Haremhab’s Great Edict

Having assumed royal powers, Haremhab composed and published a decree, his Great Edict. The fragmentary text is inscribed on the largest stele ever found in Egypt. G. Maspero discovered it in Karnak in 1882.

“Hear ye these commands which my majesty has made for the first time, governing the whole land, when my majesty remembered these cases of oppression. . . .” And he gave his edict to deliver “the Egyptians from the oppressions which were among them.” (1)

The king who bestowed the crown on Haremhab was exalted by him, and called “god” and Haremhab called himself his “son” ; at the same time the rule of the land preceding that of Haremhab was branded by him as a wicked rule. Here again is an incongruity, unless the king who gave him the crown was not the king who ruled Egypt as a native ruler. The rule of Haremhab was that of a king named to administer Egypt by the decree of the foreign king.

Haremhab’s Great Edict is a manifesto of his policy for keeping the state in order. The language of the Edict differs from the usual mode of expression of Egyptian edicts. It is a dry juridical document, clear and, apart from the introduction, free from the usual verbosity and figurative exaltations of Egyptian inscriptions. In such language were the legal documents of the Assyrians written.

Throughout the Edict of Haremhab emphasis is placed on the principle of justice. The Edict “might be entitled ‘The Justice of the King.’” (2)

Sennacherib wrote of himself as one “who likes justice, who established order.” (3) Haremhab used the same sort of language.

The Edict of Haremhab contains provisions for martial law. Punishment for offenders was severe: anyone interfering with boat traffic on the Nile, “his nose shall be cut off and he shall be sent to Tharu.” (4) This penalty was not known in Egypt before Haremhab;(5) but in the time of Sennacherib it was a customary punishment inflicted by the Assyrians on vanquished peoples. Sennacherib wrote in the annals of his eighth campaign, against Elam: “With sharp swords I cut off their noses.” (6)

For this reason Tharu, the place of exile of the mutilated offenders, was called Rhinocorura or Rhinocolura by Greek authors, meaning “cut-off noses.” (7) Rhinocolura is el-Arish on the Palestinian border of Egypt.(8)

Another punishment prescribed in Haremhab’s Edict is for a soldier accused of stealing hides: “one shall apply the law to him by beating him with 100 blows and 5 open wounds.” (9)

Egyptian justice was traditionally marked by its humane treatment of criminals. From the first legal text that become available under the Old Kingdom, thrugh the Middle Kingdom and much of the New Kingdom—in fact, until the time of Haremhab and the Great Edict—the punishment for most crimes involved the confiscation of a person’s property and removal from office, in some cases forced labor. Only high treason, directed agaist the person of the king, was punishable by death. Although kings had themselves portrayed as killing prisoners of war, the maiming of Egyptian prisoners by disfiguring their faces is so uncharacteristic of the Egyptian idea of justice that some scholars have looked for a foreign influence to explain the introduction of these practices in the time of Haremhab.(10) Punishments reminiscent of those mentioned in Haremhab’s Decree—beatings, cutting-off of ears, nose, lips, and pulling out of the hair—are prescribed in Assyrian law codes of the second millennium. There are no Assyrian law codes extant from the time of Sennacherib—but clearly, there was a tradition and practice of harsh punishments in Assyria. Its introduction into Egypt, however, was only possible at the time that Egypt fell under direct Assyrian domination, and his occurred for the first time in the days of Sennacherib.

The Edict confirms what we have already deduced from the study of the Memphite tomb of Haremhab and of his coronation text: the pharaoh was an appointee of his Assyrian overlord. He refers to himself in terms not dissimilar from those with which Sennacherib, on the Taylor Prism, refers to his august person, stressing love of justice and support of the needy, but vengeance upon the offenders and the insubmissive. Sennacherib introduces himself in the opening passage as “The wise ruler (literally, “shepherd” ), favorite of the great gods, guardian of the right, lover of justice, who comes to the aid of the needy, who turns (his thoughts) to pious deeds, perfect hero, mighty man; first among the princes, the flame that consumes the insubmissive . . .” (11) We have already noted Haremhab’s comparison of his overlord to a “flame.” (12)


  1. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, III. sec. 67. Cf. the translation by Maspero in Davis, The Tombs of Harmhabi and Toutankhamanou (London, 1912), pp. 45-57, and by Pflueger in The Journal of Near Eastern Studies 5 (1946), pp. 260-268.

  2. Petrie, History of Egypt, II. 251.

  3. Sennacherib’s Taylor Prism inscription, the first campaign. Luckenbill, Records of Assyria, II.

  4. Breasted, Records, Vol. III. sec. 51. W. Helck ("Das Dekret des Koenigs Haremheb,” Zeitschift fuer Aegyptische Sprache 80 (1955), 118, translates Abschneiden der Nase und Verbannung nach Sile.”

  5. D. Lorton, “The Treatment of Criminals in Ancient Egypt,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20 (197~), 24.

  6. Luckenbill, Records of Assyria, II. [While punishments inflicted upon prisoners and those meted out to prisoners of war are not strictly comparable, it must be remembered that Egypt was, under Haremhab, in the position of a subjugated country, and under thus under a form of martial law.]

  7. Strabo, XVI.ii.31; Diodorus, I.60; see the discussion on the identification of Tharu with Avaris in Volume I of Ages in Chaos, pp. 86-89.

  8. For a discussion of the location of Tharu and Avaris, see A. Gardiner in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 3 (1916), p. 101.

  9. Lorton, “The Treatment of Prisoners in Ancient Egypt,” p. 56.

  10. Ibid., pp. 50ff. Only one case of punishment by beating is known earlier, from the time of Thutmose III (pp. 23f).

  11. Luckenbill, The Annals of Sennacherib

  12. In a text from his Memphite tomb. See above, section: “Haremhab Appointed to Administer Egypt: By Whom?”