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Ancient Egypt was an elaborate empire, seemingly one of the most interesting ancient cities of all time. From fearless pharaohs, to incredible writing techniques, to astounding architecture, Egypt was a complex society with many details that created one of the longest lasting empires in history. To explore deeper into the composition of this early civilization’s society, let’s discuss three major documents from this time period: Ptah-Hotep, Precepts (2300 BCE), Instruction to Vizier Rekhmire (1400 BCE), and Hekanakhte’s Household (2002/1 BCE) give us insight into the world of Egyptian culture.
Ptah-Hotep Precepts is a document that was written in 2300 BCE, 5th Dynasty, in ancient Egypt. Ptah-Hotep wrote this set of guidelines for young people to keep them on the right path. He begins the document with a statement of how his writing will advise the young men of Egypt on how to be enlightened and free from evil. Most of what is written is in second person perspective speaking directly to a young man. Many of the morals discussed are about the relationship between a man and woman, or a husband and wife. This focus on the marital relationship showed how important the role of marriage and loyalty to one’s significant other was to Egyptian culture. The beginning of these precepts focused on how a man should act in everyday life. Ptah-Hotep writes, “Let no one inspire men with fear. . . ” and “If thou an agriculturalist gather the crops in the field which the great [Ptah] has given thee, fill not thy mouth in the house of thy neighbors; it is better to make oneself dreaded by the possessor. ” These presentations of ideal behavior show that the man was supposed to be self-sufficient and strong. The expectations of young men in Egyptian society were held to a high standard of virility.
Later in the document the author brings up the expectations of a man regarding a woman. He begins with, “If thou desirest to excite respect within the house thou enterest, for example the house of a superior, a friend, or any person of consideration… keep thyself from making advances to a woman, for there is nothing good in doing so. ” This statement shows that affairs of this nature were not accepted in the slightest, and if any one man committed such an act, it would cause all respect for him to be lost. The author even went as far to say, “men destroy themselves in order to enjoy a moment, brief as a dream, while they gain death…” Keeping a faithful relationship seemed to be the center of Ptah-Hotep’s writing. The importance of a woman’s happiness in her marriage was also expressed quite thoroughly. In multiple sections of his writing, he also discusses the woman’s comfort. In one paragraph he mentioned, “If thou art wise, look after thy house; love thy wife without alloy. Fill her stomach, cloth her back; these are cares to be bestowed on her person. ” Despite this concern for women, they still did not get to decide their own fate. A man took care of every aspect of their lives. Everything Ptah-Hotep wrote was centered around how an Egyptian man should partake in daily activities and social relationships.
The document Instruction to Vizier Rekhmire was written in 15th century BCE. It is essentially an instruction manual for being the pharaoh’s vizier, or chief minister. The author first described how the “chamber” of the vizier was to be arranged writing, “he shall sit upon a chair, with a rug upon the floor, and a dais upon it, a cushion under his back, a cushion under his feet… and a baton at his hand…” A vizier was the official who made judgments in the Egyptian court. He supposed to organize the judicial hearings as such: “the mangates of the South (shall stand) in the two aisles before him, while the master of the privy chamber is on his right, the receiver of income on his left, the scribes on the vizier at his (either) hand…” The writer explained the duties of the minister and described the amount of power this official held in Egyptian society. Some duties of the vizier included punishment of crimes, declaring the time for harvest, and appointing other important officials. Every matter of society was brought to the vizier so that the pharaoh could focus on being a leader. This document illustrates the division of power in Egyptian hierarchies and more extensively explains the responsibilities of the high-ranking officials. This clarification of job description helps one understand more in depth about Egyptian culture.
Hekanakhte was a ka-servant to the vizier Ip. This means he was responsible for the rituals preformed in the tomb to “honor and nourish the ka (spirit) of the deceased. ” He wrote various letters that got lost, then preserved, and were later found and excavated from a tomb. In this specific letter, Hekanakhte’s Household, he wrote of the famine in Egypt and how it affected his family and people who were in the lower class. He begins by asking how they are and if they’re eating well. During this time, the Nile was not flooding, and so food sources were low. Hekanakhte was a land owner, so he tells the people reading his letter to go to his house and cultivate his land. He lays out his rations and explains how they should be issued to the working people, so that they will be able to go out and harvest more food for the growing season. He touches on a religious aspect by mentioning that if the people treat his land right “god will be praised for” them. His letters give a look into the lives of the working people of Egypt. Hekanakhte’s work is significant for that reason. Not many documents from this time period focus on the ordinary, but rather the powerful. These letters enable us to know more about the real society of Egypt, and not just the luxurious outer shell.
All three of these documents, Ptah-Hotep, precepts, Instruction to Vizier Rekhmire, and Hekanakhte’s Household give us insight into the ancient world of Middle and New Kingdom Egypt. The writings demonstrate the communication through different levels of society and the concern for adequate behavior. Egypt was a complex civilization that had many exceptional characteristics that through documents like these, we can grasp a better understanding.
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