Egyptian Toiletries

Medical papyri mention recipes for creams and oils to keep the skin soft and supple after exposure to the hot Egyptian sun. Perfumes, some of which took months to prepare, were popular and were also worn by men during certain festivals. A popular form of incense cone was worn by women on top of the head at banquets to perfume the wig and garments.

The Egyptians were fond of cosmetics and men, women and children used facial make-up called kohl to create a dark line around their eyes. Besides being decorative, kohl protected the eyes against infection and stopped the glare of the sun. Red ochre was used to colour the cheeks and probably as lipstick, while henna was used as a hair colourant. Countless bronze mirrors have survived – which would originally have been highly polished – and a large variety of cosmetic vessels, spoons and applicators were also found in the tombs and ruins of Ancient Egypt.

The Funeral

Warning: This is not suitable for children or the faint hearted.

The entire civilization of Ancient Egypt was based on religion, and their beliefs were important to them. Their belief in the rebirth after death became their driving force behind their funeral practices.

Egyptian cemeteries were on the Nile River’s west bank, because the sun set, or died, in the west. Most people lived on the east bank, so funerals meant crossing the river. This symbolised the journey of Re’s (the sun god) boat across the sky and the journey to the dead person’s new life.

Priests would put the coffin on a bier covered with a canopy. The bier was on a sledge pulled by oxen and headed the funeral procession to the Nile. Professional mourners tore thier clothes and threw dust on their heads as signs of grief.

The tomb-owner would continue after death the occupations of this life and so everything required was packed into the tomb along with the body. Servants followed with furniture and clothes for use in the next world. Also, writing materials were often supplied along with clothing, wigs, hairdressing supplies and assorted tools, depending on the occupation of the deceased. Often model tools rather than full size ones would be placed in the tomb; models were cheaper and took up less space and in the after-life would be magically transformed into the real thing. Food was provided for the deceased and should the expected regular offerings of the descendants cease, food depicted on the walls of the tomb would be magically transformed to supply the needs of the dead.

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At the tomb, a priest dressed as the jackal-headed God Anubis, protector of the dead, held the mummy upright for the ceremony of “opening the mouth”. This enabled the dead person to answer questions put to them by the gods in the Hall of Judgement, where his (or her) heart would be weighed against the Feather of Truth. If the heart of the deceased outweighs the feather, then it was believed that the deceased had a heart which has been made heavy with evil deeds. In that event, the God Ammit would devour the heart, condemning the deceased to oblivion for eternity. But if the feather outweighs the heart, then it was believed that the deceased had led a righteous life and was presented before Osiris (God of the Dead) to join the afterlife.

When the ceremonies were over, the priests swept away all traces of their footprints and sealed the tomb behind them.

The final part of a funeral was a funerary banquet, at which the relatives and friends of the deceased, sure that everything possible had been done for the safety of their loved one, could relax a little, and remember the good times.

Marking Time

Like most early civilizations, the ancient Egyptians measured the passing of time by the phases of the moon. Their first calendar was based on the lunar cycle – the 29 or 30 days from one new moon to the next. A year consisted of three four-month seasons, and the new year was heralded by the star they called Sopdet that appeared just above the horizon at dawn around the time of the annual Nile flood.

moonThe lunar calendar was not without problems: The first day of each new month was unpredictable, and no one knew in advance exactly how many days a particular month would have. Days or even weeks might pass between the end of the last lunar month of the year and the reappearance of Sopdet. For most people in this agricultural society, these were minor inconveniences, but the civil bureaucracy needed a more consistent system – a year with a fixed number of days, not subject to the variations of moon and stars.

Around 2900 BC, a civil calendar was adopted based on a solar year of 365 days. It had 12 months of 30 days each – with three 10-day weeks – plus five days between the old and new years set aside for religious feasts. Years were numbered consecutively within the reign of each pharaoh.

But like any calendar divided into days, it missed the sun’s exact annual cycle by about six hours. The result was that, over the course of four years, the civil calendar crept one full day ahead of the true solar year. Once its inaccuracy became obvious, the civil calendar was probably just ignored by farmers and other simple folk, even though the government was tied to its errant schedule. Eventually, about 2500 BC, an official lunar calendar was installed side by side with the civil calendar. It served mainly to schedule religious events and the lunar feast day that gave each month its name.

To measure the passage of time during daylight hours, the Egyptians had sun clocks, similar to a sundial. Some Middle Kingdom coffins were decorated with star clocks – a list of stars known as decans that were identified with different hours of the night at various times of the year.

During the reign of the New Kingdom pharaoh Amenhotep I, clocks that kept time without reliance on the sun or stars made their appearance. These clocks consisted of a water-filled vase with a very small perforation in the bottom. The inside of the vase was inscribed at different levels to mark the hours. These water clocks were often carved in the shape of a baboon, an animal representing the god Thoth, who was associated with the measurement of time. It is interesting to note that except for the abstract concept of at or moment, the Egyptians – for all their skill as timekeepers – had no name for a unit of time shorter than an hour.

Food & Shopping Facts

marketBread was full of grit because bits of the grindstones got into the flour and sand was added to the grain to speed up the grinding. The sand and grit wore away people’s teeth.

Fish and pork were ‘unclean’. That meant they were not acceptable as offerings to the gods. People who were able to choose did not eat them.

Big purchases were sometimes agreed in writing to avoid arguments. A scribe sold an ox for a fine linen tunic and two everyday ones, beeds for a necklace and several sacks (probably of grain, but this is not recorded).

Barley bread was soaked in water sweetened with dates. The liquid fermented to make beer.

Daily rations for a labourer: bread, beer and onions, which were issued to workers on a pyramid site. Their basic pay was in fish, fuel, vegetables, grain and pottery, with beer and dates from time to time. At festivals they got bonuses.

The Nile provided poor people with a cheap source of food. Its waters were full of fish and its marshes were home to huge flocks of birds – duck, crane and teal. If hunters caught too many to eat or sell, the surplus were gutted, dried in the sun and then stored in jars of salt.

You did not take a purse to market. People brought things made at home – mats, cloth, cakes or bread – to exchange for farm produce and craftware – pottery, sandals, jewellery and toys.

Shopping

Except in rare famine years, no one starved in Egypt. The Nile’s flood and constant sunchine produced such good crops that even peasants with tiny patches of land could grow enough wheat, vegetables and fruit to live on. Those who could afford meat ate pork, mutton, goat, goose, duck or wild game. Beef was a luxury because cows needed good land that was better used for crops. Hens were unknown until the New Kingdom (c1568-1085 BC), when some were imported from Syria.

There were no shops. Townsfolk bought what they needed from farmers and craftsmen who sold their wares from stalls in the streets. Money had not been invented, so shopping was done by bartering – exchanging goods of equal value. Wages and taxes were paid in the form of food, goods, or services.

Egyptian Women

woman

Most women had to take second place to the men of the family. As far as society was concerned, “a woman’s place was in the home”.

Their daily chores included fetching water, cooking, cleaning, grinding grain, baking bread, brewing beer and washing and mending clothes. Some women had vegetable gardens to tend and animals to care for too.

Others did spinning and weaving or made clothes. Women from wealthy families could afford to hire servants to help them and they also had maids to do their hair and make up. Poor women had to do everything themselves.

Some women worked as servants for others, while others worked as mucicians, dancers or entertainers. Women could own farms and businesses and were often quite successful. They were even allowed to leave their property (in their will) to anyone they wanted.

Farming

Producing enough food for everyone was the most important job in ancient Egypt, and most ordinary people worked on the land for at leat part of the year. Much of the farmland belonged to the king and his noblemen, or to big insitutions such as temples, which employed stewards to look after their land.

farming

The boundaries of fields were marked out with stones to make sure that nobody tried to take someone else’s land. Every few years officials measured the fields to make sure the stones had not been moved; this also enabled them to work out how much of the harvest the landowner would have to pay in taxes.

Wheat and barley, were the most important crops grown, which were used to make the basic diet of bread and beer. They also harvested flax for making linen, and papyrus for making writing sheets. Beans, lentils, onions, cucumbers, lettuces and many fruits were also grown.

Some year the crops failed, which left the community to experience and famine. Many people starved at these times. Often, the ancient Egyptians knew when they would experience a bad year, if the height of the Nile River was too low, there would not be enough water for the crops and if it was too high, everything would be washed away.

As soon as the flood waters went down, the farmers ploughed the fields and planted their crops. They irrigated the growing plants with water which had been held back from the flood or brought the the fields, from the river, by using water scoops or wheels.

They often used trained baboons to help pick the fruit but ripe grain was harvested with a sickle; flax and papyrus were pulled up by the roots; and the rest of the crop was gathered by hand.

Education

Education was highly valued in ancient Egypt but it was only for boys. Some girls may have learned to read and write, but their main role was to stay at home and help their mothers.

HierogLetL250Being able to read and write was the key to getting a good job as a scribe, so parents tried hard to send their sons to school. Education was expensive and not all families could afford it. Boys who did not go to school were expected to work. They had a practical education, often learning the family trade by helping older relatives and copying what they did.

Royal children did not attend the same school as the other children. They had their own school inside the palace whereas most boys went to the temples and government offices where they would work when they grey up.

The boys started school at the age of five. They used wooden boards and learned how to write the hieratic script used for official documents. They made their own reed brushes and ground up colours to mix with water to make ink.

Older students learned to draw the beautiful hieroglyphs used for religious texts and practised writing the kind of official letters and documents they would come across in their working lives. They also studied mathematics so they could keep accounts and work out taxes.

Some students took specialist subjects such as foreign languages, history, geography, astronomy and law.