Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Voluntary slavery? Ancient Egyptians paid a monthly fee to become temple slaves


Becoming bound by eternal, unquestioning servitude as someone’s property is not likely most people’s career of choice. 2200 years ago, however, it seems some Egyptians voluntarily signed up to become temple slaves.

Not only that, they even paid a monthly fee for the “privilege.”

The revelation comes from the work of Egyptologist Kim Ryholt of the University of Copenhagen, who has been studying papyrus slave contracts found in a rubbish dump in the ancient Egyptian temple city of Tebtunis.

“I am your servant from this day onwards, and I shall pay 2½ copper-pieces every month as my slave-fee before Soknebtunis, the great god.”

This is part of the translation of 100 of these papyrus slave contracts that Ryholt has spent years trying to collect and analyse. The documents were scattered in fragments across Egypt, Europe and the US after they were illicitly excavated. In one example, a contract was divided between Copenhagen and the British Museum.

Ryholt is the first to analyze these papyri collectively, publishing his findings in a recent article titled: A Self-Dedication Addressed to Anubis – Divine Protection against Malevolent Forces or Forced Labour?

Among his findings was that these voluntary slaves also signed up their descendants.

“I am your servant with my children and the children of my children,” read the contracts, which were written in Demotic script – an ancient Egyptian language.

It is unclear how the temple slaves generated any income in order to pay their monthly fee, but Ryholt says that they likely performed various kinds of manual labour in their “spare” time.

“Slaves in antiquity, as in modern times, were generally allowed to earn some money on their own,” says Ryholt. However, he concedes that we are rarely told how they generated income, though he does mention one example of a literate slave called Ptolemy who made some earnings working as a “dream interpreter.”

Ultimately, the real mystery is why anybody would willingly become a slave. Ryholt argues that these individuals were not driven by some inexplicable masochist streak – as one may be tempted to assume – but were poor individuals at the bottom of the social hierarchy seeking asylum from a worse fate: forced labour.

While these contracts bound them as slaves, they also protected them from being subject to forced labours such as digging canals and other harsh and often fatal projects. However, as temple slaves, they were mainly engaged in agriculture and were exempt from forced labour.

This loophole for escaping forced labour was likely only open during a 60 year period from around 190 BC to 130 BC, with no other evidence that this practice existed during other periods in ancient Egypt. Ryholt speculates that this is because reigning monarchs could not afford losing too many potential labourers to temples in the long-run.


  1. Report this comment

    Mike Yohe said:

    I wish there were more people studying and researching the past. Thank you.
    My thoughts as a farmer and a non-academic reader.
    First. I disagree with Ryholt that the monarchs could not afford losing too many potential laborers to temples.
    Temples were an income to the monarchs. They were part of the government. When temples got to big there was a balance of earth where riches of the temples were distributed. This was done every 20 to 30 years.
    My thinking is that they probably used migrant labor in the harvest.
    Follow the olive trade.
    It could be quite possible that part of the yearly supply of olive oil was brought to the farmers by the migrant workers out of the Canaan area.
    This seasonal influx of workers must have brought down the wage for harvest workers and made it harder for the young people to be employed.
    As Egypt was controlled by the Greeks at this time the goal was not full employment but the making of money by the huge Greek land owners and farmers.
    In other words Egypt was going through a change in the way temples operated.

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    Sophie Yuen Wah Kwan said:

    It is an interesting articles.

    In my point of view, it is not difficult to link this kind of “self-sacrifice” behaviors to a religion practice. In today’s church, people baptist and announce themselves for “waiting to be used” by God, paid money offering to the church and volunteering in church activities with no paid.

    Followers would say God give them the ability to serve Him in some ways, either in physically work in church or to work outside and bring back our earning to serve God and His people. Parents also do children dedication to “offer” their children and wish the child will serve God with his ability when grown up.

    In modern society people are voluntary to do these. It is not surprise if ancient Egyptians believe the construction work is a way to serve their God, as they were willing to sacrifice for their believe.