*** slavery in Egypt

Slavery in Egypt

Figure 1.--Historians in recent years have revised their ideas about slavery in ancient Egypt. Until recent years it was thought that public projects like the pyramids were buil by vast work gangs of slaves diven by the whip. This is now thought to be the case, but built by the Egyptian peaantry which was paid wages and not poorly treated, at least by the standards of the day. Slavey existed, but seems to have been a small part of the workforce. What is less commonly dicussed is tha slavery was not needed by Egyptian and other Middle Eastern (as well as Indian ad Chinese) rulers because they controoled an extracted wealth from the free peasantry. The wealth createdby the free peasantr may have been geatr than slave workers and more stablw which s why this model was sp pervasive in the ancient and medieal world. The history od slavery in the Muslim worls is less well studie in contrast to the West where the history od slavery has become a major cademic aenterprise. Photograph was invented by the French (1839), but did not reach the Middle East and Egypt until two centurues later (1860s). And the images that emerged provide some insights into Egyptian slavery. This photo was taken in Cairo. It is is undated, but would have been taken in between 1860 and 1890. We do not know who would took it, but almost certainly was taken by a European photographer to mee the Orientlis demand in Europe. It was obviously take in a studio. We suspect that it was a family, but we do not know for sure. It is not clear who is the teenager girl on the left. They seem people who follow strict Muslim modesty rules, but the teenager has the breast partially uncovered as wellas her face. That could happen at photographer's request, orit could be that the girl is a slave. The photo was taken in Cairo between 1860 and 1890. We also suspect that the image was taken to tililte Europeans to make it more saleable. But it als seems to reflect an Islamic tenate. Muslim women were expected to adhere to a high standard of modesty not deanded of slave women. A father would have never permitted a daugher to appear like this. A slave woman is a different matter. Photo source: Library of Congress LC-USZ62-104873).

Egypt has a history dating from the dawn of history. Ans slavery seems to have been aart of thar history from the earliest historical records. Ancient Egypt was not, however a slave society. Most of the population was the peasantry, nuch of which did not own land. Thus there was a very large work force availavle to the ruling aristocracy without enslaving the peasantry. There were slaves which seem ti have been war captives, criminals, and conquered peoples. Egypt was cionquered by Rome. We are unsure to what extent tharRoman lave tradiins ffected Egypt, but it does not seem to have had a major impact. We do not yet have information on the Muzabtune era. Aan armies conquered Egypt (7th century) and gradually Islamcized much of the population. The Nile provided aroute for sub-Saharan Africans to reach Meditwranean markets, Cairo became an important slave market. The Ottoman Empire conquered the abs, including the Egyptains (16th century). Egypt unlike the rest of the Magreb did not participate in Barbary piracy. Egypt entered gthe modern era as an Ottoman province in which slavery had a long tradition and the legal underpinnings of sharia. Egypt on the Mediterranean had a range of modernizing influenes, including European trade routes accross Suez and eventually the Suez Canal which was followed bhy a British protectorate (1881). This was less true in the south, esocially the Sydan which was claind by the Egyptians.

Ancient Egypt

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.)

Roman Empire

Slavery had been a minor institution in ancient Egypt. After Egypt was ansorbed in the Roman Rmpire, slavery grew in importance, aftected by Roman institutions. We have few details at this time. The Romans did not enslave the Egyptian peasantry and left the Pharonic social strycture largely in place. It is likely that that the number of slaves increased in Egypt, but nothing like the prevalent conitions in other areas n the Roman Empire where whole scirties were conquiered like Dacia, Gaul, nd Spain as well as the Italian anf Greek core. The primary source of slaves was war, both defeated soldiers and peoples. This did not occur in Egypt. But we suspect slavery became important in the Urban centers whre Roman society became most prevalent.

Byzantine Empire

With the split of the Roman Empire and subsequent fall of Rome to the barbarians, Egypt became a province of the Byzantine Empire. Gco Toman ulture inclidng Christinoty spreadin Egypt at this time, bit aong with hristianity came a decline in slavery.

Arab Conquest (640-42)

With the creation of the Caliphate until pressure from thev British, slavery in Egypt operated under Islamic law.

Military Slavery (935-1250)

Control of Egypt during the Crusading era passed to a series of dynastic rulers. This included the the Ikhshidids, Fatimids, and Ayyubids. These dynasties utilized of Mamluk servants and guards. Mamluks had first appeared in the Abbasid caliphate (9th century). The word Mamluk in Arabic means ‘owned’ thus slaves. They were also not ethnic Arabs which means they had no conflicting loyalties to Arab groups. They were obtained from Steppe people and Christian sujects. The first Mamaluks were Qipchak Turks from Central Asia. They were allowed to marry an have sons, but they were not susposed to pass on their property. Ans sins were not susposed to become Mameluks themselves. Mamluk were not thus generared from outside Arab lands. There were varied groups. The Bahri Mamluks came from southern Russia. The Burgi comprised chiefly of Circassians from the largely Christiam Caucasus. These were steppe people people, meaning they had more orientstion with the Mongols than with the settled Arab people of the Levant and Egypt. It was not that the Arabs forced them maintain a destincr soiety, they kept their garrisons distinct and refused to mixing with Arabs even after the seized control. Gradually the Mamaluks gradually evolved from servants abd guards to an enslaved mercinary class and could be chosen for high office. And we see Mamaluks being obtained from wider sources (including Circassians, Abkhazians, Georgians, Armenians, and Russians. They were not all Steppe people. We see Balkan people, including Albanians, Greeks, and Southern Slavs. Describing manaluks aslaves uis aittle misleading. They were obtained as boy slaves, but afrer training and beginning militart service, theyv were

Mamaluk Slavery (1250-1517)

The increasing influence of the Mamaluks worried sultans, especially the Ayyubidss. Tgeg gact that the Mamluks were enslaved Christians was of special concern. Islamic rulers were usually fervent Muslims and were not at all concinced that Mamaluks were true converts. 【Philipp and Haarmann】 Inevitably, a Mamluk seized control as Sultan (1250). The Mamluk would control Egypt until the Ottoman conquest finalized by Sultan Selim enterin Cairo (1517). The Mamaluks continued to be important in Egypt. The Ottomans did not do away with the Mamaluks. The Ottoman Sultans retained the Mamluks as the Egyptian ruling class. The and the Burji family manahed to retain great influence, but only as vassals of the Ottoman sultans. 【Waterson】 This meant that the nature of slavery in Egypt did not change. Americans are often cinfused about skaverybinn Egyot, Sjaves were not needed as fiek wirkiers, Thyerec was a landless Egyptian peasantry that worked the fields. Slavery in Egypt was what might be called harem slavery. This mean not only harems, domestic servants, andiother uses.

Ottoman Empire (1517-1805)

Because the Ottoans maintauned the Mamaluks as auling cloass, slaveyb did nit chabngevmuch in Egypt after the Ottoman conquest. The Mamluk aristocrats, many of whom were Circassian or Georgian were captured an enslaved as prt of the Black Sea slave trade. The wanted women of their own or similar ehnicity. Black women might be used as domestic servants. Mos of their wives and concubines were 'white slaves'". 【Sperling and Wray】 Tghey were comminy girls sold into slavery because of the destitution of their parents. The family patterns for the Egyptian Mamluk class was to marry a woman who had been their slave concubine or of another Mamluk, oten a widow. This was in part iof mauintaing their sepoaratete udentity.

Khedivate (1805-82)

Slavery existed for much of the 19th century in Egypt. Slavery in the Khedivate was not unlike slavery in Ancient Egypt. The great bulk of the labor fiorce was the landless peasantry. Slaves were a small part of the labor force and concentrated in a few specific activities. Slavery followed the pattern set during earlier historical periods, most recently Egypt's position as a province of the Ottoman Empire. Slavery was similar in Egyopt to that of the wider Arab world. The Mamuluks were destinctive to Egypt. Egypt had access to as well as access to African slaves and until the early-19th century had access to the European catives of the Barbary pirates. There were both white and black slaves as well as male and female slaves. Slavery gradually disappeared in Egypt during the 19th century. Formal abolition was just part of this transition. Although defeated by the Ottomans and Napoleon, the Mamluks still had considerable influence in Egypt and important positions. They were annililated in a great massacre conducted by Muhammed Ali (1811). This ended their rule as a ruling aristocracy. They continued to play an important role in the military and government administration. Many Mamluks and other white make slaves were owned by Turks (non-Arab Ottomans) and increasingly wealthy Egyptians. [Baer, p. 147.] The slave population of Egypt during the 19th century was an estimasted 20,000-30,000, although there is no precise accounting. Certainly they were a small fraction out of out of the overall populstion of about 5 million people. About half of Egyptian slaves were concentrated in Egyot. The number of slaves in Cairo has been estimated at 12,000-15,000 in a city of about 350,000 people. Female slaves might be kept in harems. Wealthy Turks preferred Circassian females (white women who were primarily obtained in the Caucasus). More humble Egyptain harems were more commonly Abyssinians (Africans). While male and female Negro slaves were commonly used as domestic servants. Black slaves were used as soldiers as well as the decling number of Mamluks. African slaves were also used as agricultural labor, although this was a very small part of the largely peasant labor force. The estates of the Muhammed Ali family were worked by African slaves. [Baer] The supression of the slave trade was largely brought about by the British. The first major step was the First Anglo-Egyptian Convention (1877). One focus of the effort was the Sudan. Sudan was seen by Egyptian officials as a part of Egypt. The Sudan was more traditional than Egypt itself and a more austere form of Islam widely followed. And the slave trade was an important part of the economy which was not the case in Egypt. British governors were appointed in the Sudan. The most notable was Charles "Chinese" Girdon. Special missions were dispatched to supress the slave trade. The Mahdist revolution delayed the effort in the Sudan (1881). More aggressive steps were taken after the establishment of the British Protectorate (1882).

British Protectorate (1882-1922)

The British concerned abnout the security of the Suez Canal estanlish a protectorate over Egypt (1822). The British pushed for official measures to be taken against the slave-trade. A second Anglo-Egyptian Convention was negotiated (1895). The British facilitated the establishment of offices and eventually a special service to oversee the struggle against the slave trade and to ensure the manumission of slaves. This proved to be complicated effgort, but gradually in the 1880s and 90s, slavery disaapeated as an ibstitution in Egyptian society, although Sudan was a different matter. The Mhadist rebellion ultimately necesitated the dispatch of a British Army and the reconquest of the Sudan. The effort in Egypt was aided by increasing deveopment of a free labor market in Egypt. Factors here was the increasing foreign involvement, growing urbanization, and the decline of the traditional guild system. An important coralary development was the social influence of the British. The expanded contacts with Europeans affected attitudes toward slavery, Here it is important to note that there was no Islamic abolitionist movement. The anti-slavery abolitionist movement was almost entirely a Christian movement.


Baer, Gabriel. "Slavery in nineteenth century Egypt," Journal of African History Vol. VIII, No. 3 (1967), pp. 417-41.

Philipp, Thomas and Ulrich Haarmann. The Mamluks in Egyptian Politics and Society.

Sperling, Jutta and Shona Kelly Wray, ed. Accros the Religious Divide: Women, Property, and Law in the Wider Meduiterranean (ca 1300-1800) (Routledge: New York, 2010).

Waterson, James. The Mamluks.


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Created: 2:56 AM 9/13/2010
Last updated: 9:56 PM 1/17/2018