The nobleman who controlled the land that the peasant worked often lived in considerable luxury. If he was a high-ranking official, his town or country house—made of the sun-baked brick the Egyptians used for all domestic architecture, from hovels to palaces—was usually set in a landscaped garden enclosed by a high wall. Its whitewashed elegance and columned veranda were reflected in a large pool stocked with fish and scattered with lotus blossoms. Visitors were greeted in a central reception hall about which were clustered smaller public rooms, guest rooms and the family's private chambers. Comfortable furnishings—couches, tables, chairs, beds, chests and colourful wall-hangings —attested to the competence of Egypt's craftsmen.
Those who dwelt within the royal palace itself enjoyed a life of splendour. Through broad courts, frescoed halls and corridors with friezes of faience tiles flowed a constant stream of imperial business. Shaven-headed priests, high dignitaries and army officers came and went on matters of domestic, foreign and religious concern. Subject princes from Syria and Palestine arrived, often accompanied by dazzling retinues. Upon a dais in a lofty, colonnaded audience hall the god-king sat enthroned, flanked by a bodyguard and attended by ranks of courtiers. Here he received ambassadors from the courts of Babylonia, Crete, the Hittites and other nations; here he accepted rich tribute brought by newly conquered chieftains in exotic dress.
Set apart from the pageantry of state were the pharaoh's private apartments—his robing chamber, bedroom and bath, and the adjoining quarters of the royal harem. Opening off the apartments was the Balcony of Appearances. From this vantage point, on festive or solemn occasions, the monarch displayed himself to crowds in a court below, and from it he bestowed gifts and decorations upon deserving retainers.
Though extremely remote in time, the civilization of ancient Egypt is in some respects more intimately known today than that of any other nation of antiquity. The Old Testament is rich in references to Egypt. In addition, history and literature written by the Egyptians themselves have endured in the stone of temples, monuments and tombs, and on papyrus scrolls.
The fundamental conservatism of the ancient Egyptians also helped to preserve the evidences of their civilization. Although they were subjected to alien rulers in their latter days and assaulted on every hand by foreign influences, they clung tenaciously to the customs and beliefs of their past. Thus many remains of their culture lasted virtually intact almost until modern times, to be observed first-hand and recorded by writers of the rising Western world.
The Egyptians themselves were responsible for the preservation of many artifacts of their civilization because of their distinctive attitude towards death. Since they viewed death as an extension of life, they prepared for it elaborately. Any man who could afford a proper tomb spared neither energy nor expense to furnish it with the many things thought indispensable for living in the hereafter. Geography and climate assisted in the preservation process. Most of the land bordering the Nile is desert, receiving little or no rainfall. The remains of the past, blanketed by dry sand, rested undisturbed through the millennia. Even the most perishable materials—delicate fabrics, articles of fragile wood, papyrus—survived relatively unscathed.
As a result of these two factors—religion and climate— Egypt remained a huge and unique storehouse of antiquity. Its artifacts span all the periods from primitive prehistory to the sophisticated and magnificent age of the pharaohs. Scenes painted on the walls of tombs from dynastic days onwards faithfully depict many details of Egyptian life. Their subjects range from the lowly tasks of farmers and servants and the happy games of children to the pomp and ceremony that attended gods and kings. Small wooden models reproduce dwellings, ships, soldiers in battle gear; butchers, bakers and brewers in their shops. Although the tomb furnishings— clothing, musical instruments, furniture, cosmetics, tools and weapons—were for the use of the dead, all shed light on the ways of the living.