|Government in Ancient Egypt
The position of pharaoh of ancient Egypt was the most critical element of Egyptian government. Pharaohs had many responsibilities in the activities of ancient Egypt's economy and religion. Because of this, a pharaoh's influence could make or break Egypt's prosperity. But a pharaoh could not do everything on his own and needed the help of a bureaucratic hierarchy to help him govern. The vizier, who answered directly to the pharaoh, was at the head of this bureaucratic government. Various government departments staffed by scribes answered to the vizier. The pharaoh also employed the services of courtiers to help him with day-to-day activities. Egyptian law established and enforced by this system of government kept order throughout the nation.
The pharaoh's position was similar to that of a king. The pharaoh was responsible for maintaining ma'at, or harmony, throughout his country. All pharaohs were considered to be the only representative of the divine gods among humans. As a god among men, the pharaoh played an important role as a religious leader in ancient Egypt. By the time of the New Kingdom, the Egyptian subjects were not allowed to address the pharaoh directly. Instead, they used the word "per aa," meaning "Great Palace." In English the word is pronounced "pharaoh."
The pharaoh was responsible for priestly duties and all domestic and foreign political affairs. The pharaoh could decide when the nation would fight, how the nation's riches would be spent, how Egyptians would be taxed, and more. Though it was impossible for the pharaoh to do everything, the position held an immense amount of power.
One of the most important methods that the pharaohs used to rule Egypt was by travelling throughout the realm. Powerful pharaohs knew that they could maintain stability throughout the country by exerting a presence among the people. Most pharaohs sailed up and down the Nile, stopping along the way to visit individual towns. These inspections ensured that the bureaucracy was running smoothly.
The proof of the pharaoh's power can be seen throughout Egypt's history. Typically, when a strong pharaoh reigned, Egypt flourished. For example, Rameses II of the 19th Dynasty was a strong pharaoh. He used military might and diplomacy to bring about peace with Egypt's enemies, the Hittites. Weak kings sometimes led to economic and political collapse within Egypt. The succession of only a few weak kings brought about the downfall of the Old Kingdom and the chaos of the First Intermediate Period.
The pharaoh could not possibly handle all of the political and spiritual affairs of his nation, so he enlisted the help of an organized bureaucracy. The pharaoh appointed most of the important members so that he could keep control over his government. During the Old Kingdom, most of these officials were chosen from the pharaoh's family. By the Middle Kingdom, when the bureaucracy was more developed, the officials were chosen from the class of educated scribes and courtiers.
The vizier was the pharaoh's right-hand-man. The vizier's duty was to act on behalf of the pharaoh. The vizier did not have the freedom to create his own policy. Instead, his decisions were supposed to be based on the pharaoh's policy.
Part of the vizier's job was to stay current with the agricultural production of the nation. To do this, he read reports pertaining to things like the Nile's inundation levels and livestock censuses. Using this information, he made daily reports to the pharaoh on how Egypt was fairing. The vizier also presided over the second highest court of appeals in Egypt.
By the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptian bureaucracy had become so organized that two viziers were needed to help the pharaoh. One vizier ruled over Upper Egypt and lived in Thebes. The other vizier ruled over Lower Egypt and lived in Memphis. This division helped the pharaohs control the growing nation.
The Egyptian bureaucratic system included several levels of government, with a number of governmental departments that were established below the vizier. These departments focused on economic and political areas in the Egyptian government. They included the treasury, granary, royal works, cattle, and foreign affairs. Each department was manned by a number of officials and scribes.
Scribes, who knew the complex writing system of hieroglyphics, were important in the Egyptian bureaucracy. They recorded statistics and acted as the economists and record keepers of ancient Egypt. For example, scribes in all regions wrote down the amount of rainfall during a given time period so that they could predict the flood levels of the Nile River. This prediction helped farmers plan their crops. They also kept track of how much tax, paid in grain and other raw materials, each Egyptian owed and paid to the government.
Egypt was divided into nomes, or provinces. Nomarchs were powerful land-owning men who ruled over these provinces. Like the pharaoh, they had religious, as well as political, responsibilities. Mayors and other local government officials governed towns and answered to the nomarch.
Courtiers were personal assistants to the pharaoh. Individuals in this position assisted the pharaoh in his numerous day-to-day responsibilities. Some of these courtiers were members of his family. By the Middle Kingdom, many of the courtiers were men who had worked their way up the social ladder through ambition and education.
Courtiers had various functions. Some were in charge of the pharaoh's personal effects, like clothing and make-up, while others were responsible for the construction and maintenance of buildings and temples throughout Egypt.
Egyptian Law and Justice
No scholar has ever found evidence of the existence of a compiled list of the laws made by the Egyptians. This has made the modern-day understanding of Egyptian law limited. Historians have turned to the court records left by this ancient civilization to learn about the Egyptian code of law. One of the most important laws of the land was a prohibition against tomb robbing.
The Medjay enforced Egyptian law. The Medjay began as a Nubian tribe that worked for Egypt as mercenaries who fought for the pharaoh. Eventually, this group evolved into a policing force within Egypt. The group deterred crime, arrested criminals and maintained peace.
Legal and land disputes were settled in local courts, and those involved always defended themselves. Lawyers did not represent individuals. During a case, individuals would use evidence and written statements to prove their cases to a panel of judges. The judges were made up of important figures from the locality. These judges worked together to decide the outcome of a case.
Decisions made in local courts could be appealed to the Court of Listeners. An even higher court existed in both Upper and Lower Egypt, and was headed by the vizier. However, the last and final judge in Egypt's most important cases was always the pharaoh.
By Sara Ann McGill
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