Slavery inAncient Civilizations: Egypt


Figure 1.--Studying slavery in ancient Egypt is complicated because there was no cartouche for slavery. Another problem is that slaves in Egypt were not confined to menial labor. In fact, slaves working as household servants or artisans would have lived more comfortable lives than the great mass of the Egyptian peasantry involved in agricultural labor. This makes identifying slaves in most Egyptian art work virtually impossible. This image, for example, almost certainly shows peasants rather than slaves. And the peasantry constituted the great bulk of the Egyptian population.

Slavery in Egypt seems to have followed the basic pattern set in Mesopotamia. Slavery in ancient Egypt is a poorly understood subject. It is not well understood how slavery fit into the overall social-class structure. One problem is that there does not seem to be a Egyptian cartouche for slave as destinct from servant. Nor is there any known way of identifying slaves in the reliefs and tomb paintings of ancient. Egyptian. It was once commonly thought that major construction projects were undertaken by large gangs of slaves. This is generally dismissed today. It is now thought that labor at major projects was more likely peasants who had a labor obligation after the planying or harvest seasons. They might be used in the maintenance of irrigation canals or in other important projects such as the famous pyramids. This of course is not to say that there were not slaves in ancient Egypt. The major source of slaves was war captives. This would include both the captured warriors as well as the general civilian population of conquered lands. The most famous Egyptian slaves were the Hebrews who apparently migrated to Europe because of drought. Slaves also came from law violaters. And some people sold thmselves or family members into slvery. No one knows the precise extent of Egyptian slavery. Records on such matters are not known. Most of the Egyptian population appears to have been a peasantry tied to the land, probably similar to Feudal European serfdom, but precise details on this are unavailable. Certainly slaves were also used for agricultural labor. In fact this was probsably their major use. How theur treatment and status differened from the Egyptian peasantry is not well understood. The Egyptians appear to have enslaved whole peoples. The ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt during the second half of the 2nd millennium BC. Here the historical records is based on the Old Testament and not on Egyptian records. It might be thought that slaves would obviously fill the lowest rank of society. It should be remembered that as the mzjor source of slaves were captured prioners and the people of conquered cities, these people probably came from a social strata and probably possed skills superior to the field peasant. We do know that the child of a slave imherited the slave status, even if the farher was free born. We also know that Egypt imported slaves and negotiated fugative slave treaties with neighboring states. There does not appear to have been any racial component to Egyptian slavery. In fact, some pharoes appear to have had African features. (This was a fact ignored when Egyptology became a subject of great interest in the 19th centutry.)

Slavery in Mesopotamia

Slavery in Egypt seems to have followed the basic pattern set in Mesopotamia. Early Egypt was strongly influenced by the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia. Slavery existed throughout Mesopotamia. There were differences from culture to culture, we think largely depending on the military and the ability to project power over other cities and states. Most people in Mesopotami were peasant farmers. They were not slaves, but commonly had few rights and lived restricted lives. As the basic labor activity was farming and this was conducted by the peasantry, there was no need for huge numbers of slaves. Important nobels or temples might use slaves for agricultural labor, but un general the great bulk of the rural woirk force were pesant farmers and Egyot followed this same basic pattern.

Class Structure

The vast majority of the Egyptian people lived an existance tied to the land and working in the field. They were essentially tennant farmers working land owned by the state. [Stewart, p. 78.] Ownership varied over time. Land belonged to the phraoh, arustocrats, and temples. The population was contolled by a small hereditary eliete whose primary qualification was literacy. A noted Egyptologist writes, "The business of the Egyptian state in the late Bronze age was conducted by paper-work of a volume and complexity that it would be hard to match until recent times." It was this class that ruled Egypt in the name of Pharaoh and conducted affairs of state and was responsible for organizing Egyptian civilization. It was when the authority of Pharaoh and this class weakened that Egypt declined into chaos and, anarchy, and civil war and was vulnerable to foreign invason. [Aldred, pp. 22-23.] This was the cause of the great breaks in Egyptian civilization between the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Often the roblem was essentially the nobility gaining power and weakening the authority of the Pharph or the central govern,ent. Position in Egyptian society was strictly hereditary. The son was appointed to the position of the father. Fathers taught sons. Peasants taught their sons agricultural skills. Caraftsmen taught their sons their trades. Scribes taught their sons to read and write. [Aldred, p. 23.]

Identity

Slavery in ancient Egypt is a poorly understood subject. It is not well known how slavery fit into the overall social-class structure. One problem is that there does not seem to be a Egyptian cartouche for slave as destinct from servant. Another problem is that there may have been different levels or degress of slavery. Thus in reading Egyptian texts, the scholar must consider the context. The cartouche for priest was god's servant, but in this case servant is not being vused in the sense of slave. The hoe-sign in hieroglyphics is used as a collective noun referring to people belonging to both individuals and institutions, particularly temples. Even in the Old Kingdom, such groups were enumerated along with land and cattle. The clear inference given their permanent attachment to an individual or institution strongly suggests slavery or similarform of servitude. There are similar references in later periods. During the Middle Kingdom there are references to these people being acquired in wills or other arrangements. And in the New Kingdom, these people were obtained from from captives brought to Egypt as a result of military campaigns. There are also references to endowments. The canal-sign also seems to have been used to connote slavery. In this case it seems to refer to a differentgroup of people. Like thefirstvgroup, they were attached to individuals and institutions, but do not seem to have been attached to the land or listed along with cattle andcotherv possessions. Virtually no information is availble describing the status of this group other than to indicate that they exist. They may have included individuals like the Pharahs' slaves. Text from the Middle Kingdom note the Pharoh transferring these people to the estates of priests, nobles and officials. They were considered to be property, but were often not agricultural labooers. They were employed in households and often had skills such as artisans. Thus even though they were slaves their life style and living standard was above thatof the peasantry. Nor is there any definitive way of identifying slaves in the reliefs and tomb paintings of ancient. The depiction of slavery can be inferred from some depictions, but is not definitive. And a problem here is that the life style and living conditions could be above that of the peasantry which complicates identufying slaves in the depictions.

Numbers

There were clearly slaves in ancient Egypt. Slavery was a pervasive institution in the ancient world. It would be remarkable only if there was no slavery in ancient Egypt. This would be a major departure from contemprary cultural norms if there had not been slaves in Egypt. The real question is just how pervasive and how many slaves there were in Egypt and how slavery as an institution varied over time. Some scholars believe that the proprtionos slaves in the Egyptian population may have been greatest during the expansionary period of the New Kingdom. At this time conquering Egyptian armies are known to have enslaved whole peoples. It is not known, however, just how many peples were slaves or the proportion of the population. We suspect the slave population was a relatively small part of the population. A facto rhere is that the peasantry, the great bulk of the population, had a status only slightly above that of slaves.

State Projects

It was once commonly thought that major construction projects were undertaken by large gangs of slaves. This view is generally dismissed by scholars today. It is now thought that labor at major projects was more likely peasants who had a labor obligation after the planying or harvest seasons. They might be used in the maintenance of irrigation canals or in other important projects such as the famous pyramids. The fact that the workers on monumental projects were probably not slaves is not to say that there were no slaves in ancient Egypt.

Source of Slaves

Like virtually all ancient civilizations, we know there were slaves in ancient Egypt and as in other countres, the orincipal source was war captives. The major source of slaves was war captives. This would include both the captured soldiers as well as the general civilian population of conquered lands. Egyptian sources report that Pharoh Thutmose III returned from a victorious campaign in Canaan with nearly 90,000 prisoners. Given the small size of ancient armies at the time, many if not most of these prisoners almost certainly were civilians. Any they would have been reduced to slavery in Egypt. Less cler is what happened to them and their descendents over time. Slaves might also be purchased in foreign lands like trade goods. Many Egyptian slaves came from neigboring regions, including Meroe and Kush, south of Egypt. There were also slaves from Libya to the west. And the know that there were slaves from the eastern area between the Hittites and Mesopotamia. And some people were of Egyptian origin. Small numbers may have been given as gigts in diplmastic exchanges, Criminals were sentenced to slavery. Some people sold thmselves or family members into slavery. No one knows the precise extent of Egyptian slavery. Records providing statistical data on such matters are not known. Egyptian sources confirm that foreign men and women were intermingled with Egyptian servants/slaves and seem to have outnumbered them. Egyptian masters appear to have preferred the foreign slaves. [Brooklyn Papyrus] The foreign slaves obtained in military campaigns commonly belonged to social groups of some status and thuus had a range of skills and education. Egytian slaves on the other hand were commonly criminals or perhaps abandoned foundlings that would have had to be raised and trained. Egyptian text provide the first evidence of the practice of selling one’s self into slavery in expectation of a certain level of support. Surviving texts describe a woman's agreement with a temple, "The female servant … has said before my master, Saknebtynis, the great god, I am your servant, together with my children and my children’s children. I shall not be free in your precinct forever and ever. You will protect me; you will keep me safe; you will guard me. You will keep me sound; you will protect me from every demon, and I will pay you 1¼ kita of copper . . . until the completion of 99 years, and I will give it to your priests monthly.’ [Piccione]

The Bible

We have an important source describing slavery independent of Egyptian sources--The Bible. The most famous Egyptian slaves were the Hebrews who apparently migrated to Europe because of drought. How their treatment and status differened from the Egyptian peasantry is not well understood. The Egyptians appear to have enslaved whole peoples. The ancient Israelites were enslaved in Egypt during the second half of the 2nd millennium BC (1400-1200 BC). Here the historical records is based on the Old Testament and not on Egyptian records. The Bible provides a rare account of both individuals and a whole people enslaved. There were presumably others peoples ensslaved, but non other ancient people left written accounts. The Egyptians had just conquered Israel at this time, thus many Jews were enslaved. The collapse of the New Kingdom may have allowed the Jews to escape from slavery.

Usage

As there is now way of definitively identifying slaves in Egyptian art, we do not know how they were used. The Bible suggests that many were used for hard labor. But many were used in other ways as well. Slaves appeared to have been used as house servants, skilled artisans, dancers, musicians, accountants, scribes, or in many other ways. The story of Joseph is evidence of this. There is also substantial evidence from Egyptian texts.

Peasantry

Most of the Egyptian population appears to have been a peasantry tied to the land, probably similar to Feudal European serfdom, but precise details on this are unavailable. Certainly slaves were also used for agricultural labor. In fact this was probsably their primarily use. One reason that many authors beleve that the number of Egyptian slaves was limited is the status of the peasantry. The fundamental socio-economic organization of Egypt was rule pf the peasant masses by the household of a god. Priests and the rise of a divine pharoh controlled much of the land and controlled trade. [McNeill, pp. 74-76.] When your leader is a god, there were few rights peasants could claim. The great mass of the population of pharaonic Egypt were peasants tied to the land which they worked, but did not own. As the status of the peasantry was only slightly above that of slaves, there was no real need for a large slave labor force.

Status

It might be thought that slaves would obviously fill the lowest rank of society. It should be remembered that as the major source of slaves were captured prioners and the people of conquered cities, these people probably came from a social strata and probably possed skills superior to the field peasant. We do know that the child of a slave inherited the slave status, even if the farher was free born.

Treaties

Some of the strongest evidence on Egyptian slavery comes from treaties negotiated with other nations. We know that Egypt imported slaves and negotiated treaties with neighboring states that included fugative slave provisions. A good example is the treaty signed with the Hittites (about 1280 BC). It dealt with refugees who may have been largely or in part slaves, presumably enslaced groups rather than individuals. The treaty provided that people who fled from either nation had to be returned and not granted asylum. There was also a provision that the returned people would not be punished. Unfortunately there is no information explaining why this was a problem and tghe degree to which the provisions were applied. Some scholars point to the treaty as evidence of the Exodus.

Race

There does not appear to have been a racial component to Egyptian slavery. Many slaves did come from Nubia--the area south of Egypt. These would have been blacks, taken during wars with the people of the south. The Nile was a route of both commerce and war in a period when roads did not exist or were rudimentary. Thus Egyptian armies could move up the Nile and conquer the African people of the upper Nile--the Nubians. As war was a major source of slaves, military campaigns in one area of another may have temprarily affected the ethnicity of slaves during any given period. This same phenomenon was observed in Rome as well. Africans were not just slaves in Egypt. In fact, some pharoes appear to have had African features which probably meant they came from upper (southern) Egypt. This must have affected racvial attitutes. The African features of some pharoes was a fact ignored when Egyptology became a subject of great interest in the 19th centutry. Nubia was just one source of slaves for the Egyptians. Ancient Egypt was a great power and over time conducted military campaigns to the west, north, abnd east. Thus there was no racial component to the captives taken and the people thus ensalved.

Children


Reader Comment

An Egyptian reader writes, "I read your article about slavery in ancient Egypt. There is no historical proof of slavery in ancient Egypt, if slavery is widespread it would be possible to find thousands of information about this subject, so lack of information means no existence of such act. The Hebrew books is no proof at all of existence of slavery, because as you know this is not a scientific evidence. They claim exodus, with many associated events like plague, the water turning into red color, death of the first male in every Egyptian family and also this is not mentioned at all in Egyptian history." [Mohamed] This is an interesting comment and is a good example of the mix of ideology and religion which dominates history in Egypt and the wider Arab world. One would think that an Egyptian would have useful information to add to this discussion. There is in fact extensive evidence of slavery from non-Biblical sources. We mention some of the evidence here and a simple Google search will provide evidence in far greater detail. But history in the Arab world is too often an ideologucal tool to rebut any material which might be considered critical of the nation and to criticize the Bible in both historical and religious terms. It is true that the nature and extentvof slavery in ancient Egypt is a matter of a lively historical discourse. To deny that slavery existed in Egypt or to assert that there is no evidence of slavery is absurd.

Sources

Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt--A New Study (McGraw-Hill: New York, 1968), 272p.

Brooklyn Papyrus. This is also known as the Brooklyn Medical Papyrus. It is an ancient Egyptian medical papyrus which is believed to have dated to the Egyptian 30th dynasty.

McNeill, William H. The Rise of the West (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1990), 828p.

Mohamed, Ahmed. E-mail message, September 3, 2010.

Piccione, Peter. The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society.






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Created: 2:49 AM 9/13/2010
Last updated: 11:28 AM 8/25/2011