Crime in the City

The opportunities for criminal activity provided by the concentration of wealth and property in towns and cities were seized upon wholeheartedly by some ancient Egyptians, just as they have been within all societies. Equally, significant centres of population and administration provided places where justice could be done and punishments meted out. However, the picture we get from ancient Egypt is that the administration of justice was pushed as far down to local level as possible. Villagers were expected to regulate their own affairs, and while appeals could be made to higher courts including – in theory at least – the king, the state did not go out of its way to interfere in the lives of ordinary Egyptians.

The exception to this was when state property itself was concerned. The evidence from Ramesside Thebes – in the ostraca from Deir el-Medina and the records of the ‘Tomb Robbery Papyri’ – shows this pattern. Deir el-Medina villagers dealt with their own disputes, including minor criminal offences. They, and others, only fell foul of the state – in the form of the vizier and his officials – when thefts from royal temples and tombs were involved. In the latter case, the state not only became involved in prosecuting offenders, but in dealing out the severest of punishments.

Judgment and Judges

Justice, as an aspect of maat – the maintenance of cosmic order – was ultimately the responsibility of the king. However, as with other offices that were theoretically a royal responsibility but in practice needed many individuals to be properly dispensed – such as priestly duty in major temples – delegation was necessary. In the first instance, in the New Kingdom at least, that delegation was to the two viziers. The New Kingdom Duties of the Vizier texts specifically refer to this responsibility and how it might be further sub-delegated. Interestingly, the place where vizieral justice is meted out is specifically mentioned: the ‘judgment hall’. It is likely that the judgment hall was not a separate structure used only for this activity, but referred to that part of the vizier’s ‘palace’ where members of the public were admitted with their petitions and supplications or dragged to face justice.

In rural districts, a similar situation was also the case, with justice residing in the hands of local officials. When the Middle Kingdom fictional character Khunanup, the so-called ‘eloquent peasant’ of the Tale named after him, goes to the city of Ninsu (Herakleopolis Magna) to take his legal complaint to the High Steward Rensi, he tracks him down and pesters him in a variety of locations. On the first occasion, Khunanup finds Rensi coming out of the door of his house and about to board his official barge. On a later occasion, Khunanup gives his speech to Rensi at the entrance of the judgment hall. This turns out to be an unsuccessful tactic since Khunanup is ordered to be beaten by functionaries of the judgment hall who have whips for just such a purpose. On another occasion, Khunanup appeals to Rensi as he is coming out of the door of the temple of Herishef (the chief deity of Herakleopolis).

The highest-ranking civil servants could ‘collect’ a series of important offices. Paser, who served under Seti I and Ramesses II, was both Southern Vizier and High Priest of Amun at Karnak, where this statue was found. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Both supplicating petitioners and the criminally accused assumed an appropriately grovelling posture when approaching civil authorities, as illustrated here in the tomb of the Old Kingdom vizier Mereruka. Art Archive/Alamy.

Although this story is fictional, it is likely that it was set against a background that would have been realistic and familiar to the listener. This suggests that although there were places where (criminal?) cases were normally dealt with – the judgment hall – a high official could in fact be petitioned in any of the places he frequented. There were three normal ‘business places’ of a high-ranking provincial official: his ‘house’ (presumably both dwelling and offices), the local temple (for cultic or religious tasks?) and the ‘judgment hall’ (where summary justice in the form of corporal punishment was meted out).

Local Justice

At Deir el-Medina two processes can be seen operating for the generation of a verdict in civil or criminal cases. The first of these was the kenbet, a local court made up of community leaders, who would hear pleas and pass judgment on villagers who were in dispute with each other or who had been reported for a misdemeanour. This court seems to have assembled as and when it was necessary; the physical location for this court, as noted above, was the ‘Enclosure of the Tomb’ at Deir el-Medina. Presumably other kenbet courts met in similar places and to judge similar cases throughout New Kingdom Egypt.

The second process attested at Deir el-Medina was oracular judgment – a public performance, which fused justice with religious performance. The oracle was the image of the god carried in procession. Normally this would be one of the manifestations of the god Amun. The evidence from Deir el-Medina suggests that the oracle could be consulted at a variety of locations, including the forecourt of the temple as the god emerged, at various points along the processional route and in the village itself, possibly including on-the-spot consultations next to the property that was the subject of the original dispute. The means by which the oracle gave its judgment is not clear (on some occasions it was a forward or backwards movement). The kenbet court and the judgment by the oracle should not, however, be considered as two completely separate strands of justice, and appealing the judgment of one before the other was a common occurrence.


Punishments tended to be as immediate as possible. Corporal punishment or a fine was the most usual consequence of a guilty verdict for a relatively minor offence. Incarceration for its own sake was not the norm – this would have been unworkable for village-level punishment, and the Egyptian state had little interest in holding individuals as prisoners in purpose-built facilities. Instead, imprisonment was connected to forced labour, whether in Egypt itself or (in the New Kingdom) in the mines and quarries of Nubia. This form of transportation to work-camps, sometimes combined with brutal physical punishment, was the standard sentence meted out by the Egyptian state to the guilty during the New Kingdom. The sort of punishment that might be expected for a serious offence is neatly summed up in the common oath, ‘If I speak falsehood then let my nose and ears be cut off and let me be transported to Nubia.’

The extent to which the death sentence was applied is disputed. Death by impalement seems to have been the standard mode of capital punishment in the New Kingdom. A Ramesside example of the punishment decreed in the case of someone stealing temple property was that the offender should be ‘placed on top of the wood next to the temple from which he shall have stolen’. It is likely that the sentence was carried out close to the institution from which the property had been stolen, presumably as a dreadful warning to others. There is some debatable evidence that ritual burning of particularly serious criminals – those who had desecrated temples or tombs – may have taken place, particularly from the Late Period, but possibly as early as the Middle Kingdom.

Casual beatings seem to have been an accepted practice when lower-status individuals came up against the authority of the state or its agents. Robert Harding Picture Library/Alamy.

The ‘Great Prison’

One of the most intriguing institutions referred to in relation to punishment is the ‘Great Prison’ at Thebes, whose workings are partly described in Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446. This institution, which came under the direct supervision of the vizier, had a number of functions. Elements of the ‘Great Prison’ included a record-office for the register of those convicted of criminal offences, an area where trials could be held, prison cells for holding prisoners awaiting trial or punishment and the facilities for carrying out those punishments. Additionally it served as a barracks for those sentenced to a labour-based punishment, or for the use of the corvée – a form of forced labour that was a form of taxation rather than a punishment, but one which nonetheless required an element of compulsion.

This hieroglyphic determinative gives a gruesome suggestion of the method by which execution ‘on top of the wood’ was carried out. Joyce Tyldesley.

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