Civil Society (Civilization)

Civil Society (Civilization)

The Pharaoh in Egyptian Society During the third and fourth dynasties of the Old Kingdom, Egypt enjoyed tremendous economic prosperity and stability. Kings held a unique position in Egyptian society. Somewhere in between human and divine, they were believed to have been chosen by the gods themselves to serve as their mediators on earth. Because of this, it was in everyone’s interest to keep the king’s majesty intact even after his death, when he was believed to become Osiris, god of the dead. The new pharaoh, in turn, became Horus, the falcon-god who served as protector of the sun god, Ra. Ancient Egyptians believed that when the king died, part of his spirit (known as “ka”) remained with his body. To properly care for his spirit, the corpse was mummified, and everything the king would need in the afterlife was buried with him, including gold vessels, food, furniture and other offerings. The pyramids became the focus of a cult of the dead king that was supposed to continue well after his death. Their riches would provide not only for him, but also for the relatives, officials and priests who were buried near him.

The Egyptian Social Pyramid

The Egyptian Social Pyramid is the representation of the social structure of Ancient Egypt. The structure is not completely rigid, with some exceptions and blurred lines. But the basic concept is based on the division of classes which was organized by status and power.

The reason it’s similar to a pyramid is because the majority of the population had the least amount of power. They were the skilled and unskilled workers.

Farmers and the workers that built the houses and monuments had the toughest working conditions. They worked long hours and were paid the least.

The Working Class in the Egyptian Social Pyramid

Division of classes according to roles in the Egyptian Social Pyrami

The Nile’s watershed

Further information: Geography of Egypt

The civilization of ancient Egypt developed in the arid climate of northern Africa. This region is distinguished by the Arabian and Libyan deserts,[3] and the River Nile. The Nile is the longest river in the world, flowing northward from Lake Victoria and eventually emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. The Nile has two main tributaries: the Blue Nile which originates in Ethiopia, and the White Nile that flows from Rwanda. While the White Nile is considered to be longer and easier to traverse, the Blue Nile actually carries about two-thirds of the water volume of the river. The names of the tributaries derive from the color of the water that they carry. The tributaries come together in Khartoum and branches again when it reaches Egypt, forming the Nile delta.[4]

The Egyptians took advantage of the natural cyclical flooding pattern of the Nile. Because this flooding happened fairly predictably, the Egyptians were able to develop their agricultural practices around it. The water levels of the river would rise in August and September, leaving the floodplain and delta submerged by 1.5 meters of water at the peak of the flooding. This yearly flooding of the river is known as inundation. As the floodwaters receded in October, farmers were left with well-watered and fertile soil in which to plant their crops. The soil left behind by the flooding is known as silt and was brought from Ethiopian Highlands by the Nile. Planting took place in October once the flooding was over, and crops were left to grow with minimal care until they ripened between the months of March and May. While the flooding of the Nile was much more predictable and calm than other rivers, such as the Tigris and Euphrates, it was not always perfect. High floodwaters were destructive and could destroy canals that were made for irrigation. Lack of flooding created a potentially greater issue because it left Egyptians suffering from famine.[5]

At the bottom of the Egyptian social pyramid, we have the workers, farmers and soldiers. Though after the creation of the standing army, ancient Egyptian soldiers were more well-off than the workers and farmers. They were trained from a young age, paid well and respected by the people. Some rose to high ranks within the military.

But prior to that, they were recruited for the duration of the campaign and then would return to their regular work of farming or manual labor.

Next we have the artists and craftsmen, who got more training and worked on much more delicate projects, such as the painting of tombs or the carving of statues and sculptures. For more on ancient Egyptian art and the techniques involved, click here.

Scribes were highly skilled and led much easier lives than most other ancient Egyptians. They were also of the privileged few that were literate and could read and write. Some worked in the Houses of Life, copying sacred texts and teaching their apprentices, and some held administrative positions.

Doctors were highly trained in both medicine and magic. Incantations and spells would usually accompany the healing procedures if the ailment was beyond a simple a solution. Some doctors and medical professional specialized in specific areas, such as dentistry or taking care of the pharaoh’s rectal health.

Engineers and architects were also highly skilled and trained, with their works still brilliantly on show all over Egypt. Temples, tombs, pyramids and obelisks, to name a few, are a testament to their artistic and mathematical abilities. One of the most famous architects is Imhotep, who also happened to be a doctor.

He was the architect of King Djoser’s step pyramid. His achievements were so great that he was eventually deified.

The Elite in the Egyptian Social Pyramid

Next up we have the very powerful priesthood and elites. Though the priesthood were supposed to serve under the pharaoh, they sometimes rivaled him in power. The Cult of Amun was so influential at one point that king Akhenaten began Atenism partly to consolidate his power and pull it from under their feet.

Of course there are social classes of the Egyptian social pyramid within this class too (just as there are classes in the working class). Not all priests or nobles had equal power.

Then it’s the Vizier, the second most powerful man in all of Ancient Egypt. It may seem odd to have a class composed of only one person, but the difference in power and status is what differentiates him from the rest.

And then finally, at the very top of the Egyptian social pyramid is, of course, the almighty ruler and pharaoh of Egypt.

Women in Ancient Egyptian Society

Ancient Egyptian women had more rights and freedoms than in any other ancient culture. They were considered the legal equals of men, though of course in daily life they were subjected to their fathers’ or husbands’ will. Still, they were allowed to work, own their own property and give their inheritance to their daughters.

Though it isn’t apparent, in the Egyptian social pyramid women held most of the roles available to men.

In the working class, most women took care of the homes, cooked the meals, reared the children and helped their husbands work the field if they were farmers. Some would provide goods and services if they had the time.

Some became dancers or priestesses, some became wet-nurses and midwives. And although royal women had much more restricted lives than regular ancient Egyptian women, some rose to such great heights of power that they became pharaohs themselves.

For more on the lives of ancient Egyptian women, click here.

Ancient Egyptian Women

Ancient Egyptian women had a lot of rights that other women of the ancient world did not. In fact, compared to some women of the modern world, they are considered quite lucky.

And unlike their Greek and Roman counterparts, ancient Egyptian women were legally considered the equals of men and maintained this status even while living alongside the Greeks during the Ptolemaic period.

Of course their lives, compared to today’s standards, were much more difficult.

Egyptian girls married young (age 10) and spent the majority of their days in housekeeping, child bearing, nursing, and child rearing. And outside of the law, they were not as autonomous as men.

Ancient Egyptian society was divided by social status and roles. And gender roles were no exception. The main role of ancient Egyptian women was that of bearing children and sustaining the household. But that doesn’t mean that they were restricted to just that. They were able to work and often did.

Lady Tjepu Tomb Wall Painting by Keith Schengili-Roberts

The Mistress

An ancient Egyptian household could have over 15 people in it, and so house work was quite the task. And if it was a farming family, the women usually had to help out with working the field and take over completely if the men were called away on other errands or work.

This is actually still the case for some women in Egypt these days.

Even though the man of the house reigned supreme, his wife usually was the main household administrator. She was given the title of “Mistress of the house.”

She either had to carry out most of the household chores herself, or had to supervise the servants who did. These chores included:

  • Making sure everyone had clothes to wear.
  • Preparing meals from scratch, including grinding the grains to make bread.
  • Insuring the house was clean and in order.
  • Making sure the laundry was sent out.
  • Stocking the underground cellars.

Of course, caring for the children was a big chore as well. But in some privileged households, there were servants who helped even with that.

The Working Girl

If she chose (and had enough time after all the above), an Egyptian woman could work in order to earn some income. Some women produced goods, such as textiles and perfumes, at home and then sold them in the market. More often, the women that were able to work were from wealthy families which could afford servants to take care of the household chores and child rearing.

Here are some of the options available for ancient Egyptian women:

Singing, dancing and playing music. Bands and groups hired for ancient Egyptian entertainment were usually segregated and used for religious ceremonies, celebrations and rituals. This was one of the more common career choices available to the average woman.

Midwives were women and usually from the pregnant woman’s family circle. They assisted in the birth and also in the performance of the necessary rituals to protect the woman and child during the birthing process. Wet-nurses were sometimes used to feed babies.

The priesthood had special roles for priestesses of different ranks, some of which were quite highly regarded, such as those who hold the title God’s Wife of Amun.

Female servants helped with household chores such as cooking and cleaning were employed by those who could afford them, though some were also from the slave class.

There’s also been some evidence of prostitution back in those days (it really is the oldest profession).

We’ll get into each profession in more detail soon on the Jobs & Commerce section of the website – so stay tuned!

Rights & Freedoms of Ancient Egyptian Women

It did not matter whether she was married, divorced or widowed; an Egyptian woman’s legal property belonged to her from birth till death.

She could own her property and manage it how she sees fit.

She could rent her land.

She could give her assets away to whom she pleased; inheritance was passed from mother to daughter.

She could sell her assets.

She could divide her assets in her will in whatever way she wanted, she was not obliged to give anything to her husband or children.

She could give loans and earn interest on them (even to her own husband)!

And as a widow she was entitled to inherit a third of her husband’s assets, while keeping all her original assets too.

Ancient Egyptian women had other rights that were quite empowering:

  • They could come and go as they please without being chaperoned.
  • They could file law suits.
  • They could act as witnesses to legalities.
  • There were given privacy during “sensitive” times such as menstruation and childbirth.
  • They were considered equals in contracts.
  • They could marry out of love (although there were arranged marriages too).

Royal Ancient Egyptian women however, had a completely different reality.

Royal women such as mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and consorts of the king were used as political pawns. They did not have much choice in what they did or who they married. In fact, many of them were married to their own fathers, brothers and sons in order to keep the power in the family.

However some royal females rose to great power and some even became pharaohs.

Sobekneferu – Female Pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty

That is how much more power ancient Egyptian women had compared to women of other cultures at the time!

Ancient Egyptian Law & Order

As with most other aspects of life, ancient Egyptian law was closely tied to religious beliefs. The gods were involved, moral codes were taken from divine decrees, and even myths and legends would underline the importance of obedience to the pharaohs and gods.

Although we have many historical records about certain crimes, criminals and their subsequent punishments, we don’t have any codified record of ancient Egyptian law and order.

Through the bits and pieces of information, we can gather some conclusions about how the legal system operated in ancient Egypt and how it evolved over time.

There was also ancient Egyptian wisdom literature, which offers us some insight on what “good conduct” was thought to be during certain periods, though these were not laws either.

But before delving into the first part of this series about ancient Egyptian law, I think it’s important to acknowledge this:

The oldest surviving written legal code comes to us from amazing Mesopotamia. The Code of Ur-Nammu is a set of tablets with laws written on them in Sumerian. They date from around 2100 BCE.

Also from Mesopotamia is the more famous Code of Hammurabi, from around 1754 BCE. It consists of 282 laws and covers social and familial laws such as inheritance and divorce.

If you haven’t read about them, I highly recommend it. But now onto Ancient Egyptian Law…

Maat’s Truth & Justice

The basis of the ancient Egyptian legal system was Maat.

Maat was more of a concept than a goddess – she was the representation of truth, justice and order (both cosmic and social).

In fact, during the weighing-of-the-heart ceremony, the deceased were judged by having their hearts weighed against Maat’s feather of truth, checking whether they had conducted themselves honorably during life.

If their hearts were found heavier, they were damned to eternal oblivion.

One way to know what kinds of things ancient Egyptian society saw as wrong or immoral is to read through the 42 Declarations of Innocence. Through them, the deceased proclaimed as evidence that he/she conducted their lives with integrity.

These declarations varied slightly from individual to individual, but here is a sample from the Papyrus of Nu:

I have not committed sins against men.
I have not opposed my family and kinsfolk. 
I have not acted fraudulently in the Seat of Truth. 
I have not known men who were of no account. 
I have not wrought evil. 
I have not made it to be the first [consideration daily that unnecessary] work should be done for me. 
I have not brought forward my name for dignities. 
I have not [attempted] to domineer servants. 
[I have not belittled God]. 
I have not defrauded the humble man of his property. 
I have not done what the gods abominate. 
I have not vilified a slave to his master. 
I have not inflicted pain. 
I have not caused anyone to go hungry. 
I have not made any man to weep. 
I have not committed murder. 
I have not given the order for murder to be committed. 
I have not caused calamities to befall men and women. 
I have not plundered the offerings in the temples. 
I have not defrauded the gods of their cake-offerings. 
I have not carried off the fenkhu cakes [offered to] the Spirits. 
I have not committed fornication. 
I have not masturbated [in the sanctuaries of the god of my city]. 
I have not diminished from the bushel. 
I have not filched [land from my neighbour’s estate and] added it to my own acre. 
I have not encroached upon the fields [of others]. 
I have not added to the weights of the scales. 
I have not depressed the pointer of the balance. 
I have not carried away the milk from the mouths of children. 
I have not driven the cattle away from their pastures. 
I have not snared the geese in the goose-pens of the gods. 
I have not caught fish with bait made of the bodies of the same kind of fish. 
I have not stopped water when it should flow. 
I have not made a cutting in a canal of running water. 
I have not extinguished a fire when it should burn. 
I have not violated the times [of offering] the chosen meat offerings. 
I have not driven away the cattle on the estates of the gods. 
I have not turned back the god at his appearances. 

Execution of Ancient Egyptian Law

As pharaohs were thought of as reincarnations of gods on Earth, they had the privilege to decree certain rules and laws. They would add to or change somewhat the laws formed previously.

But still, as free as they were to do so, they were responsible for upholding the laws of the gods, including those of Maat. Some would also wear emblems of the goddess as a show of this.

The Kemetic 42 Declaration of Innocence became the basis of law for all humans. The Judaic ‘Ten Words’ or ‘Ten Commandments’ as a law code for Judaism is a summary of the Declaration of Innocence. Christianity follows certain aspects of it and so is Islam. Every cultural group’s legal system can be traced to it.

Statue of Hemiunu, vizier and designer of Khufu’s pyramid at the Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim, Germany. Photo by: Einsamer Schütze

After the pharaoh, the vizier was in charge of ancient Egyptian law and was given the title of Priest of Maat. Later, during the New Kingdom, judges and high officials would wear images of the goddess as well.

Ancient Egyptian law and order were not separate from the overall administrative system. In fact, there were no designated court-houses or a person whose sole role was to be a judge.

Officials that had other administrative positions carried out legal duties alongside their other work.

In some important cases, officials would come together in a concentrated effort, such as in the trial of the harem conspiracies.

As there were no set rules written, the system was more like a common law system where legal decisions were made on a case-by-case basis.

It seems also to be how the pharaoh would adjust ancient Egyptian law, depending on what he saw as necessary changes to the legal affairs of his time.

Under Maat’s universal justice it was a given that all ancient Egyptians were dealt with equally in the eyes of the law, and so even the rich or elite were not exempt from the harshest of punishments for their crimes.

Though it must be stated that slaves were put in a different legal category.

Another loophole was how sometimes the family of a convicted criminal would be exposed to punishment as well, such as being exiled.

Ancient Egyptian police were charged with the role of keeping the peace and calm and apprehending criminals. Though, like other law enforcement officials, their roles were sometimes quite loosely defined.

During the Ptolemaic Period, ancient Egyptian law was still operating alongside ancient Greek law. But when the Romans came, they imposed their laws as the sole legal system in the country.

This was especially constricting for ancient Egyptian women, who had enjoyed more freedoms and independence than their Greek or Roman counterparts. And so when Roman law became the only law, the rights they had enjoyed were taken away.

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