ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian Cities and Citizens: The cities and their gods - National and regional centres - The citizens - Citizens of the army
Main menu Main Index and Search Page History List of Dynasties Cultural chronology Mythology Aspects of Life in Ancient Egypt Glossary of ancient Egyptian terms Herodotus on the pharaohs Ancient Egyptian texts Apologia and Bibliography

  For best results save the whole webpage (pictures included) onto your hard disk, open the page with Word 97 or higher, edit if necessary and print.
  Printing using the browser's print function is not recommended.

Cities and Citizens

    The ancient Egyptians were mostly a people of country dwellers, possibly 90% of them living on the land [8], farming. Theirs was a world far less violent and dangerous than that of the Mesopotamians, for instance, where even the farming population often sheltered behind the walls of strong cities. They could therefore afford to live in small rural communities close to their fields.
    During the Old Kingdom the Egyptian language did not differentiate between villages and towns, though there were special words for fortified settlements [6]. There had existed centres of economic, religious, social and administrative activities for centuries which had vied for predominance; and after the unification of Egypt they generally retained their regional importance, giving occasionally birth to a new dynasty to rule the whole country.

The cities and their gods

Memphis, drawn by Petrie     One of the centres of the city was its temple where the god himself and not just a representation was to be found. This god protected the inhabitants of his city from the ever-threatening chaos and was in his turn served by them. Only a small number of the active priests serving their god were professionals, most of the temple chores were accomplished by the townspeople, who served the god according to rosters. These lay priests lived ordinary lives most of the time, followed a trade and had families.
    While the citizens fulfilled the daily needs of the god, their leaders, the mayors and nomarchs like Kheti I, served the gods by upholding Maat
    Thy city-god loves thee, Tefibi's son, Kheti. He hath [presented] thee, that he might look to the future in order to restore his temple, in order to raise the ancient walls, the original places of offering ....
    How beautiful is that which happens in thy time, the city is satisfied with thee. That which was concealed from the people, thou hast done it [openly], in order to make gifts to Siut, ... by thy plan alone. Every [official] was at his post, there was no one fighting, nor any shooting of an arrow. The child was not smitten beside his mother, (nor) the citizen beside his wife. There was no evil-doer in [...] nor any one doing violence against his house [...]. Thy city-god, thy father who loveth thee, [leadeth] thee.
Inscriptions of Kheti I, Siut, 9th/10th dynasty [12]
    The influence of the local gods was immense: their temples possessed a large proportion of the land surrounding their cities and the administration of these properties occupied a great many scribes; the maintenance and expansion of the sacral buildings furnished work for large crews of builders and artisans; and with the passage of time many more priests joined the professional priesthood.
    According to Jan Assmann, the identification of belonging to a city with the following of its god became ever stronger throughout the dynastic period
Today I have come from the city of my god: Memphis
It is the true one of all the beautiful nomes in this country.
                                                                                                Book of the Dead, New Kingdom [13]
So closely were the god and his city tied together that local patriotism found its expression in paeans to the city god:
I sustained no town except your town,
I failed not to place its fame before all;
My heart sought justice in your temple night and day,
You rewarded me for it a million times.
                                                                                               Stela of Somtutefnakht, Late Period [14]
    The economic and spiritual importance of the temple was evident to the immigrant Greeks who often named the cities after their city-god: Heliopolis, the Egyptian Iunu, was dedicated to Re, Helios to the Greeks, Hermopolis was their name for the cult centre of Thoth, i.e. Hermes, and Zawti, home of the wolf-like canine Wepwawet, became Lykopolis [1].
    Some of the local gods came to assume national importance, often amalgamised with a local deity or given a specific local guise. Being the city-god of the capital helped to spread his worship, in the case of the Theban Amen as far as Upper Nubia.
    Among all the Egyptian cities, Akhetaten was extraordinary in a number of ways: built especially as the city of the sun god, far from the population centres of the north and the south in splendid isolation, it endured for just a few years. Its raison d'être was being the realm where Maat ruled through the teachings of the king and from where truth and justice would spread throughout the world, yet it was abandoned soon after its founder had died. But, like other cities, Akhetaten was loved by its inhabitants. The tomb of May contains the following lines:
For you he has created Akhetaten
Great and rich of love, possessor of favour,
Plentiful of wealth, for the bounty of the sun is within her.
Because of the seeing of her beauty men rejoice,
For she is lovely and she is beautiful.
Only as one looks toward heaven can she be perceived.
One cannot reach her boundaries,
For the Aten dawns in her,
Filling her with his rays.
                                                                                                Tomb of May, New Kingdom [15]

National and regional centres

Captal cities     Most ancient Egyptian towns were not very big, a few thousand to a few tens of thousand inhabitants [9]. The main historic capitals, Thebes, Memphis and Alexandria were exceptional in this respect [3]

Capital cities [4]

    According to Herodotus there were 20,000 towns [7] in the times of Ahmose II; he probably referred to any kind of settlement more substantial than a few lost huts huddled together amid the reeds of the Delta marshes as town. The bigger ones among them served the surrounding countryside as religious and economic hubs, a few were regional administrative centres and enjoyed at times a measure of political autonomy. During times of insecurity they were often surrounded by walls, in the words of Meryibre Kheti: a well-founded city cannot be harmed.
    They were generally ruled by a mayor, or, if they were capitals of a nome, by a nomarch who, while inheriting his position, needed the confirmation of the pharaoh. The instructions of Merikare suggest a town council during the First Intermediate Period
... every great city [is restored]. The governance of (each) one is in the hands of ten men, a magistrate is appointed who will levy [...] the amount of all taxes.
M. Lichtheim translates this passage thus:
All kinds of large towns [are in it]; What was ruled by one is in the hands of ten, Officials are appointed, tax-[lists drawn up].

    Cities have always attracted people: migrants, pilgrims, merchants, petitioners, administrators. Most returned to their homes after concluding their business, but many stayed, encouraged by the authorities
Raise up your young troops, that the Residence may love you. Multiply your partisans as neighbours; see, your towns are full of newly settled folk.
even though not every city was, as Panbesa wrote in glowing words of Pi-Ramesse, for all its inhabitants an
abode of felicity. Its meadows are filled with all good things, it is well provisioned daily. Its pools (are filled) with fish, its ponds with fowl; its fields are verdant with grass, the ates-flower is in its ////////; the tenraka-plant whose taste is like honey is in the fields of the tubs.
    Of the Ramesside residence it was said that
Every one has left his own city,
And has settled in its neighbourhood.
Its western part is made up of the House of Amen,
Its southern quarter of the House of Seth.
Astarte is in its east
And Uto in its northern quarter.
The palace at its centre is like the heaven's Land of Light.
                                                                                                pAnastasi II, New Kingdom [16]
    Wherever they lived, Egyptians were rarely far from the river. But while the peasant villages, in which the majority of the population lived, were situated close to Riverboats, from the tomb of Irukaptah; Source: Jon Bodsworth, Extract the fields which had to be looked after, and therefore sometimes at quite a distance from flowing water, the cities were generally built adjacent to major waterways.

Nile ships
Scene from the tomb of Irukaptah
5th dynasty
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    They had harbours and landing sites crucial to the provisioning of large numbers of inhabitants. Over the millennia, as the riverbed moved slowly towards the eastern side of the Nile valley, the cities followed this movement: New houses were built along the shifting waterfront, while those farthest from the river decayed and were abandoned.
    Market places were generally close by the river, where peasants and merchants could easily unload their wares without having to transport them far overland. Even foreign seagoing ships would occasionally sail up the river and land in the ports of the main cities. Foreign traders attracted the locals with their exotic wares and exchanged them for Egyptian agricultural produce and manufactured goods.

The citizens

    There are a number of Egyptian expressions which are often translated as citizen: Shawa (SwA), ankh (anx), ankh-en-nut (anx-n-nw.t) [10], nedjes (nDs), generally having the connotation of poor, humble and mean. Yet these people served as lay-priests in the temples, sat on kenbets judging their peers, had property and paid taxes on their houses and wells, and owned land.
Now as for these officials of the [herds] who go about [... ...] in the southern region or the northern region collecting grain from the [citizens] of the city .............. going about ............. in the southern region or the northern region collecting .... from the poor ........
Reign of Horemheb
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Three, § 61
On this day were confirmed the 35 stat of citizen-lands, to the singer of the temple of Amon, the king's-daughter, Kerome
Reign of Takelot II
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 755
Behold, a [flowing] spring, lying here toward the east [named]: 'Rising-of-Re,' which this [cistern] of Re sees, before which thou art; it is a citizen's-cistern belonging to Tewhenut, whose mother is Henutenter, my mother.
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 726
Statues of Irukaptahs family; Source: Jon Bodsworth     In keeping with the apparent legal equality of the genders, women as well as men were referred to as citizens in official documents.

Statues of members of the family of Irukaptah, Master Butcher of the Great House, King's wab-priest,
5th dynasty
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    The line of distinction between ordinary citizens and scribal administrators was apparently not well defined. Many scribes seem to have thought of themselves as belonging to the citizenry rather than to a kind of noblesse de robe.
My lord ... my necessities, causing me to receive bread [after] the feasts. Men said to me: "[...] it hath come to thee through the Lord of the Two Lands. There is no citizen (SwA) to whom the like has been done."
Inscriptions of Amenhotep, 18th dynasty
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 920
    By contrast, somewhat of a social gulf seems to have separated them from the peasant-serf, the jaHtj, the man belonging to the field, who got passed on with the land he worked. These peasants lived in villages and hamlets, in contrast, cities were in all probability inhabited by people who worked the soil themselves only to a minor extent.[11]
You were born in the city of Thebes
As one who belongs to the followers of Osiris.
Its houses took care of you as a child
Its walls have received your old age.
Inscription of Harsiese
22nd dynasty
After Jan Assmann Ägypten - Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur, p.29
    In times when people only rarely travelled far, when they generally grew up and died in the place of their birth, the bond between the citizen and his community was strong.[5] One of the harsher punishments some criminals were condemned to was exile to a distant place, one of the oases of the western desert or the city of Tharu on the eastern border of the country, the Rhinocolura of the Greeks, so called because the exiles were often disfigured as part of their punishment [2].
    During times of oppression or unrest some citizens could not find protection in their own town. In a paean to Ramses IV in honour of his accession to the throne, by which all wrongs were supposed to be righted, these refugees could return to their homes
O beautiful day! Heaven and earth rejoice,
Thou art the good lord of Egypt!
Those who fled have returned to their cities,
Those who hid, have come forth....
After Jan Assmann, Ägypten, Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur, p.171

Citizens of the army

    The walls surrounding some cities had to be maintained and manned during war. There were periods when Egypt had standing armies, but they were mostly small and often used for policing desert areas or even just quarrying stone.
    Most of the time, when there was a military emergency, the political leaders relied on their citizenry to defend their own cities at least.
He says: "O ye mayors, scribes, ritual priests, attendants, citizens (anH.w) of the army, as your city-gods favor you, and love you, as ye would bequeath your office(s) to your children after old age..."
Stela of Keres, 11th dynasty
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two , § 53
    The armies sent to conquer Nubia and the Levant during the Old and Middle Kingdoms consisted almost exclusively of Egyptian citizen militias officered by noblemen and scribes.
Then the citizens (anH.w) of the army mixed in, to fight with the Asiatics. Then I captured an Asiatic, and had his weapons seized by two citizens of the army....
Stela of Khusobek, reign of Senusret III
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 681
His majesty appeared upon a horse, his whole army being behind him. The commander and the citizens of the army in its entirety and the children wit[h them were commanded] to keep watch over the wild cattle.
Reign of Amenhotep III
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 864
    The ability of Egypt to defend itself relying on native citizens only decreased during the late second millennium. The citizens of the new Ionian cities in Lower Egypt and foreign mercenaries replaced to a large extent the native Egyptian citizenry serving in the army.
Then he sent forth his fleet and his army to assault the harbor of Memphis; they brought to him every ferry-boat, every [cargo]-boat, every [transport], and the ships, as many as there were, which had moored in the harbor of Memphis, with the bow-rope fastened among its houses. [There was not] a citizen (nDs) who wept, among all the soldiers of his majesty.
Piankhi Stela
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 863
Picture sources:
[  ] Map of Memphis: Flinders Petrie Memphis
[  ] Boat scene from the tomb of Irukaptah: Jon Bodsworth, extract
[  ] Statues from the tomb of Irukaptah: Jon Bodsworth, extract
[3] In Kent Weeks' Valley of the Kings, (p.22) the New Kingdom population of Thebes is estimated to have been approximately 50,000. After Alexandria had become the country's capital, both Memphis and Thebes lost most of their inhabitants and the royal palaces decayed. The importance and size of Alexandria increased steadily, and by Roman times it had an estimated population of about half a million inhabitants.
[4] During the two and a half millennia long history of Egypt a number of cities enjoyed the status of capital, i.e. the main royal residence and seat of the administration:

The importance of Thebes was greater than the graph above indicates: It was the centre of the Amen worship whose temples controlled a large slice of the Egyptian economic life and whose rituals were often performed by the king himself, and the administration of Upper Egypt was located there during most of its history. It was often referred to as City of the South, in contrast to Memphis, the City of the North. Thebes' irreversible decline set in after its destruction by the Assyrians.
[5] The emotional bond of a person with his town and his dependence on the good-will of his neighbours is expressed in one of the maxims from Ankhsheshonq's Instruction
A man who reviles the people of his town is wretched forever
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.180
[7] The number of what we would call towns was much smaller of course (though American usage of the term "town" is quite close to that of Herodotus.) Michael Brass [6] calls Butzer's list of 217 cities, towns and fortresses comprehensive.
Diodorus Siculus (c. 80 to 20 BCE) writes in his Historical Library:
In olden times there were more than 18,000 towns and large villages which one can find recorded by name in the sacred lists; under Ptolemy, son of Lagus, more than 3,000 towns were counted, and as many there still are in our times. The total population is said to have amounted to 7 million, and even now it is said to be not less than 3 millions.
Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, 1.31
[8] By Roman times Egypt had become one of the most highly urbanized ancient societies, with about one third of the population living in towns (Bagnall and Frier's estimate: 37% were city dwellers); Scheidel, Death on the Nile: disease and the demography of Roman Egypt, 2001, considers 20% to be more reasonable.
[9] In the third century CE 4,200 houses were counted in two quarters of Hermopolis. Bagnall and Frier basing their estimate on 5.3 persons per household, calculate that the city had about 37,000 inhabitants, covered an area of 120 ha, and had a population density of about 300 per ha. Most provincial centres were smaller than Hermopolis; but Arsinoe, Athribis, Herakleopolis, Tanis, and possibly Memphis still, were larger.
[10] ankh-en-niut was until the New Kingdom a regular military title. It was used to designate a member of the territorial forces which fulfilled also civilian duties and belonged to the lower social classes. From the New Kingdom onwards it was an exclusively female title. (Helmut Satzinger & Danijela Stefanovic, "The Stela of Horemhat at Turin." Chronique d'Égypte 2007, accessed 22nd May 2009)
[11] Andrés Diego Espinel, Ciudades y urbanismo en el Egipto antiguo in Studia historica, Historia antigua 20, 2002, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, p.32
[12] James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906, Part One, § 403f
[13] After Jan Assmann Ägypten - Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur, p.28
[14] M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.42
[15] Roland G. Bonnel, "The Ethics of el-Amarna" from Sarah Israelit-Groll Studies in Egyptology, Vol.1, p.85
[16] After Jan Assmann Ägypten - Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur, p.31

- -Index of topics
-Main index and search page
-[1] Nomes, cities and sites
-[2] Law and order
-Town planning
-Walls and ramparts
Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
-[6] The nature of urbanism in Ancient Egypt by Michael Brass
-A model of peaceful unification
-Burgen und Kultstätten als Kernzonen für Stadtgründungen (in German)
-Two early temples and their relations to the development of Egyptian towns, summary
-Theben und Memphis - Metropolen im Alten Ägypten


Feedback: please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me. thanks.


© June 2003
May 2009
July 2006
January 2005
November 2004
August 2003