Borderscape Blog 4: Pharaonic Terms for Boundaries

The ancient Egyptian language has two terms that denote boundaries: tash and djer. Tash is a term that corresponds to boundaries of all different kinds, from the rim of a plate to the edge of a field. It is also used to describe political boundaries, though these boundaries often look rather different than the ones we are familiar with in the modern world—they can refer to a linear “border” or a much wider area. In fact, tash is sometimes translated as “sphere of influence” or even “area”, though a general meaning of “boundary” is most common—particularly given the definitions of “boundary”, “frontier”, and “border” we discussed last week.

In royal contexts, tashu (Egyptian plurals are marked by the suffix -u or –ut depending on their grammatical gender) are especially prominent during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom. They are the kinds of boundaries delimited on Senwosret III’s famous Semna stelae from Years 8 and 16 of his reign. The phrase sewesekh tashu kemet, “broadening the boundaries of Egypt,” is perhaps the closest Pharaonic sources come to a synonym for “imperialism” during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom.

Djer is usually translated as “limit” or “border”, but this term tends to be used in reference to more cosmic, permanent boundaries. A core difference between the terms is that tashu are made (almost always by the ruler), while djeru are more passive: the djeru of other polities are “brought” or “gotten” by the pharaoh. If the tashu of Egypt were constructed and mutable, djeru were not. The key difference between tashu and djeru thus rested on the (perceived) ability of human action to alter them. My own research focuses on this aspect of Egyptian border-making, since the distinction between these terms implies a view of boundaries that is quite different from our own. Unlike Bradley Parker’s work, which situates all boundaries on a spectrum of permeability from fluid frontiers to rigid borders, the Egyptians seem to have evaluated boundaries in terms of their relative permanence! None of this lessens the impact or utility of Parker’s incredible research, but it does suggest that the ancient Egyptians sometimes approached the world around them in radically different ways than we are used to today.

Anja Kootz suggests that tashu represent the political sphere of influence of the Egyptian state, while djeru correspond to the territory of Egypt defined by the community of nomes (a kind of Egyptian equivalent to a province, especially in later periods). If tashu were political boundaries, djeru perhaps imply certain kinds of cultural, natural, or economic boundaries as well. This cogent definition works better in some periods than others, and it should be noted that even determining where djeru were located is often quite challenging in many periods. Moreover, it is important to remember that all boundaries are social constructs, and establishing a djer was as much a social project as establishing a tash.

Bibliography:

Galán, J. Victory and Border: Terminology Related to Egyptian Imperialism in the XVIIIth Dynasty. Hildesheim: Gebrüder Gerstenberg, 1995.

Kootz, A. “State-Territory and Borders versus Hegemony and its Installations: Imaginations Expressed by the Ancient Egyptians during the Classical Periods.” In The Power of Walls: Fortifications in Ancient Northeastern Africa: Proceedings of the International Workshop Held at the University of Cologne 4th-7th August 2011, eds. F. Jesse and C. Vogel, 33-51. Köln: Heinrich-Barth Institut, 2013.

One Comment

  1. Maria Emilia

    Dear M. Carmela,
    Your short lesson sounds music to me: I am a former student of Ancient Egyptian texts and I love to refresh my limited knowledge!
    Thanks a lot

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