Whilst travelling down the River Nile on a rather deserted cruise, we took a jeep out into the desert. Here we went to visit a remote rural village and a traditional Egyptian home. This village has kept the essence and appearance of an ancient traditional housing complex and traditional architecture.
An Island village
Arriving at the village, I caught sight of several small children ranging from the age of five to around fifteen. They were all hiding behind pillars, cars, and anything that would provide them with sufficient concealment. Suddenly I realised that in their eyes we were intruders. We were invading their private home, that has been unfrequented by tourists, remote and divorced from urbanisation and consumerism.
Despite our unwelcome and unexpected appearance, they welcomed us with open arms, wide smiles and an extraordinary amount of attentiveness. They went to lengths to give us anything we wanted. I got the impression that even if we wanted something impossible, they’d go to lengths to make it happen. I soon learnt that coming from a westernised culture, where technological advances, consumerism, and gender equality (to name but a few advantages) meant that I have lived a life of luxury. And this life was in stark contrast compared to the lifestyle these genuinely kind people were accustomed to.
The history of a Traditional Egyptian Home
In Ancient Egypt, both the rich and the poor had homes built out of the same material. They had invented moulds to make it easy to produce many bricks. And traditionally these moulds were made of mud and straw. Later they were dried in the sun, which the Egyptians believed made the moulds extra strong.
Traditional Egyptian Home for a noble
Predominantly, the nobles lived in huge villas along the Nile River. They painted the outside of their homes in white to keep it cool. Whilst the very wealthy lined their homes with limestone. Limestone was an expensive commodity, but it made their homes sparkle in the sunshine. This acted as a clear symbol that defined the wealthy from the poor. In addition, the wealthy decorated their walls with pastel colours. This was a way of communicating their status and authority to passers-by.
The design of a nobles’ home
The design of the house also conveyed this. Most homes would have up to 30 rooms. These rooms included storerooms, guest rooms, and even bathrooms, but unfortunately no running water. Imagine how impressive these houses must have been! Another feature of a traditional Egyptian home was mirrors, pots and pans, ovens, shelves, beds and comfortable sitting areas.
Excavations have shown that these objects are excellent ways of telling us what was popular amongst the wealthy. The pots have been identified as mostly cosmetic or perfume pots. Whilst the shelves have been identified as the home to linens and other good quality clothes. Clearly make-up and fashion were as important to Ancient Egyptians as they are to us. There’s no escaping the desire to look our best selves.
A Traditional Egyptian Home for a peasant
On the other hand, the peasant’s homes were still very nice but tiny. It represented their lack of financial funds and lack of education. These homes had no limestone nor were their walls decorated. But they had a very simple, open courtyard with walls but no roof. From there, a ramp led up to a door which led inside the house. The second floor is where the family enjoyed the evenings together. In most cases, the bottom level was used for business, such as a bakery or as a storehouse, or as a workshop. Whilst the second levels were traditionally where the family lived.
The design of the peasants’ home is the one that has continued throughout time into the 21st century. It is the same design that I saw when I visited this island. I think it tells a lot about the way the world works; Although we may aspire to be among the wealthy and to have nice things and big houses, it is actually the common people and their way of life that survives. It’s because their way of life is affordable and made in quantity. But it is also because these people have had to learn to survive and when push comes to shove, they’re the ones who rise up!
The Traditional Egyptian Home we visited
Most of the houses (if not all) were tiny, often one rectangle room that included the sleeping area, kitchen, seating area whilst all their valuable belongings were attached to the walls. As we entered one of the local ladies houses for some much-needed refreshments, I noticed that one house opposite had a damaged wall. At first, I couldn’t figure out what the two young men were rebuilding it with but then I realised that they built all these houses out of mud and brick, some with plastered ceilings others with wooden beams holding up the flat mud roves. I knew that this was how the Ancient Egyptians built their homes, so I felt like I was glimpsing into the past or watching history repeat itself.
The structure of this Traditional Egyptian Home
Once we walked through the entrance, we were faced with a courtyard that was principally used as an enclosure to house farm animals (including a crocodile) which had five or six rooms extending off of its centre. These rooms are based on the old Egyptian design and the old lady shared this space with her entire family (all three generations; several children and a multitude of grandchildren). Floor, ceiling, and walls were all mud whilst the most luxurious furniture they had were their chairs, even though these chairs were rough and weather-beaten. However, I later found out that their furniture and running water (which is still uncommon) spoke of their prosperity in the village.
An eye-opening lesson
Despite this, I was saddened by the notion that if we were to suggest to someone in a westernised culture to stay in such a house, the likely response would be to sneer their noses up at the idea. This suggests, at least to me, that we are now so accustomed to wealth, consumerism and status that we have become devoid of the true meaning of life.
One of the very important lessons I learnt from spending the afternoon here is that the unnecessary things we clutter and surround our daily lives with are not important but that we only need food, water and a roof over our heads to be happy. Their way of life inspired me, as I have never seen anyone with so little, be so very content and happy with their life. To them, they lived in a palace (as the size of their house was larger than most of the others). And also, they could excel in this happiness as they had no economic and social pressures (as we often do) to keep up appearances of a certain lifestyle.
The importance of the Nile River
Upon discussion with this family (via my guide as a translator), I discovered that until recently the water of the Nile was the only source for drinking which explained why so many of the villages were built along the banks of its canal. Intrigued by the simplicity of their life, I asked for more information about the process of building these unique buildings.
I was informed that most of the houses were one or two stories high, built as previously stated with mud bricks plastered with mud and straw. The houses are joined to one another in a continuous row where the roofs are built of layers of dried date-palm leaves, with palm-wood rafters and corn. The sharing of walls visually represents the community way of life here; everyone looked out for everyone. There was a feeling of mutual respect, love and kindness; very different to the busy city life in England.
A lesson learnt about this Traditional Egyptian Home
This made me feel almost ashamed to have them looking upon my expensive clothes and handbag. It put my life into perspective; the things we worried about, about getting a new top or getting a takeaway pizza are luxuries that they’ve never even heard of and that we do not really need! I am grateful to have been one of the few to experience this way of life, to get a sense that true fulfilment and happiness comes from the strong community around you. The love and support of family and neighbours, as opposed to ambitions for status, wealth, and power.
If you enjoyed reading this, check out these other day trip ideas in Egypt. Or check out my other post about Luxor and Karnak Temples, Abu Simbel, or the Colossi of Memnon! And be sure to subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss out on another inspiring travel article!