Yasser Metwally

My life…and the world

Ancient Egyptian 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.

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.

Brickmaking. Linedrawing after a wall painting in the tomb of Rekhmire. Source

House building

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.

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 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

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] Terracotta soul-house with stair

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.

The flat roof served as additional living space and for storage[3]. It was reached by an open stair case.

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

Stone bath

Finer houses had reception rooms and private quarters, while some even had bathrooms and toilets. Toilet seats were made of limestone[2]. Others used toilet stools. Households disposed of their sewage in pits, in the river or in the streets[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

The floors in houses were made of packed earth, which wouldn’t 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 existed, but was too expensive for the common people.

Well in the residential area of Akhetaten Water was drawn from wells

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

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:

  • The gardens
Model of a garden The gardens

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.

The author

Professor Yasser Metwally

Visit my web site at: http://yassermetwally.com


December 1, 2007 - Posted by | Ancient Egyptian panorama

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