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This book is the first economic history of ancient Egypt covering the entire pharaonic period, 3000–30 BCE, and employing a New Institutional Economics approach. It argues that the ancient Egyptian state encouraged an increasingly widespread and sophisticated use of writing through time, primarily in order to better document and more efficiently exact taxes for redistribution. The increased use of writing, however, also resulted in increased documentation and enforcement of private property titles and transfers, gradually lowering their transaction costs relative to redistribution. The book also argues that the increasing use of silver as a unified measure of value, medium of exchange, and store of wealth also lowered transaction costs for high value exchanges. The increasing use of silver in turn allowed the state to exact transfer taxes in silver, providing it with an economic incentive to further document and enforce private property titles and transfers.
In the Egyptian millennium covered by this volume two major languages were spoken and written. Egyptian was the larger in terms of number of speakers, while Greek, certainly spoken in Egypt during much of the first millennium bc, became in the Ptolemaic period the dominant language of administration and the language of law. The Egyptian language is represented in its two last phases by two different scripts. The first, which developed in the Delta during the seventh century bc and spread through Egypt by the fifth century bc, is known as Demotic, characterized by a highly cursive script that developed out of the cursive Hieroglyphic writing known as Hieratic. The second phase, Coptic, began to be written around ad 300 and came to be used in legal documents by the sixth century ad, though it did not become a dominant contractual language until after the Arab conquest (3.4). This last stage of the Egyptian language deployed a Greek alphabet to which were added several signs left over from Demotic that preserved phonemes in Egyptian not found in Greek.
Thus during the three traditional phases of Egyptian political history documented in this volume (Ptolemaic, Roman, Byzantine) Egypt was a serially bilingual society. Of course, the Romans through their conquest introduced Latin as a language prominent in certain military and legal contexts (3.3, 4.3). This notwithstanding, Greek remained for Egypt, whether ruled from Rome or Constantinople, the chief administrative and legal language. It continued as such past the Arab conquest into the early eighth century ad (3.4).
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