Book review: The Ancient Egyptian Economy

Brian Muhs, The Ancient Egyptian Economy: 3000–30 BCE
Cambridge University Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781316286364

During my Egyptology studies in Leiden I repeatedly followed the course in Demotic Papyrology by Brian Muhs. Repeatedly, because it took a while before the penny dropped, if ever it did. In class we read fantastical stories about Setne Khamwas, the fourth son of Ramesses II who is regarded as the first Egyptologist to boot. He is called that way because he restored monuments that were ancient in his time, such as the pyramid of Unas at Saqqara. Texts commemorate his restoration efforts. But the Setne we dealt with in class was a figure of Egyptian fiction, a magician in search of a collection of spells enigmatically called the ‘Book of Thoth’. In the story, Setne loots the tomb of Naneferkaptah in order to get at the book and subsequently gets cursed and seduced by the cunning lady Tabubu, who persuades him to kill his own children. Fortunately, he finds out this was all an evil dream brought upon him by the curse, so he returns the book and properly buries Naneferkaptah’s family in order to avoid further woes.

The other type of text we read in class was the contract. When I close my eyes I can still dish up the standard phrases of a house sales contract (“To you belongs every document that has been made concerning them, and every document that has been made for me concerning them, and every document that has been made for my father and my mother concerning them, and every document, every judgment, everything in which I have been justified in their name…”). Passing the exam was a matter of memorizing large portions of the Setne story as well as the standard contract text and recognizing where you were in the Demotic scribbles that were placed before you. The fun part was writing Demotic yourself in order to better memorize the words and phrases, which must have been a little bit like trying to learn to read and write as an ancient Egyptian school kid.

Example of a Demotic contract, in this case a marriage annuity
(source: https://www.uchicago.edu/features/demotic_dictionary/)

After these pleasant albeit sometimes baffling classes held at the Papyrological Institute, Brian Muhs left for Chicago to continue studying Demotic tax records – a seemingly boring subject that nevertheless reveals a great deal about the workings of ancient society. In 2016, The Ancient Egyptian Economy was published. Immediately, I was interested in reading and reviewing this book, because at the time I was writing a little article about the economic role of women in the ancient Egyptian marketplace.

As it goes, life intervened and the book kept lying around in various places, waiting for a longer glance. Truth be told, the subject matter is rather dry and does not invite to a relaxed reading accompanied by Rachmaninov and a glass of white wine. But it is an important publication, as it moves through the entire ancient Egyptian history, from the early dynastic to Ptolemaic period, carefully describing and analyzing the documentation that is available for each period about various topics such as redistribution, taxation, criminal justice and entrepreneurial activities. The book is an invaluable reference work for anyone studying ancient Egyptian administration, economy and law, covering state institutions, temples and private persons.

If I understand it correctly, Muhs argues that writing developed primarily for better tax administration (to put it bluntly), and that the increasing use of metallic money eventually led to a shift from an economic system based on redistribution to an economy driven by private property transfer. To me that is a refreshing outlook after the old adagium of Egypt as a system of state redistribution with no place for personal profit (but what about market scenes, contracts, disputes over money and inheritance, etc.). I personally do not agree with David Warburton’s angry review, although I am nowhere near an expert on the subject.

Most sources are available from the New Kingdom period onwards, so naturally more space is devoted to the later periods in Egyptian history. Every chapter is introduced with a clear map and list of kings from that period. Texts are given in translation with important terms in transliteration. There is an extensive notes section, bibliography and index. Overall, the work is not long but very densely informative. The book is admirable for trying to cover such a large stretch of economic history, although this strength is also its weakness. Since Muhs has a distinct outlook (the New Institutional Economics approach) and is more at home in the later periods of Egyptian history, it would be interesting to compare it with (yet to be written) economic histories by specialists in the Old and Middle Kingdom.

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