Scribes

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Scribes

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Important Role. Scribes played a vital role in the government bureaucracy, religion, and intellectual life of ancient Egypt. There was a clear development over time from scribes who were recorders of the word to intellectuals who created the text they wrote. The Egyptologist Alessandro Rocatti has speculated that the scribe’s importance during the Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.) was his ability to read words accurately. This capability was more greatly valued than the skill to write itself. Reading accuracy would have been especially important in religious rituals where priests recited spells exactly as the gods had ordained. During the same period, other scribes were charged with keeping administrative records, but they would have had a lower social status.

Growing Need. Literature beyond administrative lists and religious texts developed during the Middle Kingdom (circa 1980-1630 b.c.e.). It included narratives; manuals of medicine, mathematics, and astronomy; and maps. Government during the Middle Kingdom increased its dependence on the written word too. This dependence led to a need for more scribes, a source of social mobility in this period. At least some administrative scribes were descended from farmers who had somehow recognized their sons’ abilities.

Intellectual Class. In the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.) an intellectual class of scribes developed. They admired the famous authors of the Old and Middle Kingdom—Hardjedef, Imhotep, Khety, and Neferti. These four men were high-ranking officials of the past whose memory was maintained through their writings. The new intellectual class called themselves scribes and produced in their own time manuals of behavior. This group includes Ani and Amenemope. The New Kingdom also produced scribes who could translate foreign languages such as Akkadian, used in Mesopotamia, and Hittite, used in Anatolia. By the Late Period (circa 664-332 b.c.e.) scribes emphasized their ability to find and interpret older texts.

Sources

Pierre Montet, Everyday Life in Egypt in the Days of Ramesses the Great, translated and by A. R. Maxwell-Hyslop and Margaret S. Drower (London: E. Arnold, 1958).

Alessandro Roccati, “Scribes,” in The Egyptians, edited by Sergio Donadoni (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 61–86.

John A. Wilson, The Culture of Ancient Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956).

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