Houses and Villages of Ancient Egypt
By Marie Parsons
Knowledge of cities, towns and houses in the Predynastic through Middle Kingdom periods is limited to rare traces of domestic architecture, because for the most part, the settlements are destroyed or covered by later and even modern construction. It is even more difficult to study early agricultural villages because they were built of reed mats and mud-brick that did not last the millennia as stone does. We know less about the houses the people lived in and more about their "houses of eternity," their tombs.
The oldest known seasonal settlements in Predynastic period Egypt were found in the Faiyum. Merimda, in the western Delta, was later found to be the oldest permanent settlement, bearing some similarities to the earlier Fayoum culture.
The earliest villages were clusters of dwellings with no walls or palisades, and these probably were circular in shape, just as Abydos has revealed it had. In the Faiyum, mud huts were built on mounds along the north and northeastern shores of the once considerable lake. Agriculture began, as emmer, wheat, barley and flax were cultivated and harvested.
At Merimda, the inhabitants built reed shelters and houses of wickerwork. Underground silos were lined with basketry to store grain. Sheep, cattle, and pigs were also kept, and hooks, spears and harpoons were used to fish. Simple graves were dug under the desert sand in the Faiyum, while at Merimda, the dead were buried in the village area, and there were no grave goods.
Another Predynastic culture of Lower Egypt was found at El-Omari, south of the Delta apex. The early remains consist of circular huts with sunken floors covered by reed matting and perhaps coated with clay. The dead were buried in the settlement area with some grave goods, but later, separate cemeteries developed. Other Lower Egyptian Predynastic settlements were at Maadi, opposite the necropolis at Saqqara, at Heliopolis, where the worship of Ra later became prominent, and at Buto, which became the town of the royal tutelary goddess Wadjet.
The earliest of the Upper Egypt Predynastic cultures is called the Badarian, first identified at the site of El-Badari near Asyut. Cemeteries contained oval graves with the body in the contracted position. Bodies were enclosed in basketry or skins, or linen. The bodies were buried with the head towards the south, and facing west, an attitude continued in the succeeding Naqada culture. Grave goods consisted of elaborate girdles or belts, consisting of multiple strands of blue-glazed steatite beads.
The Naqada civilization of Upper Egypt was the most important of all Predynastic cultures, becoming dominant in the land. Irrigation first appeared in Nekhen during the Naqada culture as people drew together into larger settlements and cultivated areas needed to expand. The majority of its sites excavated have been cemeteries. The graves consisted of shallow pits in the low desert, roofed with rough branches, which may have supported a small tumulus of gravel. The bodies were contracted, facing west, with the head to the south, but the grave-goods differed from the Badarian.
Towns were either unplanned or planned. Unplanned settlements arose over long periods, in random fashion, according to the immediate needs of the inhabitants. Such a town might have narrow, oddly twisting alleys, passages, squares and courts, with little open space. Houses might grow upwards in two or possibly three stories. Planned towns such as Deir el-Medina in the Valley of the Kings at western Thebes tended to be more orderly in general design.
The most common term in Egyptian for settlement is niwt, translated as "city" or "village." It was a generic determinative for any habitation, but it could also denote a large city, for by the New Kingdom, Waset, or Thebes, was referred to simply as niwt, "the city." The term demy was commonly translated as "town." Other early words for some type of settlement were set, meaning "place" or "abode," the town of Deir el-Medina was called "Set Maat," or "Place of Truth; and hwt or domain specifically referred to land holdings of a temple.
For almost 2,000 years, the most important population centers in Egypt were Memphis in Lower Egypt and Thebes, dominating Upper Egypt in similar fashion. Other towns such as Tanis, Bubastis, Mendes, Sais, PiRamesses, and Alexandria, also gained prominence as administrative centers.
Memphis was thought to be a conglomeration of residential areas located around a royal fortress-like palace and the temple of Ptah, all surrounded by the "White Walls." The settlement grew quickly, enhanced by the foundation of pyramid towns such as that of Pepi I in the 5th Dynasty. Saqqara and Giza served as the necropolises for Memphis, and they were cities in their own right, not just containing the tombs, or "houses of eternity," which were modeled upon the plan of actual houses of the living, but because of their mortuary cult personnel as well, who lived nearby and functioned within the necropolis. In addition, Giza contained the houses of the workmen who built the pyramids and tomb complexes in the 4th and 5th Dynasties.
Thebes began as a loosely linked series of settlements and population centers on the east and west banks of the Nile. It was probably a series of clustered houses or neighborhoods built near various temples, with gardeners, potters, fishermen, craftsmen, physicians, scribes, district officers, all living in the same neighborhood.
The town of el-Lahun, or Illahun, or Kahun, founded by Senwosret II in the Middle Kingdom, was located in the Faiyum near the new capital. The workers, managers and overseers who built the pyramid of Senwosret II, perhaps 5000 of them including their families, lived here.
Illahun was surrounded by a rectangular enclosure wall 440 yards long by 380 yards wide. In the east were the homes of the notables and courtiers, a dozen of these between 11,000 square feet and 26,000 square feet. The noble homes were well ventilated and set around a peristyle court that led to several reception rooms. From the street one could enter the kitchens, the staff lodgings and the cellars. In the residential part of the house, there were enough bedrooms to accommodate fifty people. Some had bathrooms and drainage systems.
On the west side of town were the workers homes, two hundred houses rarely having more than three rooms, a reception room, one or two bedrooms, and a kitchen containing a hearth for baking bread, a millstone and a silo.
Another relatively well-preserved city is Tell el-Amarna, or Akhetaten, the planned capital created by King Akhenaten. It was built on the east bank of the Nile, and had an estimated population of about 30,000. Three main roads divided the city into sectors, the Central Quarter, where the palace, temple and government offices were located, the South, or Main Suburb, where the court and government officials lived, and the North Suburb, which was a middle-class neighborhood with a commercial component, and also included the North Palace.
A wealthy town-house in the city might have looked something like this. The ground floor and basement contained the workshops, bakeries, breweries, and kitchens, and cattle stalls and storerooms. The first floor contained rooms for receiving guests and conducting official business. The second floor contained the private apartments, dining room, bedroom, perhaps a bathroom and the womans quarters. On the roof there might be a light shelter used to sit or sleep in the cool northerly night breeze, often identified with the breath of the god Amun, a structure for the birthing process, and space for granaries.
The wealthier houses often had latticed windows and large open courtyards, lintels of limestone and wooden beams, and the floors were paved with brick tiles. The houses would be whitewashed within and without, and washed with natron. Houses often had very basic drainage, though they neither brought in running water nor had sewage facilities, but the palaces and some wealthier homes had indoor bathroom facilities.
The peasants house on the other hand was a sun-dried brick or clay-daubed reed shelter, one room, one door and no windows. The furniture might consist of a rough stool, chest and perhaps a headrest. Conditions were thus often cramped and overcrowded, and pests and scavengers presented problems, but the villages flourished nonetheless.
From The Ancient Egyptians Life in the Old Kingdom by Jill Kamil
From Early Egypt: Rise of Civilization in the Nile Valley by A.J. Spencer
Prehistory of Ancient Egypt by Beatrix Midant-Reynes
From Egypt in the Age of the Pyramids by Guillemette Andreu
From Egypt and the Egyptians by Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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