Bakery and brewery
The Egyptian economy in the time of the pyramids was powered the by the construction of the pyramids. Pyramids building required labor. An economy was necessary to pay them.

Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: “The economy of ancient Egypt is a difficult area of study due to the lack of preservation of much data (especially quantitative data); it is also a controversial subject on which widely divergent views have been expressed. It is certain, however, that the principal production and revenues of Egyptian society as a whole and of its individual members was agrarian, and as such, dependent on the yearly rising and receding of the Nile. Most agricultural producers were probably self- sufficient tenant farmers who worked the fields owned by wealthy individuals or state and temple estates. In addition to these, there were institutional and corvée workforces, and slaves, but the relative importance of these groups for society as a whole is difficult to assess. According to textual evidence, crafts were in the hands of institutional workforces, but indications also exist of craftsmen working for private contractors. Trade was essentially barter with reference to fixed units of textile, grain, copper, silver, and gold as measures of value. Coins were imported and produced in the Late Period, but a system close to a monetary economy is attested only from the Ptolemaic Period onward. Marketplaces were frequented by private individuals (including women) as well as professional traders, both native and foreign. Imports were secured by conquests and military control in the Levant, from which silver, oil, and wine reached Egypt, and in Nubia, rich in its deposits of gold. [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“Economy in its broadest sense can be defined as the system, or the different ways, in which material goods are produced, distributed, and consumed. In everyday language, “economy” stands for the efficient use of scarce resources, and for the process of buying and selling that appears to be at the center of much modern economic activity. Such a popular use of the term is likely to neglect aspects of human society that are no less “economic,” such as taxation (an aspect of government economic policy), or subsistence (the self-sufficient mode of production and consumption in traditional agrarian societies). To put it differently, “economy” is not necessarily the same as “commerce.” In fact, trade seems to be just one aspect of an economic system, the relative importance of which is thought to be subject to historical change (see Trade). There is actually no single aspect of human society that is irrelevant to its economy .

“Whereas modes of production and distribution can be reconstructed on the basis of textual, archaeological, and geological research, quantification remains the central problem in the study of an ancient economy, such as the Egyptian, due to the lack of preservation of many sources of information. Moreover, Egyptological discussions tend to concentrate on textual sources, the social and chronological distribution of which is unbalanced (institutional records of the New Kingdom and Greco-Roman Period being relatively well-represented). More integrative approaches that include archaeological data may well add significantly to our present state of knowledge.”


Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Economic Activity In Ancient Egypt

Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia of the CNRS in France wrote: Specialized, large-scale workshops aiming to supply the army, temples, and the palace coexisted with a more modest but widespread artisan production, in the hands of craftsmen (potters, leather workers, weavers, brick makers, etc.) who were often the object of mockery i n the satire-of-trades texts. Finally, the supplying of cities with charcoal, fresh vegetables, meat, and fish is occasionally referred to in administrative documents and private letters, thus giving an idea of the impact of urban markets on the economic activities, trades, and lifestyles of people living far away from cities. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno Garcia, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

“That fishermen, for instance, were paid in silver and, in turn, paid their taxes in silver during the reign of Ramesses II, suggests t hat markets (and traders) played an important role in the commercialization of fish, harvests, and goods, in the use of precious metals as a means of exchange, and in the circulation of commodities. Credit is also evoked in the textual record and it can be posited that, at least in some cases, it stimulated the output of various crafts, particularly in domains such as textile production in the domestic sphere. While in some instances women delivered pieces of cloth on a compulsory basis, it is possible that, in other instances, they produced textiles for markets through the mediation of traders. Individuals also provided loans and credit to their neighbors, thus creating a network of personal bonds and dependence that reinforced their local preeminence as well as the accumulation of wealth in their hands.

Markets and Merchants in Ancient Egypt

Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: “Private exchange could probably take place everywhere and at any time. Sales or rentals of expensive items, however, would be effected with witnesses present, and might involve the taking of an oath on the part of the seller or renter promising that there were no claims by third parties on the item transferred. These were oral conventions (reflected in the unique textual documentation from Ramesside Deir el-Medina) until after the New Kingdom, when they became fixed parts of written contracts. [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“Texts and tomb scenes testify to the existence of marketplaces where movables changed hands. The Egyptian word for river bank (mryt) is often used with the meaning “marketplace,” and tomb scenes confirm that such places were indeed located at the river. The booths depicted in the scenes accommodate men as well as women. The latter could engage in local trade, probably as sellers of surplus produce of the household, especially textiles. (Linen) textiles were actually a common means of payment, very much like grain, copper, and silver, and are documented as such in the exchange of movables and real estate from the Old Kingdom onward.

“Trade in an institutional context seems to have been limited to men. The Egyptian word Swtj means “trader,” but not necessarily “merchant”. Bearers of this title worked for temples and for the households of wealthy individuals, their task being to exchange the surplus production of these households (e.g., textiles) for other items, such as oil and metals. Such trade ventures are recorded in ship’s logs from the Ramesside Period. Although attested in institutional contexts only, traders may well have used their position and skills to engage in transactions for their own profit, as did institutional craftsmen (see Labor).

There were no coins or paper money in ancient Egypt. Workers tended to be paid in food, drink, oil, dried and other goods and services rather than money. Egyptians used animals, particularly sheep, for money. Gold pieces have been found that are shaped like sheep. These are believed to have been early money.

Silver rings were used in Mesopotamia and Egypt as currency hundreds of years before the first coins were struck. A wall painting from Thebes from 1,300 B.C. shows a man weighing donut-size gold rings on a balance. The use of money made trade easier between Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine. Archaeologists have also found a crock with bits of gold and silver, including several rod-shaped ingots of gold and silver. Egyptians also paid for things with pieces of gold and silver carried in sacks and jars and measured in deben (a traditional Egyptian measurement equal to three ounces). One deben was equal to a sack of wheat. Four or five could buy a tunic, 50, a cow.

Money: Units of Value and Payment in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian seals
Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: “The exchange of commodities in Pharaonic Egypt can best be characterized as money-barter—that is, barter with reference to fixed units of value. Prices, whether formed by tradition or by demand and supply, seem to have been more stable than those in modern markets. They could be expressed, basically, in any commodity, but by far the most common were units of grain, copper, and silver (also popular was linen: see number 3 below). The price of any given object, piece of real estate, animal, and slave could be expressed in these commodities. Although “money” in the modern sense of the word did not exist in ancient Egypt, some of its definitive characteristics—such as standard of value and means of payment— were present. [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“An Egyptian word closely approaching our word “money” (and indeed often translated as such) is “silver” (HD). In the New Kingdom and later, the word was used to refer to payment, even if the payment was not actually in silver. This practice may have been a consequence of the increasing amounts of silver circulating in Egypt after foreign conquests. Until the Third Intermediate Period, however, there are no indications of a bank or government guaranteeing the value of the means of payment, or a fixed shape of that means (such as coins or bills), let alone fiduciary (as opposed to intrinsic) value. In documents from the 21st Dynasty onward, the silver used in payments is said to have come from “the Treasury of Harsaphes” (presumably in Heracleopolis); in the Saite Period a Theban treasury is referred to; and after the Persian conquest, the “treasury of Ptah” in Memphis. Müller-Wollermann has suggested that these temple treasuries acted as guarantors. Egyptian coins or other fixed forms of silver objects used for payment are not attested in these periods. However, hoards of Greek silver coins of the Late Period have been found in Egypt and there are indications of the circulation and even imitation of Greek coins at this time. Coins inspired by the Greek ones but with Egyptian inscriptions date from the 30th Dynasty and the Second Persian Period. The Ptolemies conducted their own massive production of coins and the Ptolemaic Egyptian economy came to resemble a monetary system (including banks), although payment in kind remained common practice.

“The value of grain fluctuated in the course of the agrarian year from low (when the harvests were brought in) to high (in the period preceding the harvests). Long-term fluctuations (such as the dramatic rise in grain prices from the reign of Ramesses III onward) may be due to failures in the government’s economic policy, or to repeated ecological stress (low Nile floods). Loans of grain between individuals could take advantage of short- and long-term fluctuations, besides requiring the payment of considerable interest (often 100 percent or more). The basic units of grain were the “sack” (XAr) and its subdivisions, the hekat (HoAt) and the oipe (ipt). In the New Kingdom, the sack was a unit of almost 80 liters, subdivided into four oipe, each of which in its turn was made up of four hekat. A further subdivision, the hin (hnw) (1/10 of the hekat, approximately 1/2 of a ter), was used for fluids, but not for grain. From the Late Period onward, grain was measured in artabe (rtb), a smaller unit than the sack, and often of uncertain capacity (estimates range between 32 and 40 liters).

“The ratio of silver to copper was stable during much of the New Kingdom (1 unit of silver against 100 units of copper), but changed towards the end of the 20th Dynasty (1 unit of silver against 60 of copper). One unit of gold equaled two of silver. It is assumed that before the late Middle Kingdom silver was more valuable than gold, because whenever earlier texts mention both metals, silver is mentioned first (it having been the custom in economic texts to start with the most expensive commodities). The reduction in the value of silver is explained by its influx from the north, which increased through Egypt’s domination in the Levant, especially after the conquests of the early New Kingdom. Egypt itself has few natural deposits of silver, as opposed to gold, a major Egyptian mineral resource.

“Gold mining areas were located in the Eastern Desert, but it was the incorporation of Nubia into the Egyptian empire that gave the pharaohs access to vast gold resources. It is even possible that the value of gold decreased slightly in the middle of the 18th Dynasty due to its massive influx. Gold was especially important to Egypt’s foreign policy as a means of financing wars and of gift- giving among the political powers of the time. Copper was abundantly available in Egypt (mainly in the Eastern Desert and Sinai) and was the prime material for tools before iron became common in the first millennium B.C..

“The units of weight used for metals were the deben (dbn: approximately 90 grams in the Ramesside Period and later; considerably less in earlier periods; cf. Graefe 1999) and its tenth part, the kite (odt). A special unit for silver was the seniu or sh(en)ati (Snatj), possibly 7.5 grams. Otherwise the kite was the unit preferred for precious metals, although gold rarely made its appearance in everyday economic traffic.

Money and the Development of Proto Money in Mesopotamia

Clay accounting tokens from Mesopotamia
Some archaeologists suggest that money was used by wealthy citizens of Mesopotamia as early as 2,500 B.C., or perhaps a few hundred years earlier. Historian Marvin Powell of Northern Illinois in De Kalb told Discover, "Silver in Mesopotamia functions like our money today. It’s a means of exchange. People use it for storage of wealth, and the use it for defining value." [Source: Heather Pringle, Discover, October 1998]

The difference between the silver rings used in Mesopotamia and earliest coins first produced in Lydia in Anatolia in the 7th century B.C. was that the Lydian coins had the stamp of the Lydian king and thus were guaranteed by an authoritative source to have a fixed value. Without the stamp of the king, people were reluctant to take the money at face value from a stranger.

Archaeologists have had a difficult time sorting out information on ancient money because, unlike pottery or utensils, found in abundant supply at archeological sites, they didn't thrown them out.

The earliest form of trade was barter. The earliest known proto-money are clay token excavated from the floors of villages houses and city temples in the Near East. The tokens served as counters and perhaps as promissory notes used before writing was developed. The tokens came in different sizes and shapes.

Early Mesopotamians who lived in the Fertile Crescent before the rise of the first cities employed five token types that represented different amounts of the three main traded goods: grain, human labor and livestock such as goats and sheep.

Clay tokens, described by some scholars as the world's first money, found in Susa, Iran have been dated to 3300 B.C. One was equivalent to one sheep. Others represented a jar of oil, a measure of metal, a measure of honey, and different garments.

In the Mesopotamian cities, there were 16 main types of tokens and dozens of sub categories for things like honey, trussed duck, sheep's milk, rope, garments, bread, textiles, furniture, mats, beds, perfume and metals.

Development of Money Idea and the Idea Behind it

Accounting clay envelope
from Mesopotamia

Thomas Wyrick, an economist at Southwestern Missouri State University told Discover, "If there were a thousand different goods being traded up and down the street, people could set the price in a thousand different ways because in a barter economy each good is priced in terms of other goods. So one pair of sandals equals ten dates, equals one quart of wheat, equals two quarts of bitumen, and so on."

"Which is the best price? It's so complex that people don't know if they are getting a good deal. For the first time in history, we've got a large number of goods. And for the first time, we have so many prices that it overwhelms the human mind. People needed some standard way of stating value."

In Mesopotamia, silver became the standard of value sometime between 3100 B.C. and 2500 B.C. along with barley. Silver was used because it was a prized decorative material, it was portable and the supply of it was relatively constant and predictable from year to year.

Sometime before 2500 B.C. a shekel of silver became the standard currency. Tablets listed the price of timber and grains in shekels of silver. A shekel was equal to about one third of an ounce, or little more than three pennies in terms of weight. One month of labor was worth 1 shekel. A liter of barely sold for 3/100ths of shekel. A slave sold for between 10 and 20 shekels.

No long after shekels appeared as a means of exchange, kings began levying fines in shekels as a punishment. Around 2000 B.C., in the city of Eshnunna, a man who bit another man's nose was fined 60 shekels. A man who slapped another man in the face had to pay up 20 shekels.

Ring Money

In the early days of shekels, people carried pieces of metal in bags and amounts were measured out on scales with stones as countermeasures on the other side. Between 2800 B.C. and 2500 B.C., pieces of silver were caste a standard weight, usually in the form of rings or coils called “har” on tablets. These rings, worth between 1 and 60 shekels, were used primarily by the rich to make big purchases. They came in a number of different forms: large ones with triangular ridges, thin coils.

A 3,700-year-old tablet from the Euphrates River town of Sippar recorded a bill of sale of a woman who bought some land with a silver ring, worth the equivalent of 60 months wages for an ordinary worker, that she received from her parents.

To pay their bills ordinary people used less valuable money made of tin, copper or bronze. Barley was also used as currency. The advantage with it was that small weighing errors made little difference and it was difficult to cheat someone.

The use of money made trade easier between city-states and kingdoms and well as between Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine.

Problems with Money

The main problem with silver is that it was so valuable that weighing errors or impure silver should translate to a large amount of lost value. Some people tried to purposely cheat others by adding other metals into gold or silver or even substituting look-a-like metals.

Fraud and cheating were so prevalent in the ancient world that there are eight passages in the Old Testament that forbid tampering with scales or substituting lighter for heavier stones.

People often fell into debt — a conclusion based on numerous tablet letters describing people in various kinds of trouble for falling into debt. Many debtors became slaves. The situation got so out of hand in Babylon that King Hammurabi decreed that no one could be enslaved for more than three years for debt. Other cities, with residents racked by debt, issued moratoriums on all outstanding bills.


See Agriculture

Government Control in the Ancient Egyptian Economy

Toby Wilkinson wrote in “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt”, “Ideology is never enough, on its own, to guarantee power. To be successful over the long term, a regime must also exercise effective economic control to reinforce its claims of legitimacy. Governments seek to manipulate livelihoods as well as lives. The development in ancient Egypt of a truly national administration was one of the major accomplishments of the First to Third dynasties, the four- hundred- year formative phase of pharaonic civilization known as the Early Dynastic Period (2950-2575). At the start of the period, the country had only just been unified. Narmer and his immediate successors were faced with the challenge of ruling a vast realm, stretching five hundred miles from the heart of Africa to the shores of the Mediterranean. By the close of the Early Dynastic Period, the government presided over a centrally controlled command economy, financing royal building projects on a lavish scale. Just how this was achieved is a story of determination, innovation, and, above all, ambition..[Source: Excerpt “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson, Random House, 2011, from the New York Times, March 28, 2011 ]

"The government’s ambition to control every aspect of the national economy is underlined by two measures introduced in the First Dynasty. Both are attested on the Palermo Stone, a fragment of royal annals that were compiled in the Fifth Dynasty, around 2400, and stretched back to the beginning of recorded history. The earliest surviving entry, for a First Dynasty king, probably Narmer’s immediate successor, Aha, concerns an event called the “Following of Horus,” which evidently took place every two years. Most probably, it consisted of a journey by the king and his court along the Nile Valley. In common with the royal progresses of Tudor England, it would have served several purposes at once. It allowed the monarch to be a visible presence in the life of his subjects; enabled his officials to keep a close eye on everything that was happening in the country at large, implementing policies, resolving disputes, and dispensing justice; defrayed the costs of maintaining the court, and removed the burden of supporting it year- round in one location; and, last but by no means least, facilitated the systematic assessment and levying of taxes. (A little later, in the Second Dynasty, the court explicitly recognized the actuarial potential of the Following of Horus. Thereafter, the event was combined with a formal census of the country’s agricultural wealth.) From the third reign of the First Dynasty, the Palermo Stone also records the height of the annual Nile inundation, measured in cubits and fractions of a cubit (one ancient Egyptian cubit equals 20.6 inches). The reason why the court would have wished to measure and archive this information every year is simple: the height of the inundation directly affected the level of agricultural yield the following season, and would therefore have allowed the royal treasury to determine the appropriate level of taxation.

beer making

"Under state sponsorship, Egypt’s international relations entered a new period of dynamism — not that you would have guessed it from the official propaganda. For domestic consumption, the Egyptian government maintained a fiction of splendid isolation. According to royal doctrine, the king’s role as defender of Egypt (and the whole of creation) involved the corresponding defeat of Egypt’s neighbors (who stood for chaos). To instill and foster a sense of national identity, it suited the ruling elite — as leaders have discovered throughout history — to cast all foreigners as the enemy. An ivory label from the tomb of Narmer shows a Palestinian dignitary stooping in homage before the Egyptian king. At the same time, in the real world, Egypt and Palestine were busy engaging in trade. The xenophobic ideology masked the practical reality. This should serve as a warning for the historian of ancient Egypt: from earliest times, the Egyptians were adept at recording things as they wished them to be seen, not as they actually were. The written record, though undoubtedly helpful, needs careful sifting, and must always be weighed against the unvarnished evidence dug up by the archaeologist’s trowel.

"Whereas Egypt’s relationship with the Near East was, from the start, contradictory and complex, its attitude toward Nubia — the Nile Valley south of the first cataract — was far more straightforward . . . and domineering. Before the beginning of the First Dynasty, when the predynastic kingdoms of Tjeni, Nubt, and Nekhen were rising to prominence in Egypt, a similar process was under way in lower (northern) Nubia, centered on the sites of Seyala and Qustul. With a sophisticated culture, kingly burials, and trade with neighboring lands, including Egypt, lower Nubia displayed all the hallmarks of an incipient civilization. Yet it was not to be. The written and archaeological evidence tell the same story, one of Egyptian conquest and subjugation. Egypt’s early rulers, in their determination to acquire control of trade routes and to eliminate all opposition, moved swiftly to snuff out their Nubian rivals before they could pose a real threat.

"The inscription at Gebel Sheikh Suleiman which shows a giant scorpion holding in its pincers a defeated Nubian chieftain, is a graphic illustration of Egyptian policy toward Nubia. A second inscription nearby, dating to the threshold of the First Dynasty, completes the story. It shows a scene of devastation, with Nubians lying dead and dying, watched over by the cipher (hieroglyphic marker) of the Egyptian king. The prosperous city- states of the Near East, which were useful trading partners and geographically separate from Egypt, could be allowed to exist, but a rival kingdom immediately upstream was unthinkable. Following Egypt’s decisive early intervention in lower Nubia, this stretch of the Nile Valley — though it would remain a thorn in Egypt’s side — would not rise again as a serious power for nearly a thousand years.

"Secure in its borders, with hegemony over the Nile Valley and flourishing trade links, the early Egyptian state witnessed a marked rise in overall prosperity, but the rewards were not evenly spread across the population. Cemeteries that span the period of state formation show a sudden polarization of grave size and wealth, a widening gap between rich and poor, with those who were already affluent benefiting the most. The greatest beneficiary by far was the state itself, for the practical effect of political unification was to convey all land into royal ownership. While individuals and communities continued to farm their land as they had before, they now found themselves with a landlord who expected rent in return for their use of his property.

Writing and Economics in Ancient Egypt

scribe statue
Toby Wilkinson wrote in “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt”, “Among the great inventions of human history, writing has a special place. Its transformative power — in the transmission of knowledge, the exercise of power, and the recording of history itself — cannot be overstated. Today, it is virtually impossible to imagine a world without written communication. For ancient Egypt, it must have been a revelation. We are unlikely ever to know exactly how, when, and where hieroglyphics were first developed, but the evidence increasingly points toward a deliberate act of invention. The earliest Egyptian writing discovered to date is on bone labels from a predynastic tomb at Abdju, the burial of a ruler who lived around 150 years before Narmer. These short inscriptions already used fully formed signs, and the writing system itself showed the complexity that would characterize hieroglyphics for the next three and a half thousand years. Archaeologists dispute whether Egypt or Mesopotamia should take the credit for inventing the very idea of writing, but Mesopotamia, especially the southern city of Uruk (modern Warka), seems to have the better claim. Excerpt “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson, Random House, 2011, from the New York Times, March 28, 2011 ]

"It is likely that the idea of writing came to Egypt along with a raft of other Mesopotamian influences in the centuries before unification — the concept, but not the writing system itself. Hieroglyphics are so perfectly suited to the ancient Egyptian language, and the individual signs so obviously reflected the Egyptians’ particular environment, that they must represent an indigenous development. We may imagine an inspired genius at the court of one of Egypt’s predynastic rulers pondering the strange signs on imported objects from Mesopotamia — pondering them and their evident use as encoders of information, and devising a corresponding system for the Egyptian language. This may seem farfetched, but the invention of the Korean script (by King Sejong and his advisers in a.d. 1443) provides a more recent parallel, and there are few other entirely convincing explanations for the sudden appearance of fully fledged hieroglyphic writing.

Whatever the circumstances of its invention, writing was swiftly embraced by Egypt’s early rulers, who recognized its potential, not least for economic management. In the context of competing kingdoms expanding their spheres of influence, the ability to record the ownership of goods and to communicate this information to others was a marvelous innovation. Straightaway, supplies entering and leaving the royal treasury began to be stamped with the king’s cipher (his Horus name). Other consignments, destined for his tomb, had labels attached to them, recording not just ownership but other important details such as contents, quantity, quality, and provenance. Having been developed as an accounting tool, writing found an enthusiastic reception among bureaucratically minded Egyptians. Throughout ancient Egyptian history, literacy was reserved for a tiny elite at the heart of government. To be a scribe — to be able to read and write — was to have access to the levers of power. That association was evidently formed at the very start.

"Writing certainly transformed the business of international trade. Many of the labels from the royal tombs at Abdju — whose miniature scenes of royal ritual serve as an important source for early pharaonic culture — were originally attached to jars of high quality oil, imported from the Near East. An upsurge in such imports during the First Dynasty can be associated with the establishment of Egyptian outposts and trading stations throughout southern Palestine. At sites such as Nahal Tillah and Tel Erani in present- day Israel, imported Egyptian pottery (some stamped with the cipher of Narmer), locally made pottery in an Egyptian style, and seal impressions with hieroglyphs testify to the presence of Egyptian officials in the heart of the oil- and wineproducing region. At the springs of En Besor, near modern Gaza, the Egyptian court established its own supply center, for revictualing trade caravans using the coastal route between Palestine and the Nile delta.

Ancient Egypt’s Barter- and Ration-Based, Mixed Economy

Sally Katary of Laurentian University in Ontario wrote: “The best documentation... comes from the New Kingdom, when the combined evidence of government records and administrative texts leads to the conclusion that Egypt enjoyed a “mixed economy.” The economic system fostered a complex system of economic interdependency wherein market forces played a complementary role: thus it was a “mixed” rather than a redistributive economy.” [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2011, ]

“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.”

Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, wrote: “ “Rations (compensation in the form of food or provisions) constituted the basis of the redistribution economy of the ancient Egyptian state and are usually understood as payment given in return for work. The Egyptian evidence shows no clear difference between the rations of laborers and the wages of personnel hired to perform services for projects organized by, or connected to, the state. It has therefore been suggested that rations and wages occasionally merged. Rations were a component of royal projects of all kinds, including, for example, the construction of funerary complexes, the maintenance of the cults of deceased rulers, the perpetuation of the cults of temple deities, military expeditions, expeditions to quarries, and agricultural work. They were also employed in the private sphere as payment for those who worked, for instance, on an estate or on projects organized by non-royal individuals. Rations were applied to both the work force of laborers and to the officials who supervised them.” [Source: Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, 2016, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

Agrarian Production in Ancient Egypt

Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: “There can be no doubt that production in ancient Egypt was first and foremost agrarian, the principal food crops being (emmer) wheat and barley, and the principal components of the Egyptian diet being bread and beer. Many of these and other crops were produced by tenant farmers, who were largely self- sufficient as far as the production of their own food was concerned. They lived in what anthropologists refer to as a peasant society (or peasant economy): a society mainly consisting of self-sufficient agrarian producers who pay part of their crops as tax to the government, or as rent to the owners of the land they cultivate. A variation of the peasant society, more specifically relevant to modern developing countries, is that of farmers who sell cash crops and subsequently are able to buy food. Such a strategy may occasionally be reflected in Egyptian sources—for example, in the Middle Kingdom Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, in which the “peasant” (sxtj), actually a hunter/gatherer from the Wadi el-Natrun oasis, intends to exchange his products (minerals, wild plants, animal skins) for grain on the market. [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“There is insufficient data to establish the amount of agrarian production (grain or otherwise) in ancient Egypt. Quantitative data are scarce and their chronological distribution is uneven. Estimates have been made, however, of the population and the total extent of fertile area during the Pharaonic and Greco-Roman periods. The figures usually quoted by Egyptologists are those arrived at by Butzer on the basis of geological surveys, as well as textual and archaeological data on ancient demography and agrarian technology. Butzer calculated a fertile area of 22,400 sq. kilometers. and a population of 2.9 million in the early Ramesside Period (about 1250 B.C.), and 27,300 sq. kilometers. with a population of 4.9 million in the Ptolemaic Period (about 150 B.C.). The underlying assumption is that 130 persons could live from the production of one square kilometer in the former, and 180 in the latter period. Their food would basically include wheat and barley, vegetables, dates, and fish, and for the well-to-do the diet would include meat and fruit. The increase in agrarian production per square kilometer in the Greco-Roman Period can be explained by improvements in agricultural technology (irrigation devices, new crops), and perhaps by a more efficient agrarian administration.

“Some documents provide data concerning grain production per square kilometer, although there remain uncertainties about the measures employed and the quality of the fields referred to. Administrative texts from the Ramesside Period (1295 - 1069 B.C.) suggest a norm of 2,700 to 2,900 liters per hectare (l/ha) for basin land—that is, fields of the best quality, submerged by the annual rise of the Nile in antiquity. (Conversion of liters to kilos is apparently a less than reliable process: references featuring the conversion display diverging estimates, in which the equivalent of one liter of grain varies between 0.512 and 0.705 kilos). The Ramesside quota match those found in records from early twentieth-century Egypt (varying between approximately 2,000 and 2,800 l/ha for wheat, and between 2,500 and 3,400 l/ha for barley). Less productive types of land were expected to yield three-quarters or half of these amounts. It is uncertain how much of the land available for agriculture was actually sown with wheat or barley, rather than vegetables, fruit trees, fodder for animals, or flax. It is assumed, however, that most of the basin land was used for cultivating grain crops.

“Ramesside sources inform us about the organization of agrarian production insofar as it is connected with temples and government departments. The personnel of these institutions were called ihuty (iHwtj; plural: iHwtjw). According to some texts, an ihuty was responsible for the yearly production of almost 16,000 liters of grain. For this he would have to work 5.5 to 6 hectares of basin land. The most important agrarian document of this period, Papyrus Wilbour, records even larger areas as the responsibility of an individual ihuty. Together, these sources suggest that the word ihuty refers to a supervisor rather than (or as well as) a member of the actual workforce. On a higher level, the ihuty were supervised by scribes, priests, or high state and temple officials.”

Land Tenure in Ancient Egypt

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “Land tenure describes the regime by means of which land is owned or possessed, whether by landholders, private owners, tenants, sub-lessees, or squatters. It embraces individual or group rights to occupy and/or use the land, the social relationships that may be identified among the rural population, and the converging influences of the local and central power structures. Features in the portrait of ancient Egyptian land tenure that may be traced over time in response to changing configurations of government include state and institutional landownership, private smallholdings, compulsory labor (corvée), cleruchies, leasing, and tenancy. Such documents as Papyrus Harris I, the Wilbour Papyrus, Papyrus Reinhardt, and the Ptolemaic Zenon and Menches archives provide evidence of various regimes of landholding, the status of the landholders, their relationship to the land, and the way in which the harvest was divided among cultivators, landowners, and the state. Ptolemaic leases and conveyances of land represent the perspective of individual landowners and tenants. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“The division of Egypt into two distinct agricultural zones, the 700-km-long Nile Valley and the Delta, as well as the Fayum depression and the oases of the Western Desert, produced regional differences that caused considerable variation in the organization of agriculture and the character of land tenure throughout antiquity. The village-based peasant society worked the land under a multiplicity of land tenure regimes, from private smallholdings to large estates employing compulsory (corvée) labor or tenant farmers under the management of the elite, temples, or the Crown. However cultivation was organized, it was predicated on the idea that the successful exploitation of land was the source of extraordinary power and wealth and that reciprocity, the basis of feudalism, was the key to prosperity.

“Consistent features in the mosaic of land tenure were state and institutional landowners, private smallholders, corvée labor, and cleruchs, the importance of any single feature varying over time and from place to place in response to changing degrees of state control. Leasing and tenancy are also elements that pervade all periods with varying terms as revealed by surviving leases. The importance of smallholding is to be emphasized since even large estates consisted of small plots as the basic agricultural unit in a system characterized by competing claims for the harvest. However, the exact nature of private smallholding in Pharaonic Egypt is still under discussion as is clear from studies that explore local identity and solidarity in all periods, subject to regional variation; the conflict between strong assertions of central control in the capital and equally powerful assertions of regional individuality and independence in the rural countryside; and the dislocation of the villager and his representatives from the local elites. Land tenure was also affected by local variation in the natural ecology of the Nile Valley. Moreover, variations in the height of the Nile over the medium and long term directly affected the amount of land that could be farmed, the size of the population that could be supported, and the type of crops that could be sown.

“The alternation of periods of unity and fragmentation in the control of the land was a major determinant of the varieties of land tenure that came to characterize the ancient Egyptian economy. The disruption in the balance between strong central control and local assertions of independence that resulted in periods of general political fragmentation or “native revolts” had a powerful effect upon the agrarian regime, economy, and society.

“The state’s collection of revenues from cultivated land under various land tenure regimes is also an element of continuity since the resources of the land constituted the primary tax-base for the state. Cultivators of all types had to cope with the payment of harvest dues owing to the state under all economic conditions, from famine to prosperity. These revenues fall under the terms Smw and SAyt and perhaps other terms occurring in economic and administrative texts in reference to dues owing to the state from the fields of the rural countryside.”

Estates in Old Kingdom (2649–2150 B.C.) Egypt

Juan Carlos Moreno García of Université Charles-de-Gaulle wrote: “Estates (also referred to as “domains”) formed the basis of institutional agriculture in Old Kingdom Egypt. Estates were primarily administered by the temples or by state agricultural centers scattered throughout the country, but were also granted to high officials as remuneration for their services. Sources from the third millennium B.C. show that estates constituted production networks where agricultural goods were produced, stored, and kept available for agents of the king who were traveling on state business. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno García, Université Charles-de-Gaulle, France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, ]

Estates were one of the main sources of income for the Egyptian state during the Old Kingdom. Most preserved sources concern the estates of institutions such as temples or the administrative centers known as Hwt (plural: Hwwt), or of certain state officials, including some members of the royal family. As estates were scattered all over the country, they constituted the links in a network of royal warehouses, production centers, and agricultural holdings that facilitated the production and storage of agricultural goods that were kept at the disposal of institutions or of the royal administration when needed.

“There is an important difference between Old Kingdom estates and their counterparts in later, better-documented periods: whereas texts like the Ramesside Wilbour Papyrus evoke thousands of estates directly controlled by the temples (the most important economic centers of the country from the New Kingdom on), third-millennium inscriptions show that royal centers founded by the king and administered by state-appointed officials controlled many estates and were, along with the temples, prominent places of institutional agricultural production.

“The most ancient sources concerning estates and their integration into the economic structure of the Egyptian state date from as early as the pre-unification period. Labels from the tombs of the late-Predynastic kings at Abydos appear to mention localities and estates that produced goods for, or sent goods to, the royal mortuary complexes. Hundreds of inscribed vessels from the 3rd-Dynasty pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara contain brief references to the officials and centers responsible for delivering offerings to Djoser’s funerary monuments and to those of his predecessors. These texts inform us that the Hwt (administrative center) and especially the Hwt- aAt (literally “great Hwt”—administrative center, probably larger than the Hwt), were the most important royal production units in the country. The existence of networks of this sort, in which royal estates produced goods collected at administrative centers and subsequently redistributed to other localities or officials, has recently come to light at Elephantine: hundreds of seal inscriptions, mainly dating to the 3rd Dynasty, record the delivery of goods from Abydos, the most important supra-regional administrative center in southern Egypt, to the local representatives and officials of the king in service at Elephantine. Slightly later sources, from the beginning of the 4th Dynasty, also evoke an economic and production geography in which royal administrative centers like the Hwt and Hwt-aAt governed smaller localities, estates, and fields, as was the case according to Metjen’s inscriptions: many titles borne by this official show that the Hwt and Hwt-aAt were the heads of territorial and economic units, sometimes referred to as pr (houses/estates; plural: prw), that encompassed many localities (njwt; plural: njwwt) located mainly in Lower Egypt.

“Therefore estates seem to have been firmly controlled by royal institutions and appear to have constituted the basic production units of the royal economy. The taxation and conscription of village inhabitants probably formed the other main source of income for the Pharaonic treasury, as the Gebelein papyri, from the end of the 4th Dynasty, show.

Estates composed a vital element in the economic and fiscal organization of the Egyptian state during the Old Kingdom. It should be emphasized that most estates depended on a network of royal centers (mainly Hwt) directly administered by royal officials—a feature that characterizes the Old Kingdom—whereas in later periods of Egyptian history the temples became the main holders of estates, which were therefore subject to a more indirect and fragile control by the king.”

Institutional and Private Interests in the Ancient Egyptian Economy

Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: “The aforementioned documents also indicate that the institutional exploitation of one and the same plot of land often involved more than one party. Papyrus Valençay I, from the end of the 20th Dynasty (c. 1069 B.C.), gives a clear example of the institutions and individuals who owned plots and were liable to taxation. The text is a letter written by the mayor of Elephantine, who was being held responsible for the production of barley on a type of government estate, the khato (xA-tA), which, in this case, was incorporated into a Theban temple estate. A scribe of the latter institution came to collect the barley, but the mayor objected that the plot specified was not his responsibility. Instead, he argued, it was the property of some private individuals, and taxed as such by the royal treasury. The text thus shows the three types of landowners regularly mentioned in agrarian documents: royal, temple, and private. Papyrus Wilbour from the reign of Ramesses V (1147 - 1143 B.C.) is a lengthy register of institutional fields in Middle Egypt and the parties entitled to their production. Among the institutions are large urban and small provincial temples, and a select number of government departments, such as the royal treasury and harems. [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]


“Basically, every institution had two types of agrarian domains. In the terms of Gardiner, these were: “non-apportioning” (presumably worked or supervised by the institution’s own personnel); and “apportioning,” or p(s)S (cultivated by other institutions or private individuals). The major part of the crops of apportioning fields was kept by the parties taking care of their cultivation, while a small part (varying between 7.5 percent and 15 percent) went to what Gardiner considered to be the owning institution. This institution, however, should rather be considered not as the “owner” but as having been entitled to tax received from the land (the percentage specified): apportioning fields were often in the hands of private individuals, who were the actual owners, and who yearly paid tax to the temple or government institution. This situation is also reflected in Papyrus Valençay I. The people cultivating their own land and paying their tax to the royal treasury are there called nmH(y) (plural: nmHyw), a word originally meaning “orphan,” but which in the New Kingdom had acquired the additional meaning “free” or “private,” and referred to people who owned property, but were not among the higher state and temple officials (sr; plural: srw; for this opposition see Römer 1994: 412 - 451). A similar status has been ascribed by Egyptologists to people called nDs (plural: nDsw), “small one,” in texts from the First Intermediate Period, and to the s n njwt tn “man of this town” of the Middle Kingdom, but this interpretation has been disputed. In the Greco- Roman Period, nmH(y) became the equivalent of the Greek eleutheros. The word is seldom used in Papyrus Wilbour, but it is likely that the individuals listed there as the holders of apportioning fields and as payers of taxes had precisely that status.

“On a lower level (with which the institutional documents were not concerned) were the actual cultivators, who may have been institutional workforces, private owners, or lessees. The latter (referred to in the previous section as tenant farmers) remain undocumented until the late Third Intermediate Period. By that time land leases had begun to appear as written contracts, a tradition that was continued in the Greco- Roman Period under the name misthosis. Documents from earlier periods occasionally refer to the practice, but the agreements themselves may have been oral ones. According to such contracts the lessee paid one fourth to as much as one half of the crop as rent. The contract also mentioned the harvest tax (Smw), about 10 percent of the crop, to be paid by the lessor to a temple or to the government, and it is tempting to regard the revenues from apportioning domains mentioned in Papyrus Wilbour as this very tax. Since many of the plots in this document belonged to apportioning domains, and most of these to private individuals, there must have been a great number of wealthy landowners in Egypt who could act as lessors. Furthermore, although land was remarkably cheap when compared with other modes of production (such as cattle and slaves), people who were not wealthy would not be inclined to buy it. It follows that very many of Egypt’s peasants probably leased the land they cultivated.

“A special case of shared interests in fields, the incorporation of crown land (khato) in the estates of other institutions, is illustrative of the complex interaction between temples and the government. Khato features prominently in Papyrus Wilbour and other agricultural documents. Plots of khato were included in the temples’ apportioning domains, which means that the temples received only minor shares of their revenues; the major part went to the khato-institution itself and was duly entered among its non-apportioning revenues. It is possible that the amount of khato land far exceeded the temples’ own non-apportioning domains, so that it formed a major part of their estates in terms of productive area, whereas the amount of grain the temples received from it was relatively low. Data from Papyrus Wilbour also suggest that the status of khato land could change: khato land incorporated in some other institution’s apportioning domain could, over the course of time, become autonomous, non- apportioning domains. These characteristics of khato help to explain the excessive proportions of some newly founded temple estates, as well as their reduction in later years.

“This example makes clear that the question of whether temples were economically independent or, rather, integrative parts of the government administration, is pointless. They were clearly separate institutions, but not fully autonomous, and their interests were closely connected with those of government departments and the crown. Their economic power was therefore not necessarily a threat to state interests at any moment in Pharaonic history. The king would have to consider, however, the interests of priests and temple administrators. From the Old Kingdom onwards, it was possible for him to exempt temple estates from taxation or compulsory labor (corvée) by decree. Such decrees were issued with respect to specific institutions and may therefore not represent a general policy. Government inspections of temples and their economic wealth are well attested for the Middle and New kingdoms; nation-wide temple inspections are known from the reigns of Amenemhat II, Tutankhamen, Merenptah, and Ramesses III.

“Apart from the inspections and certain fiscal aspects (such as khato), the temples appear to have been closed economic units. There are no indications that the temples’ wealth provided buffer stock for the population in times of food scarcity, despite suggestions to the contrary. Indeed the marginal contributions paid by the temples of western Thebes to the nearby community of necropolis workmen in the Ramesside Period, and their reluctance to assist when the latter’s food supply fell short, emphasize that temples did not normally play such a role.”

Egyptian peasants seized for not paying taxes

Taxes in Ancient Egypt

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, ]

“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.

There is more information on taxes in the government article.

Forms of Taxation in Ancient Egypt

tax receipt for wine

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, ]

“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”.

Ration System in Ancient Egypt

Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, wrote: “The distribution of rations can be found in documents from different period of the Egyptian history but the general features of the ration system is not easy to trace. Most of the sources are the more or less fragmentary lists of wages/payments that reflect various conditions, such as status of the recipients, period to which the payment corresponds etc, that are not always known to us. Other documents provide us with categories of allowances ascribed to the workmen and officials who participated on the same project. A few traces of a systematic approach can be recognized in the evidence, for instance value-units and day’s work units, but many details remain unclear. Bread, beer and grain represented the basic components of the rations in all periods. Bread and beer was often allocated daily while the grain was at some periods used as a monthly payment. On the other hand meat was considered an extra ration while linen and other valuable products could be distributed in longer periods, for instance once a year. Rations were distributed to the attendants of projects organized by the state but similar payments in the form of commodities occurred in exchange for a hired service in the private sphere. [Source: Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, 2016, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

“Rations (compensation in the form of food or provisions) constituted the basis of the redistribution economy of the ancient Egyptian state and are usually understood as payment given in return for work. The Egyptian evidence shows no clear difference between the rations of laborers and the wages of personnel hired to perform services for projects organized by, or connected to, the state. It has therefore been suggested that rations and wages occasionally merged. Rations were a component of royal projects of all kinds, including, for example, the construction of funerary complexes, the maintenance of the cults of deceased rulers, the perpetuation of the cults of temple deities, military expeditions, expeditions to quarries, and agricultural work. They were also employed in the private sphere as payment for those who worked, for instance, on an estate or on projects organized by non-royal individuals. Rations were applied to both the work force of laborers and to the officials who supervised them.

“The basic rations in all periods included bread and beer, often supplemented by grain (mostly barley [jt ] and wheat [ bdt] ).Additionally, meat, vegetables, cloth, oil, and other commodities were d istributed to the workers on a less frequent basis. Evidence for rations is found in administrative and economic documents from various periods, though rations also figure among the subjects of calculations presented in mathematical texts.

“The major aim of these calculations was to demonstrate methods of solving mathematical problems (for instance, arithmetical progressions), but we can also detect in them some reflections of the principles by which rations were graded. The mathematical texts attest to the practice of bureaucrats of controlling the quality of bread and beer made from a given quantity of grain/flour (psw-problems) and of comparing the value of bread and beer of differing qualities (DbAw-problems)(on the making of bread and beer). The ration or payment lists that have survived tend not to specify the quality of the bread and beer, and this indicates that some sort of standard norm existed in the system. Bread molds and beer jars, abundantly attested in the archaeological r ecord, indicate that each site and period operated with more or less standardized forms and sizes. Such standardization is today a helpful tool in archaeological context dating. “

Ration System in Egypt’s Archaic Period and the Old Kingdom (3100-2150 B.C)


Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, wrote: “The early Egyptian state made use of the ration system to sustain the elite, the numerous officials, and the army in a redistribution-based economy. Written evidence on labels and stone vessels from the Archaic Period indicates that a network of administrative centers existed that controlled the produce of local agricultural estates and distributed products from different parts of the country to the royal residence or the royal tomb. The agricultural domains (njwt) and administrative centers (Hwt), with appointed officials holding the title of HoA-Hwt , constituted the basis of the taxation system and of the conscription of village inhabitants for service on the king’s projects. [Source: Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, 2016, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

“At the royal residence, the title Hrj-wDb was associated with those who were in charge of the distribution of rations. Evidence indicates that from as early as the 2nd Dynasty domains had been established to support the system of direct supplying, and from the early Old Kingdom attestations have survived of agricultural domains established by rulers in order to guarantee economic support for royal projects and the administration. Kings enumerated long lists of funerary domains on the walls of their pyramid complexes; the logistical details of the transmission of agricultural products between the estates, administration, and workers, however, remain unclear.

“The organization required for massive royal projects, such as the construction of pyramid complexes, undoubtedly represented a major challenge for the Egyptian administration and economy in the Old Kingdom. A large number of officials and a huge workforce participated in the se projects, while the royal agricultural domains produced the quantity of rations required to support them. No direct evidence has survived of the system of ration-distribution at the construction sites, but some information can be traced in archaeology. Areas for brewing and bread baking were discovered at the 4 th Dynasty settlement of Heit el-Ghurab at Giza. Fish bones found on the site testify to the regular protein intake of the laborers . Officials supervising the labor would most likely have received more than the basic daily food rations, perhaps receiving grain, meat, and cloth as additional wages in accordance with their status.

“The funerary cults of deceased rulers were supplied from the domains associated with these cults, and the residence of the ruling king controlled the redistribution process. The attendants of the funerary complexes who fulfilled various cultic and bureaucratic tasks were rewarded daily through the process of the reversion of offerings. Records of distributions that survived in the Abusir archives from the late 5 th and early 6 th dynasties show daily rations written down in table-accounts, as we ll as distributions on a less frequent or irregular basis. The accounts comprise the individual rations but do not reflect the patterns according to which the system of distribution worked.

“The evidence suggests that a large part of the population was in one way or another sustained from the surplus collected by the central administration and redistributed by the royal residence together with the provincial administration centers. Though undoubtedly an exaggeration, the 500 loaves of bread, 100 jugs of beer, and half an ox, consumed daily by the magician Djedi according to the Tales of Wonder, reflect the burden that the system was apparently expected to manage. Towards the end of the Old Kingdom, the lists of both royal and private funerary d omains appeared on a larger scale in the tombs of officials and testify to an increasing control over the country’s agricultural produce through private ownership. The private provisioning of families and estates appears to be associated with the First Intermediate Period, when the central administration of a strong economically and politically unified state was no longer in operation.”

Rationed Goods in the Old Kingdom

Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, wrote: “The daily rations of bread and beer were recorded for the period of one month, during which each phyle (work team) served in a ten-month rotation. Half-month tables are also attested. The basic rations of the attendants of funerary temples consisted of two kinds of bread (HTA and pzn ) and ds-jugs of beer. These probably represented food redistributed from the temple’s offerings. The rank of the individuals and/or the level of importance of their service for the funerary temple are reflected in the allotment of rations: the daily rations of persons with higher sta tus could, together with bread and beer, also include meat, birds, and “good things” (xt nfrt ). [Source: Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, 2016, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

“Indications of the quantity of the daily allowances of high-ranking officials associated with these royal cults vary in the preserved documents. Up to 35 loaves of bread and one jug of beer could be allotted to a single man, but this occurred only irregularly on several days in a month . On the other hand, in a regular distribution, a holder of the title jmj-xt Hmw-nTr was allotted only two loaves of bread and one jug of beer per day. Taking into consideration the size of the bread molds and beer jars found on Old Kingdom sites, this amount of food, while seemingly suffic ient for a day’s work, would probably not constitute the entire wage of the official.

“Shorter accounts that were not displayed in the form of tables concern the daily distributions of bread, the monthly sums of the rations, and the monthly income of the funerary temples . The more than 3,000 loaves of bread (and possibly jugs of beer) mentioned in one of these monthly sums would have comfortably sustained the members of the phyles, as well as the additional staff and various officials associated with these royal cults.

“Meat seems not to have been a regular part of the diet of the attendants of the funerary temples, but cattle and poultry were slaughtered during festivals, which were relatively numerous. The accounts of meat distribution show that various butchery cuts (hind , foreleg, ribs, etc.) were given to individuals after an animal was slaughtered.

“Other commodities, such as vegetables, were probably distributed to the attendants of funerary temples on a less frequent basis. A certain quantity of fine linen was allotted to them after having been offered to the deceased king, and different sizes and qualities of cloth were divided among members of temple phyles on the occasion of festivals, either for use in their service or for their own personal use. Some of the cloth allotments were assigned to the temple statues and to the lector priests who performed recitations upon them and supervised rituals associated with them.

“The rations of grain attested in the short accounts from Abusir varied considerably, from ½ to 8 HoAt per person. The differences reflect the rank of the recipients, but absence from work and the type of work may also have been taken into consideration. The frequency of these distributions is not made explicit; monthly or weekly payments seem possible and the allotment of grain that occurs in the archives could constitute wages additional to the daily basic rations of bread and beer.

“Of a slightly earlier date are large and more complete table-accounts of the distribution of grain rations on papyri from Gebelein in Upper Egypt. The tables comprise long lists of the names and rations of those who served on a construction project that was part of the provincial administration. The rations consisted of four kinds of grain: bSA , bSA-nfr , dDw , and dDw-nfr.

“The totals for each of the allotments over a period of 15 days show us that the highest rations of the officials reached up to four sacks and 6 ¼ HoAt , while the ration of an ordinary project attendant was 5 HoAt. In another example, the distribu tion of grain to the selected group of people occurred every other day or every third day during a given period, and consisted of quantities from 1 to 8 HoAt.”

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

Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, wrote: “Evidence from the Middle Kingdom presents general features similar to those of the Old Kingdom papyrus archives, though luckily some of the documents provide us with more particulars on the ration system. In the literary text The Eloquent Peasant , ten loav es of bread, together with two jugs of beer, were assigned to the “peasant” every day when he presented his complaints, and his wife and children received 3 HoAt of grain daily during that period. Thus we can surmise that these rations represented the quantity of food considered sufficient for a man and his family during the Middle Kingdom. [Source: Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, 2016, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

“Inscriptions left by expedition leaders in the deserts and wadis tend to present a system of equal rations for all, such as, for instance, the dail y ten loaves of bread mentioned in inscription 137 at Serabit el-Khadim. Other documents, above all the wage-list in the inscription of Ameni in the Wad i Hammamat, clearly indicate that rations varied considerably in relation to the status, function, and skills of the recipients, who were arranged in categories. The above-mentioned ten loaves of bread with a certain amount of beer represented the basic wage of an unskilled worker, from which the other salaries were calculated as multiples. The large allowances ascribed to the supervisors—reaching up to 200 loaves —may indicate that salaries were given partly in commodities other than bread and beer, within a given equivalence of compensation, or that perhaps a suit of personal servants accompanied some officials, by whom they were provisioned from the given rations. Meat occurred in the diet of exp edition members, but it seems to have been an irregular addition to the rations, possibly reserved for specific days such as festivals, or perhaps “paid for” from (part of) the bread and beer allowances. Vegetables were also sent to the expeditions but no details about their distribution have survived in the evidence.

“In documents from the early Middle Kingdom, an elaborate system of units was used in calculating rewards for work. A “man-day” and trzzt-portions enabled an easy organi zation of the accounts and also the comparison of the value of different products. The basic ration seems to have been 8 trzzt for one man’s workday, and a single trzzt-portion was estimated to equal slightly over 100 grams. The Reisner papyri record the use of man-days and the trzzt-compensation-units system. It is not quite clear from these documents whether the trzzt payments covered only the basic rations or also included extra salary-allowances, since the remains of an account of cloth and a small account of grain also partly survived on the papyri. A group of soldiers mentioned in the Harhotep documents received large amounts of dates in addition to their regular daily rations of grain (bSA , wheat, barley, and emmer). The rations of priests and officials associated with the funerary complex at el-Lahun included bread and beer calculated in a 2:1 ratio. Less than one loaf was the smallest ration for a temple attendant, while the jmj-r Hwt-nTr was supplied with 16 ⅔ loaves and half that amount of beer in sDA-jugs daily.

“Late Middle Kingdom documents associated with the administration of a royal household show the daily allowances of the members of the royal family and high officials associated with the court. The rations included bread, beer, and various cakes. Unlike the rest of the Egyptian population, however, these elite individuals also received regular allotments of meat and vegetables. Specific quantities of provisions were given to them each day in proportion to their status. The allotments included five loaves for mid-ranking officials, ten loaves for high-ranking officials and for each of the king’s children, and 20-30 loaves for the king’s wife . In addition, one to two jugs of beer, together with five portions of meat, were allotted to the court attendants. Regular rations from the palace are also mentioned in the narrative of Sinuhe, who was brought food three or four times a day after he returned to Egypt and was pardoned by the king. The smallest ration mentioned in P. Boulaq 18 appears to have been three bakery products daily. According to the Satire of the Trades , a similar quantity of three loaves of bread and two jugs of beer seems to have been insufficient to satisfy the young student-scribe.

“In the private sphere rations were applied in much the same way as they were by the state. Inscriptions in the tombs of officials, and documents such as the papyri of Meketra, refe r to private projects— the construction of tombs, the manufacture of tomb-equipment, and the like —the rations for which appear to have been considered as payment for work —that is, hired-service wages.

“In the Heqanakht papyri we find the term aow used with the meaning “ration” or “allowance” as the payment given to individuals in return for work. This term refers elsewhere to the revenues of institutions. Documents show that the members of Heqanakht’s household and estate received wages in grain probably in addition to their daily food rations. The wages in grain were usually allocated monthly, on the first day of the lunar month (or sometimes mid-month), for the work of the preceding month. Payments in advance were rare. The largest salary mentioned in the documents consisted of 8 HoAt of grain per month, the smallest being 2 HoAt monthly.”

Ration System in New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.)

Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, wrote: “The ration system in the New Kingdom was similar that of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Officials were supplied from the fields assigned to their particular offices, from the taxes collected from (or offerings given by) their subjects, and from the produce of their own private fields, vineyards, and cattle-herds. The organization of royal projects in the Valley of the Kings is relatively well attested; especially numerous are documents referring to the rations distributed among the workmen’s community of Deir el-Medina. [Source: Hana Vymazalova, a Czech Egyptologist, 2016, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 2013 ]

“Here the rations for the workers were distributed at regular intervals. Every day the workmen received sandals; every week, oils; and once a year, cloth that came from the royal treasury. Monthly payments in the form of grain came from the royal granary. Special payments sometimes occurred as favors from the ruler or from a temple. The grain allotments reflect the status of the recipients: the basic ration for a worker included 4 sacks of emmer and 1 ½ sacks of barley, while an over seer received 5 ½ sacks of emmer and 2 sacks of barley. Vegetables, water, firewood, and fish were allotted regularly, while meat represented an extra commodity . The smaller rations recorded for some of the men probably reflected wage categories or partial payments.

“Summary Although our sources on rations in ancient Egypt are rather fragmentary and reflect varying projects and work conditions, features of the general development of the ration system can be traced . The royal residence played the main role in the Old Kingdom system, which was based on the redistribution of the surplus from agricultural domains associated with royal administration centers and projects. Little can be said about the principles or termi nology of the allocations for this period. The possibility cannot be excluded that units of rations and units of work (the “man-day”), attested in later evidence, were already in use. Tables of the fulfillment of tasks of funerary temple attendants may have served in the calculation of individual ration-allotments in a manner similar to that of the man-days. The relative value of rations was calculated as the psw-quality of bread and beer, and the units of daily bread were expressed in terms of trzzt-bread since at least the early Middle Kingdom. Bread-units were used to express the value of rations, which may in reality have been given in different commodities. In the New Kingdom, private property and fields assigned to offices replaced the centralized system of domains, and the granary and treasury were in charge of the distribution of rations related to state projects.

“Rations were distributed as either daily allowances or wages/salaries; no distinction appears in the terminology in the preserved texts. Br ead and beer were distributed regularly, mostly on a daily basis, often in association with work that required the recipients to spend time away from their homes—for instance, at the royal funerary complexes or during expeditions. Grain may have been consi dered as a wage additional to the bread and beer rations, or as the main commodity. Later evidence attests to the distribution of grain as a regular payment for a month’s work. Individual rations varied between a few HoAt and several sacks of grain.

“The monthly payments at the workmen’s community of Deir el-Medina were apparently sufficient to sustain the workmen’s households. Meat was a regular component of rations only at the highest level of society, fish having been consumed instead as a regular part of the diet of workmen. Attendants of state projects received meat on an irregular basis, probably mainly in association with festivals. They were also provided infrequently with luxurious commodities such as oils and fine linen. The New Kingdom evidence ind icates yearly rations of cloth, while the Old Kingdom texts suggest cloth distributions only on the occasion of festivals.

“The food-energy value of ancient Egyptian rations has been calculated with estimated data , but generalizations can hardly be made on the basis of the preserved evidence. Rations varied in the course of time due to changes in the types of bakery products and their preparation, reflected in the development of jug-and b read-mold shapes and sizes.”

“Bibliographic Notes Analyses of the administrative documents from the funerary temples of Neferirkara and Neferefra at Abusir are presented by Posener-Kriéger (1976) and Verner and Vymazalová. Only brief descriptions of the papyri from Gebelein have been published, together with plates. Of the Middle Kingdom documents, that of Heqanakht plays a most important role. Informative also are the Reisner papyri, Papyrus Boulaq 18, and the documents from el-Lahun . The rock inscriptions from S inai and the Wadi Hammamat were treated by Gardiner, Peet, and Černý and Goyon. The workmen’s community of Deir el-Medina was admirably discussed by Černý. Mueller concerns the principles of the ration system, and the ene rgy value of the food is analyzed by Miller, Kemp, and Peters-Destéract.”

Theories on the Ancient Egyptian Economy

Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: “The economy of an ancient society—and one that is culturally very different from ours— such as Pharaonic Egypt is likely to display characteristics that do not have parallels in modern economies. Reconstructing such an ancient economy should therefore not exclusively proceed from modern economic observations and theories. Entirely devoid of preference for any specific theory is the important work by Wolfgang Helck, who arrived at his conclusions empirically, on the basis of extensive collections and a superb overview of ancient data. Helck argued that economic consciousness developed slowly in Egyptian history and that the development of this consciousness was hampered by the centralistic economy of the Old Kingdom; only from the First Intermediate Period onward would private individuals increasingly wrench themselves free from the all- embracing redistributive state. [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

“Janssen argued that characteristics of the ancient Egyptian mindset exhibited in religion and art, such as the (supposed) absence of individualism, would also apply to the economy. He saw the economic mind of the Egyptians as “realistic” rather than “abstract,” and little concerned with the motive of making profit. The character of the Egyptian economy as a whole he saw as mainly redistributive—that is, dominated by taxation and tributes. Janssen based his discussion on general characteristics of peasant economies worldwide. In doing so, he showed himself a proponent of a broader movement in economic history that had begun in the 1940s and was especially influential in economic anthropology. One source of its inspiration was the emergence of economies (in Eastern Europe and Asia) that were different from the “capitalist” market economies. Another was the anthropological interest in “primitive” economies. An early reflection of this movement in Egyptology was Siegfried Morenz’s study of conspicuous consumption.

“The main inspiration for this “substantivist” or “primitivist” movement was the economic historian Karl Polanyi. He and his followers (mainly anthropologists) argued that economy was not to be seen as an autonomous phenomenon (that is, as a self-regulating market), but as embedded in a political and social context. This embeddedness shows itself in three different ways (also called “patterns of integration”): exchange (in commerce), reciprocity (in social structures, such as kinship), and redistribution (in politic centralism). This train of thought became influential in historiography and in Near Eastern studies from the 1970s onwards. In Egyptology it found its clearest expression in Renate Müller-Wollermann’s discussion of trade in the Old Kingdom (1985). Authors discussing the nature of ancient Egyptian economy saw redistribution as its key feature (with or without specific reference to Polanyi: Bleiberg 1984, 1988; Janssen 1981). The Assyriologist and historian Mario Liverani used Polanyi’s theory to analyze international economic traffic as presented in Near Eastern sources (including the Egyptian) from the Late Bronze Age. Liverani reached the important conclusion that the “patterns of integration” did not determine the actual economic processes, but rather their ideological presentation in texts and monumental depictions.

“Others have voiced skepticism of, and even sharp protest against, the Polanyi-inspired view of ancient economics. The turning point in Egyptology was late in the 1980s, when more modernist views were brought forward, notably by Barry Kemp and Malte Römer. Kemp assumed that there was no lack of economic consciousness in ancient Egypt, given the political and social competition clearly evident in the ancient records. He also pointed out that a redistributionist government would never have been able to meet the demands of an entire population—moreover, not even those of its own institutions. It follows that any economy is a compromise between state dominance and self-regulating market, in which private demand is an important stimulus and sets prices. Nonetheless, discussions in the 1990s still very much focused on redistribution, state service, and the absence of individualism.

“The relative importance of government and market and the ways in which these were interrelated seems to dominate the present discussion of ancient Egyptian economy. David Warburton, partly inspired by the theories of John Maynard Keynes, concentrates on government concern with production and employment. An economist recently characterized the role of the state in the economy of ancient Egypt as a “risk consolidating institution”.

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

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; 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

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.