MISTRESS OF THE HOUSE
Marriage was the normal state for Egyptian men and women. The Wisdom Literature urged men to marry and found a household while they were still young. Unfortunately, nothing of this sort was written, or at least nothing survived, by women to tell us what they thought of the matter, but it is safe to assume they agreed. With none of the modern household appliances and prepared foods that make housework a less time-consuming occupation today, running a household in Ancient Egypt was a full time occupation. It would have been difficult, if not impossible for one person to earn enough to live on and maintain a decent house at the same time. A single person could live in a relative’s home, but it really took at least two people to set up a new household. A man needed a wife, and a woman needed a husband if either were to have a decent life.
Inherited wealth changed all the rules, of course, but in its absence someone had to earn a living and someone had to stay home. Egyptians of both sexes felt that it made sense for the woman to stay home, look after the children, and run the household, while the man went out to earn the means to pay the expenses. Upper-class women sometimes worked in temples and they may well have wished there were more opportunities for women; for the rest, a job outside the home was something you did because it was the only way to get enough to eat. Egyptian paintings always showed women with a lighter skin tone than men since the former worked inside and the latter outside.
A woman who owned a house, or was married to the owner of a house, was entitled to call herself “Mistress of the House”. There is considerable evidence to suggest that Ancient Egyptians assumed the man to be the “head of the house”. Women were equal before the law, and they could hold property in their own name, but reality is often different from theory, and men seem to have expected to run things. That said, Wisdom Literature encouraged men to let their wives run the household without interference. Inside the house, at least, the wife really was the “mistress”. Human nature being what it is, there will always be people who defy tradition: there will be women who take charge of their husband’s every move, and there will be men who interfere constantly in the kitchen, but the norm seems to have been simple: the women ran things in the house and the men ran things outside.
INUNDATION AND ITS IMPACT ON HOUSING
Civilization existed in Ancient Egypt because of the monsoons in Ethiopia. So much water drained into the Nile that the river overflowed its banks. Imagine you are standing on the shore as the level starts to rise. The water is lapping at your toes so you decide to step back. In real life if would have taken several days, but in your imagination it takes less than a minute. You keep moving back until the water stops rising. You are now standing on the border between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead, between what the Egyptians called the “Black Land” and the “Red Land.”
As the water recedes it will leave a fresh layer of silt containing all the minerals plants need to grow. In the meantime, however, the entire country is under water except for a few, small, low plateaus where somehow excess silt built up over the centuries. It is on these plateaus that the Egyptians built their houses and villages. Moving from house to house was easy enough, but getting from village to village required a boat or a lot of sloshing through the water. You and I might look at that and see nothing but inconvenience. The Egyptians looked at it and gave thanks for it meant the chance to plant and harvest a good crop and have food for another year.
Too much water brought its own set of problems, but if, as sometimes happened, the Nile did not rise enough, then there would be great privation and perhaps even starvation. The price of land was determined solely by the assurance that it would be fully covered by water every year.
The determinative for a town featured two streets crossing at right angle inside a circle. It may well be that this sign does represent the Egyptian view of the ideal layout of a town: a wall around the outside and straight streets to provide access to the homes. A papyrus believed to be from the Twentieth Dynasty (c. 1110-1080 BCE) lists the occupations of the owners of some 182 houses in a part of the city of Thebes. The residents include the Mayor and Police Chief of Thebes, a fisherman, herdsmen and gardeners, together with everything in between. They all lived side by side without regard to wealth or status. The homes of the wealthy were larger, of course, but there was no segregation of the classes. The same mixture can be seen in the city Akhetaten.
Let us look first at the general principals of architecture in Ancient Egypt and then go on to look at the houses in specific sites and social classes. While stone was preferred for monuments and temples, the simple unbaked mud brick was the standard building material. It was cheap and anyone could make it with very simple tools. A mixture of water, clay and chopped straw is allowed to sit for several days, allowing the straw to decompose and release slime into the clay. The mixture is then poured into wooden frames and allowed to dry. Unbaked brick would not do well in most parts of the world, but with an annual precipitation of only one inch (about 2 ½ cm) it was the healthiest building material available in Egypt.
Walls were covered inside and out with a slurry of clay and water and then painted with whitewash. The result was much more durable and attractive than the expression “mud brick” might at first suggest. Depending on the taste and resources of the family, the walls might have a painted mural or geometric pattern. There would be niches in the wall to hold religious images. The prevailing wind came from the north and high, horizontal windows took advantage of the cooling breeze.
What was the ideal house? Tomb paintings frequently show the owner and his wife standing in front of a single story, detached house surround by trees. There is a pool in the garden with birds and lotus flowers. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a beautiful model of a part of the luxurious home of an Eleventh Dynasty nobleman. Finely crafted coniferous wood represents a mud-brick wall. Inside the covered end are two rows of four, vertical, papyri-form columns. The other end is longer, lower, and contains a pool surrounded by sycamore trees. The columned porch looking out onto a lush garden is a common theme in elite homes. While the rich often achieved one of these dream homes, the poor were left with something considerably more modest.
While mud-brick was a very healthy building material in a dry climate, and durable enough for the people who lived in houses made of it, the modern archeologist would have preferred something more eternal. Most of the ancient houses are long gone. Most of the ones that survive are from special towns and villages that may or may not have been typical for the age. The elite houses that have been uncovered match the drawings and models in tombs, so we can be reasonably certain these follow the pattern of the houses of the rich throughout the country. We can only guess, however, at the accommodation of the poor peasants at the bottom of the social scale, even though they made up the vast majority of the population.
Let us look first at a typical house in the village of Deir el-Medina. This was a New Kingdom village built to house the families of the men who built the Pharaohs’ tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Highly skilled artisans, privileged to work directly under the authority of the Pharaoh’s Vizier, these men were members of the lower middle class. They were certainly better off than the peasants who toiled in the fields, but they were not part of the elite class.
They varied in length from 13 meters to 27 meters and in width from about 4 meters to 6 meters, but the layout remained the same across the entire village. The average had about 80 square meters of main floor, inside living space. The walls were very tall (between 3 and 5 meters). There was no second story, but the roof was flat and afforded plenty of additional space for outdoor living.
A wooden door, lockable and swinging inward as a modern door, provided entrance from the street (A) to the front room (B). From a flat, stone door step, at least in the more elegant homes, the visitor would go down two or three steps where the floor had been sunk in hopes of the more refreshing temperature we associate with basements. A vent in the ceiling probably provided light and fresh air. In one corner was a brick structure (C) that is often called a “boxed-bed”, although it is unlikely to have been a bed. About 75 cm off the floor, it was a brick platform capable of holding one person lying down. Except for an entranceway in the middle of the long side, the platform was surrounded by a wall, the height of which varied from a few centimeters to just short of the ceiling. The prominence of drawings of Bes, Taweret and other feminine symbols has led some observers to speculate that it might be the place where women delivered their babies, but most Egyptologists have concluded that it was a place for the worship of household gods and goddesses.
The second room (D) was usually the largest. Its floor was several steps higher than the first room, and its roof, supported by one or two columns resting on stone bases, was also higher, allowing for a horizontal window on the north-facing wall to let in light and a cooling breeze. A platform (E) at one end provided a place for the owner and perhaps his wife to sit when business was being discussed with guests. There were niches in the walls in which various divine images could be placed and there were false doors through which people could make spiritual journeys, perhaps to the world of their ancestors. In the floor near the divan was a trap-door leading to the first basement that served as a safe repository for the household’s valuables.
The third room (F) had a floor that was even higher than the second. This third room was about half the width of the house and may have been a storeroom but was probably the master bedroom.
The fourth and last room, reached by a hallway from the second room, was the kitchen (H). A staircase (G) led to the flat roof, which was probably every bit as important for daily living as the rest of the house. In the summer this was probably the preferred place for sleeping. In any event, a lot of informal socializing would take place up here. The part of the roof over the kitchen, being just thick enough to provide shade but not so thick as to block the rising smoke, was not safe for use. Where we would expect such appliances as a stove and refrigerator, an Egyptian kitchen was equipped with an oven for baking, a mortar for grinding flour and a trough for kneading bread dough.
As might be expected, the houses at the other end of the social scale were bigger. More importantly, they were set in the midst of a private yard that might contain stables, a garden, pool, storage facilities, and housing for servants. Ovens and other kitchen facilities were also outside of the main house. This diagram shows the house of a high official in the temple of Aten in the city of Amarna. This 340-square-meter dwelling was set in a 4400-square meter yard surrounded by a wall high enough to keep prying eyes out. The entire house was set on a mud-brick platform and was accessed by means of a set of stairs going into the vestibule (A). It is possible that a doorman was on permanent duty there. The front entrance led into a large reception area (C) whose roof was supported by four columns. Side rooms might have been used for storage or for servants. B led to outside stairs going down to the stable where the horses were kept. The main reception hall (C) contained the usual brick platform for the owner and his wife to sit on more formal occasions. G was the master bedroom and the two rooms next to it, H and I, contained sanitary facilities and a stone basin for bathing.
The prevailing wind in Egypt is from the north and the hot rays of the sun shine from the south. As always, the Aten official’s house was constructed so the windows and the walls took greatest advantage of this quirk in the climate. The occupants of the house would gravitate from the northern rooms to the roof or the southern rooms depending on the season. The combination of mud-brick, windows, and a willingness to move from one end of the house to another provided superb climate control for the residents.
Furniture in the homes of unskilled labor, the vast majority of the population, often consisted of little more than a mud-brick platform in the corner for sleeping and a round, mud-brick table in the center, around which guests and family could kneel or squat for dinner. The most common item of wooden furniture was the stool. At four to six deben for a basic model, it was beyond the reach of the lower class, but easily affordable to the middle and upper classes. The next most common item was the wooden box used for the storage of blankets, clothes and any items of special value. Once again, the poor would have trouble finding the resources to purchase such items: instead they would pile woven goods in the corner and more precious items in the basement.
As we move up the social ladder a greater variety of furniture becomes available. In addition to the simple stool, we find chairs with backs and/or arms. Boxes are more frequent and all are constructed of the finest materials. With such a low annual rainfall, Egypt was blessed with only a limited supply of trees and absolutely no hardwood. Quality wood would have to be imported.
Outside of the large estates of those at the very upper end of the socio-economic ladder, where there were large staffs to look after everything, one of the most important responsibilities of the Mistress of the House was the preparation of food. Even if she had two or three servants to help, she would have to do the organizing and supervising. There was no prepared food so everything had to be prepared from scratch, just as it came from the farm. Most Egyptians ate twice a day: at sunrise and at sunset. The wealthy often had an extra meal in the afternoon.
Bread and beer were the staples served at every meal. Bakeries that served the general public did not appear until the New Kingdom, but even then most bread was prepared at home, not bought in a store. The first step, of course, was the grinding of flour. There are paintings that show a preliminary grinding being done with a large pestle and mortar, but most of the grinding was done by women with a rolling pin as they kneeled on the floor in front of a quern. The finest flour required an additional grinding with the mortar and pestle. Although the flour was sifted, even the best grades contained bits of husk and particles of stone. Since Egyptians ate a lot of bread the grit contributed to premature wearing of the teeth.
Women knelt on the floor while they kneaded the dough on flat stones. Paintings show men kneading the dough with their feet in the large bakeries. In addition to the usual flour, fat, yeast and salt, the cook might add spices, milk, beer, eggs, figs or dates to provide flavor. Loaves could be thin and flat, thick and flat, round, ovoid, conical, triangular or rectangular. Combining the various shapes and flavorings it is possible to identify more than forty different types of bread in the New Kingdom.
The simplest way to cook bread was to place the loaf on top of a flat stone that was laid table-like across an open fire. Conical ovens were built from the Middle Kingdom on. They were open at the top and had a fire in the bottom; the loaves were baked on shelves circling the inside of the cone. Preheated ceramic molds could be filled with dough that baked as the molds cooled.
Beer was the second staple present at almost every meal. Unlike modern ales and lagers, Ancient Egyptian beer had an alcohol content of around one per cent, high enough to kill the bacteria, but low enough to be consumed in moderation without fear of getting drunk. Egyptian beer had more body than that brewed today and was a legitimate part of a meal as well as a safe source of drinking water.
There were two ways to make beer. Wheat or barley seeds could be left to soak in water for a day. Women would then roll the grain and leave it to dry. After repeating the process, the mash was mixed with water and yeast and stored in vats. When fermentation was complete the liquid was filtered and left to mature. Finally a flavor was added. The alternative method made use of leftover loaves of bread that could be broken up and mixed with the water and yeast instead of rolled grain.
Bread and beer served the same purpose then as meat and potatoes or rice and beans today. They were essential ingredients for every dinner, but a good life required something else. Onions, leeks, beans, lentils, chick peas were common vegetables. Popular fruits included dates, figs, grapes, and, in the New Kingdom, pomegranates.
When it was available, meat was a highly prized part of the diet, but its consumption varied considerably according to time, locale, economic and social class, and religion. To start with, there was no refrigeration, so whatever was not pickled or salted had to be eaten right away. Even apart from the cost, that fact alone restricted cattle and large, wild animals like antelope, deer and gazelles to the tables of those living on large estates or temples, where such cuts were prepared by male cooks. The rich seldom ate sheep or goats, but skilled workers and peasants might keep such animals for consumption at a special feast.
Pigs were more problematic. In some times and places they were avoided because of their association with trichinosis. Many Egyptians avoided them on religious grounds. On the other hand, there is considerable evidence of pigs being bred and consumed on a large scale.
Meat was always a rare luxury for the poor, but the river teemed with fish and the marshes had lots of duck and geese. Such were free for the catching for those who could get away from their other responsibilities. As was the case with pork, some groups avoided fish or shunned certain kinds of fish.
OTHER TASKS OF THE MISTRESS OF THE HOUSE
Depending of social and economic class, the mistress of the house probably had other responsibilities, but here it is much more difficult to generalize. We know that spinning and weaving took place in some homes, but it is impossible to say how prevalent these activities were. It is certainly likely that outside the large estates of the wealthy the housewife was expected to wash the clothes and do any repairs. Some had small looms and made their own cloth. Little more than a needle and thread were needed to turn raw cloth into clothing. We have records of women selling their creations to others in the village, but we have no way of knowing what percentage of housewives bought their clothing and what percentage made it.
Somebody had to carry water since there were no taps in turn on, and mothers had to look after their children. We have no way of knowing, how much help, if any, the average man provided in the performance of these duties.