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.



Discoveries in King Tut’s Tomb

On January 3, 1924, Howard Carter discovered the sarcophagus [a coffin made of stone] of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen. He had uncovered the pharaoh’s tomb two years before, but there were many different chambers inside. Carter’s team cleared these chambers, stuffed with furniture, clothing, and other items, before they entered the actual burial chamber. In the first few chambers, Carter said he found “strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold.” So many items filled the tomb that it took Carter ten years to record everything inside.

The sarcophagus was considered the most spectacular discovery of Carter’s excavation. Finding a burial chamber of an Egyptian pharaoh still intact was a rarity already in the 1920s. Tomb robbers often tore coffins open because dead Egyptian rulers wore valuable jewelry under the mummy wrappings. Fortunately, Tutankhamen’s tomb remained hidden by debris from the excavation of another nearby tomb. Robbers didn’t have the chance to get this far into the tomb.


Howard Carter opening mummy of King Tut, 1925

Howard Carter opening mummy of King Tut


Inside the stone sarcophagus lay three smaller coffins. The first two were wooden but covered in gold. The final coffin, made of solid gold, held the body of the pharaoh. Its worth is estimated at over a million dollars. Inside this coffin lay the body of the pharaoh with his face covered in the now famous golden mask. Carter wrote, “The contents [of the coffin] were completely covered with linen shrouds. As the last shroud was removed a gasp of wonderment escaped our lips, so gorgeous was the sight that met our eyes; a golden effigy of the boy-king of most magnificent workmanship.”

Unfortunately, Tutankhamen’s body was in poor condition because of the ancient practice of pouring perfumes and oils over the mummy during the embalming process. Over time, the oils caused the pharaoh’s body to stick to the inside of the coffin. The golden mask covering King Tut’s face was also glued down; however, once Carter freed the mask with hot knives, he discovered that the mask had protected the pharaoh’s face.

Thanks to this preservation, later scientists successfully performed an autopsy. The test suggested that the pharaoh died at age eighteen, perhaps of a head injury. Exactly how he died is still debated among Egyptologists. Theories range from murder to an accidental wound which doctors at the time could not heal.