Most of the buildings of ancient Egypt, including the royal palace, were built of wood and brick. Stone was reserved for tombs and temples, and most of the surviving structures are therefore of a funerary nature, which gives the erroneous impression that the ancient Egyptians were preoccupied with thoughts of the afterlife. Evidence to the contrary is abundant. The ancient Egyptians thought of the afterlife simply as an inevitable extension of their earthly experience, and decorated their tombs with aspects of their lives they wished to repeat. These graphic murals in fact provide clear indication of how conscientiously they channelled their energies to the service of the living and to achieving comfort and pleasure on earth. Since our knowledge of life in ancient Egypt is chiefly derived from the murals and contents of the tombs of the wealthy official classes, we begin by reviewing their lives, afterwards discussing the working classes and the Egyptian royal family.
Three of the most famous and well-preserved tombs of the Egyptian Old Kingdom are situated at Sakkara. They belong to Ti (Supervisor of Works, Scribe of the Court and Royal Counsellor under three pharaohs of the 5th dynasty), Ptahhotep (one of the highest officials in the land in the reign of Djedkare in the 5th dynasty) and Mereruka, the son-in-law of the 6th- dynasty pharaoh Teti. These tombs, and others of the same period, provide a rich saga of the daily lives of the nobles’ families.
A man’s tomb was constructed on the pattern of a house. Unlike the Egyptian tomb, however, houses were light structures, usually of sun-dried brick and wood. They were airy and well suited to the warm climate with latticed windows and large open courtyards. Every householder had a garden and gardening came to play a large part in the daily lives of the wealthy families. Vines, palms, fruit and vegetables grew on their estates. The fact that the ancient Egyptians were great nature- lovers is attested by the encyclopedic lists of birds, plants and animals recorded in national monuments.
All their useful items were beautiful and they took an obvious pride in their possessions. Chairs and beds (which often had leather or rope-weave seats or mattresses fastened to the frame with leather throngs) had legs carved in the form of the powerful hind-limbs of ox or lion; furniture frequently had decorative copper fittings. The handle of a spoon might be fashioned to resemble a lotus blossom, or the calyx might form the bowl of a wine glass. As early as the 1st dynasty a stone lamp was shaped like a papyrus bud with a horizontal groove for the wick; by the 5th dynasty lamps were elegantly fashioned with a large bowl and set on a stand. Chests and boxes were richly inlaid with ivory. The ancient Egyptian Vases and vessels of copper, gold and silver were equipped with stands to raise them to the required height. Tables were either round on a central pedestal or shaped like a half-oblong on four legs. Both beds and chairs tended to be low, the occupant of the latter having to recline or squat, and guests sometimes sat on mats on the floor. The walls were decorated like hanging mats and the ceilings were often painted blue.
Representations of tables laden with large varieties of food and drink show that the wealthy classes ate heartily. Confirmation comes from a tomb at Sakkara belonging to a lady of the lesser nobility; her relatives had laid out a complete meal for her on rough pottery, alabaster and diorite bowls and dishes, and it was found beside her sarcophagus. Undisturbed for thousands of years, the food could be identified. It included a type of barley cereal, a cooked quail, a pigeon stew, fish (cleaned and dressed with the head removed), ribs of beef, two cooked kidneys, wheat bread, small cakes and stewed fruit. We do not know whether this represented the courses of a single meal. The ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts indicate that people had three meals a day as compared with the royal household which had five. Fish was very popular and it seems that no larder was complete without its assortment of mullet, catfish and perch. The ancient Egyptian caviar (Botarikh), a great delicacy, was produced from early times. The tombs of Ti and Kagemni show how the ovaries of the bouri fish were extracted, salted and dried for this purpose.
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