A feast in ancient Egypt

About the object

Where is this painting from?

This painting comes from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, an administrative official who lived around 1350 BC in Thebes (modern Luxor). Nebamun was wealthy enough to be able to afford a private tomb in the cemetery on the west bank of the Nile and to have its chapel decorated with scenes of the life he hoped to enjoy in the next world. He obviously liked parties, because paintings of this feast covered an entire wall, but this was not a representation of a real party. Paintings like this became fashionable in Nebamun’s time as a way of making sure the dead would have the company of all their family members and friends in the next life. This makes it likely that some of the people shown had already died.

Egyptian parties

Parties and feasts featured in several aspects of ancient Egyptian life, though this particular party is clearly that of a wealthy person. Religious holidays, marriages, birthdays, royal occasions and even funerals were celebrated with feasts, drinking and music. Depending on the occasions, other entertainments might include songs and dances, juggling, acrobatics and storytelling. Here the guests are being served wine, while two young women dance to a song performed by a band of female musicians. The lyrics of the song are written above their heads.

Women’s lives in ancient Egypt

There are three classes of women shown here: the guests, the professional entertainers and the servants. The guests wear elaborate gowns of linen so fine that their bodies can be seen through it. Both women and men wear heavy wigs and makeup, and the cones on their heads indicate they are also wearing perfume. They have their best jewellery on and garlands of flowers around their necks and on their heads. The musicians are dressed in the same way as the guests, but are shown less formally, while the waitresses and dancers wear very little.

The married women are shown at the top of the scene, seated beside their husbands. The single women sit together chatting. All women were expected to marry and have children, but were able to choose their husband and could divorce him if they were unhappy. As their main role was in the home, women did not normally receive a formal education, but this did not stop them from having jobs, owning land and buildings, operating businesses and employing staff. Even women of limited means might hire a servant to help with the childcare and housework and send the dirty laundry out to be washed. Married women retained ownership of their personal property and some made prenuptial agreements with their husbands to clarify the division of common property in the event of a divorce. Women also made their own wills, bequeathing their property as they saw fit.

Women at work and in government

Women at home often made an extra income by selling surplus garden produce at the local market. Some enterprising housewives rented out their servants to their neighbours when they had no work for them to do. Outside the home, there were numerous job opportunities for women as domestic or temple servants, cooks, cleaners, nannies, weavers, seamstresses, hairdressers, beauticians and entertainers. Women also worked alongside men in the fields and received an equal wage from the farmers who employed them.

Wealthier women quite often owned farms and businesses such as linen workshops, or had property that they rented out. Some of them managed these enterprises themselves; others employed male managers. Many wealthier women also had part-time roles as temple priestesses, though these were largely ceremonial positions. However, there were exceptions, such as the Divine Wives of Amun, a dynasty of royal priestesses who governed southern Egypt for a time. There were even a few female officials and some female pharaohs, such as Hatshepsut and Sobekneferu, who ruled Egypt in their own right.

More information

Two scenes from the painting of the feast


More information about the tomb of Nebamun
With seven details of the paintings to click through.

Discussion of Egyptian conviviality
With quotes from literary sources and links to information on music and dancing.

Brief overview of women’s status in ancient Egypt
With ten British Museum objects to click through.

Overview of the lives of women
Including home, careers, status, etc.

Information on women’s lives in ancient Egypt
Including sections on their political and economic status, literacy, clothing, etc.

Accounts of the lives of two temple dancers


Next section: A bigger picture

A feast in ancient Egypt