The Egyptians

The Egyptians

by Sergio Donadoni (Editor)


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The Egyptians is a vibrant, accessible introduction to the people who lived along the Nile for almost thirty-five centuries. In this collection of essays, eleven internationally renowned Egyptologists present studies of ancient Egyptians arranged by social type—slaves, craftsmen, priests, bureaucrats, the pharaoh, peasants, and women, among others. These individual essays are filled with a wealth of historical detail that both informs and fascinates: we learn, for example, that Egyptian peasants could not afford burial (their corpses were abandoned on the desert fringe), and that it was the bureaucrats who made the Egyptian system tick (the pyramids could not have been built without them).

Read consecutively, the portraits merge to create a larger picture of Egyptian culture, state, and society. The framework of the Egyptian state, in particular, is touched upon in each essay, describing the meticulous administration and well-organized hierarchical system that fostered centuries of stability and prosperity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226155562
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/28/1997
Edition description: 1
Pages: 378
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Copyright © 1997 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-15556-2

Chapter One

PEASANTS Ricardo A. Caminos

Peasants are all those who live on the land by their own labour. SIR WALTER A. RALEIGH

From time immemorial down to the present day, Egypt has been, first and foremost, an agricultural country. Husbandry has always been the foundation of Egypt's economy, the country's welfare and prosperity being at all times in its long history dependent on the produce of the soil. It was farming, or, in the last analysis, the constant, persevering, backbreaking, unacknowledged, often despised, and always ill-rewarded toil of the tiller of the land, that made possible all the achievements that gave Egypt a leading position among the nations of preclassical antiquity. The Giza pyramids, Theban rock-cut tombs, colossal statues, obelisks, and massive temples that amazed ancient Greek and Roman visitors, as they continue to amaze tourists today; the skillfully wrought jewels, fine linen, furniture, and trinkets of all sorts now scattered among scores of collections throughout the world; the wealth and comfort of Egypt's upper classes; its military conquests, commercial expansion, and influence and prestige abroad; indeed, Egypt's entire legacy to humanity: the sweat of the peasant's brow was at the bottom of it all.

During the three millennia of Egypt's history under the Pharaohs, peasants were the backbone of the nation. And yet our knowledge of them and of their class is patchy, imperfect, and one-sided. We know nothing about them directly, that is, from records emanating from peasants themselves. This is regrettable but not surprising. Quite illiterate, they left no written accounts of the essential aspects of their lives and persons, their aspirations and hopes and what they thought of their humble condition and unhappy lot. They were the lowest members on the social scale, the vast mass of the rank and file that constituted the bulk of Egypt's population. They struggled through a life of penury, privation, and physical toil, and passed away leaving no trace in this world; their dead bodies were abandoned on the fringe of the desert or, at best, dropped into shallow holes in the sand, with not even the poorest gravestones to bear their names.

What we know of Egyptian peasants is derived from epigraphic sources, literary and nonliterary writings, and archeological finds. The epigraphic documentation consists of iconographic and inscriptional records—paintings, reliefs, texts—preserved for the most part in the tombs of their masters and of the wealthy, dating from the Age of the Pyramids down to Greco-Roman times.

Passages bearing on peasant life and circumstances are scattered in a number of Egyptian literary compositions, mainly from the Middle and New Kingdoms, and also in the classical authors, principally the Greek writers Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Strabo, who in their works touched upon many particulars of the rural activities performed along the Nile. Although the classical works reflect conditions of late times when the Pharaonic civilization, then almost three thousand years old, was only a shadow of its long-past heyday and was tottering to its end, they are still of considerable value. Nonliterary records written on papyrus also have much to tell us about the way of life and activities of the Egyptian field laborer. Of particular importance in this category of source material are the Demotic (the successor to the Late Egyptian language) and Greek papyri, of which large numbers have been vouchsafed to us. They deal, of course, with events of the time of the Ptolemies and the Romans, yet the situations of country life they document can with confidence be projected back into the past, even into a remote past, as we shall presently discover.

Likewise of great value is the archeological evidence. It includes agricultural implements such as seed baskets, hoes, plows, sickles, and winnowing scoops, the very tools the Egyptians used for work on the land. Related household utensils, such as ropes, baskets, and sieves, have also come down to us in great variety and from various periods, as well as small-scale wooden models, stuccoed and painted, which reproduce with quaint realism diverse activities of rural life.

Admittedly, the sources at our disposal are very unequally distributed in time and locality; this circumstance notwithstanding, it seems possible to present a relatively coherent picture of various aspects of peasant life that, it is hoped, may prove to be not too wide of the mark. The reader should bear in mind that the Egyptians were on the whole a very conservative people, and that agricultural pursuits and the peasantry are surely, and have always been, by far the most conservative and slow-changing elements in any society. With respect to Egyptian agriculture and the life of the people engaged in it, what is true of one period holds good, in many essentials, for others. The simplest rural implements, once developed, continued to be used with hardly any modification for centuries; farming operations depicted in the tomb of Petosiris, which dates from the second half of the fourth century B.C., differ but little, if at all, from the representations of farming work in Old Kingdom mastabas built some twenty-three or even twenty-four centuries earlier. The hard life, circumstances, cares, and daily chores of the Egyptian peasant appear to have barely changed from one end to the other of the long Dynastic Period, and even afterward until our own days, when the introduction of improved methods of irrigation and of electricity and, above all, the completion of the Saad el-Ali, or High Dam, near Aswan in 1972 began to alter the traditional pattern and rhythm of farming throughout the land. It is also because of that conservatism and, so to speak, immutability of Egyptian husbandry that the writings of Arab historians like Mowaffaq-Eddin Abd el-Latif (1162?–1231) and Taqi ed-Din el-Maqrizi (1364–1442), the accounts of Europeans who traveled in Egypt in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, and, last but not least, the works on the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians by keen observers like the savants who accompanied Napoleon's expeditionary forces to Egypt in 1798 and, in recent years, professional anthropologists and ethnographers like Winifred Susan Blackman and Nessim Henry Henein also advance in no small measure our understanding and knowledge of the peasantry in Pharaonic times.

From birth till death peasants were unescapably tied to the land they toiled upon, whoever its owner was. The system of land tenure changed from time to time following the political vicissitudes of the nation, but it is highly doubtful that such changes altered either the quality of their lives or the nature and manner of their labors to any significant extent. Whether they worked on Pharaoh's Crown lands, on fields owned by temples, or on the estate of some great landlord, it was, by and large, all very much the same to them—except that peasants in the service of certain temples could hope to be exempted from corvée (we shall discuss this issue further on).

What did vitally affect the field laborer and in fact the entire nation was the annual flood of the Nile, which both irrigated and fertilized the land. The flooding came and went with unfailing regularity during the summer months. The result of heavy rainfalls in subtropical Africa and the melting of the snows in the Ethiopian highlands, the flood made its appearance at Aswan in June and, unchecked by either barrages or dams, rolled steadily on, reaching Memphis about three weeks later. At first it penetrated the arable lands insidiously, so to speak, by a slow process of infiltration which filled hollows and marshes and soaked the soil from underneath. In mid-July the level of the stream began to rise rapidly, and the waters, overflowing the riverbanks, covered the land to a depth of two meters or more. From mid-August to mid-September the entire valley was flooded, giving the impression of a long, winding, narrow lake punctuated by the villages and towns built on higher ground. Then the inundation gradually subsided, and by the end of October it was gone, leaving the soil well soaked and upon it a layer of silt or muddy sediment rich in organic detritus and mineral salts, natural nutrients of the land in no way inferior to the best modern fertilizers. It also left behind pools of water scattered over the fields, which were supplemented by a complex network of man-made dikes, sluices, and canals to form a system of irrigation, called basin irrigation, already attested in the Protodynastic Period and used uninterruptedly in Egypt long afterward: it was still used in Upper Egypt in the 1960s.

Herodotus and Diodorus marveled at the Nile flood and its beneficial effects on the country's agriculture. Wrote the Father of History:

No men in the whole world obtain the fruits of the earth with so little labour. They have not the toil of cutting up furrows in the ground with the plough, or of hoeing, nor of doing any of the tasks which all other men must perform to secure a crop. The river rises of its own accord, irrigates the fields, and after irrigating them it sinks back again. Then each man sows his plot of ground and lets pigs into it to tread down the seed, after which all he has to do is to wait for harvest time. The pigs serve him also to thresh his grain, which is then carried to the granary. (2.14)

Diodorus declared that the Nile surpassed all the rivers of the world in its benefactions to humanity, adding that the floodwaters, coming with a gentle flow, brought fresh fertile mud and soaked the fields, making the tasks of the farmer both light and profitable. As soon as the waters receded, the peasants began to work on the soil, which was left soft and moist by the inundation; sowing and harvesting were all fairly effortless:

The majority merely scatter their seed, turn in their herds and flocks upon the fields, and use them to trample down the seed; after four or five months the peasants return and harvest the crop. Some peasants apply light ploughs to the land, turn over no more than the surface of the soaked soil, and then harvest large quantities of grain without much expense or exertion. Speaking generally, every kind of field labour among other peoples entails great expense and toil, but only among the Egyptians is the harvest gathered in with very slight outlay of money and labour. (1.36)

Their rose-colored view of things agricultural in the country of the Nile, though wrong, is explicable. Herodotus and Diodorus came from countries where the harshest toil was required to wrest a meager crop from a reluctant rocky soil, and they were impressed by what they saw in Egypt: fertile lands irrigated by a mighty stream, a good climate, abundant harvests, a diversity of crops. To them Egypt was an agricultural El Dorado. It was not. Any ancient fellah (and a modern one too, for that matter) could have undeceived them.

The natural phenomenon of the rising and falling of the Nile occurred with predictable regularity—every year and always at the same time. What was not always the same was the volume of the flood, and thus the height of the inundation, which was crucial, for it brought either blessing or disaster. Too little water, a "low Nile," or too much water, a "high Nile," meant bad years for the whole country. Failure of the river to rise to the required minimum height and irrigate all the cultivable land meant that insufficient ground would be prepared for the next season's crop, and hunger and hardship, what the Egyptians referred to as a "year of famine," almost inevitably followed. An excessive flood was even more disastrous, wrecking as it did the network of irrigation dikes and canals and often causing heavy loss of human life, crops, and beasts; in addition, as Pliny the Elder observed (5.10.58), an excess of water took much too long to recede and left little or no time for sowing, germination, and harvest before the next flood came. The peasants were quite aware of all this, as they were the first to suffer from the vagaries of the Nile. Even if the level of the inundation had been optimal (they called it a "great Nile"), reaching the height known by experience to be productive of the best possible results, farming could not be left to chance. Hapi, the divine incarnation of the river in flood, had been bountiful and had brought bliss to the land, and it was all very well to sing hymns of praise and thanksgiving to him. But his bounty and favor alone could not make crops grow. Arduous human toil was required too. Dii facientes adjuvant. The Egyptian peasants were more aware of this than the wisest in the land, for while others shouted orders and issued directions, they did the work.

The weeks that followed the recession of the flood were a very busy time for the peasants. Canals, dikes, and water sluices clogged with mud, damaged, or altogether washed away by the flood had to be put in good repair or replaced by new ones, as they were essential to the proper functioning of the system of basin irrigation. In making the system fit for use again, peasants had to exert themselves vigorously and move fast, because the operation had to be completed as speedily as possible, before the land dried out. The work of the hoe and the plow, which, along with the sowing, came next and completed the first stage of the agricultural cycle, was vastly easier when the earth was still muddy and soft. It did not remain so for very long under the hot Egyptian sun.

The typical Egyptian hoe consisted of a flat piece of wood, which was the blade, tied transversely to the end of a wooden handle with twisted rope, the whole crude tool shaped like an A with one limb shorter than the other. There were also one-piece hoes, hewn from forked tree branches. Derived from the hoe, the plow was no less clumsy than its predecessor, and there is good reason to think that originally it was no more than a large hoe drawn through the ground, at first by a man with a rope and later by oxen. The normal plow of the Egyptian peasant, which remained virtually unchanged throughout the Dynastic Period and long afterward, was already in use in the Old Kingdom. It consisted of a share made of wood and sometimes sheathed in metal, which cut into the ground. It was attached to the lower end of a long wooden shaft that bore at the opposite, or front, end a wooden yoke in the form of a transverse bar lashed to the horns of the oxen with a rope. Occasionally, however, the backbreaking job of pulling the plow forward was done by men. An upward continuation of the rear end of the share was in some cases the plow handle, though more frequently there were two handles fixed to the lower end of the shaft. Whether single or double, the handle appears to have been used to press the share down into the ground rather than to control the direction of the plow.

The peasant seldom plowed alone. Nearly always he was helped by someone who guided the oxen and urged them forward with a stick or a whip and with shouts. Meanwhile, others were busy preparing the land for planting by breaking up the heavy clods of black earth with hoes. The sower also was there, scooping out handfuls of seed from a bag or wicker basket slung over his shoulder and broadcasting it onto the moist soil in a continuous stream. If the sower walked in front of the plow, the plow's oxen trod it in and the plowshare sank it deeper. When the sower walked abreast of the plow or followed it, the seed was trod in by a flock of sheep or goats driven over the freshly sown fields, enticed to move on by a peasant holding some green grass or a handful of grain to their noses, while another urged the whole bleating troop forward with a whip. Oxen and donkeys were rarely used for that purpose; Herodotus saw swine treading in seed in the Delta.

The tomb scenes that so vividly portray the peasants' labors also show the tomb owner, who might have been Pharaoh's bailiff supervising the activities on Crown lands, the steward of a temple estate, or a private landholder. He is, at any rate, always depicted much larger than the men and beasts sweating under his eye. He either stands there with a dignified, almost majestic bearing, a model of deportment, or sits at his ease in a kiosk, shaded from the sun, while a nearby booth is a well-provided larder from which a servant fetches him food and drink. The tomb inscriptions state that he has come either to inspect and supervise or merely to see what goes on in the fields. He is the grand seigneur. We can be sure that he never put hand to plow in all his life.

The scenes are also frequently enlivened by short texts which reproduce, or pretend to reproduce, remarks bandied about by the peasants at work, orders and gibes to one another, comments on the condition of the land or the weather, or threats and exhortations to their animals. "Push hard!" a man bawls to the yoked oxen he is guiding, and "Turn round!" when they reach the end of the field. And to the plowman, "Press the plow down; press it down with your hand!" A plowman warns his wearied mate, who shuffles on ahead of him, "Hurry up, leader, forward with the oxen. Watch out! The master is standing by and looking on."

Four men drawing a plow with ropes right in front of the master, who has bidden them for no apparent good reason to speed up their work, mutter among themselves, "We do work, look at us. Do not fear for the fields; they are great!" The young peasant who walks behind them casting seed responds, "The year is good, free from want, rich in all kinds of plants, and the calves are better than anything." The aged plowman signifies his approval, "What you say is quite right, my son."


Excerpted from THE EGYPTIANS Copyright © 1997 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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