The Online Library of Knowledge

LET'S EXPLORE Ancient worlds

What was it like to live in ancient Egypt?

A map of ancient EgyptA map of ancient EgyptThousands of years ago, one of the greatest civilizations that ever existed began in the valley of the River Nile in Egypt. A few kilometres to either side of the river lay the Sahara Desert, a vast, dry, barren expanse of sand and gravel. The people who lived by the Nile relied on the river to water their crops. Over time, the Nile valley became a patchwork of kingdoms. Then, in around 3100 BC, the kingdoms became united under a single ruler. The civilization of ancient Egypt lasted for many centuries. During this time, its people created the pyramids, temples, sculptures, paintings and many other treasures that have lasted to this day. They also left behind written records. These tell us much about how the people lived and the events in their history.


A bird's-eye view of the Nile valleyA bird's-eye view of the Nile valley

River Nile

The River Nile, which flowed through Egypt’s deserts, was vital to the ancient Egyptians. For four months each year it flooded, leaving behind a layer of rich black soil along its banks. The Egyptians called the floodplain kemet, the "black land", after the dark colour of its fertile soil. It was ideal for growing crops, such as barley and emmer, a kind of wheat. 


Harvesting the cropsHarvesting the crops

The Nile also provided water for animals, such as oxen and goats. They were also used to work the land. The farmers lived in simple mud-brick houses near their fields. The Nile was also a vital waterway. Cargo boats travelled up and down it each day.

Farming scene in ancient EgyptFarming scene in ancient Egypt

Farmers dug a network of channels to divert the floodwaters of the Nile across the fields of the valley. This is called irrigation.


Using a shadufUsing a shaduf


To lift water into or out of the irrigation channels, a shaduf was used. This simple device first appeared in New Kingdom times. It had an arm with a bucket at one end and a heavy stone weight at the other. The empty bucket could be pulled down to scoop up water and empty it into smaller channels that ran across the fields.


Harpooning a hippoHarpooning a hippo


Dangerous animals such as crocodiles and hippopotamuses lived in swamps along the banks of the Nile. Hippos were a nuisance to the Egyptians. They trampled their crops and frightened their cattle. Daring hunters used special harpoons to kill them.



Birdcatching was important to poorer people who could not afford meat. Catching the wild birds was a real skill. Men threw curved sticks to stun a bird in flight. They also caught birds by making them fly into nets strung between two posts, or by firing small stones at them from a sling.


Fishing on the Nile

FishingFishingThe waters of the Nile were constantly crowded with small fishing boats. They were made from bundles of papyrus reeds strapped tightly together. Fishermen trapped fish by slinging a net between their boats. Fish could also be caught by casting hand-held nets, or simply by spearing them in the shallows. 


Town life in ancient EgyptTown life in ancient Egypt

Town life

Most ordinary people of ancient Egypt were peasant farmers who lived off the land. But some lived in towns and cities. The town of Deir el-Medina (its modern name) was built to house the tomb-builders of the Valley of the Kings and their families. The workers included masons, carpenters, artists and other craftworkers. 

Inside the houses of Deir el-MedinaInside the houses of Deir el-Medina

Their houses were made of mud bricks and people lived several to a room. The windows were small and set high in the walls to keep out thieves. 

Because the weather was usually hot and dry, roofs were used as extra living and working spaces. To get around, people simply walked from one roof to another, using steps and ladders.


A scribeA scribe


Only the pharaoh's children and the sons and daughters of wealthy families went to school. Many schoolchildren learned to be scribes. Written records were vital to the way Egypt was governed. All government officials, priests, army generals, as well as the pharaoh himself, know how to read and write.

Students learning to writeStudents learning to write

Pupils started learning at the age of five. They learnt how to write hieroglyphic script, the form of writing used in ancient Egypt. They practised on old pieces of pottery, called ostraca. There were more than 800 different hieroglyphs, representing people, animals or objects, to learn. 




Hieroglyphic script, the oldest form of Egyptian writing, consisted of a range of picture symbols. Writing hieroglyphs was slow because each picture had to be painted separately. So they would normally be used only for special documents, monuments or the walls of tombs. Hieratic script was a simplified form of hieroglyphic writing. It was more straightforward and quicker to write.

Writing materialsWriting materials




Ready to find out more?

Here are some pages in other parts of Q-files you might like to explore:
Ancient Egypt 
People of ancient Egypt 
Nile in ancient Egypt 
Farming in ancient Egypt 
Fishing and hunting on the Nile 
Craftworkers in ancient Egypt 
Education in ancient Egypt 

Consultant: Philip Parker

Near its mouth in the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile divides into seven main channels and hundreds of smaller ones which fan out across the lowlands. This triangular area of land resembles the shape of the Greek letter “delta”, so the region is known as the Nile Delta.

© 2020 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile