Slavery in Ancient Egypt

For many years, it was presumed that inancient Egypt, the Great Pyramids atGiza were built by many thousands of foreign slaves, toiling under very harsh conditions over a period of decades. Today, many scholars refute this picture of ancient Egypt, believing instead that they were built by the free Egyptians themselves, some perhaps as seasonal conscripts with other artisans consigned permanently to the projects. One must also consider just how the Egyptians would really control so many slaves in one location with the rudimentary weapons of the Old Kingdom.

A slave is defined as “One bound in servitude as the property of a person or household”. This is an interesting definition, considering that it does not refer to entities other than persons or households, such as the state. The definition of slavery does provide that it is “The state of one bound in servitude as the property of a slaveholder or household”, which seems to have a broader scope. Certainly most of us would consider anyone bound in servitude, regardless to whom, a slave.

In ancient Egypt, textual references to slaves are indistinct. From word usage along, it is difficult to ascertain whether one was a slave or a servant. For example, a priest could be read as a god’s slave, but by our definition and understanding of slavery he was not. In reading Egyptian texts, therefore, context is the only criteria for determining such a status, and even then, it can be difficult, because there were different levels of servitude. Those who were not free might not only include slaves, but also those with various degrees of encumbered liberty. For example, could an artisan who worked on tombs who lived in the Deir el-Medina worker’s village on the West Bank at Thebes simply walk of his job? In effect, almost anyone under the authority of an absolute ruler such as a pharaoh might in some degree be considered a slave. We should also note that, if it is difficult to identify slaves from textual references, it is even harder to do so with depictions.

In fact, the term that conjures up anachronistic visions either of ancient Rome or of the nineteenth century plantation of the New World do little to help understand slavery in Egypt. Most of the population of pharaonic Egypt were tied to the land or followed strictly hereditary professions. These men or women were often included among the possessions of kings, high-ranking officials or Temple estates. Serfs might better describe these people, though even that term is too closely connected with images of feudal society in medieval Europe, especially in view of the fact that Egyptian farmers were tied to the land not so much legally but by tradition and economic circumstances.

For ancient Egypt, a better, or at least more precise definition of a slave might be a “person owned by a master, as was any other chattel, used as the master pleased, to the extent of being disposed of by inheritance, gift sale and so forth”. In reality, such slavery seems to have been fairly rare in Egypt prior to the Greek Period, progressing over time.

Like all ancient population statistics, estimating the number of slaves in ancient Egypt is based more on guesswork than on knowledge. In pharaonic times their part in the population may have been greatest during the expansionary stage of the New Kingdom, when whole populations were enslaved at times. Thutmose III, for instance, is reported to have returned from a campaign in Canaan with almost 90,000 prisoners. Given the small size of armies usually numbering in the thousands rather than tens of thousands of soldiers, most of these prisoners must have been civilians.

There is one collective noun, written with the hoe-sign hieroglyphic, that refers to groups of people who belonged to individuals and institutions such as temples. As early as the Old Kingdom, such groups were mentioned along with land and cattle. During the Middle Kingdom, we also know that they could be acquired by bequest or other arrangements. During the New Kingdom, they could be recruited from captives or given in an endowment. Considering their apparent permanent attachment to the land and their master, they were almost certainly a form of slave.

Another similar term, written with the canal-sign, appear to denote another group of people assigned to individuals and institutions, but who were not directly connected with land and cattle. Though we know little about this group of people, they may have been similar or the same as the king’s slaves who, during the Middle Kingdom, were often transferred to estates of priests, nobles and officials. The king’s slaves were considered the property of their master, but their occupations were not confined to agriculture, as they were also employed in households. We believe that their children undoubtedly inherited the status of their parents.

Captives depicted at Medinet Habu, almost certainly being led into slaveryIn Egypt, as well as elsewhere, the principal and oldest cause of slavery was capture in war. Specifically in Egypt, the general rule was that all captives including those outside of the military forces, became a royal resource. The king certainly did not keep all of these slaves, though some were resettled in colonies for labor. However, he also granted some of them to temples, to meritorious individuals and also as booty for his soldiers. From ancient documents, we know that as many as nineteen captives could be assigned to an individual as slaves, including both male and female. Temples, on the other hand, could receive an unlimited numbers of captives as slaves, and some references mention many thousands. Also, a trade in (possibly captured) people from foreign countries was also possible. For example, Amenhotep III ordered forty girls from Milkilu, a Canaanite prince, paying 40 kit of silver for each:

“Behold, I have sent you Hanya, the commissioner of the archers, with merchandise in order to have beautiful concubines, i.e. weavers; silver, gold, garments, turquoises, all sorts of precious stones, chairs of ebony, as well as all good things, worth 160 deben. In total: forty concubines – the price of every concubine is forty of silver. Therefore, send very beautiful concubines without blemish.”

From the Brooklyn Papyrus, we learn that Near Eastern men and women were intermingled with Egyptian servants and outnumbered them. Interestingly, they seem to have been more highly regarded then their Egyptian counterparts. This is probably due to the fact that, as prisoners of war or their descendants, they initially belonged to a social stratum superior to that of the Egyptian servants. In fact, the Egyptians of similar status probably came to be slaves due to committing some sort of unlawful act. Hence, some of the Egyptians who became slaves were originally free people who, having committed some sort of illicit acts, were forced to forfeit their liberty, perhaps including the liberty of their spouse and children. It should also be noted that the birth of a child to a slave mother, whether or not the father was free, resulted in slavery for the child. In fact, abandonment of undesired newborn children was not infrequently practiced in Egypt and the Near East, and has also been attested in GrecoRoman Egypt. Though there seems to be no extant documents of such a practice in Egypt, elsewhere foundlings were considered ownerless property who might be picked up to become slaves.

Statuette of a young servant girl who could be either a free peasant or a slaveAnother way that one could be come a slave was actually through self-sale into servitude, as several Demotic papyri of the sixth century BC evidence. In reality, this did not result from the individual’s free will, but was rather the results of their inability to pay off debt. The creditor therefore discharged the debt by acquiring the debtor as a slave. Not only did the debtor become a slave, but also his children, and in addition, he or she also gave up all that they owned. However, at other times peasants might sell themselves into slavery for food or shelter. This also suggests to us that, unlike slaves of some other societies and periods, those of ancient Egyptwere frequently better off than some of the poor, freeman.

Though not an uncommon business in ancient Egypt, information about slave trading is rare. There appears to have been no public market for slaves. Rather, individual dealers seem to have approached their customers personally. The transaction was evidenced by commercial documents, executed before officials or a local council, that contained clauses usually used in the sale of valuable commodities. One inscription that records the sale of land, together with thirty-five slaves (men and women), appears to infer that a special register of slaves was held by administrators. There may also have been a special tax levied on such sales.

However, while slaves were often sold, they might also be transferred for other reasons such as religious endowments.  The 26th Dynastyking, Apries, for example, decreed that a district nearMemphis be dedicated to the god Ptah, together with its slaves, cattle and their produce as a foundation. However, non-royal individuals might do likewise. An 18th Dynasty overseer ofAmun’s domain, Sen-mut did so, ceding fields and at least two slaves (a male and female) for baking bread and brewing beer. Also, the steward of Amun’s temple, a man named Amun-mes, recorded on his statue the donation of all of his property to the state god, which included male and female slaves, houses, gardens, cattle and all that he had obtained.

Of course, slaves were also acquired through inheritance. In one Demotic marriage agreement, the husband states that “To the children you shall bear for me shall belong everything I won, [be it] a house, land, slaves, animals, chattels”. Upon the death of a slave holder, the slaves could become co-owned by the beneficiaries or distributed separately. When owned jointly, each of the co-owners would be entitled to a fraction of the slaves work, determined by a monthly number of “slave’s days”. Subsequently, the fractional owner could also sell or otherwise dispose of his share in a slave.

The price of slaves varied (as, of course it would over several millenniums). In the Leiden Papyrus dating to 727 BC, very late in the Pharaonic period, thirty-two slaves were sold privately for one deben and one third kite in silver (per slave). However, during the 25thand26th Dynasties, the average price was about 2.9 debens. In the Ramessid period, a dealer received barter goods worth four debens and one kite for a single young Syrian girl, according to the Cairo Papyrus. Of course, silver was rarely used for such transaction and their was no coinage. The prices stated were actually the value of goods exchanged. Hence, a named Intef recorded two deeds on an 11th Dynasty stela in favor of two men to arrange the celebration of certain ceremonies in his favor after his death. In return, he gave one man twenty packages of cloths and ten to the other as well as a male and a maid slave to each.

How many slaves an individual could own varied considerably. One official of the 13th Dynastyrecorded well over forty Near Eastern slaves in his personal possession. On one stela, its owner reports, “I have acquired three male slaves and seven females in addition to what my father granted me. An 11th Dynasty stela also records its owners boastful comments that, “[Whereas] my father’s people were house-born as property of his father and his mother, my people are likewise [from] the property of my father and my mother [but also from] my own property, which I have acquired through my activities”.

The master might employ a slave in many different manners, such as in domestic service as the guardian of children, cooks, brewers or maids. They might be used as gardeners or field hands or in the stable. The master might also require the slave to learn a trade to improve his property (the slave). They could become craftsman, or attain a higher status. One of the items in an inheritance consisted of some trade agents who were presumably trained slaves. Slaves who were taught to write could rise as high as a manager of the master’s estate. In one case, a freeman was recorded in the Leopold Papyrus as working under the supervision of a NubianA possible slave hauling a statue from a quarryslave who belonged to thehigh priestof Amun. However, captive slaves were mostly assigned to the king and the temples, and their status entailed manual labor. Perhaps the worst treatment that a slave could be assigned was to work the quarries and mines.

Although slaves were considered personal chattel and part of their master’s property, and even though the master enjoyed a number of rights in their regard, the master was nevertheless held to some obligations. For example, the mistress of a household was responsible for nourishing the slave children and bringing them up. Also, from the contents of an18th Dynasty letter, we learn the child slaves were not allowed to be set to hard work. It should also be noted that slaves sometimes became adored members of the owner’s household. For example, on one statue of a man and his wife, a young slave was also depicted as a token of affection.

Also, as in many ancient legal systems, the Egyptian slaves were not only capable of negotiating transactions but also of owning personal property. In the Wilbour Papyrus dating to the New Kingdom, there were no less than eleven salves, on the same footing as others, who were individual land holders, though their status regarding the property is not entirely clear. On a stela, we also find two slave women who each gave their master land in exchange for various commodities. They acted independently, as owners of property.

Slaves were also apparently given reasonable consideration in Egypt’s legal system. A papyri that reported the investigations of New Kingdomtomb robberies revealed, among others, several male slaves implicated in those crimes. During the hearings, the slaves seem to be treated little differently than others. All those implicated were tortured to some extent. Though many slaves in this case acted as witnesses, mostly against their master, only some of the slaves were incriminated of complicity.

Though little information has survived related to the marriage of slaves, a union was apparently possible. This seems to have taken place as cohabitation sanctioned by the master. Slaves were also, at least in certain circumstances, allowed to marry non-slaves. During the New Kingdom, a king’s barber gave his own niece as a wife to one of his slaves and in another instance, a lady allowed her younger brother to marry one of her slaves. However, it must be noted in these examples that these slaves had to be publicly freed. In the latter case, the mistress actually extended the freedom to all her child slaves, with the intention of adopting them and thus bequeathing to them her estate.

Slaves, of course, were frequently not happy being slaves. In ancient Egypt, there has so far never been any evidence to show that a slave ever purchased his freedom. When a slave escaped, the master could pursue the fugitive and ask the authorities for assistance in the recapture of the runaway. While the fugitive’s best chance of escape was to leave Egypt altogether, this was not always as successful as it might at first seem. For example, in the famous treatybetween Ramesses II and the Hittites after the Battle of Kadesh, fugitives, even of humble birth, were bound to be restored to their native land. The treaty reads in part:

“If a man or two men who are unknown flee, and if they escape from the country of Egypt and if they don’t want to serve him, then Hattusili, the great king, the king of the country of Hatti, has to deliver them into his brother’s hands and he shall not allow them to inhabit the country of Hatti.”

It is likely that such treaties existed for other neighboring states. However, it would seem that most of the time, slaves only attempted escape when their treatment was unusually harsh. For many, being a slave in Egypt made them better off than a freeman elsewhere.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Armies of the Pharaohs Healy, Mark 1992 Osprey Publishing ISBN 1 85532 939 5
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Life of the Ancient Egyptians Strouhal, Eugen 1992 University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-2475-x
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
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