The Ancient Egyptians
Adam Terry Ashcroft
Town and Cities in Ancient Egypt
Almost every aspect of the ancient Egyptians lifestyle was, in some way, affected by the River Nile. Even the planning of a town or city was done so, around the river.
The planning of a town or city
The settlement of a town had to take two main considerations into mind The proximity to a water source and the height it was built above the flooding of the Nile. The mud-brick buildings were susceptible to water and damp conditions so care had to be taken when considering the placement of a house, town or city. When houses did crumble, new houses were simply built upon the ruins of the former house. This led to houses and towns being built on a more elevated plain. These hills are called tells. The 'permanent' structures like temples and their surrounding enclosures are now on a lower floor level - this would be the original level as temples were not generally built or renewed upon each other as the houses were. This method of building one house upon the other continued until the building of the Aswan Dam in the late 1960's, making excavations of the housing areas virtually impossible. This has left a scarcity of data for Egyptologists to study.
When Herodotus visited Egypt in the 4th Century BC, he noticed the tells and the differing heights of the houses and towns and came to this conclusion.
Whenever any man of the Egyptians committed any transgression, he (the Kushite king Shabaka) would never put him to death, but he gave sentence upon each man according to the greatness of the wrong-doing, appointing them to work at throwing up an embankment before that city from whence each man came of those who committed wrong. Thus the cities were made higher still than before; for they were embanked first by those who dug the channels in the reign of Sesostris, and then secondly in the reign of the Ethiopian, and thus they were made very high: and while other cities in Egypt also stood high, I think in the town at Bubastis especially the earth was piled up.
Herodotus - Histories II
It seems as though there was a simple planning structure of the outlay of a town. From the few remains of towns like Armana, Deir el-Medina and Hotepsenusret in the Fayum, we have been able to discover how the Egyptians built their towns. Towns generally had a boundary wall with only one or two entrances through the wall itself. The main street was normally placed through the centre of the town with smaller streets coming off at right angles. This is probably where the Egyptians got their hieroglyphic symbol for town or city.
Houses were built on the edge of the streets with each house usually sharing three walls with neighbouring houses. The streets were normally very narrow. In the case of Hotepsenusret, only 1.5 metres across in some cases. As you can imagine, space was extremely limited. In the workers village at El-Amarna, the houses were built barrack style and were very small. The villagers also kept animals in the village. Most towns had a well but Armana did not. The water had to fetched daily from a distance away. The town of Armana was not well planned. It seemed like it was a case of build where you can. However, the owners of the houses still had to take their neighbours into consideration when building on a chosen plot, as this example of an actual agreement shows -
" I make an undertaking that when I build my house, which is the western (border) of your house and which lies in the northern district of Thebes, in The House of the Cow and the borders of which are as follows: in the south the courtyard of Padineferhotep's house, in the north the house of Mrs. Tadineferhotep, between them the King's Road, in the east your house, touched in the south and north by walls of my house and serving as a retaining wall as long as I shall not lay any beams on top of it. In the west the house of Pabimut and the house of Djedhor... that is two houses with the King's Road lying between them. I shall build my house from my southern wall to my northern wall to your wall, and I shall not insert any wood (beams) into your wall, apart from the wood of the building which had stood there previously. And I shall use it as a retaining wall as long as I do not insert any wood into it. I shall lay my beams from south to north, covering the ground floor. If I want to build on top of it I shall build my walls mentioned above up to the wall of your house which will serve as a retaining wall. I shall leave the light-shaft opposite your two windows at a distance of one mud brick of the mud bricks which have been laid in the front of your house opposite your windows. I shall build north and south of them (the windows) up to your wall and cover them with a roof from south to north.... If I do not act according to what has been said above, then I shall pay you 5 pieces of silver, that is 25 stater .... If you hinder my building, then I will act according to what has been said above without leaving a light-shaft - without punishment."
Contract between Taheb, daughter of Padineferhotep, and Pamerakh, son of Djehutiirdis 290 BCE
Life in the town of Deir el-Medina must have been far better for the people and was better planned. The town had one main street through the centre with 10 houses on either side. The street was so narrow, you could touch either side at once. At the zenith of the towns use, it probably had around 70 houses [Manley, 1996]. Each house had three rooms, a yard and a kitchen area. Each house also had an underground storage cellar. Each of the houses even had niches in the walls for the worship of household gods. Unlike Armana, Medina had its own well. An unusual feature of Medina, was the use of stone with which the Egyptians built the houses when other towns and villages were built with mud-brick. This was because of the distance that the town was situated away from the Nile and its resource of mud for the bricks. The thinness of the walls also indicate that the houses had only the ground storey, with stairways which led to the roof. Medina differed from other towns in another respect. Over the centuries, other towns rose above the plain that they were built upon through rebuilding over the debris of existing houses, therefore creating a 'tell'. Medina stayed on the same plain throughout its occupation. This suggests that when a house fell or was destroyed, the debris was cleared away before building commenced.
There were no toilets or bathrooms in Medina so the occupants probably cleaned themselves using a bowl and relieved themselves outside the town. Some may have used toilet stools.
Hotepsenusret, which was built during the reign of Senusret II was only inhabited for about a century. This was an unusual town because normally, different classes of people were not segregated in the towns. In Hotepsenusret, however, there was a richer residential area where some house were up to 50 times bigger than the poorer villagers houses. The main street in this area was up to 9 metres wide, whereas in the poorer part of town it was only 1.5 metres wide. None of the houses, however, had any room for gardens. An estimation of 5,000 people populated Hetepsenusret. This conclusion was mainly based on the capacities of the grain silos found throughout the town.
Many different types of workers lived in these towns and the state built them so they could optimise the use of the workers. Medina was a workers town which housed craftsmen, painters, masons, and sculptors who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The families of the workers were also housed in the town. Hetepsenusret and Armana housed different classes of peoples such as skilled and unskilled workers, nobles, workers of the king and state - also with their families.
The homes of the peasants and farmers who did not live in the towns, were simple affairs. It is believed that they were made out of reeds and mud with reeds and grasses also being used for the roof. These houses were constantly being destroyed and rebuilt because of their close proximity to the Nile. The houses of the poorer classes in the towns were better than the farmers but were still, very simple. They only had two or three rooms and only one or two stories. The kitchens were normally at the back with the front living area for the family. Families often slept on the roof where it was cooler. The houses had small windows high up which aided ventilation. Some of the families also did their cooking on the roof.
Nobles and the upper classes of Egyptian society who lived in the towns occupied much larger surroundings. The houses were normally 3 storeys high, narrow and tall. In the example given by Djehutinefer's townhouse plan which was found in his tomb, the ground floor was occupied by the servants, spinners, weavers, grain grinders and flour sifters. The second floor was the main living area of the family. There were four windows high up in the wall to allow for ventilation and light. The third floor was reserved for the masters business affairs. On the roof were grain silos and food stores. Food was also prepared and cooked on the roof before being served downstairs. Djehutinefer's rooms were supported by wooden columns. The servants columns were simple in design but Djehutinefers were elaborate. Some nobles houses had bathrooms and toilets. The toilets were made of limestone, some with a wooden seats. The excrement, which was collect in jars which contained sand, were emptied out in pits outside the walls of the house, in the river, in the streets and even in houses that were empty. Some homes used toilets stools.
The outside walls of the homes were generally whitewashed - some homes were only whitewashed half way while others were completely covered.
Some nobles lived outside the towns in much bigger houses and were normally built on hills to protect them from the Nile floods. These estates had their own pools, swimming areas, separate servant quarters, food stores and granaries, stables and even a small shrine for worship. These households were generally as self-supporting as possible. Gardens were a popular part of a nobleman's estate. They included anything from a few fruit trees to botanical and zoological gardens with exotic trees, ponds which were full of fish, and caged animals and birds. We know this because the walls of many noblemen's tombs are decorated with their garden scenes. Also found in a 14th century BC tomb was an inscription which shows the importance of a this nobleman's garden in his idyllic afterlife -
'May I walk every day on the banks of the water, may my soul rest on the branches of the trees which I planted, may I refresh myself under the shadow of my sycamore.'
Found on an 19th Dynasty papyrus was this verse -
I am your best beloved.
I am yours like this field which I have planted with flowers,
a lovely place for strolling, with your hand in mine.
My body is satisfied, my heart in joy at our going out together.
Hearing your voice is pomegranate wine; I live for hearing it!
The preparing and cooking of food usually took place on the roofs of the houses. Some homes had clay ovens - others cooked over an open fire. The housewife usually took charge of the cooking, but in nobles houses, they had servants to prepare and cook the food. Commoners used clay dishes to eat their food while the richer families had dishes of bronze, silver or even gold.
Furniture was minimal, even in the nobles houses. Furniture consisted mostly of a stool, small boxes for jewelry and cosmetics, chests for clothing, pottery jars, beds and oil lamps. The most common type of furniture was a stool. These had three or four legs and were made of wood, with leather or woven rush seats. Only the wealthy had the luxury of a chair. Tables were made from wood or wicker and had three or four legs. The wealthy could afford ebony, ivory or cedar, but the less wealthy painted their furniture black, white or yellow to make the resemblance. Beds were somewhat of a status symbol in Ancient Egypt. Beds were made with a wooden frame with a woven rush mat placed on the top. There was normally a foot-board at one end and a headrest at the other. Chests were storage for clothing, linen, jewellery and make-up. The chairs and beds were normally carved with lions feet.
As we have seen, skilled workers, general workers such as tomb builders and carpenters and even the wealthy lived in the towns of Ancient Egypt. Some of the wealthy lived in estates in the countryside as near to the king's palace as possible. The agricultural and poorer population lived outside in simple homes or small villages, mostly by the river or on agricultural land. Some of the larger towns and cities had foreigners, traders and garrisons of troops living inside them. Market places did not exist inside or outside the walls of the towns. The economy of Egypt did not require them.
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