Monday, May 23, 2011

Page 11: Health and Hygiene in Ancient Egypt

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During the 67-year reign of Ramesses II (19th Dynasty) an estimated 2 1/2 million people lived in ancient Egypt. Most were landless peasants, dependent for an existence upon the beneficence of the local landlord and the caprices of the Nile's annual inundation. When the Nile rose too high houses and fields were flooded but many times in ancient Egypt's history the inundation proved inadequate. Lack of water brought famine, pestilence and disease (figure 1).

There are no records of how many people died during the seven-year failure of the Nile's annual flood during the reign of the Pharaoh Djoser (Third Dynasty) but it may have been many thousands. An inscription engraved on a granite block on the island of Sehel during the Greek Period tells how, during this famine:
Children wept. Grown-ups swayed. As to the old, their heart was sad, their knees gave way, they sat on the ground, their arms swinging.

The most common ordinary dwelling in early Predynastic Egypt was the round hut built of poles, reeds and mud. This was later changed to a square shape and, later still, was built of mudbricks dried in the sun - the traditional adobe house. These dwellings have survived less well than the stone-constructed tombs and ancient Egyptian temples from which much of our knowledge of ancient Egypt is derived.
During the Dynastic Period ancient Egypt was divided into provinces, or nomes, and by the New Kingdom there were 42 nomes, each with its own administrative center and urban development. The most densely populated areas were the Delta and the area in southern Egypt from Thebes to Aswan (estimated at over 200 people per square kilometer). Bubastis, the capital of the eighteenth nome of Lower Egypt, which was inhabited throughout the Dynastic Period, covered an area of about 75 hectares. Heliopolis, near modern-day Cairo, was the largest city in the New Kingdom and had an urban area of about 23 square kilometers.

Apart from this natural urban development there were periods when large workforces were needed for the construction of state buildings, most particularly the Pharaoh's mortuary complex. The majority of the peasant workforces used for the building of public works were employed only during the period when the Nile flooded and work on the land ceased. Remains of housing built to accommodate  at least 4000 workmen have been found near the pyramid of Khafre at Giza (Fourth Dynasty) although the maximum seasonal workforce may have numbered 100,000.

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