In modern Egypt, a cruise on the Nile or a bus ride through the countryside along this great river of live can be very enlightening. One will see urban sprawl, some modern factories, lots of traffic, but in the countryside, one will also see people living much as they did many thousands of years ago. There will be small mudbick buildings, Oxen pulling archaic plows, donkeys and donkey carts laden with all manner of produce and other agricultural products and various other trappings of a bygone era removed from most of he modern world by millenniums. Visually, the countryside often leaves one with an impression of antiquity, but socially and culturally, much of Egypt’s rural population are also remains steeped in ancient tradition, and in fact this attribute carries over into a considerable part of the country’s urban population.
Many of their traditions look back to ancient times, though warped by a series of cultural intrusions and the influences of our modern era. To some extent, particularly in rural areas, modern Egyptians represent a laboratory from which we can pick out many ancient Egyptian customs and observing them, even from the comfort of a cruise ship swimming pool, gives one some idea of ancient Egyptian life. Egyptology has to be considered the oldest discipline to study ancient man. We find references to several people who are sometimes considered to be founders of this science, such as W. F. Petrie and Champollion, but in reality, the study of ancient Egyptians is much, much older. It can, in some respects be said that Herodotus and Strabo were Egyptologists, if not actually archaeologists, as was Manetho before them, but even many of the ancient Egyptians themselves studied, and were proud of their own history. Prince Khaemwese, a son of Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great) was interested in Egyptian history, and during many periods, particularly when times were troubling, the ancient Egyptians looked back upon their predecessors and took up at least some of their more ancient traditions. Perhaps unfortunately, from ancient times into our present day, this science has mostly focused on the grander side of life, exploring great kings and their fabulous temples and tombs. The life of common Egyptians has often been ignored, and even when it was investigated, the evidence is frequently skewed in a funerary context.
Of course, there are several reasons why the life of the common Egyptians, and even the everyday life of the nobles has not received the attention we might like to see. Grand temples and tombs have offered up spectacular finds and treasures, and indeed it is the great pyramids, temples and tombs that most visitors to Egypt find alluring. However, evidence of day to day life is also more obscure, as their houses and other objects of used in daily life were not built to withstand the ages, or for that matter the inundations of the Nile River. Communities were built close to the river for access to the water, and often of mudbrick and both of these factors contributed to their early demise. Nevertheless, there have always been a few scholars that have focused on the life of ancient Egyptians and over the years we have come to learn a great deal about their customs and culture, even outside of the funerary context. Ancient workers villages on the West Bank at Thebes (Deir el-Medina), at Giza, Kahun, and and even cities such as Akhetaten, if only their foundations, have risen to see the light of day once more, and from these and other sources, such as the wealth of private tomb paintings, we find a rich source of knowledge.
What immerges from this evidence is a people who, fundamentally, are not unlike people today. Men and women fell in love, united, created families that became the center of their lives, worried about their children, worked, struggled, sought security and had moral concerns from which some deviated to became criminals. It is true that they sometimes fought savage wars, but our modern society seems not yet to have outgrown that very ancient tradition. The young played with toys, while older children and adults played games and competed in sports, partied, danced, sang, rejoiced on special occasions and were sad when death took a loved one. They sued each other, divorced, paid taxes, fought with their neighbors and their wives, but also believed in the concept of our modern Bible’s golden rule, to love thy neighbor. Some common Egyptians excelled in life, rising to become great officials, while others failed miserably, but in general they survived and lead ordinary lives for their time. They adapted to their landscape, and appear to have been patriots of their country.
The ancient Egyptians showed most of the traits of modern man, though in an ancient context and with ancient pressures. Rather than putting locks on their doors, they built walls and surrounded themselves with fellow countryman for security. Rather than central refrigerated air conditioning, they built fountains and naturally cooled houses for their comfort. Though lacking huge motorized cranes and heavy trucks, they nevertheless managed to build monuments that even today are very impressive to us, using ancient technology that has sometimes become lost in the tracks of time. And like today, many of these large, public programs such as the building of the great pyramids spawned technology that was useful in everyday life, such as geometry, which was used both to plot the foundation of Khufu’s monument, but also to lay out and mark small tracks of farm land. Yet, while it would be fun to report that they held ancient and almost supernaturally mysterious knowledge, a belief often held by our more recent ancestors, they functioned much as we do today and most of our investigations center around small details of their lives which, in the end, have little bearing on their overall humanity.
In fact, if one could walk into a typical ancient Egyptian home, he or she would find many of the trappings of modern life, recognizable yet ancient. There would be mirrors and makeup, pots and pans, ovens and shelves for storage, beds and comfortable sitting areas, lighting to ward of the darkness of night and heat to chase away the cold of winter. It is easy to forget how recent our modern world is, with our computers, televisions, stereo systems, refrigerators and cars, but one need only look back a hundred years are so to find a similar way of life to the ancient Egyptians, when people had to contend themselves with social activities and live performances for entertainment and animals for transportation. While the ancient Egyptians may seem far removed from our modern world, in reality, we are fooled by our own recent and rapid technical advances. Actually, the early Egyptologists such as Champollion who sailed to Egypt, rode donkeys to visit the ruins, recorded their investigations using pen and paper rather than a laptop computer and cooked their food while there on an open fire rather than a butane burner lived in a society closer to that of the ancient Egyptians than to our modern world today.
With technology, our modern era has indeed ushered in cultural changes. It would seem that our elders are no longer as respected as they were a hundred years ago, or four thousand years ago in ancient Egypt. Marriages fall apart, children move to far corners of the world, alienating family units, we communicate at lightning speeds and with people throughout the world while national and international news arrives at our doorsteps with ease. But all of these changes have occurred very, very recently relative to the history of mankind.
So finally, when we study the ancient Egyptians’ way of life, we examine their clothing, which differs from our own, but was nevertheless clothing, we investigate how they worshipped their gods, which are different than our god, but they were nevertheless worshipped, we want to see how they married and raised their kids, though we know they did unite in love, have sex and struggled with the resulting children. We want to know about their health care, their education and what they considered humorous, but we know that they had doctors, educators and a since of humor. Only the details vary from our modern way of life, and sometimes even the details are the same. Women wore perfume which is still used today, wore makeup not so very different than makeup of today, and had their hair done in fashions that sometimes look completely modern