Photo by Jeremy Zero
Ancient Egyptian culture flourished between c. 6000 BCE with the rise of technology (as evidenced in the glasswork of faience) and 30 BCE with the death of Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. It is famous today for the great monuments which celebrated the triumphs of the rulers and honored the gods of the land.
The Egyptian culture is often misunderstood as having been obsessed with death but, had this been so, it is unlikely it would have made the significant impression it did on other ancient cultures such as Greece and Rome. The Egyptian culture was, in fact, life-affirming, as the scholar Salima Ikram writes:
"Judging by the numbers of tombs and mummies that the ancient Egyptians left behind, one can be forgiven for thinking that they were obsessed by death. However, this is not so. The Egyptians were obsessed by life and its continuation rather than by a morbid fascination with death. The tombs, mortuary temples and mummies that they produced were a celebration of life and a means of continuing it for eternity…For the Egyptians, as for other cultures, death was part of the journey of life, with death marking a transition or transformation after which life continued in another form, the spiritual rather than the corporeal. (ix)
An individual's name was considered of such importance that an Egyptian's true name was kept secret throughout life, and one was known by a nickname. Knowledge of a person's true name gave one magical powers over that individual, and this is among the reasons why the rulers of Egypt took another name upon ascending the throne; it was not only to link oneself symbolically to another successful pharaoh but also a form of protection to ensure one's safety and help guarantee a trouble-free journey to eternity when one's life on earth was completed. According to the historian Margaret Bunson:
Eternity was an endless period of existence that was not to be feared by any Egyptian. The term 'Going to One's Ka' (astral being) was used in each age to express dying. The hieroglyph for a corpse was translated as 'participating in eternal life'. The tomb was the 'Mansion of Eternity' and the dead was an Akh, a transformed spirit. (86)
This passion for life imbued in the ancient Egyptians a great love for their land as it was thought that there could be no better place on earth in which to enjoy existence. While the lower classes in Egypt, as elsewhere, subsisted on much less than the more affluent, they still seem to have appreciated life in the same way as the wealthier citizens. This is exemplified in the concept of gratitude and the ritual known as The Five Gifts of Hathor in which the poor laborers were encouraged to regard the fingers of their left hand (the hand they reached with daily to harvest field crops) and to consider the five things they were most grateful for in their lives. Ingratitude was considered a 'gateway sin' as it led to all other types of negative thinking and resultant behavior. Once one felt ungrateful, it was observed, one then was apt to indulge oneself further in bad behavior. The Cult of Hathor was very popular in Egypt, among all classes, and epitomizes the prime importance of gratitude in Egyptian culture.
Cultural Advances & Daily Life
Papyrus (from which comes the English word 'paper') was only one of the technological advances of the ancient Egyptian culture. The Egyptians were also responsible for developing the ramp and lever and geometry for purposes of construction, advances in mathematics and astronomy (also used in construction as exemplified in the positions and locations of the pyramids and certain temples, such as Abu Simbel), improvements in irrigation and agriculture (perhaps learned from the Mesopotamians), shipbuilding and aerodynamics (possibly introduced by the Phoenicians) the wheel (brought to Egypt by the Hyksos) and medicine.
The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (c. 1800 BCE) is an early treatise on women's health issues and contraception and the Edwin Smith Papyrus (c. 1600 BCE) is the oldest work on surgical techniques. Dentistry was widely practised and the Egyptians are credited with inventing toothpaste, toothbrushes, the toothpick, and even breath mints. They created the sport of bowling and improved upon the brewing of beer as first practised in Mesopotamia. The Egyptians did not, however, invent beer. This popular fiction of Egyptians as the first brewers stems from the fact that Egyptian beer more closely resembled modern-day beer than that of the Mesopotamians.
In daily life, the Egyptians seem little different from other ancient cultures. Like the people of Mesopotamia, India, China, and Greece, they lived, mostly, in modest homes, raised families, and enjoyed their leisure time. A significant difference between Egyptian culture and that of other lands, however, was that the Egyptians believed the land was intimately tied to their personal salvation and they had a deep fear of dying beyond the borders of Egypt. Those who served their country in the army, or those who traveled for their living, made provision for their bodies to be returned to Egypt should they be killed. It was thought that the fertile, dark earth of the Nile River Delta was the only area sanctified by the gods for the rebirth of the soul in the afterlife and to be buried anywhere else was to be condemned to non-existence.
The historian Thompson writes, "Egypt treated its women better than any of the other major civilizations of the ancient world. The Egyptians believed that joy and happiness were legitimate goals of life and regarded home and family as the major source of delight.” Because of this belief, women enjoyed a higher prestige in Egypt than in any other culture of the ancient world.
Photo by Jeremy Zero
Class Distinctions in Egyptian Culture
Among the lower classes, homes were built of mud bricks baked in the sun. The more affluent a citizen, the thicker the home; wealthier people had homes constructed of a double layer, or more, of brick while poorer people's houses were only one brick wide. Wood was scarce and was only used for doorways and window sills (again, in wealthier homes) and the roof was considered another room in the house where gatherings were routinely held as the interior of the homes were often dimly lighted.
Clothing was simple linen, undyed, with the men wearing a knee-length skirt (or loincloth) and the women light, ankle-length dresses or robes which concealed or exposed their breasts depending on the fashion at a particular time. It would seem that a woman's level of undress, however, was indicative of her social status throughout much of Egyptian history. Dancing girls, female musicians, and servants and slaves are routinely shown as naked or nearly naked while a lady of the house is fully clothed, even during those times when exposed breasts were a fashion statement.
It was understood that the goddess Isis had given equal rights to both men & women, & men had no right to dictate how a woman should attire herself.
Even so, women were free to dress as they pleased, and there was never a prohibition, at any time in Egyptian history, on female fashion. A woman's exposed breasts were considered a natural, normal, fashion choice, and it was in no way deemed immodest or provocative. It was understood that the goddess Isis had given equal rights to both men and women and, therefore, men had no right to dictate how a woman, even one's own wife, should attire herself. Children wore little or no clothing until puberty.