(To accompany The Egyptian Economy and Non-royal Women: Their Status in Public Life, by William Ward)

The translation of Egyptian economic and legal documents is far more difficult than that of literary and historical texts. We never know the full context in which a financial or legal transaction took place so that statements that were quite clear to those involved are frequently obscure to us. Legal documents, for example, are recorded only as summaries of trials, void of all those details we need to know to interpret them correctly. Oracle documents are equally as vague in that what we have are the statements to the oracle with little by way of background to understand what the statement means. Wills are of the same nature and we often do not grasp the significance of this or that legacy.

In other words, the context to such documents is missing, or only barely described. Much of this context can be filled in by placing a given document within the general frameword of law and the economic system, but there is always something that must be surmised. One of the hazards of translation, therefore, is that different translators may see a document in different ways.

The notes are extensive at times in order to fill in some of the contextual background to a given document. One of the primary problems we face is the language itself. Unlike in Egyptian medicine where there existed a medical as well as popular vocabulary for parts of the body, there is really no legal or financial vocabulary as such. Rather, ordinary words were used in such documents with specialized meanings. For example, the sense “to buy (something)” is usually expressed by the verbs “to bring” or “to receive.” This is logical when one “brings” or “receives” an item in exchange for another in a system of buying and selling through barter. Not all the legal and economic vocabulary is so easily explained.

In the translations that follow:

  • words within parentheses are not in the original text, but have been added to help explain the sense
  • [……..] indicates a lacuna in the text
  • words within brackets are now lost but presumed to have been there in the original


Will of Prince Nikaure, son of King Khafre (ca. 2600 B.C.)

Giza Mastaba 87 (Lepsius)

Year of the 12th Counting of [all] large and small animals [of Upper and Lower Egypt].[1]

Prince Nikaure […..] makes [this deposition], he being alive on his feet and not being sick.

Given to the King’s Acquaintance[2] (his wife) Kaen-nebty: in the […..] Nome[3] (the estate 

named) “Khafre[…..].”[4]

His son: the King’s Acquaintance Nikaure, in the Northern Nome (the estate named) “

Khafre […..].”

His daughter. the King’s Acquaintance Hetepheres, in the Eastern Nome (the estate named) 

“Khafre […..]” and in the Northeast Nome (the estate named) “Khafre […..].”

[His daughter], the King’s Acquaintance Kaen-nebty the Younger,[5] in the […..]Nome, (the 

estate named) “Great is the Power of Khafre,” and in the Dolphin Nome, (the estate named) 

“Khafre […..].

His beloved wife, the King’s Acquaintance Kaen-nebty, in the Viper Nome, (the estate 

named) “Khafre is Goodly,” and in the Pomegranate-tree Nome, (the estate named) “Khafre […..].

The tomb for his daughter in the pyramid-cemetery of (King) Khafre.[6]


The Wills of Two Brothers and the Inheritance of One Brother’s Wife

Pap. Kahun I, 1 (ca. 1900 B.C.)

First Will

Copy of the will made by the Trustworthy Sealer of the Controller of Works Ankh-renef.[7]

Year 44, Month 2 of the Summer Season, day 13. Will made by the Trustworthy Sealer of the Controller of Works Ihy-seneb, nick-named Ankh-renef, son of Shepsut,[8]of the Northern District.[9]

All my possessions in field and town shall belong to my brother, the Priest in Charge of the Duty-shifts (of priests) of (the god) Sopdu, Lord of the East, Ihy-seneb, nick-named Wah, son of Shepsut. All my dependants shall belong to my brother.

A copy of these matters has been give to the Bureau of the Second Recorder of the South in Year 44, Month 2 of the Summer Season, day 13.[10]

Second Will[11]

Year 2, Month 2 of the Inundation Season, day 18. Will made by the Priest in Charge of the Duty-shifts (of priests) of (the god) Sopdu, Lord of the East, Wah.[12]

I am making a will for my wife, a lady of the town of Gesiabet, Sheftu, nick-named Teti,[13] daughter of Sit-Sopdu, concerning all the property that my brother Ankh-renef, the Trustworthy Sealer of the Controller of Works, gave to me along with all the goods belonging to his estate that he gave to me.[14] She may give these things as she pleases to any children of mine she may bear.[15]

I also give to her the four Canaanites that my brother Ankh-renef, the Trustworthy Sealer of Works, gave to me. She may give (them) as she please to her children.[16]

As for my tomb, I shall be buried in it with my wife without anyone interfering therewith. As for the house that my brother Ankh-renef, the Trustworthy Sealer, built for me, my wife shall live therein and shall not be evicted from it by anyone.[17]

The Deputy Gebu shall act as the guardian for my son.[18]


Dispute over Property between a Mother and Daughter[19]

Ost. Berlin P.10629

Help me, my lord! My mother has caused quarreling with my brothers, saying: “I gave you two shares of copper,” though it was really my father who gave me a copper bowl, a copper razor, and two copper jars.[20] It was the Scribe Pentaweret who gave them to me.[21] But she has taken them and bought a mirror. May my (lord) establish a price in deben for them.[22]

My father also gave me 5 sacks of emmer and 2 sacks of barley. They belong to my husband for a period of 7 years, but he has only received 4 sacks.[23]

“There is one man and one woman; take 2 shares.” Thus my mother said to me.[24]


Marriage Agreement between a Bridegroom and his Father-in-law

Ost. Bodleian Library 253

Year 23, Month 1 of the Planting Season, day 5. This day, Telmontu declared to the Chief Workman Khonsu and the Scribe Amon-nakht, son of Ipui:[25] “Cause Nakhemmut to swear an Oath of the Lord to the effect that he will not depart from my daughter.”

The Oath of the Lord which he swore: “As Amon lives, as the Ruler lives, if I should turn away to leave the daughter of Telmontu at any time,[26] I will receive a hundred blows and be deprived of all profits that I have made with her.[27]

The Chief Workman Khonsu, the Scribe Amon-nakht, Neferhor, Khaemnun.[28]


A Wife Wins a Dispute over Her Inheritance

Ost. Deir el-Medineh 235

Year 1, Month 2 of the Summer Season, last day. On this day, the Citizeness Isis complained against the Workman Khaemipet, the Workman Khaemwast, and the Workman Amon-nakht, saying:[29] “Let be given to me the property[30] of Panakht my husband.” Inquiry was made with regard to the opinion of members of the court and they said: “The woman is right.” So she was given the property of her husband; in other words, she was taken for him.[31]


A Woman Charges her Husband with Wife Abuse

Ost. Nash 5

Year 20, Month 3 of the Summer Season, day 1. The day the Workman Amonemipet came before the Tribunal of Judges:[32] The Foreman Khonsu, the Scribe Wennefer, the Scribe Amon-nakht, the Deputy Amonkhau, the Deputy Inherykhau, the Administator Neferhotep, the Administrator Kha […]

Statement:[33] “My husband [……]. Then he made a beating, he made a beating [again] and I caused the […] to fetch his mother.[34] He was found guilty and was caused […].” And I said to him: “If you are […] in the presence of the court.” And he swore (an Oath of the Lord) saying: “As Amon endures, as (the Ruler) endures […][35]


A Father’s Promise to his Daughter in Case of Divorce

Ost. Petrie 61

The Workman Horemwia says to the Citizeness Tent-desheret, his daughter: You, my goodly daughter, should the Workman Baki cast you out of the house that (he) has made (for you),[36] as for the house ………..,[37] you shall sit in the gateway of my storehouse, that which I have made myself, and no one in the land shall cast you out from there.[38]


A Woman Asks an Oracle to Settle a dispute over land

Papyrus Brooklyn 16.205

They disputed again today[39] over payment for the parts of the fields belonging to the Citizeness Ipi which Paneferher, son of Horsiese, her male kinsman, had sold to Ikeni. And they came before (the god) Hemen of Hefat [40] and Hemen said with regard to the pair of documents:[41] “Ikeni is right. He gave the money to Paneferher at the time. It is finished.”[42]Thus spoke Hemen in the presence of all the witnesses.


The Will of Amonkhau in Favor of His Second Wife[43]

Pap. Turin 2021

I stand today before the Vizier and the members of the Tribunal to announce to my children the testament that I make today in favor of the Citizeness Ineksenedjem, the woman who is now in my house.[44] For Pharaoh has said: “Each one should do as he wishes with his property.”[45]

I bequeath to the Citizeness Ineksenedjem, the woman who is in my house, all that I have acquired with her, namely, two male servants and two female servants, total 4, and their children. (This is) my two-thirds share in addition to her one-third share.[46]

And I bequeath the nine servants which fell to me in my two-thirds share with the Citizeness Tathari to my children, as well as the house of my maternal grandfather now in their possession.[47]

They (the children) shall not be deprived of anything that I acquired with their mother. I would (also) have given to them from what I acquired with the Citizeness Ineksenedjem, but Pharaoh has said: ” Give the dowry of each woman to her.”[48]

The Vizier said to the Priest and Overseer of Workmen Ahautinefer and the Priest Nebnefer, the children of Amonkhau who stood before him, they being the elder brothers of his children: “What do you say about the testament that the Divine-Father[49] Amonkhau your father has stated? Is what he says true concerning these nine servants whom he says he gave to you from his two-thirds share that he divided with your mother, and (also) the house of the maternal grandfather?”[50] They said with one voice: “Our father is right, they are indeed in our possession.”

The Vizier said: “What do you think about this testament that your father is making for the Citizeness Ineksenedjem, this (second) wife of his?” They said: “We have heard what our father is doing. As for what he is doing, who can argue with him? It is his own property. Let him dispose of it as he wishes.

The Vizier said: “Even if it was not his wife, but a Canaanite or Nubian woman who he loved and to whom he gave his property, and who might annul what he has done?” (And they said:)

“Let be given these four servants that he acquired with the Citiziness Ineksenedjem, that which he acquired with her of which he said: ‘I give to her my two-thirds share in addition to her one-third share, and no son or daughter shall argue about this testament that I am making for her today.'[51]”

The Vizier said: “Let be done exactly as that which the Divine-Father Amonkhau has said, this Divine-Father who stands before me.” The Vizier gave instructions to Ptahemheb, Priest and Scribe of Accounts of the Tribunal of the Temple of Ramses III, saying: “Let there be recorded the decisions that I have made on a papyrus roll in the temple of Ramses III; the same shall be done for the Great Council of Thebes.[52]

(Done) in the presence of many witnesses. The list thereof: (a list of 18 witnesses to this hearing follows.) 


A Daughter’s Double Inheritance of Family Property

Stela from Amarah West, Sudan[53]

Declaration of the Second God-Servant (of Amon)[54] Hori: “As for all the property of the Overseer of Granaries Paser, my father, consisting of plots, fields,[55] male and female servants, and trees,[56] it belongs to the Singer of Khnum Irytekh for the son of her son, the heir of her heir.”[57]

Declaration of the Singer of Horus of Aniba Tamehyt,[58] she says: “As for all the acquisitions that the Overseer of Granaries Paser has assigned to me, they shall be given to Irytekh my daughter since she is the one who will act for me (in my) old age.”[59]


[1]In the Old Kingdom, years were not reckoned by the actual years of a reigning king but by an older practise of counting the royal animals every two years. This text is therefore dated to the 24th year of King Khafre of the 4th Dynasty. 

[2]A title of rank given, in this period, to members of the royal family. It was later bestowed on commoners as a royal honor.

[3]Egypt was divided into around 40 administrative districts called Nomes, each with a Nomarch, or Governor. Nikaure holds estates in several Nomes and in this will is distributing them among his relatives. The names of the Nomes are a legacy of prehistoric times when local districts were named after animals, features of the landscape, etc.

[4]The Egyptians habitually gave names to estates, buildings, temples, etc., so as to readily identify them. The lower half of this inscription carved on a tomb wall has been destroyed, hence the full names of most of the estates mentioned are incomplete. Estates including the name of a king were written in such a manner that the name of the king stood first no matter how the name of the estate was actually read. 

As indicated by the location of Nikaure’s estates, they were in several parts of the country. It was typical of the larger landlords that their property was scattered throughout Egypt since families obtained property by inheritance, purchase, or as a royal gift. A major landlord thus had to maintain residences in several places and appoint overseers to run his various land-holdings in his absence. Much of the agricultural land of Egypt was held in this manner by the royal family, temples and other institutions, and private individuals. 

[5]The daughter is called “the younger” to distinguish her from her mother who had the same name.

[6]It was customary in this period to build private tombs in the area around those of kings. In this case, Nikaure is arranging for a mastaba-tomb for his daughter near the pyramid of Khafre, the second of the three great pyramids on the Giza plateau. There are scores of private tombs around these three pyramids, so many that excavation still continues after more than a century, and their publication lags behind their discovery by as much as 50 years.

[7]There are two documents recorded on this papyrus. The first is a copy made from the original in an official archive. This is the will of the older of two brothers who has given his property to his younger brother. The copy was necessary to validate the provisions of the second document, the will of the younger brother, who wishes to pass on the family property to his wife.

Note that both brothers have the same given name, though are identified by nick-names so that no confusion would arise in the disposition of the property.

[8]His mother. Egyptian men were as often as not identified as the sons of their mother rather than as the sons of their father.

[9]Ankh-renef is a minor employee of the government Ministry of Public Works. 

[10]It was customary for copies of documents to be preserved in at least two archives. The original of this will was probably kept in the archive of the Ministry of Public Works, a copy was kept in the government archive mentioned here.

[11]This is the second document, the will of the younger brother Wah. 

[12]Priests served in regular 8-hour shifts throughout the 24-hour day. This was to maintain the continuous cycle of ritual as well as astronomical observations during the night hours.

[13]The wife’s nick-name is given, again to make identification clear. Her mother is also noted for the same reason. There can therefore be no mistake about who is to inherit.

[14]This identifies part of the inheritance Wah is passing on to his wife. It comprises the property mentioned in the first document, the will of Ankh-renef.

[15]Sheftu can divide up the family estate among her children as she pleases. She is here being given complete control over the inheritance, the only stipulation being that it must be passed on to the children.

[16]The “four Canaanites” are family dependants. It was customary in Egyptian wills to care for such retainers and make sure they would remain employed by the family in the future. Many Canaanites and other foreigners migrated to Egypt in search of employment and a better life. Due to the fluid social strata in Egypt, many were able to rise far above the rank of household servants into the professions, high government office, etc.

[17]Sheftu not only receives the security of a home, her ownership of which cannot be contested, but is also assured a proper burial in her husband’s tomb. The latter provision is the duty of the children.

[18]Since we do not know the circumstances of the family, we can only guess at what this provision means. The Egyptian word is literally “nurse, suckle,” with a secondary sense “educate.” Gebu is here appointed as the one who will see that Wah’s son is brought up properly, undoubtedly including the training for a professional career. Gebu is therefore to act as a surrogate father in case Wah dies before his son becomes an adult.

[19]This dispute was presented to an oracle; oracles were just as legally binding as cases heard in a regular law court. The oracle in question is that of the deified king Amenhotep I who, with his mother, became the patron saints of the village of Deir el-Medineh where a very active cult was maintained on their behalf. 

[20]The “two shares” were that part of her father’s inheritance the daughter received, the rest going to her mother and brothers. It is not clear whose side the brothers were on, but it is implied that the mother was causing them difficulties as well. The text could equally be interpreted as meaning the brothers were on the mother’s side, perhaps hoping for part of their sister’s share. We cannot be sure without knowing the full background of the quarrel.

[21]Pentaweret does not seem to be the father, but the administrator of the estate responsible for dividing it up among the heirs.

[22]On the meaning of deben, see “Buying and Selling.” The oracle is asked to set a price on the objects in question to settle their value which is what the family quarrel seems to be about. The evident next step is for the daughter to demand repayment at the value determined by the oracle.

[23]This statement makes little sense unless one considers it an annual income from the family estate, now probably administered by the mother who has refused to hand it over.

[24]The statement made by the mother when the property was distributed, namely that the daughter should have her 2 shares of the estate. The daughter includes this in her appeal to show that her mother has gone back on her word.

[25]This is not a formal hearing before a tribunal, but a private one made to responsible officials. It is in the same vein as Pap. Deir el-Medineh 27 concerning adultery, apparently settled by the families involved. In both cases, the Oath of the Lord does not seem to have the same force as if sworn in a regular tribunal.

[26]This is one example of the legal language used in this text. The Egyptian is literally “in morning after morning,” meaning at any time in the future. Babylonian legal texts use a simlar phrase — “day and night” — with the same sense.

[27]The prospective Bridegroom here renounces all claim to any community property he and his wife may gain during the coming marriage should he leave his wife. In case of a divorce, the wife is thus better off than under normal circumstances where community property is divided. This is a unique case in the known legal literature, but may represent a common practise.

[28]As with all legal or quasi-legal documents, a list of witnesses to the transaction is usually appended. Here, the two officials who heard the oath have added two more ordinary citizens as witnesses. Kept in the family archives of the wife’s family, the document assures that the husband cannot renege on his promise at a later date.

[29]While it is not stated, these must be relatives of Isis’ husband attempting without success to cheat her of her inheritance from her husband.

[30]Literally “places,” but with a more specific sense in a legal context. It is generally thought that the term refers to immovable property such as a house or fields, though other scholars suggest it means property in general. Still others take this passage literally to mean that Isis merely wanted to live in her husband’s house. The meaning “immovable property” seems best in this and other contexts.

[31]That is, Isis was publicly acknowledged as the legal heir to her husband’s property. This does not seem to be a formal court case, but rather a brief summary kept in Isis’ possession as proof of her claim.

[32]There was no professional judiciary in Egypt. All tribunals, from the Vizier’s court down to the local village courts, were made up of ordinary citizens who functioned as judges, jury, and attorneys for both defendant and plaintiff. The members of the tribunal are named, as here, in all court proceedings as those responsible for hearing the case and passing judgement. “Judges” were appointed on an ad hoc basis for each individual trial, or, as in the case of village courts, for a full day during which several cases were heard.

[33]Here the wife is speaking against her husband Amonemipet named as the defendant in the initial sentence after the date. 

[34]The plaintiff has brought her mother-in-law as a witness to give evidence against her husband.

[35]The text breaks off at this point so we do not have the stipulations of the oath. The obvious punishment would be that if he keeps on beating his wife, the court will administer a beating to him, the usual being 100 blows with a stout stick. 

[36]Horemwia here makes allowance for a possible divorce between his daughter and her husband; this reads like a pre-nuptual agreement that assures the daughter a place to live should she need one.

[37]The text is effaced at this point; the traces that remain indicate an oath of some kind, perhaps “By the image of Pharaoh,” or the like.

[38]This statement seems to imply that Tent-desheret will assume responsibilites for the family stores, that is, she will become the mistress of her father’s household. It is at least clear that she will have a place in her father’s household for the rest of her life.

[39]This is the second appeal on the same matter made to this oracle. The first is preserved only in fragments of a papyrus too broken to translate.

[40]A local form of the god Horus honored at a place called Hefat about 22 miles south of Thebes. The oracle may have been sought in Thebes where this deity also had a shrine.

[41]One method of obtaining an oracle was to present a deity with two written statements, one requiring a positive answer, the other a negative. The two questions presented to the oracle would thus have asked whether or not Ikeni paid for the fields at the time of purchase. The oracle indicates that he did.

[42]The oracle’s answer implicates Paneferher as the culprit who kept the purchase money, provided Ipi, the original owner, can prove she never received payment. This question would have to go separately before the oracle.

[43]Only a few fragments of the first page and a half of this document are preserved. The text begins where translation is possible.

[44]That is, his second wife.

[45]This is one of several pronouncements of kings concerning inheritance used in the courts to help render judgements. In this case, the king as the final authorty in law has stated that everyone can turn over their property to whomever they wish. Since such royal statements are recorded in legal texts, it is evident they amounted to the law of the land. Another such pronouncement occurs below, note 50.

[46]This is the usual division of community property. Amonkhau is here prevented from giving his children anything from his two-thirds of the community property gained during his second marriage. See note 50.

[47]Amonkhau’s children by his first wife Tathari inherit Amonkhau’s share of the community property gained during the first marriage, that is, to the children’s mother. They have already been given the grandfather’s house.

[48]The Egyptian word used here is unique and “dowry” is the closest equivalent. Again, this is a royal pronouncement which had the force of the law of the land. A woman’s inheritance was at least her dowry plus one-third of the community property gained during the marriage; this also applied in case of divorce. In the present case, the law seems to be that community property acquired during the second marriage should be inherited by the second wife and not by the first wife or her children.

[49]”Divine-Father,” a literal translation of a prestly title of the middle ranks of a priesthood.

[50]That is, the two oldest sons of the first marriage are asked to swear that they have inherited the nine servants and the grandfather’s house.

[51]An important provision that prevents the children of the first marriage from contesting the will in the future. The sons agree to this provision.

[52]Two official copies of Amonkhau’s testament along with the Vizier’s judgements are to be deposited in the archives of a temple and the city tribunal of Thebes.

[53]This stela was erected by Hori, the son of the family, in a temple of Amon far to the south in the Sudan where he served as a priest. It was the practise during the New Kingdom to erect such temples throughout Nubia and the Sudan as a symbol of Eguypt’s rule over this region. Among these temples is the famous Abu-Simbel temple, though there are many others. 

The stela records summaries of two legal documents that would have been more complete. It was erected in a temple to assure that the god Amon himself was aware of the inheritance which could thus not be challanged. 

[54]Hori’s title places him rather high up in the local priesthood, second only to the High Priest there. 

[55]The words rendered “plots” and “fields” must here have distinctive meanings, possibly the former was smaller than the latter. However, these common terms overlap in meaning and both may refer to agricultural land of various kinds and sizes.

[56]Trees were relatively rare, thus particularly valuable and therefore sometimes included in a land inheritance. Unfortunately, we do not know where this propety was located, though it was probably within Egypt.

[57]That is, Hori’s sister Irytekh has title to the property in question which is now hers and will be passed on to her heirs in perpetuity.

[58]The mother of both Hori and Irytekh. Her title places her in another Egyptian temple at Aniba, ca. 250 km north of Amarah where her son served as a priest. 

[59]A rather common provision in inheritance law. The child who cares for the parents in their old age, including giving them a proper burial, is the one that has the right to inherit. The daughter has thus inherited the property her father has given to both her brother and mother.