Land reform in ancient Egypt

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Land ownership in ancient Egypt cycled between private, monarch and feudal. A strong king could take advantage of harsh situations such as famine, buy lands from private owners and make them a property of the crown. A weaker king would have to buy services from strong lords by giving them gifts of land. Pirenne distinguishes three such cycles:

  • Cycle 1 contains the Old Kingdom of Egypt. It started in ancient times with nomadic clans settling down (4th millennium BC), continued with king Menes claiming to be the divine owner of all lands (c. 3000 BC) and ended with Pepi II and his weak successors who enabled the rise of feudal lords (c. 2200 BC).
  • Cycle 2 contains the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (c. 2133 BC), the Hyksos occupation and the New Kingdom of Egypt (c. 1567 BC).
  • Cycle 3 contains the occupation of Egypt by the Persia (525 BC), Greek (332 BC; the Ptolemies) and Rome (30 BC).

Two land reforms are documented: one involving land concentration and the other attempting land re-division.

Joseph's reform[edit]

In the middle of Cycle 2, at about 1500 BC, shortly after the beginning of the New Kingdom, a land-concentration reform was carried out by Joseph the vizier of the pharaoh:

13 And there is no bread over the whole Earth, because the famine is very heavy; and the Land of Egypt and the land of Canaan shrank from the face of the hunger. 14 And Joseph accumulated all the money which is found in the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan, selling grain that they are purchasing, and Joseph brought the money to the house of Pharaoh. 15 And when the money from the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan was gone, all Egypt came to Joseph to say: "Give us bread, and why should we die facing you: because we ran out of money." 16 And Joseph said: "Bring your herds, and I will give to you for your herds-- if your money is gone." 17 And they brought their herds to Joseph, and Joseph gave them bread on their horses and the herds of sheep and the herds of cattle, and the donkeys; and dealt them bread for all their cattle, in that year. 18 And that year ended, and they came to him the second year and they said to him: "We will not keep from our lord that the money is finished, and the herds of beasts all to our lord, nothing is left before our lord, other than our expiring bodies and our lands. 19 Why shall we die in your presence, us and our lands buy, buy us and our lands, for bread; and we and our lands will be servants for Pharaoh and give seed and we will live and not die, the land will not be emptied." 20 And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, because the Egyptians sold each man his field, because the hunger is clenched upon them tight, and the land became Pharaoh's. 21 And the people, he moved to cities, from one end of Egypt until the other. 22 Only the land of the priests did he not buy. Because the priests had a share besides Pharaoh's. And they at the share which Pharaoh had given them, and for this reason they did not sell their lands. 23 And Joseph said to the people, "Since I have bought you and your lands today for Pharaoh, here is seed for you, and seed the land. 24 And it will be reaping season, and you will give a fifth to Pharaoh; and four hand-measures will you get for seeding the land and for eating, and to give to your households and your tots." 25 and they said, "You have saved our lives: we will be good in the eyes of your lord, and we will be servants to Pharaoh. 26 And Joseph made it a law until this very day, the land of Egypt belongs to Pharaoh, to remove the fifth part--- only the land of the priests does not belong to Pharaoh."
(Genesis 47:13-26, Wikisource version).

The farmers of Egypt could not stand a long famine. Joseph suggested to help them, but in return, he bought all their lands.


Egyptian farmers turned from free workers to serfs of pharaoh. They had to pay 20% of their income as a tax to pharaoh.

Bakenranef's reform[edit]

In the middle of Cycle 3, at about 720 BC, near the end of the New Kingdom, a land-division reform was attempted by king Bakenranef (Bocchoris). After capturing the reign in Sais, he initiated the following reforms:

  • Freed peasants working upon the great domains;
  • Made lands alienable and mortgageable;
  • Annulled debts;
  • Regulated interest rates;
  • Ended corporal punishment;
  • Publicized contract codes;
  • Brought real and personal property under the same laws.


Feudal lords and clergy combined to overthrow Bakenranef. He was burned alive, and his reforms were undone.


  • Powelson, John (1987). The Story of Land - [A World History of Land Tenure and Agrarian Reform]. Cambridge, MA, USA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. pp. 15–19. ISBN 978-0899462189.
  • Pirenne, Jacques (1937). Histoire de la civilisation de l'Égypt ancienne. La Baconnière.