Community Centres

Our overview of Egyptian houses during the dynastic period has revealed a number of interesting patterns. One of these is the way in which elite members of society could expect to live in spacious dwellings, although a good proportion of that spaciousness was not directly to do with their domestic comfort, but instead it existed to provide areas where they could carry out their administrative and other functions as community leaders. This seems to be the case in places as different as Middle Kingdom Kahun and New Kingdom Amarna, and we should imagine this as a pattern for most of the dynastic period. Even on a sub-elite level, any house with internal space greater than the bare minimum is often associated with some sort of specific employment-related activity, for example the house of the sculptor Thutmose at Amarna whose function as a workshop was made clear by the discovery of part-finished sculpture (including the famous Berlin bust of Nefertiti) within it.

In contrast, non-elite housing is typified by its striking lack of space. Even if we assume an upper floor, the houses at Deir el-Medina, Amarna’s Workmen’s Village and the small houses at Kahun are very far from most modern, Western individuals’ ideas of adequately spacious. This might be partly mitigated by the idea of flexible use of space within the house, as discussed above. A broader answer might be provided by the idea that houses were only rarely fully occupied by the family groups associated with them. The adult menfolk of Deir el-Medina, for instance, spent most of their 10-day week at the royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and they would have lived there or in the ‘Col’ village part way between the Valley and Deir el-Medina itself. Although this work pattern may well be peculiar to Deir el-Medina, with its unique employment opportunities, the idea that life – either work or leisure – was lived outside the house, indeed outside the village, is an important one.

It is easy to imagine what most Egyptians were doing for most of the day in an agricultural economy where fields and animals needed to be tended (although inundation time is an interesting exception). But although the evidence from the houses themselves and the working lives of their occupants provides a coherent pattern, it does not explain where communal activities took place, especially when these might involve groups of people whose relationships were not family-based, including, potentially, the entire village.

This reconstruction of part of the city of Amarna is centred on a ‘middle-ranking’ residence/workshop, belonging to the sculptor Thutmose. Courtesy Barry Kemp/The Amarna Trust.

The ‘Enclosure of the Tomb’

The best example of a physically defined area that could function as a ‘community centre’ was the ‘Enclosure of the Tomb’ at Deir el-Medina. This structure seems to have been located a slight distance away from the village on the path to the Ramesseum (i.e. towards the more heavily populated banks of the Nile). It acted as a reception point for deliveries (especially foodstuffs) made to the villagers, and was looked after by one or more watchmen assisted by a doorkeeper. Ostraca from Deir el-Medina give a good sense of other activities carried out in the ‘Enclosure of the Tomb’: an interesting mixture of community-based enterprises, including private transactions and beer-drinking. It was most typically a place for community gatherings and for the reception of external officials, for example the assembly of the work gang to hear the news of the accession of Ramesses VI (and to be given a variety of gifts to mark the occasion). It also seems to have been the place where the kenbet – a court made up of local officials who administered village-level justice in local disputes – met.

Such community centres undoubtedly existed in other villages and small towns. One of these seems to be the so-called zir-area at Amarna. About 50 m (164 ft) in front of the Workmen’s Village was a brick enclosure 11 m (36 ft) square, which was later replaced by a series of large storage jars in rough stone/rubble emplacements. This area, like the ‘Enclosure of the Tomb’ at Deir el-Medina, seems to be an interface between a workmen’s village and the outside world that would provide it with supplies. Though of course its location outside settlement walls could just be because a convenient open area outside a tightly packed village was needed for communal activities.

Aerial photograph of the Workmen’s Village at Amarna, viewed to the south, in 1993. The ancient trackways on the desert in the foreground are particularly clear. Courtesy Barry Kemp/The Amarna Trust.

Open Spaces in ‘Normal’ Towns and Villages

However, this raises a set of problems. The most obvious is the atypical nature of the settlements concerned – both Deir el-Medina and the Workmen’s Village at Amarna were purpose-built villages for a specific set of state employees, who are supplied by the state with a substantial proportion of their requirements. The vast majority of small settlements in ancient Egypt would not have been like this, and would not have required a place where bulk supplies would be delivered for redistribution, because those villages would be self-sufficient in their major requirements. Nonetheless it is difficult to imagine that most ancient Egyptian villages would not have had some form of communal area, either outside the village itself or, perhaps more likely, a space or spaces in the form of external shared courtyards created by densely packed housing. It is easy to imagine these spaces being used for a variety of communal activities, from local courts to specific leisure activities to simply being a cool shaded space on a warm summer evening where friends and neighbours could gather.

As far as larger towns are concerned, there was potential for use of space associated with more substantial semi-public buildings – courtyards in front of temples or the residences of important local officials might have provided areas for public activities.

However, it must be admitted that, apart from assuming anthropological parallels with modern Egyptian villages, the evidence for this conclusion is slight. There is no indication that such internal spaces existed at Kahun, with its unremitting rows of back-to-back terraced houses, but the difference here, as at Deir el-Medina and Amarna, is the state-sponsored nature of the settlement and, perhaps even more relevantly, its desert-edge location. A settlement built immediately next to the desert edge would clearly have significantly fewer space problems – and more opportunities for the creation of specific community spaces outside the core settlement – than a floodplain site that would become an island during the inundation. It is worth noting that, although we know a good deal about what went on at the ‘Enclosure of the Tomb’ at Deir el-Medina through the written evidence of the ostraca, the ‘Enclosure’ has not been detected archaeologically, probably because it was – like the zir-area at Amarna – a poorly built structure of local materials that could easily disappear back into the surrounding desert landscape.

Aerial view of a modern rural village in Egypt, illustrating a range of building materials and techniques. Pics that fly/Alamy.

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