The family in ancient Egypt

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Egyptian stone carving of Nefertiti, Akhenaten, and their daughters

An Egyptian family: Nefertiti, Akhenaten, and their daughters

A typical Egyptian family

Most Egyptians lived in families with a mother and a father and children, just as many people do today. But an ancient Egyptian family often had five or more children. That was because so many children died before they grew up.

Marriage

Girls usually lived at home until they were about 15-19 years old. Then they got married and moved to their husband’s house. Boys got married a little older. Even after they got married, boys often kept on living in their parents’ house with their new wife. Couples seem to have been close. They often appear in art together. We see men and women side by side, or playing with their children.

Childbirth with two gods helping (Ptolemaic Egypt, now in Tahrir, Egypt)

Childbirth with two gods helping (Ptolemaic Egypt, now in Tahrir, Egypt)

Crowded rooms

But Egyptian villages tended to be crowded. Poorer Egyptians often lived with their whole family in only one room of a house. Other poor families lived in the other rooms. These other families were not necessarily related. It was more like an apartment house. All the families shared the use of the courtyard, where they probably spent most of their time.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and two of their daughters worship the aten (the sun)

Egyptian family religion: Akhenaten, Nefertiti and two of their daughters worship the aten (the sun)

Brother-sister marriage

One funny thing about Egyptian families was a tendency for brothers and sisters to get married. This was true from the time of the Pharaohs right down through the end of the Roman Empire. 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 families with no living sons to inherit their land may have adopted “brothers” to inherit.

Cleopatra and Ptolemy

This tendency toward brother-sister marriage was true for both poor and rich families. Cleopatra, for instance, married her younger brother Ptolemy. Tax records show that poor people did this too. 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). 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
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By |2018-04-19T12:40:53+00:00June 17th, 2017|Africa, Egypt, People|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. The family in ancient Egypt. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 17, 2017. Web. September 19, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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