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Law in ancient Egypt

Primary sources for law in ancient Egypt are the surviving manuscripts and inscriptions.

In ancient Egypt law seems to have been an aspect of administration, making any official a possible adjudicant: it was not separated off with its own exclusively judicial officials and its own exclusively judicial buildings - no judges and no courts. Officials judged cases; no ancient Egyptian individuals are known whose only official capacity was to hear legal cases. The same groups of individuals might regularly meet to consider a range of administrative and legal cases (Egyptian qnbt 'council'), but no special space or building seems to have been set aside for this. A board of officials (Egyptian DADAt) might be set up for particular short-term tasks, by royal commission, and such a task might be the judgement of an important legal case, but it might also be the successful management of a project such as a quarrying expedition.

No legal code survives from ancient Egypt. The surviving legal manuscripts, copies of such documents in hieroglyphic inscriptions, and references in ancient letters, indicate that Egyptian society operated with reference to decrees of the king, having the force of law, together with the precedents established in previous legal cases. This would make ancient Egyptian law analogous to the modern English system, where the laws (Acts of Parliament) are interpreted in the courts with reference to previous interpretations.

Some earlier social historians expected that human society became more 'rational' over time, culminating in the division of religion and civil society (Church and State) as in Enlightenment Europe. Egypt suggests if anything the opposite: early records refer only to the civil administration, until the emergence of oracles of the gods as possible courts of appeal in the New Kingdom and later. Even the later evidence needs to be interpreted within the context of each case: higher courts always seem to be not oracles but the administration of the king, himself a divine presence (see the pages on kingship). In the Third Intermediate Period, when kingship was divided between different centres, there is little evidence from the nominal centre of the kingdom, Tanis; in other centres, notably Thebes and the oases, local rulers consulted the oracle for decisions at all levels, much as the ancient Greek city-states consulted the oracle at Delphi.


Select sources in the Petrie Museum translated on this website

Legal documents from the large late Middle Kingdom town at Lahun (about 1800 BC): the will of Mery UC 32037

Legal documents and related letters from the work crew of the king's tomb, resident at Deir el-Medina (about 1200 BC):

Aristide Theodorides and the study of ancient Egyptian legal procedures

The most dedicated recent researcher of ancient Egyptian law is Aristide Theodorides. His work is conveniently accessible to English-reading audiences in Theodorides 1971. Although some of the interpretations of historical developments are open to doubt, the studies by Theodorides are likely to endure, becuase he retained closely source-critical principles. On the late Old Kingdom estate scenes in tomb-chapels he warned 'It is wrong to attempt to form a picture of social, economic, and legal life in Egypt during the Old Kingdom on the basis of evidence from these representations; they are valid only for one class (the nobility) and for a particular period' (Theodorides 1971: 295).

Theodorides 1971 introduces the following select sources, in this order:



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