Urban Life in Ancient Egypt

Map of Egypt showing the major sites and settlements

Looking at the choices the ancient Egyptians made in the allocation of resources to different parts of the built environment.

By Dr. Steven Snape
Reader in Egyptian Archaeology
University of Liverpool


It is easy to think of ancient Egypt as a land filled with tombs and temples built by a people obsessed with death and their gods. This impression is due to a combination of factors, the most important being the choices the ancient Egyptians made in the allocation of resources to different parts of the built environment, which led to the most durable materials being used for their most important structures, temples and tombs, rather than ordinary dwellings; the locations chosen for different types of structure, resulting in the most visible monuments today being those in spaces often set apart from urban life; and the choices, often in favour of spectacular monuments over more ‘mundane’ settlement sites, made by the archaeologists who have explored the physical heritage of ancient Egypt through excavation and survey.

However, although its great monuments are the defining feature of ancient Egypt to modern observers, to the ancient Egyptians themselves the royal pyramids of the Old Kingdom and the enormous stone temples of the New Kingdom were exceptional, unusual and generally inaccessible parts of their everyday built environment. We attempt to explore ancient Egyptian cities to try to find what was usual as well as what was unusual. We shall learn that it cannot be truly ‘complete’ since the destruction of ancient settlement remains has robbed us of much of the archaeological record, but we shall find partial compensation in looking beyond settlements that we might think of as cities to explore towns, villages, indeed a whole variety of locations where the ancient Egyptians lived their lives.

We will explore the cities and towns of ancient Egypt first by looking at the evidence we have for who built them, why they were built and for whom they were intended. The role of the king as an initiator of major projects (including urban development) is very important, as is the space that was created within cities for temples, the residences of the gods. But we shall also try to understand the ways in which the built environment of cities, towns and villages throughout Egypt was created and adapted by ‘ordinary’ Egyptians to serve their everyday lives from 3500 BC to AD 641. Finally, we shall take a journey down the Nile, and visit adjacent areas inhabited by the Egyptians to see what remains, and what we know to have once existed, of the cities and towns of ancient Egypt.

The Call of the Pyramid

Egypt’s monuments demand attention. They were designed to impress both men and gods and they continue to awe both the casual tourist and supposedly serious scholar. Indeed, pyramid investigation in its variety of forms has been a permanent feature of Egyptology (in its broadest sense) since its traditional birth as a serious discipline when Napoleon’s savants invaded in 1798.

Ancient towns were not so immediately attractive to early archaeologists; for one thing it was difficult to find them and when one did it was often in the form of great mounds of potsherds and broken bricks, which did not make an inviting prospect for excavation. An obvious comparison can be seen today at Giza, where the very visible Old Kingdom pyramids have an immediate appeal, although their obvious magnificence is not necessarily equalled by their contribution to a wider understanding of the ancient Egyptians, apart from teaching us of their ability to move vast quantities of stone. By contrast, the pyramid towns at the same site have long been invisible, but are packed with vital information, which has only been recently revealed after careful archaeological excavation and analysis.

Almost as attractive to early explorers were the heavily decorated elite tombs and royal temples that similarly tempted scholars into the study of monumental architecture, its functions and motifs. They also encouraged an interest in two other wide-ranging topics that have had a substantial impact on the development of the intellectual focus of Egyptology.

Pictures and Words

One of these topics was royal and private art in two and three dimensions. To give just two examples, colossal royal sculpture invited studies of the superhuman aspects of Egyptian kingship, while the decorative schemes of elite private tombs with their ‘daily life’ scenes of ancient Egyptians doing ordinary ancient Egyptian things, seemed to offer a way of understanding many aspects of the political, social and religious lives of non-royal people.

Excavations at the town attached to the tomb of the Old Kingdom Queen Khentkawes at Giza, in the shadow of the pyramids of Khafre and Khufu. © 2013 Ancient Egypt Research Associates.

A vignette from the Book of the Dead of Nakhte, an important scribe. The dead man and his wife stand before Osiris in the garden of their house. The house is built on a platform for protection against damp and above the level of the inundation. The garden pool is surrounded by trees and date palms. / Werner Forman Archive, British Museum

The funerary papyrus of the royal scribe Nakht shows him in the afterlife with the ideal accommodation for a high-ranking New Kingdom official: a comfortable house (right) and a garden around a pool (left). Scenes such as this provide evidence for what Egyptian homes would have looked like. Werner Forman Archive/British Museum London.

To a large extent, the decoration and contents of tombs became a substitute for settlement sites in the study of a range of domestic and industrial activities – until fairly recently it was commonplace to read accounts of, say, baking and brewing in ancient Egypt that were based not on archaeological finds from real bakeries and breweries, but on the illustrations of such activities on the walls of private tombs, and on wooden models within those tombs. This source of evidence, to some degree, it was thought, negated the necessity of digging for the badly preserved remains of such structures given that they were illustrated in such glorious colours, often in a strip-cartoon-like way.

The second topic was even more pervasive. Monuments – from royal temples to private tombs – were covered by, and filled with objects containing, hieroglyphic text. The ‘daily life’ scenes would be less informative if they did not also carry explanatory ‘captions’ and the colossal statues would be significantly more enigmatic if they were not labelled with the name and titles of their royal or divine owner. The ability to read hieroglyphic (and other) texts, which was gained early in the modern study of ancient Egypt, provided the single most important tool in understanding this ancient civilization. After all, what could be more authentic and more informative than hearing the Egyptians speaking to us in their own voices?

The above statue of the governor of the fortress at Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, Neb-Re (shown here bearing a staff demonstrating his allegiance to the goddess Sekhmet), is an outstanding example of Ramesside sculpture, but also comes from a site that has much to tell us about military settlements in the New Kingdom. Susanna Thomas.

Art history and philology have a cachet even for the settlement archaeologist. It is undeniable that the single most exciting, and informative, object that the present author has excavated from the fortress-town of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham is the inscribed statue of its governor, Neb-­Re. It is also (and this too is relevant to an understanding of the history of Egyptian archaeology) ­undeniably the most beautiful object from the site and the only one on display in a major museum. That museum is at Luxor, but 100 years ago it might easily have been the British Museum, the Louvre or (since Liverpool University is the institutional sponsor of this particular expedition) the Garstang Museum of Archaeology. Even more to the point, if this fieldwork had been conducted 100 years ago by the eponymous John Garstang himself, or by Flinders Petrie, the thousands of small objects found at the site would not now be housed in a purpose-built storage facility in the nearby city of Mersa Matruh, as the property of the Egyptian state, but scattered through private and public collections in Britain and beyond.

The construction of private tombs designed to welcome visitors, in a manner similar to domestic houses, was a consistent feature of mortuary architecture in ancient Egypt. The above example, from the Mustafa Kamal cemetery at Alexandria, combines Egyptian traditions with Hellenistic approaches to tomb design and decoration. Rutherford Picture Library.

The Fruitful Cemetery

The work of excavators such as Garstang and Petrie was largely enabled by private patronage from individuals and museums. The objects recovered were divided first with the Cairo Museum, and then with patrons. Although many of these individual patrons were motivated by philanthropic concerns – often they were rich industrialists or merchants who used some of their wealth to endow civic institutions such as art galleries, museums and universities – they were also businessmen who would know the value of a good return on an investment, and their ‘dividend’ came in the form of ancient objects. For museums, the idea of a return on investment was even more pressing since it could be argued that the overwhelming reason for them subscribing was not philanthropy or the desire to promote research, but to service their core business – putting good­-quality objects on display in their museum.

For the excavator in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a balance had to be struck between working at a site they thought was particularly interesting and worthwhile, and in satisfying their paymasters. Different archaeologists managed this with different degrees of success – Petrie was probably best at maintaining the balance between a flow of objects and the investigation of sites that added to knowledge in significant leaps rather than an incremental shuffle.

For the excavator who wanted to keep his backers happy and ensure a regular supply of goodies there was one obvious solution: Egyptian cemeteries were goldmines (sometimes quite literally) owing to a combination of factors, the most important of which were, first, that a particular set of beliefs concerning the afterlife led the Egyptians to place as large a quantity of high-quality objects in their tombs as they could afford and, second, that the objects had a high level of preservation given the desert-edge location of most of these cemeteries, certainly in the Nile Valley. There were, therefore, very practical reasons why excavators were – and still are – drawn to dig up Egypt’s ancient cemeteries – they are certain to find objects, often of high quality – in comparison with the much more uncertain and aesthetically less satisfying exploration of Egypt’s settlement sites.

Site Survival

Much of the geography and topography of ancient Egypt can be seen as a pair of duals or opposites – Upper and Lower Egypt, the Nile Delta and the Nile Valley, the cultivated land and the desert. The last pairing is one of radical opposites, with the dry sand of the desert, the ‘red land’, notably different from the Nile-watered rich agricultural soil of the ‘black land’. Often the border between the two is strikingly stark and it has often been remarked that it is possible for a person to stand with one foot on the desert and the other on cultivated land. Burial in each of these environments has a dramatic effect on the chances of survival of small objects; as noted above, objects deliberately and carefully placed in tombs that were themselves located on the dry desert, well above the greatest height of the Nile at the time of inundation, had the greatest chance of survival. In contrast, the often broken and discarded objects of everyday life, lost under succeeding levels of Nile silt and regularly soaked by the inundation had the least chance of survival.

Just as with objects, so with sites. One might draw a distinction between tombs and temples on the one hand, built from stone and located above the inundation, and settlement sites on the other, built from mudbrick and organic materials and regularly flooded by the inundation. This is of course a gross oversimplification, but there is still much truth here. Clearly cemeteries could be built far distant from the Nile because their inhabitants had no need for a regular water supply or for ready access to transport links and agricultural land. Neither could their residents move at short notice when an over-high inundation threatened. Towns, cities, villages, in fact any kind of settlement needed the resources that would support a living population, which was, in most cases, a Nileside location. The vagaries of Nile flooding meant a certain flexibility was required on the part of the population – and the rebuilding of wholly or partly flooded houses was probably a regular occurrence. The use of easily workable and cheap building materials – especially mudbrick – was an obvious solution. The key would be the ease of rebuilding, not the attempt to avoid problems in the first place.

This Ramesside temple at Kom el-Rabi’a at Memphis is a good example of the problems of survival of buildings – even large stone buildings – in the lush vegetation of the Nile Valley and Delta. Rutherford Picture Library.

The location of the village of Deir el-Medina – in an inhospitable part of the Theban mountain – has resulted in its astonishing degree of preservation. Rutherford Picture Library.

Of course some settlements were located away from the Nile, and their inhabitants managed to avoid the problems that beset the majority of ancient Egyptians. However, these tended to be rather special – and specialist – settlements built in otherwise unlikely or inhospitable locations for particular reasons. Deir el-Medina is the most obvious example of this, although the reader will notice a high proportion of the sites described in the Gazetteer – particularly those that are at all well­-preserved – fall into this category. Other sites, perhaps built on naturally high ground within the Nile Valley or Delta (including the form of sand-island known as a ‘turtleback’ or gezira), perhaps on one of the high levees along the riverbank, or perhaps grown high as a tell on the debris of earlier phases of occupation, may have been relatively safe from Nile flooding. Sites such as this, which have survived to the present day, have a very good chance of being buried under modern towns and villages located in those places for exactly the same reasons as their ancient predecessors. Sites in this class (Horbeit in the Delta, or Shutb near Asyut are good examples) have so much modern settlement on them that large-scale archaeological exploration is very difficult.

The rise and fall of the Nile during the inundation was the very heart of the ancient Egyptian agricultural year. The activities of dam-builders at Aswan in the 20th century mean that the Nile no longer fluctuates so dramatically. The Nile is never as high as it used to be, but nor is it ever so low. If ancient sites are no longer flooded as deeply as they were, neither are they as annually high above those same waters. Instead, archaeologists in the floodplain have to cope with a fairly constant but often inconveniently high subsoil water level, which makes the excavation of the deepest (i.e. earliest) levels of ancient sites somewhat problematic.

Settlement Archaeology Today

Modern investigation of archaeological sites involves a range of survey techniques. In order to explore the past landscapes of ancient Thebes, a team led by Angus Graham and Judith Bunbury carries out a programme of augering at Karnak. Angus Graham.

Though a list of excavators and the cemeteries they have worked in would be a very long roll indeed, significant past excavations at major settlement sites are comparatively few: Petrie’s at Kahun and Bruyère’s at Deir el-Medina (both of whose work will be discussed later) come to mind. Indeed it is probably true to say that there are currently more settlement sites in Egypt that are the subject of very recent or current fieldwork than the sum total of all such sites in the past – a far from comprehensive list would include major cities and settlements attached to sites best known for their monumental remains at Avaris/Pr-Ramesses, Giza, Memphis, Amarna, Abydos and Elephantine, while significant numbers of smaller or less well-preserved settlement sites are being investigated both on the margins (e.g. Tell Heboua, Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, Ayn Asil, Amara) and within (too many to list here) dynastic Egypt. With discoveries of the late and early centuries, and a major emphasis on settlement archaeology as an area for research within Egyptian archaeology, now is a good time to appraise what we know about the towns and cities of ancient Egypt.

From The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt, by Steven Snape (Thames & Hudson, 09.16.2014), published by Erenow, public open access.