It is a tidy fact that history is written not of the common people and their circumstances but of the rulers, their families, their intrigues, their courtiers … and nobles and their intrigues; in short, the squables of those who rule us and the machinations in pursuit of even more power … also in consequence, wealth.
So an encounter with the life of a middle class minor official (“Writings from Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson, Penguin Classics) and his vicissitudes from the mundane to the important — as when he addresses his superiors — affords an eye opener if only to the extent that life goes on as much the same whether now or in Egypt around 1147 B.C. Three thousand years and human behavior remains human behavior.
Heqanakht, the official, was obliged to travel frequently in connection with his duties and he writes to Merisu, his steward, on matters like the proper cultivation of his land, rental agreements, quality of grain, and finally on matters connected with his household.
One can imagine the toilers of the Nile wetlands working incredibly hard to coax out a crop of which a portion was paid to the landowner as rent. Each step required exertion as feet sank into the wet mud. The practice of paying landowners a portion of the crop still prevails and in the US midwest it is commonly a third. On the other hand, if the soil is particularly rich as in Indiana, the tenant might be willing to pay more.
Our friend Heqanakht also has other concerns: his wife has complaints about being bullied by Senen, the new housemaid. If Heqanakht is hectoring in tone, irritable and bossy, often including terms like ‘Watch out’ or ‘Don’t ignore it’, he appears to have a tender side in his regard for his mother, Ipi, and his clear fondness for his son Sneferu, his ‘pride and joy.’
The extended family in his care is reminiscent of Asian families to this day, particularly on the Indian subcontinent, and the resident mother-in-law is still around even in the West if she hasn’t been shunted to an old folks home.
In another letter, Heqanakht writes to his immediate superior, the Overseer of Lower Egypt. The tone here is altogether different. He opens the missive with the words, ‘Your condition is life itself, a million times. May … all the gods act for you … sweeten your heart greatly with life and an old age’. He addresses him as ‘Your Honor — Life, Prosperity, Health’ and adds the very same well-wishing three words every time he refers to him in the letter.
To Merisu he says, ‘Greetings to my mother Ipi a thousand times, a million times.’ About his son Sneferu .. ‘Now didn’t I say that Sneferu, my pride and joy, a thousand times, a million times. Watch out for Anubis and Sneferu. You live by them and die by them.’
‘Have that housemaid, Senen, thrown out of any house — see to it — on whatever day Subathor (the messenger) reaches you … act: You are the one who lets her do bad things to my wife. Look, how have I made it distressful for you? What did she do against you to make you hate her?’
‘And have a letter brought explaining what is collected from those debts of Perhaa. See to it. Don’t ignore it.’
Business must go on and life goes on with its attendant problems. Have things changed much?