Ancient Egypt: History and culture
The vizierate:
The changing vizierate
The appointment
Rules of conduct
The vizier's duties
   Administration of the palace
   Safety and well-being of the king's person
   Head of administrators
   Chief justice
   Policing the country and guarding the frontier
Translating theory into practice

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The vizierate

The changing vizierate

Map of Egypt     The position of vizier [11] (Egypt. tjati) existed since the Old Kingdom [9]. The office insignia was a figure of Maat carried on a chain.
    As head of much of the Egyptian administration it conferred great power on its bearer even during these early days of pharaonic absolutism. It was therefore often filled by close relatives of the king. If need be family bonds were created by marriage, as Pepi I did marrying two sisters of his vizier when he needed his support and that of the Upper Egyptians noblemen. One of the few known female viziers was Pepi's mother, Nebet, though some think that she bore the title only as a honorific.
    This might of the viziers, dependent on their royal masters, waned during the First Intermediate Period, and the nomarchs exploited the weakness of the central government to extend their own power.
    The 12th dynasty rectified this imbalance by strengthening the role of the vizierate and its scribal administrators. During the 13th dynasty when the average pharaonic reign endured for about two years, it was the vizierate which gave Egypt whatever stability and continuity there was. The rule of the Hyksos did not completely wipe out this administration. One may well suppose, that these foreigners who accepted many values and usages of the surrounding Egyptian society, used it for their own aims and purposes, as taxes had to be levied and justice administered.
    The 18th dynasty kings divided the power of the vizierate by creating a second position of vizier. Upper Egypt continued being administered by the vizier residing at Thebes, while the residence of the Lower Egyptian vizier was probably at Memphis. Little is known about this northern vizierate as many of the records were destroyed.
    The southern viziers remained preeminent. This was not just due to the traditionalist attitude of the Egyptians, but also to the vast amount of taxes that continued to flow to Thebes. For as long as Thebes remained the main cult centre and the country was not administered directly by foreigners, its viziers retained their authority.

The appointment

    Little is known about how the viziers were chosen. Some seem to have been men of exceptional talents. Political reliability and personal loyalty were important considerations, perhaps more under Akhenaten and his successors than before.
    At times vizierial dynasties existed:
  • During the 13th dynasty Ankhu inherited the position from his grandfather and was succeeded by two of his sons. Following viziers seem to have been related to his family as well. This continuity stood in sharp contrast to the royal succession, where few kings were even remotely related to each other.
  • Aametshu was Hatshepsut's vizier. His son Useramun served Thutmose III at Thebes. Another son Neferuben, father of Rekhmire, was vizier of Lower Egypt. Rekhmire himself ended his career under Amenhotep II, possibly violently.
    During the 18th dynasty this trend towards vizierial independence and inheritance of office was reversed by kings who chose their viziers from among their followers, often men who had proven themselves as military officers.

    Powerful as the viziers were, they rarely supplanted kings, for reasons which may have been partly due to personal loyalty, to social and religious reasons, but certainly also to the balance of power which existed between civil service, priesthood and armed forces during normal times. A number of viziers did become pharaohs
  • Amenemhet, vizier of Mentuhotep IV, who may have been a usurper himself, became king in unclear circumstances and founded the famous 12th dynasty.
  • Ramses I, vizier of Horemheb, was the first pharaoh of the 19th dynasty.
    Instructions and regulations were used to keep officials - and chief among them the viziers - on the path of service to the king and the people. Even if these were probably not followed to the letter, they provided an ideology of civil service unique to Egypt among ancient societies.

Rules of conduct

Rekhmire     Copies of the Instructions were found in a number of New Kingdom tombs, Useramen's, an uncle of Rekhmire, Rekhmire's, Hepus's, Amenemope's, the successor of Rekhmire and others. They are a somewhat haphazard collection of rules, to which new ones seem to have been added whenever needed. As is the case with most such documents, they point out the problem areas rather than describe the ordinary course of life.

Rekhmire
Source: W.M. Flinders Petrie, A History of Egypt, Part 2

Regulation laid upon the vizier Rekhmire. The council was conducted into the audience hall of Pharaoh (Life! Prosperity! Health!). One caused that there be brought in the vizier Rekhmire, newly appointed.
Said His Majesty to him: "Look to the office of vizier; be watchful over all that is done therein. Behold, it is the established support of the whole land.
Behold, as for the vizierate, it is not sweet; behold, it is bitter, as he is named [1]. Behold, he is copper enclosing the gold of his lord's house. Behold, the vizierate is not to show respect of persons to princes and councilors; it is not to make for himself slaves of any people. Behold, as for a man in the house of his lord, his conduct is good for his lord. But lo, he does not the same for another [2].
    A man in a vizier's exalted position might forget that he is there to labour on behalf of others. Tools were made of base metals, and he was just such a tool in the hands of his master whose very flesh was gold. He might forget where his loyalties ought to lie and is reminded that he is working for the pharaoh.
    This role of "civil servant" served the viziers generally quite well. On the whole, they wielded the real power as long as the pharaohs were too weak to wrest it from them.
    In theory everybody was equal before maat which was expected to guide the administrators. This set the king apart from everybody else, be they commoner or noble, and protected his position. Towards the end of the 18th dynasty, maat lost at least part of its importance as the guiding principle and personal loyalty towards the king became paramount.
"Behold, when a petitioner comes from Upper or Lower Egypt, even the whole land, see to it that everything is done in accordance with law, that everything is done according to the custom thereof, giving to every man his right.
    Egyptian law was to a large part customary. It was never codified, even if collections of laws and past judgments existed. It is interesting to note that a millennium and a half after unification, Egypt is still the dual country of Upper and Lower Egypt. This division is stressed by the fact that the New Kingdom vizierate itself is split into a southern and northern authority.
Behold, a prince is in a conspicuous place, water and wind report concerning all that he does. For behold, that which is done by him never remains unknown.
    An important feature of Egyptian administration was its (relative) transparency: decisions were public, be they judicial or administrative. Another feature was the small number of ranks in the bureaucracy. Few inhabitants came into contact with high level officials for various reasons: They may not have been aware of the possibility of appealing against the decision of a junior official or could not afford the travelling this required. For those who wanted to be heard by the vizier, the obstacles may have been relatively few.
"When he takes up a matter for a petitioner according to his case, he shall not proceed by the statement of a department officer. But the matter shall be known by the statement of one designated by him, the vizier, saying it himself in the presence of a department officer with the words: 'It is not that I raise my voice; but I send the petitioner according to his case to another court or prince.' Then that which has been done by him has not been misunderstood.
    Impartiality was a corner stone of the system, though this did not extend to criminal cases, where often the guilt of the accused was assumed and he was treated with little patience [3].
    The chances, that an official would, in the name of impartiality, discriminate against those close to him, were rather remote. It may have been a round-about way of warning against discrimination in their favour, by stressing that all discrimination was wrong.
"Behold, the refuge of a prince is to act according to the regulation, by doing what is said to him.
A petitioner who had been adjudged shall not say: 'My right has not been given to me!'
"Behold, it is a saying which was in the vizierial installation of Memphis in the utterance of the king in urging the vizier to moderation: "Beware of that which is said of the vizier Kheti. It is said that he discriminated against some of the people of his own kin in favor of strangers, for fear lest it should be said of him that he favored his kin dishonestly. When one of them appealed against the judgement which he thought to make him, he persisted in his discrimination.
Now that is more than justice.
    While the vizier was a servant, he was of princely rank and was to be treated accordingly. But he had to treat everybody equally.
"Forget not to judge justice. It is an abomination of the god to show partiality. This is the teaching. Therefore, do you accordingly. Look upon him who is known to you like him who is unknown to you; and him who is near the king like him who is far from his house. Behold, a prince who does this, he shall endure here in this place.
"Pass not over a petitioner without regarding his speech. If there is a petitioner who shall appeal to you, being one whose speech is not what is said [4], dismiss him after having let him hear that on account of which you dismiss him.
Behold, it is said: 'A petitioner desires his saying be regarded rather than the hearing of that on account of which he has come.'
"Be not wroth against a man wrongfully; but be you wroth at that at which one should be wroth. "Cause yourself to be feared. Let men be afraid of you. A prince is a prince of whom one is afraid. Behold, the dread of a prince is that he does justice. But indeed, if a man cause himself to be feared a multitude of times, there is something wrong in him in the opinion of the people. They do not say of him: 'He is a man indeed.' Behold, this fear of a prince deters the liar, when the prince proceeds according to the dread one has of him. Behold, this shall you attain by administering this office, doing justice. "Behold, men expect the doing of justice in the procedure of the vizier.
Behold, that is its customary law since the god [5]. Behold, it is said according to the scribe of the vizier: 'A just scribe' is said of him. Now, as for the hall in which you hear, there is an audience hall for the announcement of judgements. Now, as for 'him who shall do justice before all the people,' it is the vizier.
"Behold, when a man is in his office, he acts according to what is commanded him. Behold, the success of a man is that he act according to what is said to him. Make no delay at all in justice, the law of which you know. Behold, it becomes the arrogant that the king should love the timid more than the arrogant! "Now may you do according to this command that is given you -- behold, it is the manner of success -- besides giving your attention to the crown lands, and making the establishment thereof. If you happen to inspect, then shall you send to inspect the overseer of the land-measuring and the patrol of the overseer of land-measuring. If there shall be one who shall inspect before you, then shall you question him.
"Behold the regulation that is laid upon you."
Excerpts from "The Wisdom of Ancient Egypt" by Joseph Kaster

The vizier's duties

Administration of the palace

He is to be notified of the locking of the rooms which are to be locked at the ordered hour as well as their opening at the determined hour.
All that leaves the House of the King, leaves after he has been notified. All that comes into the House of the King, comes in after he has been notified. All that enters the limit of the Residence and all that leaves it, enters or leaves under the orders of his representative who lets enter or leave.
    The vizier was head of most branches of civil government, but some officials had more independence than others, like the treasurer or the superintendent of the granaries, who were the vizier's colleagues rather than his subordinates.
He shall enter the Great House [6], when the treasurer is standing by the northern flagpole. Then the vizier shall go quickly to the gate of the great entrance. The treasurer shall go towards him and inform him: "All your business is in order and every official in charge has informed me: 'All your affairs are in order. The house of the King is in order'". Then the vizier shall inform the treasurer: "All your affairs are in order. Every section of the Residence is in order. The locking of the doors at the destined hour and their opening at the destined hour has been reported to me by the official in charge.
After each official has informed the other, the vizier shall order the opening of all the doors of the House of the King to let go in what has to go in and come out what has to come out, under the supervision of the official in charge, who has everything written down.

Safety and well-being of the king's person

He shall enter and inquire after the concerns of the Lord, life, well-being and health, after he has been informed in his house of the condition of the Two Lands, daily.
    The king was accompanied by a bodyguard, which during the New Kingdom often consisted of foreigners.
It is he who shall order the mobilisation of the troops who are to accompany the Lord , when he journeys downriver or upriver. He shall determine the remnant which will be left in the Southern City [7] and in the Residence, according to what had been decided in the House of the King. The officer of the ruler who is stationed in his Hall shall be lead before him with the assembly of the troops so they can be given their orders.
He shall appoint the chief of police in the Hall of the King.

Head of administrators

    Nowadays we differentiate sharply between judges and administrators. No such distinction was made in ancient Egypt. Officials had to evaluate the merits of petitions and then order the implementation of their decisions. They were appointed by the vizier and answerable to him.
It is he who shall send every emissary of the House of the King, who is sent to the mayors and village heads. It is he who shall send every courier and expedition of the House of the King. It is he who shall appoint the officials who shall be the administrators (?) of the North, the South, the 'Head of the South' and Tchawer. They shall inform him of all that happened through them, at the beginning of every fourth month, and they shall bring him written reports (of what had happened) through them and their officials.
All offices (i.e. officials) from the highest to the lowest shall be admitted into the Hall of the Vizier in order to take counsel.
    Complaints against officials were brought before the vizier who judged and punished if necessary his subordinates.
No official shall presume to be authorized to judge in his (i.e. the vizier's) hall. Is a complaint brought against one of the officials belonging to his hall, he shall have him brought to the hall of judgment, for only the vizier shall punish him for his trespass. No official shall presume authority in his hall, every judgment concerning his hall, shall be reported to him, for him to pass on to the hall.
    Ownership of land, the main base of wealth, was strictly regulated and records were kept. In early Egypt the theory of ownership by the pharaoh was much stronger than in later times. Theoretically the king, and by proxy the vizier, could assign land as he wished. In practice, land was generally passed on by inheritance. The defense of the right to ones land and water was crucial in an agrarian society.
It is he who shall assemble the district administrators, and it is also he who shall send them to gather information about the state of the districts and report. To him all conveyance documents shall be brought, for it is he who shall seal them. He it is who shall assign land in the form of plots. If a petitioner says: "Our boundary has been moved", then one shall verify if it happened under the seal of the official in charge. If this is the case, then he (i.e. the vizier) shall take the plots from the administrators who have moved the boundary.
    Decisions were based on common law, i.e. on custom and precedent. But when circumstances were out of the ordinary, new laws had to be enacted or old ones changed. These innovations were not left to ordinary judges.
Concerning every extraordinary occurrence and its consequences, whatever one may perceive in it, and whatever a petitioner may submit in writing, it may not reach a judge. Of every petitioner he shall be informed, after he has submitted in writing.
    Generally speaking, the vizier was responsible for the smooth running of the country's economy
He shall send to fell sycamore according to what was said in the House of the King. He shall send the district administrators to dig canals in the whole country. He shall send mayors and village heads to organize agriculture in the summer.

Chief justice

    Processes and their outcome were reported to him.
Concerning any dossier, for which the vizier sends to a (judgment) hall, unless it is confidential, it shall be brought to him with the books of records of the administrator, sealed with the seals of the judge and the scribes involved. Then he shall open it, and after he has seen it, it shall be taken back to its place, sealed with the seal of the vizier. But if he asks for a confidential dossier, it shall not be brought by the administrator in charge. If it is a deputy whom the vizier sends because of a petitioner, then shall he (i.e. the administrator in charge) send it to him.
    Sometimes the vizier heard cases himself. Delays caused by travelling from distant regions were taken into account.
As to him who brings an action concerning a plot of land before the vizier, he shall order him to appear before him and moreover shall he hear the supervisor of arable land and the land-registry commission. He shall allow him two months if his fields lie in Upper or Lower Egypt, but if his fields are near the Southern City [7], he shall allow him three days as is set down in the law. He shall hear every petitioner according to this law, which is in his hand.

Policing the country and guarding the frontier

The heads of the police, officers of the police and heads of districts have to notify him of their business.
He shall take measures against anybody who plunders a district, and he shall judge him. He shall send troops and scribes of the land-registry office in order to execute the order of the Lord.
    Egypt's frontier with Nubia in the south and with the Sinai and Canaan in the east was guarded by troops during the times of strong central power. When this power grew weak, groups of people infiltrated into the country: Nubians settled in Upper Egypt, Libyans in the Delta and the Hyksos even succeeded in creating ruling dynasties in Lower Egypt and filling the power vacuum.
He is to be notified of the state of the southern and northern fortresses.
Excerpts from the Regulations laid upon the vizier, New Kingdom
(After a German translation taken from 'Pharaos Volk', T.G.H.James)

Translating theory into practice

    The vizierial system was in place for most of ancient Egypt's history. One may therefore assume that, generally, it satisfied most of the needs of the country. The fact that instructions like the ones found in Rekhmire's grave were needed and, as it seems, continually added to, points to there having been at least occasionally, lapses in the proper execution of the office.
    When the pharaoh was dissatisfied with his vizier, he dismissed him, a fate which may have befallen Rekhmire himself under Amenhotep II. Ramses III got rid of an unruly vizier and all his appointees
I cast out the vizier who had entered into their midst, I took away all his people who were with him. I made it like the great temple in this land, protected and defended, forever and ever. I brought (back again) all its people, who had been cast out, with every man and every inspector, appointed to carry on their administration in his august house
Harris Papyrus
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 361
    According to the instructions the vizier was personally involved in practically anything of importance happening in the country. But of course, under normal circumstances, much of the bureaucracy could function without constantly referring to the top executive. In many instances it had to, as distances could be extensive and travel time correspondingly long [8].
    Egypt was, populationwise, a much smaller country in antiquity, numbering perhaps three to four million inhabitants during the New Kingdom. About nine tenths of the population lived in villages, and many of these had little contact with the administration, being to poor to be taxed. About a third of the arable land belonged to temples, with a corresponding number of people, and were administered by the priesthood, who, by the times of the New Kingdom, had taken over even part of the juridical tasks traditionally a domain of the scribal civil administration.
    Still, the viziers must have led very busy lives, supervising the building of public edifices, leading quarrying expeditions into the desert and accompanying their pharaoh on his campaigns in addition to their more sedentary duties of coordinating the bureaucracy, hearing petitioners, and playing courtier.


Footnotes:
 
[1] ...he is named: everyone knows who he is
[2] ...he does not the same for another: he must not be loyal to anyone but Pharaoh.
[3] see Law and Order
[4] ...whose speech is not what is said: who has spoken improperly
[5] ...since the god: since the beginning of time
[6] Great House: The royal palace
[7] Southern City: Thebes
[8] Most of the travelling in Egypt was done by boat, which, until the invention of the railway, was the fastest way of locomotion. The distance between Thebes and Memphis is about 600 km, from Memphis to the Mediterranean about 200 km. It took Herodotus nine days to reach Thebes from the mouth of the Nile.
[9] The title of TAty appears for the first time on a 2nd dynasty stone vase. It became common under the 4th dynasty. [10]
[11]] The Arabic title vizier is preferably used to refer to the chief official of the pharaoh. Under the Ptolemies he was referred to as dioiketes.

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