Ancient Egypt : Color of life – Slavery

Thanks to Hollywood, many people still believe that the ancient Egyptians utilized vast armies of slaves to build the pyramids. This view is based in part on the biblical account in Exodus of the Jewish people being held in bondage in Egypt. However ancient Egyptian slavery was very different from the more familiar types of slaves found in Greece, Rome, or the pre-Civil War United States.

Egyptian slaves were known as Hem, but they were not completely under the domination and control of masters. Instead, Egyptian slaves were persons who had lessened rights and were dedicated to service. One could find oneself a slave through debt bondage, capture in war, or several other situations that resulted in reduced status. However, many slaves had better and more comfortable lives that free peasants who worked the land. In addition, it was considered a moral duty to treat slaves well. Some slaves were even freed by their masters and went on to live as free peasants.

Originally, hemu (plural of hem) were restricted to temples and royal households, but over the course of Egyptian history they became more widespread throughout society. During the Old Kingdom (2575-2150 BCE), the first private individuals owned slaves. By the Middle Kingdom (1975-1640 BCE), slaves were being imported from Asia.

As for the pyramids, however, they were not the result of Hollywood’s vision of massive slave armies pulling blocks up the sides of the pyramids. Instead, free Egyptian peasants are believed to have built the pyramids during the months when they could not grow grain in exchange for food from the Pharaoh’s reserves of grain. Oddly enough, slaves of the royal household may well have been supervising the free peasant laborers!

The Egyptians worked hard at building the pyramids because they believed they were intimately connected with the realm of the gods. For the ancient Egyptians, the pyramids, the slave system, the royal household—all were part of a divinely-ordained order in which the Egyptians were the center of creation. The pyramids were expressions of the religious belief that the bodies of the dead needed houses of eternity in which to live so that they would be ready for the resurrection, when the soul returned to the body for a new, eternal life.

Ancient Egyptians believed in many gods, and at various times different deities were considered among the most important. One of the most important throughout the centuries was Osiris, the god of death and resurrection, who was believed to preside over the realm of the dead and give the souls of the departed eternal life. His wife was Isis, the goddess associated with mothers, wives, and slaves. Their son Horus became pharaoh and ruled Egypt in its golden age. The most important god in later Ancient Egypt was Amun, the ram-headed king of the gods. In his composite form as Amun-Ra, he was also god of the sun.

Egyptian religion was practiced largely within the temples, large stone structures occupied by priests. Most Egyptians would never enter a temple and would have little contact with the religious ceremonies therein except for the public festivals when statues of the gods would be paraded outside the temple for public viewing. Nevertheless, the Egyptian people felt a strong attachment to their faith and their gods for thousands of years. When the pharaoh Akhenaton (reigned c. 1351-1336 BCE) tried to upend Egyptian religion and declared there was only one god, the sun disc, the priests and common people opposed him, and the old gods were restored.

Egyptian religion would continue for more than a thousand more years, even during the Greek and Roman occupations, until it was replaced by Christianity and then Islam, the religion of most Egyptians today.

For more information on essays about Egypt and Religion, visit