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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Law Courts


Egyptian law courts originated as councils of officials, which, besides acting as judges, also had other administrative tasks. Accordingly, they were known by the rather unspecific terms DADAt (Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom) or qnbt (Middle Kingdom until the beginning of the Late Period), which simply means “committee.” Their members are usually referred to as srw, “officials,” although more specific designations also occur. From the 26th  Dynasty onwards, the members of the courts seem to have been mainly, if not exclusively, priests with a specific juridical education, called wptjw, “judges.” From the New Kingdom onwards, a division into smaller local courts and great courts located in the capital(s) can be observed. Local courts dealt with minor cases of disputed property and petty crimes, which were punished with beatings, while the great courts attended to trials about land ownership, cases concerning officials, and crimes entailing heavier punishments like mutilation or the death penalty. This double system probably remained in action until the Ptolemaic Period when the local courts were integrated into a new system and the great courts were finally abolished and their role was taken over by Greek officials. Native Egyptian judicature fast declined under the Roman rule. Legal procedure changed little over time. Several laws about court procedure survive, which show that the conduct of cases was established in detail and that the judges had little scope for arbitrariness.

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