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The Scribal Life and Scribal Schools of Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians were one of the most prolific peoples of the ancient world when it came to writing. We really have to thank the countless scribes who not only helped in reporting government, military construction, religious and economic activities, but whose work is also invaluable to us. Believe it or not, but in ancient Egypt scribes were the largest group of workers after farmers, at least during the New Kingdom era that started around 1550 BC. That was the time when Egypt was arguably at its height in terms of wealth and political influence. However, the scribal arts and the profession of being a scribe goes back much further to at least Egypt’s first dynasty around 3000 BC, if not earlier.

During that great span of time, there were only a handful of scribes whose primary job was that of a priest, and they used the few hieroglyphs known to have existed at that time to keep accounts of temple inventories and the flood levels of the Nile. While it’s possible that these early hieroglyphs may have been invented specifically for such purposes, it’s also very likely that they may have been devised by the governments of Egypt’s earliest rulers for keeping track of the contents of palace, storerooms and simple accounting related to taxes, regardless in both cases, priests, are believed to have been the first scribes as the early kings of Egypt, expanded their reach and their governments became more centralized.

The simple Egyptian hieroglyphs that had once been used solely for basic ledgers and the identification of objects were now being utilized across the country to send messages from the ruler to his governors and generals. They were also used to adorn royal monuments with the expansion of writing and its practical use in daily life came the need for a dedicated class of individuals who could both learn how to read and write the Egyptian language and so royal bureaucrats joined priests in becoming scribes.

Early Egyptian Scribing

In the Old Kingdom, the education of scribes was on an apprenticeship basis, usually father to son, although sometimes an established scribe or bureaucrat might teach the son of a noble or other official. The concept of a scribal school didn’t yet exist, though there was probably a meeting place in the royal palace where princes and the sons of provincial governors were at least taught how to read and write some basic characters. It was not until the collapse of the Old Kingdom that the institution of scribal schools developed across much of Egypt.

The estrangement from Egypt’s traditional capital of Memphis forced local government officials in the provinces to come up with their own schools for passing down the scribal arts. To a new generation of officials, in fact, the earliest mention of a scribal school comes from an inscription within a tomb from the First Intermediate Period around 2000 BC. It reads “Every scribe and every wise man who is skilled in his calling, perfect in writing and perfect in learning, who has acquired the designation of a man of rank and who has taken up a position after he has gone to school…” By the time of the Middle Kingdom, especially during the reign of the kings of the Twelfth Dynasty, scribal schools had become commonplace throughout the country.

As you may or may not know, this period was a sort of golden age in Egyptian history, especially with regard to the arts and literature. Most schools were open-air and attached to a temple. Each major city had one and many of the large villages too. The most prestigious school was located in the 12th Dynasty capital city of Itjtawy, where the sons of the elite studied, though boys of more humble birth were sometimes also admitted. As far as we know, girls were not trained to become scribes, with perhaps the exception of the occasional princess or the daughters of very high court officials who were taught in classes separate from the boys. This general 12th Dynasty model for scribal schools was adopted during the New Kingdom era and in use up until the Roman period nearly 15 centuries later.

Changing the Face of Scribes in Ancient Egypt

For the most part, the methods of instruction stayed the same, though the curriculum was expanded, as new hieroglyphs were added to the already numerous signs in use. In ancient Egypt there was no such thing as a public school, meaning that the average Egyptian could neither read nor write. Only the relatively affluent could afford a proper education for their children, and so initially scribes came from the upper echelons of society. While this may have been the case towards the beginning of the New Kingdom era, eventually, the sheer demand for scribes opened up the profession to those from the lower classes.

If a father decided that his son was to become a scribe, he would generally be enrolled in a scribal school by the age of 10. The day for a typical student would start early in the morning when he would leave his home with a small basket of bread and beer to attend his local school there. He would attend classes that mostly consisted of copying hieroglyphic signs over and over until they were committed to memory.

This was a daunting task, as a scribe was expected to learn between 800 to 1000 signs before moving on to the next level, because papyrus was a bit expensive for lower level students to simply practice on. A kit or pallet, usually consisting of thin slabs of erasable limestone or wood boards with replaceable gesso surfaces was used. Kits for more advanced students, contained ink, brushes and sometimes smoothing stones for when writing on papyrus. Black ink was used for the body of a text while red indicated divisions, headings or especially important phrases within a text. To start off with the student would learn: 20 single syllable, hieroglyph signs; about 100 two-syllable signs; and another hundred three-syllable signs which had to be committed to memory. In addition, the student had to learn several determinatives or endings that indicated whether the meaning of a word had to do with an activity, an animal, in abstract thought or something else.

And along with this, they also had to master grammar and verb tenses. After memorizing the most common signs, the student would then be able to start learning sections of popular classical texts. Learning hieroglyphs and sentence structure were just the beginning. After these had been mastered, the student learned other styles of Egyptian writing, such as the more cursive erratic form and an abbreviated style that we call demotic.

Once the student had committed the required signs and scripts to memory and mastered Egyptian grammar, they had the basic skills required to become a scribe. At the lowest level, this allowed them to do rather mundane tasks such as recording commercial transactions, officiating and verifying government documents, writing letters for private individuals, record keeping and basic accounting. Some also worked as legal clerks and wrote contracts. Those students who had done exceptionally well in the basic program had the possibility of advancing to more difficult subjects, such as mathematics and architecture, where they would learn to tackle practical problems.

Egyptian Studies for Civil Engineers, Logistics Officers, and Farmers

Some actual examples from Egyptian study texts include determining the number of bricks necessary for a wall of certain dimensions or figuring out the amount of provisions needed for a specific number of soldiers on a campaign for a certain period of time. Such material helped to prepare scribal school graduates for careers in the government as the ancient equivalent of civil engineers or logistics officers within the Egyptian armed forces. Many also worked on large farms and estates to assess annual grain harvests or the number of animals in a large herd, which required knowledge of basic arithmetic.

In geometry, the new scribe usually received employment within the department of government or the temple complex where he had served as an apprentice. In fact, nearly all scribes worked either for the government or the religious establishment; there’s little conclusive evidence indicating large numbers of scribes becoming freelancers. If an illiterate farmer or merchant needed something written, they would go to a government scribe who, for a fee, would write the necessary document.

Whether as a simple clerk or assistant to the chief builder, becoming a scribe was a very honorable career path within Egyptian society. Rather than simply sitting in an office or storehouse, most scribes were generally active and respected members of the communities they served as well as trusted preservers of knowledge. It was not uncommon for the scribe of a village to become something of a local historian or storyteller since, by the middle of his career, he would have acquired some sense of history from copying the many works that had often been written in generations prior. One Middle Kingdom text, known as the “Satire of the Trades” which scribal students centuries later were still copying as a writing exercise, states the following: “I have watched those conscripted for labor. There is nothing better than books. Scribedom is the greatest of all callings. There is none like it in all the land. There is no occupation without a boss. Apart from the scribe, he is boss.”

This actually could be true, because many scribes eventually became wealthy enough to purchase plots of land and hire or keep slaves to farm them, and, of course, being scribes—or rather, with their scribal training—they had the accounting skills to help them manage their estates. One Eighteenth Dynasty scribe named Amenhotep son of Hapu was so honored for his service to his country that statues of him were erected at the temple of Karnak, as if he were a god or king who had become deified. One papyrus document now in the British Museum states that “only learned scribes obtained immortality” because “tombs and funerary monuments perish, but the words of scribes survive so long as their works are preserved”.

As of now, this has proved to be true because we’re still continuing to learn about and read the literature of ancient Egypt that was committed to the written word by the countless scribes who served their country and helped to preserve its civilization.

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