Ancient Egypt

The Government of Ancient Egypt

The government of Ancient Egypt depended on two important factors; the pharaoh and agriculture. The Pharaoh was a vital part of the the Egyptian government and he appointed the other officials during most periods. The highest officials took their orders directly from the king. Agriculture was the foundation of Egypt's economy and government.

History of Ancient Egypt's Government

Before the Old Kingdom

Scholars have found few government records from before the Old Kingdom Period. Evidence shows that Egypt was a united kingdom with a single ruler, which indicates that the first pharaohs must have set up a form of central government and established an economic system.

Before the Persian Period, the Egyptian economy was a barter system and not monetary. People paid taxes to the government in the form of crops, livestock, jewelry or precious stones. In return, the government maintained peace in the land, saved food in case of famine and conducted public works.

Barter trade system

© Internet Archive Book Images - Barter trade system

The Old Kingdom

Ancient Egypt's government became more centralized during the Old Kingdom. Building large stone pyramids meant the pharaoh had to make changes to the government. Pharaohs from Dynasties Three and Four maintained a strong central government and they had almost absolute power.

Earlier pharaohs created a strong government that allowed them to summon large work forces. They appointed their high officials, and they chose members of their family. These men were loyal to the pharaoh. The government then let the pharaoh gather and distribute enough food to support huge numbers of workers, which allowed them to build large stone pyramids.

The famous pyramids at Giza

© Bruno Girin - The famous pyramids at Giza

During Dynasties Five and Six, the pharaoh's power lessened. Government positions had become hereditary and the district governors, called nomarchs, grew powerful. By the end of the Old Kingdom, nomarchs were ruling their nomes (districts) without the oversight of the pharaoh. When the pharaohs lost control of the nomes, the central government collapsed.


The Intermediate Periods

Modern scholars place three Intermediate Periods into the timeline of Ancient Egypt's history. The Old, Middle and New Kingdoms were each followed by an intermediate periods. All three of these had unique characteristics, but they have two common features. Each represents a time when Egypt was not unified, and there was no centralized government.


The Middle Kingdom

The Old Kingdom's government served as a base for the Middle Kingdom's. The pharaoh made changes, including the addition of more officials. Titles and duties were more specific which limited each official's sphere of influence.

The central government became more involved in the nomes and had more control of individual people and what they paid in taxes. The pharaoh tried to limit the power of the nomarchs. He appointed officials to oversee their activity and he weakened the nomes by making towns the basic unit of the government. The mayors of individual towns became powerful.

The increase in government officials led to the growth of the middle-class bureaucracy.

Officials based taxes on an assessment of cultivable land and the flooding of the Nile. During periods of low flooding, officials reduced taxes, while the government levied a poll tax on each citizen, which they paid in produce or craft goods.

People paid taxes in produce

© Internet Archive Book Images - People paid taxes in produce

The New Kingdom

The pharaohs of the New Kingdom continued to build their government on the foundations of earlier governments. One change they made was a decrease in the land area of nomes and an increase in their number. During this period, the pharaohs created a standing army and created military positions. Before this, the pharaohs formed armies using conscripted people.

The 19th Dynasty saw the beginning of a break-up in the legal system. Before this dynasty, government appointed judges made decisions based on evidence presented to them. During this period, however, people began obtaining verdicts from oracles. Priests read a list of suspects to the state god's image, and the statue indicated the guilty party. This change represented an increase in the priesthood's political power. It was open to corruption.


After the New Kingdom

During the Late Period, the pharaohs reunited Egypt and centralized the government. When Persia conquered Egypt, the new rulers established a monetary economy. The Persian monarchs made Egypt a satrapy, and appointed a governor to rule. The regional administrative system was kept in place. The Greek and Roman Empires later imposed their governmental systems on Egypt, also keeping some aspects of Egypt's regional government.


Bas relief in the Tomb of Amunherkhopshef

© Kairoinfo4u


Ancient Egypt Government Officials

Egypt had many different government officials. Some operated at national level, while others were regional.

The vizier was the most important person after the pharaoh. Each pharaoh appointed his/her vizier, who oversaw the judiciary system and the government administration. The vizier sat in the high court, which handled serious legal cases, often involving capital punishment. Egypt usually had one vizier; sometimes there were two, who oversaw either Upper or Lower Egypt.

Another important position was the chief treasurer. He was responsible for collecting and assessing taxes. The treasurer also monitored the redistribution of the items brought in through taxes. He had other officials under his command, who helped collect taxes and keep tax records.

Some periods also had a general. He was responsible for organizing and training the army. Either the general or the pharaoh led the army into battle. Sometimes, the crown prince served as the general before ascending to the throne.

Overseer was a common title in the Ancient Egyptian government. They managed work sites, like the pyramids, and some also watched over granaries and monitored their contents.

Scribes formed the basis of the Egyptian government. They wrote official documents and could move to higher positions.

Ancient Egypt Government Documents

A lot of the information scholars have about Egypt's government comes from tomb inscriptions. Government officials either built their own tombs or the pharaoh gave them one. Their tombs included inscriptions detailing their titles and some events from their lives. As an example, one official's tomb had a description of a time he greeted a foreign trade embassy for the pharaoh.

Stela of Minnakht, chief of scribes

© Clio20 - Stela of Minnakht, chief of scribes

During the New Kingdom, some pharaohs gave their officials tombs, which helps identify those who served specific pharaohs. They also reveal changes in the government's high officials. Many pharaohs appointed officials from the bureaucracy, and some appointed men who had served in the military.

Scholars have also found law documents, including detailed cases of tomb raiders. They mention the steps the government took to punish them and try to prevent further raiding.

High officials sealed documents detailing property transfers. They maintained control of any property that was brought into a marriage, even if there was a divorce. Both men and women could file for divorce, though it was easier for a man to obtain it. In the event of a divorce, the man had to compensate the woman and the government insured the people followed these rules.

Government in Thebes

Egypt's central government moved when the pharaoh changed his/her capital. The central officials worked out of the royal compound. Thebes served as a government and religious capital for centuries.

When Thebes was Egypt's capital, the mayor of Thebes held a position of power.

© Vyacheslav Argenberg - Thebes

Certain high officials were buried in the Valley of the Kings, yielding a few significant aspects, such as the position they held and whom they served. Moreover, there are mentions of honors granted by the pharaoh, who certainly valued the official, given that he was granted a tomb in the royal cemetery.

The pharaoh sometimes had a funerary temple built for one of his officials in the Theban Necropolis. They also granted favored officials land revenues to provide goods for their funerary cult.

Ancient Egypt Government Facts

  • The pharaoh was the ultimate authority in Ancient Egypt.
  • The vizier was the most powerful government official.
  • Viziers were second only to the pharaoh in power.
  • Egypt was divided into nomes, and a nomarch governed each one.
  • People paid taxes with agriculture produce or precious materials.
  • The government stored food and distributed it to workers or to the people in times of famine.
  • The government ran building projects, like the pyramids.