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Crime & Punishment in Ancient Egypt

Crime & Punishment in Ancient Egypt - Egypt Tours Portal

The ancient Egyptian society was built on principles of morality & religious virtue which affected the dynamics related to the crime and punishment of ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptian society was law-abiding but sometimes rules and ethics were broken and justice had to take its course in order to achieve harmony and balance.

Their moral ethics were based on varied social experiences and traditions throughout their history when religion was prominent in every aspect of their lives. Along with moral, customary, and religious factors, everything was based on the concept of "Maat" which revolves around truth & justice is mainly viewed as a philosophical embodiment of the living human conscience. The entire process of punishment was one of the fundamental elements of the life of Egyptians during ancient times.

The Structure Of the Judicial System

The ancient Egyptian texts show the importance of moralities and crime-fighting with different penalties. There were two types of prosecution for violating the moral norms, the first was the religious court of the underworld where the deceased is tried in front of Osiris for his actions, and the second was a civil court where the discipline of the community was achieved.  

All the judicial matters were controlled by the vizier, the king’s right hand. The local court or “Kenbet” (a court on the regional and national level) was made up of community leaders who would hear the cases and decide who’s guilty and who’s innocent, there were also other courts that administered the law such as the Seru (a group of elders in a rural community), the Djadjat (the imperial court) alongside the Kenbet.

The vizier was the ultimate supreme judge but most court cases were handled by lower magistrates. The court could be even held in the marketplace or on the street and there was also an administrative building called the judgment hall which existed in any city. In the new kingdom, there were no lawyers or appeals, the priests of Amun were the ones who decided the verdict as the people trusted them to give a just hearing and to make the right judgment.

The earliest form of the law at the regional level was bureaucratic during the Old Kingdom (2613-2181 BC) as judges were often priests who conferred with their god to reach a verdict rather than weighing the evidence and listening to testimonies but during the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BC) professional judges presided over courts and the judicial system operated on a more rational, recognizable paradigm. This period also saw the creation of the first professional police force which enforced the law, took suspects into custody, and testified in court.

The Crime & Punishment Types in Ancient Egypt

Crime & Punishment Types in Ancient Egypt - Egypt Tours Portal There were two types of crimes in ancient Egypt, the first kind was committed against the community such as murder, adultery, theft of personal property, and crimes committed against the state such as bribery, treason, theft of public property, and any kind of crimes committed against religious institutions like:

1. Murder

The ancient Egyptians appreciated the sanctity of life and respected it which made them use the death penalty in order to not violate the sanctity so the penalty was divided between murder and manslaughter. An example had to be made in order to preserve the non-violation of the death penalty.

The death penalty was for intentional murder and even resorted to psychological sanctions that were viewed more severe than execution for example in the case of the father killing a son or daughter, the body of the killer is tied with the corpse of the victim for three days until the moment of decomposition all while under the protection of guards and burning alive for a son or daughter killing one of his parents. Grave robbers prey on crocodiles or even impale.

There was a sort of a warning for anyone who threaded to kill anyone. Suicide was apparently a gift granted to those sentenced to death by the people. As for involuntary manslaughter, there was no specific penalty, as the doer wouldn't enter his house until he cleans himself of the sin, makes offerings, seeks forgiveness from the family of the offender, and make appropriate compensation.

The penalty didn't overlook whoever covers up the murder or held information regarding the crime as they were to stand in front of judges and if found guilty he would stay in his place and take his life. Whoever kills an animal with a symbolic religious significance would be executed if it was done intentionally.

2. Adultery

In ancient Egypt Adultery was considered a religious crime, the death penalty was applied in order to prevent the spread of immorality in society. In the teaching of Ptah-Hutb, he warns not to be fascinated by women, be careful from approaching women as that's why a thousand men perish. When it comes to adultery with married women it is a crime deserving of death as it is easier to commit any other sin after that.

If the crime is committed by a married woman then the husband has a legal right to punish or forgive the wife, or leave to the court if the husband accused the wife with no proof. The punishment of the man was much lighter than the women in the crime of adultery as the Egyptians believed that offense falls primarily in the hands of the woman, while women would be killed the man would sever a thousand blows.

3. Theft of Individuals

The penalty for stealing the property of individuals was to pay a fine up to two or three times the stolen objects and as for the theft of public property, the thieve would pay up to 180 times the amount of stolen materials.

The accused would be ordered to return the stolen goods after his full confession as he was the subject of beating a hundred strokes by hand, swearing an oath or thrown into the river for crocodiles and the entire sentence was excused in full public display in front of everyone.

4. Bribery

One of the most serious crimes of the state's administrative work was mainly bribery and was punished by dismissal from office and the degrading to the stature of a farmer. Bribery plays a negative role in crippling the entire administrative process to the point where government clerks would steal a file proving the conviction of one of the accused from the judicial archives. Many criminals like thieves and grave robbers of the tomb of a king during the reign of Ramses IX were freed after paying bribes.

5. Treason

During the entire human history, there has never been a heinous crime than Treason. The execution was the only imposed penalty regardless of the social status of the accused especially if the majority of the defendants were close to the king.

When King Ramses III chose an heir to his throne this created jealousy among his wife, especially a middle-class wife called T which plotted to assassinate him and make her son "Ntawar" the king. The wife & all the conspirators were caught, prosecuted, and punished. Also, there was no cemetery for anyone who committed a crime against his majesty as the body will be thrown in the river.

6. Theft of Cemeteries "Grave Robbing"

The ancient Egyptians considered grave robbing to be a great crime especially if the tomb belonged to a royal figure like a king, queen, or prince. The penalty was death as it was considered a crime against the state but sometimes the laws were decreased to the cutting of hands or the beating of 100 blows if the mummy was left untouched. Special laws were created to protect them against any aggression.

The penalty for stealing a temple whether an artifact or an animal was 100 blows, and 100 times the usual fine. There were also 100 blows punishment for whoever slowed in solving the problem as soon as possible like the judge of the city of MAAT-RA who received 100 strikes, was isolated from his position and placed as a cultivation agent.

The Concept of Maat

Various studies centered around the concept of Maat as the ancient Egyptians understood the value of balance, order, Justice, truth, and harmony which were the core of the philosophical concept of Maat. It was viewed as the order of human society and the cosmos. The principles of Maat encouraged everyone to coexist.

They believed a person should union with Maat then fill his heart with Maat in order to triumph over the failure & dishonesty of his earthly life. According to the translated teachings of minister Ptah-Hetep of the 5th dynasty (2500 BC) which states "It is a path that stretches out before the ignorant, but the poor will never allow a berth in any port. But the power of Maat (truth and justice) is that it transcends the days, and one can say about it; it is indeed the wealth that my father possessed".  

This concept was one of the reasons responsible for the miraculous persistence of the Egyptian civilization that lasted for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians were able to have a clear idea of their country in every aspect of their life based on profound philosophical thought justice & order as shown in all of the structure of their writing. They maintained a strictly governed balance between the different aspects of life and the Egyptian public.

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