If you plough, and there's growth in the field,
And god lets it prosper in your hand,
Do not boast at your neighbour's side,
One has great respect for the silent man.
-- Ptahhotep

It is certain that the great mass of people in Ancient Egypt worked on the land. These people grew grains, fruits, and vegetables to feed men and beasts, raised an amazing variety of animals, and tended the flax from which linen was made. In dozens of tomb paintings, we see them going about the business of life, ploughing, sowing, harvesting, storing. Without their unceasing labour, and the surpluses of food they were able to coax from the black soil, no pyramid or temple could have been built.


What was the status of those who worked the land? Some were peasants, some tenant farmers, and the majority may have been serfs (the Egyptian word was merwet). We do not know how many farmers owned their own land. Most seem to have worked small plots of land, on which they were required to pay rents, or taxes, to the landowner. Since there was no currency in Ancient Egypt, rents and taxes were paid in produce and by labour. According to the texts studied by young scribes, any farmer who could not pay the required amount was beaten. A number of Old Kingdom tombs have images of serfs being beaten for non-payment of rent.

Labour taxes were paid by enforced labour on public monuments such as the pyramids and temples. This conscript labour was performed during the Inundation, when the land was covered with water, and there was little farm work to be done. It was certainly hard work, but archaeological investigation of the Giza plateau has shown that large bakeries, breweries, and fish processing plants provided the workers with a good and plentiful diet.

How large was the population of Egypt in the Age of the Pyramids? There is not enough evidence to be sure, but reasonable estimates range from 1.5 million to 5 million people in all of Egypt in those days. With such a small population, every strong back was important. Films that show the men who built the pyramids as scrawny, over-worked, half-starved , badly-treated slaves are quite wrong!


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