The ancient Egyptian system of government

The ancient system of government in the land of the Pharaohs

A discussion of ancient Egyptian government and administrative structures cannot be conducted in the same fashion as discussion about modern governments. This is simply due to the fact that the former lasted over 3000 years, while the latter is in a constant state of flux. Over the course of this long period of time, there are nuances that hinder the presentation of ancient Egyptian administration as a monolithic entity. Although the richness of this topic is inevitably watered down by its simplification, I shall do my best to showcase its complexity in this article.

For a start, it may be said that ancient Egypt was a territorial state, as opposed to a city state. In other words, the ancient Egyptian civilisation had control over a large expanse of land, rather than just one urban settlement with its surrounding rural agricultural areas. The ancient Egyptian civilisation stretched from the Nile Delta in the north to Aswan in the south, covering an area of almost 1000 km in length. This meant that a complex administrative system had to be developed in order to control this vast area. Central authority existed in the person of the pharaoh and his court. The Pharaohs were not only Heads of State but also the highest priests, and were worshipped as gods.  Their power was absolute and they were expected to perform certain duties and govern judicially with harmony, balance, peace and order. Their rule was enforced throughout the land via regional administrative units. Therefore, ancient Egypt was divided into 42 provinces, or nomes.

Pharaoh Depiction - Ancient Egypt

The Pharaoh was the ultimate ruler and his power was absolute. Image source.

To keep the Egyptian society in check, a bureaucratic system, which promoted “a deep satisfaction in devising routines for measuring, inspecting, checking, and thus as far as possible controlling other people’s activities” was developed by those in power. This structure can be seen both at the central and provincial levels of the Egyptian administration. Seen from the perspective of the ancient Egyptians, this structured sense of orderliness was a manifestation of maat (order), as opposed to the chaos that existed beyond the borders of Egypt. While it was the pharaoh, the Vizier (head of government), and provincial governors who headed the central and provincial administrations respectively, it was the scribes that kept the wheels of the Egyptian bureaucracy turning. The high regard that the Egyptians had for these scribes can be seen in a text called the “The Teaching of Khety” or the “Satire of Trades”, in which a father explains to his son the reasons why being a scribe is the best job in Egypt. He does so by comparing the (good) life of the scribe to the (not so good) lives of craftsmen and others. One scribe named Horemheb who was a high government official actually became a pharaoh. In addition to the scribes, there were the various temples and their priests. These institutions had the lands, manpower, resources, and divine authority that made them a force to be reckoned with.

The social hierarchy of ancient Egypt with the Pharaoh at the peak

The social hierarchy of ancient Egypt with the Pharaoh at the peak. Image source.

So, now we have a division of central and provincial authority, a bureaucratic system, an army of scribes to keep this system going, and the temples and their priests, what could possibly go wrong? This is where the story of ancient Egyptian administration gets colourful. Three thousand years of history undoubtedly produced a variety of circumstances that had profound effects on the administration of ancient Egypt, and a few examples will be enough to demonstrate this.

Firstly, there were periods in ancient Egyptian history when the weakening of central authority led to the rise of provincial governors, or nomarchs. One such period was the First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-2055 B.C.). During this period, the weakening power of the late Old Kingdom pharaohs allowed some provincial governors to gain enough power to declare themselves as kinglets. This is evident in the lavish tombs that were built by them in their seats of power. Secondly, there were foreign invasions, especially during the latter part of ancient Egyptian history. In general, the Egyptian administrative structure was preserved by the conquerors, although an additional layer of authority was put in place. For instance, when the Persians conquered Egypt, the native administration was left intact, but a satrap was appointed by the Great King to oversee its administration. This was also done by Alexander the Great when he took control of Egypt from the Persians.

Perhaps the most interesting change that happened to the administration of ancient Egypt took place during the reign of Akhenaten. This was known as the Amarna period, during which the new Egyptian capital, Akhetaten, was built from scratch in the middle of nowhere. This had a great impact on the administrative system, especially with regards to the relationship between the pharaoh and the temples, as Akhenaten chose to abandon the old gods of Egypt, and worship only the Aten. However, these changes were short-lived, as things reverted to the way they were following the death of Akhenaten.

The case of Akhenaten shows that ancient Egyptian administration did not exist in a vacuum, but was intertwined with religion, foreign relations, and the economy. Despite periods of instability and invasion, ancient Egypt could not have achieved such stability and grandeur without the co-operation of all levels of the population.

Featured image: High priests, nobles and officials were central to the administration of ancient Egypt. Image source.

By Ḏḥwty

References

G.Trigger, B., 2003. Understanding Early Civilizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kemp, B. J., 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. 2nd ed. Oxford: Routledge.

Lloyd, A. B., 2000. The Late Period (664-332 BC). In: I. Shaw, ed. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 364-387.

Seidlmayer, S., 2000. The First Intermediate Period (c. 2160-2055 BC). In: I. Shaw, ed. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 108-136.

University College London, 2002. Teaching of Khety – the ‘Satire of Trades’. [Online]
Available at: http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/literature/satiretransl.html
[Accessed 29 March 2014].

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