Ancient Egypt was basically a “supply state.” Products for consumption were delivered to state or temple institutions, which in turn distributed food supplies and other goods to the population. Allocation was based on a fair assessment of each person's requirements. People received as much as they needed. Surplus could be traded at local markets, a system which helped fill gaps in the flow of supply.
Trade among regions was always conducted by institutions, which bartered with the surplus from their own production. Merchants worked for these institutions, playing the role of agents in the exchange. Their task was to exchange the surplus of the institution they represented for as many valuable goods as possible. Generally speaking, merchants were therefore not working for their own personal profit. Merchants who worked for their own gain existed in ancient Egypt only during the New Kingdom.
The original and oldest form of trade is market trading in the form of barter. Many Old Kingdom tombs contain paintings that illustrate this type of trade and provide information about trading practices and goods. The images in the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep in Saqqara from the end of the fifth dynasty are especially expressive.
The bartered goods comprised surplus from state allocations, local food products, and homemade objects. The very nature of barter makes it difficult to tell “buyers” from “vendors,” but some distinctions are possible. The suppliers are usually shown in front of their carefully arranged goods, sitting either on the ground or on low stools, while the “purchasers” are shown standing, frequently carrying a shopping bag slung over the shoulder. Bartering was generally carried out by the vendor calling out his goods, to which he referred in direct speech as “my thing”; the buyer responded and described what he was offering in exchange. The exchange was called “trade” (swnt); the act of bartering was described as “giving in substitution” (rdit m isw) or “giving in exchange” (rdit m ḏbʿw).
The goods exchanged at the market were usually basic staples, rarely luxury goods. Bread and beer were the most commonly traded items. Both were produced in most households. The second most frequently traded item was fish, caught in the Nile and in the canals. Because fish had such a short “shelf life,” surplus from a catch had to be sold immediately. Only dried fish could be stored over longer periods. Fresh and dried fish are common commodities in Old Kingdom market scenes, which also show pieces of meat. The meat was probably surplus from the mortuary temples, where priests received meat as payment and then sold any surplus at the market. Vegetables were also very important: onions, leeks, lettuce, and melons traded at the market were both home-grown and surplus from payments received by priests. Again, these goods had to be traded quickly. There are some images of orchard fruit being offered for exchange—sycamore and other figs, and grapes. These were mostly surplus items from state allocations, since private orchards did not exist in the Old Kingdom.
The artifacts offered for exchange included leather or rush sandals, large fans for fanning fires, walking-sticks with ornate knobs, pieces of furniture, and headrests. These homemade objects would not have been made of valuable materials.
Ceramic containers were also brought to market, as were objects made of copper, such as mirrors, fish-hooks, and chisels, as well as salves and oils, which were prepared right at the market. All these goods held a special place in the trade, because raw materials from the king's property were needed to produce them and the vendor would have needed to purchase these in advance. The potential for trade in more valuable goods is illustrated by the trade with linens. The cloth came from state-run weaving workshops and was sold at a fixed price based on a standard of value (šʿt).
As goods were exchanged on the market, prices tended to be determined by supply and demand. Nevertheless, some barter transactions seem to have been subject to fixed “exchange rates.” Two commonly used standards of value were applied to determine the price of goods. One was the ḥḳʒt measure, which developed from cereal farming and was used to determine the amount of goods given in lieu of wages. The other was the šʿt, which stood for an absolute standard of value.
The ḥḳʒt cereal measure is frequently mentioned in the dialogues of Old Kingdom market scenes. The merchant offers his product at a price measured in ḥḳʒt. Because the cereal measure asked for by the merchant is not shown in the hand of the potential buyer, we can assume that this was a fictitious standard of value in small units. This theory is also supported by the fact that the ḥḳʒt measure was used for low values. In the tomb of Ti near Saqqara, the price of a walking-stick or pole is expressed by the vendor as follows: “My friend, see this beautiful stick that is dry. Three ḥḳʒt corn for it!” Similarly, in the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep in Saqqara, we find: “See, these loaves of šmdw bread. There are six (in exchange) for two ḥḳʒt corn!”
Another unit, which comes closer to our notion of money, is the šʿt of the market scenes. The tomb paintings of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep show scenes in which an indeterminate amount of cloth changes hands in exchange for six šʿt. The same standard of value appears in other Old Kingdom texts. The so-called House-purchase Document from Giza uses šʿt to determine the value of cloth and items of furniture: the house costs ten šʿt; in exchange a four-ply cloth is given for three šʿt, a two-ply cloth for three šʿt, and a bed for four šʿt. The same standard of value remained in use until the end of the nineteenth dynasty under the name šnʿt; in the New Kingdom it is subordinated to other standards of value. In the late New Kingdom, one šnʿt is the equivalent of one-twelfth of one “silver deben[?],” as noted by Jaroslav Černý (1953/1954). It is assumed that it was a “coin,” frequently used by the public in the New Kingdom and possibly based on a unit of silver. Unfortunately, the hieroglyphic determinative for šʿt cannot be identified, so we still do not know what kind of object a šʿt may have been.
In a supply economy the market is supervised by state representatives. The market supervisor's task is to control type, volume, and quality of exchange goods and to prevent goods and raw materials that are the property of the state from being diverted from their intended routes to an illegal “black market.” Furthermore, price controls protect customers from being cheated.
However, the market supervisors are difficult to identify in Old Kingdom illustrations of market scenes. They may be represented by the figures shown walking through the market with monkeys or baboons on a leash, or sometimes swinging a scepter. A youthful man walking a baboon is once described as “supervisor” in the dialogue. However, we cannot exclude the possibility that the men seen walking with monkeys and baboons were offering the animals for barter, since baboons and monkeys were popular pets in ancient Egypt. The elders seen sitting on stools are apparently persons of respect and influence. A cloth covers their shoulders, and in the captions they are referred to as the “leaders of craftsmen.” However, it is unlikely that they were market supervisors since they are usually shown to be bartering themselves.
Importance of local markets
The relief scenes give no clues about the location of the markets. It is reasonable to assume, however, that they were conveniently close to road intersections or on riverbanks near harbors. These advantageous sites would have made them into communication centers, where people of many different social classes would come together and enter into dialogue with one another as they bartered in the street. Because strangers from other towns as well as local inhabitants are shown in the market scenes, the markets were probably also important news centers. The sheer number of people who visited a market, also made it a good place for the service sector. Refreshments were sold in inns, and seal-makers and barbers offered their services in the market.
Because of their situation in towns at crossroads or near the river, the marketplaces developed into trade centers which drew people from far away. This is evident in the Story of the Eloquent Peasant from the early Middle Kingdom. The story, which takes place during the Herakleopolitan period (c.2190–2040 BCE) after the Old Kingdom, recounts the fate of an oasis-dweller from the Wadi Natrun who sets out to market in Herakleopolis with a donkey caravan; en route, his donkeys and all his goods—natural products, salt, plants, wood, furs, and birds—are stolen. In the end he initiates a lawsuit to fight the injustice done to him. The arguments of this lawsuit are the core of this literary document.
The international significance of the market town is also evident in the New Kingdom. Its tomb paintings from Thebes show trading ships anchoring near the market of Thebes and trade goods being offered there. One case from the period of Amenhotpe III (1410–1372 BCE), documented by Davies and Faulkner (1947, pl. 8), is evidence that Asian merchants traded on the market in Thebes.
Thus, the market was an important center of local trade at all times. Texts from the Ramessid period indicate that shepherds sold surplus animals from their herds on the local market. Priests bartered with the surplus from the temple offerings which they received as payment. A good example for flourishing local trade is found in the nineteenth dynasty artisans' settlement of Deir el-Medina, where craftsmen manufactured beds, crates, sedan chairs, coffins, wood statues, and other items for tomb furnishings, to offer in exchange for goods they needed for their own use.
The mechanisms of barter trade portrayed in Old Kingdom market scenes also apply to trade between regions, but the latter was rarely effected on a person-to-person level. It was nearly always carried out between institutions. Private merchants, working on their own, are the exception.
An early indicator of interregional trade is contained in the inscription by the district chief Ankhtifi of Moʿalla in Upper Egypt from the First Intermediate Period (c.2190 BCE). Ankhtifi recounts how the good administration of the district under his leadership ensured an abundance of cereal at a time when the rest of Egypt was plagued by starvation. To help his contemporaries, he permitted local trade in which cereal was exchanged for valuable goods which were brought before him: “[The South arrived] with its people, the North came [with] his children. It brought best salve oil in exchange for my Upper Egyptian barley.” More surplus cereal was used for interregional trade and sent south and north on freight ships: “This, my Upper Egyptian barley went upstream to Wawat [Lower Nubia] and downstream to the district of Thinis [Abydos].” The inscription is important because it clearly demonstrates that Ankhtifi sold his cereal on the local and on the interregional markets—that is, he traded.
The cereal was transported on freighters, which were indispensable for interregional trade. Domestic trade in Egypt was carried out almost exclusively on the Nile and depended on ships that navigated this natural traffic route. The ownership of ships was largely a privilege of civil administration and of the temples. Where private individuals are named as shipowners in New Kingdom papyri, they are invariably members of an institution, usually a temple. This was probably also the case in the Old Kingdom, whose private tombs often contain images of cargo ships. Because cargo ships were rarely privately owned, individuals could not readily participate in interregional trade.
The case is similar for transported goods that were not privately owned, but the property of institutions. As trade goods they were sold from institution to institution. The goods for sale, transported by ship, were mostly natural produce and products taken from the surplus of specific sectors in the economy in either civil or temple administrations. The freight lists, preserved in the logbooks, give us an idea of what they comprised. One such logbook is Papyrus Turin 2008±2016 (Janssen 1961); the list of transported goods in this log includes natural products such as oil, wine, cereal, salt, and fish, as well as papyrus products and different types of cloth.
The merchants who traded the surplus on behalf of the different institutions were called šwti. They were employed at the temples or were dependents of individuals who held high office in the temple. During the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, some members of the military administration are named as superiors of these šwti merchants. There is abundant documentation from the late eighteenth dynasty onward that these merchants belonged mostly to temple institutions. An early source from c.1400 BCE identifies a šwti merchant from the Aten temple in Tell el-Amarna. During the Ramessid period, merchants from many other temples are identified: from the temple of Sobek in Crocodilopolis, the temple of Re in Karnak (?), the Ptah temple of Memphis (?), a temple of Sety I, and a Khnum temple in Elephantine.
The šwti merchants were interested in finding new trade sources for their temples and in gaining access to other temples by means of “fixed values,” usually precious metals. The profit was used to buy temple utensils or statues and to finance buildings. It may also have been used for trade with foreign lands to the north, especially Lebanon, from which the much-sought cedar wood was imported.
The profession of the šwti merchant was considered difficult and unrewarding. The merchants were employed by the institutions or dependent on superiors who pocketed the profit as representatives of the institutions. It is therefore a logical development that some šwti merchants would take the step toward independence. A court case is documented about one of these independent merchants (see Gardiner, 1935). The lawsuit proves that independent merchants did exist in ancient Egypt. Thus an “itinerant huckster” (as Gardiner calls him), active in year 15 of Ramesses II's rule (1290 BCE), sold a Syrian woman as a slave in exchange for various objects (cloth, containers, and clothes), with the resulting difficulty that the woman who purchased the slave had to borrow from neighbors and friends to make the payment.
Toward the end of the Ramessid period, merchants played a somewhat disreputable role. Under Ramesses IV merchants took part in the misappropriation of temple cereal (Papyrus Turin 1887 verso, 1,7 ff.). Under Ramesses IX and XI, conditions were even worse. Under Ramesses IX (1139–1120 BCE), fourteen merchants from the Faiyum were implicated in the Theban tomb robberies (Papyrus British Museum 10053: British Museum 10068). A similar event occurred under Ramesses XI (1111–1081 BCE). Court protocols, preserved in Papyrus British Museum 10052 and in Papyrus Mayer A, reveal that the merchants participated in the tomb thefts as purchasers and receivers of stolen goods, for which they paid with food, cereal, and copper.
Little is known about foreign trade in ancient Egypt and about the export of Egyptian goods to neighboring states. Although the many Middle Kingdom statues found in Syria and Palestine are conclusive proof that there was indeed trade in Egyptian cultural objects during the Middle Kingdom, there are very few written records to support the idea. In general, the sources provide no information about the manner and practices of foreign trade even in the New Kingdom. The report of the expedition to the land of Punt under Hatshepsut, from the early New Kingdom (1502–1482 BCE), and the more or less contemporary report of Sennefer about his journey to Byblos, describe trade with foreign lands as if the Egyptians had simply gone to fetch whatever they required, and all they needed to give in return was a simple offering to a local deity. The reality was surely quite different. A good example is in the tale of Wenamun from the Third Intermediate Period. Wenamun was dispatched by his king to buy wood and paid a high price in cloth, parchment, rope, lentils, and dried fish, as well as gold and silver containers (Wenamun 2, 40 ff.).
We have much more information about imported goods. The main countries from which goods were imported were Syria-Palestine, Nubia, Cyprus, and Punt. The imported products were mostly raw materials and products of which the Egyptians themselves had very little or none, as well as luxury goods, which were especially sought in the Egyptian society of the New Kingdom. From Syria and Palestine slaves, horses, cattle, small live-stock, wood, silver, copper, and valuable minerals were imported. Cyprus delivered copper and elephant tusks; from the Aegean came luxury articles such as Minoan and Mycenaean oil containers. The south, especially Nubia, was rich in gold and mineral deposits, stone for statues and temple buildings, and valuable woods—among them ebony—as well as small livestock and cattle, which were imported to Egypt together with other goods from the South. From the land of Punt came myrrh and incense.
Foreign trade with the north was usually handled through Syrian merchants, who controlled most of the foreign trade in Egypt during the New Kingdom. The dominance of Syrian merchants is evident in their many Syrian names, as Helck (1971) has shown. It is also reflected in a special trade lexicon: thus, the expression for “trading” during the New Kingdom becomes “using the language of Syria.” During the Late period foreigners were prohibited from trading in Egypt. The Saite kings of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE forced foreign merchants—at that time mostly Greeks—to cease all direct trade with Egyptians. The trading post of Naukratis was founded specifically for foreign merchants, who had to trade from there directly with the Egyptian state and its trading centers. However, these efforts proved largely unsuccessful; according to Herodotus (II, 39), Greek merchants were once again in evidence across Egypt during the Persian period.
Egypt was far away from all the great international trade routes of the time and had to establish links to them. The caravan route to Palestine followed the “Ways of Horus” across the Isthmus of Qantara to Raphia. It was in use from Egyptian prehistory and corresponds to the “Way of the Land of the Philistines” of the Old Testament (Ex. 13, 17). We know from the polemical treatise in Papyrus Anastasi I that farther north in southern Palestine the route divided into one branch that followed the Mediterranean coast and another that led via Megiddo and Hazor upstream along the Litani River and downstream along the Orontes.
The caravan route to Nubia and to modern Sudan began in Asyut in Middle Egypt. The route, which is still used today, leads from Asyut via the oases of Kharga and Dungul to Tomas. Its ancient course was described in the biographical inscriptions of the tomb of Horkhuf from Aswan in the sixth dynasty (c.2300 BCE).
The Red Sea was reached via a caravan route that led from Coptos in Middle Egypt across the Eastern Desert. The end station lay at the exit of the Wadi Gawasis near a port where raw materials and products from the Sinai and from the land of Punt were unloaded. Punt, far to the south, was reached by sea following the coastline of the Red Sea. In the Late period the Red Sea was also navigable from Memphis via a precursor to the Suez Canal. This canal branched off from the Nile at a point south of the site of modern Cairo and led through the Wadi Tumilat all the way to the straits of Suez.
The sea route into the eastern Mediterranean was of great importance. It began on the Nile at the port of Memphis and led via the Pelusiac branch of the Nile to the large port centers in the eastern Mediterranean, where Egyptian trade could link up with overseas trade. In Ugarit at the mouth of the Orontes River, the Egyptian route crossed the frequently traveled east-west route which led from Cyprus to the southern coast of Asia Minor, as well as to the Aegean.
- Altenmüller, Hartwig. “Markt.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie 3: 1191–1194. Wiesbaden, 1976. Provides a summary of sources on the local market in ancient Egypt.
- Černý, Jaroslav. “Prices and Wages in Egypt in the Ramesside Period.” Cahiers de l'histoire mondiale 1 (1953/1954), 910–914.
- Davies, Norman de G., and R. O. Faulkner. “A Syrian Trading Venture to Egypt.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 33 (1947), 40–46.
- Gardiner, Alan H. “A Lawsuit Arising from the Purchase of Two Slaves.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 21 (1935), 140–146.
- Helck, Wolfgang. “Die Beziehungen Ägyptens zu Vorderasien im 3. und 2. Jahrtausend v. Chr.” Ägyptologische Abhandlungen 5 (1971), 428–431.
- Janssen, Jac J. Two Egyptian Ship's Logs: Papyrus Leiden I 350 Verso and Papyrus Turin 2008+2016. Suppl. Ondheidkundige Mededelingen iut het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden te Leuven 52. Leiden, 1961.
- Liverani, Mario. Prestige and Interest. International Relations in the Near East ca. 1600–1100 B.C. History of the Ancient Near East Studies, 1. Padua, 1990. A study devoted to gifts, commerce, and the ideological basis of international connections during the New Kingdom.
- Römer, Malte. Der Handel und die Kaufleute im Alten Ägypten. Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 19. Hamburg, 1992. Contains a well-researched analysis of trade in ancient Egypt and on the merchants connected with trade, pp. 257–284.
Hartwig Altenmüller; Translated from German by Elizabeth Schwaiger