Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX

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The Economy

3.3 Economic exchange: unit of value (deben), taxation, tribute and trade

Unit of value - deben

Egypt had an economy based on bartering. The value of goods was based on a measurement called a deben.

The deben was a measure of weight that was used for gold, silver and, most commonly, copper. One deben of copper weighed between 90 and 91 grams.

At Deir el-Medina during the New Kingdom, prices were recorded on some papyri and on numerous ostraca that date to a 150 year period during the 19th and 20th Dynasties:
  • 1 sack of wheat (c.58 kg) 1 to 2 deben
  • 1 sack of barley 2 deben
  • 1 litre of oil 1 deben
  • 1 loaf of bread 0.1 deben
  • 1 litre of beer ½ deben
  • 1 litre of wine 1 deben
  • 50 fish 2 deben
  • 1 shirt 2½ deben
  • 1 razor 2 deben
  • 1 mirror 6 deben
  • 1 fly-swat 1 deben
  • 1 bird ¼ deben
  • 1 goat 2½ deben
  • 1 bull 50 deben
  • 1 simple wooden coffin 20-40 deben
  • 1 scribe's coffin 200 deben
  • 1 'Book of the Dead' 100 deben
  • 1 slave girl 4 deben

Barter prices were much more fluid than the fixed prices in modern day western markets. Prices were set by the strength of each individual's desire to conclude an exchange and each individual's skill at arriving at a good price.

For example, if there were a shortage of baskets, and one really needed a basket, the price could go up. And of course, if there was a shortage of grain due to a low Nile flood, it could become more valuable.

The ancient Egyptians were also capable of lending, and again our best source for information on this is Deir el-Medina. Actually, there are two types of loans that are attested. One type is made with a fixed date for repayment and a penalty if that date is missed, and a second type appears not to have had a fixed repayment date. There is some limited evidence that suggests that loans with a fixed payment date were made by those of a higher social order to those of lower social status, while reciprocal loans having no fixed repayment date were made between people of more equal status.


(see 2.2 – Overseer of the treasury; and 2.5 – Taxes)

Influx of incredible wealth

According to the Egyptian records, all the wealth that entered Egypt as a result of the growth of the empire was listed as tribute. Tribute is a payment made by one prince or state to another as acknowledgment of submission and subject status. However, the official Egyptian propa­ganda referred to booty taken during campaigns, products of normal international trade, and gifts from powerful kings as tribute.

Many of the scenes of foreign tribute found on the walls of monuments and in the tombs of the Egyptian officials show people who were never subject to Egypt, such as the Keftiu from the Aegean (possibly the Minoans of Crete) and the Hittites. These people were shown kneeling before the Egyptian king and making offerings. Other scenes depict foreign princes not directly under Egyptian military and political control, kiss­ing the ground in front of the good god 'with their tribute on their backs' asking that they be given the breath of life by the Egyptian pharaoh.


The Theban tomb of Amenhotep‑Huy, Viceroy of Kush at the time of Tutankhamun, contains some of the best evidence on the presentation of tribute to an Egyptian pharaoh.

The beautiful tomb paintings show the princes of Wawat and Kush who accompanied Huy to Thebes to pay their tribute in person. These Nubian princes and nobles wore animal pelts hanging down their backs and ostrich feathers set into headbands over short wigs. At least one of these young men from Wawat had been brought up at the Egyptian ­court with Tutankhamun. These high‑ranking Nubians were accompa­nied by a princess in a shaded, ox‑drawn chariot driven by a female slave. Behind her were bound captives with their wives and children, ­giraffes and fat oxen with curiously shaped and decorated horns.

Servants carried the tribute which consisted of gold rings and bags of gold dust, carnelian and red jasper; finely made furniture of precious woods, elephant tusks, giraffe tails for decoration and whisks, ebony boomerangs, shields covered with animal skins, a gold plated chariot and bows and arrows. The showpiece of the entire tribute was a gold model of a Nubian landscape.

Paintings in the tomb of officials, such as Sobekhotep, show bearded Syrians, in their heavily embroidered gowns, bowing before the king and presenting their precious offerings of gold, silver and stone vessels, weapons and slaves. Although most of the vessels were of fine Asiatic workmanship, the rhyton (drinking cup), of Minoan design, carried by one of them, indicates that there was substantial trade between the Syrians and the Aegean cultures.

The chief items of tribute from Syria and Palestine included:
  • a part of the yearly harvest. A portion was used to feed the Egyptian garrisons and the rest was shipped to Egypt
  • male and female slaves who were used in the mines of Sinai, in the stone quarries and on major construction works
  • valuable metals (such as copper, lead and silver) and semi‑precious stones (such as lapis lazuli and rock crystal)
  • finely crafted vessels
  • great herds of all kinds of animals
  • timbers which were extremely valuable in an almost treeless Egypt.

On the Barkal Stela, Thutmose III declared:
Every year there is hewed [for me in] Djahi genuine cedar of Lebanon which is brought to the court ... without passing over the seasons thereof, each and every year. When my army, which is in garrison in Ullaza comes [they bring the tribute] which is the cedar of my majesty's victories. I have not given [any] of it to the Asiatics, for it is the wood that [Amun‑Re] loves.


In the records, the Egyptian pharaohs claimed to have control over all foreign countries. To maintain this fiction, all trade goods arriving in Egypt were shown as tribute from foreign rulers. For example, in the tomb chapel of Menkheperresonb, High Priest of Amun during the reign of Thutmose III, Syrians and Cretans were described as tribute‑bearers ­when in fact they were traders. From other sources it appears that the Cretans often used Syrians as middlemen in their trading negotiations.

What often appears on tomb walls as tribute from Nubia was in fact part of the regular trade between Egypt and tropical Africa. Although the Egyptians made contact with the land of Punt during the Old Kingdom, it was not until the reign of Hatshepsut that there is evidence of a major trading expedition. Punt was never under Egyptian control and yet goods brought back from that country were referred to as tribute to Hatshepsut.

Gifts from brother kings

The great kings of Babylon, Naharin, Hatti and Assyria communicated regularly with the kings of Egypt and accompanied their letters with ­valuable gifts.

Treaties between the Egyptian kings and these rulers were often ­cemented by royal marriages for which enormous dowries were paid to the pharaoh. Following the treaty between Ramesses II and Hattusil of the Hittites:

He (the Hittite king) caused his eldest daughter to be brought, with splendid tribute set before her, of gold, silver, much bronze, slaves, spans of horses without limit, and cattle, goats, rams by the myriad. [such were] the dues they brought for Ramesses II.