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Law in ancient Egypt

Primary sources for law in ancient Egypt are the surviving manuscripts and inscriptions.
In ancient Egypt law seems to have been an aspect of administration, making any official
a possible adjudicant: it was not separated off with its own exclusively judicial officials
and its own exclusively judicial buildings - no judges and no courts. Officials judged
cases; no ancient Egyptian individuals are known whose only official capacity was to
hear legal cases. The same groups of individuals might regularly meet to consider a range
of administrative and legal cases (Egyptian qnbt 'council'), but no special space or
building seems to have been set aside for this. A board of officials (Egyptian DADAt)
might be set up for particular short-term tasks, by royal commission, and such a task
might be the judgement of an important legal case, but it might also be the successful
management of a project such as a quarrying expedition.
No legal code survives from ancient Egypt. The surviving legal manuscripts, copies of
such documents in hieroglyphic inscriptions, and references in ancient letters, indicate
that Egyptian society operated with reference to decrees of the king, having the force of
law, together with the precedents established in previous legal cases. This would make
ancient Egyptian law analogous to the modern English system, where the laws (Acts of
Parliament) are interpreted in the courts with reference to previous interpretations.
Some earlier social historians expected that human society became more 'rational' over
time, culminating in the division of religion and civil society (Church and State) as in
Enlightenment Europe. Egypt suggests if anything the opposite: early records refer only
to the civil administration, until the emergence of oracles of the gods as possible courts
of appeal in the New Kingdom and later. Even the later evidence needs to be interpreted
within the context of each case: higher courts always seem to be not oracles but the
administration of the king, himself a divine presence (see the pages on kingship). In the
Third Intermediate Period, when kingship was divided between different centres, there is
little evidence from the nominal centre of the kingdom, Tanis; in other centres, notably
Thebes and the oases, local rulers consulted the oracle for decisions at all levels, much as
the ancient Greek city-states consulted the oracle at Delphi.

Select sources in the Petrie Museum translated on this website


Legal documents from the large late Middle Kingdom town at Lahun (about 1800 BC):
the will of Mery UC 32037
Legal documents and related letters from the work crew of the king's tomb, resident at
Deir el-Medina (about 1200 BC):

a man defends his alimony record UC 19614


a dispute over hiring a donkey UC 39615
appeal to the gods: the oracle of Amenhotep I UC 39622
a man reassures his daughter that she will not be left homeless UC 39656
Aristide Theodorides and the study of ancient Egyptian legal procedures
The most dedicated recent researcher of ancient Egyptian law is Aristide Theodorides.
His work is conveniently accessible to English-reading audiences inTheodorides 1971.
Although some of the interpretations of historical developments are open to doubt, the
studies by Theodorides are likely to endure, becuase he retained closely source-critical
principles. On the late Old Kingdom estate scenes in tomb-chapels he warned 'It is wrong
to attempt to form a picture of social, economic, and legal life in Egypt during the Old
Kingdom on the basis of evidence from these representations; they are valid only for one
class (the nobility) and for a particular period' (Theodorides 1971: 295).
Theodorides 1971 introduces the following select sources, in this order:
Palermo Stone: Old Kingdom annals stone, including reference to a periodic
census including gold and fields, from at least the Second Dynasty. Although the
monument itself dates to later in the third millennium BC, it indicates at least an
ancient Egyptian belief in the deep antiquity of the census system, and this in turn
demonstrates a need to record both personal and landed property, implying their
transferability between persons
An early Old Kingdom inscription with a copy of a contract for the sale of a small
estate, providing evidence for sale by consent
The Juridical Stela (Seventeenth Dynasty), an inscription bearing a copy of legal
documents concerning a transfer of an administrative position, providing evidence
for the bilateral nature of such agreements, in this case with a year allowed for the
fulfilment of obligations
An Old Kingdom deed of conveyance, effectively a will, by a person named Heti,
ensuring the maintenance of his heirs in perpetuity by turning his property into an
endowment to provide for his own eternal cult, staffed by his heirs (such pious
foundations secured inalienable status, much as the waqf or pious foundation in
Islamic Egypt)

Papyrus Berlin 9010, an original manuscript from the Sixth Dynasty, preserving a
dispute over inheritance, turning on the availability or not of witnesses: the key
passage in the original may be translated 'if he does not produce the witnesses in
whose presence this utterance was voiced, none of the said Weser's property shall
be kept in his possession'
the letters of Heqanakht (early Twelfth Dynasty) as evidence for speculation on
grain prices, relevant for the study of private property
inscriptions in the tomb-chapel of governor Djefahapy at Asyut (Twelfth Dynasty),
preserving copies of contracts between the governor and the men appointed to
maintain the offerings and rites in his chapel in perpetuity
Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446 (late Middle Kingdom), a papyrus including a copy of
a case brought by a woman against her father's estate, demonstrating a 'married
woman enjoying a completely independent legal personality'
Papyrus Kahun II.1 (UC 32055, late Middle Kingdom), an original legal document
in which a man pursues a debt owed his father
Papyrus Kahun VII.1 (UC 32037, late Middle Kingdom: see above)
Leather roll Berlin 10470 (late Middle Kingdom), an original legal document
recording the involvement of the central administration (bureau of the vizier) in a
local case concerning the transfer of rights to the labour of a working-class woman
the Duties of the Vizier (New Kingdom hieroglyphic inscription copies perhaps of
a late Middle Kingdom original) documenting procedure and regulations in the
bureau of the vizier
a papyrus from the time of Thutmose III, an original legal document recording the
conclusion of a case in which an appeal is dismissed
the inscription in the tomb-chapel of Mes at Saqqara (Nineteenth Dynasty)
recording a long dispute over inheritance of land, with reference to land
documents in the central administration document stores: this is the most extensive
legal inscription surviving from ancient Egypt
Deir el-Medina ostracon Nash 1 (British Museum ESA 65930, Ramesside Period)
recording a local case concerning the workforce of the king's tomb, as in the
competence of the vizier

the Tomb Robbery Papyri of the Twentieth Dynasty, with reference to the king as
ultimate judge
the Harim Conspiracy Papyri of the Twentieth Dynasty, recording a case of
treason, the attempt on the life of Ramesses III
the Messuia dossier (late Eighteenth Dynasty), a group of papyri, original legal
documents on the hire of services by various individuals, in the form of sale of
labour of two working women: the papyri are not the work contracts themselves,
but copies of deeds of discharge, recording that the tasks have been accomplished
the Peace Treaty between Ramesses II and the king of the Hittites, the earliest
international peace treaty, preserved in versions in both Egypt and the Hittite
capital Boghazkoy (in modern Turkey)
the Dakhla Oasis Stelae (Twenty-second Dynasty) as examples of the oracle in
legal contexts after the New Kingdom