Ancient Egyptians considered Re to be the father of all the gods. Often represented in lion, cat, or falcon form, it is said that Re-created mankind from his own tears. Re (above) is depicted as a cat fighting his enemy snake god Apophis, the god of darkness.
Ancient Egyptians are believed to have belonged to the eastern branch of a people known as the Hamites. They were said to be descendants of Ham, the youngest of the biblical Noah’s three sons, the original speakers of the Hamitic language. The Fellahin (farmers in Arab countries) have been described as the true Egyptians and the oldest people of civilization. They lived in small villages along the riverbanks. Their houses were made of bundles of reeds coated with chopped straw and silt from the ditches. Palm fronds covered the roofs and provided protection from the extreme elements. With crudely made hoes, hand axes, and sickles, they farmed the rich topsoil and raised barley, corn, onions, a coarse grain called cyllestis, and flax for meal and fabric. They kept goats, sheep, and water buffaloes; made bread in clay ovens or open fires; and ate dried fish and wild fowl. Mulberries, gathered from the marshes, were used for lamp oil. When men ventured into the Nile to fish, they sailed in lightweight river skiffs made from papyrus. Ancient tomb art depicts a single man, standing at the bow, holding a long pole to fend off the river’s inevitable crocodile or rhinoceros.
“Food, bread, beer, and all good things,” is a phrase found engraved on a funerary stele and used by the host to inform his guests. The stele provided historians with an ancient menu. Greek historian Herodotus took it a step further and wrote, “They eat loaves of bread of coarse grain which they call cyllestis. They made their beverage from barley, for they had no vines in their country, ate fish raw, sun-dried or preserved in salt brine.” Foods were served in pottery bowls painted with ducks and deer and on exquisite alabaster dishes.
The bedouins were the wanderers, sometimes called nomads, who traditionally dwelled in the Western and Sinai deserts. They lived in tribes and moved herds of camels and flocks of sheep from oasis to oasis to find suitable pastures. They ate lamb and rice, and their camels supplied a source of milk. From camel hair they made tents, carpets, and their clothes. The head of the tribe was called a sheik. Although bedouins led a primitive and largely isolated life, the women could engage in business and choose their husbands. In ancient times, they were often predaceous and known to plunder from raids on other settlements, passing caravans, and one another.
Nubian people came from northern Sudan and lived along the Nile Valley near Aswan. Like the Fellahin, they made their homes from river mud and straw reeds. Their livelihood came from the dense thickets of date palms that grew along the river’s edge. The palms furnished them with food and materials for timber and making rope. Nubians were also invaders who attempted to control Egypt. In turn, there were long periods during which Egyptian pharaohs, such as Ramses II, controlled and collected taxes from the Nubians. In armed conflict, the Nubians were highly skilled archers and fearless warriors who fought bitter battles against the imposing armies. Taken as prisoners, they were forced into slave labor in the brickfields or had to drag endless tons of stone for Ramses’ great pylon gateway.
During the Middle Kingdom, Semitic-speaking people made their homes in Egypt. They worked as servants or members of Egyptian households, adapting to certain ways of their new masters. Pharaohs had strict control of immigrants and people who were already residents. Many came as prisoners of war: Canaanites, Amorites, and Hurrians. Others became slaves on the vast temple grounds. It they were fortunate, they might work in government departments. The hungry or homeless immigrants came as compulsory slaves.
The Apiru were thought of as displaced, rootless people who easily mixed with others mentioned in the Bible. These people were probably Hebrews or clan groups from Israel. Their forefathers, Jacob and Joseph, had come to Egypt to escape the famine. According to Exodus 1:13–14, “So they made the people of Israel serve with rigor, and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and all kinds of work in the field.”