Our modern knowledge of ancient Egyptian civilization has been greatly helped by the fact that the hot, dry climate of Egypt has preserved many objects and written documents. Also, because temples and tombs were built to last for eternity, they were constructed out of stone blocks, and as a result, many of them—although damaged—still stand. That said, temples and tombs reflect the state and the royal rulers and elite officials who built them. On the walls of these structures are carved and painted scenes that present a perfect, everlasting picture of the king and his land. Such idealized pictures hardly represent everyday life in ancient Egypt. It has to be pointed out that royalty and the elite made up a very small tip of the enormous pyramid of ancient Egyptian society, and because the king and his officials were all male, their view of life would only represent 50% of ancient Egypt anyway.

The study of Egyptology is heavily based on documents, of which many remain, not only on papyrus but also inscribed on the walls of temples and tombs. From what is known of the ancient Egyptian educational system, all schooling was for boys, to train them to be scribes and to grow up and work for the state. This discussion may seem like a digression on masculine domination in ancient Egypt, but it is important to understand why there should be a book on the daily life of women in ancient Egypt and why it is so difficult to actually write a book like that.

Around the 1980s, when archaeologists in general realized that the understanding of the past was primarily based on a male past, the reaction of some to make up for the lack of a holistic approach to ancient societies was “put in a woman and stir.” Hopefully, this approach will not appear in this book, although it is difficult to avoid it. Many topics such as kingship, the military, and administrative structure may seem to have been left out, but if a topic did not include women or there was no information relevant about women in it, it was not included in this book. That said, the author does provide substantially more information about elite women than non-elite women, but there was no real way to escape that. Elite and royal women had titles inscribed on stone monuments and had stone-built tombs or space in their husbands’ tombs, so scholars simply have more evidence about them. It must be pointed out, however, that this evidence may not reflect daily life, but again, eternal life in the afterlife.

A typical village woman would have worked hard, possibly suffered horribly in childbirth, cooked, cleaned, and raised children. When she died, at the age of twenty-five to thirty years, she would have been buried in a pit dug in the village cemetery, perhaps wrapped in a reed bundle with a bead necklace and possibly a small amulet or a vessel or two of food or drink. An archaeologist finding her burial would note the few objects present and how they compare to others in similar and contemporary cemeteries. The osteologist who studies her skeleton might note the skeletal changes in her toes, knees, and some of the vertebrae and conclude that she spent time grinding grain for bread and beer. A healed fracture of her left arm shows that someone in the village was a healer and put a proper splint on her arm. Her teeth would be worn down and several lost, which is to be expected when one eats bread that sand gets into. In other words, this woman was a very typical lower-class or lower-middle-class housewife, but what else can we learn about her? What about her dreams, thoughts, and likes or dislikes? What was her daily routine like? Very little about a typical woman’s life in ancient Egypt can be figured out, especially from the perspective of a modern mind deciding how an ancient person thought. These gaps in our knowledge are the reason why evidence from texts and artistic depictions, which are products of a mostly elite life, have to be depended on for information.

This book is broken into seven chapters, the topics of which often overlap. For example, discussing a priestess belongs in the chapter on religion, but as she is also paid for what she does as a priestess, the topic appears in the chapter on work as well. Each chapter starts out with a brief historical fiction paragraph based on ancient evidence, and at the end of select chapters, there is a short translation of a primary source to give readers an idea about how ancient Egyptians presented themselves.

Chapter One is titled “Society and Family Life” and covers family structure, marriage and divorce, motherhood, children and childbirth, the elderly, and widows. Chapter Two is concerned with “Work, Economy, and Law,” focusing on priestesses, weaving, crime, and punishment. Chapter Three, “Literacy, Education, and Health,” discusses female literacy and schooling, as well as health problems and how they were treated. Chapter Four on “Personal Property” covers a range of topics, including houses, furniture, cooking, cosmetics, clothing, and pets.

Chapter Five broadly covers the topic of “Entertainment” by discussing music, song, dance, drinking, games, toys, and love poetry. “The Life of Royal Women” is covered in Chapter 6, presenting the various female members of the royal family and their status and titles, the harem, and descriptions of the lives of famous queens such as Nefertari and Hatshepsut. The last chapter, Chapter Seven, “Religious Life and the Afterlife,” examines expressions of religiosity in daily life, important goddesses, the concept of the afterlife, mummification, the funeral, the tomb, ancestral cults, and the “wise woman.”

In the Introduction, a map has been provided so that readers can see the various places in Egypt discussed in the text. In particular, check the map for the locations of four important villages and towns that have supplied a large percentage of the material covered in the book: Lahun, Wah-Sut, Amarna Workmen’s Village, and perhaps the most important, the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medineh. A glossary will help with the meaning of ancient Egyptian words and Egyptological terms. At the back of the book is an overall bibliography of excellent and readable books about ancient Egypt, followed by specific bibliographies for each chapter.


This introduction is planned to be a quick and easily digested overview of ancient Egyptian history so that the topics in the book, which all focus on the life of women, can be more easily understood in a broader context. Keeping straight the periods and dynasties of ancient Egypt can be somewhat challenging at the beginning, and this historical introduction along with the timeline should help make the basic scope of ancient Egyptian history clear. Pharaonic Egypt is quite a long history, roughly three thousand years—if not the longest, then certainly one of the longest-lasting human cultures on the earth. The ancient Egyptian language, with all of its dialects through time, is accepted as the longest-lasting language. This enormous span of time is something to keep in mind, as it is too easy to conflate everything ancient Egyptian together.

This historical overview is purposely more detailed in covering the three most important periods of ancient Egyptian history: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. The word “kingdom” is applied to the long periods in which Egypt was one unified state ruled by one king. These three kingdoms are the periods of ancient pharaonic civilization that are focused on in this book, and therefore, to be most helpful to the reader, these periods are also stressed in this compact historical description.

Ancient Egypt as a state with one ruling king formed about 3300 BCE out of two predynastic cultures, the Nagada culture in Upper Egypt, based at the sites of Hierakonpolis and Abydos, and the Maadi-Buto culture, based in the delta at those two main sites. The process of unification to become a state is not entirely clear, but it was probably a slow, gradual spread of Upper Egyptian material culture and political power into Lower Egypt rather than a military conquest. It was not clear until relatively recently that there were kings of Egypt, ruling a large, single state before the time of the traditional beginning of ancient Egyptian history with the First Dynasty. The First Dynasty had been accepted as the beginning of the Egyptian state, and with the evidence of the Narmer Palette showing the king triumph, Narmer had been accepted as the conqueror and first king of Egypt.

Egyptologists now refer to the period of predynastic unification as Dynasty Zero, to stress it is before the First Dynasty, and accept Narmer as the last king of Dynasty Zero. The kings of this dynasty made their capital at Memphis but were buried at Abydos in an area called Umm el-Ga’ab. In Tomb Uj, the largest tomb in this cemetery, the earliest hieroglyphic writing on small bone labels was found. The area just south of the Dynasty Zero tombs became the most important royal burial ground of the First and Second Dynasties that followed, although three kings of the Second Dynasty were buried at Saqqara. There is evidence that one queen in the First Dynasty, named Meretneith, served as regent and ruled for her son, King Den, when her husband, King Djet, had died. Although Meretneith only held the title “King’s mother,” not the title “king,” she had a tomb in the same cemetery as all the other kings of the First and Second Dynasties.

These kings at Abydos had funerary complexes, with two different parts in different places. At the desert area called Umm el-Ga’ab, the tombs themselves were square burial chambers down in the ground, with a mastaba, a rectangular bench-like superstructure covering it on the surface. Then, farther to the east at the edge of cultivation, each king built a large mudbrick enclosure, often referred to as a “funerary fort,” as a space for his cult and ritual celebrations. These structures are located very near the Osiris temple at Abydos and must have been considered a space for the king parallel to that of the god.

The next dynasty, the Third, begins the period known as the Old Kingdom, or the Pyramid Age. The best-known king of this dynasty, King Djoser, builds his Step Pyramid Complex at Saqqara, which is both a development out of the funeral architecture at Abydos and a remarkable change from it. His complex began with a rectangular enclosure just like a funerary fort with a mastaba covering a very deep burial chamber. Additions were then made to the sides and top of the mastaba until it had become a pyramid with six steps on each side. There may have been a religious meaning behind the architecture, as a later Pyramid Text spell says to the king that “a stairway has been constructed for you, that you may ascend to heaven.”

The Step Pyramid Complex was built out of limestone, not mudbrick, making it the earliest known completely stone monument. It has a number of new architectural elements added into its plan. On the north side of the pyramid is what might be a copy of the king’s palace in stone, which served as a funerary temple, along with a serdab, a small, closed room, with a ka-statue of the king on the east side. There is a very large open court for some of the rituals of the king’s heb sed, a celebration that took place after thirty years of rule. The point of the ritual was to renew and legitimize the king’s rule for yet another thirty years and so on for eternity. On the south side of the court is a separate small and deep burial chamber, referred to as the south tomb. Perhaps it was for the king’s ka or soul? Scholars do not really know. On the east side of the court are chapels for all the gods and goddesses of Egypt to come and watch the king be crowned during the heb sed, once with the Red Crown of Lower Egypt and once with the White Crown of Upper Egypt.

All these spaces in the Step Pyramid Complex and their functions are for the king’s soul, for his afterlife. This is not the complex of a human king on the earth but for a divine king who died but will be reborn forever in the afterlife. The complex has combined what was needed by a living king, such as a palace and a heb sed court, with the needs of a deceased king, such as a burial chamber and a place to offer food to his ka, or soul, so that he would continue to live forever. On the east side of the Step Pyramid were also shaft tombs for the king’s family members.

With the Fourth Dynasty, kings build true pyramids set in a completely different kind of complex, which reflects a shift to the importance of the cult of the sun god in both the king’s life and afterlife. The true pyramid served as a sunray ramp for the king’s ascension to heaven, and the alignment of all the structures of the true pyramid complex was designed on an east-to-west axis, following the sun’s rising and setting. The importance of the sun cult increases, and by the Fifth Dynasty, every king builds not only a pyramid complex but also a sun temple. Scholars have put forth various opinions on the meaning of these sun temples. Clearly, sun temples stress the relationship of the king with the sun god, Ra, and his wife, the goddess Hathor, but they also seem to be tied to the heb sed and the renewal of royal legitimacy.

At the very end of the Fifth Dynasty, Pyramid Texts appear on the walls of the burial chamber in the pyramid of King Unas at Saqqara. The point of these spells is to protect the king and help him into the afterlife. The emphasis in the texts is on the god Osiris, because his death and resurrection are the model for that of the king, although both the gods, Ra and Osiris, are part of rebirth and eternal life. Pyramid Texts continued to be used in Sixth Dynasty pyramids for both kings and queens, but their use stops with the end of the Old Kingdom.

The Sixth Dynasty seems to have had political problems within the royal family, as King Tety may have been assassinated, and after that, one of the queens in the harem was investigated for conspiring against the following king, Pepy I. There is some evidence for a co-regency of Pepy I and his son Merenra, and if so, it would be the earliest known co-regency in the ancient Egyptian royal line. What happened in a co-regency is that the king would have his oldest son made king along with him so that if he died, there was a king already ruling. In this way, the royal family could protect their hold on the throne. At the end of the Sixth Dynasty, King Pepy II took the throne as a young boy, and so his mother, Queen Ankhenespepy II, ruled as regent for him. Pepy II is often given credit for his ninety-year reign, but more likely, his reign probably lasted sixty years. Little is known about the Old Kingdom after this, although it lasts, centered at the ancient city of Memphis until the end of the Eighth Dynasty.

By this point, climate change, which had begun in the later Fifth Dynasty, had turned the savannas on each side of the Nile valley into the deserts that they are today. Wildlife vanished or moved farther south, and plant life died. Tomb inscriptions of this time speak of drought and famine. Particularly in Upper Egypt, nomarchs took control and tried to take care of the people in their nome or province. Eventually civil war broke out between a ruling line at Heracleopolis, just south of the Fayum, and rulers at Thebes in Upper Egypt. This period, known as the First Intermediate Period, lasted from the Seventh Dynasty through to the later part of the Eleventh Dynasty.

By both military and political pressure, Mentuhotep II of the later Eleventh Dynasty reunited Egypt and ruled as sole king, beginning the period known as the Middle Kingdom. His center of rule remained at Thebes, and he was buried there as well, in the mountain against which he built his funerary temple. To stress his legitimacy, Mentuhotep II followed many Old Kingdom policies, such as marrying his sister and stressing his divinity from his mother, the goddess Hathor, wife of the sun god. In fact, where he built his funerary temple was the site of a cult of Hathor.

Mentuhotep II’s reign over a united Egypt began the period of the Middle Kingdom, which lasts through the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty. Amenemhat I, the first king of the Twelfth Dynasty, may have been a vizier who usurped the throne, but after ruling for thirty years, he was assassinated. Amenemhat had left Thebes and built a new royal residence at a city named Itja-tawy, probably near Lisht south of Memphis, where the king built his pyramid. The king’s badly damaged pyramid has been excavated, but the city of Itja-tawy has never been found. He was followed by his son Senusret I, who reigned over a time of extensive temple building, cutting of statuary, and writing of literary works. Much of all of this art and writing was propaganda about being loyal to the king. This family dynasty started by Amenemhat I lasted two hundred years, handing the throne down from father to son, until the last king of the dynasty was a queen named Sobekneferu. Scholars assume that she was the daughter of a king and also was married to one, but there is no clear evidence. She seems to have had a short reign of three to four years. Several headless statues of Sobekneferu have been found. She is wearing a female dress, with the kilt of a pharaoh worn over it.

The kings of the Twelfth Dynasty returned to the building of true pyramids, although almost all were built of brick and then cased only in stone, not built all in stone. These pyramid complexes also do not follow the rather rigid plan of the pyramid complex running from east to west seen in the Old Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom pyramid builders were very concerned with the pyramid being robbed, hid the actual entrance, and had fake shafts and chambers, hidden passageways, and massively heavy stone slabs over the king’s sarcophagus, none of which was successful in the end in keeping robbers away.

Another type of architecture that was predominant in the Middle Kingdom was the building of fortresses south of Egypt. The southern border of ancient Egypt was at the First Cataract of the Nile. South of this point was the land of Nubia. Lower Nubia was the area between the First and Second Cataracts, while Upper Nubia was south of that and included the area of the Third Cataract and up to the Fourth. These cataracts on the Nile were places in which granite broke up the river interfering with travel by boat. The people of Lower Nubia, referred to by modern archaeologists as the C-people during the time of the Middle Kingdom, had a close and fairly friendly trading relationship with Egypt. Nubia was especially important to Egypt for its gold mines and for supplying exotic goods from farther south in Africa. But the Kerma people, who established an urban center above the Third Cataract, began to pose a threat to Egypt’s control over Nubia. Under King Senusret I, Egypt began building forts in Lower Nubia, and under the later king Senusret III, a string of forts was completed down to the Second Cataract.

The Thirteenth Dynasty, the last dynasty of the Middle Kingdom, had a stable government administration, but it slowly lost control over the country, partially because of the infiltration of a great number of people from Syro-Palestine who settled for the most part in the delta, where an Egyptian town named Avaris became an Asiatic city. Finally, the rulers of these people arrived, called the Hyksos by the later Greeks, based on the ancient Egyptian name, heka hasut, and they established control over Lower Egypt. Six Hyksos kings are known, and they formed the Fifteenth Dynasty of Egypt. The Hyksos brought with them new warfare technology that the Egyptians did not yet have, which would become essential in the military of Egypt’s New Kingdom to come: the horse and chariot and the composite bow.

Eventually a new family of rulers emerged in Thebes and began the struggle against the Hyksos in the north. These Thebans are the kings of the Seventeenth Dynasty. The Hyksos had established a trade relationship with the people of Kerma that went through the Western Desert, going around the Egyptians established at Thebes. The Egyptians captured a letter going from the Hyksos to the king of Kerma, saying that the Hyksos would move south, and the Kerma people should move north, and the two of them would defeat the Egyptians and share the land of Egypt between them. When King Kamose in Thebes read this letter, he moved north and defeated the Egyptian allies of the Hyksos in northern Upper Egypt and then launched the first Egyptian attack on the city of Avaris. His brother Ahmose, who followed him on the throne, was successful in forcing the Hyksos out of the delta and pursued them into southern Palestine, destroying their allied city of Sharuhen. This victory begins the period of the New Kingdom, with King Ahmose ruling over a reunited single state of Egypt.

Undoubtedly, the Hyksos invasion of Egypt served as the justification for Egypt to move north militarily into the countries of the Levant. A new requirement of the king in the New Kingdom became “to extend the boundaries of Egypt,” and so the kings set out to control an empire in the north in the area of Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as to rebuild and occupy the forts in Nubia. King Thutmose I began military campaigns in both the north and the south, and his grandson King Thutmose III completed the building of the empire to Syria in the north and the Fifth Cataract in the south. The god Amun-Ra of Karnak Temple was the patron deity of the empire and the protector of the king in battle. Booty from captured Levantine cities, such as that of Megiddo, poured into the temple. Thebes became the most important religious center in Egypt, associated also with the fact that kings were now buried in the Valley of the Kings, behind the Theban mountain, and their large funerary temples were out on the plain in front of the mountain, across the river from Karnak Temple.

Thutmose III became king when he was still an infant, and so his stepmother, Queen Hatshepsut, served as the regent for him, as his physical mother was not a member of the royal family. After several years, Hatshepsut proclaimed herself king along with him, and they ruled together in a co-regency for twenty-two years, until Hatshepsut passed away. The damage to Hatshepsut’s monuments was not carried out until some twenty years after her death when Thutmose III was preparing to make his own son, Amenhotep II, co-regent with him and, for reasons still not completely clear, wanted to remove evidence of Hatshepsut’s family line.

Somewhat later, under King Amenhotep III, the cult of the sun god and the king’s importance as the son of the sun grew substantially. Amenhotep III deified himself as the sun god and his wife, Queen Tiye, as the goddess Hathor, wife of the sun god. After a thirty-four-year rule over a peaceful and enormously wealthy Egypt, his son, Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaten, left Thebes in year five of his reign, after closing the temple of Amun. Akhenaten moved much farther north and built a city at Amarna for his form of the sun god, Aten, the physical disk of the sun. Twelve years later, Akhenaten died, and within three years, the city of Amarna was abandoned. Under Tutankhamun and the kings Ay and Horemheb following him, Egyptian religion reverted back to what was considered standard state religion.

With the death of the childless King Horemheb, Ramses I, his general, took the throne, starting the Nineteenth Dynasty, but died shortly thereafter. His son, Seti I, proclaimed himself the “Bringer of the Renaissance” and carried out numerous military expeditions as well as an extensive building program. His son was Ramses II, one of the longest ruling kings of Egypt with a reign of sixty-seven years. Ramses II battled the Hittites from ancient Anatolia and then, much later, signed a peace treaty with them and eventually married a Hittite princess. Ramses II deified himself as the god Ra in his temple at Abu Simbel and deified his wife, Nefertari, as Hathor in the smaller temple that he made there for her. His son, King Merneptah, who finally succeeded him on the throne had to deal with a large invasion from Libya. The end of the Nineteenth Dynasty, as well as the beginning of the next dynasty, the Twentieth, is not well understood but included the reign of a queen named Tausret taking the throne for a period of probably eight years.

The best-known king of the Twentieth Dynasty is Ramses III who fought not only a battle with the Libyans, like Merneptah, but also a large invasion of migrating people known as the Sea Peoples who came from farther north, perhaps the area of modern Eastern Europe. Egypt’s empire in the north was lost at this time, and little is known about Egypt’s presence in Nubia to the south. Ramses III was assassinated in a harem conspiracy; a recent CT scan of this king’s mummy showed that his throat was cut. The later part of the Twentieth Dynasty suffered from economic problems and civil war, along with seemingly short periods of rule, by kings all named Ramses, from Ramses IV to Ramses XI. This period ended with the High Priests of Amun ruling in Thebes and up to the city of El-Hibeh, south of the Fayum, while the king stayed in the royal residence of Ramses in the delta and ruled Lower Egypt. This situation brings about the Third Intermediate Period.

Because of the constant migration of Libyans settling in the delta, Dynasties Twenty-One to Twenty-Four were all ruled by Libyan kings. The Twenty-Fourth Dynasty based at the delta town of Sais was perhaps the most aggressive in wanting to expand control south to Thebes, such that the Kushites in the Sudan, centered at the Fourth Cataract, heard of this and moved north to protect Egypt, and Karnak Temple in particular, as they were loyal to the cult of the god Amun. All the Libyan kings eventually surrendered to the Kushites, who then ruled over Egypt as the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty. The Kushites were chased out of Egypt in 664 BCE by the Assyrians from northern Mesopotamia, who added Egypt to their empire. From now on, in the period called the Late Period of Egyptian history, Egypt will have short periods of independence, mixed with two periods of belonging to the Persian Empire, before Egypt is taken over by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, beginning Greek rule over Egypt, and ending the pharaonic period.



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