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On the Southern Part of the East Wall of Horemheb’s Saqqaran tomb, military scribes, magnificently represented, scrupulously record the details of long files of prisoners escorted by Egyptian soldiers (not in pic). This depiction is often speculated to represent women scribes.

Scribes in Ancient Egypt: Custodians of the Voice and Words of the Divine – Part I

The rich scribal tradition of ancient Egypt was one of the foremost pillars of the development of that culture. At a time when much of the world could not read or write; these resourceful and erudite peoples wrote poetry, compiled the wisdom of the ages, designed grandiose monuments, and conducted robust diplomatic relations with kings in the Near East - all thanks to their love for, and command over the written word, which they referred to as Netjer Medu (Divine Writing). It is due in no small measure to the fact that they chronicled all aspects of their lives, royalty and commoner alike, that we know more about the Egyptians today than any other ancient civilization.

The hieroglyph used to signify the scribe, to write, and "writings", etc., is an Alan Gardiner sign from the category of 'writings, & music'. It contains the scribe's ink-mixing palette, a vertical case to hold writing-reeds, and a leather pouch to hold the black and red ink blocks. Close-up of a writing palette, Ramesses II temple, Abydos. Petra Lether.

The hieroglyph used to signify the scribe, to write, and "writings", etc., is an Alan Gardiner sign from the category of 'writings, & music'. It contains the scribe's ink-mixing palette, a vertical case to hold writing-reeds, and a leather pouch to hold the black and red ink blocks. Close-up of a writing palette, Ramesses II temple, Abydos. Petra Lether.

Language of the Gods

For millennia, the strange writings on the walls of the magnificent temple and tomb walls in Egypt had befuddled observers; but all that changed in July 1799 when a young engineering officer, Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard, made one of the most incredible finds in Egyptological, and indeed, world history: the Rosetta Stone. This large black granodiorite stele that was discovered at Fort Rashid in the Delta paved the way to unlock the mysterious hieroglyphics in 1822 - thanks to the singular diligence of the French scholar, Jean-Francois Champollion.

One of the earliest writing systems known to humankind, Egypt flourished due to its development and use of hieroglyphic, hieratic, and later, demotic scripts. Scribes were greatly esteemed in society as men who possessed godly wisdom, and their utterances were respected. In turn, these scribes ensured that they conducted their affairs with integrity, discipline and dedication, which ensured justice for everyone in the land and brought glory to the gods and Pharaoh. At least, that was the ideal that they collectively aspired to. Be they exquisite coffins, towering statues or grand temple walls; from simple ostraca to immense works of a religious, astronomical, medical, literary, economic and administrative nature - scribes in Egypt left their indelible mark in every conceivable sphere.

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[The author thanks Petra Lether , Merja Attia  and Margaret Patterson for granting permission to use their photographs. The public archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be accessed here.]

Top Image: On the Southern Part of the East Wall of Horemheb’s Saqqaran tomb, military scribes, magnificently represented, scrupulously record the details of long files of prisoners escorted by Egyptian soldiers (not in pic). This depiction is often speculated to represent women scribes. (Image: Merja Attia )

By Anand Balaji

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