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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.

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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.

Egyptian houses

Slavery and marriage

Many people in ancient Egypt were slaves. Their partnerships were not counted as legal marriages, so their owners could force them to split up anytime. Some relationships got complicated: in one case, for example, an enslaved woman’s owner was also her partner, and they had a baby. When he got into debt, he had to sell his partner to pay his debts. He tried to keep her baby, but after a while he had to sell the baby – his son – too. But he sold them to the same man, so at least the mother got her baby back.

Slavery in Ancient Egypt
How people fall into debt

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.

More about Roman Egypt
Cleopatra and her brother

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
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