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Family in Ancient Egypt

Nefertiti's family
Nefertiti, Akhenaten, and their daughters

Most Egyptians lived in families made up of a mother and a father and children, just as many people do today. But their families often had five or more children, because so many children died before they grew up.

Girls usually lived at home until they were about 15-19 years old, when they got married and moved to their husband's house. Boys got married a little older, and often continued living in their parents' house even after they got married, with their new wife. Couples seem to have been close, and often appear in art together, men and women side by side, or with their children.

But Egyptian villages tended to be crowded, and poorer Egyptians often lived with their whole family in only one room of a house, with other poor families living in the other rooms. Historians who have looked at contracts and tax records have shown that these other families were not necessarily related; it was more like an apartment house, though all the families shared the use of the courtyard.

Akhenaten and nefertiti hold hands up to sun disk
Akhenaten, Nefertiti and two of their daughters
worship the aten (the sun)

One funny thing about Egyptian families from the time of the Pharaohs right down through the end of the Roman Empire was a tendency for brothers and sisters to get married. Most people did not marry their brother or sister, but a surprising (to us) number of people did. Historians are not sure why this happened. It may have had something to do with inheritance and keeping the property in the family. Some of the "brothers" may have been adopted into families with no living sons to inherit. This tendency toward brother-sister marriage was true for both poor and rich families: Cleopatra, for instance, married her younger brother Ptolemy, and the tax records show that poor people did this as well. The Greeks and Romans thought this was very strange. When the Egyptians became Christians in the 300s AD, though, they stopped marrying their brothers and sisters (maybe because girls stopped inheriting property), and the conversion to Islam in the 700s AD also did not allow brother-sister marriage.

Learn by doing: write a story about a teenaged girl about to get married
More about inheritance in Ancient Egypt

Bibliography and further reading about families in ancient Egypt:

Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt, by Lionel Casson (revised edition 2001). Not especially for kids, but pretty entertaining reading, and Casson knows what he's talking about.

Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt, by Lynn Meskell (2002). A little more specialized and harder to read.

More about Egyptian people
More about Ancient Egypt home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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