A Beacon of Progress in the Ancient World


A tomb relief depicting the daily lives of average Egyptians. 

Egypt is one of a handful of “cradles of civilizations” that independently developed some of the earliest examples of writing, agriculture, engineering, mathematics, medicine, organized religion, and a centralized political structure. As if all that were not impressive enough, Egyptian law and culture were incredibly sophisticated for its time.

The Egyptians believed that men, women, and all social classes were equal under the law – even the lowliest peasant had the right to petition the pharaoh’s court for justice. Although slavery was practiced to some extent (as it was almost everywhere else at the time), slaves were mostly used as indentured servants, and were thus able to buy and sell their servitude, work their way toward freedom or even nobility, and were usually entitled to medical care while working.

Compared with their counterparts in ancient Greece, Rome, and China, ancient Egyptian women had a far greater range of personal choices and rights. Like men of all social classes, they could own and sell property, make contracts, marry and divorce by choice, receive inheritance, and pursue legal disputes in court. Married couples could own property jointly and protect themselves with agreements akin to prenuptials: often the husband would be stipulated to financially support his wife and children should there be a divorce.

The pharaoh was officially the head of the legal system and responsible for enacting laws, dispensing justice, and maintaining law and order. Egyptian legal and social values – which emphasized truth, balance, order, harmony, and morality – were collectively called Ma’at. Court records show that Egyptian law was pragmatic and practical: the courts promoted conflict resolution and reaching good faith agreements rather than adherence to a strict set of codes. There was even a complex, hierarchical court structure: minor disputes and small claims were settled before a court of local elders known as the Kenbet. Graver matters such as murder, major property transactions, and tomb robbery were litigated before the “Great Kenbet” – an equivalent to the Supreme Court – which was presided over by the pharaoh or his vizier (essentially a prime minister). Both parties in a legal dispute were expected to represent themselves and swear an oath that they would tell the truth. The government often served as both prosecutor and judge, but would always appoint scribes to carefully document the complaint, testimony, and ruling for future reference, not unlike our common law system of precedence.

Egyptian medicine was renowned throughout the ancient world. Although magic and superstition were invoked, the Egyptians were among the first people to use what we now call empirical evidence – knowledge based on sensory information and experience — to diagnose and treat ailments. They kept organized records of human anatomy, common injuries, and treatments. Doctors were divided into certain specialties, such as the eyes or gastrointestinal system. Surgery and dentistry were widely practiced; physicians could stitch wounds, set broken bones, or amputate infected limbs. There was even an official medical school that helped professionalize medical practice: the Per Ankh, or “House of Life”.

Though hardly an idyllic place by modern standards, Egypt was markedly progressive and advanced in a lot of surprising respects; its civilizational accomplishments were not just limited to its impressive monuments and artwork.

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