The phrase 'Ancient Egypt' always conjures up pictures of pyramids being built by thousands of slaves, of rich treasures of gold and other precious materials, and of the great kingdoms of the Pharaohs. But apart from the history of great deeds, buildings, mummies and treasures, archaeologists have also discovered a great deal about how the Ancient Egyptians relaxed and spent their leisure time.
One important source of this information has been the remarkable and detailed tomb paintings found on the tombs of noblemen and Pharaohs. For example, most of the tombs of noblemen at Sakhara and Giza show pictures of the dead person with his family, sitting down in a relaxed way, perhaps enjoying the breeze, or being entertained by musicians, dancers or singers. Other tomb paintings show hunting for sport as well as food. We also know that the Ancient Egyptians played many games in their spare time. Egyptian children played games such as leapfrog outside, and both adults and children played board games indoors. Many of their games seem very similar to ones played today.
Hunting for Sport
A pastime enjoyed by most Egyptians involved venturing outside into muddy marshes to search for - and even hunt - water birds or, in the desert, to hunt other animals. Other forms of hunting were popular through all classes. The Pharaoh Sahure is shown in some of his pictures hunting animals such as deer, gazelles and antelopes. Noblemen captured wild animals, and the peasants chased after gazelle, oryx, oxen, hares and ostriches. The most commonly used hunting weapons were bows and arrows, lassos, and throwing sticks. Going out for a hunt was a family activity. One tomb painting depicts a family sailing through thickets on a boat. The father stood at the prow of the boat, holding a throw-stick to stun a bird when he was close to it.
Fishing as a Pastime
Fish was a major food source for common Egyptian people. They would go to the River Nile, the canals and the lakes to fish. Almost certainly, much of the fishing was enjoyed as a break from harder work as well as being a way of collecting food for the family.
Music as a Pastime
The ancient Egyptians loved music. Noblemen held parties where women danced and musicians played instruments such as harps1, flutes (these were made of wood and hollowed out, with several holes for fingers) cymbals, and sistrums2.
Leisure Time in the Garden
Some families, especially noble or high-ranking families, had their own garden next to their house like people do today. The wealthiest families had a pond in theirs, filled with water from the Nile coming through a little channel, and shade offered by palm trees. The whole family could go outside and relax while fan-bearers waved palm-frond fans to keep them cool.
Egyptians loved playing in water, which is not surprising since they had the great river Nile and a very warm climate. A game on the river - which might have been an exhibition contest or a race - consisted of light reed boats being punted in the same direction, while two or three men in each boat - each armed with poles - tried to push their opponents into the water! After they had successfully knocked all the men off a boat, they would either board it, or tip it over.
Egyptians were very good swimmers, and they loved to do it. One hieroglyph shows a man swimming; this and other drawings make it look quite likely that ancient Egyptians could swim a style resembling the modern front crawl. Royal and noble children often took swimming lessons, as mentioned in a biographical inscription of a Middle Kingdom nobleman.
Rich families would often have parties enjoyed by everyone, even the children. There would be many guests, lots of delicious food, and entertainment provided by acrobats, performing animals, or musicians.
A favourite Egyptian board game was Senet and is similar to our modern game of backgammon.
Children's Pastimes, Games and Toys
Egyptian children were encouraged to have fun. After their work had been done they could go swimming in the River Nile, play outdoor games or board games with other children, or amuse themselves with their toys.
Some of the outdoor games played by ancient Egyptian children are still played by children now. Leapfrog, a game which involves bending over so your teammates can jump over you, and vice-versa, is still played now. So is khuzza lawizza, a variation on leapfrog where two children sit on the ground with their hands touching. The object of the game is for other children to continue to be able to jump over their arms as they raise them higher and higher.
Another game that is played today is tug-of-war. Egyptian paintings and carvings show children playing the above-mentioned games, as well as children playing soldiers (this was reserved mainly for the boys) and girls holding hands and going around in a sort of spinning dance. This dance was very vigourous, and was in honour of Hathor, a boys' game was based on cutting trellises for vines. Boys tried to balance on each other to make vine trellises.
Wooden toys were carved for children. There were dolls for children, mostly flat, and clay beads attached to twine for hair. It is not known whether these dolls were made as toys, or made to be put in tombs, to act as a friend for someone in the afterlife. In some cultures when a person dies a small doll that resembles them is made. The doll must be taken everywhere, and looked after just like a real person. Maybe dolls were made to resemble the dead person's loved one, so that the dead person would have their loved one with them in the afterlife. If a child died, his or her toys would be buried with him or her, especially if the child was considered of the upper class.
Egyptian children also enjoyed painting and drawing. They made necklaces or charms as a tribute to their favourite god.
1 The number of strings varied - it could be anything from four to twenty - but most common seemed to be five strings.
2 A sistrum was a sacred rattle used by noblewomen and priestesses at special ceremonies. It often had the head of the god Hathor on it - Hathor stood for joy and fondness of music and dance.