The sAb in the Old Kingdom: a consideration of the title within the scope of a prosopographic study

By Etienne Vande Walle. Translated by John Dewey.  Published on Egyptological, 30th June 2011, Journal Edition 1.


The article aims to give an overview of the activities of the bearer of the title sAb in the Old Kingdom and to propose a definition for it. It is based on the analysis of more than 500 documents, citing 76 titles including the term sAb with a collation of all these in the titularies of the individuals concerned. It also attempts a brief description of the nature of the functions of the practitioners of justice, citing the autobiography of Weni. It further points up the connections to judicial institutions and the references to actions of a judicial nature, but also emphasises the “non-judicial” spheres involving the sAb. The article formulates a basic structure, centred round the knowledge and practice of law and orientated towards various sectors, such as the administration of the State in its diverse facets, the function of the judiciary and the management of patrimony in the great temples through specialisation. The term sAb could be the hallmark of the title holder in the field of law, but without confining him to the specific function of a sole judge.


N.B. This article uses Manuel de Codage for transliteration.  Please see editorial comments at the end of this article. If you would prefer to read the article in the original French click here.


The sAb in the Old Kingdom

In the course of examining 522 titularies from the Old Kingdom containing the term sAb, it is proposed that indications of what they signified at various levels of judicial activity are contained in those titularies, from roles of scribal assistance to taking judicial decisions at the highest level.  Critically, can sAb be synonymous with the concept of “judge”, as several authors propose ?

To address this question we must try to reproduce, within the realms of possibility provided by the available data, the parameters within which those who were authorised to judge worked to “settle/silence” (Philip Stephan, 2008, p. 57, n. 180). It must be borne in mind that the dispensation of justice was above all a function of kingship, equal to the creation of law.  These powers were both legislative and judicial, but, at the same time, were always delegated in the same way as the religious cult. The daily ritual of the divine cult, which coloured daily life throughout the whole country, meant that the pharaoh was forced to delegate at religious events. Within this context, the notion of Maat was central. Epstein gave Maat the following definition: “Its primary significance was cosmological; above all, Maat was world order, laid down by the Gods …. Maat signified the regularity, the harmonious relationship between the various elements of the universe, indispensable to the cohesion and continuation of their created forms”. Maat was also a “code of ethics, to act always in accordance with this universal order” (Epstein 1983, p.44 ;cf. also Assmann,1989 and Menu 2005). In the Old Kingdom, the pharaoh, as absolute monarch, considered himself responsible for the cosmic order and acted accordingly.

If the pharaoh embodied and enacted the concept Maat as the head of state, everyone  else was obliged to operate within Maat at their own level of competence.  The resolution of conflicts was seen as the objective of sentences “conforming with Maat, i.e. with equity” (Menu 2005, p. 93). Given that equity is a delicate balance and that its application in legal matters can lead to considerable controversy (witness the “equity judgements”  of the President of the Tribunal of Chateau-Thiery, Paul Magnaud, c.1900 AD), Maat, or equity, appears to have served a mainly corrective purpose, to mitigate the rigour of the Law in certain circumstances.  The aim was to achieve a balance – an overall fairness.

The main objective of the justice system in Ancient Egypt can be summarised in these few words from an ostracon from Hatnub : “the two parties should leave the tribunal with satisfied hearts” (rdi.n.i pr snw 2 xtp (w) (Translation and transliteration of A. Theodorides, 1967, p.151). To realise this ideal justice, the writer of this text believes that a case has to be judged “in accordance with its Maat” (mAat.s). Each conflict has a Maat of its own and, using this attribute, the judge can reach a decision which will secure the assent of both parties, thus contributing to the maintenance of global Maat.

The practitioners of justice in the Pharaonic age were not always under the heavy yoke of rules and regulations in their duties.  (This article is not the place to debate the legal term Hp: see for example Philip-Stephan 2008, p.14, note 29 for a recent  status question is of this subject.  The author prefers the translation “law”, which would not appear to be invalidated by the absence of codification  [“common law” might be a more complete analogue in England – Editor].)

Below are some examples, which, although later than the Old Kingdom, outline a general scenario which would not have seemed unfamiliar in earlier periods. For the Old Kingdom itself, readers are referred to the work of Lippart (2008, pp 9-21), which  lists texts on subjects as diverse as property, duties, individuals’ rights, family and inheritance, “illegal actions” (Unerlaubte Handlungen) and their consequences (for example, penalties and compensation) and royal decrees (Coptos, Abusir, Neferirkare).

1.      Rules of Procedure.

The timings and delays in hearings are calculated geographically in cases concerning land, which come under the jurisdiction of the Vizir (Breasted 1906, p.277, section 686: Theodorides 1967, p.145).  This can be two months for lands in the North and South, but three days for land close to the seat of the court (Capital or Royal Residence). This delay of 3 days appears to be part of Common Law (m ntt Hr Hp Sethe 1906, p.111, L1).

2.      Rules of Law.

a)      Legitimate descendants enjoy protection regarding succession (Theodorides 1967, p.146 seq.) and also regarding adoption.

b)      The person who has paid the funeral expenses, for the benefit of any other beneficiary, has a privilege in the succession (xr.f m pA Hp) Theodorides 1967, p.118).

c)      A distinction is drawn between the “proper” assets of  married couples and those held in common, which can give rise to complex situations in the ordering of inheritance: Theodorides (1966, p.47) refers to specialist intervention in the person of a scribe.

3.      Knowledge of Jurisprudence.

The office where Rekhmire (18th Dynasty) holds audience has a room where transcripts of all verbal judgements are archived “as he must dispense justice before all men”. A similar duty of recording must also have existed in other courts. Thus it appears from Papyrus Boulaq X (recto) that reference is made to a previous decision of the qnbt of the sr , concerning the inheritance of one Tagemyt (Theodorides 1967, p.116-7). As well as the recording of decisions, this implies an active knowledge of their content, allowing its citation in a relevant context.

4. The sbAyt.

When Rekhmire is installed, the Pharaoh acquaints him of the doctrine (sbAyt) he expects to see applied by the Vizir ( mitt: translated briefly by Faulkner 1955, p.22: “This is a teaching: act accordingly” and, through him, by the body of officials in the legal process. Formal instructions are issued to him, by which formal decisions are reached (irt xt nbt mi ntt r Hp and irt xt nbt mtr iryw), to grant “everyone their rights” (Theodorides 1967, p.148). One must be careful to judge “conforming to instructions (tp-rd)” (Faulkner translates: “The magistrate’s safeguard is to act in accordance with regulations”). However, this does not entirely suffice.  The Instructions further insist on a double obligation, which will be recognised by the modern reader:

a)      To hear the parties and to allow them to validate their arguments: “ a plaintiff is more pleased that attention is paid to his arguments than the judgement he has come to learn”.

b)      To justify decisions; “you will dismiss (the plaintiff) (only) after he has heard the reasons for his dismissal” (Theodorides 1967, p.149.  A lot was at stake: judicial decisions could have repercussions “far and wide”, assuring their diffusion.


This brief summary illustrates the enormity of the task facing the practitioners of the law, as well as the technical complexity of the problems confronting them.

Some authors estimate that, under these conditions, the title of sAb does not automatically encompass the full extent of this knowledge: thus the sAb sS could not attain the level of competence required to exercise all the responsibilities, both civil and penal, inherent in the function of a judge (Junker 1944,198-9): “One cannot imagine that a sAb sS , who obviously had a quite low position, could exercise the responsible role of a judge and reach a decision in a civil or penal case.”

Are there data available about the practice of law to illustrate the proposal that sAb may contain various meanings? We are seriously handicapped because documents relative to the process are virtually nonexistent for the Old Kingdom and we have only the titularies to construct a dogma. There is also no information on the composition of the tribunals who are called upon to make decisions.  In this field the autobiography of Weni, whose autobiography is preserved at his mastaba in Abydos, is a unique document and cannot therefore been taken as generic. During the 6th Dynasty Weni acted as chief (imy-r) of the xntyw-S (n) pr-aA (roughly, those living under royal patronage). The Pharaoh decreed that he “would be the sole judge” in the proceedings against the royal wife, with there being “no vizier, no other official, except him” (Philip-Stephan 2008, p.229). When the pharaoh reached his decision Weni, in his own words, had a subordinate position: “No one in my position had ever heard secrets of the royal harem before” (Roccati 1982, p.192-3). This author placed the xntyw-S at the level of the maintenance of the royal palace. Roth (1995, p.40 0 revised their status, elevating them closer to the physical  person of the King. Weni, although finding himself as imy-r at the head of the hierarchy of the xntyw-S, deems that to be an inferior position. Nevertheless, the Pharaoh charges him to “commit the verbal process to writing,” “being alone, except for an sAb from Hierakonpolis” (Philip-Stephan 2008,p.123). Verner ( 2002,p.221) advances the hypothesis that the latter could be qAr I A, his participation in the case having earned him promotion. In this particular case ( the trial of a queen), he acts as sole judge, as well as drawing up the written judgement. He sits alone, “with no judge, except himself”, although the title of judge does not figure among his titulatury. He is assisted in this task by a sAb iry nxn, whose function, according to Philip-Stephan, is to assist and advise the judge, even to “remind him of the procedural principles, where these might not be scrupulously applied”.

This is a unique situation, as the Weni is the first example of such a case.  There would be a “regularisation”, later in his career, when he would be made sAb iry nxn, authorising him, as he tells us, “to hear cases alone with the Vizier of all secret affairs and everything concerning the name of the King, the Royal Harem and the Six Great Courts of Justice” (Philip-Stephan 2008, p.229 ). From this, we may conclude that the Pharaoh could derogate under the rule that it was incumbent on a sAb iry nxn “to hear everything appertaining to the Royal Harem” and could entrust the case to a person of his choice, who enjoyed his confidence and gained his esteem through the contacts forged in the environment of the Palace.

However, it must be highlighted that Weni has a sAb iry nxn as his wingman, usually sufficiently competent to allow him to be versed in a case concerning the Royal Harem and recognise the exceptional character of his appointment, which put at his disposal a specialist in the management of litigation. One should also avoid concentrating on the case of the Queen, or forgetting that everyday, normal cases could contain a number of juridical problems in various areas.

The analysis of titularies containing the title sAb is based on the following:

1.      A group of 27 titles containing the term, listed in the appendix.

2.      Among these, 7 titles include in their wording an institution of a juridical nature, which are:

sAb sS n rwt, sAb sS rwt (n) wsxt, sAbsmsw HAyt, sAb imy-rsS wDa mdw StA n Hwt wrt, sAb iry nxn n Hwt wrt, sAb sHD sS n Hwty wrt imy wrt nt Xnw, sAb imy-r sS m DADAt wrt.

3.      In several titularies, there are titles related to judicial bodies, which do not feature sAb as a component, unlike those in (2) above. These are: wsxt (aAt), HAyt, Hwt wrt (sw),DADAt (wrt). The titles sAb most often associated with these are, in decreasing frequency : sAb aD mr, sAb iry nxn, sAb sHD/imy-r sS, sAb smsw HAyt.

4. In the course of his study, the author identified terms of a judicial nature :

Spr, wDa mdw, smAa wDa mdw, sDm/sDmt , which we found in the titles of (1) above, but not listed in the titularies of some sAbs, with or without institutions being mentioned.

5.      If the connection with judicial activity is manifest, it is not always present with sAb , which can appear in other spheres of activity. The current article does not have the space to present a corpus of “non-judicial” titles of sAb and its classification into categories.

6.      Finally, we can note the frequency of titles : the gold medal goes to sAb sS

153 occurrences ; then, in decreasing order, sAb aD mr (148), sAb sHD sS (85),and sAb imy-r sS (82). Then the number drops to 34 (sAb iry nxn), 24 (sAb iry mDAt), 17 (sAb smswHAyt), the rest less than ten, including those occurring only once.


The final conclusion is that there were no professional magistrates in Egypt, probably due to the fact that the Pharaoh “ had the discretion, at all times, to limit, modify or suspend a legal body and assume judgement of the whole case himself or confide it to jurisdiction assembled by himself or installed by him” (Philip Stephan 2008, p16.) The biography of Weni confirms the latitude the Pharaoh possessed to assign cases, although it also defines the limits of his discretionary powers. Thus, even if, as a matter of course, the Pharaoh could delegate competence to a sAb iry nxn and decide to confide the instigation of a case concerning the Royal Harem to a imy-r xntryw-S pr aA, he remains nevertheless obliged to have recourse to a specialist, in the person of an sAb iri nxn, who could assist Weni, even outside the courtroom. Thus, even if Weni could provide the guarantees of independence and confidentiality required by the Pharaoh to conduct the trial, he did not possess all the knowledge and expertise needed to bring the case to a successful conclusion in the best manner. If not, why provide him with a sAb iry nxn , not allowing him to sit as sole judge? In other words, there is a requirement for competence, alongside a requirement of protocol, which we note the Ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom practiced, notably in relation to the career of certain Hry sStA, who were subject to a “ long and intensive” education. Their advancement depended on their degree of competence, mainly their aptitude for managing delicate and confidential dossiers, which ultimately gave them access to a higher position, when they had provided the guarantees required (see Rydstroem 1994, p 65 and 70; also Vervloesem 2006,p18-19 concerning qAr).

Drawing on the career of the managers of the “secret” and the data collected in this study, the following hypothesis is formulated concerning the sAbs.

1.      The term sAb describes personnel qualified in matters of law and management, starting from a basic structure, which Pirenne (1932,p.192) saw as “a special capacity”, “ an indispensable part of the judicial system”.

2.      In the Old Kingdom, there are virtually no single occurrences of sAb (7 have been located, most of which are due to gaps in the text).  The term is always part of a group (see appendix), as proof that it may signify an activity associated law. For example, the titles aD mr/ sAb aD mr, in the latter, the sAb component signifies the exercise of judicial competence by the administrative head of a nome (cf. Philip-Stephan 2008, p.54).

3.      The qualification characterising the sAb would give access to a host of functions : executive, legislative, judicial and administrative, not differentiated in the Old Kingdom, where the notion of separation of powers was still in limbo. The management of this universal bureaucracy, notably including the central State, local powers and the temples called for competent and efficient personnel, with knowledge of the law doubtless occupying a prominent position in their capabilities. It is for this reason that we propose to translate sAb as “jurist”, tending towards vande Walle (1978, p.17, n.38), who saw in sAb a “lawyer” rather than a judge, referring to Mrsich, who opted for a “Rechtskundiger” (lawgiver).

4.      The practice of justice would constitute one of the paths open to the sAb, which would have gone hand in hand with a specific, complementary base. We have illustrated above the complexity of the material to be assimilated. Examination of the titularies establishes the relationship of the sAb with various instructions of a juridical nature, each one having its own field of competence and rules of operation. The sAb was the entry level, the “ lowly position” of Officer.  Numerically, it is the highest: out of 153 titularies, 97 carry no other title, while a little over twenty are joined with Hm kA, wAb nswt or snDt, titles which are not professional in the sense of interest here. The growth in the assessment of competence wold be reflected in the development of the titulary, similar to the Hry sStA.

Editors’ Note
We are grateful to John Dewey for his translation of this technical article from the original French.  Readers are reminded that the modern Gallic legal system is itself somewhat different to the Anglo-Saxon legal structures which prevail in England and the USA.  Even a faithful translation cannot capture the full context within which Etienne Vande Walle writes, and we commend the original French text to those wishing to take this area of study further.
Final edit of English version by Andrea Byrnes and Kate Phizackerley.


List of sAb titles used during the Old Kingdom

Assembled primarily from the works of Hannig (2003), Jones (2000), Philip-Stéphan 2008, Piacentini 2002, Strudwick 1985

Manuel de Codage has been used for the transliterations.

1) imy-r sS sAb

2) sAb

3) sAb imy-r…

4) sAb imy-r sS

5) sAb imy-r sS iry spr

6) sAb imy-r sS irr Htpt n mAat m wDa mdw mAa ra nb Dt

7) sAb imy-r sS wDa mdw StA

8) sAb imy-r sS wDa mdw StA n Hwt wrt

9) sAb imy-r sS m DADAt wrt

10) sAb imy-r sS mDAt

11) sAb imy-r sS n kAt nbt

12) sAb imy-r sS sHD

13) sAb imy-r sS Dd-swt-tti

14) sAb imy xt iry mDAt

15) sAb imy xt Hry wDb

16) sAb irny xt sA pr

17) sAb iry mDAt

18) sAb iry mDAt sStA

19) sAb iry nxn

20) sAb iry nxn aA n irw smAa wDa mdw

21) sAb iry nxn mAa

22) sAb iry nxn n Hwt wrt

23) sAb iry nxn smAa wDa mdw

24) sAb iry nxn smAa wDa mdw mAa

25) sAb aD…

26) sAb aD mr

27) sAb aD mr pr aA

28) sAb aD mr mAa

29) sAb aD mr nst SmA

30) sAb wD mdw Hry wDb

31) sAb nxt xrw

32) sAb nxt xrw sxw

33) sAb Hry wDb

34) sAb Hry wDb n imy xt sA pr

35) sAb Hry sStA wr-xaf-ra

36) sAb Hry skr

37) sAb Hry skr xAsww

38) sAb Hry S

39) sAb xrp iry mDAt

40) sAb xrp sti nbw

41) sAb sA pr

42) sAb smsw wxrt

43) sAb smsw HAyt

44) sAb sHD iry mDAt

45) sAb sHD iry mDAt sStA

46) sAb sHD Hm nTr

47) sAb sHD Hm kA

48) sAb sHD xntyw-S pr aA

49) sAb sHD sS

50) sAb sHD sS a nswt

51) sAb sHD sS a nswt n xft Hr

52) sAb sHD sS iry spr

53) sAb sHD sS mAa

54) sAb sHD sS rnDAt

55) sAb sHD sS n wpt

56) sAb sHD sS n Hwty wrt imy wrt nt Xnw

57) sAb sHD sS sbAw n sS msw nswt

58) sAb sS

59) sAb sS..

60) sAb sS aprw

61) sAb sS iry spr

62) sAb sS mAa

63) sAb sS mSA

64) sAb sS rnDAt

65) sAb sS rnDAt nTr

66) sAb sS n ist sStA

67) sAb sS nfrw

68) sAb sS nswt

69) sAb sS rwt

70) sAb sS rwt (n) wsxt

71) sAb sS Hwt aAt

72) sAb sS Hwt (nTr)

73) sAb sS sbAw nswt

74) sAb sS smAa wDa mdw

75) sAb sS sHD

76) tAyty sAb TAty



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Etienne Vande Walle is a Doctor of Law, graduated from the Brussels Free University (Vrije Universiteit Brussel).   Professionally, he was successively lawyer (Brussels Bar), assistant public prosecutor, judge and finally president of the Brussels Court of Instance. He retired in April 2007.   He studied hieroglyphs with Prof. A. Theodoridès (Université Libre de Bruxelles) and History of Egyptian Art (Institut Royal d’Histoire de l’Art et d’Archéologie – Brussels). Actually, he is an independent researcher, more specifically interested in pharaonic institutions and titularies related with the juridical sphere.   He published a review of Einführung in die Altägyptische Rechtsgeschichte (LIT Verlag, 2008) by S. Lippert in Bibliotheca Orientalis LXVII, n° 3-4, 2010. p. 328-332.

Translator John Dewey has a degree in Philology and is currently tutor in Egyptology and occasional study tour leader in Adult Education.  He is President of RAMASES (Rainham & Medway & Swale Egyptology Society).

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