November 28, 2012

Changes of Promotion in Ancient Egypt

Changes of Promotion
The working classes had every hope of rising above that station into which they were born, either by marriage, inheritance or promotion. Evidence is available from the autobiographical accounts in the tombs of the noblemen. Since provisions for the afterlife had to be commensurate with a man’s social standing, lists of offerings in the tombs grew larger and larger as the power and wealth of a man increased. It finally occurred to the tomb owners that a simple offering prayer would be adequate substitute for a long offering list. A similar short-cut was sought for the inscriptions identifying the titles and ranks of the owners of the tombs: as these grew longer they gradually developed into autobiographical renditions. Metjen’s is one of the oldest. He died in the reign of Senefru Pharaoh and was buried near temple of Zoser pharaoh  on the Saqqara necropolis (his tomb has been transported to Berlin and reconstructed in the Museum). The text tells of his gradual rise from Scribe and Overseer of the Stores to Governor of a number of towns and districts in the eastern Delta. For his administrative prowess he was rewarded with gifts of land on which he built a house ‘201cubits long, 201cubits wide’ and surrounded by a walled garden.

Ancient Egypt
One of the best-known cases of a rise in rank in the Egyptian Old Kingdom was that of Uni. A man of humble birth, he started his career as a minor official under the Teti King, and rose to the position of ‘Favoured Courtier’ under Pepi. In ancient Egypt a man who proved fit in performing one task (albeit solving a case of treason in the royal harem) was considered equally fit for others. Entrusted with supervising a group of workmen bringing a block of stone suitable for the pharaoh’s sarcophagus, Uni performed the task so efficiently transporting it complete with lid, doorway, lintel and two jambs for the tomb as well as a libation table that as seen, the pharaoh forthwith put him in charge of a body of troops detailed for an expedition against hostile tribes in the eastern desert, and the nomadic tribes of Egyptian Nubia. Uni’s success on five different occasions was rewarded by a requisition from the treasury to procure labour for the quarrying and transportation of a sumptuous sarcophagus for his own tomb. Uni was by this time one of the highest dignitaries of the court, being awarded the distinction of being permitted to bear a staff and wear sandals in the presence of the pharaoh. ‘Never,’ he inscribed in his tomb, ‘has the like been done for any servant.’ ‘I was excellent in the heart of His Majesty beyond any official of his, beyond any noble of his, beyond any servant of his . .

Many persons of obscure origin or even base servitude rose to high honours and died governors of provinces or ministers of the Ti King, the vigorous nobleman of the 5th dynasty who served under three Egyptian pharaohs, was not of royal blood, yet his marriage to the princess Nefer-Hotep-s gave him a special position and his children ranked with royalty. There is considerable evidence of the close relationship between a pharaoh and his officials. Frequently a pharaoh confided in his most favoured official who bore the title ‘Friend’ and who claimed to be ‘uniquely loved’. A reward even greater than promotion was a pharaoh’s contribution to the building of a nobleman’s Egyptian tomb.

Debhen inscribed that his King was ‘so satisfied with him’ that he detailed some two score men and ten to complete his Egyptian tomb for him, quarry two false doors of stone and supply blocks for the facade as well as the statue to house his Ka. Weshptah, the architect/vizier who suffered a stroke and died despite medical attention, was furnished with a tomb and magnificent ebony coffin. Sebni, it will be remembered, was the loyal son who set out on a rescue mission to recover his father’s body from the south and bring it back to Egypt for burial. On his return journey he sent his officer Iri and two companions ahead to the court with products from the south and instructions to bring back the necessary equipment for embalming the body. Sebni’s mission was so highly regarded by the pharaoh that he sent a military escort to meet him, and rewarded him by assisting in the embalming and burial of his father, and presenting him with a gift of land for himself.

At all levels of the bureaucratic system there was, of course, a tendency to inherit posts, as, for example among the scribes. In the cemetery at Egyptian Giza, is a whole Egyptian dynasty of small-scale scribes (the distinction being drawn between the literates who registered cattle, held the post of clerk in the Double Granary, etc. and the scribes who were scholars, sages, physicians and philosophers). Whatever his social standing, a scribe had a most respected profession and was in a position to attract the notice of his superiors.

The relationship between the noblemen and their foremen and workers is clear from such inscriptions as: ‘whether craftsmen or quarrymen, I satisfied them’. One 4th Egyptian dynasty nobleman was more explicit: in an inscription on the base of his statue he declared that the sculptor that fashioned his statue ‘was satisfied with the reward I gave him’.

Sentiments common among the inscriptions of the Egyptian tombs at Saqqara were: ‘Never did I use force against any man, for I wanted my name to be good before God and my repute to be good before all men.’ And ‘Never did I do an evil thing.’

Such inscriptions may have been the result of a man wishing to stress his qualities for his name to shine before the ‘Great Egyptian God’. However, they encourage us to view, at least with some reservation Herodotus’ description of hordes of oppressed and overworked slaves, whipped by merciless overseers, toiling and dying in the scorching sun in order to raise a monumental pyramid to the glorification of their God-king. There were in fact few slaves in the Old Kingdom, since foreign conquest was at a minimum; there were no worker revolts until later periods; and the marks made on some of the casing stones delivered from the quarries indicate a spirit of pride and competition among the workers (largely recruited from the peasant community during high Nile) who called themselves ‘Vigorous Gang’, ‘Enduring Gang’, etc.

Ptahhotep, the 5th Egyptian dynasty sage who instructed his son to prepare him for the official duties that lay ahead of him, gave much advice on behaviour that would ensure success in official circles, and the attitudes to be taken towards both betters and subordinates. ‘If he above you is one who was formerly of very humble station, have no knowledge of his former low estate . . . be respectful towards him because of what he has achieved; for substance cometh not of itself.’ Or conversely: ‘If thou has become great after thou wert little, and hast gained possessions after thou wert formerly in want ... be not unmindful of how it was with thee before. Be not boastful of thy wealth, which has come to thee as a gift of the god. Thou art not greater than another like thee to whom the same has happened.’

Ptahhotep Pharaoh had some shrewd advice on the matter of being helpful to one’s employer, for: ‘thy food hangs upon his mood, the belly of one loved is filled, thy back shall be clothed thereby . .

Table manners, especially at an official dinner given by one of higher station, were considered important: ‘Take when he gives to thee what he puts before thee, but do not look at what is before him, look at what is before thee, and shoot him not with many glances . . . Turn thy face downward until he addresses thou and speak only when he addresses thee. Laugh when he laughs, so shalt thou be very agreeable to his heart and what thou doest will be very pleasant to his heart . . .’

Whereas Ptahhotep had much to say on behaviour in the presence of superiors: ‘If you meet one superior to you, fold your arms, bend your back. To flout him will not make him agree with you . . . ’, he particularly stresses: ‘If you meet a poor man, not your equal, do not attack him because he is weak . . . wretched is he who injures a poor man . . .’

A nobleman’s attitude towards his subordinates is particularly apparent through Ptahhotep’s enumeration of the qualities of leadership: ‘If thou art a man who leads, seek out every beneficient deed, that thy conduct may be blameless.. ‘If thou art an administrator, be gracious when thou hearest the speech of a petitioner.’

A man is recognised by that which he knows.
His heart is the balance for his tongue;
His lips are correct when he speaks, and his eyes in seeing;
his ears together hear what is profitable for his son,
who does righteousness and is free from lying.
Established is the man whose standard is righteousness, who walketh according to its way.

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