Justice in Egypt

Papyrus | Public Domain

This week’s task is as follows:

“You have been provided with a translation of a papyrus known as the Slave Sale Papyrus, dating to the early 19th Dynasty translated by Dr Nicky Nielsen. Read the text carefully and provide an overview of the court-case – who is suing whom and why? Who are the main actors? Who are the judges? What does the text tell us about the buying and selling of slaves during the Ramesside Period? How do you think the court case turned out?”

The Slave Sale Papyrus is also known as Pap. Cairo 65739.

The defendant in this case is a women called Iryt-Neferet, who purchased the slave Gem-eni-her-emenetet from the merchant Raia. Irynt-Neferet was the wife of the Overseer of the District Sa-Mut. She is accused of buying the slave with goods that didn’t belong to her, goods belonging to the Bakmut, the accuser.

The two parties in this case are both women and owing to value of the goods and people sold, suggests that this is entirely an elite issue and that the slave trade is pretty much limited to people of high rank. As Gem-eni-her-emenetet was Syrian, this slave-trade is likely to have been linked to the conquest and dominions of the Ramesside Pharaohs and linked to the high-ranking officers involved in those areas.

Two judges were involved in the case, the Chief of the Medjay and the Mayor of Western Thebes. Additionally, there were six other witnesses besides the accuser. Amongst them, members of both parties’ families (Iryt-Neferet’s brother-in-law and the brother of Bakmut), again this suggests that the elite of the city had a large stake in this case.

Rather than thinking about the who the guilty party is, the question should be, why would elite members of society want to bring charges publicly? Allegations of theft and scars from the “100 blows” Iryt-Neferet swears she will take if found guilty will affect the way she (and by association her family) is seen and treated. Ferreira states that the punishment of blows and losing Gem-eni-her-emenet, is part of a formulaic oath, that can be seen in other papyri (2004, 71-72.). I think the damage to reputation and standing in elite circles is key to understanding this case, perhaps Iryt-Nerferet’s husband had lost favour or maybe the use of stolen goods in the transaction was the final straw and led to the court case. I do believe Iryt-Nerferet was guilty, but I think the fact that this case was brought to court is interesting, as it suggests that the elite were unable to resolve this problem without the use of courts, and wished to eviscerate the reputation of Iryt-Nerferet and her family.


Campagno, M. “Judicial Practices, Kinship and the State in The Contendings of Horus and Seth” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 133 (2006), pp. 20-33.

Ferreira, Andriette (2004) The legal rights of the women of ancient Egypt, University of South Africa, Pretoria


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