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Ancient Egyptian accommodation: House and garden
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House and Garden

The houses

    According to Diodorus Siculus' somewhat speculative report the first Egyptian dwellings were constructed of reeds, a building technique not completely abandoned by the first century BCE:
Traces thereof remain among the herdsmen of Egypt who, to these days, do not have habitations but they are made of reeds, which they consider to be sufficient.
Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library
After a German translation by Julius Friedrich Wurm, Chapter 46
    He explained the fact that Egyptian housing was made of perishable materials in his Historical Library as follows:
The inhabitants think little of life on earth; while they put greatest value on the continued existence in glorious memory after death. They call the dwellings of the living 'hostels' given that we dwell in them for a short time only. The tombs of the dead they call 'eternal homes' as they assume their eternal continuation in the underworld. This is the reason they invest little effort in the building of houses; but are eager to furnish their tombs with unsurpassable equipment.
Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library
After a German translation by Julius Friedrich Wurm, Chapter 51

Brickmaking. Linedrawing after a wall painting in the tomb of Rekhmire. Source:'Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad', rororo sachbuch, Rowohlt Verlag     Since 3800 BCE rectangular houses of about 100 to 125 m² have been built with sun dried bricks. Mud, dredged from the bottom of the Nile and chaff were well mixed, shaped with wooden forms and the soft bricks were dried in the sun becoming nearly as hard as rock. In the hot, almost rainless climate of Egypt adobe (from djeb(et), coptic tob - brick) houses were the most energy and labour efficient buildings.

    The mansions of the powerful were palatial, even if they were built of the same materials as the dwellings of the commoners. Metjen, a third dynasty official, received from his king among other gifts

...... a house 200 cubits [9] long and 200 cubits wide, built and equipped; fine trees were set out, a very large lake was made therein, figs and vines were set out.
J. H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part I, § 173
    Foundations were generally non existent. Virgin soil above groundwater level was baked rock hard by the sun and needed just some levelling. In order to build on top of collapsed dwellings, the clay rubble was well watered and let to set and harden. The lack of a proper disposal of waste which was dipped on middens in vacant spaces anywhere in town, led to houses being built on top of such dumps which were levelled and covered with sand and mud bricks. Conditions in such buildings were probably at times quite foul and damp and far from salubrious.[13]
    The wall width was about 40 cm for one storey and up to 1.25m for multi-storey buildings. Beams were let into the walls to reinforce them. Ground storey walls were sometimes built of stone, limestone if there were quarries near-by, granite or anything else, if there were decaying temples or other buildings in the neighbourhood that could be dismantled. (Even kings were not above this kind of scavenging. Ramses II had the granite linings of Senusret's temple at Kahun removed.)
[Image: House, from the papyrus of Nakht]

House with small windows close to the ceiling
From the papyrus of Nakht

    In substantial houses the rooms were arranged around an inner courtyard or on either side of a corridor. The crenellated wall facing the street often had only one opening, the door, though windows might be let into the upper storey walls. Windows were small and covered with shutters or mats in order to keep out the flies, dust, and heat. [1][11].
    Gateways were generally made of stone, even in poorer households. The wooden doors and leaves of double doors could be barred from the inside [6]. Keys have been found dating from 1550 BCE onwards, but not the bars they locked.
[Image: Soul house; source: bmfa]     Excavations indicate that a typical worker's house had two to four rooms on the ground floor, an enclosed yard, which acted as a kitchen, and two cellars for storage. Niches in the walls held religious objects.

Terracotta soul-house with stair
Middle Kingdom
Source: BMFA 1908

    The flat roof, accessible in houses in the country by an open stair case from inside the compound, served for storage and as additional living space [3]. During the warm season people often slept there [12], exposed to the cooling breeze blowing from the Mediterranean. As it was at times at least surrounded by a low wall, precautions must have been taken against the albeit rare occurrence of rainwater collecting on the roof and possibly causing it to collapse. In temples waterspouts were installed, enabling the water to flow off.[15] Similar measures were probably taken to protect private houses.

    The town houses of the common people were usually two to three stories high. The ground floor was often reserved for businesses, while the upper floors provided living space for the family. Many people slept on the roof during the summer to keep cool. Cooking was also often done on the roof.

Stone bath, Source:www.plumbingworld.com     Finer houses had reception rooms and private quarters, while some even had bathrooms and toilets. Toilet seats were at times made of limestone [2]. Others used toilet stools. There is no evidence of more than the most basic indoor plumbing having been used in homes or palaces. Nor were the sewers in the towns much more sophisticated, consisting of an open gully running down the middle of some streets.[14] Householders seem to have collected their sewage in pits, dumped it into the river or disposed of it in the streets, sometimes to the displeasure of passers-by.[10]
    Herodotus claimed that

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
Herodotus, Histories II
5th century BCE
    The floors in houses were made of packed earth, which would not do for a bathroom. There, a slab of stone was placed in a corner. Often the adobe walls near-by were coated with stone as well. The water could run off into a bowl which was either emptied by hand, or had holes at its bottom, thus draining slowly into the ground.[2]
   Copper pipe drains have been found in an Old Kingdom temple [5], but never in a private house. In one mortuary temple at Abusir copper outlets and a lead stopper were found.[2]. The technology may have existed, but was too expensive for the common people and the others may not have perceived the need to apply it.
 
Well in the residential area of Akhetaten; Source: Borchardt, Ludwig; Ricke, Herbert : Die Wohnhaeuser In Tell El-Amarna     Water was drawn from wells, either private or public at least since the New Kingdom. At Pi Ramses a number of public wells have been uncovered, the largest with a diameter of five metres, and a spiral staircase leading to the water. But unless its level was very low, the water was raised with a shadouf into a pond.
    Water taken from the Nile, or even worse, from a stagnant canal, caused many health problems, from diarrhoeas to bilharziasis, but at least it was generally plentiful. But beyond the flood plain, in the desert areas, the water supply was difficult and the control over it critical. At the Dakhla oasis Nesubast claimed possession of a spring

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.
The Dakhla Stela, Dynasty XXII
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part IV § 727
The legal procedure went on for fourteen years.
    In a warm country like Egypt the need for heating is small and there were no big fireplaces. Still, nights could grow chilly, but a store of firewood could make one's home cosier:
He who does not gather wood in summer will not be warm in winter.
The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.167
Royal couple in a garden
Royal couple in a garden
XVIII dynasty
   

The gardens

Model of a garden,  the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Source: _The Scientific American_
May I walk every day on the banks of the water, may my soul rest on the branches of the trees which I planted, may I refresh myself under the shadow of my sycamore.
Egyptian tomb inscription, ca. 1400 BCE
    Gardens were very popular in Egypt. From an enclosed yard with a few fruit trees to botanical and zoological gardens with exotic trees, ponds, often stocked with fish, and caged animals and birds, gardens are depicted in many tombs.

    At least in tomb depictions these gardens were very formal [7][8] with rectangular ponds and trees and vines planted in straight rows.
    Trees and shrubs were grown for shade and for their fruit: date and other palm trees, sycamore fig, pomegranate, nut trees and jujube. But willows, acacia and tamarisk also found favour, about eighteen kinds of trees were grown by the Egyptians. Flowers such as daisies, cornflowers, mandrakes, roses, irises, myrtle, jasmine, mignonettes, convolvulus, celosia, narcissus, ivy, lychnis, sweet marjoram, henna, bay laurel, small yellow chrysanthemums, and poppies grew among the trees, papyrus and lotus in the pond. Grapes and other vines were often planted.

    Nature with its trees, plants, flowers was often mentioned and used metaphorically in love poems of the New Kingdom. The mouth of the beloved was likened to a lotus bud, and her breasts to mandragore fruit. Gardens were perfect, ordered and secluded corners of nature, romantic, sensuous places, where lovers could meet.
I am the most beautiful tree in the garden
And for all times, I shall remain.
The beloved and her brother
Stroll under my branches,
Intoxicated from wines and spirits
Steeped in oil and fragrant essences.
                                                        Turin Papyrus
 

The estates of noblemen

    This is the floor plan of a nobleman's A nobleman's estate at El Amarna, drawn after a sketch in 'Ancient Egypt' by Lionel Casson compound at Akhetaten (El Amarna) with adjacent garden and yards. The estate was to a large extent self sufficient, run by a steward but supervised by the main wife. The whole estate, including silos and stables, was surrounded by a wall, the entrance guarded by a lodge keeper.
    The garden was separated from the agricultural yards by a wall.
    The servants lived in quarters separated from the main house by a yard. Workshops, stables, storage rooms and kitchen were near by.
Nobleman's house     The master's family lived in the main house, where the women had their own quarters. These are at times referred to as harem, but one should not think that women were segregated as they were to be in the Muslim harems.

Nobleman's house and garden
Source: James Henry Breasted, Survey of the Ancient World 1919, p.69

    Building the estate as close to the river as possible on ground sufficiently elevated not to be inundated during the Nile flooding made for easy transportation of people and agricultural produce.
Ancient Egyptian houses and gardens
Picture sources:
[  ] Bathroom: www.plumbingworld.com
[  ] Well: Borchardt, Ludwig; Ricke, Herbert Die Wohnhäuser In Tell El-Amarna
[  ] Royal couple: Minneapolis College of Art and Design, accessed at http://www.mcad.edu/AICT/html/ancient/EN/EN013.html
[  ] Garden model: Scientific American
 
Footnotes
[5] Thirteen hundred feet of copper piping, the earliest-known plumbing, was installed in this building (James Henry Breasted, Survey of the Ancient World 1919, p.39)
[9] A cubit was about half a metre
[10] In his petition to the authorities the Greek Herakleides describes how on the 5th May 218 BCE an Egyptian woman Herakleides called Psenobastis poured urine over him while he was riding through the village of Psya in the Fayum. In the ensuing quarrel the woman tore his clothes and spat into his face.
Herakleides may have been living in Egypt, but his outlook and knowledge was that of a Greek. He did not even know enough Egyptian to be aware of the fact that Psenobastis was a man's name.
Source: Unijournal, Zeitschrift der Universität Trier, Zentrum für Altertumswissenschaften, Jahrgang 29/2003
[11] In the words of the fictitious Ankhsheshonq: "A window with a large opening gives more heat than coolness" (Lichtheim, 1980, Vol.3, p.175)
[12] Sleeping on the roof was quite safe, though the occasional freak accident might happen, as did to Petesis and his family at Epistates during the Ptolemaic period:
On the 29th of Phaophi of the . (.) year my wife and my daughter were asleep on the roof of her house when the wall of Psenatymis, weaver, fell upon them and - - - my wife who is pregnant is in danger of her life....
P.Mich.inv. 6095,
http://wwwapp.cc.columbia.edu/ldpd/app/apis/item?mode=item&key=michigan.apis.2637 accessed June 2009
[13] Panagiotakopulu et al. 2010, pp. 474-481
[14] Strouhal & Forman 1992, p.75
[15] Effland 2000, pp.15-20

- Bibliography for this and related pages
  • James Henry Breasted A History of the Early World, Ginn and Company, Boston, 1916
  • James Henry Breasted, Survey of the Ancient World 1919, Ginn and Company, Boston
  • James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, 1906
  • Lionel Casson Ancient Egypt, Time-Life Books 1975
  • Diodor von Sicilien, Historische Bibliothek, translated by Julius Friedrich Wurm, Verlag der J. B. Metzler'schen Buchhandlung Für Oesterreich, 1827
  • Andreas Effland, "Sprechende“ Wasserspeier und die Regenwasserableitung im Alten ?gypten" in Fachliche Berichte HWW, Nr. 2, 2000
  • T.G.H.James Pharaos Volk, Artemis Verlag Zürich und München 1988
  • Gustave Lefebvre. Le Tombeau de Petosiris, Le Caire: L'institut Français d'archéologie orientale, 1924. 3 volumes
  • Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, University of California Press 1973-1980
  • A.Lucas, J.Harris Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, 1962
  • Gaston Maspero L'Archéologie Egyptienne, ed. A.Quantin, Paris, 1887
  • Pierre Montet Les scènes de la vie privée dans les tombeaux égyptiens de l'ancien empire Librairie Istra, Strasbourg, 1925
  • Pierre Montet Haiey yom-yom bemitzrayim (La vie quotidienne en Egypte), Am Hassefer Publishers Ltd. Tel Aviv 1963
  • Eva Panagiotakopulu, Paul C. Buckland and Barry J. Kemp, "Underneath Ranefer's floors – urban environments on the desert edge", Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 37, Issue 3, March 2010
  • W. M. Flinders Petrie Naukratis, London, 1886
  • W. M. Flinders Petrie Kahun, Gurob, and Hawara, London, 1890
  • W. M. Flinders Petrie Illahun, Kahun and Gurob, London, 1891
  • Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson, Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, 1995
  • Evzen Strouhal, Werner Forman, Life of the ancient Egyptians, Editorial Galaxia, 1992
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010.
  • Vom Ackerbau zum Zahnrad, rororo Taschenbuch Ausgabe 1969

  -The townhouse of Djehutinefer
-A worker's house at Deir el Medine

 

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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

 

 

 

-[1] Limestone model of a town house , British Museum
-[2] The History of Plumbing - Egypt
-[3] Terracotta model of a house, British Museum
-[6] Wooden bolts, 18th dynasty (Petrie Museum: UC7826)
-[7] Tomb of Amenemhab: Formal garden (Thierry Benderitter: Four tombs of military officers)
-[8] Tomb of Nebamen: Formal garden (Thierry Benderitter: Four tombs of military officers)
la villa du vizir NakhtImages de synthese de la villa du vizir Nakht à el Amarna
Relief of house interiorRelief of house interior (Luxor Museum)
House types of Ancient EgyptHouse types of Ancient Egypt (Petrie Museum website)
-Amarna: Wall paintings from different places in the city (Petrie Museum website)

 

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Keywords: house, houses, housing, habitation, habitations, accommodation, apartment, flat, estate, estates, garden, gardens

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