As with other contemporary civilizations, ancient Egypt’s economy was dependent on a mix of both unskilled and skilled labour. How ancient Egypt organized its labour force was one of the contributing factors to its enduring survival.
There were many different careers available in ancient Egypt, ranging from working the fields to brewing, to scribing documents, through to providing medical care and soldering in the army. Over its 3,000 years, the ancient Egyptian empire proved to be remarkably resilient in part to how it mobilized its labour force for major construction projects without jeopardizing its agricultural production.
Facts About Jobs in Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Egypt was a barter economy until the Persian invasion of 525 BC and workers were paid in goods rather than cash for their work
- Most Egyptians took on their family occupation as social mobility was severely constrained
- Jobs ranged from agriculture to mining, to the military, brewing, baking, scribing, medicine and the priesthood
- The job of a scribe was one of the few jobs in ancient Egypt, which offered opportunities for social advancement
- Each year during the annual Nile floods, many farmers worked as labourers on the Pharaoh’s construction projects
- Bureaucrats were expected to politely follow strict rules of etiquette, providing the basis for today’s “civil servant” concept
- Priests in ancient Egypt were allowed to marry and their position was often hereditary
A Barter Economy
In ancient Egypt, people farmed, hunted and harvested the vast marshlands. They traded their surplus to the Pharaoh’s government who redistributed it to workers on its epic construction projects and to those in need during times when the annual harvest was poor. There was no cash economy until the Persian invasion of c. 525 BCE.
Agriculture and ancient Egypt’s farmers were the foundation of ancient Egypt’s economy. Their harvests effectively sustained the entire economy from the administration through to the priesthood.
Ancient Egypt’s Slave Economy
Surviving documents and inscriptions suggest that until Egypt’s conquest by the Greeks there were comparatively few slaves in ancient Egypt. Only the wealthiest Egyptian could afford to purchase slaves to work in their households and most of these slaves were prisoners of war.
Many slaves in ancient Egypt found themselves working as field labourers, as miners, as household slaves, as gardeners and stable hands or watching children. While slavery may have been rare, many ancient Egyptians had scarcely more freedom than those slaves. If they worked land owned by the nobility, they typically surrendered their harvest to their overlords. Moreover, their labour could be rented or sold together with those fields.
Working Class Jobs
Working class occupations were similar to jobs typically carried out by domestic slaves. However, ancient Egyptian citizens enjoyed legal rights and there were some albeit limited opportunities for social advancement given dedication, skill and diligence. Workers were paid for their labour, enjoyed free time and were free to make their own decisions about marriage and children.
Farming was the foundation of the ancient Egyptian economy. It was the most common occupation and was often carried down from father to son. Many farmed their local noble’s land, while more affluent farmers worked their own land that was passed down through the generations. Typically, farming their land occupied the whole family. After the annual yearly Nile flood waters had receded, farmers planted their crops, usually wheat, barley, flax and corn. Farmers also planted vegetables and tended fig and pomegranate orchards. This was a gruelling and often precarious occupation as a farmer could lose their harvest if the Nile floods didn’t come.
The Pharaohs of ancient Egyptian had an insatiable appetite for colossal construction projects such as building pyramids, carving out tombs, constructing temple complexes and erecting obelisks. This required immense logistical efforts to recruit and sustain both a skilled and unskilled labour force. Hence there was an almost constant demand for construction workers, masons, bricklayers, artists, carpenters and shipbuilders. Just how physically demanding this exhausting work was is displayed in the compressed vertebrae found in the skeletons of many construction workers during the excavation of several necropolises.
Military service was not a high-status role in ancient Egyptian society. However, there was a constant need for recruits so anyone who wished to join the military was allowed to do so. Thus the military was a welcome alternative for those tired of farming or construction work. Soldiering came with several downsides as soldiers ran the risk of being killed in battle or dying from disease when operating in hostile climates.
Those soldiers who distinguished themselves in battle could potentially rise through the ranks to forge a name for themselves. However, military service was tough and uncompromising and the army often found itself caught up in long, drawn-out campaigns against competing empires.
Women worked as domestic servants more often than men. Typical servant roles in ancient Egyptian high-status households included cleaning, cooking, babysitting the children and running errands. While servants were exposed to the fickle whims of their masters, they enjoyed the comforts of a roof over their heads and a reliable food supply compared to farmers.
In contrast to some of its competing rival civilisations, Egypt had a large middle-class. Members of this class congregated in cities or on country estates. Their skilled labour provided them with a comfortable income enabling them to buy food and other goods rather than having to make their own. Men filled many middle class occupations. Their comfortable income enabled them to support their family on their income alone. In contrast to the working class, not all middle-class women worked. However, many women were engaged in family enterprises or managed their own shops, bakeries or breweries.
An architect was a high-status occupation and one, which was highly respected in ancient Egypt. Architects studied physics and mathematics prior to commencing their practice. Architects, who secured a government contract for a prominent civic construction project, could aspire to joining the ranks of the upper class. As with many occupations in ancient Egypt, architecture was often a family occupation. However, others took apprenticeships to learn how to plan roads, temples, granaries and building complexes.
Traders And Merchants
Ancient Egypt enjoyed well-trodden trade links with surrounding cultures in Mesopotamia, Africa and the Mediterranean. Consequently, trade and its merchants was a significant employer in ancient Egypt. Some traders ventured on caravan expeditions to buy and sell fine wares. Other merchants acted as distributors and retailers for imported goods, establishing shops to sell their goods. Merchants usually accepted payment in coin but also bartered for goods such as jewellery, precious metals, gemstones, beer and foodstuffs.
It was ancient Egypt’s legions of skilled craftsmen who created the beautiful paintings, inscriptions, ornate gold jewellery and sculptures that Egypt is renowned for today. An artist or craftsman who created finely wrought works for Egypt’s nobility enjoyed a comfortable standard of living as did potters and weavers who wove clothing or produced cooking pots and jugs. Most of ancient Egypt’s craftsmen lived in the cities and sold their wares either in family-owned shops or at market stalls.
Dancers And Musicians
Both men and women could earn a living as musicians and dancers. Singers, musicians and female dancers were constantly in high demand. They performed at the numerous religious festivals at temple rituals and ceremonies. Women were often accepted as singers, dancers and musicians, commanding high fees for their performances.
Egypt’s nobility often enjoyed sufficient wealth from their landholdings that they could prosper on the profits from land worked by tenant farmers. However, many upper-class occupations provided prestigious and well-paying roles, within the Egyptian economy.
Administering an empire over 3,000 years required a sprawling bureaucracy. Egypt’s legion of government administrators oversaw harvests and tax collection, managed construction projects and kept extensive records and inventories. At the top of Egypt’s government was a vizier. This role was that of the Pharaoh’s right hand. Viziers oversaw every aspect of the government and reported directly to the pharaoh. At a provincial level was a governor who managed the province in the name of the pharaoh and reported to the vizier. Each administration employed enormous armies of scribes to keep records of policy decisions, law and taxes.
The many cults in ancient Egypt established almost a parallel state. A priestly occupation offered access to the wealthiest avenue of Egypt’s upper class. The cults and its priests were allocated part of the spoils from every military campaign as well as receiving part of all sacrifices. This often opened up a comfortable life of luxury for priests, particularly its high priests. However, worship of some deities ebbed and flowed and the status of the god’s priests tracked that of their god. If the god you served lost popularity, the temple could languish with its priests consigned to poverty.
Scribes were the engine room of the government and provided a vital and much sought after service for merchants and working people. Ancient Egypt’s complex written language of hieroglyphs required extensive education to master. Entry to scribe school was open to anyone who could afford the fee. After passing a series of demanding exams, scribes had the option of writing the elaborate coffin texts for tombs, writing letters for nobles, merchants or commoners or working for the government.
The military was a common occupation for many noble second sons who could not inherit the family estates. Peacetime saw the on garrison duty, patrolling Egypt’s borders or living in barracks. Many were dispatched to oversee government projects.
During the frequent outbreaks of war with Egypt’s rivals and its neighbours, a courageous, talented and lucky officer could distinguish himself and rise quickly up through the ranks. So well respected were Egypt’s generals that some rose to take the throne as pharaoh.
Reflecting On The Past
As with other aspects of ancient Egyptian society, jobs were seen in the context of maintaining ma’at, harmony and balance across the land. No job was thought to be too small or insignificant and each occupation contributed to that harmony and balance.
Header image courtesy: Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons