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Exploring African Law and Ancient Egypt

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The following is a guest post by Alexandre Loktionov, PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology & Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and a 2016 AHRC Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center.

I am an Egyptologist happily working as a fellow at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. To some, I recognize that this may sound insane: Ancient Egypt has never been a research specialization of the Library. To others, I recognize that this may sound disappointing: there is no chance to climb pyramids, discover tombs, or engage in any other similarly dramatic activity. However, above all I recognize the huge potential for academic cross-pollination unlocked as a result of my time here.

My doctoral work at the University of Cambridge focuses on Ancient Egyptian justice from the start of the Old Kingdom (c.2700BCE) to the beginning of the New Kingdom (c. 1500BCE). In particular, I am interested in the evolution of court procedure and the move from a predominantly oral-aural legal framework to a more scribal model. One strand of this research involves comparing Ancient Egyptian legal practices with those of its neighbors – notably the highly literate Semitic cultures of the Middle East (ancient Mesopotamia) and the non-literate cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa (ancient Nubia). It is this wide umbrella of interests that first brought me to the Library of Congress.

The Law Library of Congress is the largest legal knowledge resource in the world. At first sight, however, its focus on mostly modern law offers little hope to an Egyptologist – after all, the tight legal structures of modern Egypt bear no resemblance whatsoever to the largely unwritten and less formal world of pharaonic times. Nonetheless, the Library’s expansive holdings on traditional forms of African customary law, which remains oral-aural to this day, have yielded a wealth of useful ethnographic data as well as some unexpected and highly specific discoveries.

African customary law, here exemplified by the Senegalese Wolof peoples, follows a concept of authority derived from the unrecorded and implicit respect of fellow human beings and is further strengthened by a sense of justice emanating from the earth itself. Thus, an individual (or, more commonly, a group of elders) with a good reputation and strong, long-lasting links to the land may be qualified to pass judgement. In so doing, they follow the key principle of seeking to satisfy both litigating parties at all costs. In this mindset, any verdict that leaves either or both parties unsatisfied is fundamentally flawed: there is neither a concept of an abstract ‘Justice’ whose demands have to be met, nor any recorded precedents or codes directing judges to act in a particular way.

This philosophy of justice wholly dominated by mutual satisfaction is, in fact, identical to the Egyptian model. Egyptian tomb inscriptions from 2500BCE onwards consistently reveal that a good judge was one who “judged the two brothers in a way that both came away at peace.” Much like the Wolof, the Egyptians viewed this as part of a wider belief framework: the need to uphold Maat, or cosmic order, by ensuring that Isfet (chaos) could not tip the balance of the world into disarray. In this regard, the reasoning behind justice in Ancient Egypt falls very neatly into the African context revealed by ethnography.

Indeed, the similarity seems to be borne out even at the level of language. Modern Wolof communities still talk of justice as being carried out “in the belly of the village,” while Ancient Egyptians referred to decision-making as “what is in the belly.” This common idea of legal authority coming from within – from inside a belly – rather than from an external set of laws, seems to set Ancient Egypt even more firmly in the African tradition.

There is evidence that the practical administration of justice in Ancient Egypt at least partly relied on a judicial structure which is also known from Senegal. In Old Kingdom Egypt (c.2700-2200BCE), we can learn from tomb inscriptions that there was a system of ‘six great courts’ where cases could be heard, and an additional court seems to have been presided over directly by the Pharaoh. In Senegal, the presence of six outlying courts and a seventh court adjudicated by the leader is recorded in the writings of the Italo-Portuguese explorer Alvise Cadamosto, who visited the Senegalese ruler Budomel in 1455. Although Cadamosto says relatively little about how legal proceedings were conducted there, they were certainly oral-aural and entirely dependent on the personal authority and unrestrained judgement of the ruler or perhaps other respected men. So they most probably followed the principles outlined above, and may have therefore resembled Ancient Egypt on both structural and belief-based levels.

Of course, none of this necessarily proves that Ancient Egyptian and more recent Senegalese justice are closely related. After all, Ancient Egypt was a highly literate culture, and especially in the 2nd millennium BCE it certainly did use recorded precedents and highly prescriptive royal decrees. In this respect, it resembles its neighbors in the Semitic world, and the prevailing Egyptological view is to assign it to that broader ‘Ancient Near Eastern’ category. However, thanks to my research at the Library of Congress, I am beginning to sense that this was probably an over-simplification: the Ancient Egyptian justice system may have been a hybrid of African and Semitic influences.

These thoughts are very much a work-in-progress, and many pitfalls are still to be negotiated. The most obvious is the discrepancy in evidential approaches: the written sources pointing to a more abstract and codified justice system, in line with the Semitic world, are plentiful and lend themselves well to conventional methods of historical enquiry. However, sources denoting African-style justice in Ancient Egypt are almost entirely absent – texts may say that villages had local courts staffed by locally respected citizens, but they do not say what such local texts did. This of course is hardly surprising, if the entire procedure was oral-aural, and makes the study almost wholly reliant on ethnography.

Above all, though, the opportunity to work at the Library of Congress has undoubtedly opened my eyes to a broad range of material which, while not conventionally Egyptological, is directly relevant to my field. Working at the Law Library, I have spotted remarkable similarities between Ancient Egyptian and more modern African judicial systems. I have been able to question the assumption that Ancient Egyptian justice belongs unwaveringly in the Semitic tradition. And I have begun to tentatively put together a theory of justice moving increasingly from the African to the Semitic model from the 3rd to the 2nd millennium, based on greater evidence for codification and scribal involvement. None of this would have been possible had I done what Egyptologists before me had done for a century—namely, stayed away from the Library of Congress.

Comments (3)

  1. Great blog! What an exciting project. It illustrates universal human impulses in social process and institutions.

  2. I very much enjoyed reading this piece. These are interesting and exciting inferences, which I would love to read more about in the future. It is refreshing to come across work that resists simplification, and attempts to unravel what could be a more nuanced reality of accepted traditional views. Keep going!

  3. Only just got around to reading this, Alex. Well done on a really interesting and accessible blog, it made for a stimulating read.

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