Unlike many histories, this one doesn't have that "scholarly" quality.
It has no footnotes, and is told in a rather chatty style, parts of it even as an imaginary tour of some ancient Greeks through Egypt, complete with tour
guide. And ancient is the word here, because the time frame covered is from about 3000 B.C. to 300 B.C. or so. It is part of a series of
books, of which there are apparently 25 at this point, and they are meant to be just that—books that take the reader back in time to experience how the people
of that era lived, including housing, fashion, professions and leisure activities, and of course, the mindset and beliefs of those people. It is
really quite pleasant reading and gives one a pretty good idea of what was going on back then, like peeking through a magic door to the past. At least,
that is what this particular volume does.
This book is a relatively modern edition, first published in 1963—modern at least for Dover. Jon Manchip White was born in 1924 in Cardiff, Wales and just died in 2013 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Unlike many writers of non-fiction, he wrote fiction, too, along with poetry and screenplays (movies, television, and radio). Quite a versatile guy. Anyways, this book is a fun read, and I will no doubt try out some of his fiction, plus other books in the "Everyday Life" series.
The topics covered by White are: The Nile Valley; Dwelling Places; The Home; People and Professions; and Private Life, with subtopics in each of these categories. In addition, there is an abundance of illustrations, photos, a couple maps, and a guide to hieroglyphics. At the end, there is a nice, succinct two-page summary of Egyptian History.
White makes the point at the beginning that the Egyptian were not the stuffy, serious people repressed by cruel pharaohs as is often the perception in modern times. He believes they were a happy, peaceful, contented nation, with several internal uprisings throughout their long history, but really mostly indifferent to the military agenda. With some exceptions, most of the pharaohs were good leaders. The Egyptians were a conservative people who didn't exactly shun change, but apparently they had no need for it—the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," attitude. Obviously they were doing something right—no civilization would last so many thousands of years in relative harmony and prosperity if there were major issues. White then proceeds to point out all the evidence to support his beliefs, including many fascinating aspects that one really cannot fathom would have been part of such an ancient civilization, such as toilets with modern seats! Wow, cool, huh?
For this review, I will mention a handful of interesting facets of the everyday life of ancient Egyptians, but you really need to read the book to get the full picture. White has crammed an immense amount of material into 200 pages.
He begins by saying a little about pre-dynastic Egypt, (6000 B.C. to 3200 B.C.), and all the advances they had made in their civilization. At this point, there was an upper Egypt, inland with African roots, and Lower Egypt, on the Delta, with Mediterranean roots. The Nile was Egypt and gradually the peoples at both ends of it unified into one nation. Dynastic Egypt had a population of between four and five million people! (White does not mention exactly what era that figure was reached.)
Agriculture was extremely important. Every year, the Nile flooded the lands, depositing rich topsoil. The farmers kept cattle, goats, sheep and pigs, and also hunted; they were skilled in working with copper, cooking, baking, arts and crafts, sewing and weaving.
In the section on dwelling places, White creates an image of bustling cities: Memphis. Thebes, Tel el-Amarna, but also lesser towns and cities, all dedicated to certain gods or goddesses. In fact, this section reads like an ancient guided tour, floating down the Nile with the tour guide calling attention to points of interest along the way. It is the temples which are the focal point of each town, and White spends a dozen pages on a guided tour of a temple, which were not just for religious services but were schools, universities, libraries, archives, centers of administration and scientific enterprise, in addition to granaries and workshops. The Egyptians were master brickmakers, even in 3000 B.C. The temples were often a hodgepodge of styles, as changes and addition were made with each successive ruler. Religion was everything, and not only did they have non-human gods, but the pharaohs were also gods, believed to be descendents of gods such as Ra, Horus, Osiris, or others. White also discusses houses, pyramids, and tombs, which unlike morbid western cemeteries, were joyful places. People began preparing for their death early on, and created a reproduction of their life in their tomb. It contained food, furniture, special objects, and the entire family, with someone to watch over it. White doesn't spend much time on the pyramids, because they took up only a short period in Egyptian history. Tomb robbers were a real problem for the reason mentioned above—they contained so many valuable items, that tomb robbing was a full-time profession for lots of people. Here is one of White's descriptions of a tomb:
As they were a hard-headed folk, the Egyptians stuffed their tombs with everything that they could possibly require. Among other items, they took food and drink; they took their best chairs and bedsteads; they took scores of magic spells and selected light reading; they took gems and pastimes; they took their nicest clothes and choicest jewels; and they took sets of those pretty miniature figures of peasants called ushabtis. These were made of stone, wood, or faience, and the word means 'answerers' Thus when the dead man was called upon to do his individual stint in the heavenly fields, he could call up his 'answerers' to perform the task for him. A sensible arrangement.
Obviously these were a people who believed in afterlife! And obviously
White has a sense of humor. Faience, by the way is a type of brilliantly glazed porcelain or earthenware.
The section on the home gives us information on clothing and hairstyles, including an illustration of a typical razor, although the light-skinned Egyptians from Lower Egypt weren't very hairy, and beards often pictured on pharaohs were false. Many people simply went naked, which was no big deal—even among princes and princesses. They loved jewelry and the women spent quite a bit of time and effort on their makeup—a thriving cosmetic industry indeed. These were a very beautiful people, and also very clean.
The people and professions section discusses everything from pharaohs to noblemen and administrators, priests, soldiers, scribes, artists and musicians, and peasants. Justice was extremely important and fair to the Egyptians. Peasants and masters held each other in respect and esteem.
Here is a description of the responsibility of a vizier (an official of high rank, who seems to me to also take the part of a judge):
To be a vizier requires not mildness but firmness. You must not take sides with the Saru or Zazat or make any man a slave. When a petitioner comes from Upper or Lower Egypt, you must look thoroughly into his case and act in such a way that he has his rights. Remember also that an official must live with his face uncovered [i.e. his life must be an open book]. The wind and water report all that he does. Look on your friend as a stranger and a stranger as your friend. An official who acts in this way will hold his post for a long time. Do not send away any petitioner unheard and do not brusquely reject what he says. If you refuse him, let him know why you refuse him. A man with a grievance likes his tale of woe to be heard sympathetically even more than he wants it put right. Do not fly into a rage with a man wrongfully. A real magistrate is always feared. If he is feared it makes the court procedure more impressive. But if people are positively frightened out of their wits by him, it can do his reputation a good deal of harm. People won't say of him: 'There's a fine fellow!' You will be respected in your profession if you act strictly according to the dictates of justice.
Wise words, then and even more now! White also makes a point that the
religious gods were about magic. Issues of right and wrong were for the courts.
Under the heading of Priests, interesting mention is made of a certain Passion Play, performed at a yearly festival at Abydos, to which people made pilgrimage. It was eventually committed to papyrus by a scribe named Ikhernofret during the Twelfth Dynasty (1878-43 B.C.), but is believed to have been performed at least five centuries prior to that, and still performed at Abydos in 550 B.C., a period of about 2,000 years, making it, as Manchip points out, perhaps the longest running play in history!
As far as the military, Manchip says that people who live basically in peace and harmony have little interest in war. Though soldiers were sometimes necessary, native Egyptians weren't very good at fighting, so often foreigners—pirates, in fact—were recruited to Egyptian military ranks. Schoolmasters even blatantly advised their students against joining the army. They created lampoons of the life of a soldier, which also illustrates the great freedom of speech allowed by the citizens of Egypt!
The proud charioteer is represented in one composition as compelled to squander the whole of a small fortune he inherited from his parents on the upkeep of his stable and his chariot. He has an accident, and his chariot is wrecked in a ditch at the very moment when the general-in-command is making his inspection. He is arrested, sentenced to be beaten, laid on the ground and given a hundred strokes.
The lampoon for the fate of the humble infantryman is even worse.
However, teachers did urge their students to become scribes, which was a position of high respect.
The role of the artist and musician was very important in ancient Egypt, but much different from those in the same professions in modern times. While today's artists are often considered individualists, even rebels, and if they are good at what they do, trendsetters. Being an artist in ancient Egypt was a rather conventional profession. For instance, in the process of creating a sculpture, numerous people were employed, from the quarryman who carefully extracted the rock, to the one(s) who sculpted it, the metalworker that inserted the eyes and other details, to, at last the painter. Sculptures were always painted, and made to be an accurate likeness of the person whom it represented. That's why we really have a fairly correct knowledge of what people looked like back then.
In the section on Private Life, we see that Egyptian marriages seemed to be loving and respectful. Kings were often sculpted holding hands with their spouse. And while polygamy was practiced, it was mostly at the level of pharaoh for utilitarian reasons, (the heritage/inheritance was passed down through the woman in ancient Egypt, therefore the pharaoh—if a man—would marry anyone who possibly would have ties to the bloodline being passed down, including his own sister). Women could also be pharaoh, and women indeed were powerful, using the goddess Isis as their model.
The section on hieroglyphics makes mention of the Rosetta Stone, (discovered by the French army in 1799), which provided the clues toward the understanding and deciphering of this difficult language. I found it humorous that the Egyptians, in order to make writing less cumbersome, would omit vowels of smaller words and punctuation. Therefore, the sentence "Please put the pen and paper on the desk" would read the equivalent of "Pls pt pn ppr n dsk." Gosh, looks like texting to me!
The last section makes mention of some of the sports, games and pastimes enjoyed by the people in their leisure time, including dolls for the girls, plus other physical activities like running and hop-scotch, or playing ball. The adults enjoyed hunting and board games, plus lots of music and dance. They also had pets, like dogs, cats, baboons and monkeys.
In all, this is an easy and entertaining read that provides one with a surprising and fascinating portrait into the lives of these people that lived so very long ago. Highly recommended!
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