Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egypt: Legal contracts
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Contracts and other legal documents

    Most contracts were oral agreements, sealed with a handshake or its ancient Egyptian equivalent in the presence of a few witnesses. But occasionally, permanent records were made which throw a light on the society and its sense of legality.

The role of the scribe

Scribe, Old Kingdom - Courtesy Jon Bodsworth     The vast majority of people were illiterate and poor, but even they, not to speak of their social superiors who had more occasions and need to do so, needed to put an agreement in writing at times.

Old Kingdom scribe
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    The scribes, part of the state bureaucracy and generally not beholden to private persons, were hoped to be impartial in the drawing up of the document, read out and explained the text to illiterate clients, spoke and wrote the same legalistic language as their peers present and future, who might be called upon to re-interpret their writings, and knew how to have them kept safe.
    For verification purposes, contracts and other legal documents were signed by the scribe who put them on papyrus, their date was given and often ancestors - at least the father - were mentioned to help with the writer's identification if the need should arise:
Written in the year 15 of the exalted Tiberius, the exalted Caesar, the exalted Augustus, on the 29th of Mesore. Andrus, son of Piko, has written (this).
    Scribes being human, there were times when they abused their position of power, above all during periods of weak royal authority. One such was the aftermath of Akhenaten's attempt to disempower the Amen priesthood and its reinstatement under Tutankhamen and Horemheb. The turmoil accompanying these changes appears to have badly affected the honesty of the officialdom. Horemheb attempted to regain power over the corrupt bureaucracy by imposing harsh sentences on officials found guilty of misbehaving.


    Contracts belong in the public domain. Witnesses were present when they were concluded. They - as well as all the other persons involved - were identified in the documents by their official names and often, when they had one, by their nick-names as well. An additional possible identifier was the profession or trade of the witness. Given the fact that a person's occupation was generally inherited this helped in the establishment of the witness's lineage:
Name list of the people in whose presence these things were done: Decorator (or polisher ?) of columns, Kemen; doorkeeper of the temple, Ankhetfi's son, Apa; doorkeeper of the temple, Senb's son, Senb.
    At times physical descriptions were used, distinctive marks, the age and ethnicity listed:
Taotis daughter of Harpos, aged about 48 years, of medium height, fair-skinned, round-faced, straight-nosed, with a scar on her forehead, and her sisters Sennesis also called Tatous, daughter of Harpos, aged about 42 years, of medium height, fair-skinned, round-faced, straight-nosed, with a scar on her forehead, and Siephmous daughter of Pachnoumis, aged about 20 years, fair-skinned, round-faced, straight-nosed, without distinctive mark, all three being Persians, with their guardian the husband of the aforesaid Taous, Psennesis also called Krouris son of Florus, Persian of the Epigone, of the village of Gotnit in the lower toparchy of the Latopolite nome, aged about 45 years, of medium height or under, dark-skinned, rather curly-haired, long-faced, straight nosed, with a scar on the under lip ...
    The gods were also sometimes explicitly invoked as witnesses, though the Egyptians seem to have relied less on the moral influence of the deities and more on their physically present servants, priests who took part in the signing (and might be called upon to give evidence if need be), as in this sale agreement from the Ptolemaic Period:
... there being the priest of Alexander, the gods Adelphoi, the gods Euergetai, the gods Philopatores, the gods [Epiphaneis], the gods [Philometores and the bearer of the trophy] of victory before Berenice [Euergetis] the bearer of the golden basket before Arsinoe ......... of P-sy which is in the district of Thebes, the priest of Ptolemy the [Soter], the priest of King Ptolemy Philometor, the priest of Ptolemy Philopator, the priest of Ptolemy Euergetes, the priest of Ptolemy (sic), the priest of Ptolemy Philadelphus, the priest of Ptolemy ............... [Arsinoe] Philadelphus, the priestess of [Cleopatra the] goddess Epiphanes Eucharistos, the bearer of the golden basket before Arsinoe Philadelphus, Say the ....... of the gods Epiphaneis, the gods Philometores


    By the Late Period at least some people seem to have kept legal documents or copies of them in their private family archives, though the following express permission from a marriage contract between a Greek Egyptian couple to do so seems to point to the fact that the practice was probably far from universal:
Heraclides and Demetria shall have the right to keep the contracts severally in their own custody and to produce them against each other.
    In a court case held in Ptolemaic times concerning land and annuity rights both the plaintiff and the defendant, two native Egyptians, offered to produce legal documents supporting their claims:
As for the division document which Pa-ti-Atum, my father, made for me concerning my 1/3 share of everything belonging to him, they being inventoried in year 25, 2nd month of Inundation of Pharaoh the father of the ever-living Pharaoh, it being endorsed by Tot, son of Pa-ti-Atum, he signing at its bottom in his own handwriting, it being completed with 16 witnesses, <it is> in my hand today; if it is sought, I shall bring it before the judges.
    Safe-keeping important documents in a private home was probably difficult for many. They were difficult to hide from prying eyes or hungry rodents as there were no strong-chests which could be locked or even doors which had more than the most primitive barring devices. The factor most important for preventing theft or damage to valuables was the presence of people belonging to the household.
    Copies of private legal documents were kept in archives administered by the temples. These were repositories for all kinds of records: wills, deeds, cadastral records, birth registration, contracts etc.
And the vizier gave an order to the priest and scribe of the TmA ('cadaster' according to Faulkner) of the tribunal of the temple of <King> Ramesses III, Ptah-emheb, saying: 'Let this arrangement which I made be written in the registry of the temple of Ramesses III!'
And a copy was made for the Grand Tribunal of Thebes before numerous witnesses: ...
Papyrus Turin 2021; New Kingdom
J. Cerny, T. Eric Peet, A Marriage Settlement of the Twentieth Dynasty, an Unpublished Document from Turin
JEA 13 (1927) 30-39
By the life [of the royal ka] of Thutmose (III) [and by the life of Amon-Re, King of Karna]k, if any sons or any daughters, any brothers or any sisters, any relatives come to contest this transfer document which I made on behalf of my 4 children, don't listen to them in any royal [registry office] to which they may appeal. If this transfer document is impeded in its implementation, it is forbidden to anyone to change it forever.'
[It was sealed] by the Vizier's registry office today, before the Overseer of the City, Vizier ..., [and it was registered(?) ...] by the scribe Hori."
Translated by Aristide Théodorides, Le testament dans l'Egypte ancienne (essentiellement d'après le Papyrus Kahoun VII, 1, la Stèle de Sénimosé et le Papyrus Turin 2021),
RIDA 17 (1970) 117-216; New Kingdom (Dynasty 18)
    Privately owned copies of legal documents seem to have aroused suspicions in the minds of officials who preferred whenever possible copies (or originals) stored in official archives.
Then I laid a plaint before the Vizier in Heliopolis, and he caused me to plead together with Neb-nofre before the Vizier in the Great Court. I brought my [testimonies ...] in my hand since Ahmose (I), and Neb-nofre brought her testimonies in like manner. Then they were unrolled before the Vizier in the Great Court. And the Vizier said to [her(?)]: 'These documents were written by one of the two parties.'
Then Neb-nofre said to the Vizier: 'Let there be brought to me the [two registers from the Treasury and likewise from the Department of the Granary(?).'
And the Vizier] said to her: 'Very good is that which you say.'
Alan H. Gardiner, The Inscriptions of Mes, A Contribution to the Study of Egyptian Judicial Procedure, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Altertumskunde Ägyptens,Vol. 4/3 (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1905); New Kingdom

The standing of women

    In the Egyptian tradition women had, compared with other ancient cultures, a fair amount of independence. They were seen to be more in need of protection than men, and clauses to this effect were occasionally inserted in legal documents, but they remained free agents.
    This was not so among most of the foreigners settling in Egypt during the first millennium BCE. The degree of tutelage of Greek women in the diaspora may have varied according to the mother-city they originated from, the marriage contract of Heraclides and Demetria, two freeborn Coans, does not mention any guardian, but does make a reference to those aiding Demetria, whatever that may have entailed. Generally speaking, a Greek woman did not act on her own: unmarried she was represented by her father, an uncle or even a brother, married her affairs were - at least as far as the public was concerned - managed by her husband.
Eirene, daughter of Orphis, a Macedonian woman, acting with her guardian, her husband, Agamemnon, son of Chrysermos, a native of Lalassis, to Leontiskos, Thymos, and Tesenouphis, greeting.


    Contracts are agreements between two or more parties intended to be enforceable by law. Ancient oral contracts, the vast majority of binding agreements, are mostly lost to us. Only occasionally do we hear how a promise had been broken, and justice was sought in court:
Bakenurner spoke with the water-carrier Penteuret because of his donkey which he had given to Penenut for its work. Penteuret was condemned to the work of his donkey for Bakenurner. He swore an oath with these words: Should the donkey die, it will be against me; should he live, it will be against me. Thus the donkey was given to him for his work.
What concerns my donkey: I have given 40 copper deben for him. Cause him to give them to me
Ostrakon Berlin P 1121 found at Deir el Medine. Source: Deir el Medina Online
    Early on people became aware of the limitations of verbal agreements even when they were concluded in front of witnesses. Whenever feasible important agreements were written down and a wide variety of such documents was found, above all from the latter half of the first millennium BCE.

Land leases

Part of the demotic ostrakon DO Uppsala 825 containing a lease contract for grassland
Source: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis - Boreas Vol. 6, p.132

    Most land leases would not have aroused too much controversy. As long as their nature remained temporary and did not involve ownership of the land itself as might happen in long-term relationships when memories became blurred and doubts as to tenure might arise, the main problem was to ensure the regular payment of the rent. A simple aide-memoire scribbled on a potsherd would suffice:
[It is] Menokles, the peasant of the king [who says to ....]: "I have leased you the grassland [...] the harvest delivery to the granary of the king [...]
Lease contract, Demotic ostrakon, DO Uppsala no. 825
    The state leased land would be in once it was returned might be of concern to the owner. In an application for a lease of grain land the writer promised that after the expiration of the lease he would hand over the arouras free from rushes, reeds, coarse grass and all rubbish, with one half lying fallow in grass and the other half after the stubble harvest. Such a clause might well be included in a contract.
    More intricate were matters when the ownership of the land was at risk, as was the case of the Macedonian Eirene who let a mortgaged 80 aroura plot and had to ensure the continued payment of interest on the mortgage.


    For much of Egypt's history selling meant exchanging goods. But in a barter economy, where the means of exchange were often bulky and difficult to transport, the use of credit was just as important as in a modern market system. IOU's changed hands, and during the Late Period there was the giro-system of the state-run grain banks.
    Most critical were written records when valued property, such as land, changed owners. These bills of sale for houses or land were archived in the state or temple repository. Cadastral records were the base of taxation.
...... thou hast given, our heart is satisfied with, the silver, price of the hired (?) waste-land ......... waste-lands again which are opposite the treasury built (of stone) in ....... [the necropo]lis of Shas-[hotep] .......... which is in the possession of his children, on the West the remainder of thy waste-land ...... 2, on the North-west .......... we give thee the aforesaid hired (?) waste-land .......... [by this writing] for silver, [we have] received [its price in silver without remainder] our heart is satisfied with ................
Sale agreement, Demotic papyrus B.2 found at Rifeh

Marriage contracts

    Traditionally, the possessions a woman brought with her into a marriage continued to be exclusively her own property even if it was generally the husband who managed them. In case of dissolution of the partnership they wholly reverted to her.
    In the Ptolemaic Period during which the position of the men became more dominant under the influence of Greek and Macedonian customs, the need for written prenuptial agreements arose with women trying to protect themselves from destitution in case they were abandoned and men seeking punitive measures against unfaithful wives. These contracts were generally even-handed in threatening husband and wife alike with financial consequences if they strayed, but in reality the wife would have been harder hit, having generally less access to economic means independent of their partners.
..... Heraclides takes as his lawful wife Demetria, Coan, both being freeborn, from her father Leptines, Coan (i.e. his family was originally from Cos), and her mother Philotis, bringing clothing and ornaments to the value of 1000 drachmae, and Heraclides shall supply to Demetria all that is proper for a freeborn wife, and we shall live together wherever it seems best to Leptines and Heraclides consulting in common.
If Demetria is discovered doing any evil to the shame of her husband Heraclides, she shall be deprived of all that she brought, but Heraclides shall prove whatever he alleges against Demetria before three men whom they both accept.
It shall not be lawful for Heraclides to bring home another wife in insult of Demetria nor to have children by another woman nor to do any evil against Demetria on any pretext. If Heraclides is discovered doing any of these things and Demetria proves it before three men whom they both accept, Heraclides shall give back to Demetria the dowry of 1000 drachmae which she brought and shall moreover forfeit 1000 drachmae of the silver coinage of Alexander. Demetria and those aiding Demetria to exact payment shall have the right of execution, as if derived from a legally decided action, upon the person of Heraclides and upon all the property of Heraclides both on land and on water. ....
Marriage contract of Heraclides and Demetria, 311 BCE
Loeb Select Papyri I

Annuity contracts

    People having selective memories and often strange, idiosyncratic reasoning when it suits their purposes, the wise person will hesitate to pass property to another against future services unless the execution of the agreement can be properly enforced. In a society where state pensions were presents from the king to a select few only, the annuity contract was the means for those who owned some property but were incapable of administering it themselves to ensure a regular future income.
Annuity law: The contracts for an annuity which will be made, their form:
[Such and such a year, such and such a month, so-and-so son] of so-and-so has [said] to so-and-so son of so-and-so, 'You have given me [X money for an annuity] for the woman so-and-so daughter of so-and-so, whose mother is so-and-so, to give you X money [for her subsistence annually at the] house which you desire. You are the one who is entrusted [by me with the arrears] of her subsistence. Everything which is mine and that which I will acquire is the security [for her subsistence. If an oath is required] of you to do it for me, it is in the place in which [the judges are] that you will take it."
George R. Hughes, ed., The Demotic Legal Code of Hermopolis West
Bibliothèque d'étude, Vol. 45 (Cairo: IFAO, 1975) pp. 27-32, 92-103, 39-42, 115-23

After-life insurance

    During times of strong government officials were careful to stick to the precepts of Maat, which in Egypt replaced our letter of the law. Property and revenues due to an administrative position were carefully kept separate from private, generally inherited belongings and income. The nomarch Hepdjefi ruled at Syut during the twelfth dynasty and concluded a number of contracts with the mortuary priesthood.
    In the first contract Hepdjefi the count, i.e. the nomarch, assured offerings of white bread to his statue in exchange for a quarter of a bull he was due in his official capacity as nomarch.

    Contract with the count, the superior prophet, Hepzefi, triumphant, made, with the lay (wab) priests of the temple of Upwawet, lord of Siut, to wit:
    There shall be given to him: A white loaf per individual
wab priest, for his statue, which is in the temple of Anubis, lord of Rekreret on the first of the five intercalary days, when Upwawet, lord of Siut, proceeds to his temple.
    He hath given to them (i.e. the
wab priests) for it his share in the bull offered to Upwawet, lord of Siut, in his temple, when he proceeds to it, consisting of his quarter, due to the count.
    Lo, he spake to them, saying: "Behold ye, I have given to you this quarter due to me from this temple, in order that this white bread may be endowed, which ye give to me." Lo, they had given to him the inherited portion of the bull, for his statue, (which is) in charge of his mortuary priest, before he gave to them of his quarter.
    Lo, they were satisfied with it.
The contracts of Hepzefi
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt  Part One §§539ff
    Private possessions and property belonging to the office were supposed to be separate. In one of the contracts Hepdjefi gets funerary services for himself by promising a heket of grain from every field of the estate, from the first of the harvest of the count's estate; as every citizen of Siut does, from the first of his harvest to the priests. He was thus using property belonging to the office of the nomarch for private purposes and exhorted future nomarchs to respect his contract:
    Lo, he said: "Behold, ye know that, as for anything which any official or any citizen gives into the temple, from the first of his harvest, it is not agreeable to him, that there should be lack therein. Therefore shall no future count diminish to future priests, that which is secured by contract of another count. This grain shall belong to the lay priests, each by himself; no priest, who shall give to me this white bread, shall divide (it) to his colleagues; because they give this white bread, each by himself."
The contracts of Hepzefi
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt  Part One §547
    For some other funerary services by the lay priests of Wepawet Hepdjefi paid beer and bread which he received from the official body of the temple, and fuel he was given in his capacity as the nomarch. A future nomarch could therefore stop this supply of fuel to the priests, but the supply of beer and bread was secure.
    Lo, he spake to them, saying: "If this fuel be reckoned against you by a future count; behold, this bread and beer shall not be diminished, which the official body of the temple deliver to me, which I have given to you. Behold, I have secured it by contract from them."
The contracts of Hepzefi
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt  Part One §557
    Hepdjefi was free to do with his own property as he wished, and made sure that he was endowing the temple with temple-days belonging to his own estate. To make sure there would be no misunderstandings he defined temple-day in his contract as 1/360 of a year.
    He hath given to them for it, 22 temple-days, from his property of his paternal estate, but not from the property of the count's estate....
    Behold, it is my property of my paternal estate, but it is not the property of the count's estate; for I am a priest's son just like you.
The contracts of Hepzefi
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt  Part One §551f
    In this contract Hepdjefi, the person, paid the superior prophet of Wepwawet - which office was filled by Hepdjefi himself at that time - for the sacrifice of meat and beer
    Contract which the count, the superior prophet Hepzefi, triumphant, made with the superior prophet of Upwawet....
    He (i.e. the count) hath given him (the superior prophet) for it, 2 temple-days from his property, of his paternal estate, but not from the property of the count's estate.
The contracts of Hepzefi
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt  Part One §§568ff
    Land given to the overseer of the highland was to belong permanently to that office on condition of the office holders fulfilling their funerary duty:
    He hath given to him for it: 1000 HAt measures of land in [....], from his property of his paternal estate, but not from the property of the count's estate......
    Lo, he said to the overseer of the highland: "Behold, these HAt measures of land shall belong to every future overseer of the highland, because he delivers to me this bread and beer."
The contracts of Hepzefi
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt  Part One §591ff
    That such a contract might cease to be respected was probably not on everybody's mind, though from earliest times all but the most naive must have perceived the effects the passage of time tended to have on the fulfillment of long-term contracts. Tjenti was aware of the problem and stipulated that the land destined to pay for the funerary services remained firmly in the possession of his wife, Tepem-nofre
(It) comes to them (i.e. the priests) from the possessions of Tepem-nofre while I endow her with a small plot of land for these ka-priests. If they do not remain in the ka-chapel, which is in the possession of my wife [the King's Acquaintance Tep]em-nofre, (it) reverts to the possession of my wife, Tepem-nofre.
Inscription on the door architrave of Tjenti
Old Kingdom
Translated by Prof. Ward from Kurt Sethe, Urkunden des Alten Reichs, Urkunden des ägyptischen Altertums, Vol. 1 (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1903) pp. 163-65;


- -[3] The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, c. 1800 BCE
-[7] The Abbott Papyrus: An investigation into the tomb robberies under Ramses IX


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These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these sites


-[2] Family law
-[4] La administración de la ciudad 1
-[5] The Contents of The Tebtunis Papyri (Berkeley University website)
-[9] The story of Sinuhe
-[13] The Greek Section of the Rosetta Stone
-Bibliography: Egyptian law
-Recht und Ordnung
- The Great Edict of Pharaoh Horemheb

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