Mistress of the House


Do not control your wife in her house when you know she is efficient. Do not say to her ‘Where is it? Get it’ when she has put something in its correct place. Let your eye observe in silence; then you will recognize her skill, and it will be a joy when your hand is with her. There are many men who don’t realize this, but if a man desists from strife at home he will not find it starting. Every man who establishes a household should hold back his hasty heart.

New Kingdom scribal advice

In the ancient Egyptian mind housework was very firmly equated with women’s work. Domesticated house-husbands were quite simply unknown, and the married woman’s most coveted title of Mistress of the House was a constant reminder of her principal wifely duty: to ensure the smooth day-to-day running of her husband’s home. It seems very unlikely that either sex would ever have dreamed of questioning the inevitability of this division of labour. Males and females were understood by all to be different types of people destined to live very different lives, and any upsetting of this natural order would clearly have been wrong. In every household, therefore, the wife was nominally responsible for all domestic tasks. Naturally, the amount of housework which any individual was personally required to undertake was dependent upon her social status. A queen had no need to disrupt her social life to cook, clean or change nappies, while a wealthy society lady could rely upon the help of a large number of servants including maids, cooks, nurses and brewers, but was expected to supervise and order their activities. A poor woman would need to perform all the domestic tasks herself, helped only by her unmarried daughters and her other close female relations. Given the absence of modern luxuries such as running water, electricity, gas, supermarkets and motorized transport, the care of the home was a full-time occupation involving a great deal of hard physical work.

We have surprisingly little information about the size or composition of the typical Egyptian household, although archaeological evidence suggests that, as in present-day rural Egypt, the western-style nuclear family was unusual and the extended family was the general rule, with family groups of six or more adult members being common. Such extended family units were economically highly efficient, particularly in rural areas where all the members of one family worked the same plot of land. Perhaps more importantly, they represented security for their members, providing welcome physical and financial support in a society with no formalized welfare programme and a rather crude legal system. From the woman’s point of view, domestic chores must have been very much eased by sharing with the other females in the household, and childcare would not have been the problem which it is for many mothers today. However, to modern eyes at least, there was a price to pay for this security: the almost complete lack of privacy in the average Egyptian home. Society had absolutely no regard for the individual’s need for solitude, and the western concept of parents and even children requiring their own personal space would have seemed incomprehensible to people who regarded sharing their sleeping quarters with four or five other family members as reassuring rather than invasive.

Although some young boys left home to enlist in the army, daughters almost invariably remained with their parents until marriage. They then left their family to live with their husband, either joining him in establishing a new home or moving in with their new in-laws and all their dependent children. Consequently, the population within each house varied from year to year, dwindling as the older members died or married out only to swell again with new births and the introduction of new brides. Contemporary census information indicates that the immediate household of a soldier named Hori, a resident on the Middle Kingdom housing estate of Kahun, was fairly typical. The dimensions of his house measured 12 × 15 metres, and into this rather cramped space he packed his wife, his baby son Snefru, his mother and five assorted female relations who may well have been his dependent unmarried sisters. When, many years later, Hori died and Snefru became head of the household he continued to provide a home for his mother, his widowed grandmother and at least three of his maiden aunts.1 A similar picture of apparent overcrowding is obtained from the more wealthy household of the priest Heqanakht which included his mother Ipi, his concubine Iutemheb, his five sons and an unspecified number of assorted daughters, daughter-in-laws and servants.

Almost all Egyptian houses, rich or poor, whether built as homes for the living, the dead (tombs) or the gods (temples), followed the same basic pattern, with an open public area or courtyard leading through semi-private reception rooms into a private area. In the houses this private area was firmly restricted to women, children and immediate male family members. This pattern is still followed in most Egyptian villages today, where convention dictates that many domestic activities may occur in front of the house and that guests may be entertained in the main reception area, but male visitors will never expect to set foot in the private women’s quarters at the back of the house. Whether there were areas of the ancient Egyptian house specifically reserved for men is less clear, although illustrations preserved in tombs suggest that women were in no way confined to their quarters or prevented from mixing socially with the men of the household. To be ordered back to the women’s quarters was considered a dire


Fig. 12 Cross-section and plan of a typical Deir el-Medina house

disgrace: the oath taken by women testifying in the law courts was ‘may I be sent to the back of the house if I am not telling the truth’.

Despite this universal houseplan there was, as might be expected, a wide discrepancy in the scale of available accommodation which ranged from extensive royal palaces and magnificent country estates to small one-roomed huts which were occupied by the poorest of families. Nevertheless, the preferred building material for rich and poor alike was always sun-dried mud-brick, a material in plentiful supply along the banks of the Nile. Mud-brick was used to build all the internal and external house walls, while strong and reasonably watertight roofs were made by resting bundles of reeds on a framework of wooden cross-beams and sealing them with mud. Wood was then used to make doors, columns and window frames as required. Stone was both expensive and less easy to handle than mud-brick and consequently only used in domestic architecture when there was no alternative – for example, at Deir el-Medina, there was no convenient source of either water or mud to make the cheaper and lighter bricks. Wealthy householders did occasionally employ stone for high-visibility status symbol features such as thresholds, door-frames and the bases of wooden pillars, and these expensive stone components were often salvaged and re-used by subsequent generations when the less durable mud-brick surrounds had collapsed. In the grandest of households these stone fitments bore carved inscriptions and were painted in bright colours.

The use of mud-brick imposed certain limitations on the Egyptian architects. Their first priority was always to avoid the damp soil which would cause the house walls to decay and collapse, and consequently all villages and towns were sited as far away from the highest level of the inundation as was practical. This would have been a sensible precaution even if building in stone. The mud-brick also had a direct effect on the internal structure of the houses, as the walls had to be relatively thick in order to support the load-bearing roof while the roof itself had to be relatively narrow due to the shortage of timber to span the gap between the walls. Any increase in house size therefore required a corresponding increase in internal divisions to support the roof, and only those wealthy enough to incorporate free-standing pillars in their plans were able to construct imposing and spacious halls. However, there were definite advantages to using mud-brick. The houses were cheap and easy to build and, as mud-brick is an efficient insulating material, remained both cool in the summer and warm in the winter. As an added bonus it was easy to extend or divide up the properties, and throughout their useful lives most mud-brick buildings underwent a series of DIY alterations designed to adjust the available living space to suit the ever-changing needs of the occupants.

Your heart rejoices as you plough your plot in the Field of Reeds. You are rewarded with what you have grown. You gather a harvest rich in grain.

Inscription from the New Kingdom tomb of Paheri

Throughout the Dynastic period Egypt was ruled from a succession of different capital cities, with Memphis, Thebes, Amarna and Pa-Ramesses each serving at different times as the principal seat of government and home to the royal court. Local administration was delegated to the forty or so regional capitals which acted as the centres for all provincial bureaucracy, while other towns such as Abydos grew in size and importance due to their links with major cult temples. These flourishing urban centres were always the exception rather than the rule, and the vast majority of the population lived the lives of rural peasants, inhabiting small and politically insignificant villages and farming the surrounding land. The importance of agriculture to the economy and to the general well-being of Egypt was never underestimated by her people. Rural living, in a rather glamorized and sanitized form, was widely perceived to be the ideal way of life for all right-thinking upper-class Egyptians, and wealthy individuals spent many a happy hour relaxing in the countryside while watching the local peasants toiling in the fields. Their idea of the ultimate heaven, or the Afterlife, was to supervise the performance of basic agricultural tasks in the ever-fertile ‘Field of Reeds’.

It is not surprising that the most widely coveted residence, often depicted in tomb scenes of the Afterlife, was a spacious ranch-style country bungalow or even a two-storey villa set in its own extensive grounds and further sheltered from the hurly-burly of life by a protective mud-brick wall. In an ideal world this perfect home would have an impressive columned portico, elegant and well-proportioned central reception rooms and extensive family quarters, servants’ rooms and of course a well-fitted kitchen. Outbuildings would provide further accommodation and storage areas, and the flat roof, reached by a narrow external staircase, would have a multitude of uses. The formal landscaped leisure garden, artificially irrigated and lovingly tended by hard-working gardeners, would include a shallow artificial pool with ornamental fish, many colourful and exotic flowers and shrubs, and leafy trees to provide welcome protection from the harsh glare of the midday sun. There may even be a private shrine or chapel situated within the garden wall. The estate would naturally have a private well and perhaps even its own little farm to supply fresh produce for the household. To enjoy this bucolic existence, untroubled by the stresses of city life and, naturally, with enough labourers to perform the necessary agricultural and domestic tasks, was every rich Egyptian’s dream.

The gardener carries a yoke which makes his shoulders bend with age; it causes a nasty swelling on his neck, which festers. He spends his morning watering his leeks and his evening tending to his herbs, having already toiled in the orchard at noon. He works himself into an early grave far more than do the other professionals.

From the Middle Kingdom Satire of the Trades

The Egyptian rural idyll came closest to reality at the city of Akhetaten, King Akhenaten’s custom-designed capital set in the desert sands of Middle Egypt. In this arid and unpromising place luxurious villas were constructed for the wealthiest court officials and bureaucrats. Some of the more spacious homes had twenty or more internal rooms including a large master bedroom with en suite bathroom facilities, and were surrounded by delightful pleasure gardens enclosed by thick mud-brick walls. The servants’ quarters and storage areas were set a little apart from the main house in order to ensure maximum peace and quiet for the residents. Sadly, Akhenaten’s city proved to be indeed a dream, and the new capital was abandoned after less than twenty years’ occupation.

The more typical Egyptian village must have appeared very much like its modern counterpart, with closely-packed thick-walled houses of varying size arranged higgledy-piggledy along narrow passageways and courtyards, and new buildings or extensions springing up as and when required with absolutely no formal planning procedure. The average villager probably lived in a modest four- or five-roomed house which would have been home to the extended family, the family dependants, the family pets, the foodstores and perhaps a few birds and a sheep or two being raised for food. It is perhaps fortunate for family sanity that due to the good weather most tasks could be performed out of doors, either in front of the house, in the yard or on the useful flat roof, and the overcrowded homes were frequently little more than bases used for eating and sleeping.

The houses, especially the better built ones, admirably suit the Egyptian climate. There is only one thing lacking to make them really pleasant places to live, and that is greater cleanliness within the houses themselves and within the streets. The salvation of the people lies in the fact that they lead essentially an outdoor life, the houses being regarded almost solely as places to sleep and cook in; otherwise the mortality would be considerably higher than it is.

Miss Blackman’s comments on modern Egyptian village housing

Town and city houses were generally smaller than their village counterparts and, as land within the walled town was at a premium, they were often built in terraced rows without the luxury of a garden or yard. To compensate for their enforced narrowness the houses grew upwards, and homes two, or even three, storeys high were designed. Actual depictions of urban life are rare, but it is clear that the towns were very densely occupied and in certain more central quarters rather squalid, with the tall buildings crammed together around the important public buildings and excluding the light from the narrow streets. Purpose-built housing complexes such as Deir el-Medina or Amarna, with their organized ranks of neat buildings arranged along straight streets and right-angled road junctions, give a false impression of the efficiency of Egyptian urban planning; these towns were atypical in being conceived for one purpose and built relatively quickly by the state. In contrast, the long-established centres of trade and commerce evolved slowly and randomly. The lack of any official sanitation or waste-disposal system, the overcrowded conditions and the ubiquitous presence of the animals needed for food must have made town life at times unappealing, if not downright unhygienic, particularly during the long hot summer days; the attractions of country life must have been widely felt.

Preserved on the wall of the Theban tomb of Djehutynefer, a New Kingdom Royal Scribe and Overseer of the Treasury, is a complete sectional plan of his comparatively spacious town house, built in one of the more salubrious areas of uptown Thebes. It appears to have been at least three storeys high, although given the conventions of Egyptian art these layers may actually represent various parts of the house lying one behind the other. The lowest floor, or basement, was apparently the servants’ quarters, where the mundane domestic activities such as breadmaking, brewing and weaving could proceed out of sight of the owner and his family. The elegantly tall public reception rooms on the first floor had high windows designed to maximize coolness and must have been suitably impressive for distinguished visitors, while the top level included the private and less formal family and women’s rooms. Five conical grain-silos were placed on the flat roof, which was also apparently used for some cooking and food processing, although the logic behind placing the grain storage on the roof is not immediately apparent; perhaps it reduced the number of vermin infesting the grain? Such luxurious town houses were very much a privilege of the wealthy, and artisans lived in far less splendid accommodation, rarely having access to more than three or four narrow rooms plus the flat roof which could be sheltered from the sun by simple screens and used as an outdoor room.


Fig. 13 Woman carrying domestic provisions

The homes built for the Theban necropolis workers at Deir el-Medina were all identically long and narrow, measuring about 15 × 5 metres. They included a square reception area leading into a larger inner room, a storage room or small bedroom, and a small courtyard which served as a kitchen and which often included an underground storage area. External stairs led up to the roof where the entire family probably slept during the heat of the summer. At Amarna, a less prosperous town, the most menial labourers were housed in very cramped accommodation, with each of the seventy-two housing units measuring only 5 × 10 metres. These houses were divided into a main living area, a bedroom or storage area and a kitchen, while the porch was used to shelter animals and the roof served as an additional room. Dotted among these rather squalid houses were the larger homes built for the artisans; square-shaped dwellings with a large, columned reception room, several bedrooms and storage rooms and an outside cooking area.

To expel fleas in a house: sprinkle it throughout with natron water until they pass away.

To prevent mice from approaching: fat of cat is placed on all things.

To prevent a serpent from coming out of its hole… a bulb of onion is placed in the opening of the hole and it will not come out.

Housekeeping hints from the Ebers Medical Papyrus

Given the heat, the overcrowded conditions, the lack of basic sanitation and the presence of both foodstores and animals within the home, it is not surprising that domestic pests became a constant nuisance almost impossible to control. Many harassed housewives resorted to perfuming every room in the house with a sweet-smelling incense blended from myrrh, frankincense and spices; this had the dual benefit of masking any unpleasant odours while efficiently fumigating both the house and its contents. Flies must have been an ever-present menace and, although the smoke from the cooking fire may have deterred some of the less determined insects, proven repellents such as ‘oriole fat’ were much in demand. The lack of an efficient waste-disposal system unfortunately meant that all types of domestic refuse, including decaying food and human-waste products, had either to be carried to the local dump or tipped in the nearby river or canal; many householders could see no reason to go to all this trouble and simply threw their trash out into the street, causing the level of the ground to rise almost imperceptibly from year to year. Fortunately, the hot climate ensured that the domestic refuse decomposed relatively quickly if rather malodorously. The unsavoury heaps of decaying refuse between the houses were obviously highly attractive to vermin, and many of the homes which have been excavated give evidence of large-scale infestation by mice and rats. Pets may have helped to reduce the numbers of rodents and perhaps have deterred snakes, but those faced with more persistent problems had to use mechanical trapping devices or simply resorted to blocking the holes with stones or cloth plugs.

The washerman launders at the riverbank in the vicinity of the crocodile… His food is mixed with filth, and there is no part of him which is clean. He washes the clothes of a menstruating woman. He weeps when he spends all day with a beating stick and a stone there…

Extract from the Middle Kingdom Satire of the Trades

Despite the lack of concern over hygienic waste disposal, great importance was attached to personal and household cleanliness. The Egyptians were famed throughout the ancient world for their sparkling white clothes, and Herodotus remarked approvingly that their garments were ‘constantly fresh washed and they pay particular attention to this’. Those who were wealthy enough to take advantage of a commercial laundry service enjoyed the luxury of having their dirty linen collected at the door and returned when clean, dry and ironed or re-pleated. In spite of the rather deprecatory quotation given above the professional washer-man was not necessarily a despised or lowly individual, and the chief washerman of the royal household was often a young man of noble birth who was universally recognized as occupying a position of some privilege and who was ranked only slightly lower than the king’s sandal-bearer. It is very unlikely that such an exalted and well-bred officer would ever have stooped to a degrading manual task, and he would instead have confined his duties to supervising the work of others less privileged than himself.

Unfortunately, the professional washermen were mainly employed to undertake the extensive laundry of the large temples and the more wealthy households, and laundries were an undreamed-of luxury for most women. The family washing therefore became an important, time-consuming and physically demanding chore which had to be performed on a very regular basis. On washday, the dirty garments were piled into baskets and carried to the bank of the river or a nearby canal where they were rolled into a ball and wetted. Natron-soap was then applied, and the laundry was either pounded vigorously with a wooden paddle or rubbed repeatedly over smooth stones before rinsing thoroughly in running water. The clean linen was then shaken, wrung out and left to dry and bleach in the sun. When dry the cloth was ironed or smoothed, carefully folded, and taken back to the house where it was replaced in its basket or storage chest. The few laundry scenes which have been preserved in tombs show that washing was a developing science; during the Middle Kingdom the professional washermen used the same simple methods as the housewives but by the end of the New Kingdom the washermen were heating large jars of water at the riverbank. This innovation allowed the washermen to give the clothes a hot wash and presumably remove far more dirt.2

The house itself was cleaned with the aid of a short-handled broom made from stiff vegetable fibres, and several contemporary illustrations show crafty servants first sprinkling drops of water to encourage the dust to settle and then using remarkably modern-looking brushes to sweep the floor clean. Linen rags, the useful remnants of household sheeting and clothing too small to be saved for funeral bandages, were recycled and served as dusters. The houseproud housewife was helped in her dusting by the scarcity of furniture, carpeting and curtains to trap dust particles; even the most luxurious homes were somewhat bare by modern western standards, and most of the furniture which has been recovered has come from the excavation of tombs rather than from houses. Although the internal mud-brick walls were often plastered and painted with bright and elaborate scenes, furniture was to a large extent considered both unnecessary and a waste of space, and the concept of decorative but non-functional ornaments and knick-knacks was unknown.

It was both customary and comfortable to sit or squat on the floor and, although roughly made stools, some as low as 16 cm high, were used by all the people, formal chairs with backs and arms were relatively expensive status symbols used only by the upper classes. Short footstools were highly popular with the chair-using élite. Small individual tables or eating-stands were manufactured to co-ordinate with the chairs, but again these were by no means considered essential domestic equipment and, as in modern rural Egypt, food was usually served on woven mats spread on the floor. The diners sat or squatted round the mats and helped themselves to whichever dish they fancied. Although spoons and knives were used in the preparation of food, eating with the fingers was considered perfectly polite at all levels of society. We even have a delightfully informal depiction of King Akhenaten enjoying a large joint of beef while Queen Nefertiti holds a whole roast bird in her right hand.

How great is the lord of his city. He is a cool room that allows a man to sleep until the dawn.

Middle Kingdom Hymn to King Senwosret III

The bedrooms were similarly stark. Indeed, specific bedrooms were a luxury enjoyed only by the more wealthy who could afford to be extravagant with their space; most families had fairly informal sleeping arrangements, needing only a mat or a folded linen sheet and a curiously hard curved stone or wooden headrest to be sure of a good night’s dreams. This portable sleeping paraphernalia could easily be packed away at dawn when the room needed to resume its daytime function. Those rooms which were specifically intended to be bedrooms often had a low brick platform built along one wall to serve as the base for a mattress of thickly folded linen sheets which prevented cold, damp and perhaps insects reaching the sleeper. The wooden beds which were available were both costly and space-wasting, an important consideration in the overcrowded houses, and were consequently used only by the very wealthy who greatly prized them as status symbols; Scribe Ipuwer repeatedly lamented that during the anarchical First Intermediate Period ‘He who did not sleep on a box owns a bed’, and ‘Those who owned beds are on the ground, while he who lay in the dirt spreads a rug.’ His sense of outrage at this impropriety and reversal of the natural hierarchy was only calmed with the coming of law and order, when he was able to report:

It is good when beds are made ready and the masters’ headrests safely secured. When everyone’s need is filled by a mat in the shade, and a door shut on him who sleeps in the bushes.

The best of the beds were fitted with integral ‘springs’ made from rushes and interlaced cord. Curiously, some of the earliest beds had such a pronounced slope towards the foot that it was apparently necessary to employ a footboard to prevent the unconscious sleeper from slowly sliding downwards. This design defect was corrected during the New Kingdom when beds became far flatter and presumably more comfortable for the restless sleeper. The remaining bedroom furniture was minimal. There may have been a low stool to sit on while dressing the hair and applying makeup, and elaborate cosmetic and jewel boxes would have been prominent in the boudoirs of the wealthy. Perhaps because of the shortage of good Egyptian wood, fitted bedrooms were unknown and wardrobes, cupboards and chests of drawers were rarely used. Instead, a wide range of chests, boxes and woven baskets with tie-fasteners was used to store folded clothing, linen and personal possessions.

One item which could be found in all the rooms of the house was the lamp. The sun sets both quickly and early during the Egyptian winter, and there was a need for some form of artificial lighting if family life was to continue after the evening meal. Lamps ranged in design from very simple oil-burning bowls with floating cloth wicks to sophisticated and surprisingly modern-looking standard lamps; long carved wooden pillars designed to support a large pottery oil-burning lamp. Fires, torches and portable braziers were all used to increase this rather dim light while providing welcome warmth during the colder winter evenings. Nevertheless, the Egyptian house must have been a rather gloomy place after dark, and the majority of the population rose at daybreak and retired to bed at dusk.

The kitchen was extremely simple by modern standards, typically including a cooking fire, one or more small circular ovens, grinding equipment, pottery vessels and storage space for all the food and utensils necessary for the preparation of the household meals. As wood was both expensive and in short supply the fuel used in cooking was almost invariably dried dung which had the advantage of burning with a long-lasting, odourless and clean heat and was free to those who had access to animals. Sheep dung in particular burns for a very long time, and ready-prepared cakes of sheep droppings mixed with straw have been recovered from some of the Amarna kitchens. The manure had to be collected on a daily basis and moulded into suitable firebricks by mixing with water and straw before drying in the sun, a rather time-consuming and unglamorous duty which, just as in modern Egypt, was presumably delegated to the more junior females and the children. Once laid, the fire could easily be lit by means of a simple bow drill or the spark from a struck flint.

The oven was a squat, beehive-shaped clay mound about three feet tall, fitted with internal shelving and with a hole at the base designed to allow the removal of ash. It was principally used to bake bread, although food could also be cooked in a saucepan placed on the flat oven-top, and the cook sat or squatted in front of the mouth of the oven while preparing her food. Those who preferred to cook on an open fire used a tripod-like contraption


Fig. 14 Woman baking

while boiling and roasting, and were able to bake directly in the embers of the fire. Contemporary illustrations suggest that the oven was occasionally situated on the roof of the house although, bearing in mind the ever-present risk of fire, this seems unnecessarily dangerous; it may be that the artists intended to depict the ovens outside the houses but that differences in artistic approach and perspective have led to misinterpretations by modern eyes. Archaeological evidence certainly confirms that ovens and cooking fires were often situated away from the home, presumably to reduce discomfort from the heat and smoke of cooking as well as the associated risk of fire. For example, at Amarna the kitchens were built on the eastern side of the houses and were connected to the living quarters by means of a covered passageway. Where the oven or fire was inside the house it was generally positioned well away from the door, and the kitchen roofing was provided with airholes to allow some of the heat, smoke and smells to escape upwards. Even so, the atmosphere in the enclosed kitchen must at times have seemed unbearably hot.

They live on bread made of spelt which they form into loaves… they eat many kinds of fish raw, either salted or dried in the sun. Quails also, and ducks, and small birds, they eat uncooked, merely first salting them. All other birds, with the exception of those which are set apart as sacred, are eaten roasted or boiled.

Herodotus’ comments on the Egyptian diet

The provision of a good and plentiful supply of food and drink for the family and its guests was one of the most important duties of the housewife and one which, if performed efficiently, could bring both pleasure and honour to the whole household.3 Almost all peoples enjoy eating a well-cooked and tasty meal with congenial companions, but the Egyptians seem to have been inordinately fond of feasting, drinking and entertaining their friends at home. If the numerous dire warnings against gluttony recorded in the scribal instructions are considered in conjunction with the scenes of epicurean banquets preserved on tomb walls, it would appear certain that the most direct route to the Egyptian man’s heart was via his somewhat bulging stomach. The blatant overeating of the sedentary upper classes was clearly a cause of concern to the more abstemious members of the population:

When you sit down to eat in company shun the foods you love. Restraint only needs a moment’s effort, whereas gluttony is base and is reproved. A cup of water will quench your thirst and a mouthful of herbs will strengthen your heart… Vile is he whose belly still hungers when the meal time has passed.

Old Kingdom scribal advice

This enviable ability to overeat was a direct result of Egypt’s efficient administration of her much-admired natural resources. Egypt, rightly described by Herodotus as the ‘gift of the Nile’, was an extraordinarily fertile country teeming with edible wild plants and animals and home to a flourishing agricultural economy which year after year yielded vast supplies of grain and meat. Famine among the lower classes, a direct result of the failure of the inundation, was certainly not unknown during the Dynastic period but it was a relatively rare disaster, and the mountains of grain hoarded during the good years were generally sufficient insurance against the future lean. Even the largest of the Egyptian towns and cities was closely linked with the countryside, so that all the population were able to enjoy year-round access to a healthy variety of seasonal fresh foodstuffs.

The availability of high-quality food had a direct effect upon the evolution of Egyptian culinary techniques, with the top chefs consistently favouring very simple recipes, relying on the quality and freshness of their ingredients to produce appetizing dishes and showing no urge to experiment with adventurous sauces or elaborate combinations of tastes and textures. This fortunate situation may be contrasted with the problems faced by the ancient Roman chefs who, isolated from fresh food by a combination of distance, bad transport links and lack of refrigeration, were forced to devise spicy and highly flavoured dressings and sauces to disguise the repetitive nature of a diet monotonously high in preserved and often slightly rancid foods. The Egyptians had no need to mask the natural flavours of their ingredients and, with the possible exception of stews or soups, the food remained plain and unadorned; it was the variety of different dishes served together which tempted the Egyptian tastebuds. There was therefore little culinary experimentation; contemporary illustrations and the works of later classical authors show that boiling was regarded as the traditional and most fuel-efficient method of cooking meat and vegetables while baking was used for bread and honey- or date-sweetened cakes. Fowl were usually roasted on a skewer and both meat and fish were occasionally grilled.

One very real problem shared by both the Roman and the


Fig. 15 Two New Kingdom ladies attended by a servant at a banquet

Egyptian cooks was the hot weather; without refrigeration no food could be kept for any length of time and, although grain and some fruit and vegetables could be stockpiled for future use, meat and fish had to be dried or pickled before they could be stored, while milk and dairy products needed to be kept as cool as possible in damp earthenware pots. The problem of valuable meat going bad before it could be eaten was to a certain extent solved by the practice of slaughtering animals immediately before cooking, while the gregarious Egyptian habit of redistributing food by means of a dinner party also ensured that there was little leftover meat to go to waste. As polite guests would naturally extend reciprocal invitations to their hosts this system ensured that the net consumption of prestige foods by each individual remained constant. In contrast, there was no effective means of keeping bread fresh and, though its low fat-content meant that the bread could be kept for a day or so, it would almost certainly have been necessary to do a minimal amount of baking every two or three days. This cooking probably took place in the morning as the main meal of the day was a long and leisurely occasion enjoyed indoors while the fierce heat of the noon sun made outside work unattractive. The only other meals which had to be prepared were a light breakfast taken early in the morning and perhaps a small supper or snack to be eaten before retiring to bed.

Unfortunately, we have no ancient Egyptian recipe books to allow us to re-create the dishes served to the pharaohs. However, we do have a surprising collection of ready-cooked foods. The Egyptians, with their uniquely practical approach to death, tried to ensure that the deceased would not pass hungry into the Afterlife by providing food, wherever possible, to be enjoyed within the tomb. Indeed, during the Old Kingdom whole meals were often interred with the body; the best-preserved example of this is the 2nd Dynasty tomb of an elderly woman buried at Sakkara which included a full dinner carefully set out on the floor.4 The menu was as follows:

Loaf of bread

Barley porridge

Roast fish

Pigeon stew

Roast quail

Cooked kidneys

Leg and ribs of beef

Stewed figs

Fresh berries

Honey cakes


Grape wine

The excavator of this tomb, Professor Emery, noted with interest that the deceased lady, whose body was substantially less well-preserved than her picnic, had suffered from an unfortunate jaw disability and, while alive, would certainly have been unable to eat such a demanding meal since she would only have been able to chew on one side of her mouth. Her menu is strikingly similar to the banquet served to mourners at the interment of King Tutankhamen over one thousand years later, when the eight guests were presented with nine ducks, four geese, sundry cuts of beef and mutton, bread, a selection of fruit and vegetables and wine. These dishes were all served together and, as in modern Egypt, the guests helped themselves to the foods which they preferred. There was no particular emphasis placed on eating food hot from the kitchen as there is in many colder western cultures.

Make a great offering of bread and beer, large and small cattle, fowl, wine, fruit, incense and all kinds of good herbs on the day of founding Akhetaten…

Extract from the Amarna Boundary Stela

The exact quantity, quality and variety of food available to the individual chef naturally differed from household to household. The primary source of food for most was the daily ration earned by those members of the family who were literally ‘breadwinners’. In the absence of an official currency all workers were paid in kind in the form of rations; the composition of the ration varied from period to period but it invariably included either grain or beer and bread. The minimum daily ration seems to have been ten standard-sized loaves, and a Middle Kingdom story confirms this by telling us that the daily ration allotted by the Eloquent Peasant to feed his wife and family were ten loaves of bread and two jugs of beer. Those with more prestigious employment naturally received far more than this basic allowance, with daily payments of hundreds of loaves being made to the senior bureaucrats who then subdivided their portion between their household and their estate workers. The most generous rations of all were those sacrificed to the gods; offerings of one thousand loaves or a whole oxen were not unusual and, since these were then redistributed among the priests and temple workers, the Egyptian clergy became some of the best-fed people in the land. As Herodotus noted with more than a twinge of envy:

They consume none of their own property and are at no expense for anything. Every day bread is baked for them of the sacred corn and a plentiful supply of beef and goose flesh is assigned to each.

In addition to the basic bread or grain ration most families were able to increase their food supplies by hunting, trapping and fishing, while even those living in the crowded towns and cities were able to rear a few fowl, sheep or a goat to eat up scraps of waste food and produce a daily supply of eggs, milk and cheese. The larger estates of the wealthy were practically self-supporting, maintaining their own granaries, bakeries and farms and staffed by their own servants. Those thrifty householders who were able to accumulate an excess of one product, perhaps by growing their own vegetables or by making extra bread, were able to barter their surplus at the market and buy in an even greater variety of food. Thus, while the menus of the poor and less enterprising usually involved a fairly dull and rather flatulent rotation of bread, onions, lettuce, radish and pulses, the more successful were able to tuck into mouthwatering mounds of succulent meat, poultry and fish, served with a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and accompanied by bread and cakes.

Do not eat bread while another stands by, without offering your portion to him. Food is always here. It is man who does not last.

Advice offered by Scribe Any

Bread was by far and away the most important food prepared by the Egyptian housewife. In the absence of other high-carbohydrate foods such as potatoes, pasta, rice and bananas, bread was the staple component of the diet, doubly important as the major ingredient in the popular home-brewed beer. Bread was consumed in vast quantities, enjoyed by rich and poor alike, and frequently presented as a desirable offering to both the gods and the dead. To the Egyptians bread stood as a symbol representing all foods, and to be without bread either in this life or the next was simply unthinkable. It is not surprising that baking was a motif featured time and time again in tombs, either in the form of painted scenes or small model bakeries, while the importance of having enough bread to eat was constantly stressed in folk tales and proverbs.

Without the convenience of shop-bought milled flour daily breadmaking was a relatively hard grind. It was necessary to process all the household flour by hand on a stone saddle quern; in a household of five or six adults with the healthy appetites of manual workers this must have been a daunting task. Once ground and passed through a sieve, the rather gritty flour was mixed with water and salt to make an unleavened chapati or pitta-type bread which could be quickly cooked on a flat stone placed either within the oven or on an open fire. Leavened loaves were made by kneading the flour with yeast and water to form a stiff dough. Spices, salt or flavourings could be added before baking to improve the taste, while the addition of fat, eggs and sweet dates made the basic loaf into a tasty cake. The bread was either shaped by hand or pressed into a mould and then allowed to rise before baking within the oven. Not surprisingly, many different varieties and shapes of loaf were produced. There were over fifteen words used to differentiate between the different types of bread baked during the Old Kingdom, and over forty New Kingdom words for bread and cakes. The most popular breads were semi-circular loaves shaped by hand and tall pointed loaves which were baked in distinctive conical moulds, but more elaborate breads baked into the shape of animals or even female figures were eaten on special occasions.

Better is bread with a happy heart than wealth with vexation.

New Kingdom proverb

In contrast to bread, meat, especially beef, was a very highly prized food but one which was not enjoyed by the majority of the population with any degree of frequency. It was theoretically possible for anyone to purchase the cuts of beef which represented the distribution of surplus meat from the temples, but meat was always a luxury commodity eaten only by the rich. Considering the lack of refrigeration and the prevalence of flies and dirt the beef would probably not have appeared particularly tempting to modern eyes; indeed, no one from the western plastic-wrapped and hygiene-obsessed supermarket culture who has seen a modern open-air Egyptian butcher’s shop is likely to forget the sight in a hurry. Some prosperous individuals did own one or more cows but it was only the most wealthy or the larger temple estates who could afford to maintain a herd of non-working cattle as a food source. These food-cattle were fattened up by force-feeding on balls of bread, and were slaughtered only when they were almost too obese to walk, yielding a tender and fatty meat. Less wealthy cattle owners made the best use that they could of their investments by exploiting their cows primarily for their milk and dung and even using them in ploughing and threshing. Only at the end of its working life was a privately owned cow slaughtered, and the resulting meat must have been flavoursome but rather stringy and tough. Once a cow had been killed no part of the animal was ever wasted; brains, entrails, ears, tongue and feet were all consumed with relish and even the blood was saved to make a tasty black pudding. The fat had a multitude of uses, and ‘ox grease’ was a commonly used ingredient in patent medicines. The upper classes, less concerned about waste, are depicted eating only the prime cuts of beef.

‘Small cattle’ – that is, sheep, goats and to a lesser extent pigs – were fairly widely kept and consequently far more easily available to ordinary families. Hearty and nourishing meals of boiled mutton or goat stew were particularly enjoyed by the prosperous middle classes, although there is some indication that sheep may have been avoided by the conspicuously devout members of the upper classes in cities such as Thebes where the ram was venerated as a god. Sheep and goats were particularly important as a source of fresh milk, a great delicacy which was enjoyed as a hot drink and frequently used in cooking and which was, of course, vital for the production of cheese and clarified butter. Just as in many parts of the world today, pork was the subject of a more widespread religious taboo and was theoretically not acceptable as a food. However, archaeological evidence suggests that this ritual avoidance was not strictly observed. Herds of swine were clearly depicted on tomb walls, and the rubbish dumps of both Amarna and Deir el-Medina included quantities of pig bones suggestive of widespread pork consumption. Pigs are certainly very efficient animals as they eat up and re-cycle the waste food which would otherwise spoil in the hot climate, and they have the additional fringe benefit of providing a free street- and house-cleaning service.5

The Nile contains every variety of fish and in numbers beyond belief; for it supplies all the natives not only with abundant subsistence from the fish freshly caught but it also yields an unfailing multitude of fish for salting.

Diodorus Siculus

Fish, a highly nutritious and tasty food full of protein and minerals, was enjoyed by all levels of society, and undoubtedly made a very important contribution to the diet of the very poor who might otherwise have experienced protein deficiency. Although harpoon-fishing was a favourite hobby of upper-class men, and the professional fishermen employed an impressive variety of lines, nets and traps to earn their livelihood, it was not actually necessary to own any tackle to go fishing in Egypt, and many enterprising food gatherers simply waited until the swollen waters of the inundation dropped and then picked up the dead and dying fish left stranded high and relatively dry in the muddy fields. Once caught the fish could either be grilled and eaten fresh or preserved by wind-drying, smoking, salting or pickling in oil before storing.

Birds were another important and easily accessible source of food for the less wealthy. Although chickens were unknown until the very end of the New Kingdom, ducks and geese were widely available and could easily be raised within even the smallest home, while domesticated doves and pigeons were bred in purpose-built cotes. The ever-present waterfowl could be either trapped or netted as desired; hunting scenes do show wildfowlers earnestly stalking relatively small birds with large and aggressive-looking spears and throwing sticks, but these rather over-the-top methods were probably regarded as enjoyable sport rather than serious hunting techniques. Once caught the birds were housed in wooden cages and fattened up on grain before consumption. This system had the great advantage of providing a source of fresh meat without any need to worry about pickling or drying. The bird was simply kept alive until needed and then killed – by having its neck broken – just before cooking, as is still the custom in Egypt today, where it is common for almost all kitchens to be home to one or two live birds. The eggs produced by the captives made a useful addition to the household diet and could be supplemented by the eggs of wild birds.

Fresh fruit and beans, pulses and vegetables also played a major nutritional role in the daily diet. The Egyptians were famous throughout the ancient world for their excessive consumption of raw vegetables, particularly onions, garlic and leeks, while melons and cucumbers enjoyed such widespread popularity that even the Children of Israel, freed at last from vile bondage in Egypt, could only lament:

Will no one give us meat? Think of it. In Egypt we had fish for the asking, cucumbers and watermelons, leeks and onions and garlic. Now our throats are parched; there is nothing wherever we look except this manna.

Manna, the so-called ‘bread of heaven’, was probably the secretion of the small insects which live on tamarisk twigs; this delicacy is still collected and eaten by the present-day Bedouin, who regard it as a tasty treat. The Egyptian onions, which were small and round, probably tasted far sweeter than the larger European onion which is eaten today. They were enjoyed at almost every meal, and even had a degree of religious symbolism – the Sokar festival held at Memphis to celebrate the winter solstice required priests to don a wreath of onions and to sniff bunches of onions while walking in the sacred procession. Egyptian garlic was also smaller than its modern counterpart, and may not have been as strongly flavoured.

Beans, which are highly nutritious, were consumed in vast quantities by the poor. Chickpeas, broad beans, brown beans (ful medames) and lentils were all grown from the Predynastic period onwards and must have made appetizing and filling dishes when boiled, mashed with garlic and oil and stuffed inside a flap of unleavened bread. More adventurous bean recipes could have included chopped onion, egg, and even fried balls of bean mixture similar to the filafil still served in Egypt today.

The tradition of generous hospitality which prompts modern Egyptians to share their meals with the strangers of a few minutes’ acquaintance has its roots in the gregarious customs of Dynastic Egypt. Semi-formal banquets were an important aspect of Egyptian social life and, as there were no restaurants or cafés, these were always held at home. In the absence of theatres, cinemas and night clubs, these dinner parties formed the main entertainment for the upper classes, and were hugely enjoyed by all. It is perhaps fortunate that those who were rich enough to throw such lavish parties were also rich enough to employ servants to cook the food and clean up the resultant mess. Unfortunately we have no written description of the progress of a banquet, and our information is therefore derived from the painted feasts recorded on tomb walls. These scenes suggest that, although there was every likelihood that a formal banquet would eventually dissolve into a drunken orgy of overeating, it always started with an ostentatious display of good manners and prim behaviour. As correct etiquette was universally regarded as a mark of good breeding the Old Kingdom sage Ptahotep provided a useful guideline for the socially inept:

If you are one of the guests at the table of one who is greater than you, take what is given as it is set before you. Look at who is sitting before you, and don’t shoot many glances at him as molesting him offends the Ka. Don’t speak to him until he speaks to you – you don’t know what may displease him. Speak only when he has addressed you, then your words will please his heart.

On arrival the party guests were greeted by scantily dressed young serving-women who presented them with a fragment garland of exotic flowers and a heavily perfumed wax cone to be worn on the head. There was no formal segregation of married men and women, and the servants led the most important couples to the places of honour: low chairs or stools placed next to individual tables groaning under heaps of delicious food. Those of lesser importance were happy to sit or squat on mats spread on the floor, and helped themselves to the same food as their social superiors. Throughout the meal extra food and wine were circulated by the servants, and the feasters were entertained by a spectacular succession of nubile girl dancers, acrobats and musicians singing rather mournful songs intended to encourage a proper appreciation of life. The injection of a potentially rather depressing note into the proceedings in no way deterred the cheerful feasters, and Herodotus tells us that all banquets routinely ended with a rather abrupt reminder of death; a small model mummy being exhibited to the revellers by a gloomy servant who warned the revellers to ‘drink and be merry, for when you die you will be just like this’. This anecdote possibly tells us more about Herodotus’ gullibility than Egyptian dining customs.

Although the tomb-wall party guests are served a tempting buffet, they are never actually depicted eating. They do, however, drink, and their cups are repeatedly replenished by the ever-willing maids. This slight inconsistency has prompted some linguists, influenced by the fact that the Egyptian word sti, ‘to pour’, also means to impregnate, to suggest that the scenes may be interpreted as a form of visual pun intended to emphasize the fertility of the deceased. Certainly more overt sexual references would have been considered out of place on a tomb wall.6

Yesterday’s drunkenness will not quench today’s thirst.

Late Period advice to young men

No accomplished host would have dreamed of inviting his guests to a meal without providing an unlimited supply of the finest wines for their enjoyment.7 Wine was drunk by men and women alike, and there seems to have been no prohibition on serving women alcohol. Indeed, occasional scenes of indiscreetly drunken ladies being horribly and publicly sick show that intemperance at banquets was regarded as a rather amusing joke for all, particularly when the sufferer was a woman: one lady depicted in the tomb of Paheri even orders the servant somewhat rashly to ‘Give me eighteen cups of wine, I want to drink to drunkenness; my throat is as dry as straw.’ The most universally popular party tipple was red wine made from grapes, a drink widely enjoyed from the beginning of the Old Kingdom onwards. The mass production of white wine probably didn’t start until the Middle Kingdom, although by the classical periods Egyptian whites were well respected by the bon viveurs of the classical world: the Greek–Egyptian Athenaeus admiringly described the wine of the Mareotic region as ‘excellent, white, pleasant, fragrant, easily assimilated, thin, not likely to go to the head, and diuretic’, the Taeniotic wine as ‘better than Mareotic, somewhat pale, has an oily quality, pleasant, aromatic, mildly astringent’ and the wine of Antylla province ‘surpassing all others’.


Fig. 16 Lady vomiting at a banquet

Do not indulge in drinking beer lest you utter evil speech and don’t know what you are saying.

Instructions of Scribe Any

Wine was very much the expensive pleasure of the upper classes. Poorer and less sophisticated drinkers drowned their sorrows in vast amounts of home-brewed beer, the favourite ‘soft’ drink of ancient Egypt which was sweetish, non-fizzy and thick, and unfortunately so full of floating impurities that it frequently had to be drunk through a special filtering straw. This beer was certainly nothing like the bottled ‘Stella’ sold in Egypt today, and was probably far more nutritious than alcoholic. However much an acquired taste, the beer was both cheap and easily available, and was apparently enjoyed by all who drank it, even winning praise from the discerning Diodorus Siculus as ‘in smell and sweetness of taste not much inferior to wine’. Beer was the usual drink offered to the gods and to the deceased, and it was a valued ingredient in medicine.

Brewing was a very important offshoot of baking, and as such was traditionally regarded as a female activity. The process was relatively simple. Ground flour was mixed with water, kneaded into a stiff dough with added yeast and given a light baking in the oven. The loaf was then crumbled and placed in a fermenting jar with extra damp flour and more beer added. When brewed, the beer was strained through a sieve into a jar and stoppered to prevent further fermentation which would make the drink too acidic to be enjoyable. A similar brewing technique is still used today in the manufacture of the home-made Nubian beer known as ‘booza’.

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