In Egypt, the Nile provided practically all the water, and an enormously complicated system for handling the great yearly river inundation had been developed.1
Herodotus gives a glimpse of how the inundation of the Nile influenced agriculture under Pharao Sethos I (1318–1304 B.C., wrongly called Sesostris in the text). After having described the construction of irrigation canals throughout Egypt, Herodotus (II 109) continues:
Any man who was robbed by the river of a part of his land would
come to Sesostris and declare what had befallen him; then the king
would send men to look into it and measure the space by which the
land was diminished, so that thereafter it should pay in proportion to
the tax originally imposed.
(transl. A.D. Godley, Loeb Classical Library)
This passage correctly reflects the main aspect of water legislation in Pharaonic Egypt. The only source of law was the Pharao (and the gods), and all the water belonged to the king. In consequence, and in contrast to other Mediterranean societies, private parties could not own water and water could not be sold. The right to use water was intimately connected to the farming of land.2
Pharaonic legislation in general is practically unknown,3 and this is certainly true for water legislation. It is possible that water use for irrigation was based more on tradition then on specific laws, but that royal decrees were needed to confirm such ancient practices. Some documents refer to water rights that certain communities had received from the Pharao.4
With the exception of documents relating to the flooding of the Nile, we likewise have few legal texts concerning water under the
1 The papyrolological sources on the practical aspect of the administration of
water for irrigation are extremely rich, as has been made evident by Bonneau 1993,
a monumental work. But few sources pertain to the legal aspect as defined in this
2 Bonneau 1982, 70–1; Goyon 1982, 65.
3 Seidl 1964, 1–48; Goyon 1982; Selb 1993, 117–25.
4 Goyon 1982, 65–6.