Slavery in ancient Egypt: what was life like for a young slave in this ancient civilization?
* Getting a sense of what daily life was like for slaves in ancient Egypt.
* 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: a huge volume of water rushing down a very high, steep cliff.
* Before Reading
Ramses II (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, 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; kidnapped 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, and other educated people; craftsmen and merchants; poor farmers/ workers; slaves)
Picture a hot, dusty marketplace in ancient Egypt. A young girl goes barefoot and wears only a scratchy linen dress. She is frightened 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 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.
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 figures.
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. 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. 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 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 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 (the Nile Delta) 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 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 for centuries, but much of its culture survives.
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 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. clevelandart.org/kids/egypt
* Mysteries of the Nile. Includes 360[degrees] interactive images, pbs.org/wgbh/nova /egypt/explore
* The Great Pyramid 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]. Daily life, other topics (A&E Home Video, 2001).
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|Title Annotation:||World History|
|Date:||Sep 17, 2007|
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