lentils, chickpeas. Their diet was heavy on vegetables, primarily onions and garlic, radishes and lettuce. The last named was considered an aphrodisiac. To the best of my knowledge it isn’t, but it is very good for you.

The diet of a wealthy nobleman was extensive. Beef and mutton, goose, duck, and other birds were prepared in various ways. Honey was the main sweetener, sugar being unknown, and—I was really happy for the Egyptians when I learned this—they had carob, which is also a sweetener and the closest the ancient Old World ever came to chocolate. Fruit, including dates, figs, melon, and grapes, was popular. Grapes could be dried into raisins or used for wine. The sophisticated Egyptian of the New Kingdom had developed quite a taste for fine wines. Jars were labeled, not only with the year of the vintage, but with the vineyard of origin, and certain wines were prized above others.

We don’t know much about how all these foods were prepared. Meat was usually grilled or roasted, lentils must have been stewed, and different kinds of bread and rolls were made, some sweetened and stuffed with fruit. Sauces, seasonings, and other gourmet touches are only a matter of surmise. Along with their other thoughtless omissions, the ancient Egyptians have not provided us with a cookbook.

The Egyptians ate not only for nourishment but for conviviality. Some of the tomb reliefs which show people eating together may have been designed to insure the dead a perpetual banquet in the afterlife, but they probably also reflect the pleasant custom of dinner parties. People ate with their fingers, and when the meal was over a servant, or a daughter of the house hold, came around with water which was poured over the hands. Judging from some reliefs, such as the ones from Amarna which show the royal family dining on rolled roasts and whole roast ducks, à la Henry VIII, some substitute for napkins was certainly necessary.

But the important part of the banquet, one imagines, was not so much the eating as the drinking. Quiet family parties did not end in orgies, of course, but big celebrations, given, no doubt, like modern cocktail parties, to get rid of one’s social obligations or impress one’s friends, often ended in unhappy spectacles of undue merriment. One banquet scene graphically shows a lady guest ridding herself of her dinner, and other diners look as if they need help to stand erect. We need not conclude that everybody got roaring drunk at these parties, but the euphoric effects of wine and beer were certainly enjoyed.

At banquets like these there was a floor show. Singing and musical instruments accompanied the feasting. A basic orchestral instrument was the harp; several different types are shown in the reliefs, from small portable instruments to big floor models, taller than the harpist. Percussion instruments, small drums, and tambourines beat out the rhythm and were augmented by the hand clapping and finger snapping of the dancers. Other instruments appear later, after the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty; they may be Asiatic in origin—the lyre, the oboe, and the lute.

Unfortunately we cannot provide the music to any ancient Egyptian songs. The tunes were passed on from master to apprentice, so a notational system never developed. But we do know some lyrics. This is one of the “Harpers’ Songs”:

Spend the day merrily; put unguent and fine oil to your nostrils, and lotus flowers on the body of your beloved. Place singing and music before your face. Cast all evil behind you and think of joy, until that day comes when harbor is reached in the land that loves silence. Spend the day merrily, and weary not therein; lo, none can take his goods with him; lo, none that has departed can come again.

Not a very cheerful song—but perhaps it all depends on the point of view. However, songs like this one—and there are a number of different versions of the same theme—are known to us from the tombs, where the singer is performing for his dead master. Maybe they were not sung at real parties. However, there is no reason to suppose that they would have seemed morbid to the Egyptians. The advice is practical, really—“eat, drink, and be merry” because “you can’t take it with you.”

A stock figure in the orchestra was a bent, elderly male harper, often blind. The rest of the musicians were girls, and if they were as young and pretty as the paintings suggest, their appearance provided additional plea sure for the feasters. Their costumes, like those of the dancers who appeared with them, were quite flimsy; sometimes they wore only a string of beads and a girdle.

Dancing seems to have been a spectator sport or a religious exercise; I know of no representations of boys and girls dancing together for fun. The slim little girl dancers were professionals, and some were trained to do acrobatic tricks. Music also seems to have been reserved for professionals. However, one relief shows a vizier’s lady playing a harp, so it is possible that people of leisure enjoyed performing music as well as listening to it.

Thus the wealthy entertained their friends. The middle classes probably tried to imitate their betters on a smaller scale; and for people who enjoyed drinking for its own sake there was always the local tavern. Egyptian towns had such establishments, and they may also have had their town drunkards. Although mild inebriation was tolerated, public drunkenness was regarded as disgusting. One of the sages warns his audience of the dangers of the corner pub:

“Don’t take to drinking,” says Ani, “because if you speak, something else [other than what you meant] will come out of your mouth; you won’t know what you are saying. You will fall down and break your limbs. Nobody will take you by the hand; your drinking companions will stand apart and say: Look at that sot! If someone comes to look for you, to ask your advice, he will find you lying on the floor like a little baby.”

Another popular spectator sport was wrestling. Our illustration (see Chapter 6) shows only a few of the dozens of wrestling holds illustrated in a Middle Kingdom tomb. They look quite expert, and I am told by those who know that some are like modern holds. Incidentally, the match was not necessarily waged by a Nubian and an Egyptian. The contrasting colors of the men’s bodies is a device of the artist, to make clear what would otherwise be a confusing tangle of arms and legs.

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Harpist and dancers

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Wrestlers

While we are on the subject of amusements, we must mention storytelling. It may seem like quite a jump from wrestling to literature; but the latter word is misleading. The reader will note, if he examines the table of contents, that there is no chapter on “Egyptian Literature.” Instead, I have tried to look at the subject as the Egyptians might have looked at it, under a number of different categories—love songs under love and marriage, hymns and prayers under religion, the maxims of the sages under the subjects to which they pertain. A student of comparative literature is justified in lumping all these compositions together into a single category, but the unity is artificial because it is a modern, not an ancient, viewpoint. By the time we are through we will have examined the major subdivisions of Egyptian literature, with one exception—the epic, which did not exist. The compositions praising the valor of a king are hymns rather than epics, and the only other possible contender for the position of an epic hero is Osiris, who must be counted out, if for no other reason than on the grounds that he is dead during most of the story.

Egyptian prose fiction includes tales of several different types. Some are more sophisticated, more “literary,” than others; they were meant for audiences who could appreciate puns, an elegant flow of rhetoric, and a refined style. Other stories rely on plot rather than style for their interest, and a few are as melodramatic, as bloodthirsty, and as implausible as any bad modern thriller.

The question of humor in Egyptian stories is not so easy; it is always hard to tell what may strike someone else as funny. The Egyptians’ sense of humor shows up in other media, particularly in painting and relief. There are several late drawings, on papyri and ostraca, which are obviously meant to be satirical; they show animals busily engaged in a number of human activities. A mouse lady, seated at a dressing table, is being attended by a number of cat servants, while a cat nurse carries a mouse baby; a mouse king, mounted in a chariot, attacks a fortress manned by cats; a lion plays a board game with a gazelle. One devastating little model from Tell el Amarna shows a group of monkeys driving in a chariot; the charioteer monkey has, upon close examination, a terrible resemblance to the king, Akhenaton, who is often seen in his own chariot. Other humorous touches are less satirical and broader—a very fat woman and her very small donkey. We can be reasonably sure that these satirical pictures appealed to the Egyptians’ sense of humor. As for the stories, there is only one which was almost certainly regarded as a comic tale—“The Contendings of Horus and Set,” which we will consider in detail in another chapter. It is a broad, bawdy story which pays scant respect to the immortal gods, and much of its humor is of a visual nature. The divine assembly of the gods brawls and bickers like a group of spoiled children, Isis bustles about playing tricks on her enemies, and Astarte gets the supreme god Re out of a fit of the sulks by exposing herself to him. These touches are not especially subtle, and they are certainly meant to be funny. Some of the other tales are not so easy to diagnose. Take the story of Wenamon, for instance.

Wenamon was an Egyptian official who was sent to Byblos to get cedar at a time when Egyptian prestige abroad was pretty low. He had a perfectly terrible time, being robbed, insulted, threatened, and sneered at. After he got to Byblos he sat around for a month without being allowed even to see the prince, and as he remarks, “[The prince] sent to me every day, saying, ‘Get out of my harbor.’”

I think this is funny; in fact, all of Wenamon’s tribulations amuse me tremendously. Did they amuse the Egyptian readers of the story? Probably not. The Egyptians didn’t admit, much less enjoy, national or personal humiliation. I don’t know many people who do.

Since most Egyptians were illiterate, and since they lacked those blessings of the illiterate, movies and TV, they probably relied on professional storytellers. These itinerant figures are known from other nonliterate cultures, although I must admit I know of no specific reference to them in Egypt. Still, there was a place for such a wandering minstrel; gathered around the water jar in the village square, in the cool of the evening, the villagers may have listened to just such a story as I am about to relate to you.

Once upon a time there were two brothers. Anubis was the name of the older, and Bata the name of the younger. Anubis had a house, he had a wife, and his younger brother lived with him like a son. It was the younger brother who took care of all the elder’s needs. Indeed, the younger brother was a fine lad. There was no one like him in the whole country; the power of a god was in him.

Now one day when he was walking behind the cows, they said to him: “The grass is good over in that place.” Bata took them there, and they became very beautiful, and multiplied.

One day when the two brothers were working in the field they ran out of grain, and the elder brother sent Bata home to get more. He found his brother’s wife fixing her hair, and when he asked for grain she told him to go and get it himself. He came out of the granary with a sack so huge that the wife realized he was very strong; and she wanted to know him with the knowledge of a man. But when she said, “Come, let us spend an hour sleeping together,” Bata became angry. “What is this great abomination which you have said to me?”

Bata went back to the field and worked with his brother, saying nothing. But when the older brother returned to his house in the evening he found the house dark, and his wife lying down very sick, like one who has been beaten. She told him that Bata had made evil suggestions to her, and that, when she recoiled in horror, he beat her and threatened her. So Anubis took his spear and ran out to find his younger brother, who had not yet returned from the field. He hid himself behind the stable door and waited. But when Bata came to the stable with the herd of cows the head cow said, “Watch out! Your brother is there, waiting with his spear to kill you. Run away from him!” The next cow said the same thing, and so did the one after that. At last convinced, Bata looked down and saw his brother’s feet under the door. Dropping his burdens, he ran as fast as he could, with his brother after him.

As he ran, Bata prayed to Re to help him, saying: “Thou art he who judges the wicked from the just!” Re heard, and caused a body of water filled with crocodiles to appear between Bata and his older brother. And his older brother beat his hands together, in a rage at not being able to kill him. Then Bata argued with his brother, telling him what had really happened. And he took a knife and cut off his penis, and threw it into the water.

This dramatic gesture convinced the older brother (as well it might); seeing the boy fainting and in pain, he wept and groaned aloud.

Now up to this point the story is fairly simple, and effective; the Egyptian audience was probably groaning in sympathy and yearning to see the virtuous and misused young brother rewarded. The complications begin with the story Bata proceeds to tell his remorseful brother as they stand one on either side of the river. He says he is going to the Valley of the Cedar, where he will put his heart in the top of a tree. If his tree is ever cut down, so that his heart falls to the ground, he will be in trouble, and then Anubis must come to his help. He tells Anubis how he will know when the fatality occurs, and then he departs, leaving his brother to return home and deal with his treacherous wife. He kills her and throws her to the dogs. Then he sits down and weeps for his younger brother.

Now we switch to Bata in the Valley of the Cedar. He manages well enough until the gods decide he needs a wife. They make one for him—a girl more beautiful than any in the land, and Bata falls in love with her. Bata’s self-mutilation in the first part of the story is blandly ignored by the storyteller; perhaps it is assumed that the gods took care of that little matter too.

Appreciating the desirability of his bride, Bata warns her not to go out for fear of the Sea God. Naturally the girl ignores this unreasonable warning; naturally the Sea God rolls up in pursuit as soon as she goes out. She makes good her escape, but leaves a lock of her hair, which the god takes to Egypt. So wonderfully fragrant is this beautiful hair that when the washermen of Pharaoh come down to wash his royal clothes, the perfume from the hair impregnates them. Vexed, the chief washerman goes down to the bank to find out where the perfume is coming from. He finds the lock of hair and takes it to the king, who consults his magicians about it. They tell him where the girl is living and advise him to send for her.

But the messengers sent by Pharaoh are killed by Bata, all but one—whom he sends back to tell the king what has happened. Next time the king sends soldiers in great number—and, more cannily, a lady chaperone, “whose hands were filled with all sorts of beautiful women’s adornments.” That does the trick. The girl goes back to Egypt with the escort (we must assume that Bata was out hunting that day), and, preferring the position of royal favorite to a dull life in the Valley of the Cedar, she betrays the secret of Bata’s heart to the king. Down goes the tree, down goes Bata’s heart; and one day Anubis (I hope you have not forgotten the remorseful older brother) sees that his pot of beer has gone bad. Knowing this for the sign, he snatches stick and sandals, clothes and weapons, and sets off for the Valley of the Cedar. After a long and arduous search he finds Bata’s heart and gets it back inside Bata, whom he has discovered lying dead on his bed.

Bata is himself again, but he must revenge himself on his wife. Turning himself into a magnificent bull, he has Anubis take him to Egypt, where the king welcomes him as a sacred animal; but the worthless girl tricks the monarch into killing the beast. Next Bata becomes a pair of trees. The girl again works his destruction, but before the trees are cut down a seed from one of them falls into the girl’s mouth. She becomes pregnant—with Bata himself, who, as the king’s supposed son, eventually succeeds him to the throne. Bata’s first act as pharaoh is to drag his wife-mother before the magistrates, who unanimously condemn her to death. He then appoints his elder brother Anubis as heir to the throne, and they live happily ever after.

I like this story, despite its misogynist attitude. I like its sublime indifference to motivation, its easily identified heroes and villainesses, and the rich inventiveness of episodes which defy logical sequence. As in the case of “The Doomed Prince,” the “Tale of Two Brothers” has several familiar motifs—the hero’s transformations, the talking animals, the wonderful lock of hair, and the stock hero figure of the “younger son” who overcomes numerous tribulations to become king. The first part of the story has been compared to the tale of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, while Bata’s temporary death and self-castration are as harmless as the poisoning of Snow White and the Sleeping Beauty, since they can be cured by magic.

Not all Egyptian amusements were as indolent as the ones we have described. Hunting was a popular activity and, as practiced by noblemen and kings, its purpose was plea sure, not the production of food. Fowling expeditions, as we have seen, had some of the aspects of a family Sunday in the country. In the reliefs this sport was pursued in marshy regions, where the reeds grew higher than the hunter’s head. He poled his light boat (made of papyrus stalks bound together) through the shallow water until he reached a spot where the birds might be hiding. If he used bow and arrow to bring them down, the arrows were blunt, designed to stun rather than kill. The throw sticks and boomerangs used in this sport were equally nonlethal; since they could be wielded by one hand, the hunter might hold a decoy in the other—a live duck which obligingly flapped and squawked to alert its wild fellows as the hunter clutched it by the feet.

Obviously it took some skill to hunt successfully with these missile weapons. It was their archery, however, in which the Egyptians took the greatest pride. The bow was used in warfare, but also in hunting, and boys practiced assiduously to gain skill in this art. They were perhaps the first of the great bowmen of history, and if we can believe the boasts they recorded, Robin Hood might never have won the golden arrow had Amenhotep II been present at the match in Nottingham Town. The Egyptian records suggest, however, that force in shooting was as important as accuracy. Amenhotep’s chief pride was that he could shoot an arrow through a metal target three inches thick. “There is no one who could draw his bow,” says one inscription, “not among his own army, among the rulers of foreign countries, or among the princes of Retenu, because his strength is so much greater than [that of] any king who ever lived.”

The Egyptians hunted wild cattle, ibex, gazelle, and the like, but the royal prey was the lion. It took courage to hunt a lion with bow and arrow, even mounted, as the king was, in a chariot. The flimsy vehicles could easily be overturned by an enraged beast, and although the king was accompanied by attendants, there was always the chance that the lion might catch the king instead of vice versa. Thutmose III almost lost his life on one hunt, not to a lion, but an elephant; he was saved by one of his soldiers, who stepped in under the “nose” of the charging beast and drove a spear into it. Thutmose encountered his elephant on one of his Asiatic expeditions; they were not to be found in Egypt.

When he got home, exhausted and perspiring after his hunt, an Egyptian gentleman might relax with a quiet game of senet. Several board games of this type were played, and they look so intriguing that I regret that I am unable to tell the reader how to play them. You can see game boards in many museums; some Egyptians were so addicted to them that they took the games along with them into their tombs, and a few have been carefully mended, after being worn out by frequent use. The handiest of the boards were made in the shape of flat rectangular boxes, with the layout for senet on one side and another game on the other; a drawer in the box held the pieces.

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Hounds and jackals board game

The senet board had thirty squares, in three rows of ten; the pieces were little cone-shaped affairs, six to each player, and the moves were determined by the fall of a set of carved wands, thrown like pickup sticks. Senet was more like parcheesi than chess; the aim was not to take the opponent’s pieces, but to progress through them back to the starting point, or to the opposite end of the board. Versions of this game can be purchased from various museum shops, but although the form is ancient, the rules are modern; it’s anybody’s guess as to how the fall of the sticks determined the moves. No treatise on “How to Win at Senet” has ever been found, and it is not likely that it ever will be, because the Egyptians seldom wrote textbooks.

Some scholars believe that games such as senet, like almost every other aspect of Egyptian culture, had a religious meaning; passing the hazards on the board guaranteed the player success in surviving the perils of the journey through the underworld. I offer this for what it is worth.

There is one other Egyptian habit, possibly to be classed as an amusement, which I cannot resist describing, because it seems, offhand, so improbable. They went sightseeing. Not abroad, however; not if they could avoid it. A good many Egyptians did get to see the world, as royal envoys or soldiers or couriers, but the literary evidence suggests that they hated every minute of it. Wenamon, who went through a series of humiliating adventures when he sailed to Byblos in search of cedar, had good reason to dislike Dor, where he was robbed, and Byblos, where the prince insulted him and his country, and Cyprus, where the inhabitants tried to kill him. But an earlier story, that of Sinuhe, who won fame and fortune among the Bedouin, has the same attitude; riches and reputation notwithstanding, Sinuhe continued to long for home, and as soon as he received a summons from Pharaoh he dropped his Bedouin wife, children, and noble rank to hurry back to Egypt.

Although they were home-loving people who enjoyed the quiet of their walled gardens, some Egyptians traveled a good deal within Egypt. Clerks, officials, merchants, farmers taking produce to market—all made use of that cheap and convenient road, the Nile. And when their business in Memphis or Thebes was concluded, they did what many another weary businessman has done—they went sightseeing.

It is not surprising that the Egyptians should have been interested in their own antiquities. To an Egyptian of the Middle Kingdom the pyramids of Giza and Dahshur were as far removed in time as the oldest medieval castles are for us. And by Saite times, in the seventh century B.C., the Egyptian tourists were viewing relics that had stood for two millennia—relics that were as old, for them, as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum are for us.

There are inscriptions—we call them graffiti—scribbled all over the walls of the pyramid temples of the Fourth Dynasty by the sightseers of later periods. The pyramid at Medum was a popular spot; Eighteenth Dynasty visitors left their names and the date, and one added the comment that he found the temple “as though heaven were within it, and the sun rising in it.” The private tombs were also visited, and some Saite tourists found the paintings and reliefs so admirable that they had them copied, down to the last detail, in their own tombs. But the case that intrigues me most is that of a tomb found at Deir el Bahri and excavated in 1925 by a Metropolitan Museum expedition under Herbert Winlock.

I have quoted extensively from Mr. Winlock, here and elsewhere, because he wrote a book which is, for me, one of the most delightful works on archaeology ever composed. It has the forbidding title Excavations at Deir el Bahri, and it is the season-by-season report of the Metropolitan Museum’s excavations at that site. It was written for a “lay” audience; most of it is drawn from the reports written for the museum’s bulletin. (It’s not on the reading list because it is long out of print and difficult to find.)

The big monuments at Deir el Bahri are the temples of Hatshepsut and of the Eleventh Dynasty king Mentuhotep II Nebhepetre. In the 1924–25 season (expeditions in Egypt work from the fall of one year to the spring of the next, since the summer climate is frightful), the Egyptian government decided to restore the facade of Hatshepsut’s temple. It had been known since the days of Mariette that there was a tomb under the temple, the tomb of a queen named Neferu, but it had never been cleared, and to visit it, it was necessary to crawl “like one of the snakes one feared to meet” (Winlock) over nasty heaps of rubbish through pitch-black underground passages. Another factor that might have deterred modern visitors was the heap of dismembered, half-burned Roman mummies that filled the tomb chapel from floor to ceiling.

When the front of the temple was cleared, the excavators found the brick facade of the queen’s tomb, with the corridor leading down to the chapel. They carried out the unpleasant job of cleaning chapel and corridor, but found nothing there to reward them for their labors. Hundreds of years after the queen had been buried, the chapel had become a factory for limestone dishes, made out of the blocks that lined the walls. Only tiny fragments of the original reliefs were discovered.

From the chapel another corridor led down to the tomb chamber. This had been walled up in ancient times—fruitlessly, since robbers had penetrated the burial chamber and taken everything in it. The excavators were intrigued, not by the all-too-common evidences of theft, but by indications that the chapel had been a popular ancient tourist spot. On the small scraps of stone littering the floor, the remnants of the once-beautiful reliefs, were the names of visitors, whose admiration for the sculptures evidently did not inhibit them from scribbling all over them.

Queen Neferu lived during the Eleventh Dynasty, somewhere around 2150 B.C. Since Hatshepsut built her temple over and across the original entrance, blocking the tomb, it was assumed that the visitors who left their names must have come during the period between the Eleventh and Eighteenth Dynasties, before the temple was built. But the excavations of 1925 brought out a surprise—a narrow tunnel, built at the same time as the Eighteenth Dynasty temple, which led north from the upper temple court to the door of the tomb. There is only one plausible reason for the construction of this tunnel—to allow access to the tomb after its old entrance had been closed by the temple terrace of a later and greater queen than Neferu. Someone wanted the masterpieces of ancient relief to remain accessible, and frankly, I can’t think of any religious reason why this particular monument should have rated such extraordinary effort. Was that someone Senenmut, the supposed architect of Deir el Bahri, or the queen herself, moved by some antiquarian bent? Or was it simply the demands of the “tourist trade”—despised by modern intellectuals, but prompted, in ancient Egypt as today, by the love of beauty and the sense of wonder?

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