Slavery in ancient Egypt

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Slave market, with Nubian slaves waiting to be sold

Slavery in ancient Egypt existed at least since the New Kingdom (1550–1175 BC). Discussions of slavery in Pharaonic Egypt are complicated by terminology used by the Egyptians to refer to different classes of servitude over the course of dynastic history. Interpretation of the textual evidence of classes of slaves in ancient Egypt has been difficult to differentiate by word usage alone.[1] There were three types of enslavement in Ancient Egypt: chattel slavery, bonded labor, and forced labor.[2][3][4] But even these types of slavery are susceptible to individual interpretation based on evidence and research. Egypt's labor culture is represented by many men and women, and it is difficult to claim their social status into one category.

The word "slave" or even the existence therefore, has been translated from Egyptian language into modern terms with consideration of the time period and traditional labor laws. The distinction between servant, peasant, and slave describe different roles in different contexts. Egyptian texts refer to words 'bAk' and 'Hm' that mean laborer or servant. Some Egyptian language refer to slave-like people as 'sqrw-anx', meaning “bound for life”[5] Forms of forced labor and servitude are seen throughout all of ancient Egypt even though it wasn’t specifically declared as the well known term we have today, slavery. Egyptians wanted dominion over their kingdoms and would alter political and social ideas to benefit their economic state. The existence of slavery not only was profitable for ancient Egypt, but made it easier to keep power and stability of the Kingdoms.[5][6]

Chattel slavery[edit]

The Chattel slaves were mostly captives of war and were brought over to different cities and countries to be sold as slaves. All captives, including civilians not a part of the military forces, become a royal resource. The pharaoh would then resettle the captives by moving them into colonies for labour, giving them to temples, giving them as rewards to deserving individuals, and giving them to his soldiers as loot. Some chattel slaves began as free people who were found guilty of committing illicit acts and were forced to give up their freedom. Other chattel slaves were born into the life from a slave mother.[7]

Bonded laborers[edit]

Ancient Egyptians were able to sell themselves and children into slavery in a form of bonded labor. Self-sale into servitude was not always a choice made by the individuals’ free will, but rather a result of individuals who were unable to pay off their debts.[8] The creditor would wipe the debt by acquiring the individual who was in debt as a slave, along with his children and wife. The debtor would also have to give up all that was owned. Peasants were also able to sell themselves into slavery for food or shelter.[3][4]

Some slaves were bought in slave markets near the Asiatic area and then bonded as war prisoners. Not all were from foreign areas outside of Egypt but it was popular for slaves to be found and collected abroad. This act of slavery grew Egypt’s military status and strength. Bonded laborers dreamed of emancipation but never knew if it was ever achievable. Slaves foreign to Egypt had possibilities of return to homelands but those brought from Nubia and Libya were forced to stay in the boundaries of Egypt.[9][10]

The term "Shabti"[edit]

One type of slavery in ancient Egypt granted captives the promise of an afterlife. Ushabtis were funerary figures buried with deceased Egyptians. Historians have concluded these figures represent an ideology of earthly persons' loyalty and bond to a master. Evidence of ushabtis shows great relevance to a slavery-type system. The captives were promised to be granted an afterlife in the beyond if they obeyed a master and served as a laborer. The origin of this type of slavery is difficult to pinpoint but some say the slaves were willing to be held captive in return for entrance into Egypt. Entrance into Egypt could also be perceived as given "life". Willingness of enslavement is known as self-sale.[6] Others suggest that shabtis were held captive because they were foreigners.[6] The full extent of the origins of shabtis are unclear but historians do recognize that women were paid or compensated in some way for their labor, while men were not. However payment could come in many forms. Although men did not receive monetary wages, shabtis were promised life in the netherworld and that promise could be perceived as payment for them.[10] So Shabtis are associated with bonded labor but historians speculate some sort of choice for the Shabtis.

In the slave market, bonded laborers were commonly sold with a 'slave yoke' or a 'taming stick' to show that the slave was troublesome.[11] This specific type of weaponry to torture the slave has many local names in Egyptian documents but the preferred term is called 'shebya'. There are other forms of restraint used in Ancient Egypt slave markets more common than the shebya, like ropes and cords.

Forced labor[edit]

Several departments in the Ancient Egyptian government were able to draft workers from the general population to work for the state with a corvée labor system. The laborers were conscripted for projects such as military expeditions, mining and quarrying, and construction projects for the state. These slaves were paid a wage, depending on their skill level and social status for their work. Conscripted workers were not owned by individuals, like other slaves, but rather required to perform labor as a duty to the state. Conscripted labor was a form of taxation by government officials and usually happened at the local level when high officials called upon small village leaders.[7][12]


Masters of Ancient Egypt were under obligations when owning slaves. Masters were allowed to utilize the abilities of their slaves by employing them in different manners including domestic services (cooks, maids, brewers, nannies, etc.) and labor services (gardeners, stable hands, field hands, etc.). Masters also had the right to make the slave learn a trade or craft to make the slave more valuable. Masters were forbidden to force child slaves to harsh physical labor.[7]


Ancient Egypt was a peasant-based economy and it was not until the Greco-Roman period that slavery became a greater impact. Slave dealing in Ancient Egypt was done through private dealers and not through a public market. The transaction had to be performed before a local council or officials with a document containing clauses that were used in other valuable sales. However Pharaohs were able to bypass this, and possessed the power to give slaves to any he/she saw fit, usually being a vizier or noble.[7][12]

Slave life[edit]

Many slaves who worked for temple estates lived under punitive conditions, but on average the Ancient Egyptian slave led a life similar to a serf. They were capable of negotiating transactions and owning personal property. Chattel and debt slaves were given food but probably not given wages.

There is a consensus among Egyptologists that the Great Pyramids were not built by slaves. Rather, it was farmers who built the pyramids during flooding, when they could not work in their lands.[13][14]

Egyptian slaves, specifically during the New Kingdom era, originated from foreign lands. The slaves themselves were seen as an accomplishment to Egyptian kings’ reign, and a sign of power. Slaves or b3k were seen as property or a commodity to be bought and sold. Their human qualities were disregarded and were merely seen as a property to be used for a master’s labor. Unlike the more modern term, “serf”, Egyptian slaves were not tied to land; the owner(s) could use the slave for various occupational purposes. The slaves could serve towards the productivity of the region and community. Slaves were generally men, but women and families could be forced into the owner’s household service.[5]

The fluidity of a slave’s occupation does not translate to “freedom”. It is difficult to use the word ‘free’ as a term to describe slave’s political or social independence due to the lack of sources and material from this ancient time period.[9] Much of the research conducted on Egyptian enslavement has focused on the issue of payment to slaves. Masters did not commonly pay their slaves a regular wage for their service or loyalty. The slaves worked so that they could either enter Egypt and hope for a better life, receive compensation of living quarters and food, or be granted admittance to work in the afterlife.[10] Although slaves were not “free” or rightfully independent, slaves in the New Kingdom were able to leave their master if they had a “justifiable grievance”. Historians have read documents about situations where this could be a possibility but it is still uncertain if independence from slavery was attainable.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shaw, G. J. 2012. Slavery, Pharaonic Egypt. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History.
  2. ^ David, Rosalie (1 April 1998). The Ancient Egyptians (Beliefs & Practices). Sussex Academic Press. p. 91.
  3. ^ a b Everett, Susanne (24 October 2011). History of Slavery. Chartwell Books. pp. 10–11.
  4. ^ a b Dunn, Jimmy (24 October 2011). "Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Egypt". Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d Loprieno, Antonio (2012-11-21). "Slavery and Servitude". 1 (1). Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ a b c Silver, Morris (2009). "What Makes Shabti Slave?". Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. 52 (4/5): 4–8. JSTOR 25651197.
  7. ^ a b c d The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press. 2001. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195102345.001.0001. ISBN 9780195102345.
  8. ^ "Ancient Egypt: Slavery, its causes and practice". Retrieved 2018-03-04.
  9. ^ a b Cruz-Uribe, Eugene. "Slavery in Egypt during the Saite and Persian Periods". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. ^ a b c Warburton, David (2007). "Work and Compensation in Ancient Egypt". The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 93: 1–5. JSTOR 40345836.
  11. ^ Aldred, Cyril (1977). "The Shebya in Ancient Egypt". The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 63: 176–177. doi:10.1177/030751337706300130. JSTOR 3856322.
  12. ^ a b Cooney, Kathlyn (2007). The Egyptian World. New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 160–174.
  13. ^ Watterson, Barbara (1997). The Egyptians. Blackwell.
  14. ^ "Egypt: New Find Shows Slaves Didn't Build Pyramids". US News. January 12, 2010. Retrieved April 9, 2016.