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Slavery and Servitude


While various forms of coercion to labor and restriction of individual freedom did exist throughoutEgyptian history, slavery is rather defined by economic than by legal indicators. Some literary textspresent figures of slaves, called Hm (“laborer”) or bAk (“servant”). The documentary evidence ismultifaceted: during the Old Kingdom, very large segments of the population were drawn to corvéework, exemption for religious service and even upward mobility being possible, while foreignprisoners of war were clearly enslaved (sqr-anx). With the emergence of new social elites, Egyptiantexts from the early Middle Kingdom onward display a more distinct consciousness of the differencebetween “free” people, even if at the lower level of the social ladder (nDs), and “servants” (Hm,bAk), conscripts (Hsb), and fugitives (tSj), true slavery being presumably confined to foreignprisoners. The New Kingdom, with its relentless military operations, is the epoch of large-scaleforeign slavery, but also of local—owned or rented—servitude, both of which had becomeeconomically indispensable, adoption of a slave being a common practice leading to “free” status(nmHj). During the first millennium BCE, references to slavery become rare and are superseded byvarious forms of voluntary servitude caused by economic dearth or religious commitment. “Slavery”in the legal, inherited sense of the term unfolds in Egypt during the Hellenistic Period and is basedon capture in war, on purchase in the slave market, and on the enslavement of debtors.

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