7 Surprising Facts About Law in Ancient Egypt

Piecing together archaeological clues, historians have made surprising discoveries about law in ancient Egypt.

Apr 7, 2023By Nick Scott, Bachelor of Law (in-progress)

pyramid djoser book dead chantress amun


For ancient civilizations such as Babylon and Sumer, a written legal code provides historians with a clear picture of their respective legal systems and societal values. As no written legal code has been discovered for Ancient Egypt, it is necessary to look for alternative evidence. Extant documents offer information on the legal rules that underpinned everyday transactions. Texts such as the Sebayt also provide information on the relationship between religion and law.


Ancient Egyptian law was based on the principles of Ma’at; a goddess personifying the qualities of truth, balance, order, and justice. A Pharaoh’s role as ruler was to preserve and maintain Ma’at passing and upholding laws to ensure this. In the same way that a country’s law must align with its constitution, laws in ancient Egypt had to comply with the principles of Ma’at. The Vizier of justice was referred to as the Priest of Ma’at, reflecting the central role of these teachings in the legal system. In the Old Kingdom, priests served as judges, although in the Middle Kingdom, professional judges served in courts throughout Egypt. From early examples of written deeds in the Old Kingdom to Bakenranef’s’ rapid legal reforms in the Ptolemaic period, read more below for some surprising facts about the law in Ancient Egypt.


1. Law in Ancient Egypt: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

stela si mut
Stela of Chief of The Official Si-Mut, ca. 1300 BCE, via Princeton University Art Museum


In Ancient Egypt, an individual accused of a crime was considered to be guilty until they could prove their innocence. The principles of Ma’at were considered crucial to providing balance and order in society, and so infractions were punished severely. Although the judicial process changed substantially throughout Ancient Egyptian history, Ma’at and other mythology remained central to the concept of justice. Witnesses also played a central role in Egyptian courts, and lying as a witness was considered a serious offense.


Although jury trials were seen in Ancient Greece from the first Athenian Democracy in 590 BCE, juries never formed a component of legal systems in Ancient Egypt. The closest comparison to jury trials in Ancient Egypt was the Kenbet, councils of elders who judged a wide range of cases relating to small claims and local disputes. More serious cases relating to allegations of crimes such as tomb robbery or murder were referred to a higher court overseen by the Vizier.

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2. Judicial Hierarchy

deir el medina
Excavation Site in Deir El-Medina, 2019, via Uwe Skrzypczak/National Geographic


Egypt had a hierarchical court system. Less serious legal issues would be heard by the Seru, a council of elders sitting as judges in rural areas. A council of elders known as the Kenbet would sit daily in a district’s capital. These hearings covered a wide range of legal matters ranging from property disputes to criminal allegations. Matters that could not be resolved in the Seru would also be referred to the Kenbet. In rare instances, cases were escalated to an imperial court called the Djadjat, which heard cases relating to the most serious or politically charged cases.


judgement ireturu before osiris
The Judgement of Ireturu before Osiris, From Book of the Dead Papyrus of Irtyuru, Anon. ca 332-30 BCE, via the Oriental Institute, The University of Chicago


Pharaohs were the most senior figure in Ancient Egyptian legal hierarchy and appointed a vizier to oversee the practical administration of justice. In The Mind of Egypt, Jan Assman stated, “justice (in Ancient Egypt) refers to a life of harmony with the connective structures that make community possible“. It was seen as the pharaoh’s responsibility to ensure that this harmony was maintained. This meant that in order to maintain Ma’at, pharaohs had supreme power in passing laws, resolving disputes, and appointing officials to carry out this function.


3. Scribes Were Central to Legal Processes

maat egypt deity law
Figurine of Ma’at, circa 664-332 BCE, via Louvre


Although no written legal code has been discovered for Ancient Egypt, it is clear from historical records that scribes were central to legal processes. One of their roles was providing procedural information. Scribes were also tasked with writing wills and other legal contracts. Another important role of scribes in the legal process was documenting trials. One of the most famous cases in Ancient Egyptian history involves the killing of Ramesses III in a failed plot to place Egyptian prince Pentawer on the throne.


As the second pharaoh in the Twentieth Dynasty, Ramesses III presided over Egypt in a time of significant unrest. Amid this unrest, Tiye, one of Ramesses’ wives, and Pebakkamen, a high-ranking court official, led a conspiracy to ascend Pentawer to the throne. Although Ramesses was killed, the conspiracy was discovered, and the following trial was one of the most well-documented in Ancient Egyptian history. The trial is documented in the Judicial Papyrus of Turin. Ramesses IV appointed 15 magistrates to judge the case taking place over five trials and resulted in the execution of 28 people.


4. Gender Equality Laws

book dead chantress amun nauny
Book of the Dead for the Chantress of Amun Nauny, ca. 1050 BCE, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Relative to other legal systems in the ancient world, Egypt’s legal system was notable for its equal treatment of men and women. Women were considered legally equal to men in court and could buy, sell, and bequeath property. This legal equality continued under Greek rule in the Ptolemaic period, however, when Egypt became a Roman province after the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, these laws were abandoned. Comparable laws around equal ownership of property were not seen again until the 19th Century in Europe and America.


This equality was also reflected in marriage laws. Men and women could jointly own property in marriage. Both men and women could initiate a divorce, and although men were required to pay a fine for divorce, women were not required to. If adultery led to divorce, the party at fault was forced to relinquish their share of jointly owned property. Although these laws in Ancient Egypt were relatively progressive compared to other ancient civilizations, societally, there was still a wide gulf in the treatment of men and women in Ancient Egyptian society.


5. The Role of Priests in The Legal System

Votive Stela of Userhat, ca 1327–1295 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Throughout Ancient Egyptian history, priests had the role of judges reflecting the centrality of religion in the legal system. In Egyptian mythology, it was believed that Gods lived within temples. As priests were considered able to communicate with the Gods, this provided the authority to answer legal cases. By the time of the New Kingdom in 1550 BCE, oracles played a significant role in the legal system. A public statue of a God would be carried by priests and would answer a case either by movement or pointing towards an answer on a document. In addition to answering legal cases, oracles were used to provide answers on important state issues such as military plans.


A papyrus documenting a trial from the second century BCE describes three priests acting as judges in a land dispute. Taking place in the Ptolemaic Period, a Ptolemaic state official was also present to oversee the trial. This shows that even after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the previous judicial processes and customs were maintained. As one of the earliest fully-documented trials, this trial outlines the difference between judicial processes in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece. Greece’s jury trials underscored the importance of democratic rule to Athenian society, whereas Egypt’s judicial process reflected a view that priests could access absolute truth.


6. Legal Reforms

hieroglyphs goddess maat
Hieroglyphs Depicting the Name of Ma’at, via Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge


There is evidence of rapid legal reforms under some Pharaohs in Egypt’s history. One controversial now-disputed account records Bakenranef carrying out sweeping land reforms and abolishing debt slavery. The account comes from Diodorus in Ancient Greece and historians have speculated that he invented it to support his ideological positions. The text, by historian Hecateus of Abdera, on which Diodorus based this claim has now been lost.


7. Law in Ancient Egypt: Tomb Robbing Was Commonplace

pyramid djoser photo
The Pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara, Egypt, via BBC


One surprising fact about Ancient Egypt is that by the time of the Early Dynastic Period tomb-robbing was widespread and presented a serious problem for the state. The issue was so prevalent that the internal designs of the pyramid of King Djoser, the first pyramid ever built, included plans to prevent robbery. A confession from a mason named Amenpanufer, recorded in Papyrus Leopold-Amherst, accused of robbing a tomb dated 1110 BCE outlines the systemic nature of this issue in the Middle Kingdom. Amenpanufer describes paying bribes to avoid punishment and continuing to rob tombs.


This confession is also interesting as it shows a lack of concern for Ma’at, the principles that underlined the law in Ancient Egypt. In Egyptian mythology, it was necessary to live in accordance with the principles of Ma’at in order to pass through the Hall of Judgment to the afterlife. Some historians have suggested a causal link between a decrease in religious belief throughout Ancient Egypt and a rise in tomb robbing. This has been challenged, however, as many civilizations see prevalent behaviors that contradict widely held religious views and are instead motivated by more immediate concerns.

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By Nick ScottBachelor of Law (in-progress)Nick Scott is a law student with a specific interest in legal history and comparative law. Alongside studying for a law degree, Nick is a contributing writer and has written for The Times and Politics.co.uk.