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Thinking and defining poverty in ancient Egypt

By Delphine Driaux, FWF Elise Richter Fellow at the University of Vienna


We live these days in a world where social inequalities are increasingly visible and where there are more and more poor people, particularly as a result of economic crises, the consequences of climate change, wars and other conflicts, pandemics etc. Thus, according to the United Nations (https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/addressing-poverty), nearly half of the world’s population currently lives in poverty – this poverty being measured in terms of a salary of no more than US $1.90 a day (revalued in 2022 to US $2.15 due to changes in prices in low-income relative to the rest of the world). This threshold does not provide however an exact picture of poverty in the world. Two other poverty lines have therefore been established to better reflect the poverty rate in developing countries: US $3.65 a day and US $6.85 a day. Nevertheless, among people living in poverty, the United Nations states that more than 800 million live in extreme poverty, on less than US $1.25 a day. Beyond the observation, there are a number of points to bear in mind here: firstly, there are different degrees of poverty – the extreme poverty (also known as “absolute poverty”) being the ultimate stage; secondly, this poverty is measured. It is quantified using the international poverty line (IPL), updated by the World Bank (https://www.worldbank.org/en/understanding-poverty). In this specific case, poverty is defined as the absence of enough resources to secure basic life necessities. When we talk about poverty, this is usually this definition that immediately comes to mind. Yet, poverty is not characterised solely by financial insecurity. As Esther Duflo (winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics) explains: “poverty is made of multiple angles”. It is not just a lack of money but it is also a lack of education, lack of health, lack of information, lack of political inclusion and awareness etc. (https://books.openedition.org/cdf/2693). Consequently, there is no single definition of poverty, since poverty is multidimensional.

 

With these facts in mind, let’s now look to the past, and more specifically to antiquity. Some historians consider that mass structural poverty (i.e. poverty due to the very structure of society) has been the natural state of most of population in all premodern societies. It is certainly reasonable to assume that the same was true in ancient Egypt. Yet, it is difficult to affirm this with certainty. In the end, we still know very little about the poor of ancient Egypt. Archaeologists and historians probably have some responsibility in this. The subject of their studies is often chosen on the basis of the data available, which usually consists of well-preserved artefacts and monuments belonging, for the most part, to the well-off. Studies on Egyptian society are therefore necessarily biased, since they are based on a small proportion of the population. In addition, there is the problem of defining poverty – which is not easy to establish. In a civilisation such as Pharaonic Egypt, where money was unknown and coins were not widely used until the conquest of Alexander the Great, it is impossible to use a tool such as the poverty line. For ancient societies, when it comes to studying poverty, historians therefore generally prefer to use the concept of “relative poverty”. This allows them to evaluate the place of an individual by means of comparison within a society. This approach involves comparisons between different social groups and highlight the differences of living standards. Thus, to identify and know who the poor were in ancient Egypt, we need first to know who the rich were. However, poverty cannot be seen solely as an antonym to wealth. As in today’s world, poverty in ancient Egypt cannot simply be defined by a lack of “financial” resources. It was a more complex phenomenon, which seems not so far from the poverty as conceived today by economists such as Esther Duflo.


Fig. 1. Detail of a herdsman – tomb of Wekhhotep I at Meir (photo D. Driaux)

Therefore, what did it mean to be poor in ancient Egypt? The research I am currently carrying out aims to answer this complex question. However, the complexity also lies in the fact that the poor have left no significant traces in the historical record. And yet, by searching carefully, it turns out that the texts and images that have reached us give us a glimpse of the multiple dimensions of poverty. First of all, there is, of course, the lack of basic resources, just like this peasant whose house is empty of possessions. But being poor also means being hungry. A number of texts mention people who do not have enough to eat, while some scenes in tombs depict extremely thin people with visible ribs. Poverty is also expressed by a neglected physical appearance – in contrast to wealthy people who take care of themselves and are always portrayed in their best finery. Several texts describe people dressed in rags (they are also sometimes seen in some depictions) or having no hair – in other words, not wearing a wig. Being poor also means having little or no education and working in an unskilled or undignified job, such as washing clothes. Finally, archaeology also shows us that being poor also means having no or limited access to certain basic facilities.


It could be argued that the texts and images that depict poverty have been produced by the elites, for the benefit of the elites. Clearly, these are media that relay the values of the most privileged members of society. But these values are in fact the norm, which constitutes the foundation of Egyptian society. As a result, people who do not follow the norm inevitably find themselves socially poorer. The fact remains that descriptions of the poor are often subjective and sometimes caricatural (not to say stigmatising). It is therefore important to keep a critical eye on these sources, even if what they are telling us must be based, up to a point, on true observations. The vocabulary used in the texts is also very enlightening. There is a lexical field of poverty, which still needs to be studied in depth, but which already shows that there are different degrees of poverty, with individuals experiencing different living conditions. There are those who fall into poverty, those who live on basic resources, those who beg, and so on. Therefore, the poor in ancient Egypt were not a distinct and homogenous social group.

 

The multiple angles of poverty, to use Esther Duflo’s words, are not just the prerogative of our modern society; they are clearly visible in ancient societies in general and in ancient Egypt in particular. This is precisely what makes the study of poverty so difficult. However, once this observation has been made, a lengthy amount of research work must begin in order to collect direct and indirect evidence of the living conditions, behaviour and practices of the most modest social categories. Once these data will have been processed and analysed, it will be then possible to detail the many forms and different realities of poverty in Pharaonic Egypt, and finally to shed light on individuals who have remained invisible for too long in the history of ancient Egypt but also in Egyptology.

 

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