An Egyptian Princess Goes to School

Princess Hatchepsut sat near the entrance to her room, hugging her wooden cat. In the hallway of the palace, she could hear her father giving advice to her half-brother Tuthmosis II.

"Now you must always listen to your teachers and respect them. Remember, as my son you will someday rule Egypt so you must learn as quickly as you can," said the older Tuthmosis.

"Yes, father," grumbled the younger Tuthmosis. He dashed into his room to grab a reed pen and papyrus scroll before walking to the school inside the palace. The children's rooms were separated by a curtain, which Hatchepsut parted.

As she poked her head into his room, she said to her brother, "If you'd rather practice shooting arrows, I could take your place at school." I would probably learn more than he would anyway, she thought.

"Humph," grunted Tuthmosis. "School is only for boys. Girls are supposed to learn to be good wives and not bother their small brains with learning."

"Well, I can't think of anyone who would marry you," Hatchepsut said. Tuthmosis had no time to reply because their father called out, "Tuthmosis, you will be late."

Hatchepsut watched him dash toward the Household of the Royal Children, the school where male royals learned to read and write. She thought how unfair it was that she missed out on so many adventures just because she was born a girl.

"What should we do today?" she asked her toy cat. "I know! We'll spy on my brother and see what school is really like!

The adults paid her no attention because everyone's focus was on getting Tuthmosis ready for his first day of school. She tucked her cat under one arm and followed her brother at a distance until she came to the school.  The palace school was surrounded by huge pillars carved with hieroglyphic writings.  Hatchepsut's fingers traced the grooved surfaces of the symbols representing falcons and wavy lines, but she could not read them. She sighed and hid behind one of the pillars so she could listen to the teacher's lessons.

"First some of the older children will exhibit their work so the prince will know what he can accomplish someday. Ramose, why don't you recite a passage from the Wisdom Texts for us? said the teacher.

Hatchepsut peeked from behind the pillar as Ramose stood up and recited, "Do good in order to attain a richer life; never dip the reed-pen to do wrong."

The teacher said, "Excellent! Write that ten times before tomorrow on your papyrus scroll. Now Tuthmosis, let's work on your first lesson."

He motioned to the other scribes to attend to the other students so he could focus on the prince's lesson. Hatchepsut overheard the teacher say that he would learn an easier type of writing before moving on to hieroglyphics.

"We write from right to left," said the teacher as he guided Tuthmosis's pen across the scroll.

On the other side of the room, Hatchepsut saw the more advanced students copying long phrases from memory. One of the scribes said to them, "I want you to memorize this passage, "see, there is no worker without an overseer except for the scribe, who is always his own boss."

"Oh, I wish I could be a boy so I could become a scribe," she whispered in her toy cat's ear. She was so enchanted with the schoolroom that she did not hear the sound of her father's sandals walking across the granite floor towards her.

"Daughter, why are you here?" he asked in a soft voice.

Hatchepsut twirled her braided hair in her fingers without looking up at him.

Her father knelt down beside her. "Did you say something about wanting to learn to read?"

Hatchepsut lifted her head and nodded.

"Well, the royal school is for boys, but that doesn't mean you can't learn some of the things that are taught here. I will find a tutor for you."

"Oh, father," exclaimed Hatchepsut. "And will I be able to read the hieroglyphs someday?"

"If you wish I will find a tutor who is an expert in hieroglyphs. Now let's leave your brother to do his homework," said her father as they walked down the corridor together.

"I'll bet I can learn to read those pictures on the school pillars faster than Tuthmosis!" Hatchepsut blushed when she realized she had spoken aloud.

Her father laughed. "I'm sure you will give him a good challenge. You are both my children, so I am sure you will both be wise." Her father left her at the entrance to her room and promised to find a tutor the next day.

"See," Hatchepsut said to her cat, "even if I am a girl, I can still learn like my brother, starting tomorrow!"

(For more on Hatchepsut, see Hatchepsut The Female Pharaoh by Joyce Tyldesley. Tyldesley also has good info on Egyptian schools in Daughters of Isis)   

Going to School in Ancient Egypt

Schools in ancient Egypt were very different from the schools that kids attend today. Since no public schools existed, only wealthy parents sent their five year old sons to Houses of Instruction in the royal palace or in temples. After twelve years each boy would become a scribe, meaning someone who could read and write.

Ancient Egyptian students had no easy readers to help them learn to read. The first book teachers gave them was called the Kemyt, which included advice to schoolchildren and polite Egyptian phrases.

When a student finished learning the old-fashioned script in the Kemyt, his only reward was reading the Wisdom Texts. These were written in the form of a father giving advice to his son. The Wisdom Texts did not include useful information that scribes would need for their jobs. Instead, they taught students how to behave in Egyptian society. One text encouraged scribes to "do good in order to attain a richer life; never dip the reed-pen [the tool scribes used to write] to do wrong."

The final textbooks for scribes were called the Miscellanies, which included math problems.

In addition to learning from three different textbooks, ancient Egyptian students learned three kinds of writing. The most widely studied and used writing was called hieratic, a curly looking script running from right to left. Later the hieratic developed into a plainer script used for business. Hieroglyphic used pictures and symbols to create words but was used mostly on monuments like a king's tomb.

Unfortunately for the students, their teachers did not try to make their lessons interesting. Students did not write their own stories or read books with imaginary characters.  Ancient Egyptian students learned to write by memorizing texts and rewriting them from memory. Many students became bored with this style of learning so teachers told stories about how much worse other jobs were than the scribe's. For example, The Satire on the Trades described a man who made tools out of copper: "his fingers are like crocodile claws, and he stinks more than the spawn of fish."

Once he finished his studies, a student that became a scribe did have the opportunity to get a good job. He could work as a lawyer, army officer, tax collector, priest, or train as an architect or engineer. He might even work in the royal palace and give advice to the king.

Unlike boys, girls never went to school because they were expected to become wives and mothers. Some girls did learn to read and write from family members or tutors, but most jobs were reserved for boys.