Ancient Egyptian Government and Bureaucracy
By Marie Parsons
The impressive funerary monuments erected by the early rulers were surrounded since the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period by the tombs of their families and followers. In the Old Kingdom, all key administrative posts were held by members of the royal family. At their deaths, beautiful carved and painted mastabas were constructed for them in the cemeteries of Giza and Saqqara.
In theory the king was the only landholder, the only priest, the only judge and the only warrior, in ancient Egypt. In practice, he surrounded himself with ministers and officials who worked under the supervision of the vizier. Kings shown on palettes and maceheads, and on tomb paintings and reliefs, are always depicted attended by servants and courtiers.
An individual designated as tjt was depicted on both the Narmer Palette and Narmer macehead, standing and walking in front of the king carrying what appears to be an item of royal regalia. This may have been the precursor of the later tjaty, or vizier. (see below)
The sign of a cylinder or rectangular seal suspended on a cord was the earliest hieroglyphic sign used for the title "Keeper of the Royal Seal." One of the earliest men who held this title was Hemaka, who served King Den in the 1st Dynasty. His Saqqara tomb rivals that of the king himself, and the finds from the tomb comprise the largest single collection of material from the period, including the earliest example of papyrus (albeit the scroll was unused). Hemaka also claimed the title of "Ruling in the Kings heart."
The earliest attested title connected with the treasury is an official of the white house, heri per-hedj, early in the reign of King Den. In the 3rd Dynasty, the official was the overseer, or imy-ra per-hedj, a title borne by Nefer, Meri, and Pehernefer, who also held three other titles connected with the treasury, and was overseer of the granaries. The White House and the Red house, per-hedj and per-desher, functioned as the state treasury, and the produce received was used to pay officials, craftsmen, retainers, and perhaps also as donations to local temples and funerary cult complexes.
The title of imy-ra, or overseer, was used by every senior or middle-ranking official in every level of the administration. One such title was "Overseer of the Double House of Silver," that is, the Treasurer of all Egypt. The Royal Steward was actually the "Overseer of the Kings House."
Those officials whose duties put them in closest contact with the king claimed to be "Known to the King," often translated as Royal Acquaintance. Both men and women proudly held by both men and women.
By the reign of Sneferu, first king of the great pyramid age in the 4th dynasty, Egypt was in a rising tide of prosperity. Constructional techniques in building pyramids were increasing rapidly, and statuary and relief production soared. This was all made possible by strong centralized control over sources of raw material and labor, through the office of the vizier.
In order to more efficiently run the nation, some responsibilities had to be decentralized, placing authority in the hands of local nobles and governors. Some were too tempted by the thought of holding power, and began to break away from the royal government at Memphis up in the Delta. Others, like Qar, who served in the 6th Dynasty under King Merenra, recalled that he "sailed upstream to the nome of Edfu as sole companion, nomarch, overseer of Upper Egyptian barley and overseer of prophets, because I was capable and appreciated in the esteem of his Majesty. I came to be accorded the office of lord of every leader of all Upper EgyptI gave bread to the hungry and clothing to the one who went naked in this nomeIt was I who buried every name in this nome who had no heir, with linen drawn from my own property." Qar was later deified and a cult for him grew.
After the First Intermediate Period, authority was not given to important regional families, but capable members of the middle class were appointed to offices, creating a devoted class of civil servants. The capital was also moved away from the Delta, to Lisht, in Middle Egypt.
The autobiographical text of Vizier Ankhu of the 13th Dynasty refers to other family members who served as vizier, and indicates that the office was passed from father to son. During the 5th Dynasty through to the end of the Second Intermediate Period, there were two viziers, one residing at Memphis, the other in several different cities, until he finally settled in Thebes. At least two women held that title, one during the fifth dynasty, though this may have been merely an honorific title, as it was given to the kings mother and the other during the 26th Dynasty.
The key areas of administration were the Treasury, the Department of Agriculture, the Ministry of Works, the judiciary and the army. The most prestigious title, the chief advisor and administrator of the king, was the tjaty, the vizier or prime minister. Certainly the position of tjaty or vizier was in existence by the beginning of the 3rd Dynasty, the start of the Old Kingdom. The earliest-known holder of the title was a man named Menka, mentioned on a number of ink inscriptions on a stone vessel, found beneath the Step Pyramid of Djoser Netjerikhet. These inscriptions may actually date to the 2nd Dynasty. Imhotep held the title of vizier under King Djoser.
Almost every tjaty of the 4th Dynasty was also Overseer of Works for the royal monuments, and the holder had access to and control over vast manpower and material resources. The vizier carried two other titles, high priest of Heliopolis and master of works. Sneferus oldest son Kanufer was the first recorded holder of this post.
Little is known until the Middle Kingdom about the responsibilities of the vizier. By that time, the authority and degree of power were only second to the king, and sometimes perhaps rivaled the kings authority. Some viziers served a succession of kings. The clearest information about the duties of the vizier come from New Kingdom Theban tombs, specifically from the tomb of Rekhmire, who served in the 18th Dynasty. He refers to himself as "second to the king," "Heart of the lord," and "eyes and ears of the sovereign." More specifically, these texts relate that the vizier was responsible for civil order, the assessment and collection of taxes, the maintenance of archives, and the organization of their retrieval for consultation, the mobilization of troops, appointment and supervision of officials, examination of land claims, inspection and surveillance of provincial governments, monitoring of the inundation and other natural phenomena, and the exercise of the law over civil cases. Some viziers also served as mayor of their city.
Viziers were responsible for the registration of people and property for tax purposes. They supervised and recorded various transactions, especially those involving land, and as "seal-bearers of the king," had the authority to certify them. The viziers also supervised the biennial census of raw materials, cattle, and produce.
At the Installation of the Vizier ceremony, known from the text known as the Duties of the Vizier on the walls of the tomb of the vizier Rekhmire, the king made a grand speech asking him to exercise justice and to resolve the difficulties that happen at every turn: "Assume the office of vizier, attend to everything that is done in its name; for it is the support of the whole land. Indeed, the vizierate is not sweet; it is bitter as bile."
The elite ruling class was called paat, and the rest of the people were called rekhyt. At first all high officials were royal relatives, especially princes, sons of the king. Much of the evidence detailing the administration comes from inscriptions on vessels and seal-impressions. A census of the country took place every other year, called the "following of Horus," wherein the king would supervise gathering of tribute. The treasurer of the king of Lower Egypt, or sedjauty bity, was in charge, and the biennual census eventually turned into more or less regular dispatches of produce to the royal palace.
At the local level, Egypts government was composed of a series of administrative districts called sepat, known by the Greek term, nome. According to the Abusir Archives, Egypt was divided into 42 nomes (provinces), Upper Egypt at 22 early on, the Delta only reaching its 20 in the first millennium BC.
The nomarch, or governor, the chief of the provincial administration, was originally a royal appointee or member of the royal family. He also bore titles such as judge and overseer of priests. By the 6th dynasty, it is evident that nomes were grouped administratively into larger units, and an overseer interacted with the respective nomarchs.
Nomarchs were given titles and estates, and as the greatest Old Kingdom reward, some were granted the right to build their own tomb in the royal necropolis. The power of individual nomarchs is most evident during the First Intermediate Period, when the post became hereditary and led to the establishment of semi-autonomous fiefdoms. Middle Kingdom kings compete with the nomarchs for power, and by the reign of Senusret III, c 1848-1841 BC, the post of nomarch was abolished. Egypt was then divided into three departments, that controlled the north, the south, and the "head of the south," that is, Elephantine and the Nubian border. After the Middle Kingdom, this system was replaced by the traditional division of Upper and Lower Egypt, each land overseen by a vizier. During the reign of Amenhotep I, the department of Nubian affairs was added, overseen by the "kings son of Kush."
The most prominent feature of the administrative system was the archives. Everything was recorded, wills, title deeds, census lists, conscription lists, orders, memos, tax lists, letters, journals, inventories, regulations, and trial transcripts.
The officials of every administration were very proud of their position in the hierarchy and they proclaimed their offices by prefixing their personal names with strings of titles. The titles themselves may have begun as agricultural roles, but were adopted as administrative titles.
Tjeji, the Seal-bearer who served Intef II and II in the First Intermediate Period, left this account of his work: "I was one loved by his lord, praised by him every day. I spent many hours in the service of my lordhe made me great, he advanced my rank, he took me into his confidence in his private residenceThe treasure was in my hand, under my seal, being the best of everything brought to his Majesty from all EgyptI accounted for everything to my Lord without ever having fault found with my administration, so great was my competence."
Not all high-ranking officials came directly from the noble class. One could work up through some ranks. Ptahhotep in his maxims stated that, "If you are poor, serve a worthy man that all your conduct may put you in good steadDo not recall if he too once was poor, do not be arrogant towards him for knowing his former state; respect him for what he has achieved by his own efforts for wealth does not come by itself"
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- Egypt and the Egyptians by Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter
- The Ancient Egyptians Life in the Old Kingdom by Jill Kamil
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.