The social system of Ancient Egypt is, of ancient civilisations, that of which the most is known. The ancient history of other countries is, as a rule, a record of wars, famines, conquests, invasions and other outstanding events. Records of how people lived and how society was governed and conducted are often matters of deduction rather than of knowledge. This is not the case with Ancient Egypt. Egyptologists are able to give us a minute and detailed picture of social life in Egypt three and even four thousand years ago.

Municipal life, which comes closer to the lives of the people than is possible for a central administration, was known in Ancient Egypt. Each city had its prefect, a sort of mayor whose business it was to provide what was necessary for the civic needs of the inhabitants. The prefect, whose scarlet robes were emblematic of his office, was assisted by a judge and by a scribe. One of his functions was to regulate labour and employment. Craftsmen and artisans were strictly prohibited from changing over from one trade to another. Skilled handwork does not appear to have enjoyed an open market. Most craftsmen were attached in a more or less permanent capacity to the establishments of nobles or high officials. It follows, therefore, that there cannot have been a large or independant middle class in Ancient Egypt. There was the official or ruling class, the class of the priests and, below these, the masses employed in work of every kind. But since members of what are now known as the learned professions were mostly members of the priesthood there was apparently no transitional or middle class such as we know it today. Not until the Middle Kingdom did the ever-swelling numbers of bureaucrats constitute a class which, without owning land and without performing manual labour, nevertheless worked for its living and became a "purchasing class".

Excavations of the Twelfth Dynasty town Kahun have shown about 350 small houses in crowded streets. The largest of these has only seven rooms. Next to these come a dozen great mansions of about sixty rooms each. There is nothing in between. But by the Eighteenth Dynasty we find at Amarna that most of the houses stood in their own grounds and consisted of about a dozen rooms.

Labour conditions in Ancient Egypt are described by Herodotus in his account, derived from earlier authorities, of the building of the Great Pyramid. He states that 100,000 men were engaged in moving the stones during three months at a time, that they were ten years making the great causeway and preparing the site, and that the building itself occupied twenty years.

Labour or Capital in some form or other are the sources from which communities derive their livelihood and the foundations of {he economic state. But the basis of social life is of course, the family, and in this sphere the life of Ancient Egypt had peculiarities of its own. It would seem that except between husband, wife and children the family bond  was not very strong in Ancient Egypt. In no written record is there any reference to obligations to brothers or cousins. On the other hand the position of women and the care for children reached a very high standard.

The earliest marriage contract known in Egypt is as recent as 590 B.C., but it may, in the opinion of experts, be taken as a type of document which had been in use over a very long period, probably thousands of years. It states that the bride brought a dowry of six ounces of silver and fifty measures of corn. The bridegroom declares that should the marriage be dissolved "either from dislike or because he prefers another he will return the dowry and a share of property for the Children who may be born."

Polygamy existed in Ancient Egypt but it does not appear to have been practised except by Royalty and by the great nobles. Even in the noble families who have left sculptured monuments it is seldom that mention is made of more than one wife. Priests were limited to one wife and such was the usual practice among the labouring classes. Divorce was permitted but like polygamy, it does not seem to have been very prevalent.

In questions of descent the female line vvas considered the more important. In Ancient Egyptian geneologies the name of the father may sometimes be omitted. Indeed, it is rare to meet with an unbroken line of male descent. In regard to property, succession and inheritance were almost invariably through the female line and a curious result of this -it is mentioned as surprising by Greek historians -was that the duty of supporting aged parents devolved upon the daughters and not upon the sons.

Housekeeping in Ancient Egypt must, in the case of large establishments, have been anything but a sinecure. The household of Prince Amenemhat at Beni Hassan has been recorded as follovvs : -five scribes, two sealers, one reporter, one steward, one body servant, one mat-spreader, one confidential friend, one nurse and four followers. This constituted the Prince's personal staff. In the household itself there was a Director of Private Rooms, a Director of Warehouses, three Directors of Houses, two Scribes of Values, one Scribe of the Table, one Guard of the Kitchen, one Storekeeper, ten Caterers, a Brewer, a Baker, a Director of Washers and seven housemaids. On his farm were employed five Directors of Farm Produce, a Director of Cattle Herds, four herdsmen, and a number of keepers for cattle, donkeys, and gazelles; three Directors of Fisheries, two Directors of Goats, a Director of the Estate Office, as well as a number of carpenters, weavers and gardeners.

Slave labour was little used. There were serfs in Ancient Egypt but they were attached to the land at their own homes and could not be sold. Serfdom, which continued for many centuries, was a comparatively mild form of subjection and it does not appear to have weighed very heavily on the people. There was, however, a curious form of slavery in Ancient Egypt. The debtor would sometimes make over to his creditor not only any property he might possess but also his labour for the rest of his life.Several of these "Contracts of Servitude"have been found.

We are apt to look upon clubs and guilds as modern institutions. It is therefore interesting to note that local clubs, of a social rather than political nature, were a feature of provincial life in Ptolemaic times. In his fascinating book "The Ptolemies of Egypt", Col. P.G. Elgood quotes the minutes of a club-meeting at Hibeh (near Beni-Sue£) during the reign of Ptolemy Euergetes II. The meeting was between one Hermias and his friends, "possibly coachmen and head grooms" who were accustomed to meet in a corn loft or the harness room of some stables. A periodical subscription was levied and the expenses of a meeting divided among members and guests. The expenses included wines, a flautist and a dancer.

Social evolution is a slow process and the saying is very true that it is easier by far to change a country's laws than to change its customs. Moreover the social system of Ancient Egypt was so highly developed that subsequent centuries could bring but a very gradual change. Throughout the period which followed the Arab conquest of Egypt much remained unchanged in the lives of the Egyptian people.

Perhaps the greatest change was a new conception of family ties. Whereas, as already mentioned, these were not very strong in Ancient Egypt except where husband, wife and children were concerned, Islamic Egypt developed a sense of family feeling which remains unaltered to the present day. It is probably due to this factor, to the mutual aid and support which all members of a family feel bound to extend to each other, that the social problems of modern Egypt are less acute than in many other countries.

As regards social life, the seclusion of women exercised, no doubt inevitably, a restrictive influence. It was not until the nineteenth century that social life in Egypt began to assume its modern aspect.Under Mohammed Aly more particularly under Ismail the Magnificent, new elements of culture and of social contact were introduced. Among these may be mentioned foreign travel, foreign languages and access to the literature and learning of other nations, operas, theatres and Exhibitions.

It was however the twentieth century and the reign of King Fuad that were to bring about a real change in the social life of Egypt. To the peasant in the village the cinema and the radio have brought a world hitherto beyond his ken; to the growing child education is opening wider horizons. These influences must and do affect the lives of the people.

Meanwhile, higher up in the social scale, it may be said that social life in Modern Egypt is on a par with that of any other enlightened country. The amenities of an advanced civiIisation are available; social restrictions which might limit their enjoyment are rapidly dying out; while the Egyptian tradition of courtesy and hospitality adds, to the social life of the present day, a grace and a charm of its own.

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