Amarna and Pompeii: the Towns


Amarna and Pompeii: The Towns

Model of the main road out of Amarna. Amarna was still very much a shanty town with little regularity and the houses spread only approximately along the line of the road. Photo of the model David Grandorge.

In our previous issue,  we set out to compare Egyptian towns with Roman towns and to ask what was the difference?  We chose first the town of Amarna in Egypt, the new town built by the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and then abandoned after his death,and now the subject of a splendid new book by Professor Barry Kemp, The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People (Thames and Hudson).

We then compared it with Pompeii,  the Italian town destroyed in A.D. 79 by the eruption of Vesuvius. We looked at the great buildings in each town and compared the great Temple at Amarna with the forum at Pompeii,  and then the palaces of Amarna with the amphitheatre at Pompeii. Now it is time to move out of the great buildings and to look at the towns themselves: how do they compare as living places?

The comparison is perhaps a little unfair because we are comparing a short-lived town that had little time to develop and was still little more than a shanty town, with a long established town that had developed for six centuries or more and was becoming badly over crowded. But the differences are, I think, still very significant.

Plan of Amarna with the suburbs spread out north and south of the central city.

One of the surprising things about Amarna was that the town consisted of three shanty villages – one to the north and two to the south.  As Barry Kemp demonstrates, the original plan envisaged a ‘royal road’ running from north to south in a straight line, the southern terminus being marked by a temple.  However the villages to the south deviated badly from the royal road and curved round to run parallel to the curving line of the Nile.








One of the main blocks of the southern suburb with four grand houses and a shanty village bottom right. The house top right belonged to the sculptor Thutmose, and the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti was found in one of the rooms.
The owner of the left hand house is also known, the General Ramose. The names of the owners of the other two grand houses, top left and top centre, are not known.
However the bottom centre and bottom right quarters were occupied by the village where the ordinary people lived. The village bottom right appeared to be occupied by the workers for the sculptor Thutmose for sculptural fragments were found in several of the rooms.

This is the bust of Queen Nefertiti, regularly labelled as one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world. It was found in the workshop of Thutmose the sculptor.














Within each of the agglomerations, a number of blocks could be made up each centred round several wealthy houses, each with a ‘dependent village’.  One of the best known of these is that occupied by the sculptor Thutmose at one end: it was in his workrooms that the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti was discovered by the German excavators and carried off to Berlin.




House of the high priest Pahnesy in the north suburb. Enter bottom left, then turn left into the large enclosure containing his chapel: was this where he made his distributions to his followers? Turn right and you come to his actual house. The top end appears to be a separate enclosure.
But note to the right the village where all his workers and followers were living: extremes of wealth lived side by side.




Each of the grand houses lay in its own  enclosed space, with a special enclosure to one side that usually contained a well and a chapel and often the entrance.  Sometimes there were tree pits, so perhaps we should envisage an entrance into a tree-lined garden with an ornamental pool of the centre and a chapel at the far end. This then led into a larger enclosure with the main house and the granaries.

There were often several such grand houses in the block– the sculptor Thutmose had the general Ramose at the other end of the block, but they were accompanied by a dependent village or villages; there was sculptural debris in some of the houses in the village adjacent to Thutmose, suggesting that they belonged to ‘his’ workers. It is all very much like the feudal system.


A street at Pompeii well paved with the houses facing on to it.

Was Pompeii laid out on a grid system? The hypothetical ‘Old Town’ is marked out a dotted line, but the rest of the town appears to have been laid out on at least three different grid systems. The house of Menander discussed below is marked as a dark block.

It is perhaps surprising that Pompeii on the other hand is laid out on a grid system, or rather two or possibly three grid systems.  One always feels that the dictatorial empires of the Near East would have towns laid out on rigid grid systems, and that the democratic societies of Greece and Rome would have towns that have evolved in democratic chaos.  In fact the reverse is true and it is the Greco-Roman towns that are laid out on rigid grid systems.  Pompeii is no exception though it is very much a matter of dispute when the original grid system was laid out.  Certainly there is an area of the town in the south east corner known as theold town’ which lacks a grid system, though again it is disputed as to whether this really is the old town.  But the rest of the town was laid out on a rectangular grid: admittedly there are two or three slightly different alignments, but nevertheless there was a grid pattern running throughout the town and the main road, known as the Via del’Abbondanza runs from East to West throughout the town.

The Insula of the house of Menander.
This splendidly atmospheric picture was taken by John Ward Perkins, the director of the British School at Rome, in around 1978.
Note that in the corner of the house a door has been blocked up, while in the bottom right-hand corner is a fountain that was inserted when an aqueduct brought running water to Pompeii in the Augustan era. Note too the two doorways further down the side street giving access to small shops or flats.


The layout of the houses too was very different.  The grid pattern meant that the town was divided up into individual blocks known as Insulae, or Islands, each of which formed a habitation block – and very mixed these blocks were. A good example is that known as that of the House of Menander,   which was excavated from 1926 to 1935, and has since been studied in detail by a team under Roger Ling (CA85).

  The earliest phase of the house of Menander: a single fairly grand house surrounded presumably by its gardens. In this earliest phase perhaps around 200 BC a row of structures was built along the northern side with at the centre a grandiose house that was to develop into the house of Menander
By around 50 BC the block was developing. A second grand house known as the House of Lovers was erected in the South West corner complete with peristyle courtyard. Meanwhile a peristyle courtyard was also erected behind the House of Menander, and a small private bath suite was inserted in the corner between the peristyle and the House of the Lovers. In the North East corner, the plot (7) was developed to form what might be called a lower middle-class house, rather squashed and narrow. It is known as the house of the Woodworker (Fabbro), as a set of tools and also surgeons implements were discovered there.


By around 50 A.D. the block had developed almost to its fullest extent. In the House of Menander a grand dining room was erected in the south east corner of the peristyle with its kitchens squeezed in opposite, adjacent to the bathhouse.  In the bottom right corner a stable yard was developed in which a farm cart was discovered: the wealth of the House of Menander may well have been based on farmlands – possibly a vineyard – outside the city

Drawing of the courtyard Of the House of th4e Lovers. It is called the House of the Lovers because a graffito, ”Lovers, like bees, live a honeyed life’ was found scratched on on of the walls.



This had just two grand houses:  both contained an entrance hallway or atrium leading through to the peristyle, the garden courtyard. The original house is known as the House of Menander while the second grand house in the south-west corner known as the House of the Lovers. However as the block filled up, three or four other more modest houses, each with an entrance hallway, were inserted.   However by the time of the destruction, it had become very full indeed, with a joiner, a weaver, a fuller, two cafés, while upstairs were several flats, one which may even have been a brothel, — though sadly this is now doubted.   But there is no reason to think that the occupants of the shops and flats were the servants of the owners of the big houses.  Their relationship may have been purely commercial.

We therefore see a paradox that whereas the city of the highly structured Egyptian society turns out to be a conglomeration of  separate villages, the semi-democratic market oriented society is laid out with a regular grid, and in each block of the grid, rich and poor were jammed together in the same block, even if they all had different front doors. The paradoxical conclusion is that democracies are far better at getting themselves properly organised than are absolute monarchies.



In ancient Egypt a major concern was the preparing for death. At Amarna the tombs were set in the cliffs on the western end of the flood plain. Here we see the entrance to the valley that leads to the Royal Tomb.

We should perhaps also take a look at how the two different cities entertained themselves, – for this is one of the most important criteria by which we should assess any society. For the Egyptians, as always, the main entertainment was death – they were obsessed by burial and spent much of their time in life preparing for their death. Admittedly by the time of Amarna in the New Kingdom, the quite excessive obsessions of the Old Kingdom, the age of the Pyramids, when the whole society was directly or indirectly engaged in building the pyramids – had largely subsided.



Tomb 16 – one of the tombs in the Northern cemetery

Nevertheless, in the cliff face behind Amarna on the edge of the Eastern Desert, there are two groups of grand tombs, numbering some 25 in all, where the elite were buried in highly elaborate rock-cut tombs with lavish decorations which provide us with much of our evidence for life in Amarna.







The forum baths at Pompeii

The Romans by contrast had very different concerns. There was the large amphitheatre at Pompeii – discussed in the previous issue – and also the two theatres in the ‘Old Town’. And then there were the baths, public and private, which were the places where on a day-to-day basis most Pompeians met and socialised. There are no such equivalent in Amarna – the Egyptian entertainment probably came in the form of the processions which are well recorded at Thebes: this was where the Great and the Good, the Pharaohs and the priests made their way by barge down the river and through the town and temples and where no doubt redistribution of goodies took place: if you didn’t turn up, you didn’t get your rations. The Egyptians had their entertainments – but I know which I would prefer!

The preindustrial city

The preindustial city: the classic sociological study of Medieval cities

So far, I have been comparing Amarna with the Roman city of Pompeii, but Barry Kemp makes a rather different comparison with what he called the ‘Pre-industrial city’. This is the title of an influential book published in 1960 by the American sociologist Gideon Sjoberg. This analyses a number of cities such as Seoul, Peking, Cairo, Mecca and Florence, but from a sociological point of view which is both infuriating to the archaeologists in its lack of plans and rigour but at the same time fascinating by bringing in all the details of things such as marriage that archaeology cannot deal with.

Barry Kemp makes several interesting comparisons.  In religion for instance, there is a difference between the Egyptian society, and indeed the Graeco- Roman world, where all gods were worshipped alike, and the situation in the preindustrial city, where there tended to be a sharp division between different religions, and indeed between the beliefs of the rich and the poor.

A major difference between ‘preindustrial’ cities and Amarna is that whereas in preindustrial cities manufacturing was concentrated in specific quarters, in Amarna it was carried out generally throughout the city.
Here we see that cloth working was spread throughout the city: a scattering in the domestic palace in the north city, rather more in the north suburb, none at all in the central city, but scattered throughout the southern suburbs. There was a great concentration in the workmen’s village, that is because this is the most recently excavated and thus best documented site.

He also points out that in the preindustrial city, the rich cluster together around the centre of the city, and the poor spread out along the fringes, whereas in Amarna the houses of the rich are dotted around the city and each rich house attracts its own village of hangers-on. Similarly the preindustrial city is divided up by numbers of guilds, so that each part of the city has its own speciality, whereas in Amarna, manufacturing is scattered throughout the city. Barry Kemp provides distribution plans of both weaving material and of the ceramic moulds used in the manufacture of faience showing that such manufacture was scattered throughout the city – many households seem to make faience: he wishes that similar distribution maps were available for the Preindustrial cities.

I can’t help thinking that it is a pity that he did not analyse the classical cities. The preindustrial cities that Sjoberg analyses are what I would call ‘mediaeval’ cities in that they are in the ‘middle’, between market and pre-market economies; their social structure is mostly feudal, that is a caste rather than a class structure, and though money is sometimes used – there are merchants and peddlers – yet money does not control the economy, so they cannot be considered to be a market economies. I cannot help feeling that it would have been far more interesting to compare Amarna with the Greek and Roman societies economies which emerged as the world’s first full-blown  market economies.

 In conclusion

To conclude: how far can we distinguish between a city of ‘gift-economy’ Egypt and a city of ‘market-economy’ Rome ? Archaeologists tend to group them all together as being ‘state societies’ but I believe there are very major differences between market economies and pre-market economies, and that this difference is shown up in the designs of the towns themselves. In the premarket economy, the Pharaoh was at the apex of a vast system of redistribution with defined ranks of officials and scribes and workmen beneath them. The main activity was centred round the temples and palaces because this is where the redistribution took place. And with a redistribution society, much perhaps most of the produce was not in fact redistributed, but simply kept to build up around the grandeur of the temples and palaces.

In the market economy however, the town is centred round the marketplace and it is here that the major buildings are focused.  There is perhaps an even more important difference in what I call the ‘entertainments’. In Amarna, the entertainment clearly centred round the temples and round the courtyards of the Palaces – and I suspected that my analogy with Moghul India is probably apt here. In Pompeii, the entertainment was centred round the great amphitheatre – the largest single building in the town, and then the baths, though it is not clear how far these were municipal enterprises or how far they were the result of private enterprise serving the general public.

The houses too show a marked difference. In Egypt, each block was centred round one or more grand houses accompanied by a village of subservient workers. In Pompeii there were indeed the grand houses, but huddling within the same block there was a mass of private enterprises, the cafes, the carpenters, the fullers (=dry cleaners?) the doctors. – yes and perhaps even a brothel.

Thus the architecture of the Greek and Roman cities displays a much ‘flatter’ structure, the architecture of an open society where there is a far less rigid social structure.   But this is surely the way in which we should seek to analyse towns and cities of the past, by comparing temples and palaces versus markets and entertainments,  and to see how far houses reflected private enterprise. Barry Kemp in his splendid new book offers us an opportunity to understand as never before the workings of a great Egyptian town.


This comes to the end of our discussion of the Two cities. Now you can go:

On to Akhenenaten, the heretic pharaoh


On to Augustus, who reformed Rome

or, Home


5th February 2014