Egypt's pharaohs delivered divine justice from beyond the grave

Whether alive or dead, pharaohs were the source of all law and order in ancient Egypt.

Shown here on a lintel from the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, Amenhotep I became a god after his death, and his followers consulted him on questions of justice.
Photograph by DEA/Getty Images

Egypt’s first laws emerged when the Upper and Lower kingdoms were unified, according to tradition, under King Menes around 2950 B.C. From then on, different pharaohs would bring their own approaches to law and order. Although rulers would change, the unifying principle of the monarch’s sovereignty did not. Pharaohs held supreme authority in settling disputes, but they often delegated these powers to other officials such as governors, viziers, and magistrates, who could conduct investigations, hold trials, and issue punishments. Unlike the legal Code of Hammurabi, developed in the 18th century B.C. in Mesopotamia, ancient Egyptian law was not set in stone, and although power always flowed from the pharaoh, Egypt’s laws were rather like the Nile: fluid, organic, and changing with the times. (See also: The truth behind Egypt's female pharaohs and their power.)

In Egyptian cosmology, the goddess Maat embodied the concepts of order, truth, and justice. Viziers often wore a pendant in the form of the goddess, who is often shown with an ostrich feather on her head. Egyptians believed that living according to her precepts—honesty, loyalty, and obedience to the king—would keep chaos at bay. Egyptian kings were not exempt from living by Maat’s principles. They too were expected to uphold order through wise rule, just decisions, and humility before the gods. This belief united commoners and kings in the responsibility for maintaining balance and harmony in society, which may have led to fewer periods of civil unrest in Egypt’s long history.

Crimes in ancient Egypt tended to be divided into two categories: crimes against the state and crimes against individuals. Desertion, treason, and slandering the pharaoh fell into the first, while acts such as homicide, injury, robbery, and theft fell into the second. Much of what is known about ancient Egypt’s legal system comes from the New Kingdom period (ca 1539-1075 B.C.) and the archaeological site of Deir el Medina, across the Nile from Thebes. Located there was a village of artisans and workers, who labored in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, building tombs for pharaohs and their families. Digs at Deir el Medina have yielded more than 250 papyri and some ostraca (fragments of stone and potsherds) containing detailed accounts of legal matters at all levels of society. (See also: National Geographic to host exhibition "Queens of Egypt.")

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