Monday, March 26, 2007

The Social and Economic Structures of Ancient Egypt

The character of Egyptian society is difficult to re­construct, in part because no legal code comparable to that of Hammurabi has been found. Little is known about land tenure, though vast tracts were held by the king and by pious foundations set up to support temples and those who served them. As many tem­ples were small and as the priests and accolytes sup­ported by their foundations were also farmers, it appears that the tax exemptions enjoyed by the trusts were a primary reason for their establishment. The owners of land held privately, which was abundant, had to pay an annual tribute in kind to the ruler. The king may also have been able to confiscate pri­vate property on the theory that, as a god, he owned the entire country. The remaining records of assess­ment are detailed and reveal a competent and often ruthless bureaucracy at work in even the humblest of villages. Slaves, most of whom had been captured in war, were found in the fields and households of the rich. They belonged by law to the pharaoh who granted them in turn to private individuals or to the great trusts that managed the temples. They could hold property in their own right and were frequently manumitted, or freed, through a simple declaration by their owners. They were neither numerous nor central to the work­ings of the economy except perhaps in the expansionist period when the New Kingdom pharaohs conquered much of Phoenicia and Syria (c. 1560–1299 B.C.). The vast majority of Egyptians were humble farmers whose life probably resembled that of today’s fellahin. They lived in small villages built of mud bricks and spent their days working in the fields and drawing precious water by means of the shaduf, a bucket swung from a counterbalanced beam. They were subject to the pay­ment of taxes as well as to labor services and perhaps to conscripted service in the army. The idea of conscrip­tion was so pervasive that people expected to labor in the fields of Osiris after death and placed small clay figurines of slaves in their tombs to help them with the work. Crops were remarkably varied. Barley and wheat were the staples, and the average person’s diet included large quantities of bread and beer with broad or fava beans for protein and the tender stalks of the young pa­pyrus plant for an occasional salad. Papyrus was primar­ily valued because its fibers could be formed into a kind of paper, an Egyptian invention that takes its name from the plant, though modern paper is derived from a process developed originally in China. Wines for con­sumption by the upper classes were produced in the delta and painstakingly classified according to source and quality. Beef, too, was a delta product and formed an important part of a wealthy person’s diet along with game birds, mutton, and pork. Poultry was common, as were many different kinds of fruit and, above all, onions. Cotton, so closely associated with the Egyptian economy in modern times, was not introduced until about 500 B.C., and most Egyptians wore simple linen garments made from locally grown flax. Famines and epidemics were rare, but the life ex­pectancy of ancient Egyptians was no more than thirty-five or thirty-six years, a figure comparable to that for most other societies before the industrial revolution. In spite of their belief in an afterlife, the Egyptians seemed unwilling to accept these harsh demographic realities. An extensive medical literature reflects their reputation as the greatest doctors of antiquity. Rules for diagnosis and treatment, lists of remedies, and careful instructions for surgical operations on every part of the body have been preserved. The Egyptian practice of embalming the dead and removing their organs contributed to a knowledge of anatomy unequaled by any other ancient culture. Egypt was not a heavily urbanized society like Mesopotamia. The major cities, including Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt, and Memphis, near the present site of Cairo, were centers of government and cere­mony. Commerce, though important, was conducted mainly by royal officials. Traders operating at the vil­lage level served the modest needs of the countryside. Official expeditions collected the gold and copper that were among Egypt’s most important exports. Copper was also used domestically for tools and weapons, but the Egyptians did not adopt the use of bronze until about 1500 B.C., long after it was common elsewhere.

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