Photo of a relief-section of hieroglyphs in the great temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel

Unravelling the literacy of the Egyptian Pharaohs

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It is well known that only about one percent of ancient Egyptians mastered the difficult art of reading and writing hieroglyphics. But there is little information about the education of royal children and how many of the powerful rulers of Egypt learned this important skill. Researchers from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland have examined ancient texts to find clues regarding the literacy of Egypt’s Dynastic rulers.

The most famous of all ancient Egyptian scripts is hieroglyphic. However, throughout three thousand years of ancient Egyptian civilisation, at least three other scripts – Hieratic, Demotic, and later on, Coptic – were used for different purposes. Using these scripts, scribes were able to preserve the beliefs, history and ideas of ancient Egypt in temple and tomb walls and on papyrus scrolls.

Examples of Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic script

From left to right, examples of Hieratic, Demotic, and Coptic script. Photo source: Wikimedia

“For administrative documents and literary texts, ancient Egyptians used mainly hieratic, which was a simplified form of writing used since the Old Kingdom, the time of the builders of the pyramids in the third millennium BC. In the middle of the first millennium BC, even more simplified demotic appeared" said Filip Taterka, Egyptologist and doctoral student at the Institute of Prehistory in Adam Mickiewicz University.

Writing in Ancient Egypt—both hieroglyphic and hieratic—first appeared in the late 4th millennium BC during the late phase of predynastic Egypt. The Egyptians called their hieroglyphs "words of god" and reserved their use for exalted purposes, such as communicating with divinities and spirits of the dead through funerary texts. Each hieroglyphic word both represented a specific object and embodied the essence of that object, recognizing it as divinely made and belonging within the greater cosmos.

By the Old Kingdom (2,600 – 2,200 BC), literary works included funerary texts, epistles and letters, hymns and poems, and commemorative autobiographical texts recounting the careers of prominent administrative officials. It was not until the early Middle Kingdom (2,100 – 1,700 BC) that a narrative Egyptian literature was created. This is believed to have been the result of the rise of an intellectual class of scribes and mainstream access to written materials. However, the overall literacy rate was still only around one percent of the entire population. The creation of literature was thus an elite exercise, monopolised by a scribal class attached to government offices and the royal court of the ruling pharaoh.

The Seated Scribe, a statue from Saqqarah dated 2600–2350 BC

The Seated Scribe, a statue from Saqqarah dated 2600–2350 BC. Photo source: Wikimedia

According to Mr Taterka, evidence suggests that Egyptian royal children were taught hieratic, a simplified, cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs, while classical hieroglyphs were probably reserved for children who would enter the priesthood, and for the future heir to the throne.

"Relatively late sources suggest that even one of the first rulers of Egypt - Aha - mastered the writing skill. He was believed to be an author of a few medical treaties, although the reliability of this report is, of course, debatable," said Mr Taterka. 

The researcher found numerous references to the Pharaoh’s skills in writing in the texts of the Pyramids, and archaeological evidence, such as writing implements showing traces of use found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, further support the belief that royal rulers were literate.

"The most famous Egyptian text that speaks of the royal literacy is the Prophecy of Neferti. It is a story concerning the first king of the fourth dynasty - Sneferu. In the story, the ruler writes down the words of Neferti - the wise man from the East- on papyrus. Although this story cannot be treated as proof of literacy of Sneferu himself, since it was created a thousand years after his reign, it clearly shows that at least in the time of the 12th dynasty, the Egyptians could imagine such a situation," said Mr Taterka. 

The researcher explained that knowledge of hieroglyphics was necessary to fulfil the Pharaoh’s royal duties, which included religious rituals, during which the ruler would recite sacred texts. The ruler was the only intermediary between gods and humans and was often identified with the god Thoth, the inventor of the hieroglyphs. 

While it may appear as an obvious conclusion that the elite were literate in hieroglyphics, the same was not true in other civilisations. According to Taterka, most of the royals of Mesopotamia did not have a command of the cuneiform script, which may have been due to the fact that it was a lot more difficult to master.

Featured image: Photo of a relief-section of hieroglyphs in the great temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel. Photo source: Wikimedia

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