Most of the people reading this will probably have two questions right off the bat: “Are these always going to be about history?” and “What the heck is a usufructuary right?” My answer to the first is “no, I promise. I’m just a history nerd.” My answer to the second is, “It’s super weird.” Usufruct is a manner of holding property in which a person enjoys the benefits of a property which is titled to another, generally for a lifetime. The concept is closely tied to Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs.

As a polytheistic society, the Ancient Egyptians believed in many gods. All the world’s land belonged to the gods. However, in addition to being a polytheistic society, Ancient Egypt also operated under a theocratic system of government, meaning that the Pharaoh was believed to be the incarnation of the sun god, Horus. Thus, as the godly representative on earth, all the world’s lands (or at least those within the Egyptian boundaries) belonged to the Pharaoh. While conveyances of land between family members and buyers and sellers were well documented throughout Egypt’s history, the understanding was that at the end of the day, the citizens of Ancient Egypt were all just the Pharaoh’s tenants, with no real rights to the land on which they dwelled and farmed.

Early in Egypt’s history, it is documented that Pharaoh Sesostris divided Egypt’s land up equally between his subjects (with the understanding that this was a usufructuary arrangement). However, the land didn’t stay evenly divided for long. The practice of Pharaohs rewarding citizens and outsiders alike for their service quickly became a regular practice. Religious centers were also regularly endowed with additional lands, creating an uneven spread of wealth in the ancient realm.

By 664 BC, however, so many outsiders whose cultures did not recognize usufructuary rights had been granted lands by the Pharaoh that his nationwide claim to title began to slip. Soon, the Greeks took over in the form of Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty, that which brought forth the famed Cleopatra, and the concept of title continued to evolve. By the 2nd century BC, lands initially designated as usufructuary became considered to be what we would call privately owned land and could be rightfully inherited by descendants (including daughters, yay Ancient Egypt for exhibiting some equal rights!). Eventually, true sales of land were taking place with what would constitute an ancient deed and requiring the use of witnesses to the sale.

Also of note, and mentioned in the last Title Tidbit, was the skill of the Ancient Egyptian harpedonaptae, or land surveyors! The Ancient Egyptian surveyors would use ropes with knots tied at precise intervals to determine the length of the land’s boundaries. Also included in the harpedonaptae toolbox were the merchet, a staff with a slitted top, and the groma, a tool that helped align right angles. By looking through the merchet at the groma, a surveyor could determine the proper alignment for his rope to get stunningly accurate measurements.

Ancient Egypt had a long journey from the usufructuary system of old to laying the foundations of modern transfers of title. There is so much to cover about Ancient Egyptian title conveyances, and unfortunately, so little time. Perhaps, we will discuss more in a future Title Tidbit! Until next time. 😊