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Jan 30, 2019

Commerce and Trade in Ancient Africa: Egypt

Free markets are base requirements for complex and developing civilizations. In this new series, Ibrahim Anoba surveys the evidence from ancient Africa.

Economic history is an interesting if undervalued field often avoided for its dependence on interdisciplinary analysis. Africa’s economic history is especially interesting and undervalued compared to other subdivisions of economic history and it is probably the area of our history with which Africans are least familiar.1 This is perhaps the reason why there is much outdated knowledge about how the early Africans engaged in trade and the characteristics of their economic cultures. But studying the economic history of Africa is central to understanding the early evolution of trade and commerce more broadly. As such, though, most of the non-mythical knowledge we have on the early African civilizations almost entirely comes from archaeological discoveries and analysis.

In this new series on Market Economies in Ancient Africa, we will look at the earliest known African civilizations: ancient Egypt, Kush, and Aksum, how they practiced international trade, and their economic cultures.

The Market Trading and Market Economy Hypothesis

To understand human behavior, economics often depends on history, and history is sometimes a product of archaeology. In the case of Africa, if there are no consistent economic interpretations of new archaeological discoveries to update our knowledge of the past, our mere theorizing will not do justice to the true economic foundations of the continent and its people.

For instance, before the excavations in 19th century Egypt, historians believed that the economy of ancient Egypt revolved around the cultivation of cereals like wheat and barley, and their rationing among citizens. This led many economic historians to believe that the ancient Egyptian society was most likely communist. However, excavations in the last few decades disprove this and we know that rationing of yields only happened among workers on public projects. This was partly because the ancient Egyptians struggled to store water to support farming through the dry seasons and yields were often low,2 not because their society was based on common farming or some sort of sharing according to need. Citizens always kept their harvest and government officials only took surpluses—when there were any—to share among public workers as a form of payment. If facts had not been updated, we would still interpret this aspect of Egyptian history wrongly.

Prior to the millennium, economic historians only went as far as writing on the economy of medieval Africa telling the remarkable stories of mighty kingdoms of Great Zimbabwe, Timbuktu, Ghana and others—most of which gained prominence from their large open markets and commercial exploits. Only a few went earlier than that as the scarcity of evidence limited the scope of their analyses. However, with new interests in Africa’s past and the many successful excavations since the early 1990s,3 we now know more about early African civilizations—enough to allow for a scientific study of their economic lives. Perhaps the exhausting requirement for an interdisciplinary approach to understand Africa’s economic history is the reason why there has not been sufficient economic interpretation of archaeological discoveries. So, how did these early Africans organize commerce? And do we have sufficient evidence to categorize their economic processes?

All the early African civilizations considered in this series had complex economies, and there is sufficient evidence to conclude that their economic cultures were largely based on market trading in a market economy. Also, contrary to misconceptions that Africa has always had a backward role in the international trading system, these early African civilizations shaped global trade. They stood at the same level in terms of economic strength as the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans.4 The ancient Egyptians, the Kushite kingdoms, and the Aksumites defined commerce and pioneered some of the enduring inventions in banking. But to justify the use of the term ‘market trading’ in qualifying their process of exchange, and why we might even call them market economies, we must first understand both terms in their historic contexts.

In his monumental work, Trade And Market In The Early Empires, Austro-Hungarian economic historian, Karl Polanyi, suggested that there were three main types of trade in the ancient world: gift trade, administered trade, and market trade. To Polanyi, market trading was central to almost all prosperous civilizations in the ancient world—including the early African civilizations. And he roughly explained how to identify one when he noted:

Commercial trade, or, in our terms, market trade, arose as a burning issue out of the circumstances of the ancient world. Money was now being earned by respectable citizens through the simple device of buying and selling. Such a thing had been unknown, or rather, was restricted to low-class persons, known as hucksters, as a rule metics [non-citizens], who eked out a living by retailing food in the marketplace. Such individuals did make a profit by buying at one price and selling at another. The organization of market trade follows the lines traced out by the supply-demand-price mechanism. The market mechanism shows its immense range of application by being adaptable to the handling not only of goods, but of every element of trade itself—storage, transportation, risk, credit, payments, etc.—through the forming of special markets for freight, insurance, short-term credit, capital, warehouse space, banking facilities, and so on.5

From the foregoing, Polanyi clearly identified the key features of what he considered market trading, which includes the organization of a market that follows the supply-demand-price mechanism, and that such a mechanism adapts to elements of a trade like risk, means of payments and storage. As we will see, all three early African civilizations considered in this series exhibited these features, albeit the justification for a market economy is even more straightforward. In a definitive explanation of the market economy, theoretical economist, Ludwig von Mises argued:

The imaginary construction of a pure or unhampered market economy assumes that there is [a] division of labor and private ownership (control) of the means of production and that consequently there is [a] market exchange of goods and services. It assumes that the operation of the market is not obstructed by institutional factors. It assumes that the government, the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion, is intent upon preserving the operation of the market system, abstains from hindering its functioning, and protects it against encroachments on the part of other people.6

To relate Mises’ explanation to the ancient world, we can take a cue from economic historian, Peter Temin. In testing the hypothesis of his claim that there was a market economy in the early Roman Empire, Temin argued on two premises: that “many individual actions and interactions are seen best as market transactions,” and that there “were enough market transactions to constitute a market economy [in Rome], that is, an economy where many resources are allocated by prices that are free to move in response to changes in underlying conditions.” Temin also writes that “markets were equilibrated by means of prices.”7 Equally, the economy of ancient Egypt, Kush, and Aksum exhibit the attributes identified by Polanyi, Mises and Temin. Although we cannot have a complete knowledge of economic life in these early African civilizations and future archaeological discoveries might even dismiss some arguments made here. Starting with Egypt, the economic prosperity of each of the three civilizations considered in this series was triggered by the fall of the other.

The Economic Evolution of  Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt was probably the first civilization in Africa.8 It was a northern African territory that succeeded Prehistoric Egypt. Its creation was the result of the unification of two separate kingdoms around 3000 BCE by Narmer, who is considered as the first Pharaoh of Egypt by most Egyptologists.9 The White Land in the south and the Red Land in the north both existed as separate entities. King Scorpion of the south had attempted to bring the north under his control but failed and Menes—also a southern King at a different time—succeeded and created the first dynasty with Memphis as administrative capital. Ancient Egypt flourished until its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE then completely declined in 2 BCE.

Many historians date the start of trade in ancient Egypt to the Predynastic Period (6000 BCE - 3150 BCE).10 This is relevant considering this period corresponds with the earliest dated archaeological evidence that illustrates a pattern of exchange among the ancient Egyptians contained in paintings and wall inscriptions. But, the culture that made the Egyptians flourished in the Predynastic Period dates even farther. This is more significant because of the innovation of the first occupants of the Nile River—ancestors of the ancient Egyptians—that changed the cultures of farming and hunting. The changes from simple stones to a combination of complex stone tools like the large pear-shaped weapon often called the Acheulean hand axes, and natural fibers like jute and flax made hunting more efficient. Other inventions like mud shelters created storages for excess yields and food rationing. Prior to these innovations, the Nile occupants had no means of saving their kills for long. There were also no durable shelters for human aside from the caves. The Egyptian society improved drastically in the last part of the early Neolithic Period—the period before Predynastic Egypt—around 6,000 BCE. The changes marked a new phase in the organization of human society from hunter-gathering to the domestication of animals and a more sophisticated agricultural process. It marked the invention of tools and weapons that made the construction of durable settlements easier marking a shift to a pastoral culture. The creation of granaries and mitigation of river water around the territories eased cultivation. It also means that the ancient Egyptians had claims to abundant land with which they cultivated and made an extra harvest. It is from these changes that the first division of the ownership of the means of production emerge between the state officials and the nobles. In General History of Africa Volume II, French Egyptologist, Jean Yoyotte,  explained this divide when he noted:

Average yields were good (in ancient Egypt): the surpluses fed the large numbers of government officials and the workers in medium-sized places of employment (shipyards and weapon factories, spinning mills attached to certain temples, etc.). Through their control over food resources, which varied according to the period, the temple authorities and high officials exercised powers of patronage.11

The improvements in the means of food production and storage meant that less labor was needed on the farms. This allowed ancient Egyptians to spend time on new endeavors that led to the many craftworks and artifacts we associate with the ancient Egyptians today. They also designed new shelters and build metallic tools better than those made from fibres and stones. They started to exhibit numerous skill sets with each individual providing solutions to the most fundamental needs, especially in food and security. This watered the grounds for the emergence of a domestic economy while the desert also offered an abundance of resources including dyes and hard stones.

The green and black dyes were used in optical treatments and the hard stones like the fine limestone from Toura, Silsila sandstone, Aswan granite, and Hatnub alabaster were used in architecture and sculpture.12 Gradually, one Egyptian desired the commodity or services of another and both would agree to a barter trade. Through these small exchanges, a market emerged in the most rudimentary form. As the Egyptian society developed, its social system became class-based with a central administration which did not control the barter trade. The Pharaoh was the political head, and power was devolved among institutions like the temples, the harems and the local administrative councils. Interestingly, this was not reflective of the economic life in ancient Egypt, which was highly decentralized. Since the economy was based on the large-scale cultivation of cereal and grains, citizens consumed their harvest to their satisfaction and stored excess harvests in public warehouses when there were no proper storages for them at home. They could collect their items whenever they pleased. To create their own wealth, local administrators acquired surpluses from harvest and store them in granaries separate from the citizens’. These surpluses were in turn used as means of payment for laborers and craftsmen on public projects.

Perhaps the most significant part of the economic evolution of ancient Egypt was the permission for citizens to harvest and store grains, which created a middle class. Since the economy was based on grain ownership, we can also see the granaries as an early version of banks. Oftentimes, peasant families worked extra hard on their farms during the good seasons and saved most of their grains for the bad seasons. During a famine, for instance, they would barter with the nobles by exchanging their stored grains for higher commodities like land. This, coupled with an open local market system, made poor hard-working citizens wealthy. More significantly, storage in these warehouses was not forceful but voluntary. The prosperity created by exchange and the ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians led to a desire among the early Pharaohs to improve their civilization by initiating trade expeditions.

Trade and Commerce in Ancient Egypt

Following the unification of the northern and southern territories, Menes initiated trade between ancient Egypt and other civilizations along the Nile River. Succeeding pharaohs followed his path, especially during the reign of Hatshepsut. She was the fifth pharaoh of Egypt with important accomplishments that shaped intercontinental trade. Hatshepsut sanctioned and led the most famous Egyptian expedition to the land of Punt in 1493 BCE. Puntland was a coastal land most likely along modern-day Djibouti, Eritrea or Southern Arabia. Based on the productive outcomes of Hatshepsut’s expedition to Punt, most historians consider Punt the traditional trade partner of ancient Egypt.13

Also, during her reign, Queen Hatshepsut initiated the construction of large sail ships that crisscrossed the Red Sea and the Sinai Peninsula in large flotillas carrying items like linen, grain, and papyrus in exchange for Punt’s ebony, obsidian (volcanic glass), wild animals and incense.14 Her expeditions also reached other cities along the Dead Sea and Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba. This commercial outlook was sustained by her successor, Thutmose III who traded for rich loot in Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean. Under both monarchs, the Egyptians sailed anywhere they could find new commodities that may improve the abundance of their kingdom. Some commodities were artworks and treasures used to beautify tombs and temples, and a rare but expensive commodity, myrrh. Myrrh can be compared to gold in the ancient world based on its rarity. It is a resin used in making incense, which was necessary for devotion in early pre-Abrahamic religions. Archaeological evidence shows that burning incense was a common temple ritual in ancient Egypt and its importance and rarity contributed to the increasing number and size of trade missions.

Once myrrh and other goods reached the ancient Egyptian ports, merchants collected them in dozens of carts attended by laborers and camels that hauled the items away to different cities. The merchants traded with locals who in turn displayed these goods in the open markets. Anyone with the capacity to buy or exchange by barter was free to engage in such markets without control from the Pharaoh or local administrators (except when necessary to maintain peaceful order). On the state level, ancient Egyptian pharaohs realized very early that public constructions, grains, and natural resources from the desert alone cannot deliver civilization, hence their various trading expeditions to kingdoms near and far. These were integral to the economic domination of Egypt and its territorial expansion. It is possible that they made the same commercial strides into the heart of Africa going by the details of some discoveries in modern sub-Saharan Africa, although evidence that Egypt traded south of Nubia is still contentious.

A statuette of Osiris from 7 BCE was discovered in Zaire (modern-day Congo) on the banks of the River Lualaba. Archaeologists have discovered a statue inscribed with Thutmose III’s cartouche south of the Zambezi River. There was also a likelihood of trade contacts between Byzantine Egypt and the Empire of Ghana—also known as Wagadou in modern western Mali and southeastern Mauritania.15 But according to Hamid Zayed, who was part of the UNESCO study team on ancient Egypt’s relations in Africa, “the circumstances in which these objects were discovered makes it impossible at the present time to conclude that they indicate the existence of relations in the seventh or fifteenth centuries before our era between Egypt” and inner Africa.16

Even if the ancient Egyptians were not as involved in trade with inner African kingdoms as they were with those across the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, their domestic economy was impressive. Unlike other civilizations that succeeded the ancient Egyptians, they did not have the luxury of a coinage system or any means that combine the functions of a unit of account, means of payment and store of value. Trade was conducted through a barter system. Each commodity had a fixed price or worth, so every actor in the market knew what would be exchanged for which item. According to some study, early Egyptians also conducted trade by measuring the proportional value of products through the shat system and other forms of proto-currencries. The shat was most likely a gold ring of a fixed weight worth about 7.5 grams of gold. Evidence of exchange in shat can be seen in a recorded conversation between two traders around 2600 BCE:

I acquired this house against payment from scribe Chenti [crocodile-god sometimes identified as the falcon-god in ancient Egyptian religion], I paid ten shat for it, namely fabric (worth) three shat; a bed (worth) four shat; material (worth) three shat.” To which the defendant declared: “You made the payments (of 10 shat) completely by ‘conversion’ through items representing these values.”17

Ancient Egyptians also used another weight unit called deben in trading value of a commodity. Unlike the shat, Deben was made of copper and it was for the most part of ancient Egypt’s history, the primary unit of measurement, not the shat—the reason might be because of its portability. One deben was worth 20 shat and 90 grams of gold. Deben was used in measuring the value of food and household accessories. For instance, a liter of wine was worth 1 deben, a shirt was 5 deben, a bird was 1/4 deben, 25 fish was 1 deben, sandals were 2 deben, 24 for the lease of land, etcetera. This commercial culture was sustained far after the decline of ancient Egypt by other civilizations like the New Kingdom of Egypt.

In Part 2 of this series, we will examine the Kushite civilizations. Kush was an ancient Nubian kingdom that flourished in the late Bronze Age in Africa and succeeded the New Kingdom of Egypt. It was probably the second earliest African civilization after ancient Egypt with which it shared some  cultural and commercial similarities.


[1] George B. N Ayittey, Indigenous African Institutions (New York: Transnational Publishers, 1991) pg. 279

[2] In his chapter titled “Pharaonic Egypt: Society, Economy and Culture” in General History of Africa Volume II pg. 112, Jean Yoyotte  thought that the unification of Egypt in 3400 BCE was probably a result of the Thinite kings’ desires to control the irrigation system central to food production or for an organized distribution of food resources.

[3] Aside from the major excavation pioneered by European archaeologists in the 1800s, interesting discoveries in recent years like the tombs of Thoth priests preserved in an ancient necropolis near Minya, south of Cairo, which was discovered in 2018, might tell us more about the role that the Temple and the priests played in ancient Egypt. New interest has also seen non-European participants in the field. In November of 2018, the first set of Chinese archaeologists started excavation works at the Montu Temple in Luxor. The project was part of an agreement between China and Egypt to promote and protect the history of both countries.

[4] Works that attempted to study these three civilizations like Charles Freeman’s Egypt, Greece, and Rome, revealed that the social structures were different among these societies—even while they shared similar gods—there was little to no difference between the economic strength of each at its height.

[5] Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry W. Pearson, Trade And Market In The Early Empires (Washington D.C.: Henry Regnery Company, June 1971) pg. 264

[6] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (Liberty Fund Inc.; SLP Edition, February 2010) pg. 237

[7] Peter Temin, The Roman Market Economy, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press) pg. 6

[8] The ancient Egyptians are among the earliest civilization known to science and most likely the first in Africa. Although the history of ancient Nubia—which was perhaps the closest to the ancient Egyptians—often overlap with general Egyptian history, the earliest known Nubian civilization only took root with the Kerma culture in 2500 BCE. This was many years after the unification of Egypt around 3000 BCE.

[9] In the chronology of Manetho—an ancient Egyptian priest and historian who lived in the early 3rd century BCE and the author of Aegyptiaca (“History of Egypt”)—Menes (c. 2925 BCE) was the first Pharaoh of Egypt. Greek historian, Herodotus also corroborate this detail in accounts of his brief travel to Egypt. Although, historians believed that Narmer (c. 3150 BCE) unified Upper and Lower Egypt around 3000 BCE and was perhaps the first Pharaoh.They agree that Menes and Narmer was most likely the same individual. Narmer has also been considered to be either the King Scorpion or his son.

[10] Predynastic Egypt was the time that preceded Pharaonic Egypt (before the unification in 3000 BCE or 3100 BCE). This period is divided into four significant times: Early Predynastic (5500 BCE - 4000 BCE); the Old Predynastic (4500 BCE to 3500 BCE)—the time overlap here is due to diversity along the length of the Nile; the Middle Predynastic (3500 BCE - 3200 BCE); and the Late Predynastic (3100 BCE - First Dynasty of King Menes, or Narmer).

[11] Jean Yoyote, “Pharaonic Egypt Society, Economy and Culture,” General History of Africa Volume II ed. G. Mokhtar (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1990)pg. 113

[12]Alfred Lucas and J. R Harris, Ancient Egyptian Building Materials and Industries (Massachusetts: Courier Corporation, 1999) pg. 71

[13] Hatshepsut initiated trade relations with Punt during the nineteenth year of her reign. Trade relations between the two kingdoms benefited each party and Egypt especially. Evidence of this rich relationship is preserved in a 3500-year-old stone carving at the Deir el-Bahri Temple near Thebes. The carving describes trade between Punt and Egypt in detail.

[14] Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1995) p.231.

[15] Quoted in Jean Leclant, “The Empire of Kush: Napata and Meroe,” General History of Africa Volume II ed. G. Mokhtar (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1990) pg. 278-297

[16] Hamid Zayed “Egypt’s Relations with the rest of Africa,” General History of Africa Volume II ed. G. Mokhtar (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1990) pg. 136

[17] Didier Gentet and Jérôme Maucourant, “The question of money in ancient Egypt,” La Revue du MAUSS (Paris: Anti-Utilitarian Social Science Movement, October 1991) pg. 157-164

This is part of a series