ANCIENT EGYPTIAN GOVERNMENT, LEADERSHIP, ADMINISTRATION AND TAXES

ANCIENT EGYPTIAN GOVERNMENT

20120216-Tissot_Moses_Speaks_to_Pharaoh.jpg
Tissot's painting of Moses
speaking to the Pharaoh
Egypt was unified as a kingdom about 3300 B.C. A national bureaucracy supervised the construction of canals and monuments and pyramids (2700 BC). The brilliant first dynasty made great achievements in architecture, sculpture and painting, tradition followed by subsequent dynasties. [Source: World Almanac]

One reason Egypt was able to build such large temples and pyramids is that was relatively untroubled by wars and could devotes its manpower to construction projects rather than an army. In the ancient world it was common for leaders to marry women from rival kingdoms to form alliances and maintain peace but this tactic was not widely used in ancient Egypt, whose rulers tended to regard foreigners with disdain.

In his book The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt Toby Wilkinson argued that the ancient Egyptians “invented the concept of the nation-state that still dominates our planet,” Mr. Wilkinson writes that the country’s earliest kings not only “formulated and harnessed” traditional tools of leadership’slike using ideology and ceremony to unite a disparate population and bind it to the state’sbut also used more malign instruments like police surveillance, xenophobia and the brutal repression of dissent to cement their power. [Source: Michiko Kakutani, New York Times March 28, 2011]

Officials called “viziers” helped the king govern. The viziers acted as mayors, tax collectors, and judges. Other high officials who served the king included a treasurer and an army commander.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Instruction of Ptah-Hotep (2200 B.C.) on Leadership and Rulers

The Instruction of Ptahhotep is an ancient Egyptian literary composition written by the Vizier Ptahhotep, during the rule of King Izezi of the Fifth Dynasty. Regarded as one of the best examples of wisdom literature, specifically under the genre of Instructions that teach something, of Ptahhotep addresses various virtues that are necessary to live a good life in accordance with Maat (justice) and offers insight into Old Kingdom — and ancient Egyptian — thought, morality and attitudes. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Instruction of Ptahhotep ( c. 2200 B.C.) reads: “If you have, as leader, to decide on the conduct of a great number of men, seek the most perfect manner of doing so that your own conduct may be without reproach. Justice is great, invariable, and assured; it has not been disturbed since the age of Ptah. To throw obstacles in the way of the laws is to open the way before violence. Shall that which is below gain the upper hand, if the unjust does not attain to the place of justice? Even he who says: I take for myself, of my own free-will; but says not: I take by virtue of my authority. The limitations of justice are invariable; such is the instruction which every man receives from his father. [Source: Charles F. Horne, “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. II: Egypt, pp. 62-78, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt, Fordham University]

“Inspire not men with fear, else Ptah will fight against you in the same manner. If any one asserts that he lives by such means, Ptah will take away the bread from his mouth; if any one asserts that he enriches himself thereby, Ptah says: I may take those riches to myself. If any one asserts that he beats others, Ptah will end by reducing him to impotence. Let no one inspire men with fear; this is the will of Ptah. Let one provide sustenance for them in the lap of peace; it will then be that they will freely give what has been torn from them by terror.


Thutmose III

“If you are among the persons seated at meat in the house of a greater man than yourself, take that which he gives you, bowing to the ground. Regard that which is placed before you, but point not at it; regard it not frequently; he is a blameworthy person who departs from this rule. Speak not to the great man more than he requires, for one knows not what may be displeasing to him. Speak when he invites you and your worth will be pleasing. As for the great man who has plenty of means of existence, his conduct is as he himself wishes. He does that which pleases him; if he desires to repose, he realizes his intention. The great man stretching forth his hand does that to which other men do not attain. But as the means of existence are under the will of Ptah, one can not rebel against it.

“If you are one of those who bring the messages of one great man to another, conform yourself exactly to that wherewith he has charged you; perform for him the commission as he has enjoined you. Beware of altering in speaking the offensive words which one great person addresses to another; he who perverts the trustfulness of his way, in order to repeat only what produces pleasure in the words of every man, great or small, is a detestable person.

“If you are employed in the larit, stand or sit rather than walk about. Lay down rules for yourself from the first: not to absent yourself even when weariness overtakes you. Keep an eye on him who enters announcing that what he asks is secret; what is entrusted to you is above appreciation, and all contrary argument is a matter to be rejected. He is a god who penetrates into a place where no relaxation of the rules is made for the privileged.

“If you are with people who display for you an extreme affection, saying: "Aspiration of my heart, aspiration of my heart, where there is no remedy! That which is said in your heart, let it be realized by springing up spontaneously. Sovereign master, I give myself to your opinion. Your name is approved without speaking. Your body is full of vigor, your face is above your neighbors." If then you are accustomed to this excess of flattery, and there be an obstacle to you in your desires, then your impulse is to obey your passion. But he who . . . according to his caprice, his soul is . . ., his body is . . . While the man who is master of his soul is superior to those whom Ptah has loaded with his gifts; the man who obeys his passion is under the power of his wife.

“Declare your line of conduct without reticence; give your opinion in the council of your lord; while there are people who turn back upon their own words when they speak, so as not to offend him who has put forward a statement, and answer not in this fashion: "He is the great man who will recognize the error of another; and when he shall raise his voice to oppose the other about it he will keep silence after what I have said."

“If you are a leader, setting forward your plans according to that which you decide, perform perfect actions which posterity may remember, without letting the words prevail with you which multiply flattery, which excite pride and produce vanity.

“If you are a leader of peace, listen to the discourse of the petitioner. Be not abrupt with him; that would trouble him. Say not to him: "You have already recounted this." Indulgence will encourage him to accomplish the object of his coming. As for being abrupt with the complainant because he described what passed when the injury was done, instead of complaining of the injury itself let it not be! The way to obtain a clear explanation is to listen with kindness.

Instruction of Ptah-Hotep (2200 B.C.) on How to Treat a Great Man

The Instruction of Ptahhotep ( c. 2200 B.C.) reads: “Disturb not a great man; weaken not the attention of him who is occupied. His care is to embrace his task, and he strips his person through the love which he puts into it. That transports men to Ptah, even the love for the work which they accomplish. Compose then your face even in trouble, that peace may be with you, when agitation is with . . .These are the people who succeed in what they desire. [Source: Charles F. Horne, “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. II: Egypt, pp. 62-78, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt, Fordham University]

“Teach others to render homage to a great man. If you gather the crop for him among men, cause it to return fully to its owner, at whose hands is your subsistence. But the gift of affection is worth more than the provisions with which your back is covered. For that which the great man receives from you will enable your house to live, without speaking of the maintenance you enjoy, which you desire to preserve; it is thereby that he extends a beneficent hand, and that in your home good things are added to good things. Let your love pass into the heart of those who love you; cause those about you to be loving and obedient.


Ramses III sarcophagus detail

“If you have become great after having been little, if you have become rich after having been poor, when you are at the head of the city, know how not to take advantage of the fact that you have reached the first rank, harden not your heart because of your elevation; you are become only the administrator, the prefect, of the provisions which belong to Ptah. Put not behind you the neighbor who is like you; be unto him as a companion.

“Bend your back before your superior. You are attached to the palace of the king; your house is established in its fortune, and your profits are as is fitting. Yet a man is annoyed at having an authority above himself, and passes the period of life in being vexed thereat. Although that hurts not your . . . Do not plunder the house of your neighbors, seize not by force the goods which are beside you. Exclaim not then against that which you hear, and do not feel humiliated. It is necessary to reflect when one is hindered by it that the pressure of authority is felt also by one's neighbor.

“Do not make . . . you know that there are obstacles to the water which comes to its hinder part, and that there is no trickling of that which is in its bosom. Let it not . . . after having corrupted his heart.

“If you aim at polished manners, call not him whom you accost. Converse with him especially in such a way as not to annoy him. Enter on a discussion with him only after having left him time to saturate his mind with the subject of the conversation. If he lets his ignorance display itself, and if he gives you all opportunity to disgrace him, treat him with courtesy rather; proceed not to drive him into a corner; do not . . . the word to him; answer not in a crushing manner; crush him not; worry him not; in order that in his turn he may not return to the subject, but depart to the profit of your conversation.

“Let your countenance be cheerful during the time of your existence. When we see one departing from the storehouse who has entered in order to bring his share of provision, with his face contracted, it shows that his stomach is empty and that authority is offensive to him. Let not that happen to you; it is . . .

“Know those who are faithful to you when you are in low estate. Your merit then is worth more than those who did you honor. His . . ., behold that which a man possesses completely. That is of more importance than his high rank; for this is a matter which passes from one to another. The merit of one's son is advantageous to the father, and that which he really is, is worth more than the remembrance of his father's rank.

“Distinguish the superintendent who directs from the workman, for manual labor is little elevated; the inaction of the hands is honorable. If a man is not in the evil way, that which places him there is the want of subordination to authority.

Instruction of Ptah-Hotep (2200 B.C.) on Being a Loyal Subject

The Instruction of Ptahhotep ( c. 2200 B.C.) reads: “If you are a farmer, gather the crops in the field which the great Ptah has given you, do not boast in the house of your neighbors; it is better to make oneself dreaded by one's deeds. As for him who, master of his own way of acting, being all-powerful, seizes the goods of others like a crocodile in the midst even of watchment, his children are an object of malediction, of scorn, and of hatred on account of it, while his father is grievously distressed, and as for the mother who has borne him, happy is another rather than herself. But a man becomes a god when he is chief of a tribe which has confidence in following him. [Source: Charles F. Horne, “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. II: Egypt, pp. 62-78, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt, Fordham University]


“If you abase yourself in obeying a superior, your conduct is entirely good before Ptah. Knowing who you ought to obey and who you ought to command, do not lift up your heart against him. As you know that in him is authority, be respectful toward him as belonging to him. Wealth comes only at Ptah's own good-will, and his caprice only is the law; as for him who . . Ptah, who has created his superiority, turns himself from him and he is overthrown.

“Be active during the time of your existence, do no more than is commanded. Do not spoil the time of your activity; he is a blameworthy person who makes a bad use of his moments. Do not lose the daily opportunity of increasing that which your house possesses. Activity produces riches, and riches do not endure when it slackens.

“If you are a wise man, bring up a son who shall be pleasing to Ptah. If he conforms his conduct to your way and occupies himself with your affairs as is right, do to him all the good you can; he is your son, a person attached to you whom your own self has begotten. Separate not your heart from him.... But if he conducts himself ill and transgresses your wish, if he rejects all counsel, if his mouth goes according to the evil word, strike him on the mouth in return. Give orders without hesitation to those who do wrong, to him whose temper is turbulent; and he will not deviate from the straight path, and there will be no obstacle to interrupt the way.

“If you desire to excite respect within the house you enter, for example the house of a superior, a friend, or any person of consideration, in short everywhere where you enter, keep yourself from making advances to a woman, for there is nothing good in so doing. There is no prudence in taking part in it, and thousands of men destroy themselves in order to enjoy a moment, brief as a dream, while they gain death, so as to know it. It is a villainous intention, that of a man who thus excites himself; if he goes on to carry it out, his mind abandons him. For as for him who is without repugnance for such an act, there is no good sense at all in him.

Admonitions of Ipuwer: Earliest Treatise on Political Ethics

The Ipuwer Papyrus (officially Papyrus Leiden I 344 recto) is an ancient Egyptian hieratic papyrus made during the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt, and now held in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Netherlands. It contains the Admonitions of Ipuwer, an incomplete literary work whose original composition is dated no earlier than the late Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt (c.1991-1803 B.C.). The Ipuwer Papyrus has been dated no earlier than the Nineteenth Dynasty, around 1250 B.C. but it is now agreed that the text itself is much older, and dated back to the Middle Kingdom, more precisely the late Twelfth Dynasty. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In the poem, Ipuwer – a name typical of the period 1850-1450 B.C. – complains that the world has been turned upside-down: a woman who had not a single box now has furniture, a girl who looked at her face in the water now owns a mirror, while the once-rich man is now in rags. He demands that the Lord of All (a title which can be applied both to the king and to the creator sun-god) should destroy his enemies and remember his religious duties. This is followed by a violent description of disorder: there is no longer any respect for the law and even the king's burial inside the pyramid has been desecrated. The story continues with the description of better days until it abruptly ends due to the missing final part of the papyrus. It is likely that the poem concluded with a reply of the Lord of All, or prophesying the coming of a powerful king who would restore order. +

It was previously thought that the Admonitions of Ipuwer presents an objective portrait of Egypt in the First Intermediate Period. In more recent times, it was found that the Admonitions, along with the Complaints of Khakheperresenb, are most likely works of royal propaganda, both inspired by the earlier Prophecy of Neferti: the three compositions have in common the theme of a nation that has been plunged into chaos and disarray and the need for an intransigent king who would defeat chaos and restore maat. Toby Wilkinson suggested that the Admonitions and Khakheperresenb may thus have been composed during the reign of Senusret III, a pharaoh well known for his use of propaganda. In any case, the Admonitions is not a reliable account of early Egyptian history, because of the long time interval between its original composition and the writing of the Leiden Papyrus.

The Admonitions is considered the world's earliest known treatise on political ethics, suggesting that a good king is one who controls unjust officials, thus carrying out the will of the gods. It is a textual lamentation, close to Sumerian city laments and to Egyptian laments for the dead, using the past (the destruction of Memphis at the end of the Old Kingdom) as a gloomy backdrop to an ideal future.

Local Government and Bureaucracy in Ancient Egypt

20120216-scribe 037.JPG Local government were run by mayors, councils of elders, priests and ministers under the pharaoh. Judging from the objects found in a mayor's home they lived fairly lavishly and had high status.

Based on the displays of wealth at 3700-year-old site in Abydos, where a large palace was found, and a 2600-year-old site at the Bahariya Oasis, where a rich tomb was found, archaeologists have deduced that sometimes governors and mayors amassed great political power and in some cases may have challenged the ruling pharaohs.

Egyptians had an efficient bureaucracy which collected taxes to finance grand projects. Even low bureaucrats sometimes viewed themselves as big shots.

The Egyptians were very bureaucratic. They liked to make records and lists. Only a handful of which have made it to modern times because they were written on papyrus. It has been suggested that the Egyptians affinity with bureaucracy was linked to reverence of the past and need to preserve it.

Village Chiefs in Ancient Egypt

Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia of the CNRS in France wrote: “Old Kingdom funerary iconography usually depicts the chiefs of villages bowing to, or being beaten by, higher authorities to whom they are mere bearers of tribute and taxes. In some instances, as in a famous scene in the 18th-dynasty tomb of Rekhmira, the quantities of cloth, precious metals, and other goods the chiefs carried were carefully recorded. When the authority of the monarchy collapsed, however, village chiefs appear in a more positive light, as repositories of authority and resources, and as links to social networks that provided protection for their communities. In a total reversion of roles, it was then that scribes and administrators proudly proclaimed that they served under these chiefs. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 escholarship.org <>]

“Leaving aside these rather biased claims, administrative texts mention village chiefs as indispensable mediators for implementing orders of the king. Apparently this role was sometimes materially rewarded, as some of these local leaders managed to afford for themselves prestigious items (such as statues and inscribed objects, usually reserved for officials and the elite) that marked their local preeminence. To their subordinates and the people living under their jurisdiction they acted as patronage leaders and sources of authority, probably based on a mix of prestige, family origins, wealth, and traditional authority . In late third and early second millennium BCE Elephantine, for instance, the local elite appear as a reduced but closely knit social group, in which rituals and ceremonies, veneration of a(n ideally) common ancestor, and the mutual exchange of goods in funerary rituals helped maintain their cohesion as a social group as well as their position and prestige as rulers of their community. In fact, it was from this group that governors and other local leaders were issued. <>

“Having left practically no written trace about themselves, it appears that village chiefs were basically local potentates and wealthy farmer s, closely connected to local temples. Texts from the first millennium BCE refer to them a s “big men,” in control of their communities. A Demotic literary text gives some clues about their power, when one such “big man” kept close ties to the local temple that further strengthened his authority. He was also a priest in the local temple —a function that provided him with a profitable source of income. He received part of the agricultural income of the sanctuary because of his service as a priest and, in addition, he exploited some temple fields as a cultivator in exchange for a portion of the harves t; the considerable wealth thus amassed allowed him to pay wages to the personnel of the temple, who were thus considered his clients (the text states that he had “acquired” them) and he could even marry his daughters to priests and potentates (lit. “great men”) of another town.” <>

Royal Administration of Villages in Ancient Egypt


royal official

Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia of the CNRS in France wrote: “The relations of the villages with the royal administration are the best documented aspect of their existence. The most ancient records state that villages could be granted to high officials and members of the royal family as a reward for their services; in fact, the papyri of Gebelein deal with some villages, which formed one part of such rewards, the pr-Dt, “house of the body,” of an unknown official in the late 4th Dynasty. Nevertheless, these papyri also reveal that the villagers had obligations to many contributions to the royal administration, including working on architectural projects. Later documents such as the Horemheb or the Nauri decrees show that royal agents could make requisitions of manpower in villages and force their governors to deliver goods at the mooring posts, to cultivate the land of the pharaoh, or to accomplish corvée services for the temples. Other deliveries included cloth, animals, and gold, as the “taxation scene” in the 18th Dynasty Theban tomb of Rekhmira, the Amarna Period talatat, or the Ramesside administrative documents show; villages could also be taxed with specific supplies for a cult. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“Nevertheless, the main contribution of villages was manpower. Old Kingdom sources evoke many administrative bureaus, which could request workers from Upper Egypt and which kept lists of men liable to be conscripted. The Gebelein papyri are a good example of such lists, while the decrees of Coptos suggest that villagers were recruited to work at a local estate of the temple of Min. The stone marks in the mastaba of Khentika at Balat also show a system whereby people from different localities successively carried the blocks to be used in the monument. Texts of the Middle Kingdom, like the Reisner and Lahun papyri, the stone marks in the pyramids of the kings, or the Hammamat inscriptions describe in detail the local organization of teams of workers, their conscription, and the role played by the governors of the villages in their recruitment. <>

“Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to determine the impact of such requisitions on the local economy and the domestic life cycle (partial dependence of villagers on the ration system, manpower diverted to the administration demands, obligation to produce specific crops and goods, incorporation of poor people into the “state sector,” etc.), not to mention on village society (reinforcement of the power of the local elite, opportunities for ambitious individuals, increase of inequalities). The crisis of the central authority at the end of the Old Kingdom, for example, was followed by an increase of wealth in private provincial tombs, a fact that could be linked to less fiscal pressure but also to the “reinvestment” of resources in the local sphere. Perhaps the mentions of uncultivated land and extensive cattle breeding in the contemporaneous el- Moalla and Deir el-Gabrawi inscriptions point to an alternative model of production, less dependent on intensive agriculture and only possible when the fiscal impact of the state weakened or simply vanished.” <>

Granaries and Local Administration in Ancient Egypt

Nadine Moeller, a University of Chicago archaeologist and director of the excavation at Tell Edfu, and her team have excavated the equivalent of the town square in a provincial capital, south of ancient Thebes (modern-day Luxor). Alen Boyle wrote in Cosmic Log: “Among the most intriguing structures excavated so far are seven grain bins dating back to the 17th Dynasty (1630-1520 B.C.). Because grain served as a form of currency, this wasn’t merely a granary – it was also the ancient equivalent of a bank, essentially managing tax collections for the provincial governor and the pharaoh. “Grain as currency provided the sinews of power for the pharaohs,” Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, said.[Source: Alen Boyle, Cosmic Log, July 1, 2008 |+|]

“The administration of that power has been described in ancient Egyptian texts, but there’s nothing like seeing the actual places where that power was exercised. The silos measure 18 to 21 feet wide, making them the largest grain bins ever discovered within an ancient Egyptian town center. Yet another layer of construction predated the silos. Moeller and her colleagues determined that a mud-brick structure with 16 wooden columns was used in the 13th Dynasty (1773-1650 B.C.), based on an analysis of shards of pottery and scarab seals found at the site. The hall of columns served as a place where scribes did their accounting, opened and sealed containers, and received letters. |+|

“Moeller speculated that the hall may have been part of the provincial governor’s palace. “It was far more extensive than we expected,” she said. “Actually, I still haven’t reached the full limit of the whole structure.”“ |+|

Sennefer, the Mayor of Thebes


Sennefer and his family

John Ray of Cambridge University wrote for the BBC: “Sennefer was the mayor of Thebes during the reign of Amenophis II (c.1427-1400 B.C.), near the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty. His life is known mainly from his remarkable painted tomb on the west bank at Luxor. The burial-place of Sennefer is known as the Tomb of the Vines. This is because of its most distinctive feature-the ceiling of the main chamber is left irregular, painted over with bunches of grapes. The effect makes viewers feel they are looking up under the canopy of a cool vineyard. It is no surprise that Sennefer's proudest title is that of Overseer of the Gardens of Amun. [Source: John Ray, Cambridge University, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Amun was the god of Thebes, with his principal sanctuary at Karnak .The ruins of this place eventually covered an area the size of the financial City of London. In Sennefer's day it had not reached this size but was still impressive, with correspondingly grand gardens. A vignette of part of the estate occupies one wall of the Tomb of the Vines. It was walled, reached by means of a waterway, with tunnels of trellised vines separating different gardens. The text accompanying the picture ascribes the building of the garden to the ruling monarch, who would certainly have approved such a project, but the inspiration would have been Sennefer's, as is confirmed by the ingenuity that went into the design of his tomb. |::|

“Sennefer, whose other title is Mayor of Thebes, is shown on the pillars of his tomb wearing an amulet in the form of a double heart, inscribed with the name of his sovereign. This indicates his loyalty to his king, and his position as a royal favourite. Until forty years ago, Sennefer was known only from his statue in the Cairo Museum, and his exquisite tomb. But he has also come to light in a letter written on papyrus (now in Berlin) to an estate manager. Letters from this period are rare, and those that drop their official mask and reveal an individual are even rarer. Hectoring of the sort shown here is characteristic of Egyptian officials, and can even be affectionate. It is the passionate sincerity of the letter that really counts. |::|

“A note on the reading: The precise meaning of the Egyptian word wiwi is unknown, but it is clear that Sennefer thinks that his tenant is ineffectual in some way. Cusae and Hu were towns on the river to the north of Thebes. The letter was intended to dismay poor Baki, but he never read it. The letter was found still rolled up and sealed, as it was when it was sent more than thirty centuries ago. |::|

“The letters, temple carvings and coffin inscriptions of ancient Egyptians offer us an insight into the private life of an extraordinary civilisation. The collection of readings performed here range across 3,000 years; they include a letter from a king, a princess's prayer and the dream of a temple dancer. These are the testimonies of real people, citizens of ancient Egypt; some important, others less so, but all very much alive in the words that survive them.” |::|

Sattjeni, Wife a Governor and Member of the Ancient Egyptian Elite

A coffin, discovered in 2016 in the necropolis at Qubbet el-Hawa across the Nile River from Aswan by a team led by Alejandro Jiménez-Serrano, an Egyptologist at the University of Jaén in Spain., belonged to an important local woman, Sattjeni, daughter of one governor, wife of another and mother of two more. Sattjeni's mummified body was buried in two cedar coffins made of wood imported from Lebanon. She was not a royal, but her family practiced royal strategies to hold on to their governing power: She married her sister's widower, and her family was associated itself with the ram-headed deity Khnum. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, June 6, 2016 |~|]

Jiménez-Serrano told livescience: “Qubbet el-Hawa is one of the most important nonroyal necropolises of ancient Egypt. Its importance lies in the great quantity and quality of the biographical inscriptions carved in the façades of the funerary complexes. The necropolis was mainly used to bury the highest officials of the nearby town of Elephantine, the capital of the southernmost province of Egypt, at the end of the third millennium and the beginning of the second (2200 B.C. to 1775 B.C). The governors were buried together with their relatives; the members of their courts (officials and domestic service) were buried in other smaller and less-decorated tombs. Thus, today, we know the existence of 100 tombs, of which only 80 have been completely cleared. |~|

“During the Middle Kingdom, especially during the 12th Dynasty (1950 B.C. to 1775 B.C.), the governors of Elephantine built giant funerary complexes in the necropolis of Qubbet el-Hawa. Some of them are beautifully decorated and have important inscriptions....Sattjeni was the second daughter of one of the most important figures of the 12th Dynasty, the governor Sarenput II. Unfortunately, her brother Ankhu died shortly after his father, and there were no male successors. So she and her sister Gaut-Anuket had the rights of the rule in Elephantine. The latter married a certain official called Heqaib and converted him into the new governor of Elephantine: Heqaib II. However, we suspect that Gaut-Anuket did not live much time, because Sattjeni married Heqaib II. They had at least two children, who became the governors of Elephantine successively, as Heqaib III and Ameny-Seneb. |~|

“This discovery shows that the local dynasties of the periphery of the State emulated the royal family. In this concrete case, we can confirm that women were the holders of the dynastic rights. Probably, the members of these families married as the royal family — brother with sister — in order to keep the divine blood "pure." We must not forget that Sattjeni's family declared themselves heirs of a local god.” |~|

Estates and Local Officials in Ancient Egypt


an official

Juan Carlos Moreno García of Université Charles-de-Gaulle wrote: “A third kind of domain was formed by the landed possessions held by royal officials as remuneration for their services. Little is known about the standard estates allotted to each category of official (the categories having been based on an individual’s rank, function, and status). [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno García, Université Charles-de-Gaulle, France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, escholarship.org <>]

“Some agents of the king boasted in their autobiographical inscriptions of the (presumably exceptional) estates granted to them by the king to reward them for their outstanding services: Metjen (4th Dynasty) was rewarded with fields of variable dimensions for his activities as governor of several royal administrative centers (Hwt and Hwt-aAt) in Lower Egypt; Sabni of Elephantine (6th Dynasty) was nominated as xntj-S (an honorific court title) of a royal pyramid and was granted a field of about eleven hectares after a successful mission in Nubia; and Ibi of Deir el-Gabrawy (6th Dynasty) received a field of about fifty hectares linked to a Hwt. It seems doubtful whether the descendants of an official could have inherited the estates granted in this way. Members of the royal family (especially the royal sons) were possibly an exception, as their property was administered by a special administrative branch: the Overseer of the Provinces of Upper Egypt Kapuptah (5th Dynasty), for example, was also Overseer of the Property of the Royal Sons in the Provinces of Upper Egypt (jmj-r jxt msw nzwt m zpAwt Smaw), whereas Ankhshepseskaf (5th Dynasty) was Overseer of the Estates of the Royal Sons (jmj-r prw msw nzwt), a title also borne by his contemporary, the vizier Senedjemib-Inti; and prince Nykaura, a son of pharaoh Khafra, distributed his many estates among his wife and children while he was alive, although it is not certain that his instructions were also valid after his death. Some royal decrees, as well as the papyri from the royal funerary complexes of Neferirkara and Raneferef, show that the nomination of an official as xntj-S of a royal pyramid was an important source of income that included both offerings and agricultural estates. But access to these coveted honors was restricted, as the decrees in the Raneferef archive proclaim. <>

“The granting of estates as remuneration or reward to the officials of the kingdom was so widespread that an iconographic motif arose in private tombs depicting processions of offering bearers accompanied by place-names that supposedly represented the estates possessed by the tomb owner. However, these place-names seem to have been for the most part fictitious, used mainly as a decorative device emulating the ideal landscape governed by the king, a landscape represented in the funerary monuments of the king himself: the precisely symmetrical depiction of estates on the walls of the tombs (even in cases where the offering bearers bore no name), the absence of any information about virtually all these alleged place-names (even in the tombs of the heirs of the original owners), and the representation of exactly the same number of estates in both Upper and Lower Egypt suggest that this iconographic motif was not intended to depict the estates actually granted to an official.” <>

Family Served as a Social Safety Net in Ancient Egypt

Based on texts found at Deir el-Medina, a village of artisans near the Valley of the Kings, Anne Austin wrote in the Washington Post: In cases where these provisions from the state were not enough, the residents of Deir el-Medina turned to one another. Personal letters from the site indicate that family members were expected to take care of one another by providing clothing and food, especially when a relative was sick. These documents show us that caretaking was a reciprocal relationship between direct family members, regardless of gender or age. Children were expected to take care of both parents just as parents were expected to take care of all of their children. [Source: Anne Austin, Washington Post, February 17 2015. Anne Austin is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University ***]

“When family members neglected these responsibilities, there were fiscal and social consequences. In her will, the villager Naunakhte indicates that even though she was a dedicated mother to her children, four of them abandoned her in her old age. She admonishes them and disinherits them from her will, punishing them financially, but also shaming them in a public document made in front of the most senior members of the Deir el-Medina community. ***

“This shows us that health care in Deir el-Medina was a system with overlying networks of care provided through the state and the community. While workmen counted on the state for paid sick leave, a physician, and even medical ingredients, they depended equally on their loved ones for the care necessary to thrive in ancient Egypt.” **

Taxes in Ancient Egypt

20120216-scribe Lepsius_Neferhotep.JPG The Egyptians paid for their grand projects with stiff taxes. They kept meticulous records of who owed what and cracked down ruthlessly on those who didn't pay their share. Tomb paintings show clerks tallying up crops produced at harvest and making lists with a reed pen. They also show clerks monitoring beer breweries, slaughterhouses and workshops.

Tax collectors punished deadbeats by beating and flogging and torturing to death. Peasants were sometimes bound by their hands and feet and thrown into the irrigation ditches to drown. A tomb painting, dated around 2400 B.C., shows a tax official meeting with a group who hadn't paid their taxes. The next scene shows some of them being flogged.

Toby Wilkinson wrote in The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt , “The First Dynasty government lost no time in devising and imposing a nationwide system of taxation, to turn the country’s agricultural productivity to its own advantage. Once again, writing played a key role. From the very beginning of recorded history, the Egyptian government used written records to keep accounts of the nation’s wealth and to levy taxes. Some of the very earliest ink inscriptions---on pottery jars from the time of Narmer---refer to revenue received from Upper and Lower Egypt. It seems that, for greatest efficiency, the country was already divided into two halves for the purposes of taxation. . [Excerpt “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson, Random House, 2011, from the New York Times, March 28, 2011]

When it came to collecting taxes, in the form of a proportion of farm produce, we must assume a network of officials operated on behalf of the state throughout Egypt. There can be no doubt that their efforts were backed up by coercive measures. The inscriptions left by some of these government officials, mostly in the form of seal impressions, allow us to re-create the workings of the treasury, which was by far the most important department from the very beginning of Egyptian history. Agricultural produce collected as government revenue was treated in one of two ways. A certain proportion went directly to state workshops for the manufacture of secondary products---for example, tallow and leather from cattle; pork from pigs; linen from flax; bread, beer, and basketry from grain. Some of these value- added products were then traded and exchanged at a profit, producing further government income; others were redistributed as payment to state employees, thereby funding the court and its projects. The remaining portion of agricultural produce (mostly grain) was put into storage in government granaries, probably located throughout Egypt in important regional centers. Some of the stored grain was used in its raw state to finance court activities, but a significant share was put aside as emergency stock, to be used in the event of a poor harvest to help prevent widespread famine. Whether this represented genuine altruism or practical self- interest on the part of the state depends on one’s point of view. The people as a whole certainly benefited from this national insurance policy, but at a cost to themselves. This, of course, is the enduring truth about taxes.

Sally Katary of Laurentian University in Ontario wrote: ““Temples played a major role in the collection and redistribution of tax revenues. Especially important was the grain tax, which is well documented from many perspectives and was largely derived from the cultivation of lands on temple domains. Taxes were also paid to the Royal Treasury in livestock and other commodities. Taxation included a labor component in the form of the conscription of workers obliged to toil periodically tilling fields, laboring on construction projects, digging irrigation canals, and obtaining raw materials abroad. Tax revenues were used to finance royal building projects, maintain royal residences, carry on work in the quarries, supervise border security, wage war, support officials on missions, finance external trade, and safeguard trade routes. By the end of the Third Intermediate Period, the effects of the monetization of the economy gradually began to be felt. During this transformation, taxes in kind were replaced by taxes in coin. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“For the Old Kingdom, the Palermo Stone, a major royal inscription detailing biennial assessments of various categories of wealth; a series of taxation exemption decrees for temples and their staffs; and the autobiographies of court officials provide most of our knowledge and represent different perspectives. Middle Kingdom tomb biographies shed light on the tax-collecting activities of nomarchs, while an important administrative text, Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446, deals with forced labor. Fortunately by the New Kingdom, the availability of large numbers of papyri and ostraca documenting the economy, as well as evidence in the form of temple and tomb inscriptions, gives a much more complete picture of taxation in the Egyptian economic system than ever before. Nevertheless, there remain critical gaps in our knowledge and understanding of how the economy, and taxation in particular, functioned. There is, for example, no documentary evidence for the existence of a central office of tax collection for the state, though one has been assumed to have existed on the basis of the position of Chief Taxing Master (aA n St, “Great One of Assessments”), known from the Wilbour Papyrus but no source external to temple administration (see New Kingdom). Even such a major issue as the relationship of the state to the temples and the systems of financial administration that connected these entities requires further clarification. <>

Forms of Taxation in Ancient Egypt

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “Until the first millennium B.C., taxes were paid in grain, cattle, and other commodities. Labor was also a form of taxation, executed with the corvée, a system of enforced state servitude by peasant workers in all areas of the economy. The Egyptians of the Pharaonic period did not possess an economy based upon the use of coinage as money. Coinage first made its appearance in Egypt during the 26th or Saite Dynasty, but was not issued by kings until the 29th Dynasty. While weights in metals were used as valuations for products and services as early as the Old Kingdom, material goods were the medium of purchase in barter transactions based upon these valuations. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“The Egyptians engaged in barter or “money-barter,” the latter representing “an intermediate stage in the progress from a barter economy to a money economy…a stage in a theoretically evolutionary development”. While there is some evidence that taxes might have been paid in gold and silver (among other commodities) by towns and villages and gold occurs in official texts most often in association with officials at the southern frontier, this was not the case with ordinary individuals. Taxes in “money” were unknown until the Third Intermediate Period . <>

“Also relevant are questions of the degree to which Egyptian taxes increased or decreased over time with respect to productivity and inflation and at what intervals taxes were paid.... Old Kingdom evidence from the Palermo Stone of biennial inventories of the wealth of land and resources suggests a two-year tax system. How long such a biennial system may have lasted after the Old Kingdom—if that was the system—cannot however be ascertained. The frequency of the phrase n tnw rnpt (“of every year”), which regularly follows the term Htr in New Kingdom texts, suggests that taxes at some time became annual: thus the understanding of “the annual levy”. <>

Ancient Egyptian Tax Terminologies


tax receipt for wine

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “The complex fiscal terminology employed in Egyptian texts provides a formidable challenge to render each term in its context as accurately as possible. It is seldom possible to find a single word that does the job adequately. This is because “tax” and even “state” are troublesome Western terms in understanding an ancient economy where such concepts may not be suited to the economic reality. Some would argue that “tax” and “taxation” are terms best avoided altogether in favor of terms such as “deliveries,” “contributions,” and “transfers,” which do not evoke “modern concepts of state finance”. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“While the most important source of revenue in ancient Egypt was certainly the “harvest tax” or Smw, there was a wide variety of other revenues collected by the state, the terms for which share an extreme vagueness in their definition. It appears that the Egyptians were very loose in their application of terminology, using common words such as Smw (“harvest”) to express economic concepts as well as to convey their literal meaning in the very same text, endowing the same word with multiple meanings. Thus, the terms for various types of deliveries to the state are not at all well understood. Some terms such as Htr appear to have contradictory meanings. The interpretation varied with the context; the terms are best understood only by freeing ourselves from the limitations of modern Western patterns of thought. Often it is best simply to use the Egyptian terms for want of adequate translations that embrace each and every occurrence. <>

“The ideal source for the study of Pharaonic taxation would be documents from the state tax-collecting authority. However, the one document that seems to fit this bill, the taxation text on the verso of the Royal Canon of Turin, is too fragmentary to provide definitive evidence. We must consult occurrences of the terms in a wide variety of administrative, autobiographical, and literary texts where the exact nature and purpose of the text must be taken into account. This greatly affects the understanding of the terms since the reliability of texts varies widely. “ <>

Taxes in Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom Periods

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “At the unification of the Predynastic kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt c. 3100 B.C., a national system of taxation was established at Memphis to support the king and his court as well as monumental building activities and other state projects. Memphis became the locus for the elite of Old Kingdom society and its major institutions. The state’s authority to tax and collect revenues from production was imposed upon a village-based society composed of complex layered hierarchies responsible for the management of land. Village identity and solidarity were likely embedded at the deepest level in the social ecology of Egypt. From theoutset, local elites would have had the difficult task of balancing the demands of the central government for revenue with local power structures. Thus, an imbalance in social and economic relations between the central authority and the rural countryside is a striking feature of the Old Kingdom. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“The late Predynastic Period provides only fragmentary evidence of tax paid to the Royal Treasury, for example, tomb inscriptions from Abydos and a cylinder vessel from Tarkhan . The black basalt stela known as the Palermo Stone from the late 5th Dynasty recounts principal events in reigns going back to Predynastic times. Among the events detailed in the individual regnal years is the biennial “Following of Horus”. This royal tour along the Nile recorded Egypt’s economic wealth as measured in herds of livestock, arable fields, resources in precious metals, and human population. From the 2nd Dynasty onwards, a biennial cattle census (Tnwt) was added, followed by a “census of gold and fields.” Records of the height of the annual Nile inundation were used to determine tax due on arable fields, establish the probability of meeting taxation goals, and remedy any shortfalls. However, the degree to which central authority managed to penetrate the countryside is unknown and probably unknowable. <>

“The Royal Treasury, under a royal chancellor (xtmw-bjtj) who reported to the vizier (TAtj), supervised the collection, storage, processing, and distribution of state revenues. The Treasury had roots in the Predynastic Period when the rival kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt each possessed its own financial institution. Names given to the new Treasury reflect this history: the Treasury of Upper Egypt (pr-HD, “The White House”), the Treasury of Lower Egypt (pr-dSr, “The Red House”), and eventually “The Two White Houses” (prwj HD). This bicameral organization reflected the differences between Upper and Lower Egypt in terms of geography, society, and economy. Only with separate administrations could the distinctive needs of Upper and Lower Egypt be effectively met. <>

“Produce from Egyptian fields was shipped to the storage facility called the pr-Sna pending redistribution to dependent government employees. Donations to cult and funerary temples were also stored in government granaries since the crown and local institutions were tightly bound by mutually beneficial reciprocal responsibilities. The pr Hrj-wDb or “house of largess” redistributed revenues in kind to dependents as well as to the state-supported cult temples . The Treasury also supplied the daily needs of the Memphite court with a variety of products according to inscriptions from the late 3rd Dynasty tomb of the Overseer of the Treasury (jmj-r pr-HD) Pehernefer. How this system would have benefited those at the bottom of the social pyramid is not at all evident since any redistribution of tax revenues clearly helped the elite of the society, who could count on a share in the revenues.” <>

Tax Exemptions and Tax Evasion in the Old Kingdom (2649–2150 B.C.)


scarab of an official

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “Tax revenues financed lavish royal building programs, maintained royal residences and harems, supported work in the quarries, and also supplied military posts to maintain border security and safeguard trade routes. As financial demands upon temples and funerary endowments increased, these institutions demanded exemption from specific kinds of tax obligations, including compulsory labor that would take personnel away from the maintenance of the funerary cult Charters of tax immunity were awarded, but these were primarily intended to protect the temples from arbitrary exploitation by unauthorized persons. For example, the 4th Dynasty exemption decree of Shepseskaf, the oldest preserved, protected the interests of the estate and staff of the pyramid of Menkaura. Pepy I’s decree to protect the estate and staff of Sneferu’s pyramid at Dahshur exempted the xntj-S, who served the estate in exchange for access to endowment land, from both taxation and conscription. Temples gained special privileges but remained wedded to the state for their mutual benefit. The absence of any exemption from the cattle levy suggests that while many obligations could be the subject of compromise between the temples and the state, this tax could not be negotiated. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“Moreover, the state left the door open to procuring temple support and personnel for special government undertakings as is suggested in a letter, purportedly from Pepy II, quoted in the autobiography of the governor of Upper Egypt Harkhuf. This letter orders the procurement of supplies for a trade mission returning from Nubia from “every temple—without making an exception therefrom”. Similarly, the army of the governor of Upper Egypt Weni during the reign of Pepy I included troops under the command of “Overseers of Priests of Upper and Lower Egypt”. Thus, the charters of immunity were not ironclad defenses for temples from royal interference. <>

“While charters of immunity took productive agricultural land from the tax base and freed temple workers from compulsory labor— national service—on government projects, they did not eliminate all the financial obligations of the landowning institutions to the state. Therefore, temple immunity from certain fiscal obligations likely did not drastically affect the stability of the Old Kingdom administration. <>

“From the late 5th Dynasty throughout the 6th Dynasty, the state confronted challenges to its tax-collecting authority. To this end, the office of the vizier of Upper Egypt at Abydos was created, Weni likely being the first vizier of Upper Egypt to hold office at such a distance from the capital. Moreover, Pepy II subordinated the tax- collecting activities of Upper Egyptian nobles to the direct control of the southern vizier. Despite the administrative decentralization that gave nomarchs increasing autonomy, the state maintained financial control over the capital and provinces until the crippling effects of excessive expenditures, inadequate inundations, provincial independence, and the sharp increase in social inequalities brought the Old Kingdom state to its knees. <>

“Tax evasion. Tax collectors routinely encountered delinquency in the payment of tax revenues, dereliction of duties by officials, and outright dishonesty. The Saqqara mastaba of the 6th Dynasty vizier Khentika depicts five governors of a Hwt charged with corruption and/or dereliction of duty in the remission of tax revenues being soundly beaten for their offenses. Centuries later, similar scenes appear in the Theban tomb chapel of Menna, a Treasury official under Thutmose IV in the 18th Dynasty. Tax evasion was not only a crime that was punishable by swift justice regardless of the social or economic status of the offender, but was also an endemic affliction of the central government in Pharaonic Egypt.” <>

Taxes in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.)

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “The collapse of the Old Kingdom was followed by the tumultuous First Intermediate Period during which the equilibrium between the central authority and powerful provincial interests broke down. The pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom were able to stabilize the central government. From the Middle Kingdom comes detailed documentation of punishments inflicted on peasants who sought to avoid the corvée and thereby deny the state its right to their occasional labor tilling fields, maintaining irrigation channels, working on construction projects, or obtaining raw materials abroad. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446 describes the situation of eighty inhabitants of Upper Egypt who fled their national service obligations in the reign of Amenemhat III and were subsequently sentenced to indefinite terms of compulsory labor on government xbsw lands, their families imprisoned until their return. The agricultural labor referred to in this text is perhaps better described as conscription to forced tenancy on land undergoing development or redevelopment than what is commonly understood by the term “corvée labor”.

“Such conscription was a form of taxation by the state imposed upon all Egyptians below the rank of official, including priests and, most importantly, unskilled laborers from a huge labor pool at the bottom of Egyptian society, largely consisting of peasants tied to the land they worked, irrespective of its ownership. The burden of such forced agricultural labor for the vast majority of Egyptian laborers was not only inescapable but often unfairly and ruthlessly applied despite pleas to the authorities from persons unjustly seized. It is difficult to see how such persons would have benefited from a redistributive tax system, with the possible exception of those peasant farmers toiling upon the estates of temples exempted from the corvée by royal charter. <>

Taxes in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.)


scarab of an official

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “The temples grew in wealth, importance, and independence during the New Kingdom, continuing to draw revenues from the state to maintain their properties, support their personnel, and supply certain aspects of their cult in recognition of their role in the collection and redistribution of tax revenues. P. Harris I, the most valuable New Kingdom source for the wealth of the temples of Amun, Ra, Ptah, as well as smaller temples and the fiscal interrelationships between and among the temples and the crown, is testimony to the nature of the revenue system that linked temples and state under pharaoh’s authority. In recording the new donations of land, personnel, and property made personally by Ramesses III, it is convincing evidence of the continued central role of the Egyptian temples in an economy based on agricultural wealth that required a complex administrative system to function successfully. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“The general levy (Htr) provided offerings for temple altars, livestock for sacrifice, clothing for temple statues, and assorted cult necessities. Since surviving fiscal documents are mostly temple records, there is a lack of documentation of the taxation system from the state’s perspective. We are therefore unable to verify the existence of a central tax collection authority despite the existence of the aA n St. <>

“Taxes supplied military garrisons and foreign settlements comprised of prisoners of war and mercenaries. The quarrying of stone for state construction projects was also dependent upon general tax revenues. Even the wages of the workmen of the royal necropolis at the village at Deir el- Medina were derived from taxes. The Treasury of Pharaoh sometimes made payments and the commodities were subsequently stored in Theban temple granaries. The general levy also provided for the costly maintenance of the royal palaces and harems. For the greater part of the New Kingdom, the economy performed effectively through the efforts of an efficient bureaucracy under the vizier in conjunction with both the Treasury of Pharaoh and Granary of Pharaoh.” <>

Tax Administration in the New Kingdom

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “The administration of the general levy is documented in the Theban tomb chapel inscriptions of Rekhmira, vizier of Upper Egypt under Thutmose III and Amenhotep II. The vizier’s day-to-day responsibilities are detailed as he administers the complex business of the state. While wall paintings depict Rekhmira performing the functions of his office, the accompanying inscriptions illuminate the ethical principles that guided the New Kingdom administration. Not only did the vizier oversee the collection and receipt of taxes from the hands of various officials, he also met with the overseers of the Treasury in order to be informed of the finances of every government department. The taxation scene in the tomb of Rekhmira and the modest amounts paid suggest that when circumstances demanded revenues in excess of those raised by the usual levies on provincial towns and villages, the demand would be passed down the administrative channels with orders to free up stocks wherever available or obtain revenues through exactions at the local level. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“Early in the reign of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten, evidence of the talatat from the ninth pylon at Karnak reveals that temple walls in the precinct of the Aten had been inscribed with lists of the taxes levied by the king upon temples and municipalities throughout the country for the support of his new cult. Fixed taxes consisting of modest quantities of silver, incense, wine, and material were requisitioned from the domains of various deities, and variable taxes consisting of precious metals, cloth, and foodstuffs were also demanded, destined for the “Domain of the Disk in Heliopolis of the South.” The latter category includes contributions made by mayors (HAtj-a) and those from various royal domains. Scenes depict the king receiving revenue from Upper Egypt, Middle Egypt, and Lower Egypt beneath the life-giving rays of the Aten. In mentioning the names of the domains of many of the great Egyptian deities, these inscriptions suggest the peaceful coexistence of Atenism with traditional Egyptian religion at least during the early years of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten. Moreover, the offerings of all the gods and goddesses “who are on the soil of Memphis” mentioned by the Steward of Memphis Ipy in the Ghurab letter as issued on behalf of Amenhotep IV perhaps may also be understood in this light. <>

“Following the stormy Amarna Period and the restoration accomplished under Tutankhamen, government reforms were imperative. Horemheb issued his edict at the Karnak temple of Amun to initiate extensive administrative and judicial reforms. He targeted the abuse of authority in both the central and local governments that characterized Akhenaten’s reign, focusing on the unlawful seizure of tax revenues by unscrupulous officials and soldiers, occasioned by the pervasive lawlessness of the times. <>

“Horemheb reasserted the right of the state to collect taxes in goods and services for the support of the government and its enterprises and put violators of the edict squarely in defiance of the law. Horemheb’s decrees were, however, only a piecemeal effort at reform; the government was chiefly concerned with safeguarding state interests, a goal best achieved by reestablishing the traditional institutional framework for the collection and redistribution of tax revenues in which the temples had always played a central role. <>

Collection and Transportation of Taxes in the New Kingdom

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “The collection and transport of tax revenues was a great temptation for those who thought they might personally benefit from inadequate security measures. Therefore it is not surprising to find documentary evidence of measures to ensure the safety of the property of temples and other foundations not only against continuing abuse by criminals, but also by predatory officials seeking either revenues or the labor of workers to which they were not entitled. For example, as set out in the Nauri Decree, Sety I granted a charter of immunity to safeguard from unauthorized seizure the staff and property of his temple of Osiris at Abydos, including royal donations of lands far to the south and the rich cargoes of ships from Nubia intended for the temple. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“The warnings of this decree, carved high on a cliff at Nauri north of the Third Cataract, threaten horrific punishments for any transgression of the law by any commander, scribe, or inspector of the Nile fortresses, including loss of status in being made to serve as a cultivator, understood here as a forced laborer for the temple. The Nauri Decree exemplifies the state’s determination to secure the revenues that ensured the efficient operation of its economy and is consistent with the long-standing state protection of temple wealth and personnel that can be traced back to the Old Kingdom exemption decrees. The Nauri Decree could be interpreted as establishing the strength and occasionally arbitrary nature of central authority as required by circumstance. <>

“The transport of tax revenues is the subject of the Turin Taxation Papyrus. This document, from year 12 of Ramesses XI, describes the collection by Scribe of the Necropolis Dhutmose of grain revenues (Smw) payable to the state by various institutions and individuals intended to cover the overdue wages of the necropolis workmen at Deir el- Medina. The mayor of the city and the chantresses of Amun received the grain for storage in Theban granaries. Other Ramesside texts detailing the collection and transportation of grain revenues, such as P. Amiens and its other half P. Baldwin, P. Louvre 3171, the Griffith and Louvre Fragments, and P. British Museum 10447, also testify to the closely interwoven network of bureaucrats and agencies engaged in revenue collection, transportation, and distribution. <>


peasants seized for not paying taxes


Land Assessment and Taxes on Small Landholders in the New Kingdom

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “There is no substantial documentation of land assessment and taxation in the New Kingdom until year 4 of Ramesses V in the 20th Dynasty when the Wilbour Papyrus was recorded. The Wilbour Papyrus provides assessment data for some 2800 plots of agricultural land in Middle Egypt under the charge of temples and secular institutions. Text A records standard harvests used to calculate expected revenues from plots cultivated under two schemes of cultivation: a collectively organized scheme of cultivation under low-level agricultural administrators (non-apportioning domains) and independent smallholding by individuals identified by name and occupation (apportioning domains; for both systems). The “harvest duties” (Smw) forthcoming from the plots enumerated were collected by the House of Amun in Thebes and transported by temple staff to the granary of the House of Amun. The Wilbour Papyrus was thus probably a temple document rather than a document of the central government. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“Smallholders of a wide variety of occupations and titles, who were “private possessors” or “virtual owners” of their plots, paid dues on their harvest on only a tiny portion of their plot at a fixed rate of 1½ sacks per aroura. These plots were usually 3 or 5 arouras in size (1 aroura equals 0.27 hectares or 0.66 acre). Those “private possessors” who cultivated 5 aroura plots and held military occupations or other low-level service occupations may be comparable to the xntj-S of the Old Kingdom who farmed plots on temple endowment land in exchange for their service . Larger tracts of cultivated land in non-apportioning domains were worked by field laborers supervised by institutional staff. These tracts incurred a tax of 30 percent of the harvest. Also detailed are holdings of crown land (khato-land and mine- land of pharaoh), located upon the domains of institutions, supervised by institutional staff, and cultivated by field laborers. The briefer Wilbour Text B is also concerned with khato-lands of pharaoh, in the same area, under at least some of the same administrators, but has received far less attention from scholars. <>

“The Wilbour percentage of assessment (assessment rate) data indicate that some occupations of smallholders once assumed to be socially homogeneous do in fact occupy several distinct socio-economic niches that are interrelated across occupational boundaries as distinct subclasses in society. Occupational designations, such as jHwtj, wab, rwDw, and waw, embrace individuals of widely varied socio- economic status from extremely modest to elite. <>

“The Wilbour Papyrus has been understood to reflect an agrarian regime in which temples and secular institutions administered cultivable land as departments of the state or even a branch of government administration, or perhaps better said, as partners with pharaoh of the entity called “state,” even if the temples were not actually incorporated in the structure of the “state”. Debate concerning whether the revenues recorded in P. Wilbour were taxes payable to the crown or rents contributory to the temples is irrelevant since the infrastructure for tax collection consisted of tightly interconnected parallel bureaucracies of temples and government. Temples, as a kind of “supra-local institution”, collected payments in kind that could be considered “taxes” broadly speaking and were, at the same time, beneficiaries of the general tax levy. <>

“In his work on ceremonial and administrative texts from the Theban mortuary temples (Hwt), in particular that of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu and the Ramesseum of Ramesses II, described as being m pr Imn (“in the House/Domain/Estate of Amun”), Haring (1997) identifies no consistent pattern of economic relations among these temples, the temple of Amun at Karnak, and the palace. If the link here was more religious than administrative or legal and did not imply economic dependence, traditional understandings of m pr Imn (“in the House of Amun”) must be reconsidered.” <>

Social Impacts of Ancient Egyptian Taxes

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “Model letters included among the Ramesside Late Egyptian miscellanies colorfully describe the problems encountered by farmers (jHwtj) in meeting their tax assessment. Unable to remit the taxes due on his land, the overburdened farmer is beaten by the tax collector’s bully men and forced to witness the abuse of his wife and children . This grim portrayal of the miseries of the small farmer cannot be taken literally however. The letters were likely intended to remind lazy students of the great privilege of their occupation since the scribe “has no dues (SAyt) (to pay)”. With the factual reliability of such letters in doubt, their testimony for the understanding of the terminology of taxation is put into question. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“Such accounts of the lives of jHwtjw in the Late Egyptian miscellanies can be profitably viewed in light of the Middle Kingdom Loyalist Instruction, a wisdom text popular during the New Kingdom. A reading of this work could lead to the conclusion that an underlying principle of good government at this time was the recognition of the need for social solidarity and a sense of reciprocity between the ruler and his subjects. Failure to abide by such advice could lead to social, political, and economic ruin. Therefore the official is advised: “Do not overwhelm the field-laborer with work; a man who complains, does he return to you next year?”. <>

“Taxpayers did not always accept the tax obligations ascribed to them. In P. Valençay I, an actual letter from the reign of Ramesses XI, a taxpayer adamantly protests his innocence when falsely accused of defaulting on his tax obligation. Meron, mayor of Elephantine, complained to the Chief Taxing Master (aA n St) concerning taxes demanded of him on a plot of khato-land that was in fact the responsibility of “private persons,” “freemen,” or even “independent farmers” (nmHw) “who pay gold (fAj nbw, nbw understood as “payment” or “money”) to the Treasury of Pharaoh”. <>

“This letter confirms evidence from P. Bologna 1094 5, 8 - 7, 1 concerning a prophet of the House of Seth who is outraged when ordered to pay tax he swears he does not owe saying, “It is not my due tax (Htr) at all!”. Also, in P. Anastasi V 27, 3 - 7, a taxpayer fulminates against unjust taxation when he says, “It is I whom you have found to penalize (saHa) among the entire body of taxpayers (?) (St)”. Whatever the truth of these accusations from the miscellanies, taxpayers’ rage was likely widespread, and Meron’s letter was possibly just the tip of the iceberg. <>

“Tax disputes inevitably made their way into the courts. The Memphite tomb chapel inscription of Mose, from the reign of Ramesses II, recounts the litigation that ensued among three rival branches of a family over the control of property granted by Ahmose I to Mose’s ancestor, the ship-master Neshi, as a reward for valor shown in fighting the Hyksos. Documentation of tax payments by smallholders was evidently kept in the archives of the Treasury of Pharaoh and the Granary of Pharaoh in Pi-Ramesse in the Delta, and it was to these offices that one appealed concerning rights of ownership. Government records were not inviolable, however, since one of the parties attempted to alter the records in her favor. If this text is taken at face value, corruption in the day-to- day workings of the offices that formed the administrative hub of the tax system was a very real problem. <>

Taxation After the New Kingdom

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “For the Third Intermediate Period, the tenth century Upper Egyptian land list known as P. Reinhardt provides evidence of plots of land of uncertain status, apparently worked with corvée labor in contrast to plots cultivated by smallholders. These references underscore the continued importance of compulsory agricultural labor in the economy following the collapse of the New Kingdom. Even with the high casualty rates associated with the more hazardous corvée activities such as quarrying stone, labor was, after all, very cheap. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, escholarship.org <>]

“Royal monumental sources in particular highlight the continuing prominence of temples as the recipients of tax revenues. Examples include the stela of Shoshenq I at the temple of Heryshef in Heracleopolis that celebrates the king’s restoration of the customary tribute (tp n Htr) of 365 oxen for the daily ox-offering at the temple from towns in the vicinity of Heracleopolis. Remarkable similarities have been noted between Shoshenq’s fiscal scheme and that of the Hebrew king Solomon. It is possible that Solomon modeled his system upon the Egyptian after centuries of contact with Egyptian administrators. <>

“Additional royal sources provide evidence for taxation as a mechanism to support a variety of royal actions including building works as seen in Taharqo’s restoration of the temple of Kawa in Nubia and the building of a new temple to Amun. The great Victory Stela of Piye, set up in the temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal, proclaims the allegiance of the vassal king of Heracleopolis and his contribution of a levy to support the royal house. This is evidence that the use of taxation to maintain palace lifestyles remained consistent throughout Pharaonic history. A related strategy was that of Taharqo, who assigned the wives and children of chieftains of Lower Egypt to serve in his temple as a labor tax in punishment for their rebellions. <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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