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Morris Silver
Economics Department
City College of New York

TOPIC IV: Egypt's Acquisition of Foreign Goods (and Labor-Power) Mainly in the Old Kingdom:

Trade Versus Plunder

1.Historical Evidence
2.The Mythical Conflict between Osiris and Seth and Egypt's Trade with Byblos in the Old Kingdom (Revised September 25, 2002)

1. Historical Evidence

In a 6th Dynasty tomb inscription at Aswan one Harkuf, an "overseer of dragomans," boasts that pharaoh had sent him to Yam (Nubia) "in order to weba ["open"] (the) road to this country. I did it within seven months (and) I brought back the beautiful and exotic products therefrom" (Kadish). It sounds very much like Harkuf was engaged in trade. However, Harkuf notes that prior to the completion of his mission he first sehetep-ed the local ruler until "he praised all the gods for the sake of the Sovereign" (Kadish). But what is the meaning of sehetep? Redford (1981) maintains that "a lot of needless and irrelevant discussion has been devoted ..." to the term sehetep. However, despite Redford's disdain, the term is quite revealing with respect to the manner in which Harkuf obtained Nubian goods in the third millennium.

The verb sehetep has such basic meanings as "to cause to be at peace, to appease, to cause to be satisfied." Goedicke adds that it is well attested in the meaning "to pay." Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to understand that Harkuf "bribed, paid-off" the Nubian leader with "gifts" so that he "thanked Pharaoh"--that is, he permitted trade to take place. (In line with her interpretation of the trade as a "gift trade" in "prestige objects," Müller-Wollermann [1985: 137] believes that Harkuf traded solely with the Nubian ruler.) Of the various meanings of sehetep Redford (1986) mentions only the military sounding meaning "to pacify." (The military meaning is expressly rejected by Müller-Wollerman.) Obviously, Harkuf would have reason to boast if he won a military victory. Just as obviously, he would have reason to boast if he negotiated a profitable trade concession and minimized the required gifts.

Indeed, the practice of paying for trading privileges is well attested in the ancient world. In the Iliad (7.470-43) we find Euneos "Ship-man," the ruler of Lemnos, giving wine to the Achaian kings before selling the main part of his cargo. Again, in the Sumerian epic "Gilgamesh and the Cedar Forest," Gilgamesh sought to secure permission or safe conduct to cut timber from Huwawa, lord of the forest, by offering him gifts. Returning to the Egyptian context we find support for the above interpretation in a tomb inscription wherein artisans praise the god after being sehetep-ed by the tomb's owner and another in which an individual claims to have "sehetep-ed the heart of his lord." Surely, Idu, the tomb-owner, did not force or intimidate the artisans to cause them to "praise the god"! Harkuf, moreover, was not the only agent who boasted of having sehtep-ed a foreign ruler in pharaoh's behalf. One of these, Sebni, who traveled to Nubia to recover the body of his father took with him, revealingly, 100 asses laden with oil, honey, and other items. But on occasion the asking price for permission to trade might be too high. In the sixteenth century, the pharaoh Kamose, in seeking to win support for an attack on the occupying Hyksos, spoke to his council as follows: "I shall not be able to pass him (the Hyksos) as far as Memphis (or?) the water(?) of Egypt, for he is in possession of Hermopolis, and no man can alight, shorn (as he is) by the imposts of the Styw"--apparently a reference to a Syro-Canaanite people (H.S. Smith and A. Smith).

In discussing Egypt's commerce with the peoples around its periphery, Redford (1981), after noting the paramilitary forces that accompany Old Kingdom caravan-conductors and their frequent epithet "he who puts the fear [nerew] of Horus among the foreign lands," goes on to argue as follows:

But if one is accompanied by a terror-inspiring army, what need is there to acquire them by trade? Will not the inhabitants willingly surrender their goods, or voluntarily bring them to the king as "benevolences" [ienew]? In many cases, especially in Nubia, this is probably what did happen. The epithets of the caravan-conductors make no mention of trade, at least in the sense of "barter" conveyed by the later term [shewetey, see TOPIC I.F]. Instead they call themselves "he who brings the products of the foreign land to his lord" or "he who brings royal luxury goods from the foreign countries."

However, if the epithets of the caravan-conductors make no mention of trade neither do they make any mention of force and intimidation. Further, the term sehetep, disdained by Redford, suggests that the foreign goods returned to pharaoh only after a negotiation.

For reasons good or bad but always explainable, force or bribery have often played a prominent role as handmaiden or midwife of trade between nations. Thus, in discussing the growth of long-distance trade in later times, historical economist Douglass North well notes that "the problems of enforcement en route were met by armed forces protecting ship or caravan or by the payment of tolls or protection money to local coercive groups." Osborne notes that Greek grain ships might be intercepted even by friendly cities, and he cites a mid-sixth century Attic black-figure vase depicting a merchant vessel (left) seemingly about to be rammed by a trireme (right) (shown below). Force and bribery do not exclude trade.

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The mere presence of Egyptian military might and the fact that the caravan-conductor's epithets do not refer to how they acquired goods for the ruler do not, as Redford suggests, make it "probable" that the natives were plundered. Indeed, I will run the risk of being accused of apologetics on behalf of Egyptian imperialism by offering the suggestion that their show of force served to prevent the Egyptian traders from being plundered! Certainly, the Egyptians spoke openly of the need to protect their personnel and valuables (see Berlev). Perhaps, then, the arms they carried were needed primarily to instill the "fear of Horus" in plunder-minded natives. Gundlach (1994: 133), indeed, is of the opinion that, for example, the two Nubian campaigns of the Old Kingdom ruler Pepi II were provoked by interferences with Egyptian trade routes. The procurement of foreign manpower (and goods) was of secondary importance.

Of course the Egyptians did plunder and enslave (see e.g. Gundlach 1994: 71-88, 90-95, 128-133). Redford (1986) explains that

The texts do not equivocate: the most frequently used verb is "to smite" (sk.r), the action depicted in the head-smiting motif, and refers to mortal combat. The enemy were "slaughtered" (sm3), or "put to flight" (sbh3), "cowed," or yet again brought off to Egypt as prisoners. As a punishment and an example to others, as well as a strategic precaution, the rebellious city suffered the demolition of its fortifications, after its capture. The verb used, viz. b3, "to hack down (with the hoe), leaves no doubt as to the procedure involved: mud-brick city walls were systematically leveled using the most basic agricultural tool the Egyptians possessed. Firing a city is rarely spoken of, and apparently not depicted. The whole occurred within a legal context betokened by the verbs d3(r), "to put down," and (k)hsf (k)ht, "to inflict punishment."
However, the quoted passage represents a blend of ingredients from various texts and, in fact, Redford provides no evidence that such activities were the standard operational procedure of the caravan-conductors. (For Old Kingdom reference to the "hacking up of Nubia, see Tilgner (November 29, 1998, EEF List).

One element in Redford's composite picture is puzzling. Why did the Egyptians take the time and trouble "to hack down" the walls of cities with hoes? Perhaps this makes sense, somehow. On the other hand, as opposed to Redford's position, references in 1st Dynasty texts to the "hacking up" of town so-and-so may reflect the foundations of new settlements rather than a "punitive intent." For the Egyptians (and the Romans) the hoe, the instrument of "hacking", was a prime symbol of foundation. (For Egypt, see A. Nibbi (1978). "The Hoe as the Symbol of Foundation in Some Early Egyptian Reliefs." Göttinger Miszellen, 29, 89-94 and 3.c below; for Rome, see S. Scully (1990). Homer and the Sacred City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 18-19.)

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The "Libya" or "Cities" Palette. Seven walled enclosures with buildings and identifying hieroglyphs. The intact walls are surmounted by various emblematic creatures wielding hoes.

In one case at least the direct evidence for Egyptian plunder seems to crumble under analysis. In the early second millennium, an official named Hor led an well-armed expedition to an amethyst-mining district in the Eastern desert to the southwest of Aswan. Berlev does not state this in so many words, but he leads the reader to believe that the Nubians who mined the stone had been forcibly enslaved following Egypt's "conquest and pacification of Nubia" in the reign of Sesostris I. The evidence he sights is slender at best. As a matter of fact the Nubians are not included in the list of the expeditionary brigade. In the inscription and on the stele [of Hor] the Egyptian detachment and the Nubians are treated separately. And what is more, no daily norm of output is fixed for them, as was done in the Sinai and as would have been natural for an expedition working a short time in the mines or in quarries, with a fixed task or job [baket]. (Berlev) But the fact that the Nubians were not counted as members of the expedition and were not assigned production quotas seems to point to there being free economic agents, not slaves. Berlev seeks to surmount this difficulty by adding, "and what is more, the output of amethyst is compared with the production of grain, and the labor of the miners of amethyst with the labor of farmers, who at harvest had to account for the year" (emphasis added). We are thus led to think of extortion and/or taxation. Elsewhere, however, Berlev reports that "the work, however, is not precisely indicated, Hor only gives an idea of it by comparison: the amethyst mined was as much as the grain on the threshing floors before storing it in the granaries. The imagination paints heaps of amethyst, if only such is possible, lying like heaps of grain." It is rather obvious that Hor's comparison between harvested grain and mined amethyst suggests only the magnitude of his accomplishment. There is also reason to doubt that Hor compares the Nubian miners with tax-paying farmers. Hor says, "(As for) every Nubian, his [baket] (shall be) like that of a(ny?) servant who acts by the power of this god, by the effectiveness of his Sovereign, one who abides enduring forever" (Sadek). Baket might be translated "job" or "tax to be paid" or "wage (payment) to be received" (Sadek).

Next let us consider the much discussed representation of "Canaanites" in the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hasan, a contemporary of Sesostris II. The standard interpretation is that

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Asiatics arrive at Beni Hasan

the scene represents the arrival at an Egyptian fortress of a trade caravan bearing eye-paint. According to Goedicke the Asiatics arrive at Beni Hasan "not to deliver black eye-paint there, but rather to procure galena, presumably in the desert in the vicinity of Beni Hasan, i.e., in the Eastern Desert." He concludes that "This should be seen as a commercial enterprise for which foreigners were imported into Egypt." There is of course not the slightest indication in the scene or the inscription that the Asiatics were brought to Egypt as slaves or that the Egyptians wished to enslave them. Just the opposite, they wanted to trade for their eye-paint or for their services as prospectors. For an Old Kingdom example of peaceful entry by Syrians, see 2.b.

Taking into account that Egyptian military action in Canaan was not prominent, W.A. Ward deduces that "the bulk of the Asiatics found in Middle Kingdom Egypt arrived there of there own accord, seeking employment not only in the trades and professions but in lesser positions as well." More directly, Redford reports that the Palermo Stone (see image in Part 2), a document of the later Old Kingdom, takes note in the entry for the 5th Dynasty ruler Usarkaf of the use of the term hetepew "'those who have come to terms' for the foreigners [Nubians] and [this] must denote people brought to Egypt through peaceful means ... , as distinct from the [sekerew-anekh], which refers to prisoners of war". The term hetepew "gratified, satisfied, paid" is sometimes, misleadingly I think, translated as "pacified". For hetep, see Yurco (November 23, 1998, EEF List). For the Old Kingdom we may also cite in this connection a decree of Pepi I relative to the pyramid town of Dashur, which mentions the holding of land by nehes hetep "settled Nubians" (Eyre) or, better, "satisfied/bought-off Nubians". The "satisfied Nubians" are not to requisition the fields of the pyramid town which, as Gundlach (1994: 132-33) notes, hardly sounds like they were prisoners. There is ample evidence for the Old Kingdom of Nubians being recruited into the Egyptian police and armed forces. [See Gundlach 1994: 133; Tilgner (November 29, 1998, EEF List); Yurco (November 20, 1998, EEF List)].

The term sekerew-anekh apparently means "bound captives" (cf. Cruz-Uribe; Tilgner [November 29, 1998; EEF List]). This could easily refer to forcibly subdued Nubians. However, the meaning is probably not as transparent as Redford suggests, for "bound" has the nuance "distrained," which is a legal/economic term. Further, foreigners who sold themselves into slavery (indentured servitude) to finance migration to relatively affluent Old Kingdom Egypt might easily be termed "captive" (anekh).

The evidence is at least not inconsistent with the hypothesis that Egypt was the beneficiary of considerable voluntary immigration in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. We do seem to have a small body of historical evidence supporting the view that the Egyptians obtained goods and labor-services by means of voluntary exchange. The role of force and intimidation in the acquisition process may have been important, even primary, but far from universal.

To TOPIC IV.2 The Mythical Conflict between Osiris and Seth and Egypt's Trade with Byblos during the Old Kingdom