Weights and Measures

The unit of weight used in Ancient Egypt was the deben. It was equal to 91 grams and was divided into 10 parts. Bread was weighted by the loaf, which weighed between 28 and 33 ounces.

Liquids were measured by the jar, which was the equivalent of .13 of a gallon. Cereals were measured by the barrel, corresponding to nearly 1.1 gallon. Length was measured in royal cubits divided into 28 fingers, or the length of the arm from the end of the middle finger to the elbow. There was also a small cubit, used by architects and divided into 24 fingers.

Egyptians calculated distances in units of 20,000 cubits, which would be the equivalent of 6.5 miles. They measured area in a unit equal to 100 square cubits, or 29,440 square feet.

Source: Journey to the Past – Ancient Egypt

Deir el-Medina

deirelmedinaSituated on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Thebes, this ancient village was the home of the workers of the secret tombs of the royal family. These workers include sculptors, painters, potters, carpenters, glassblowers, jewellers, and cabinetmakers.

The village once had small white houses with courtyards. The houses were quite similar, clean and well-kept. The straight roads were dotted with green palms, which offered a pleasant contrast with the ocher-brown colour of the mountains. There was a school, a clinic, a courthouse and many guards.

Why?

The reason is simple. First, the village belonged to the pharaoh. Second, the workers who live there were special because they worked on the necropolises of the Theban kings, including the sarcophagi, or stone coffins, and the decorations. Even the name of the place sounds important. It was known as “the residence of the servants of the seat of truth”.

Bes

besThe most common lucky charm to be worn in Ancient Egypt was an image of the god Bes. This ugly, diminutive deity did not belong to the higher echelons of the great gods, but was immensely popular amongst the people. Probably African in origin, Bes may represent a pygmy wearing a lion mask and a plumed head-dress; he is also unusual in that he is shown full-faced rather than in profile, as was the convention in Egyptian art.

Known for his kindliness, Bes progressed from his role as protector of sheep and shepherds to presiding over revelry, dancing and inebriation (many of the Bes charms show the merry little god with a musical instrument). Marriages were also linked with the pygmy deity and he was associated with aiding women in childbirth; Bes is shown on the walls of the temple of hatshepsut in Western Thebes in the scene depicting the birth of the great Queen.

As Bes was the guardian of children, he became the mortal enemy of serpents, scorpions or any creature that could do his charges harm.

Source: Chronicles of Ancient Egypt by Jonathan Dee

Photo taken by Hajor, December 2002 Released under cc-by-sa and/or GFDL.

The Opet Festival

On first impression, Ancient Egyptian society may appear morbid, centring on mummification and the afterlife, but nothing could be further from the truth. The inhabitants of the Two Lands viewed the celebration of life as complementary to the ritual of death. The Opet, or Heavenly, Festival in particular, was a spectacular excuse to loosen the bonds of propriety.

The festival occurred in the second month of the season of Akhet, or July by our reckoning, and lasted from two to four weeks. It coincided with the helical rising of the exceptionally bright star Sirius, or Sothis as the Egyptians knew it, identified with the goddess Isis. This, in turn, marked the annual flooding of the Nile which was vital for agriculture and survival. It was also believed to represent the fathering of the Pharaoh by the mighty Amun-Ra himself.

From the Great Temple of Karnak the processional boat of the god Amun would be brought out bearing his image. Likewise a boat was carried from the nearby temple of Mut the Mother. When the two met on the avenue of the ram-headed sphinxes it signalled rejoicing, drunkenness and wild abandon as temple offerings were redistributed amongthe people.

At the climax of the festival the King entered the dark and shrouded inner sanctum of Amun where mysterious rites enabled him to take on aspects of eternity before returning to his people as a living god.

Source: Chronicles of Ancient Egypt by Jonathan Dee

Maat

maatThe concept of Maat was central to Ancient Egyptian thought. Often simply translated as justice, Maat actually expresses the proper order of the universe, right thinking, correct action and the regulation of time and space. It has hints of social propriety, the pyramidical nature of interaction between people, the respect that is due to a father, the duties one should show to a son. It encompassed the majesty of the Pharaoh and the loyalty that is owed to him by a subject, as well as his duty to protect and nurture his people. There is no doubt that pharaohs believed that they ruled under the auspices of Maat.

Maat was personified as a goddess from earliest times. A daughter of Ra, Maat came into existence as the cosmos was born. She can be thought of as a female equivalent to wise Thoth; like him, a regulator of the seasons who keeps the stars in their proper courses. She is usually portrayed wearing an ostrich feather on her head, or simply as the feather itself. It is in this form that she is central to the judgement of the dead. It is she who is set in the balance against the heart of the deceased to measure whether he was “justified” in life or not. The place of judgement in the underworld, where Osiris sits, is known as the Hall of Maat.

Though there are few temples to Maat she was widely honoured, so much so that the chief minister of the Pharaoh was given the title High Priest of Maat.

Source: Chronicles of Ancient Egypt by Jonathan Dee

The Magic of Names

Belief in magic was an integral part of Ancient Egyptian culture. It was believed that the essence of any person, animal, object or indeed of the gods themselves was contained within its true name. Ra, for instance, had many names but his real power resided in his hidden name which was engraved upon his heart at the moment of creation. The ancients were convinced that to possess the true name of Ra would make the possessor all powerful.

On a more mundane level, children were given two names, one for general use and the other to be jealously guarded for fear it might be used in malign enchantment.

This belief in the power of names extended to funerary practices. In tomb paintings the gods are repeatedly begged to make the deceased’s name live forever to ensure his or her immortality. This is the primary reason that the pharaohs of old were so keen to build enormous statues, temples and mortuary palaces eternally to enshrine their names. Conversely, disgraced rulers such as Hatshepsut (d. 1458 BC), Akhenaten (d. 1336BC) and even Tutankhamun (d. 1325 BC) were condemned to oblivion by having their names systematically erased from monuments which were originally raised in their honour.

Source: Chronicles of Ancient Egypt by Jonathan Dee

The Amarna Letters

The Amarna letters are about 350 baked clay tablets, found in the ruins of Akhetaten. They are mainly letters written to the king of Egypt from the kings and princes of Assyria, Babylonia, Mitanni, Cyprus, Palestine, Syria and Hatti (the Hittites).

The tablets are written in cuneiform script, (wedge-like shapes), and in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the day. The more powerful kings called the Egyptian king “Brother”, but their letters could get very frosty – in one, the king of Mitanni is furious with the king of Egypt for detaining a Mitanni messenger for six years. Lesser kings addressed the Egyptian king with more respect, calling him “My God”, or “The Great King”. They begged for help, or tried to turn Egypt against their rivals.

Source: The Usbourne Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt

Symbolic Power

Egyptian art sometimes demonstrates the king’s power by showing him as a powerful animal, such as a lion or sphinx. This was a reminder that he was a god, who could appear in many forms.

The king was also represented as a strong bull, which gave rise to the “Festival of the Tail” – the Heb Sed. Part of the king’s costume was actually a bull’s tail.

During the Sed festival, the king had to perform physical activities, such as a ceremonial run, to renew his strength and show that he was still fit. Sed festivals were supposed to happen when a king had reigned for thirty years. But kings often held them more often, especially if their strength was failing or after some kind of disaster.

Source: The Usbourne Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt