Egyptian Slavery: Evidence in Egyptian Texts

U36-Z1-A1male slave (hem)

Egyptian literature speaks of hemu” (the plural of “hem,” the Middle Egyptian word for “slave”) being spoils of war and human “products” which were bought and sold in the open market as early as Old Kingdom Egypt. In Old and Middle Kingdom Egyptian culture, hemu were considered to be “chattel” (property of no greater value than livestock) of the gods.[1] Thutmose III reported that he returned to Egypt from a campaign in Canaan with almost 90,000 prisoners (mostly civilians) and manumitted them as slaves (hemu).[2] Amenhotep III reported paying “4 deben and 1 kit of silver” (370g) apiece for 40 slave girls purchased from Canaanite prince Milkilu of Gezer.[3] 

The Biblical figure Yosef was purchased for 20 pieces of silver by Ishaelites who took him down into Egypt during that nation’s 12th Dynasty (19th Century BCE).[4] The above facts support the validity of this Biblical claim. Dr. Rosalie David asserts, “It is apparent that the Asiatics were present in the town in some numbers, and this may have reflected the situation elsewhere in Egypt. It can be stated that these people were loosely classed by Egyptians as ‘Asiatics’….”[5]

The Ipuwer Papyrus is an Egyptian text written by an eyewitness to some sort of “plague” which struck Egypt around 1447 BCE.  Here is the description in English translation:

“Plague is throughout the land, blood is everywhere — the river is blood … and the hail smote every herd of the field … the land is without light and there is a thick darkness throughout the land … the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt — from the firstborn of Pharoah that sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the prison….”[6]

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Notes and references

  1. Yolanda Diaz de Tuesta & Juan Lorenzo Espinel, La Esclavitud en el antiguo Egipto (2005).
  2. “Inscription of Thutmose III,” Sethe Urk (vol. IV), 207.
  3. “Letter from Amenhotep III to Milkilu,” in James B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd ed.; Princeton University Press, 1969).
  4. Genesis 37:26-28.
  5. Rosalie David, The Pyramid Builders of Ancient Egypt: A Modern Investigation of Pharaoh’s Workforce (London: Guild Publishing, 1986), 191.
  6. Galit Dayan (transl.), Ipuwer Papyrus (2010).
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