A home for the afterlife
Unlike Egypt’s elite, ordinary Egyptians could not afford mummification, tombs or elaborate funerary offerings. Nonetheless, they wanted to provide for the afterlife as best they could. Their simple burials, usually directly into the desert sand, were accompanied by so-called ‘soul houses’ like this. These simple pottery models were intended to provide the essentials for the next life: food, drink, a home. Such models typically show a modest rural dwelling, its courtyard filled with offerings of bread, beer, meat, fruit and vegetables. Soul houses provide useful information about the homes of ordinary people in ancient Egypt.
As in villages throughout Egypt today, ancient Egyptian houses were built of mudbrick, with palm logs used to support their roofs and ceilings. Mudbrick, also known as adobe, is a cheap and practical material. It was easy to build with and the materials were free and readily available. Bricks were made by mixing mud with chopped-up straw and water, then pressing the mixture into a wooden mould. Once the sun had dried them, they were ready to use.
As a precaution against earthquakes and high Nile floods, the walls of houses were often thicker at the bottom and sloped up, making them stronger and more stable. As rain was rare, the roofs were flat, providing a useful outdoor living and storage area. Screened by reed mats for privacy, the family could also sleep here in hot weather.
In Egypt’s hot climate, keeping cool was a prority. Mudbrick was a good insulator, and helped keep the inside of the house cool in summer. The exterior walls were plastered and whitewashed to reflect the sun and tiny windows helped keep houses cool and ventilated. Some homes even had vents on the roof to allow cool breezes to circulate through the house, a form of natural air conditioning.
Town and country
In towns, houses were built close together, with two or more storeys, but in the countryside single-storey homes were more usual and there was room for people to have gardens. This allowed country dwellers to supplement their diet with home-grown fruit and vegetables and to keep poultry for eggs and meat. Wealthy homeowners even had flower beds, vine arbours and ponds full of waterlilies where fish and ducks swam.
Rich and poor
There were huge differences between the homes of the rich and the poor. Set in great country estates, the enormous villas of the rich had many rooms. The walls and ceilings were plastered and painted with patterns in bright colours or hung with coloured textiles. Separate buildings accommodated stables, storerooms, workshops and kitchens. Most houses just had a small kitchen yard at the back with a clay oven and a grindstone. In humble homes the floor was of beaten earth covered with reed mats, while palaces had tiled floors. Wealthy homes even had bathrooms and toilets, while ordinary people had to wash in the river and use a chamber pot or toilet stool.
Whatever their size, most houses had the same kind of layout. At the front was a reception area, sometimes with a porch. Behind were the private rooms, where members of the family ate and slept. The largest of these was a common living area, with a raised ceiling supported on wooden columns. Here you might find a shrine to the household gods, or busts of deceased ancestors.
Whatever the status of the homeowner, security was a concern – another reason that windows were so small was to deter burglars, who were known to strip naked and smear their bodies in oil in order to wriggle through tiny openings. For this reason, windows were often fitted with stone grilles. Most houses also had cellars where things were stored for safety and some homeowners kept guard dogs.
The ancient Egyptians did not use nearly as much furniture as we do today. Although the rich had beds with wooden frames, most people slept on built-in mud benches covered in mats. Instead of pillows there were head rests made of ivory, wood or pottery. In wealthy homes there were chairs and feather-filled cushions to sit on, while in poorer homes the sleeping benches doubled by day as seating.There were no cupboards or wardrobes - clothes and household goods were kept in wooden chests and boxes of various shapes and sizes, while foodstuffs like oil and grain were stored in pots and baskets. Instead of tables, tall stands were used to hold trays of food or jars of drink. At night, light was provided by pottery oil lamps set on stands or in wall niches.
Terracotta model of a house
Introduction to Egyptian houses, with a clear plan of a simple town house.
Another introduction to Egyptian houses, with reconstruction and cut-away diagram of a nobleman’s villa.
Different types of Egyptian houses
Useful article on different types of Egyptian houses, with helpful illustrations and links to more detailed information.
Building in Egypt
General article on building in Egypt, with information on mudbrick composition and construction, and a description of the life and work of brickmakers and bricklayers.
Information on mudbricks
Detailed information on Egyptian mudbrick.
Wall decoration in homes
Article on painted wall decoration in homes.
Ancient Egyptian furniture
Useful, well-illustrated article on ancient Egyptian furniture.
Ancient Egyptian furniture
Another useful, well-illustrated article on ancient Egyptian furniture.
Life in an ancient Egyptian village
Video clip about life in an ancient Egyptian village, including houses and furniture.