Ancient Egypt was a fascinating and complex place. Luckily for historians, Egyptians had made great strides in record keeping which have made studying their culture and society easier than some previous historical eras. Ancient Egyptians were a people who were intensely religious, deeply divided by gender roles and a strong hierarchy, and quite advanced for their period in terms of their technological and economic innovations. Egyptians were deeply religious, and religion played a role in nearly all aspects of their daily lives.
When the ancient Egyptians experienced periods of peace and prosperity, they attributed credit for the success to their deities (Slaughter, 5). The Egyptians experienced centuries of remarkable stability and considered this state to be the ma ’at, which was Egyptian for the “natural order” (Slaughter, 5). Even though they considered good order and balance in their society to be natural, it had to be protected by the pharaoh, who was considered to have been born mortal but imbued with godhood upon receipt of the throne, and was expected to be an earthly presence of the divine (Slaughter, 5).
His religious standing gave the pharaoh a unique legal and authoritative position in ancient Egyptian culture.
The pharaoh was expected to defend the nation, take responsibility for all administrative duties, declare all of the laws, and own all of the land (Slaughter, 5). For practical reasons, much of the pharaoh’s responsibilities were delegated to a bureaucracy (Slaughter, 5). Within this bureaucracy, staffed mostly by men, success was measured by the degree to which a person promoted order and prosperity within their stewardship (Slaughter, 5-6). Ancient Egypt had a strong social hierarchy, where a small group of the population, mostly the male elders, formed an elite class that that tightly controlled the rest of society (Slaughter, 7). This hierarchy was rooted in a wide variety of economic, political, religious and social causes that imbued those in power with authority in almost all areas of society (Slaughter, 7). The nature of most economic and commercial activity at the time created great “wealth, power, and opportunities” for elite men, while putting other men and all women in a position of submission to or dependence on the elite (Slaughter, 7). The division of labor that arose based at first on survival needs created societal attitudes about the roles, attributes, and abilities of men and women (Slaughter, 7).
Men were the rulers and hard laborers, while women were the family caretakers (Slaughter, 7). The fertility and sexuality of a woman was her main contribution to Egyptian society, and these attributes were celebrated throughout the culture (Slaughter, 7). Women were expected to marry at 12 or 13 years of age, and to bear children often within the first year after marriage (Discussion, Ian Falconer). Although women were usually not part of the religious or political ruling elite, they were highly respected for their fertility, and were given most of the same legal rights as men (Discussion, Keako Crill). In some rare instances, women actually did manage to rise to stations of power and privilege, sometimes as priestesses to a God within the pharaoh’s bureaucracy (Slaughter, 5), and in four instances, including the case of Hatshepsut, women actually became the supreme rulers of the land (Slaughter, 6). Ancient Egyptians achieved an impressive level of manufacturing and commercial capability for their time, which allowed them to achieve great strength and geopolitical dominance. Egyptians took advantage of many opportunities to learn, such as using the mummification process as a chance to learn about anatomy and medicine (Discussion, Katelyn Dreger).
The Egyptians also developed a calendar with the same number of days as ours, though more closely tied to the seasons. Their calendar had three seasons, each consisting of four 30 day months, and an extra five days between harvest and planting that brought the total days in a year to 365 (Discussion, Tad Gale). This system allowed them to know when to plant and harvest based on the seasons of the year and the rise and fall of the water level in the Nile River in order to get maximum utilization of their vital lands. They also managed to develop a forerunner to our modern day beer by either fermenting water with bread crumbled into it, or by actually fermenting barley and wheat in a similar fashion to modern methods (Discussion, Tad Gale.)
Their engineering feats were also impressive, and ranged from the technical prowess that showed itself in their massive pyramids, to the mastery of physics involved in developing advanced chariots that ran faster, quieter, and more stable than their counterparts created by their enemies (Discussion, Blair Vanderlugt). The nature of ancient Egyptian society was quite unique for its time period. Egyptian culture was distinct from neighboring nations, and Egyptians had many advantages that gave them an edge politically and commercially.