The cities of dynastic Egypt did not really have public buildings in the way that seems normal in cities of the 21st century or even the Classical world. The only partial exception to this lack of deliberately constructed public space in ancient Egyptian cities is the institution of the temple, but these structures, as we have seen, were subject to a series of restrictions on access and use. Indeed it can be said that major Egyptian cities (‘royal cities’) were not built for the convenience of the vast majority of their inhabitants, especially in the range of facilities provided by the central authorities. For instance, unlike Greek or Roman cities they did not have a forum or agora where citizens and non-citizens could meet and do business. Still less did they have civic amenities built for the comfort or entertainment of the cultured elite or the masses – only in the Graeco-Roman Period did Egypt have public baths, theatres, hippodromes or amphitheatres, where the populace could be entertained.
It is, moreover, difficult to find activities in ancient Egypt that involved public gatherings. There do not seem to have been significant mass-audience sporting events or other forms of public entertainment. Amusements seem to have been conducted at a domestic or village level – perhaps listening to the village storyteller was the closest most Egyptians would have come to public entertainment.
Moreover, as well as in the obvious lack of physical remains of purpose-built spaces, this absence of a public arena for entertainment is striking in literature. The largest audiences referred to seem to be those involved in royal amusement, be it a story told (or a magician performing) at the royal court to entertain a bored king, or the same king displaying great feats of hunting in the number of lions, bulls or ostriches he could slaughter.
Fishing and fowling in the Nile marshes seems to have been a popular pursuit of elite Egyptians from the Old to the New Kingdoms, if depictions in their tombs are to be believed. This New Kingdom tomb scene of Nebamun shows him enjoying a day’s hunting with his family on an improbably small canoe. British Museum, London.
This lack of specific sports-based architecture also strongly suggests that there were no organized individual or team-based sports. Broadly speaking, this was probably true, although activities that can be broadly characterized as ‘sporting’ for which we have evidence include elite pastimes such as hunting (including in chariots), fishing and fowling. These activities used as their venue the great outdoors, more specifically the places where the objects of hunting – fish, birds, antelopes etc. – might be found, notably the marshes of the Nile fringes and the rather more distant deserts. Elite participation in these pasttimes, which mirrored similar royal hunting achievements, is depicted on the walls of tombs from the Old Kingdom onwards, but can hardly be thought of as involving spectators or any changes to the urban environment.
The same might also be said about other outdoor sports for which tomb scenes are the only real evidence. The ‘boat jousting’ (in which poles were used to knock opponents from the decks of their boats) of the Old Kingdom might have had non-elite participants and (probably) spectators, but it took place on the Nile. The range of outdoor games depicted on the walls of the Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hasan, which include team catching-games and what appears to be an early form of hockey, were most likely to have been carried out by groups of villagers or townsfolk in any convenient open area, very similar to the ubiquitous space for playing football (soccer) in modern Egyptian villages.
The only significant evidence we have for gatherings of people at specifically built structures is in royal contexts. The ‘Windows of Appearance’, which seem to be an important aspect of palace/temple architecture in the New Kingdom were designed so that the king (and sometimes whole royal family) could be presented in an elevated position above an assembled multitude. The occasions when such presentations took place included the ceremonial rewarding of officials, as is sometimes depicted in their tombs. It is also possible that the area in front of major New Kingdom temples was the suitably impressive venue for the ritual execution of selected prisoners of war after a successful military campaign or the impalement of those convicted of capital crimes, presumably before a suitably appreciative audience of loyal Egyptians. It is unlikely that other purpose-built arenas for royal activity – notably the heb-sed courts in which the king’s thirty-year jubilee (and regular subsequent jubilees) were celebrated by a royal run to demonstrate his physical fitness – had an audience beyond a closely defined elite.
The Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hasan depict an unusually wide range of leisure activities including gymnastics and, possibly, hockey. akg-images/Erich Lessing.
Houses of Ill-Repute?
There is no ancient Egyptian equivalent of the brothels of Pompeii – or at least not of buildings whose function as such can be readily recognized in the archaeological record. That is not to say they did not exist, but none has been convincingly identified at any of the town sites excavated to date. The evidence for prostitution in ancient Egypt is rather slim, especially before the Late Period. However, some scholars have argued that the scenes of erotic activity depicted in the famous Papyrus Turin 55001 can most easily be interpreted as taking place between prostitutes and their clients in a brothel.
Taverns, inns and public houses also seem remarkably absent. The reason for this is likely to be that recreational drinking and partying took place at household or neighbourhood level. This seems to be the situation at Deir el-Medina where workmen were given time off work to brew beer that would be consumed at particular festivals. This was perhaps natural for communities where the direct provision of the materials to make beer – as well as beer itself – was part of the regular wages of the workmen. It would therefore only remain for us to find an appropriately convivial context in which this consumption could take place – the ‘Enclosure of the Tomb’ at Deir el-Medina may have been such a place.
The depiction of scantily clad female musicians and dancers was a regular addition to scenes of banqueting in private tombs of the New Kingdom. Everett Collection Historical/Alamy.
For the elite, the scenes on tomb walls of the New Kingdom suggest that providing banquets for significant numbers of guests, with food (and wine) from one’s own resources as well as musicians and dancers seems to have been the main means of partying and providing hospitality.
The production of beer, which was a natural extension to the baking of bread, provided both a nutritious liquid and, for those who could not afford wine, an obvious social lubricant for festive occasions. akg-images/Erich Lessing.