The centralised government that created one of the highlights of ancient Egyptian history, the great Pyramid Age, appears to have been established by a powerful ruling élite who promoted a God-king to unite the country as well as sway the politico-religious current away from Egyptian Memphis. It may well have been the crucial fact of the priests of Ptah having endeavoured to undermine the sun cult to their own advantage that transformed the Heliopolis priests’ eagerness to enlighten into an impulsion to control.
Zoser Pharaoh, whose reign heralded an era of boundless vision and invention was a God-king of solar faith. In death he would join, as by right, his father the Sun-god in heaven. His chief official, Imhotep, whose titles included ‘First after the King in Upper Egypt, Minister of the King in Lower Egypt and Administrator of the Great Palace’ was also ‘High Priest of Heliopolis’. Moreover, some fragments of what are known as ‘Zoser reliefs’ (Turin Museum) which concern the Heb-Sed Festival, refer to the Heliopolitan Ennead (not the Memphite Doctrine). With little to distinguish between religion and politics the balance of power had tilted in favour of the priests of Heliopolis. They controlled trade routes, exploited the mines and handled the country’s valuable raw materials including stone, metal, precious stones and copper. Unity having been finally established, political stability in the 4th dynasty is reflected in economic prosperity, technical achievement, productivity and inventiveness.
The broad administrative pattern of the country was laid in the reign of Senefru. After a turbulent transition between the 3rd and 4th Egyptian dynasties he secured the throne by his marriage to Hetep-Heres, the daughter of Huni, builder of the first true pyramid at Meidum. Her title, Daughter of God, shows her to have belonged to a family with strong religious affiliations. Senefru, a vigorous and powerful monarch, administered the country directly through members of the royal family. He achieved this by creating the post of Vizier or Prime Minister which became the inherited right of his oldest son by his ‘Great Royal Wife’. She carried the direct line of royal blood, her son being legitimate heir to the throne. It is not without significance, therefore, that the first Vizier, Prince Kanufer, was also High Priest of Heliopolis.
Young princes, the sons of concubines and of noble families, were educated together and formed early friendships. When they grew up they were favoured for loyalty and given honorary posts. Sometimes a princess might be given as wife to the son of a nobleman. The most important officials in the Egyptian kingdom were bound together by education, friendship and blood.
According to the Egyptian texts of the Old Kingdom there were some twenty provinces (which the Greeks called ‘nomes’) in Upper Egypt and a similar number in Lower Egypt. A governor (‘nomarch’), the First Under the King, was appointed in each by royal decree. As a member of the ruling élite, the governor conducted his life in much the same manner as the aristocracy in the capital but on a smaller scale. He was the judge of the community and had complete control over all agricultural and public works. He supervised the census on cattle, produce and gold. He assessed taxes and controlled the archives where every local transaction, especially those involving land, were recorded. Taxes were assessed on the exact area of land irrigated. Warning of the approaching floods came from observers who manned the nilometers; this gave time for the water to be carefully channelled by means of canals. The governor’s control of water (one of his main titles was Digger of Canals}, levying of taxes and dispensing of justice gave him enormous power.
Though his province was a state within a state he was not granted total freedom. There were officials in a supervisory capacity. Senefru’s son Netjereperef bore the title of Overseer of the Governors in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Provinces of Upper Egypt, and there was undoubtedly similar control in the Delta. A governor might have aspired to even more power and, as in pre-dynastic times (Before ancient Egyptian dynasty) , set about expanding his boundaries, had his influence not been limited. Each province had a local deity which had a limited domain, and local priests allowed no infringement from neighbouring priests on the land of their deity; this also automatically curbed any aspirations of a governor. Though he was the pharaoh’s nominee he had no jurisdiction beyond the borders where the deity of his territory was revered.
Loyal governors were given titles and estates and, as the greatest reward, were assisted by the Egyptian pharaoh in the construction of their tombs on the royal necropolis. Sons of governors were often sent to be raised along with princes and the sons of noblemen in the capital. This was both an honour for the governor and an insurance against disloyalty for the pharaoh who permitted the post to become hereditary.
The administrative duties of a governor converged in the Chief Treasurer, and his judicial duties were organised in six courts under the Chief Justice of the Law; the Vizier was both Chief Treasurer and Chief Justice, and was therefore the link between the provinces and the central government. He was the mainspring of the government machinery, literally responsible for all the works of the king, ‘the eyes and the ears of his sovereign ... as a skipper, ever attentive (to his wants) both night and day’. He attended to every activity in the land, from the official counting of the country’s assets, including arable land and cattle, to the assessment of taxes made on the inventories thus obtained. He was also the High Priest, with two assistants known as Treasurers of Egyptian God. It was at one time thought that each pharaoh had only one Vizier, but evidence has come to light of two, sometimes many, holders of the title in a single reign. The wealth of the country was therefore controlled by a powerful religious body.
The Vizier’s Hall in the palace was the archives of the state. Here the learned scribes with palette and reeds, ink cakes and papyrus rolls, kept full records, especially of taxpayers’ names and the amounts they owed. Cursive writing, known as hieratic, became extensively used, especially for everyday government business. The more difficult hieroglyphic writing was reserved for religious Egyptian texts. Dates were set by such inscriptions as the biennial cattle count: ‘Year of Time 14 of the count of all oxen and small animals’ (ie the 28th year of a king’s reign). Though standard-weight rings of gold and copper were used in some palace transactions, coinage was unknown and taxes were calculated in produce: cattle, poultry, grain, wine and industrial products. These were stored in the granaries and storehouses. In instances of tax evasion officials with staves under their arms would not hesitate to ‘sieze the town rulers for a reckoning’.
The learned scribes also drew up contracts and wills. The latter largely concerned the maintenance of tombs. Theoretically, of course, this was the responsibility of a man’s heirs, but it was forseen that some laxity was to be expected with the passage of time. The testamentary endowments came from private property and in a man’s will (literally ‘order from his living mouth’) he outlined that its income was to be put towards the care of his tomb and the continued supply of food and offerings considered essential for his afterlife. Mortuary priests were paid for these services. Hepzefi, a governor of Assiut, left no less than ten contracts elaborating his desires for the perpetual celebrations and maintenance of his Egyptian tomb. In the case of royalty, the endowments were extremely large. Khafre’s son, Nekure, bequeathed to his heirs a private fortune including fourteen towns and two estates at the royal residence, the entire income of which was for the maintenance of his tomb; and he made the will ‘while he was alive upon his two feet without ailing in any way’.
The fact that no written law has been found in ancient Egypt does not undermine documentary evidence of legal practice. Written briefs were submitted to a governor, who frequently inscribed in his tomb that he ‘judged two partners until they were satisfied’. Among the Egyptian Old Kingdom legal evidence is a document referring to litigation between an heir and an executor. It indicated that under certain circumstances an appeal might be made directly to the central Court. There is one remarkable case of treason in the royal harem which was heard by two provincial judges (governors) in place of the Chief Judge (the Vizier), for an unbiased decision. Some were simple contracts such as the document known as ‘The contract for the sale of a small house’. The most famous legal case was that of the Vizier Kheti, whose name lived on until the New Kingdom as ‘the judge whose case was more than justice’. Kheti was involved in a lawsuit in which members of his own family were party; his judgement was against his own relative in order not to be accused of partiality. An appeal was made, yet Kheti persisted and his second ruling was the same as the first.
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