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Slavery in ancient Egypt: what was life like for a young slave in this ancient civilization?

Lesson 3

* Objective

* Getting a sense of what daily life was like for slaves in ancient Egypt Editing of this page by unregistered or newly registered users is currently disabled due to vandalism. .

* Words to Know

* Alexander the Great (356 B.C.-323 B.C.): King of ancient Macedonia; he spread Greek culture and learning as he conquered Egypt and much of Asia.

* cataract cataract, in medicine, opacity of the lens of the eye, which impairs vision. In the young, cataracts are generally congenital or hereditary; later they are usually the result of degenerative changes brought on by aging or systemic disease (diabetes). : a huge volume of water rushing down a very high, steep cliff.

* Before Reading

Ramses II Ramses II
 known as Ramses the Great

(flourished 13th century BC) King of ancient Egypt, 1279–13 BC. His family came to power some decades after the reign of Akhenaton.
 (RAM-seez) was one of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs. During his rule (c. 1279 B.C.-1213 B.C.), Egypt flourished. He ordered the construction of many great temples and statues that still stand today, including temples at Abu Simbel Abu Simbel

Site of two temples built by Ramses II in the 13th century BC. The area, at the southern frontier of pharaonic Egypt, lies near the present-day border between Egypt and The Sudan. The temples were unknown to the outside world until their rediscovery in 1813.
, Abydos, Karnak (Thebes), and Luxor.

Reading prompt: What work did slaves in ancient Egypt do?

* After Reading

* Geography: On the map (p. 21), find where Gemni lived before and during slavery. (before: Syria; after: Thebes)

* Noting details: How did one become a slave in ancient Egypt? (punishment for crime or debt; prisoner of war PRISONER OF WAR. One who has been captured while fighting under the banner of some state. He is a prisoner, although never confined in a prison.
     2. In modern times, prisoners are treated with more humanity than formerly; the individual captor has now no
; kidnapped Kidnapped

caught in the intrigues of Scottish factions, David Balfour and Alan Breck are shipwrecked, escape from the king’s soldiers, and undergo great dangers. [Br. Lit.: R. L. Stevenson Kidnapped]

See : Adventurousness
 by bandits; sold by own family)

* Keep It Going

Have students create a pyramid-shaped hierarchy chart of ancient Egyptian society. (six levels, from top: pharaoh; nobles and government officials; doctors, scribes Scribes is a text editor for GNOME that is simple, slim and sleek, and features no tabs, auto-completion and much more.

Scribes is Free Software licensed under the terms of the GNU GPL.
, and other educated people; craftsmen and merchants; poor farmers/ workers; slaves)

Picture a hot, dusty marketplace in ancient Egypt. A young girl goes barefoot bare·foot   also bare·foot·ed
adv. & adj.
With nothing on the feet: walking barefoot in the grass; a barefoot boy.
 and wears only a scratchy linen dress. She is frightened fright·en  
v. fright·ened, fright·en·ing, fright·ens
1. To fill with fear; alarm.

 and confused as she listens to the shouting all around her. Why has she been brought to this strange, unfamiliar place? The girl is about to be sold to a new owner. She is a slave.


A merchant in the city of Thebes wants to sell the girl to a powerful government official. Ancient Egyptians This is a list of ancient Egyptian people who have articles on Wikipedia. A
  • Ahhotep, queen (17th dynasty)
  • Ahmose, princess (17th dynasty)
  • Ahmose, queen (18th dynasty)
  • Ahmose, prince and high priest (18th dynasty)
 do not have coins or paper money. So the two sides agree to exchange the girl for such items as clay jars and cloth. All together, these goods equal the value of a pound of silver--an expensive purchase.

The girl's new owner gives her an Egyptian name: Gemni-her-imentet (Gemni for short). How will things turn out for Gemni? It's hard to say, exactly. Archaeologists found only her name and a few details about her on an ancient scroll of legal records. But such discoveries enable us to gain an understanding of daily life for slaves like Gemni. Their hard work and sweat helped build a civilization that lasted for 3,000 years.

"Property Of"

Gemni probably lived during the time of Pharaoh Ramses II, or Ramses the Great (1200s B.C.). Egyptians viewed Ramses II and other pharaohs as almost godlike god·like  
Resembling or of the nature of a god or God; divine.


But nobles and government officials actually ran the country. Lower down the social scale were educated people, including doctors and scribes. Below them were craftsmen and merchants. Most Egyptians were poor farmers or workers. Slaves were the lowest class of all.

In ancient Egypt, some people became slaves as punishment for a crime or for going into debt. But most slaves were captured as prisoners of war prisoners of war, in international law, persons captured by a belligerent while fighting in the military. International law includes rules on the treatment of prisoners of war but extends protection only to combatants. . As one pharaoh boasted, "I carried away those whom my sword spared, as numerous captives, [tied up] like birds before my horses, [with] their wives and their children by the ten-thousand."

Gemni was from Syria, in the Middle East, so she may have been one of those prisoners. But she may also have been kidnapped by bandits. Or, like Joseph in the Bible, she could have been sold into slavery by her own family.

Slave to the Wealthy

Thoughts of ancient Egypt usually bring to mind huge stone structures, especially the pyramids. But stone buildings were only for tombs or religious temples. Even the pharaohs lived in houses made of sun-dried mud bricks Noun 1. mud brick - a brick made from baked mud
brick - rectangular block of clay baked by the sun or in a kiln; used as a building or paving material
. A poor farmer probably had only a one- or two-room shack. The family that bought Gemni no doubt lived in a much grander house.

A powerful official's home, scholars believe, had many rooms. Each one would have several windows--the only kind of air-conditioning available in the hot climate.

The house would have been surrounded by gardens and shaded by date palms, sycamores, and fig trees. Dogs, cats, monkeys, or other pets probably ran around the yard.

A slave like Gemni would have helped the woman of the house with daily chores. These chores might have included taking care of children, grinding wheat to make bread, cooking, cleaning, and hauling water for food and washing. Gemni might also have helped her mistress get dressed Verb 1. get dressed - put on clothes; "we had to dress quickly"; "dress the patient"; "Can the child dress by herself?"

primp, preen, dress, plume - dress or groom with elaborate care; "She likes to dress when going to the opera"
 and apply makeup, which was worn by Egyptians of all classes and ages, male and female.


Escaping From Slavery

Slaves did many types of work in Egypt, including serving in the army and toiling on farms. The most feared work was mining gold in Nubia (an area today in southern Egypt and northern Sudan). People died quickly in the brutal desert heat. When swearing an oath, Egyptians often said, "If I lie, may my nose and ears be cut off and I be sent to [Nubia]."

Egyptians believed in life after death. A collection of sayings and spells called The Book of the Dead was their guide through the afterlife. One saying went, "I have not domineered over slaves. I have not vilified a slave to his master." Yet many slaves suffered beatings and other harsh treatment from cruel owners. A slave who ran away faced the death penalty.

However, there were ways to escape slavery. Free Egyptians often adopted young slaves like Gemni as their own children. Slaves could also marry into a free family or buy their own freedom. In the Bible, Joseph went on to become the pharaoh's chief adviser. There are no Egyptian records of any ex-slave actually rising so high, but many slaves did become scribes and engineers.


If Gemni had been able to rise out of slavery, she would have enjoyed many rights. In ancient Egypt, free women had many of the same rights as men. For instance, they could own property; have a trade, such as weaving; and keep whatever they earned.

Today, we look upon ancient Egypt as one of the world's most remarkable civilizations. Do you suppose Gemni and other slaves of the time saw it that way? Why or why not?

Words to Know

* c.: abbreviation abbreviation, in writing, arbitrary shortening of a word, usually by cutting off letters from the end, as in U.S. and Gen. (General). Contraction serves the same purpose but is understood strictly to be the shortening of a word by cutting out letters in the middle,  for circe, a Latin word meaning "around"; usually used with dates that are approximate.

* pharaoh: king.

* scribes: persons who earn a living with their reading and writing skills.

* vilify: accuse or speak ill of.

Ancient Egypt Chronology

c. 3100 B.C.

People in Lower Egypt Lower Egypt

The part of ancient Egypt comprising the Nile River delta. It was united with Upper Egypt c. 3100 b.c.

Noun 1.
 (the Nile Delta Coordinates:

The Nile Delta (Arabic:دلتا النيل) is the delta formed in Northern Egypt where the Nile River spreads
) and Upper Egypt (areas farther south) join under one government.


c. 3000 B.C.

Egyptians develop their system of hieroglyphics, a written language using symbols.


c. 2650 B.C.

The first pyramids are built as tombs for pharaohs.

c. 2600 B.C.

The mummification mummification /mum·mi·fi·ca·tion/ (mum?i-fi-ka´shun) the shriveling up of a tissue, as in dry gangrene, or of a dead, retained fetus.

 process is developed during a period called the Old Kingdom.


c. 1975 B.C.

Egypt conquers nearby regions, growing richer and stronger during a period called the Middle Kingdom.

c. 1630 B.C.

Foreign people conquer Egypt and rule for about 100 years.

c. 1539 B.C.

Egyptians regain control. This begins a 500-year era called the New Kingdom. Egypt is at its wealthiest and most powerful. Elaborate tombs and temples are built, including those for pharaohs Tutankhamen and Ramses II.


c. 1075 B.C.

Power struggles among Egyptian rulers cause a rapid decline. Egypt is ruled by foreigners Foreigners


the condition of being an alien.


Law. the seizure of foreign subjects to enforce a claim for justice or other right against their nation.

gypsyologist, gipsyologist

 for centuries, but much of its culture survives.


332 B.C.

Alexander the Great conquers Egypt. In 331 B.C., he founds the city of Alexandria, which becomes one of the greatest centers of learning in the ancient world.

Did Slaves Build the Pyramids?

Many people today believe that Egypt's pyramids were built by armies of slaves. In fact, free Egyptians did the work. The annual summer flooding of the Nile Flooding of the Nile was an important cycle in Ancient Egypt. It is celebrated by Egyptians today as an annual holiday for two weeks starting August 15, known as Wafaa El-Nil.  River kept most farmers idle. So pharaohs ordered them to build roads, canals, temples--and the pyramids.


People of that time probably viewed forced labor the way we view military service today. Workers were even organized into military-style units with gung-ho names like Vigorous Gang or Enduring Gang. The men were paid with extra bread and beer, the Egyptians' favorite drink.


Think About It

1. Describe life for a slave of Gemni's time.

2. Do you think that the institution or why not?



* Egyptomania. Cleveland Museum of Art's site for kids.

* Mysteries of the Nile. Includes 360[degrees] interactive images, /egypt/explore


* The Great Pyramid Great Pyramid,

the Cheops’ tomb, built 4,600 years ago, nearly 500 feet high, with bases 755 feet long. [Egypt. Arch.: Brewer Dictionary, 735]

See : Wonders, Architectural
 at Giza, Sarah Pitt Kaplan (Children's Press, 2005). Ancient Egyptians' beliefs about the afterlife. Grades 5-8.

* Mystery of the Egyptian Mummy, Joyce Filer (Oxford University Press, 2003). Egyptologists study a mummy. Grades 4-7.


* Egypt Beyond the Pyramids [DVD DVD: see digital versatile disc.
 in full digital video disc or digital versatile disc

Type of optical disc. The DVD represents the second generation of compact-disc (CD) technology.
]. Daily life, other topics (A&E Home Video, 2001).
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Title Annotation:World History
Author:Price, Sean
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Date:Sep 17, 2007
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