Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 July 2010
Issue No. 1006
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Donkey dowry

How did the ancient Egyptians manage their marital life? Nevine El-Aref ponders on the gender role of the ancient wife

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Tutankhamun attended to by his wife Ankhsenamun(left); Ptolemy VIII with Queen Cleopatra

Marriage and family were the core of ancient Egyptian society, and their practice of early marriage stemmed from their belief that a committed and happy family would lead to secure and contented children who would be the future adults of a stable society.

"Although we don't have any texts that mention marriage formalities, legal documents show clearly that married men and women had well-defined responsibilities," Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass says.

According to the history books, husbands and wives had several joint and separate marital activities. The bride might bring with her into the marriage domestic equipment, textiles and sometimes a donkey -- the main means of transport at the time. The groom built the house and gave his wife commodities and items of jewellery.

"Contracts defined property rights within the marriage, like qayma nowadays, were among the marriage rituals from the Third Intermediate Period and the New Kingdom," Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly. Such contracts were between a husband and his father-in-law. There were also other contracts recording the material rights of the wife, sometimes even the amount of food and clothing her husband should provide her with annually. In the case of divorce, the wife usually received a third of the joint property as well as whatever she brought with her into the house. By the Late Period the wife as well as the husband could initiate divorce. "This right shocked the misogynist Greeks of that time," Hawass points out.

While a woman was allowed only one husband, a man could have more than one wife if he could afford it. "But perhaps because of the influence of the ideal example of the divine couple Isis and Osiris, most marriages were monogamous," Hawass suggests, adding that a man or a woman could remarry in case of divorce or widowhood.

Although not uncommon, divorce was a private matter between a married couple. The causes of divorce might be inability to conceive, abuse, adultery, infertility, or wanting to marry another woman. If the divorce were contested, the partner was interrogated before the local court. Property contracts detailing a woman's share of joint property in the case of divorce were safeguards so that she would not be left destitute or a burden on her father's household, to which she would presumably return. "They also must have been a deterrent to the hasty repudiation of a spouse," Hawass says.

Women were not forced to sit at home and raise children. On the contrary they had the right to work and did so in several domains, except for the military and government. Spinning, weaving and domestic work were common jobs among ancient Egyptian women, and when Hawass discovered the Pyramid builders' necropolis on the Giza Plateau he discovered that women played their role in the construction of the Pyramids. He told the Weekly that according to objects found there women cooked for the builders, ground grain and baked bread. They also nursed sick or injured workmen and dealt with field operations and broken limbs. Throughout the course of history women sought employment as wet nurses, manicurists, musicians, singers and priestesses.

"In fact," Hawass says, "women were silent but very well interpreted."

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