What was Ancient Egyptian society like?

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Ancient Egyptian society is usually explained as a kind of ‘pyramid’ structure. The most powerful people were few in number were at the ‘top’ of the society, while most people in society were peasants and had little power and were at the ‘bottom’.

 

In between the pharaoh at the very top and the peasants at the bottom, there were several social groups with increasingly more power, the closer they were to the top of the social pyramid. 

 

Below are each of the main social groups in ancient Egyptian society, from the top of the social pyramid to the bottom. It was very rare that a person could change which social class they were in. Usually, the social group you were born into is the one you remained in for your entire life. 

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The pharaoh

From the beginning of the pharaonic age, around 3100 BC, the pharaoh was the king of Egypt. He had control of all laws and armies, which made him the most powerful person in all of ancient Egyptian society. Also, the pharaoh controlled most of the land in the empire, which made him the richest person in society as well. In addition to these things, Egyptians considered the pharaoh to be one of their gods. Therefore, the king also had great religious authority as well.

 

The vizier (also known as ‘prime minister’)

The next most powerful individual in Egypt was known as the ‘Vizier’. The person was assigned to the position by the pharaoh, and he acted as the Pharaoh’s most trusted advisor. The vizier was responsible for the day-to-day running of the country and acted as the chief judge to settle legal matters. All official statements sent out across the land were required to have his personal seal on them. The Vizier was so close to the pharaoh that he was often in charge of running the pharaoh’s household as well.

 

Nomarchs (also known as ‘governors’)

The Egyptian empire was divided into smaller regions, like ‘states’ within countries today. In ancient Egypt, these smaller states were called nomes, and rich nobles were assigned to look after each region and were therefore called ‘nomarchs’. These people had important positions of power, but they could only exercise it in their assigned region. Their main tasks were to ensure that crops were harvested, that income was generated, and that peace was kept, to help the pharaoh successfully maintain control over such a large kingdom. 

 


Priests

Ancient Egypt was a very religious society, with hundreds of temples, both small and large, across its vast empire. In theory, the pharaoh was considered to be the high priest of every temple in Egypt, but realistically, he could not be everywhere at once. Instead, groups of priests ran all of the temples and acted in pharaoh’s place to offer sacrifices and supervised religious activities.

 

The main concern for the priests was to ensure that the gods remained happy and that all of the necessary ceremonies were completed every day. Some temples and their priests became very powerful and influential.

 

Scribes

The scribes in ancient Egypt incredibly important people. This was due to the fact that they were the only people who were trained to read and write. They main jobs were to keep accurate records of everything that occurred in the kingdom, and to write all official documents for the pharaoh, nomarchs and priests. 

 

Nobles

The Vizier, nomarchs, priests, and scribes were usually nominated from among the noble families across Egypt. These ‘nobles’ were families who had held wealth and power in the kingdom for several generations. As a result, they had the time and money to train their children in the necessary skills to take on the various roles mentioned above. Most of their wealth came from large farming estates where farmers grew their crops.

 


Craftspeople

People in this social class were those who specialised in a particular craft: builders, potters, metalworkers, leatherworkers, painters, sculptors, carvers, weavers, jewelers, tailors, etc. Such workers played important roles in creating temples and tombs for the pharaohs, as well as creating weapons and equipment for his armies. While they were towards the lower end of the social pyramid, they were still central in keeping Egypt going.

 

Peasant farmers, fishermen and labourers

Towards the lower end of the social order, were the agricultural workers, such as farmers and fishermen, who grew the crops and caught the fish to feed Egypt. Most people in Egyptian society were part of this group. At some times in Egyptian history, farmers and labourers were used by the pharaoh to build monuments, like the pyramids, when they were not busy tending their crops.

 

Servants and slaves

At the very bottom of Egyptian society were the servants and slaves. These people were usually those who had been captured in war, or who had sold themselves into slavery to pay off a family debt. Slaves had no power and were at the mercy of their masters.

 

Women in Ancient Egypt

Each of the social classes mentioned above applied to both men and women. There were even some female pharaohs. However, at each level of Egyptian society, women typically held less power and authority than the men. However, compared to other ancient societies, Egyptian women had the ability to buy their own land, speak on their own behalf in court cases, and could even divorce their husbands if they wanted to.

 

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