Before the Pyramids

The Land and the Social Pyramid

During these three thousand years, the everyday life of the average Egyptian remained essentially unchanged. Most people were farmers. They were almost completely dependent on the Nile because rainfall was very scarce, and they needed its waters for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing clothes, and irrigating crops. Using barges and boats, they also traveled on the river from city to city. In addition, the people of Egypt used the Nile to mark the passage of time and the seasons. For example, from June to September, the season they called akhet, the Nile flooded, gently covering the fields along its banks with several feet of water and laying down a fresh layer of rich soil. It was not possible to farm the land during this flood season. Many people took the opportunity to rest. Others kept themselves busy making pottery, jewelry, and other handicrafts. Still others worked on government-sponsored projects, including the building of pyramids, temples, and other large stone structures. Nearly all Egyptians returned to the fields during the other seasons, although a few practiced crafts and trades, such as carpentry and metal-working, year-round. At planting time, in the season of peret (lasting from October to February), farmers plowed their fields and planted the seeds of many crops. These included barley, emmer (a kind of wheat), flax (used to make linen cloth), papyrus reeds (used to make paper), and various fruits and vegetables. In the dry season, called shemu (lasting from February to June), the farmers harvested these crops.  They also raised cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, and other livestock. A small number of Egyptians were not directly involved in growing food, raising livestock, or the various crafts and trades. Usually, these were wealthier and more socially prominent individuals who ruled over the poorer masses. As noted scholar Lionel Casson explains:  Egypt’s social structure formed a pyramid almost as neat as those built for her kings. It stood foursquare on the broad base of the mass of peasants who cultivated the rich land. Above them rose a series of narrowing layers: the mayors of the villages and their staffs, the governors of the various districts into which the country was divided for administrative purposes and their staffs, the ministers of state and other lofty officials at the capital, and, capstone of the whole, the pharaoh. The Egyptians looked on the pharaoh as a living god, and he resided, along with his many wives, children, advisors, and noble followers, in great splendor in a large and magnificent palace. There, these elite persons were attended by hundreds of royal servants. Among them were physicians, scribes (who wrote letters and kept records), guards, maids, cooks, bakers, weavers, sculptors, chariotdrivers, and stable-keepers. By contrast, most Egyptian peasants lived in simple huts made of sun-dried bricks. Such humble dwellings typically had one or two small rooms with dirt floors and sometimes housed the owner’s animals as well as members of his family

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