ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: Landed property - Types of land, Ownership, Conveyance, Purchase, Leasing
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Landed Property

Resources     Land was the base of wealth and power. Most Egyptians lived on the land, but few owned it. This was the result of a polarisation of society which began in pre-dynastic times. The accumulation of power in the hands of regional potentates and the subsequent unification of the country must have brought great wealth to the local nobility and the pharaonic families which emerged from their midst: They became the great landlords of the country.
    They paid their subjects for their services by granting them land. The endowments the temples, above all those of Amen during the New Kingdom, received created new centres of economic and political power which the often foreign sovereigns of the Third Intermediate and the Late Period had to contend with (cf. The priests of Amen-Re and the Theban Kings).
    With time the number of culturally not fully integrated foreign mercenaries increased, and in the Late Period the royal land given to them for their services became their outright property.

Types of land

    The various regions of the country had a number of kinds of soil which were put to different uses:
  • the dark alluvial lands of the Nile floodplain, which needed no fertilization and little or no artificial irrigation, referred to as low lands (nxb lands), produced most of the wheat and vegetables which formed the Egyptian staple foods [10]. These lands were part of an irrigation network of canals and dams which were erected and maintained at a local or regional level.
  • the higher lying upper fields, fertile when irrigated
  • the oases producing dates and grapes
  • the sandy Sahara west of the Nile which had supported significant numbers of nomadic herders in the pre-dynastic period, but became completely desertified in historic times
  • the rocky eastern desert regions containing mineral deposits and inhabited by goat-and sheep-herding beduins


    In theory all the land seems to have belonged to the gods, and to the pharaoh as representative of Horus. It was regarded as communal property administered by the king, and was given to his subjects for usufruction, but as early as the middle of the third millennium BCE the sense of ownership and pride in one's own achievements was well developed among some at least:
I was a commoner of repute, who lived on his own property, plowed with his own span of oxen, and sailed in his own ship, and not through that which I had found in the possession of my father, honored Uha.
The Offering of Uha, c. 2400 BCE
    Plots of land dedicated to the provision of an income for a person's mortuary cult were sold and bought as early as the end of the Old Kingdom at least, when being buried in such a way was still the privilege of a small upper class:
[With regard to the land (?) for] this soul chapel which I have bought from the maker of sweet things Perhernefert, the extent being one-thirtieth of an aroura: the price will be paid by my daughter, the royal acquaintance...
Saqqara, 5th or 6th dynasty
Nigel Strudwick, Texts from the Pyramid Age, Brill 2005, p.204
    According to Herodotus Sesostris (whoever he was) divided the land equally among all his subjects, an acount we should not rely too much upon, but which reflects the idea of the land belonging to the pharaoh and its usufruct being given to the people who had to pay rent:
Sesostris also, they declared, made a division of the soil of Egypt among the inhabitants, assigning square plots of ground of equal size to all, and obtaining his chief revenue from the rent which the holders were required to pay him year by year. If the river carried away any portion of a man's lot, he appeared before the king, and related what had happened; upon which the king sent persons to examine, and determine by measurement the exact extent of the loss; and thenceforth only such a rent was demanded of him as was proportionate to the reduced size of his land. From this practice, I think, geometry first came to be known in Egypt, whence it passed into Greece.
Herodotus, Euterpe, 109.1
    The traditional approach to ownership appears to have changed by the Late Period, and land had become more like any other possession, but the state never relinquished all its rights over it.
    Ownership of land was monitored by the administration: transactions were recorded by scribes [2][3], land was surveyed and when circumstances had changed, such as when excessive inundations had obliterated boundary marks, reassigned based on the cadastral surveys. These surveys were also the base for the taxes to be imposed.
    Disputes over ownership which could not be solved by the land-overseers were heard by the vizier
Now as for every petitioner to the vizier concerning lands, he shall dispatch him (the messenger) to him, in addition to a hearing of the land-overseer and the local council of the district. He shall decree a stay for him of two mouths for his lands in the South or North. As for his lands, however, which are near to the Southern City and to the court, he shall decree a stay for him of three days, being that which is according to law; (for) he shall hear every petitioner according to this law which is in his hand.
From the tomb of Rekhmire
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four § 686
    The Ptolemies granted land to soldiers, the cleruchs, and some servants of the Crown, referred to as cleruchic land, originally as usufruct during the soldier's lifetime, but since the end of the 2nd century BCE treated as private property which could, since the 1st century BCE, also be inherited by daughters. Greek cleruchs were referred to as katoikoi, Egyptians as machimoi.[11] In regions heavily populated by Greeks like the Fayum the amount of this 'private' cleruchic land was considerable. In 118 BCE landownership at Kerkeosiris was distributed as follows: about 52% was royal land leased out to royal farmers or left uncultivated. 34% was cleruchic land, 6% temple land, and the remainder either common pasture or land unsuitable for cultivation.[12]
    In the Graeco-Roman Period land could be mortgaged, and if it was leased to tenants these were sometimes contractually responsible for the interest payments on the mortgage in lieu of the rent they would have paid otherwise to the owner.



1. to relatives

    Family and friends had to be looked after and cared for. Breasted recounts the fragmentary text of the beginning of Taharka's Tanis Stela: Someone, of course the king, gave the young Taharka a fine field, which the gods protected against grasshoppers, so that Taharka reaped (awA) from it, a plentiful yield of all grain and fruit of the ground.
    Nitocris, daughter of Psammetic I, received a number of sizable estates with a total land area of some 450 hectares from her adoptive 'mother' Shepnupet, the daughter of Taharka and sacerdotal princess at Thebes:
List of all the property given to her by [them] in the towns and nomes of the South and North:
That which his (sic!) majesty gave to her in the seven nomes of the Southland:
  1. In the district of Heracleopolis, the nome called Yuna, which is in the district therof lands, 300 stat [5]
  2. In the district Oxyrhyncus, the estate of Putowe, which is in the district therof lands, 300 stat
  3. In the district of Sep, the estate of Kewkew, which is in the district therof lands, [300] stat
  4. In the district of the Hare nome, (Hermopolis), the estates of Nesumin, which are in the district therof 600 stat
  5. In the district of Aphroditopolis, (the town of) Kay, which is in the district therof 300 stat
  6. In the district of [-], the estate of Harsiese, which is in the district therof 200 stat
All this added together lands 1800 stat
together with all the income therof from field and town; with their arid lands, and their canals
From the Adoption Stela of Nitocris
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four § 947f

2. for military service

    Until the Late Period soldiers were remunerated in kind. At times landless mercenaries received also land grants for the upkeep of their families, in the case of the Libyans this may have been the legal recognition of a fait accompli. This land was often rent free.
    Successful soldiers received endowments which reflected their rise in the hierarchy. Ahmose, son of Ebana, did well under the first 18th dynasty pharaohs:
I have grown old; I have reached old age. Favoured as before, and loved [by my lord], I [rest] in the tomb that I myself Behy. Again I am given by the King of Upper and Lower Egypt ... 60 arura in Hadjaa. In sum ... arura.
From the autobiography of Ahmose, son of Ebana
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Two § 82
    Somewhat less reliable is an account of Herodotus, who speaks of soldiers having been given twelve arouras for their services, a donation rescinded by a later, difficult to identify pharaoh
The next king, I was told, was a priest of Vulcan, called Sethos. This monarch despised and neglected the warrior class of the Egyptians, as though he did not need their services. Among other indignities which he offered them, he took from them the lands which they had possessed under all the previous kings, consisting of twelve acres of choice land for each warrior.
Herodotus, Euterpe, [2.141.1]

3. as remuneration of loyal servants

    Only the richest could generally forgo future revenue by giving away the land which was to generate it
... I was endowed [with] upland and with lowland. She repeated to me another favor, she gave to me all her property in Edfu, to administer it for her majesty
Yuf, listing the favours received from Queen Ahhotep
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Two § 113
and again under Queen Ahmose ... She entrusted me with the statue of her majesty, she gave to me 100 loaves of bread, 2 (ds-)jars of beer, and a joint from every ox. I was endowed with upland, and with lowland.
Yuf, listing the favours received from Queen Ahmose
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Two § 114
but when circumstances left a person with no close relatives he might reward loyal service by leaving his possessions to his servants.

4. to temples to provide income for future offerings

    The endowment of temples with land to secure long-term religious services for the dead resulted in these temples attaining a position in New Kingdom and Late Period Egypt similarly strong to that which the catholic church was to enjoy in medieval Europe. In both cases it caused conflict between the state and the religious institution, despite the fact that in Egypt the priesthood was at least in theory subject to the pharaoh, who, as a god incarnate and chief of all priests, was nominally at the head of all temple administrations.
District of the domain of Tehenut at the western limit of the nome of Tehenut, in the flax fields of Pharaoh, L.P.H., together with the lands which are [-].
The East is the great mountain.
The South is the flax fields of Pharaoh, L.P.H., east of the great mountain.
The North is the field of Arasa.
The west is the Nile.
Six khet. [4]
Total lands given [to] it: fifteen khet, which makes [-] upper fields. The scribe [of] its domain, the deputy Penno, son of Herunofer of Wawat, has [-] (them), as fields [rented] to him, to pay to it one ox, slaughtered yearly.
Tomb of Penno, 20th dynasty James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four § 482


    Both men and women could inherit land from their parents, although male offspring was probably preferred. This land, if it was a large estate, was passed on together with the people living on it
As for the landed estate, which the High-Priest of Amon-re, king of gods, commander in chief of the army, who is at the head of the great army of the South as far as the region of Siut, Yewelot, triumphant, founded; which lies in the district of the highland northwest of [Thebes], and is called "Beautiful Region"; while he was a youth in the time of his father, King Meriamon-Osorkon (III), in the year 10, fourth month of the third season, last day ............. in all 556 [stat] of various land, and 35 men and women, their dykes, their trees, their large and small cattle; I confirm them to the prophet of Amon-re, king of gods, the chief of the district, Khamwese, triumphant, his son, whom the daughter of a king's-daughter, Tedenetnebast, bore to him, forever.
Will of Yewelot, 23rd dynasty
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four § 795
Land sale's contract; Source: Duke University
Land sale contract
Source: Papyrus Archive, Duke University [1]


    Documents concerning the sale of land are of course much rarer than those containing rent receipts. In early time periods it may have been impossible to sell land at all, as it was not considered to be part of the personal possessions of ordinary mortals. Whether that was the state of affairs or not, people at all times tried to hold on to the one commodity they knew would always be of value.
    But land was sold both by private owners and by the state, i.e. the estate of the pharaoh. The transactions were recorded by officials and signed by witnesses [1].
    During the Ptolemaic Period land which had been abandoned was declared adespotos, seized by the state and sold off by royal auction, as was the custom of the Greeks. [13]


    Land was often leased to tenants and subtenants, and the conditions of the leases were put in writing.
    Before the introduction of money rent was not necessarily an agreed upon part of the produce. During the 11th dynasty, the farmer Heqanakhte sent 24 copper debens [8] for the lease of some land:
Send Heti's son Nakht together with Sanebnut down to Perhaa, in order to plant 5 arouras of leased land for us; they should take its rent from the cloth which has been woven where you are. When they have collected the price as payment for the emmer wheat which is in Perhaa, they should make use of it there. You will not have anything more to do with the cloth of which I have said: 'Weave it, and they shall take it after it has been valued in Nebsit, and rent land with its proceeds.'
and in another letter
Behold, I have sent you 24 copper deben with Sihat-hor for the rent of the land. Let now be planted 5(?) arouras of land in Perhaa by the (land of Hau the younger) with copper or with cloth or with barley or with something(?) else, but only if you have collected there(?) the proceeds for the oil or for something else.
From Heqanakhte's papers
After T.G.H.James Pharaohs Volk p.263
    Heqanakhte was also very particular as to whom to lease land from. He knew the owners of the fields, he must also have known the quality of their fields.
Do not descend upon the fields of just anybody. You shall ask for it from Hau the younger. If you do not find anything with him then you shall go to Herenufer.
1st letter of Heqanakhte
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
I. Hafemann ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Mittleren Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe der Pap. Hekanakhte => pMMA Hekanakhte I
    Among the Hellenists rents were often paid in coin [6], but even in the Roman Period some peasants paid a percentage (around 12½%) of the crop in kind [7].
    The condition the land would be in when the lease expired was also of some importance to the owner, as a field overgrown with weeds could lose some of its value.
    At times the state was interested in taking under cultivation untenanted land which in the words of M. Lichtheim was marginal or waste land by allotting it to farmers in forced leases, the records of which are known today by their beginning phrase as r-rx.w ostraca, which defined the field allotted, laying down its yield and the rent to be paid:
Year 42.
sAs (Sas), son of Algsntr (Alexander) has been allotted (firstly) his field: From 6 arouras, at 5 (artabs) per aroura, 3½ arouras, its half make 1 ½ ¼ 
[9], again totalling 3½ arouras
(secondly) his strip of river bank, at 7½ artabs of wheat [per aroura], (namely) ¼ aroura, (which) totals 3 ½ ¼ arouras.
Written by ij-m-Htp (Imhotep), son of hrjw (Heriu).
From DO BM 19.861, Ptolemaic Period
Ursula Kaplony-Heckel, Theben-West und Theben-Ost (31 demotische r-rx=w Ostraka aus dem Britischen Museum)
From S. Israelit-Groll, ed., Studies in Egyptology, Vol. II, 1990
[4]   1 khet: 100 royal cubits
[5]   1 stat: 100 cubits squared, about 2700 m²
[8]   24 copper debens: according to T.G.H.James 24 pieces of copper each weighing a deben (91 grammes), a sort of proto-currency
[9]   1 ½ ¼: 1¾, Egyptians wrote fractions as a series of 1 divided by an integer - ½ + ¼ = ¾
[10] Taxes on inundated land were twice as high as those imposed on the owner of higher lying, less productive land. The value of this land was also reflected in a maxim of Ankhsheshonq: Do not put a house on farmland, a rule still observed by traditional Middle Eastern peasants. In Egypt building a house on farmland would also have been unwise because of the annual inundation.
[11] A. M. F. W. Verhoogt, Menches, komogrammateus of Kerkeosiris: the doings and dealings of a village scribe in the late Ptolemaic period (120-110 B.C.)., Brill, 1998, p.111
[12] Andrew Monson, Communal Agriculture in the Ptolemaic and Roman Fayyum, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics October 2007, p.6
[13] J. G. Manning, "The Auction of Pharaoh" in E. Teeter & J. A. Larson (eds.) Gold of Praise, U. of Chicago 1999, pp.277ff.

- -[7] Legal records concerning land
-[6] Graeco-Roman tax-collector's receipts
-Index of topics
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Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
-[1] Sale of land (P.Duk.inv. 631)
-[2] Register of land (P.Duk.inv. 276 R)
-[3] Register of land (P.Duk.inv. 276 V)
-Cadastral Trends: A Synthesis by Lisa Ting
-Land Markets in the Ancient Near East: A Critique of the Primitivist Perspective by Morris Silver
-Über eine Hieroglyphische Inschrift am Tempel von Edfu (Appollinopolis Magna) in welcher der Besitz dieses Tempels an Ländereien unter der Regierung Ptolemaeus XI Alexander I verzeichnet ist von R. Lepsius


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