Coptos Decrees

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Fragment of the Decree d, issued by Pepi II, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Coptos Decrees are 18 complete or fragmentary ancient Egyptian royal decrees ranging from the 6th (2345–2180 BC) to the late 8th Dynasty (c. 2170 BC). The decrees are numbered with letters of the Latin alphabet, starting with "Coptos Decree a" and ending with "Coptos Decree r". The earliest of the series were issued by Pepi I and Pepi II Neferkare to favor the clergy of the temple of Min,[1] while the others are datable to the reign of various kings of the 7th/8th Dynasties, and concern various favors granted to an important official from Coptos named Shemay and to his family members.[2] The decrees reflect the waning of the power of the pharaoh in the early First Intermediate Period.[3]

The Coptos decrees should not be confused with the Coptos Decree of Nubkheperre Intef, a unique document datable to the much later 17th Dynasty.

Discovery and original location

Ten of the decrees were discovered during the 1910–1911 excavations of the temple of Min at Coptos by Adolphe Reinach and Raymond Weill, working for the Société française des fouilles archéologiques.[4] The decrees had been carefully stowed under the ruins of a Roman mudbrick structure.[3] The remaining decrees originate either from the same excavations or from illegal operations by local people that were sold in Luxor in 1914 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The decrees are inscribed on limestone slabs 7–20 cm (2.8–7.9 in) thick, 100–200 cm (39–79 in) long and 50–180 cm (20–71 in) high which were intended to be set in the mudbrick wall of a gateway or vestibule inside the temple of Min.[3] As time passed, the space available on the temple walls diminished and the Coptos decrees where dismounted and put away to make space for newer decrees which explains their find spot.[3]

Political implications

Decline of the Old Kingdom

The decrees are symptomatic of the powers held by the nomarchs at the very end of the Old Kingdom and beginning of the First Intermediate Period. Decrees g to r are addressed to Shemay, his son Idy and one of Idy's brothers. Shemay, already the nomarch of Coptos, is promoted first to governor of Upper Egypt and then to vizier of Upper Egypt, while his son Idy takes his place after him.[3]

Alan H. Gardiner and William C. Hayes find decree r particularly remarkable because, while it is emitted by the pharaoh, the decree is solely concerned with the welfare and properties of the vizier Idy.[3] For Hayes this reflects the fact that at the end of the 8th Dynasty, royal power had diminished so much that it owed its survival to puissant nomarchs, upon whom it could only bestow titles and honours.[3] The nomarch of Coptos would have been particularly cherished by the Memphite rulers who were threatened by the nomarchs of Middle Egypt, especially those of Herakleopolis, who would soon overthrow them and found the 9th Dynasty.[3]

Coptos Dynasty

The discovery of the decrees was initially considered by Kurt Sethe to support the hypothesis of the existence of a "Dynasty of Coptos", a local lineage of more or less independent rulers during the First Intermediate Period, to be identified with the issuers of the decrees subsequent to the 6th Dynasty.[5] This hypothesis is nowadays considered implausible as was shown by Hayes and others, in particular it is highly unlikely that a king reigning from Coptos would appoint a vizier over the same area.[6][7]

Complete list

The following complete list is based on William C. Hayes's 1946 publication "Royal decrees from the temple of Min at Coptus":[3]

Coptos Decrees
Name Author Subject Addressed to
a[8] Pepi I Granting tax immunity to the Ka-chapel of his mother Iput[9]
b[10] Pepi II Granting tax immunity to the temple of Min
c[11] Pepi II Granting tax immunity to the temple of Min
d[12] Pepi II Granting tax immunity to the institution 'Min-causes-the-foundation-of-Neferkare-to-flourish'
e[13] Pepi II Dealing with the personnel and possessions of a temple in the 22nd nome of Upper Egypt
f Unknown 6th Dynasty king Uncertain, mentions Upper Egypt
g[14] Unknown 7th/8th Dynasty king, commonly identified with Neferkaure Upkeeping a statue of Pepi II and the institution 'Min-causes-the-foundation-of-Neferkare-to-flourish' Governor of Upper Egypt Shemay and possibly his son Idy
h[15] Neferkaure Specifying the offerings and services to be made in the temple of Min Shemay
i[16] Unknown 7th/8th Dynasty king commonly identified with Neferkaure Putting Shemay in charge of 22 nomes in Upper-Egypt Shemay (vizier from now)
j[17] Neferkauhor Granting titles to Shemay's wife Nebyet as well as a personal bodyguard Shemay
k Neferkauhor Assigning mortuary-priests for the Ka-chapels of Shemay and Nebyet Shemay
l[18] Neferkauhor Ordering an inventory of the properties of the institution 'Min-causes-the-foundation-of-Neferkare-to-flourish' under the supervision of Shemay Shemay
m Neferkauhor Putting Shemay's son Idy in charge of the seven southernmost nomes of Upper-Egypt Shemay
n Neferkauhor Giving a brother of Idy and son of Shemay a post in the temple of Min Shemay
o[19] Neferkauhor Making Shemay's son Idy the Governor of the seven southernmost nomes of Upper-Egypt Governor of Upper Egypt Idy
p[20] Neferkauhor Informing Idy of the appointment of his brother in the temple of Min Idy
q[20] Neferkauhor Informing Shemay's son, brother of Idy, of his appointment to the temple of Min Shemay's son, brother of Idy
r[21] Horus Demedjibtawy, likely Neferirkare Protecting Idy's funerary monuments and properties[22] Idy (now vizier)


  1. Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs: an introduction, Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 108; quote: "But perhaps the most persuasive evidence of their short-lived domination is offered by some inscriptions discovered by Raymond Weill at Coptos in 1910-11. Under the ruins of a structure of Roman date were found carefully stowed away a number of decrees carved in hieroglyphic on slabs of limestone, some dating from the reign of Pepy II, and most of them designed to protect the temple of Min and its priesthood from interference and the corvee. But among them as many as eight were apparently dispatched on the same day in the first year of a King Neferkare, the last king but one in the series of the Abydos list. The addressee was in each case the vizier Shemai and each royal command was concerned either with him or some member of his family. One of the decrees confirmed him in his vizierate in all the twenty-two nomes of Upper Egypt, while another recorded the appointment of his son Idi to the post of Governor of Upper Egypt in the seven southernmost nomes. A third decree grants precedence over all other women to Shemai's wife Nebye, who is described as a 'King's eldest daughter', and perhaps even more remarkable is a fourth making elaborate arrangements for the funerary cult of both husband and wife in all the temples of the land. There is no hint of unrest or political disturbance in any of these texts, though we may possibly read into them a desperate anxiety on the king's part to conciliate one specially powerful Upper Egyptian magnate."
  2. Toby Wilkinson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra, London, Bloomsbury, 2010, ISBN 978-0-7475-9949-4, pp. 121–22.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 William C. Hayes, "Royal decrees from the temple of Min at Coptus", JEA 32, 1946, pp. 3–23.
  4. Raymond Weill: Les décrets royaux de l’ancien empire égyptien trouvés à Koptos en 1910 ; communication lue à la séance du 27 janvier 1911, in: Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 55e année, N. 3, 1911. pp. 268–275, available online.
  5. Kurt Sethe, Georg Steindorff (eds.), Urkunden des Alten Reichs (= Urkunden des ägyptischen Altertums, Band I). J. C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, Leipzig 1933, pp. 214; 280–307.
  6. William C. Hayes, in The Cambridge Ancient History, vol 1, part 2, 1971 (2008), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-077915, p. 198.
  7. Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford, Blackwell Books, 1992.
  8. Cairo Museum 41890
  9. Margaret Bunson: Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Infobase Publishing, 2009, ISBN 1438109970, see "Koptos Decree" p. 207, available online
  10. Cairo Museum 41893
  11. Cairo Museum 41491
  12. Cairo Museum 43052, MET 14.7.10 [1]
  13. Old Musée Guimet, now in Musée des Confluences
  14. Cairo Museum 41892
  15. Cairo Museum, MET 14.7.14
  16. Cairo Museum 43053
  17. MET 14.7.13
  18. Cairo Museum 41895
  19. MET 14.7.11
  20. 20.0 20.1 MET 14.7.12
  21. Cairo Museum JE 41894
  22. M. A. Moret: "Chartes d'immunité dans l'Ancien Empire égyptien", in Journal Asiatique, 1917 (Sér. 11/T.10), Paris, translation of the decree available online


  • William C. Hayes: The Scepter of Egypt: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 1, From the Earliest Times to the End of the Middle Kingdom , MetPublications, 1978, pp. 136–138, available online
  • Hans Goedicke, Koptosdekrete. In: Wolfgang Helck (ed.), Lexikon der Ägyptologie, Band III, Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1980, ISBN 3-447-02100-4, p. 740.