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Ancient World: The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

The Sahara is a desert on the African content. It spans an area of 9,200,000 square km or 3,600,000 sq mi. It is the largest hot desert in the world, the third-largest desert overall.
Dahshur Pyramid - March 2023
The Bent Pyramid of Dahshure, Cairo, Egypt

Africa has endured slavery for thousands of years.

The Trans-Saharan Slave Zone

Sahara is the arabic word for desert. In ancient times the enslaved were transported through this hostile, barren landscape from Sub-Saharan regions, that is those positioned south of the Sahara, namely Central Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa, and West Africa. Their destination was North Africa, which is a difficult to define but today encompasses Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Babylon - the oldest reference to slavery

Around 2100 BC The Babylon King, Hammurabi, laid out the law of ancient Mesopotamia regarding private contact and business based on economic status and gender. His Code is one of the oldest journals of written law that we have.

Hammurabi Code's 15th law gives us a clue to the existence of slaves in Babylon, it says: If anyone take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.

The Old Kingdom - Egypt - 2686 - 2181 BCE

The Old Kingdom is the name given to the period from the Third Dynasty through the Sixth Dynasty It is a time characterised by massive, ambitious, building projects and is also known as the Age of the Pyramids or the Age of the Pyramid Builders.

The Pyramid Fields, are an expansive area of the Sahara desert spanning 30 kilometres. They lie west of the River Nile and touch the border of Libya. Today the area is also known as the Memphis Necropolis (Memphis was the ancient capital of Egypt). This is a World Heritage listed site described as an open air museum.

King Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara or Sakkara, Cairo
King Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara, Cairo

The Third Dynasty - c.2650-2613 BCE

King Djoser or Zoser ordered the building of Egypt's first ground-breaking pyramid in Saqqara in the Memphis necropolis. Imhotep was his architect.

There are no written accounts of slaves used in the building of the Saqqara aka Sakkara or Step Pyramid. It is the the earliest stone building in Egypt.

King Sneferu's 2nd attempt, the Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, Cairo

Sneferu (2613-2589 BCE), was the tenacious King who persisted through trial and error to show the world how to build pyramids. Pharaoh was not a name used at this time.

The Bent Pyramid was the largest building in the history of the world at this time. The corners of the pyramid were built on unstable ground resulting in cracks. The Red Pyramid of Dahshur, his third pyramid, is Sneferu’s burial place.

Documents relating to the capture and transportation of slaves date back to Sneferu's time. Slaves were prisoners of war or raids.

Sneferu's international policies took him far and wide. Stone was a readily available commodity in Egypt but wood was harder to come by. He travelled to obtain Cedars of Lebanon for boats, ships and furniture, doorways and mined Turquoise in Sinai for Jewellery. Alongside pioneering pyramids he also built huge complex irrigation systems.

Historians have found inscriptions describing Sneferu as a Smiter of Barbarians. He travelled with a huge army and with everything he needed to obtain the help and goods he required. He is known to have raided Nubia (modern day Sudan) and would have returned with those taken captive in tow.

Foreign prisoners of war were routinely enslaved through conquest in these days but work on his vast projects was not reliant on them.

Khufu, one of the Great Pyramids of Giza
Khufu, one of the Great Pyramids of Giza

King Khufu or Cheops succeeded his

father, Sneferu to become the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty. He the building of the largest of the Great Pyramids of Giza which is named Khufu, after him. It took twenty three years to complete.

Khufu traded with Byblos which is known as Lebanon today. The Cedars from Lebanon were highly prized. He is also famous for developing Egypt's mining industry where Copper, Turquoise, Alabaster, Limestone and granite were quarried.

Herodotus, the Greek historian famously criticised Khufu, declaring him to be a vicious tyrant, who used slaves to build his pyramid. Some Egyptologists today however, wonder if his comments are overly defamatory considering the shift in understanding about the use of slaves in ancient Egypt.

Khafre's Pyramid, Great Pyramids, Giza, Cairo
Khafre's Pyramid, Great Pyramids, Giza, Cairo

Khafre was the son of Khufu. He was the fourth ruler of the Fourth Dynasty and, like his father, built the second largest of the Great Pyramids of Giza, named Khafre after himself. He reigned for approximately sixty six years between 2554 BC to 2530 BC. Herodotus believes he reigned for fifty six years.

Sculptures and artwork abounded in Khafre's time, leading historians to believe he was both very wealthy and successful:

Artisans in the Pharaoh’s era pushed the boundaries of their technical abilities in not just the usage of diorite but other materials like grewacke, quartzite and limestone. Those technical advancements made during Khafre’s reign would go on to have lasting impact on the Old Kingdom era and beyond.

Herodotus also described Khafre as a tyrant, a cruel man like his father Khufu before him. There is little information about him other than vague comments about a problematic succession. There are also unsubstantianted rumours about Khafre being born to a wife of low rank and of him obtaining the throne through treachery but there is little evidence to prove this.

The Great Sphinx, Khafre, Giza, Cairo, Egypt
The Great Sphinx, Khafre, Giza

Khafre is attributed for building the Great Sphinx, a huge statue positioned in front of his pyramid at Giza.

The Sphinx is 73 metres long and 20 metres high. It features a lion’s body and a human head adorned with a royal headdress.

The Sphinx was made from a single slab of limestone and experts estimate that one hundred workers would have taken three years to complete it.

The granite and other resources needed for Khafre's construction projects came from a quarry in the Nubian desert (Sudan). It is likely that people were enslaved and workers were recruited during these trips.

The Middle Kingdom - approximately 2040 to 1782 BC

From the Middle Kingdom onwards we find that Egyptian culture differentiated between servants aka locally owned or rented servitude and slaves. Whilst there are a number of articles written on the topic, all are based on limited evidence.

When researching this topic I found some tend to blur timelines, confusing old and middle kingdom attitudes without commenting on an overlap which makes it difficult to accurately place the content. On the surface, without claiming to be anything like an expert in this field, it does seem fair to say that labourers were made up of a good mix of the enslaved and hired labour and that the common ideas about a work force entirely made up of multitudes of captives dragged away as the spoil of raids and battles are lacking in understanding of the scope of building.

Slaves who were foreign prisoners of war could be bought and sold but it was also possible to release them from servituted. They could become free members of Egyptian society. Slaves were also permitted to marry a free Egyptian, change their name and advance themselves in social rankings. They could also own property.

Ideas of individual freedom were also different to those we have today. Egyptologists believe that all people had strictly designated social roles and, regardless of whether they were slave or free, they were not able to easily change them.

The following sources add to our understanding of ancient Egypt and slavery:

Slavery and Archaeology

Recent archeological discoveries prove that a substantial labour force was brought in to work on the Great Pyramids in Giza and, that the worker village facilities provided for them were a tad too grand for slaves.

Around 2005 archaeologists discovered a previously buried working man's village dating back to approximately 4500 BC. They believe this village onced housed thousands of people brought in to build the great pyramids of Giza.

... it was incredible to watch as the finds came in. There were ancient name stamps and seals – bureaucratic evidence of how the officials kept track of the huge operation to feed and house the workers. Animal bones found at the village show that the workers were getting the best cuts of meat. More than anything, there were bread jars, hundreds and thousands of them – enough to feed all the workers, who slept in long, purpose-built dormitories.

Slaves would never have been treated this well, so we think that these labourers were recruited from farms, perhaps from a region much further down the Nile, near Luxor. The labourers would have been enticed by the mix of high-quality food and the opportunity to work on such a prestigious project (Science Focus).

Slavery and the Economy

Egyptologist from Adam Mickiewicz University and the Archaeological Museum in Poznań,, Poland tells us Egypt was not dependent upon slave labour in the way the Roman Empire was.

Slaves in our contemporary understanding of the word were basically only prisoners of war, foreigners" - says Dr. wiek. Their largest number appeared on the Nile in the imperial period, the New State (1550-1069 BC), when the Egyptian borders expanded greatly as a result of successful conquests. The largest number of Asians, inhabitants of Syro-Palestine, and many Nubians from the area of "black Africa" came to the land of the pharaohs this way.

"But the economy for Egypt had never been based on slavery, as was the case in Rome, for example. Forced labourers were not a homogeneous and cohesive social group" - says the Egyptologist.

Without their work, the foundations of the state would not crumble.

Slavery on the record offer thoughtful insight into the conversation:

Various documents during this period mention for the first time commercial transactions involving workers. One text mentions the purchase of three male workers and seven female ones to add to those inherited by his father, while another individual added twenty “heads,” namely slaves or servants to his estate. That they were purchased and added to an inheritance seems to indicate a form of long-term servitude or slavery, but again the terms are ambiguous, especially heads.

... regarding the case of specific Asiatics, who were captured in military campaigns, reduced to slavery, and then entrusted to individuals as property, who could then be inherited or sold. Taken as a whole, both native-born Egyptians and foreigners could thus serve as slaves/servants. Antonio Loprieno notes .

... of the seventy-nine servants presented in the list on the verso side of the Brooklyn Papyrus as belonging to a single owner, at least thirty-three were Egyptians!

... it must be stressed that there is no consensus as to the precise legal statuses of those called slaves/servants”or workers.


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