Purpose . Scribal education was designed to train supervisors for overseeing work in administration, construction, and temples. In most periods scribal education was available only to male children of the elite. The only exception was during the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.) when a shortage of scribes led to the possibility of upward mobility. Some sort of scribal education was also available to artisans at Deir el Medina. Egyptian education was available to the sons of foreign rulers during Dynasty 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 b.c.e.). Thutmose III (circa 1479-1425 b.c.e.) used scribal education as a means to “Egyptianize” conquered foreign rulers. In all periods, scribal education was the key to success in Egyptian society.
How Many Scribes? Though some scholars have estimated that only 1 percent of the Egyptian population was literate, this number probably applies only to the percentage of Egyptians who were fully educated. A larger number of craftsmen and artisans most likely could write their names, or recognize the names of kings in hieroglyphs, without being fully literate. Other people paid village scribes to write letters and help them with other sorts of business that required writing.
Teaching Methods . Students first learned cursive hieroglyphs, which are a simplified writing of the elaborate signs seen on temple and tomb walls. They then progressed to hieratic, the equivalent of handwriting in English. Hieratic writing bases its signs on hieroglyphs but omits all detail and often joins one sign to another. The ordinary scribe had little need to learn to write the
elaborate hieroglyphs found on temple and tomb walls, a task limited to artists, but surely they could read these wall texts.
Memorization . Student scribes first learned to write, and at the same time memorize, the great classics of Egyptian literature. The average scribe was expected to learn and recite texts such as the epic Story of Sinuhe and religious texts. The only word meaning “to read” in Egyptian is the same as the one used for “to recite aloud.”
Materials . Students learned to write on limestone flakes called ostraca, which were abundant near the edge of the desert. They made a good, flat writing surface. After a student had reached mastery, he was permitted to write on the more-expensive papyrus. Ostraca that have survived display handwriting that is much more difficult to read than that found on papyrus and also have more mistakes in spelling and grammar. Yet, ostraca were sometimes used by poorer people for writing legal documents.
ADVICE ON EDUCATION
The sage Any, during Dynasty 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 B.C.E,), advised students that:
One will do all you say
IF you are versed in writings;
Study-all the writings, put, them in your heart,
Then as your words will be effective.
Whatever office a scribe is given,
He should consult the writings;
The head of the treasury has not a son,
The master of the seal has no heir.
The scribe is chosen for his hand,
His office has no children;
His pronouncements are his freemen,
His functions are his masters.
Source: “The Instructions of Any,” translated by Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, edited by Lichtheim (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 140.
School Subjects . Though learning to write was the most important skill for scribes, other subjects formed part of their education, including letter-writing formulae (epistolography), grammar, orthography (spelling), rhetoric, foreign languages, onomastics (lists), geography, arithmetic, and geometry.
Letter-Writing Formulae . Letters followed a standard format with three parts. The introduction was a greeting that recommended the receiver to the gods. The content of the letter followed and could concern personal matters or business. The letter closed with an address.
Grammar . Egyptian students were taught the elements of proper grammar. One exercise from Dynasties 19 (circa 1292-1190 b.c.e.) or 20 (circa 1190-1075 b.c.e.) reveals a student’s attempt to conjugate verbs. Unlike English, the order of conjugation is “I, he, you (singular), we, they, you (plural).”
Orthography . Spelling mistakes made by school boys suggest that they were taught to write whole words rather than individual hieroglyphic or hieratic signs. Perhaps there is some confirmation of this theory in the way the Egyptians spoke of hieroglyphs, which they called god’s words (medu netjer), rather than god’s signs.
Rhetoric . Attention to “proper speech” was an intense concern in the advice given to students. Though the exact definition of proper speech was never described, known examples are extremely involved couplets and triplets that repeat the same thought more than once. The writers who discuss proper speech sometimes claim that it was not limited to the educated elite. Ptahhotep, a sage who perhaps lived in the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.), believed that “Proper speech is more hidden than green stone, yet may be found among maids at the grindstones.” The farmer who is the hero of the text called “The Eloquent Peasant” spoke so impressively that the king himself wrote down his words.
Foreign Languages . Reading, writing, and speaking foreign languages must have been an important skill for some scribes. The Amarna Letters, dating to the reigns of Amenhotep III (circa 1390-1353 b.c.e.) and Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten, circa 1353-1336 b.c.e.), were written in Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia. Egyptians surely could both read the letters and compose answers. Some of the scribes of these letters clearly have Egyptian names. A writing board from Dynasty 18 is headed, “To make the names of Keftiu,” an apparent attempt to write in the language, called Linear A, of Crete. The Egyptians traded extensively with the Minoans of Crete and must have learned their language. The exact means of learning foreign languages is unknown.
Making Lists . Onomastics are lists that categorize important information. This system of categorizing information perhaps began in Babylonia, but it was widely used by the Egyptians. Scribes memorized lists of town names, classes of people, professions, titles in the administration, and names of animals.
Geography . Written in the form of lists, which compiled the names of towns located along roads or rivers, geography was an important area of knowledge for
scribes. The author of the “Satirical Letter,” a text that dates to the Ramesside Period (circa 1292-1075 b.c.e.), accused his reader of not knowing this basic information.
Arithmetic and Geometry . Scribes kept accounts for institutions and were familiar with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Geometry problems were also studied, often from texts written in such a manner that general principles could be deduced.
Educational Institutions . Schools existed in some periods, but they were not the only means of obtaining an education. The text called the Instructions of Dua-Khety begins with a father taking his son to school in the Dynasty 12 (circa 1938-1759 b.c.e.) capital of Itjet-Tawy near Memphis. The kap, an institution attached to the woman’s quarters in the royal palace, was a place where elite children studied alongside the princes. Many of the children at Deir el Medina, however, were taught by their fathers or grandfathers. They may have been tutored part-time, then learned further skills on the job. During this period of apprenticeship, in which they acted as assistants, students were described as “under the hand of the scribe.”
A LETTER FROM ANCIENT EGYPT CONCERNING LAND USE
This letter, written in Dynasty 21 (circa 1075-945 B.C.E.), demonstrates the three basic divisions of a standard letter in ancient Egypt. The proper form for such letters would be a major subject for scribal education.
The lieutenant and scribe of the Temple of Khonsu, Shed-su-khonsu, to the Kushite youth, Pay-neb-andjed. I greet you in life, prosperity, and health and in the favor of Amun-Re, King of the Gods, your good lord. May he give you life, prosperity, and health.
Now then: I went to Thebes after I had said to you, “I will not let you plough anymore.” Now look, my wife, the Mistress of my house said to me, “Do no take away this field from Pay-neb-andjed.” Then I said, “Assign it to him! Let him plough it.” When my letter reaches you, you give your attention to this field and you will not be lax concerning it. And you will remove its weeds and you will plough it. And you will make one aroura of the land vegetables near its plot of land. Now if anyone argues with you [about the land] you will go to Wer-djehouty, the Scribe of the Reckoning in the House of Osiris. You will take this letter with you. Indeed I have provided you my field of fresh land and my field of muddy ground also. And guard my letter in order that it may serve for you as an authorization.
To the Youth of Kush, Pay-neb-andjed
Source: Papyrus Berlin 8523, translated by Edward Bleiberg. For other ancient Egyptian letters see Edward S. Wente, Letters from Ancient Egypt (Atlanta: Society for Biblical Literature, 1990).
Raffaella Cribiore, Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996).
Ronald J. Williams, “Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 92 (1972): 214-221.