Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
The people of ancient Egypt: the population, numbers and composition, the language
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Egyptian faces

The people of ancient Egypt

The population

    In the eyes of Herodotus, more a tourist than a historian or a sociologist, the Egyptians were exceedingly strange and in his zeal to point out their peculiarities he quite often exaggerated or worse, strayed from the truth.
The Egyptians in agreement with their climate, which is unlike any other, and with the river, which shows a nature different from all other rivers, established for themselves manners and customs in a way opposite to other men in almost all matters:
for among them the women frequent the market and carry on trade, while the men remain at home and weave; and whereas others weave pushing the woof upwards, the Egyptians push it downwards: the men carry their burdens upon their heads and the women upon their shoulders:
the women make water standing up and the men crouching down: they ease themselves in their houses and they eat without in the streets, alleging as reason for this that it is right to do secretly the things that are unseemly though necessary, but those which are not unseemly, in public:
no woman is a minister either of male or female divinity, but men of all, both male and female:
to support their parents the sons are in no way compelled, if they do not desire to do so, but the daughters are forced to do so, be they never so unwilling.
The priests of the gods in other lands wear long hair, but in Egypt they shave their heads:
among other men the custom is that in mourning those whom the matter concerns most nearly have their hair cut short, but the Egyptians, when deaths occur, let their hair grow long, both that on the head and that on the chin, having before been close shaven:
other men have their daily living separated from beasts, but the Egyptians have theirs together with beasts:
other men live on wheat and on barley, but to any one of the Egyptians who makes his living on these it is a great reproach; they make their bread of corn,[16] which some call spelt: they knead dough with their feet and clay with their hands, with which also they gather up dung:
and whereas other men, except such as have learnt otherwise from the Egyptians, have their members as nature made them, the Egyptians practice circumcision:
as to garments, the men wear two each and the women but one:
and whereas others make fast the rings and ropes of the sails outside the ship, the Egyptians do this inside:
finally in the writing of characters and reckoning with pebbles, while the Hellenes carry the hand from the left to the right, the Egyptians do this from the right to the left; and doing so they say that they do it themselves rightwise and the Hellenes leftwise: and they use two kinds of characters for writing, of which the one kind is called sacred and the other common.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
Age pyramid     A modern visitor to ancient Egypt would be struck by the youthfulness of the people. Ancient Egyptians, like all mankind until the advent of modern medicine and public hygiene, died young [10]. The age people hoped to reach was 110, described as the ideal lifespan in literature [12], but reality was different. Life expectancy for one year old children was less than forty years. Water-borne diseases, tuberculosis and other infectious illnesses against which the best physicians of antiquity were mostly powerless, were endemic [1]. Periodically various kinds of plague broke out, often in the wake of wars. The sick, the very young and the elderly were especially prone to succumb.
(For comparison mouse-over the the graph on the right to see a schematic age pyramid of a modern industrialized western country. Those without mouse-over enabled browsers click here)

    Much of the time, malnutrition rather than hunger was the lot of many Egyptians, even of the wealthier ones, and caused scurvy, anaemia and other diseases. Famines, which were mostly local when there was a functioning central government but could become countrywide when there was none, occurred every few years despite the attempts of the authorities to keep stores which could be distributed in times of need [6].
    There were snakes, crocodiles and hippos killing the unwary. Accidents, physical violence and a lifetime of hard work from a young age also took their toll. The death rate of newborns alone was about a third, half the children did not survive their fifth year, and women died frequently giving birth or from childbed fever. Funerals were thus terrifyingly frequent occurrences.
    Still, Herodotus thought that
the Egyptians are from other causes also the most healthy of all men next after the Libyans
which gives us an idea of what the health of the other peoples of antiquity must have been like. But despite the terrible death toll, in normal times most ancient societies would have experienced a population growth their means of food production would not have been equal to, unless people had taken steps to limit fertility. Infanticide and exposure which also led to the death of the infant in many cases, were unknown in pre-hellenistic Egypt, if Strabo is to be believed. The Egyptian women created a stable society with a barely changing population size mainly through prolonging breast feeding and by not remarrying after losing or divorcing a husband.
    Another thing we would notice more than Herodotus did, would be the unequal distribution of wealth. The vast majority of Egyptians worked the land, whether as hired labourers or as peasants, not an occupation to make a person rich. Quite a few households had servants or slaves, and while a few of these accumulated possessions or attained positions of influence and power, most had to make do with the little they were given.

Numbers and composition

    The population count of Egypt under the first dynasties was possibly between 1 and 2 million inhabitants [2], rising slowly until the end of the Old Kingdom when a century of low Nile floods and the decay of the central power with its role of hoarding and redistributing grain surpluses caused famines which killed many of the very young and the old [13]. There are no records of similarly long periods of what looks like population decline after the restoration of order which marked the beginning of the Middle Kingdom.
Invaders and migrants     Over the centuries there was a steady influx of foreigners, often driven by drought or overpopulation in their homelands:
  • Nubians entered Egypt during the the First Intermediate Period.
  • Canaanites, and among them probably Israelites, sojourned by the Nile many times during the second millennium BCE. They were referred to as Asiatics by the Egyptians.
  • Enslaved people were displaced during the expansionary phase of the empire in Asia and Africa (Middle and New Kingdom)
  • The Hyksos, a Middle Eastern people, conquered Lower Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period.
  • The Sea Peoples tried to do so in the 12th century.
  • Libyans settled in the eastern Delta.
  • Jews, led by Jeremiah, found a safe haven in Egypt after the Assyrian conquest of Judah.
   They can have added but relatively little to the population size: the Hyksos were mostly expelled at the end of the Second Intermediate Period and the Sea Peoples, apart from those who were enslaved or became mercenaries, were repulsed [7].
    More peaceful was the presence of Phoenician traders in Lower Egypt probably since earliest times. Before the advent of the Greeks in Egypt, Phoenician ships carried much of Egyptian overseas trade and were never completely replaced by their European rivals.
    The Late Dynastic Period saw Libyans and Kushites conquer and settle and Ionians and Carians found colonies. Assyrians and Persians were mostly content with controlling Egypt from afar, Macedonians and Greeks on the other hand founded new settlements, but did not merge with the indigenous population in the beginning. Later on ethnic barriers became less impermeable [15].
    The numbers of these migrants and conquerors were not very large compared to the indigenous Egyptian population, and they were mostly absorbed over the centuries after having had separate identities for a few generations. Herodotus speaks of the Hermotybians having reached, at their peak, the number of 16 myriads (160,000) and the Calasirians 25 myriads.
    For individual foreigners integration into Egyptian society seems to have been swift and relatively unproblematical, be it as merchants, soldiers, artisans or servants of the crown [14]. More than 400 officials employed in the royal bureaucracy during the second millennium BCE, have been identified as Asiatics. There is little evidence that they were discriminated against, even if they retained some of their native culture such as foreign names.

    The majority of the population lived in villages, near the land they worked and the animals they tended. Close proximity to ones property was necessary to protect it from being stolen. Towns served as regional economic, religious and administrative centres, and their inhabitants began to accumulate wealth [8].

In the reign of Amasis it is said that Egypt became more prosperous than at any other time before, both in regard to that which comes to the land from the river and in regard to that which comes from the land to its inhabitants, and that at this time the inhabited towns in it numbered in all twenty thousand.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
    Some of the cities became very sizeable. Diodorus Siculus (first half of the 1st century BCE) speaks of Alexandria:
At the time when we were in Egypt, those who kept the census returns of the population said that its free residents were more than three hundred thousand, and that the king received from the revenues of the country more than six thousand talents
Diodorus Siculus, Library 17.52
Perseus Project

Population growth

graph population growth OK: Old Kingdom
MK: Middle Kingdom
NK: New Kingdom
LP: Late Period
It has been estimated that at the beginning of the pharaonic period the population count was about one million, and that at time of the Roman conquest about 5 million people lived in Egypt, give or take a million or so [2].
The sizes of the dips during the Intermediate Periods are arbitrary.

Mortality, life expectancy, literacy

      Ancient Egypt         Egypt, (1)         Uganda (2), 1995    
Infant mortality (1st yr of life) 30% 4.0% 11.1%
Child mortality (from 1st to 5th birthday) 20% 5.1% 18.5%
Life expectancy at birth (years) 20-30 (3) 65 44
Average age of grown-ups at death     30-40 (4)       60 (5)
Annual population growth less than 0.1% (6) 2.2% 3%
Illiteracy rate >90% (7) 49% 38%
(1) The 1998 Data were taken from Der Fischer Weltalmanach 98, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag
(2) Pre-industrial societies with stable population numbers do not exist anymore. In 1995 Uganda was one of the poorest countries with a very low life expectancy, but even it compared favourably in most respects with ancient Egypt.
(3) Probably closer to 20 than to 30. Life expectancy at birth in the Roman Empire has been estimated to have been between 22 and 25 years. Censuses held in Egypt during the same period give similar results: 22 for women and 25 for men. In comparison: at the turn of the last century (i.e.circa 1900) it was less than 30 years in India.
(4) Upper class Egyptians had a life expectancy which exceeded the average by possibly up to a decade - Nerlich does not think there was much of a difference between the pharaohs and their peasants [5]. Women lived about five years less than men because of childbed fever and other complications at birth.
(5) The average age at death of grown-up Ugandans was reached by extrapolation.
(6) The population growth rate in ancient Egypt fluctuated widely. Periods of relative health and abundance alternated with years of famine and plagues. The average growth rate was very low, the population number doubled in 30 to 60 generations [3] as opposed to today when it takes just about one.
(7) Some estimate the literacy rate to have been less than 1% even during the New Kingdom.

Population density

Population distribution

    There were three main population centres: the Nile valley between Thebes and the first cataract, the Faiyum, and the Delta.
    To make all the lower lying land along the upper reaches of the Nile fit for cultivation the earth banks of the river had to be cut, in order for the annual flood waters to fill the large scale irrigation basins which had come into being through the building of dams. These earthworks often required cooperation on a scale beyond the capabilities of single villages and was contributory to the formation of regional power centres.
    The Faiyum, a natural oasis irrigated by the Bahr Yussuf was developed during the Middle Kingdom, when large tracts of land were reclaimed from the Lake and put under cultivation. Under the Ptolemies it was preferred to other regions by the Greeks who settled there in large numbers.
    The Delta posed problems of drainage and was difficult to settle as few regions were permanently above the level of the high Nile. The marshes along the northern coastline were much of the time water-logged. These problems were overcome to some extent by building dams and drainage canals. In the end the majority of the Egyptian population lived in Lower Egypt.

Their language

    The Afro-Asiatic Egyptian language is related to the Asiatic Semitic, the North African Berber, the Ethiopian Kushitic and some languages spoken in Chad and the Sudan. (A few people, Cheikh Anta Diop et al., generally with an ethnocentrist agenda, consider Egyptian to be part of a single black African language family [4] which is very unlikely [11].)
    Egyptian changed in the course of the millennia and five linguistic periods are generally defined in accordance with the political-cultural developments:
  • Old Egyptian during the Predynastic Period and the Old Kingdom
  • Middle Egyptian, the "classic Egyptian" of later generations, during the Middle Kingdom
  • Late Egyptian in the New Kingdom and part of the Late Dynastic Period
  • Demotic until the beginning of the European Middle Ages
  • Coptic Egyptian which disappeared as a popularly spoken language by the 17th century and was replaced by Arabic
    Few Egyptians could read and write. During the Old Kingdom it was perhaps just one percent. Later, as the state administration grew, more scribes were needed, and even quite a few non-scholars had at least a working knowledge of written Egyptian. In some exceptional places, such as the workers village at Deir el Medine with its scribes and sculptors about every third person knew how to read.
    During the Ptolemaic Period Greek became ever more popular. While it was the language of the ruling class and a growing number of Hellenists it was not imposed on the population at large who continued to be governed in their own language and according to their own customs.
[1] According to Andreas G. Nerlich of Munich who investigated New Kingdom and Late Period tombs at Thebes the main age of death was between 20 and 40 years, peaking between 20 and 30. Infants and children constituted about a quarter of the buried [5].
[2] Egyptologists tend to dodge the issue of population numbers, as there are no statistics available and all such numbers are based on more or less educated guesswork:
Edward S. Ellis put the New Kingdom population at 5 millions.
The author of the Royal Ontario Museum website gives an estimate of between 1.5 and 5 million Egyptians during the Pyramid Age, a rather non-committing number for a nicely vague and long time period.
Dominic Rathbone estimates that Roman Egypt had a population of 3 to 5 millions, and Bagnall and Frier concur.
According to the Harris papyrus somewhat in excess of 100,000 people belonged to the temple estates during the reign of Ramses III. James Henry Breasted thought that they had been less than 2% of the population, which would give an upper limit of 5,000,000 towards the end of the New Kingdom.
In 1880 CE the total land under cultivation was estimated to amount to 25,000 square kilometres, and one may suppose that the cultivated area in antiquity did not exceed this amount. If a person needed half a hectare of irrigated land for survival the maximum number of inhabitants would have been five million. Based on Achaemenid tributes levied on Egypt (650 talents) and Mesopotamia (1,150 talents), the supposition that the per capita tribute was equal, and the fact that according to archaeological surveys the Mesopotamian population counted four to five million, the Late Period Egyptian population was significantly smaller than the seven million suggested by some ancient authors. Aperghis gives the number of three and a half million. (G. G. Aperghis, The Seleukid Royal Economy: The Finances and Financial Administration , Cambridge University Press 2004, ISBN 0521837073, pp.56f.)
Ancient historical sources are not very reliable and open to interpretations:
For what it's worth: a seventh century bishop, John of Nikiu, wrote in his world history about Snefru:
And there was great prosperity in his days and the Egyptians increased very much, and their cattle increased also. And he reigned over them forty and eight years in happiness and peace because of the return of the Egyptians from captivity. And he went to rest full of honour. But before he died he numbered the Egyptians, and their number was 500,000 men.
R.H.Charles, The Chronicle of John (c. 690 A.D.) Coptic Bishop of Nikiu, London 1916
Josephus Flavius gives a count of 7½ millions, without Alexandria.
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
Diodorus spoke of a population of three (others read this as seven) millions at the beginning of the Roman period.
[3] The dtv-Lexikon (Munich, 1970) gives estimates that the world population doubled between 2500 BCE (Old Kingdom) and 1000 BCE (3rd Intermediate Period), and again between 1000 BCE and 1 CE.
[6] The state organized storage of corn was expanded in the Middle Kingdom, apparently in response to the hardships ordinary Egyptians endured during the First Intermediate Period.
[7] Believers in the Bible might want to add to this list the Israelites (unless of course they believe that the Hyksos were the Israelites of the Exodus), who, according to Exodus 13, 40 had dwelt in Egypt four hundred and thirty years and had multiplied and waxed exceedingly mighty
37 And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children
Exodus 12
If this account were true the Israelites would have made up a quarter to half of Egypt's population. But as long as there is no archaeological or other evidence to support this tale we should discount it.
[8] The difference in wealth between the countryside and the more affluent towns does not seem to have had beneficial effects on the average city dweller's chances for survival. According to census data recorded in Roman Egypt 
[9] 33% of rural and only 19% of urban males survived beyond the age of 40. (After R.S. Bagnall, B.W. Frier; 1994, The Demography of Roman Egypt. Cambridge: 75, 91)
As the total numbers of men counted are small (169 villagers and 181 citizens) the percentages mentioned are statistically somewhat less significant than they would appear at first glance.
[10] We have records of some people reaching a ripe old age: kings like Pepi II who was said to have ruled for 94 years (some read this as 64 years, quite a long time in either case), or commoners like a Late Period priest, Besmut, whose inscription speaks of 99 years, but such longevity was the exception. Social class or ethnic affiliation do not seem to have greatly influenced life expectancy.
One should be wary of the data in the tables below, which are shown here by way of illustration only: these are not population statistics but finds in cemeteries. A number of factors may render these results statistically invalid, such as the small number of burials or the custom of burying babies at home rather than in a graveyard etc.
Counting the people buried in the Naqada period cemetery at Naga ed Dir yielded the following results:
Table 1
Age MaleFemaleSex unknownTotal%
0-5 02757729
5-10 10303112
25-30 380114
>60 01010
P. V. Podzorski: Their Bones Shall not Perish, New Malden, 1990

An analysis of the bodies found in the Graeco-Roman cemetery at Teucheira showed that there were no great differences between Jews and Gentiles as far as death rate, family size, infant mortality (deaths at birth or shortly afterwards are not reflected in the following table) etc are concerned. Slightly more than half of those who survived the first critical months after birth did not live beyond twenty.
Table 2
MalesFemalesMales and Females
Age at deathJewsGentilesTotalJewsGentilesTotalTotal%
Over 20282452189277951
Total recorded5152103301949152100
Seven families have two children; four have three; one has four. These results, such as they are, are substantially in accord with Professor Tcherikover's statement concerning the Jewish population of Edfu in Roman times: "There is no trace of families burdened by numerous children, and insofar as the matter can be examined, there is no family the number of whose children exceeds three".
S.Appelbaum The Jewish Community of Teucheira, in Studies in History Vol VII, 1961
[12] Ptah-hotep saw the cause for longevity in the service of pharaoh as upholder of Maat, the correct way of living.
So I shall bring it about that your body shall be healthful, that the Pharaoh shall be satisfied with you in all circumstances and that you shall obtain years of life without default. It has caused me on earth to obtain one hundred and ten years of life, along with the gift of the favor of the Pharaoh among the first of those whom their works have ennobled, satisfying the Pharaoh in a place of dignity.
Old age was associated with wisdom and knowledge. In a tale the magician Djedi was said to be able to restore a beheaded person to life and to be, generally speaking, an extraordinary human being.
King Khufu said: "And who is he, my son?"
"His name is Dedi," answered Prince Hordadef. "He is a very old man, for his years are a hundred and ten. Each day he eats a joint of beef and five hundred loaves of bread, and drinks a hundred jugs of beer. He can smite off the head of a living creature and restore it again; he can make a lion follow him; and he knows the secrets of the habitation of the god Thoth, which Your Majesty has desired to know so that you may design the chambers of your pyramid."
King Khufu said: "Go now and find this man for me, Hordadef."
[13] Some nomarchs of the 1st Intermediary Period claim to have done rather well by their subjects, cf. the biography of Ankhtifi.
[14] In most ancient societies foreigners, apart from a few exceptions, were not really welcome. The Mesopotamians had a saying: A resident alien in another city is a slave (W.G.Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, p.259).
[16] corn: in Egypt generally wheat

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Links(Opening a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.
-[4] The Horizon of The Kiswahili-Bantu Research Unit for the Advancement of the Ancient Egyptian Language
-[5] Leben und Krankheit im alten Ägypten, Dr Andreas Nerlich, Dr Albert Zink
-[9] Age at Death - statistics (University College London)
-[11] The Use and Misuse of Language in the Study of African History by Russell Schuh
-[15] Ethnic Identity in Graeco-Roman Egypt by Elisabeth O'Connell
-The Pronunciation of Ancient Egyptian
-The Ancient Egyptian Language List
-Egyptian loanwords in English
-According to classical Graeco-Roman authors, ancient Egyptian contemporaries had a "medium tone" and looked like northern Indians

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