Letters from the Past: Back to School in Ancient Egypt

Hi, I’m Rahmose, and like many of you, I’ll be starting school soon. I’m nine now, which means that I have three more years to go before I can be a scribe for the pharaoh. This year I’ll learn to write hieroglyphics.

As a young boy, I watched my father perfect his hieroglyphic writing before chiseling the final copy on the walls of royal tombs. He dipped his reed pen in ink and drew tiny birds, sheaths of corn, and odd looking lines on papyrus. Sometimes I copied what he wrote, or tried to, on pieces of ostraca. My mother says I used to break her pottery on purpose so I could have something to write on! She was relieved when I turned five and she could send me to the House of Instruction in the Royal Palace.


Name of Ramesses II in hieroglyphs at his temple Abu Simbel



I was so excited to start school. Finally, I would learn what the symbols in the tombs and temples meant. Imagine my disappointment when the teacher told us we weren’t learning hieroglyphs right away. Instead, we had to master hieratic. In case you haven’t seen it, hieratic is a curly looking script that reads from right to left. Most Egyptians who can write use hieratic because it’s not as time consuming as hieroglyphics. It’s not as beautiful, either.



Example of hieratic writing. Document known as Papyrus Sallier



Our teacher gave us reading assignments from the Kemyt. The assignments were hard and boring. The Kemyt was filled with advice for young students and included Egyptian phrases.

When we finally finished the Kemyt, the other boys and I moved on to the Wisdom Texts. I thought that with a name like the Wisdom Texts, this new text must be more interesting. Maybe I would become as wise as my father after I read it. But no, we’re just reading about how much better off scribes are than men in other occupations. I had to memorize and copy out this passage: “there is no worker without an overseer except the scribe, who is his own boss.”

Sometimes I wonder if other jobs are as bad as our teachers say. It might be fun to work outside and grow crops. My father says that farming would make me dependent on the flooding of the Nile, though. As a scribe, I’ll rely on my knowledge, not nature.

Even if I get bored sometimes, I still want to become a great scribe like my father. Writing has so much power in Egyptian culture. When someone dies, their mummy is buried with their possessions. Still, the objects in the tomb aren’t as important as the hieroglyphics. If the tomb is robbed but the name of the owner is still carved on the wall, the spirit of the dead person can live on. The worst thing that could happen to anyone is to be forgotten by the living and have their name disappear from the earth.

I am so proud that someday soon I will be preserving the spirits of the pharaoh’s family.



The Discovery and Translation of the Rosetta Stone

On July 19, 1799, a discovery was made that revealed much of what we know today about ancient Egypt. Napoleon Bonaparte
decided to extend his empire to the East and took forces with him to Egypt. In the process of digging a fort near the town of Rosetta, one of his soldiers found a strangely shaped black slab, which was inscribed with three different types of writing. The top, though damaged, contained Egyptian hieroglyphics; the center section was written in demotic, a form of shorthand writing of the Egyptian language; the lower part revealed Greek letters.

Rosetta Stone--British Museum by Nina Aldin Thune

Rosetta Stone–British Museum by Nina Aldin Thune

Until this discovery, almost nothing was known about the language of the ancient Egyptians. Ancient Greek was still familiar to scholars, however. The Greek part of the stone stated that the three sections of writing all said the same thing—they were descriptions of the decree issued by priests at Memphis on March 27, 196 BC to honor the anniversary of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes’ reign.  The British took possession of the Rosetta Stone in 1801 when they defeated Napoleon. Copies of the stone’s inscriptions were made and scholars all over Europe scrambled to be the first to solve the riddle of the hieroglyphics.

A breakthrough came when Thomas Young of England determined that at least some of the hieroglyphics represented letters of the ancient Egyptian alphabet. They were not purely a crude form of picture writing—for example, a hieroglyph that was shaped like a bird did not always refer to an actual bird. He identified the names of more than one Egyptian ruler in hieroglyphics.

Building on Young’s work, French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphics. He explained his findings in A Summary of the Hieroglyphic System of the Ancient Egyptians: “Hieroglyphic writing is a complex system, a script simultaneously figurative, symbolic and phonetic, in one and the same text in one and the same sentence, and I should say, almost one in the same word.” Some hieroglyphics represented letters of the Egyptian alphabet; some combined groups of sounds (for example, one hieroglyph represented letters that were commonly used together to save space), and some were added as pictures to clarify the meaning of a word.

Once the Rosetta Stone’s inscriptions were translated, scholars could learn more about the ancient Egyptians, their culture, daily lives, and religion. Since 1802, it has been displayed in the British Museum in London, though Egyptian archeologists are trying to bring the stone back to Egypt.