"The bushel is the eye of Re, it abhors him who trims." With a dichotomy linking trade to the gods, the Egyptian philosopher Amenemope reflects on the need for honesty and fair dealings in trade, still a necessary staple for any economy. Bartering in ancient Egypt was not only expected to be scrupulously honest but also, depending on the location and social classes of the traders, extremely profitable.
Barter at the Simplest Level
The simplest agrarian Egyptian had the means of barter within his reach. The farming population not only subsisted on the grains and oils they produced but traded them for other necessities. According to the Reshafim website, barter continued to be the method of economic exchange even after the introduction of coinage. In fact, if a harvester had the means to store his crop, he could advance his stature as a landowner. In times of famine, many farmers bartered stored corn with wealthier, but less foresighted, neighbors in exchange for new land.
More and Better Barter
More advanced barter developed along ancient trade routes. In an article in Bravepages.com, Professor Leonard Lesko, chairman of the Department of Egyptology at Brown University, notes that southern Kush was a popular locale where Egyptians bartered gold, papyrus sheets and grains to obtain exotic items such as ivory, animal skins, livestock and spices. The barter system expanded and became a source of astonishing wealth for Egypt. Egyptians of the New Kingdom, according to the British Museum's website, traded precious stones, herbs, oils, horses and chariots to Africa and Asia in exchange for exotic animals, skins and minerals. As with the agrarian Egyptians, barter outdid coinage.
Bartering with the Gods
Adolph Erman's "Life in Ancient Egypt" depicts a fascinating barter between the ancient gods and Prince Hepd’efae from the Middle Kingdom province of Asyut. To his priests giving perpetual offerings for his ka, or soul, this worthy ceded temple "first fruits," the provisions left for the priests, for the officiants to do as they liked, including bartering them for bread and beer. Thus Hepd’efae pacified both the gods and the priests and associates who got gifts of food, in a contract system remarkably like the arrangement for priestly offerings in Leviticus.
Several hieroglyphs on the tomb of Khaemhat, Egypt's granary overseer buried at Luxor, depict merchants arguing over trade. The source of friction may have been Egypt's unusual measurement system, which called fixed weights of heavy materials a deben, and a one-twelfth weight a shat. The system also interchanged the weights of grain, animals and property with obscure measurements such as qites, sacks and even pots of honey. The bartering arguments probably did not end until the introduction of coinage.
- The Teachings of Amenemope; M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.156-157
- Reshafim: An Introduction to the History and Culture of Pharaonic Egypt: Domestic Trade: Barter
- Bravepages.com: Ancient Egypt: Trade and Transportation
- British Museum: The Wealth of Africa: Ancient Egypt: Economy, Money, pgs. 4-5
- University of San Francisco: The Egyptian Soul: the ka, the ba, and the akh
- Open Library: Life in Ancient Egypt (1894; Adolf Erman)
- Bible.org: Principles of Priesthood (Leviticus 8-10)
- TourEgypt.net: Egypt: The Private Tomb of Khaemhat on the West Bank at Luxor
- HeavenGames.com: Children of the Nile Heaven: How Egyptian Barter and Commerce Actually Worked
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images