Chapter 8: Transitions to writing in law
Though Egypt gave rise to the first large-scale empires of the ancient Near East, and though the process of domestically colonizing the country – the centrally-organized division of Egypt into “nomes” and other government districts – would not have been possible without a professionalization of its administrative apparatus dependent on writing, there yet exists no archaeological or epigraphic evidence of any comprehensive transcription of ancient Egyptian law.1 There are written orders from the pharaoh, all manner of decrees, commands, and contracts, and even elaborate hieroglyphic script as the medium of the pharaoh’s self-representation beyond his own death,2 yet there are no legal texts comparable to Mesopotamia’s various collections of laws, no legal inscriptions carved in stone or on steles or tablets such as were widespread in ancient Israel, Greece, and Rome. This is all the more astonishing as the pharaonic empires of ancient Egypt, unlike the polycentric network of Mesopotamian city-kingdoms, were not embedded in a multicultural (and multilingual) infrastructure. Even the Old Kingdom (2740–2140 BC) featured a nationwide administrative structure, uniform cultic practices, and a largely homogeneous “state-socialist” economic order.3
Despite the lack of codified records of ancient Egyptian law, writing did indeed fundamentally change its forms and structures. Here, too, the language of law was enriched by the use of writing, becoming more complex and capable of drawing distinctions, as alongside the formulas, proverbs, stories, and other forms of ritual repetition there now emerged a comprehensive wisdom literature (or Ma’at literature) which...
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