For many years, it was presumed that in Ancient Egypt, the Great Pyramids at Giza 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. While the Great Pyramids and early temples of Ancient Egypt were built by paid workers and not slaves, and Nubian slaves were commonly used during the rein of Ramses II or Ramses the Great, in his massive production of temples.
Orangized Labor Strikes and Paid Workers
The majority of Egyptian workers who built the pyramids were paid workers with a great deal of freedom by the standards of the Ancient World. Even though they regarded the pharaoh as a kind of living god, Egyptian workers were not afraid to protest for better working conditions. The most famous example came in the 12th century B.C. during the reign of the New Kingdom pharaoh Ramses III. When laborers engaged in building the royal necropolis at Deir el-Medina did not receive their usual payment of grain, they organized one of the first recorded strikes in history. The protest took the form of a sit-in: The workers simply entered nearby mortuary temples and refused to leave until their grievances were heard. The gamble worked, and the laborers were eventually given their overdue rations.
Did Slavery Exist in Egypt?
There is some controversy whether there was slavery at all in ancient Egypt.
The differences of opinion stem mostly from how slavery is defined . Theory and practice of Egyptian slavery were, as far as we can ascertain, quite different from those of Greece, Rome or the southern states of the USA, where slaves there were wholly at the mercy of their owners with little protection from society, and more in line with the kind of slavery practiced in the rest of Africa. Hem (Hm), generally translated as ‘slave’ and originally meaning body, was seemingly a person with lessened rights dedicated to a certain task such as the service of a god (since the 1st dynasty) or the royal administration. The hemu (pl. of hem) are mentioned in the context of private persons only since the end of the Old Kingdom . Since the Middle Kingdom
foreign slaves mainly from Asia became increasingly numerous. They were either prisoners of war or traded by slave merchants. Their period of enslavement in Egypt was often limited. Debt slaves or prisoners of war were at times set free after serving for a certain period. Part of the slaves were personal servants of individuals. Others belonged to estates of temples and noblemen, often taken during a military campaign or bestowed by the king. But how is one to interpret the following Old Kingdom inscription There were presented to him the things of his father, the judge and scribe Anubisemonekh; there was no grain or anything of the house, [but] there were people and small cattle. Were these people just tenants, free to move away if they wanted to, or – as the context seems to suggest – more like part of the estate, perhaps with a social position similar to that of a medieval serf? Such inscriptions, tying together land and labourer, occur frequently throughout Egyptian history.
For want of better words slave and slavery are used on this website to refer to people with significantly reduced rights and their social state.
Causes of Enslavement
Some Egyptians were sold into slavery because of debts or sold themselves to escape poverty. As indentured slaves they did not lose all their
civil rights; and sometimes the economic security they gained through their new status might seem to be worth giving up some freedoms for.
A remnant of these customs is seen in the demotic contracts concerning security, where grasping the hand refers to the warrantor’s hand being held by the creditor symbolizing the debtor giving the creditor power over his person. Debt slavery was abolished in the Late Dynastic Period.
It has been proposed that the vizier had the right to impose perpetual forced labour on a convicted criminal, which would put him in a position of virtual slavery.
The female servant … has said before my master, Saknebtynis, the great god, ‘I am your servant, together with my children and my children’s children. I shall not be free in your precinct forever and ever. You will protect me; you will keep me safe; you will guard me. You will keep me sound; you will protect me from every demon, and I will pay you 1¼ kita of copper . . . until the completion of 99 years, and I will give it to your priests monthly. ~ Peter Piccione The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society
War and Birth
While there had been slaves in Egypt since the beginning of its history, their numbers greatly increased during the New Kingdom, when the pharaohs were committed to a policy of foreign involvement and conquests in
Nubia, Canaan and Syria brought in many prisoners of war, seqer-ankh, who were enslaved, at times branded with the sign ki and often given to deserving servants of the crown:
I gave to them captains of archers, and chief men of the tribes, branded and made into slaves, impressed with my name; their wives and their children were made likewise. ~ James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part IV, § 405
During the campaigns of Thutmose III prisoners of war were taken and slaves were part of the tribute paid by the defeated. In the 41st (?) year of Thutmose’s reign he received from the Hittites among other things eight male and female black slaves, calling it tribute. The Hittites must have thought of them as presents, probably quite valuable ones, as black persons were a rarity among them. Defeated nations like the Nubians which lost their independence and were administered by the Egyptians, paid taxes which often included slaves. Their number was not as great for Lower Nubia as it was for Kush which produced less gold than its northern neighbor. The successful defence
against the Sea Peoples resulted in large numbers of slaves as well, when whole wandering peoples were defeated and captured. The following, somewhat generalizing and possibly exaggerated report describes the exploits of Ramses III.
… I laid low the Meshwesh, the Libyans, the Esbet, the Keykesh, the Shai, the Hes and the Beken. … I carried away those whom my sword spared, as numerous captives, pinioned like birds before my horses, their wives and their children by the ten-thousand, their cattle in number like hundred-thousands….. ~James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part IV § 405
War Slavery of Caan and the Jews
While there had been slaves in Egypt since the beginning of its history, their numbers greatly increased during the New Kingdom, when the
pharaohs were committed to a policy of foreign involvement and conquests in Nubia, Canaan and Syria brought in many prisoners of war, seqer-ankh, who were enslaved, at times branded with the sign ki and often given to deserving servants of the crown. The invasion of Caanan began after around 300 years after the Invasion of Hyksos.
Invasion of Hyksos
Around 1720-1710 BCE, Egypt began to be invaded by a people “of obscure race” of tribal Middle Easterns,who became known as the Hyk-Sos, “shepherd kings”. These Hyksos melted easily into Egyptian society at first; eventually they became very powerful,and finally, in a coup, they came to rule the whole of Northern Egypt, imposing one of their people as the legitimate Pharaoh. During the Hyksos rule of Upper Egypt, they established their capital in the city of Avaris in the Delta,and the legitimate line of Pharaohs had to move to Thebes (now Luxor) in the South, ruling only over Lower Egypt.
These “shepherd kings” were also known as the Sea People, although Egyptologist don’t have a clear idea on who they were.
According to Flavious Josephus, the Hyksos were Jews, leading to one of
the few possible explantions for Jewish Enslavement, as there has never been any clear archaeological evidence for the Exodous. The name Hyksos was used by the Egyptian historian Manetho (fl. 300 bce), who, according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (fl. 1st century ce), translated the word as “king-shepherds” or “captive shepherds.” Josephus himself wished to demonstrate the great antiquity of the Jews and thus identified the Hyksos with the Hebrews of the Bible. Hyksos was in fact probably an Egyptian term for “rulers of foreign lands” (heqa-khase), and it almost certainly designated the foreign dynasts rather than a whole nation.
For about a hundred years, there was relative peace and cooperation between the
simply because the Hyksos were really very good rulers, knowing how to adopt and improve the Egyptian lifestyle.
But naturally, there were undercurrents of enmity. The Hyksos Pharaohs were always desperate to prove their (non-existent, really)
legitimity, and furious because the true secrets of king-making were never delivered to them. The Hyksos practiced horse burials, and their chief deity, their native
god, became associated with the Egyptian storm god of evil, Seth. Although most Hyksos names seem Semitic, similar to Hebrew, the Hyksos also included Hurrians, who, while speaking an isolated language, were under the rule and influence of Indo-Europeans.
The Egyptians did not like being controlled by these “barbarian” tribesmen, bloodily overthrow the Hyksos, wiping them off the face of history. Those that survived the severe vengeance were probably subjected to extreme slavery.
Unlike what happened in ancient Rome for instance, where the trade in slaves was often in the hands of rich merchants and took place in slave markets, the Egyptian slave trade was seemingly small scale . During pharaonic times no slave markets seem to have existed. But even if
slavery was never as pervading in Egypt as it was to be in other ancient societies, such as the Greek or Roman, it appears that slaves were traded widely from the New Kingdom onwards.
Slaves were sold all over the Middle East, and Egypt was an, albeit rather insignificant, partner in these exchanges. Slaves were traded internationally when they had special qualities, rare skills of the kind Amenhotep III was looking for, when he wanted to buy beautiful concubines, i.e. weavers, or perhaps exotic looks such as those of some dark-skinned Nubians who were sent to Hatti as a gift. Sometimes slaves were tattooed to mark their status. When Meshullam wanted to free his slave Tapmut and her daughter he described her as…
Slaves were apparently also brought to Egypt by foreigners, who used them to pay services with. In the grave of the New
Kingdom physician Nebamen there is the depiction of a scene showing a Syrian bringing offerings to the physician, which included young women and girls. This has been interpreted as being the remuneration for medical treatment he had received.
The Price of a Slave
Prices were affordable to the better-off householder. Iry-nofret paid the equivalent of 4 deben and 1 kit of silver, (i.e. 41 kit, about 370 grammes) for a Syrian girl.
‘[As for me, I am the wife of the District Overseer Sa-Mut], and I came to live in his house, and I worked and [wove?] and took care of my (own) clothes. In the year 15, 7 years after I had entered the house of the District Overseer Sa-[Mut], the merchant Ray approached
me with the Syrian slave Gemni-herimentet, while she was (still) a girl, [and he] said to me: “Buy this girl and give me the price for her”–so he spoke to me. And I took the girl and gave him [the price] for her. Now look, I shall tell the price which I gave for her:
1 shroud of Upper Egyptian linen, making 5 kit of silver; 1 sheet of Upper Egyptian linen, making 3 1/3 kit of silver; … bought from the woman Katy, 1 bronze jar, making 18 deben, making 1 2/3 kit of silver; … bought from the Chief Steward of the House of Amun, Tutu: 1 bronze jug, making 20 deben, making 2 kit of silver; 10 shirts of fine Upper Egyptian linen making 4 kit of silver– Total of everything, 4 deben, 1 kit of silver. And I gave them to the merchant Ray, and there was nothing in them belonging to the woman Bak-Mut. And he gave me this girl, and I called her by the name Gemni-herimentet.
Amenhotep III ordered 40 girls from Milkilu, the Canaanite prince of Gezer, at 40 kit of silver each.
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.” ~Letter from Amenhotep III to Milkilu
Male slaves were at times significantly cheaper than these accomplished females, probably depending on their abilities and the uses they were going to be put to. Their price could be as low as 20 kit of silver. Prices during the 21st dynasty were not the same as those during the New Kingdom. Caution is therefore required when making comparisons. The stela of Sheshonq lists the following:
There were brought the people of the …. of the great chief of the Me, who came with the statue: A Syrian servant (named) Ikhamon …., a Syrian (named) Ekptah; the price of the first was 14 deben of silver; his majesty gave [for the second] 20 deben of silver, total 35 deben of silver, the tale thereof.” ~Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, part IV, § 680 A case of dodgy mathematics, occurring quite frequently in the many lists drawn up by Egyptian scribes. A second batch mentioned was cheaper.
The Population of Slaves
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 empire, 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 – generally thousands rather than tens of thousands of soldiers – most of these prisoners must have been civilians.
The Egyptians may have preferred to make slaves of the able bodied soldiers of defeated enemy armies than of the inhabitants of captured cities, the majority of whom were children and women. During antiquity there was a preponderance of male slaves, who were often more valued than the females for the hard labour they could perform. But the most cherished – and expensive – were generally those who had special or rare skills.
Compared with the vast
empires of the Persians, Macedonians or Romans the Egyptian conquests in Africa and the Middle East were not very extensive. The subjugated populations were correspondingly small. Once these territories were ‘pacified’, the number of prisoners of war that could be enslaved was limited.
The temples, above all those of Amen, enjoyed unprecedented prosperity during the New Kingdom. Except during the Amarna episode, they were generously endowed with land and people to work it. They must have owned hundreds of thousands of slaves. John Madden of the University College of Galway thinks that in Roman times perhaps 10% of the Egyptian population was enslaved, with their density varying greatly throughout the country , as opposed to the Roman heartland where about every third inhabitant was a slave.
The Treatment of Slaves
If the slaves were near the bottom of Egyptian society, their lot was rarely as bad as that of slaves in other societies. As servants in a temple or in
the household of a rich family it was often better than that of the “free” peasants, the serf-like meret and the sejdemash called up for the unloved
Treating a slave well was a moral precept, but the very fact that decent treatment of slaves was a moral duty means that they must have been treated badly quite often. In the Book of the Dead two of the dead person’s virtues recited in order to join the company of the gods among others like not having inflicted pain or not having committed murder are…
The slaves filled a wide range of positions, from lowly labourers to government administrators. On temple estates they performed many non-clerical tasks:
I appointed slaves as watchmen in thy harbour, in order to watch the harbour of the Heliopolitan canal in thy splendid place. I made door-keepers of the slaves, manned with people, in order to watch and protect thy court. I made slaves as watchmen of the canal-administration, and the watchmen of the pure barley, for thee likewise.” ~Donation of Ramses III to the temple of Re at Heliopolis.
On the other hand there were times during the pre-dynastic period, when the
belongings buried with a dead king may have included some of his servants. Such practices were unknown in historic times, and during the Old Kingdom ushabtis were called upon to serve the dead king and perform his civic duties in his stead. Since the Middle Kingdom these ushabtis were generally represented as mummyform statuettes.
Slaves could be sold, given as presents or bequeathed in wills. The four Canaanites in the following testament had been left to Wah as family dependants in his brother’s will. Whether they were slaves or just servants, tradition required their master to take care of them.
Slaves being property, if they tried to escape they were
pursued and recaptured if possible. The reason for attempted escapes was often harsh treatment.
Two men escaped from the supervisor of the stables, Neferhotep, who had ordered them to be beaten. Since their flight there is no one to plough the earth. I’m sending this to inform my lord.” ~Montet Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, Chapter 3, §4 There were apparently two options open to a runaway: one was crossing the desert in order to reach a foreign country, the other seeking asylum in a temple and becoming a temple servant:
Now there was upon the shore, as still there is now, a temple of Heracles, in which if any man’s slave take refuge and have the sacred marks set upon him, giving himself over to the god, it is not lawful to lay hands upon him; but this custom has continued still unchanged from the beginning down to my own time.” ~
The road through the desert was hazardous, and only a desperate man would attempt it on his own and without proper
preparations. Even if the runaway succeeded in crossing the wilderness without falling into the hands of roving bands of robbers, he wasn’t necessarily safe. International treaties were concluded which stipulated extradition of free people, commoners or noblemen, between countries.
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.” ~ From the peace treaty between Ramses II and Hattusili III
One suspects that extradition of slaves may also have been practised.
Freeing the Slaves
Sometimes slaves were set free through manumission – a practice deemed advantageous for the soul of the slave owner – and were at times even adopted by the family of their former master.
The slave given to me for my own and whose name is Amenyoiu, I have won him by the force of my arm when I accompanied my king. Listen …. He shall no longer be stopped at any of the king’s gates. I have given him the daughter of my sister Nebetta as wife, who is named Takamenet, and have bequeathed him a portion equal to my wife’s and my sister’s. As for him, he has emerged from need and is poor no longer.” ~ Translation after Christiane Desroches Noblecourt La femme aux temps des pharaons, page 184.