Taking possession of the soil is the first defining act of a culture. In a society based on agricultural production, like that of Egypt, the countryside is the first and most important means of production. Thus, not only the physical geography of the country but also the legal form of appropriation of land are decisive in all social and cultural features.
In addition to texts focusing on landed property, such as land lists, tax documents, wills, contracts of hire and sale, and donations, there is evidence for the system of landholding within the language itself. Egyptian has many expressions for different classes of land as a result of the people's long practical experience in exploitation of the river-dominated landscape.
The most important term for a unit of arable land is ʒḥ.t, usually rendered ahet. Like other terms for fertile arable land, its etymology does not reflect a special agricultural purpose, but rather the overwhelming importance of water: ʒḥ.t is derived from ḥʒj (“to flow”). ʒḫ.t, another word for “arable land,” comes from wʒḫj (“being inundated”); bʿḥ (“inundated land”) is from the verb bʿḥ (“to inundate”). Other expressions focus on the fertility of the soil as dependent on the changing levels of inundation: thus, qʒj.t, still surviving in Coptic
, is the term for ordinary land of normal agricultural quality, but it literally means “highland,” as opposed to ḫrw (“low level land”). In similar way, in later texts mʒw.t (“new land,” “island”) is presumably related to low level ground no longer submerged by the river beyond the period of inundation; ʒḥ-qj and ʒḥ-mʒw are the Demotic equivalents of γη̑ ἤπειρος and νη̑σος in Greek papyri.
Besides qʒj.t (“normal agricultural land”), some other terms are attested in the New Kingdom for other classes of land. nḫb, presumably “fresh land,” is attested in the land list of the Wilbour Papyrus as the most fertile class of land, providing double the quantity of taxable corn coming from qʒj.t land. Between these two classes is tnj land, furnishing one and one-half the quantity of qʒj.t land. These three terms are presumably restricted to the naturally irrigated lands used for growing cereals. But besides these, Egyptian agriculture recognized land appropriate for the cultivation of vegetables (ḥzp.t?), fruit bearing trees like date palms and sycomore figs (ʿ.t n.t-ḫt, ḫntš), and vines and olive trees (kʒm). These may have been artificially irrigated throughout the year and smaller in extent than the cereal-growing lands.
The growing of flax for textiles is attested early. Cultivation of flax and barley may have taken place on the same fields: Hekanakhte's first letter to his steward Merisu tells us that land previously planted with flax could later have been used for growing cereals.
The word jḥwt/ʿḥwt, attested since the Old Kingdom, is the most important term for taxable lands on behalf of a “land-owning” institution, without any distinction of physical or ecological status. Accordingly, a word derived from jḥwt—jḥwtj—means “farmer,” not in view of his concrete work but of his tax-producing services.
Larger units of such jḥwt-lands existed. The most important of them was the rmnjt-domain, which combined several jḥwt-plots in the possession of the same landowning institution. These plots might be contiguous, but by no means needed to be.
All lands in Egypt in agricultural use were registered in special records kept in the offices of the treasury and the granary, as is attested in the New Kingdom inscription of Mes in Saqqara. In the New Kingdom, great landowning institutions, like the temple of Amun, had their own inventories of their landed property. Thus, the land was divided among many authorities; however, there was a governmental interest in uniting all these lands in one register. The vizier was concerned with all matters of landed property.
Early Dynastic period and Old Kingdom.
As in many economies based on tribal organization, agriculture in predynastic Egypt may have taken place within the narrow bounds of small villages and may have been restricted to subsistence production. Before the large stone monuments from the third dynasty onward could be erected, a profound change must have taken place within a short time, so that traditional agricultural production developed into a centrally managed enterprise with large surpluses. Seals of the first dynasty prove the delivery of revenues from Lower and Upper Egypt. Since the time of King Adj-ib the existence of royal vineyards under the authority of the Lower Egyptian treasury (pr-dšr) is attested. Large estates run by officials came into being, at the latest, by the end of the third dynasty. Meten, an official flourishing at the beginning of the fourth dynasty, was responsible for many such estates in various regions of the Delta. From the biography of Weni, about two hundred years later, we learn that the personnel of these estates had to join military campaigns. Large estates—the basis of wealth in the Old Kingdom—are represented by figures of humans bearing goods in nobles' tombs as part of their funerary endowment.
Although in later times temples administered the domains that supported them, this might not have been true in the Old Kingdom. The funerary temple of King Neferirkare Kakai in Abusir had its own domains. Whereas it depended on deliveries of supplies from the palace, and it may be that the palace took part of the income collected from these domains.
During the second half of the Old Kingdom, beginning with Userkaf, the Palermo Stone reports donations of land made by the king for the benefit of certain gods or their temples. There are donations of 2, 23, 24, 44, or 54 arourae, but in one case, probably a gift to the sun god Re, the enormous quantity of more than 1,704 arourae is reported.
First Intermediate period and Middle Kingdom.
The ḫbsw-fields (“plowlands”), mentioned in the tomb of the nomarch Kheti in Asyut as the object of an irrigation project, played an important role in Middle Kingdom agriculture. Being attached to the wʿrt, the royal administrative departments of the Middle Kingdom, they may have been actual “crown property, administered by officers of the pharaonic government” (Hayes). These fields may have been tilled with the help of compulsory labor. A granary was attached to these fields, and the two formed an economic unit.
In addition, there were the šdw-fields, which are mentioned several times as belonging to smallholders (ndlbar;sw). It is not known if these nḏsw were private owners of their plots, but considering the development of pharaonic land-holding, this seems unlikely. In the eighteenth dynasty these fields are mentioned as the area for apportionment of smallholdings (sʒḥ); the usufruct of plots of five, ten, or in one case thirty-two arourae is given by the king to priests and other officials. Plots of such size are attested in the late New Kingdom as parts of institutional holdings. Nevertheless, in the Middle Kingdom there were smallholders who managed their fields to a certain degree independently, like the ka-priest (ḥm-kʒ) Hekanakhte.
New Kingdom and later.
With the New Kingdom we see the temples appearing not only as owners of land but administering lands independently of the crown. Like the king, the large temples—for instance, that of Amun-Re at Kamak—had their own granaries and treasuries. At first sight this appears to be a bipartition of the land between king and temples, still evident in the terms βασιλικὴ γη̑ and ἰερὰ γη̑ of Hellenistic Egypt. Earlier, scholars believed that the large possessions belonging to the temple of Amun brought about the fall of the New Kingdom, acting as a cancer in the body of the Egyptian state, but no one knows exactly how much of the land the temples actually possessed. The great Harris Papyrus of Ramesses III mentions 1,071,780 arourae (295,007.44 hectares) as the total amount of land in the possession of all the temples of Egypt. This would be equivalent to one-eighth of the arable land of modern Egypt. But it is not clear whether the king included in this figure only that land he himself gave to the temples, or whether he wanted to reconfirm all the temples' landed property.
On the other hand, on examining the entries of text A of the Wilbour Papyrus, one does not get the impression that in the mind of the Egyptians all land should belong to the king. Like the Harris Papyrus, this important land list of the New Kingdom begins its enumeration of the great land-owners of Egypt with the temple of Amun, going on with the temples of Heliopolis and Memphis and the smaller temples. Only after this does it turn to some fields belonging to the reigning king, the most important of them being the “ḫʒ-tʒ-fields of Pharaoh.” And it is specifically these fields that frequently lie within the grounds of the temples, administered by priests. So the king of the New Kingdom does not seem to have been the sole possessor of all land, but he was—alongside the gods—one of the possessors, being godlike himself; and it was he and his officials, especially the vizier, who controlled the land in the name of his divine parents, allotting to them the fertile soil.
What about all the people who were not kings or gods—did some of them hold landed property as private possessors? In the Old Kingdom, the domains represented in the nobles' tombs are part of their funerary endowments, and this resembles more the possession of a god than the private property of a living person. Living persons of the Old Kingdom might have had at their disposal lands and gardens of remarkable size; they even were able to buy and inherit them, as Meten did. But they held these lands in their capacity as officials of the king, and even buying land is no proof of the existence of private property in a society where it was possible to buy high governmental offices together with their income. So, too, great officials in the New Kingdom held large domains only in trust for a land-owning institution like a temple. Therefore, since no living person could be a private owner of land—the king being an owner only in the capacity of godlike person—one could say that the soil of Egypt was the property of the community, as manifested in the form of divine beings.
The terms for “plot of landed property” in the New Kingdom, p(s)št and dnjt, elucidate what the Egyptians thought about property. It is possible to translate the expression for the disputed plot in the litigation of Mes, tʒ psš.t n Nšj, as “the property of Neshy,” but sensu stricto the meaning is “the share of Neshy.” In the mind of an Egyptian, property had the connotation of “share,” being a personal right of usufruct resulting, for example, from assignment by a king. Such assignments could be made to soldiers, to priests, and to other officials, frequently in an amount of three or five arourae (0.827 or 1.378 hectares) or some multiple of these. The Wilbour Papyrus notes such smallholders, who all held their plots not as private property but under the prerogative of a landowning institution.
With the end of the New Kingdom, sales of such smallholdings, called ʒḥwt nmḥww (“fields of the commons”), became frequent. The gods of Kamak—Amun, Mut, and Khonsu—helped by means of mighty oracular utterances to confirm the acquisitions of smallholdings exercised by the great Theban families of priests. From some of these documents one has the impression that the price of land declined within a short time: in year 16 of Siamun, an aroura (no land quality stated) cost 1.1 deben (1 deben being 91 grams) of silver, but by the time of Takelot I the price was 0.1 deben of silver for an aroura of qʒjt-land, and 0.05 deben of silver for an aroura of štʒ-tnj quality. This may have resulted from a large offering of land owing to the high cost of grain production, which made independent farming more and more difficult for these smallholders. Such holdings may have been under the prerogative of a temple that was not affected by the sale. In Demotic and Abnormal Hieratic contracts concerning sales of land, this land belongs to a temple both before and presumably after the sale, the recompense being given for the right to use the land under the authority of the temple.
The same is true of contracts of land leases. The contracts of the twenty-sixth dynasty normally have a duration of one year, and they result in a division of the yield between lessor and lessee in three (sometimes four) parts, the lessor getting one part. The lessor brought in the land only, and the lessee the means of production, such as oxen and seed. The lessor had to pay the dues to the temple, because, just as in the case of sale contracts, the leased land could belong to a temple. Although no contracts of land leases of the New Kingdom are preserved, leases may have been in use then. The word used in the Demotic contracts for “lease,” sḥn, has the meaning “to order, to charge,” and in this authoritative sense the term is attested in the New Kingdom in reference to commanding tenant farmers to cultivate the fields. “You are charged (sḥn) by too many fields,” it is stated in Papyrus Turin A, in regard to the fatal blows afflicting the unfortunate tenant farmer. That the Egyptian tenant farmers regarded “their” fields as a burden and tried to run away from them is attested in a tradition beginning with Middle Kingdom and lasting until Greco-Roman times.
- Baer, Klaus. “The Low Price of Land in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 1 (1962), 25–45. Deals with pharaonic documents that give the price of land and discusses the changing price level in relation to prices of slaves, grain, and cattle, and in relation to the rent of land remaining after taxes.
- Endesfelder, Erika. “Königliches Boden-Eigentum in der Frühzeit.” In Grund und Boden in Altägypten: Untersuchungen zum Rechtsleben im Alten Ägypten, edited by Schafik Allam, pp. 261–274. Tübingen, 1994. Discusses seals and annalistic tablets from the Early Dynastic period presumably containing names of land-administering institutions.
- Eyre, Christopher J. “Feudal Tenure and Absentee Landlords.” In Grund und Boden in Altägypten: Untersuchungen zum Rechtsleben im Alten Ägypten, edited by Schafik Allam, pp. 107–133. Tübingen, 1994.
- Gardiner, Alan H. “The Inscription of Mes: A Contribution to the Study of Egyptian Judicial Procedure.” In Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Altertumskunde Ägyptens, edited by Kurt Sethe, vol. 4, pp. 1–54, 1905. Publication of a text in a New Kingdom tomb in Saqqara concerning a litigation on landed property, cited in this article.
- Gardiner, Alan H. The Wilbour Papyrus. Vol. 1, Plates; vol. 2, Commentary; vol. 3, Translation; vol. 4, Indexes. Compiled by Raymond O. Faulkner. Oxford, 1948. Edition of the most important land list of the New Kingdom, with commentaries on the system of Egyptian landholding in the late New Kingdom as elucidated by the Wilbour Papyrus and related documents.
- Hayes, William C. A Papyrus of the Late Middle Kingdom in the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn, 1955. Publication of a document dealing with fugitive people; pp. 27–29, commentary on the term ḫbsw.
- Helck, Wolfgang. Zur Verwaltung des Mittleren und Neuen Reiches. Probleme der Ägyptologie, 3, 1958. Pages 89–170, essay on the administration of land and of agricultural production from the beginning of the Middle Kingdom to the end of the New Kingdom.
- Hughes, George R. Saite Demotic Land Leases. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 28, 1952. Publication of seven Saite papyri concerned with land leases. The author discusses the form of leasing contracts in Saite times.
- Hugonot, Jean-Claude. Le jardin dans l'Egypte ancienne. Frankfurt am Main, 1989.
- James, Thomas Garnet Henry. The Hekanachte Papers and Other Early Middle Kingdom Documents. Publications of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York, Egyptian Expedition, 19. New York, 1962. Publication of some documents concerning a Middle Kingdom household, providing various information about landholding and agricultural matters.
- Janssen, Jacob J. “Prolegomena to the Study of Egypt's Economic History during the New Kingdom.” In Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 3, 1975. Pages 139–153, discussion of the most important New Kingdom documents relating to agriculture.
- Katary, Sally. Land Tenure in the Ramesside Period. London and New York, 1989. Discussion of the figures of the Wilbour Papyrus based on statistical evaluation.
- Menu, Bernadette. “La notion de propriété privée des biens fonciers dans l'Ancien Empire égyptien”. In Recherches sur l'histoire juridique, économique et sociale de l'ancienne Égypte, edited by B. Menu, pp. 43–73. Paris, 1982.
- Menu, Bernadette. “Le régime juridique des terres en Égypte pharaonique.” In Recherches sur l'histoire juridique, économique et sociale de l'ancienne Égypte, edited by B. Menu, pp. 1–42. Paris, 1982.
- Posener-Kriéger, Paule. “Les Papyrus d'Abousir.” In State and Temple Economy. Orientalia Lovanensia Analecta, 5, pp. 133–151. Leuven, 1979. Contains conclusions on the economic relations between palace and temples, based on the archive of the funerary temple of king Neferirkare Kakai in Abusir.
- Römer, Malte. “Gottes- und Priesterherrschaft in Ägypten am Ende des Neuen Reiches.” In Ägypten und Altes Testament, edited by Manfred Görg, vol. 21, 1994. Deals with landed property in the New Kingdom, the nmḥww and their fields, and the price of land.