Ancient History & Civilisation





Let us return to the little Egyptian boy whom we left, some pages back, just entering into manhood. Candor compels me to admit, against my feminist inclinations, that Egyptian culture as we know it was primarily the product of these grown-up boys—artists, sculptors, administrators, kings, scribes, carpenters, goldsmiths.

We have already discussed some of the trades, and others will fall into place as we proceed. Now it is time we took a look at the professions. If a boy wanted professional status and prestige higher than that of a mere craftsman, his career might end in a number of different ways, but it almost had to begin in one place—the scribal school.

Sometimes we talk about scribes as if they constituted a separate profession, but they were really the raw materials out of which most of the professions were formed. At the top of the ladder were administrators, courtiers, high-ranking priests, and soldiers. On the lower rungs were army scribes, court scribes, temple scribes—the secretaries and clerks and white-collar workers who kept the machinery of the state running smoothly. John A. Wilson has coined the term “white kilt” workers for this group; it is a very neat and apposite expression, which would have made sense to the Egyptians. The scribe’s clean white clothes were prestige symbols, like the long fingernails of Chinese nobles; they meant that he did not have to do manual labor.

The boy whose father came of this “white kilt” class, and the boy whose ambitious father wanted to raise him into it, attended a school of some sort where he was taught to read and write. We know very little about such schools. Were they run by the temples, or by the state, or by private teachers? At what age did the boys start school? Did girls ever attend? How long did the course take? Were there postgraduate courses in foreign languages or accounting? We can guess at some of the answers, but we don’t really know.

There were no little mudbrick school houses in Egypt—at least none have ever been found. Some of the boys may have been taught in the nearby temple. Others might have gone to a school run by a local scribe in one room of his house. Wealthy and noble youths, one may reasonably surmise, would have had private tutors. A few privileged youths were educated in the palace itself. Some of them were the children of foreign princes, sent (willingly or under pressure) to be brought up in Egypt. Others were Egyptians of various ranks and social status. How boys were selected for this honor is unknown, but it must have smoothed the path of advancement. An ancient “old boys’ network”!

The equipment for a schoolroom was simple; there were no little desks or blackboards to survive to gladden the eye of a future archaeologist. There were no schoolbooks either. Basic exercises consisted of dictation. The boys only needed writing equipment: the equivalent of pen and ink, plus a pile of ostraca—smooth fragments of broken pottery or stone which they used as slates. Beginning students didn’t use papyrus; it was too expensive.

The scribe’s outfit is well known, from actual examples and from drawings. The so-called palette was a narrow, rectangular piece of wood with a slot down the center to hold the pens, and depressions for cakes of ink. The pens were slender rushes pounded or chewed at one end to form a fine brush; when not in use they were kept in a pen case, which was often made in the shape of a pretty, rounded column with a flower capital. The ink came in solid form; the black was usually some kind of soot, and the red, made of red ochre, was used for rubrics, or headings. The scribe needed water to moisten his ink cakes; it was kept in a small shell or pot. One of the common hieroglyphic signs shows the scribe’s outfit—the little water pot between the long palette, with its two rounded ink cakes, and the pen holder. To complete his equipment a scribe might have a burnisher for smoothing out rough spots in the papyrus, a grinder for preparing his ink, a ball of linen thread to tie around the papyrus roll when it was finished, and a rag for rubbing out mistakes. The most convenient eraser, however, was a quick swipe of the tongue.

The scribe wrote sitting on the ground, with his legs crossed; the front of his kilt, pulled taut across his knees, provided a sort of writing desk on which he could unroll his papyrus. The pot of water was on the ground at his right, the palette in his left hand; he dipped his pen into the water, rubbed it on the cake of ink, and he was ready to take dictation.

Papyrus used to grow lavishly in the swampy parts of Egypt. It is not to be found there today except in specially cultivated plots—which is a pity, because it is a pretty plant, with tall slender stalks and a feathery green tuft on top. The art of making papyrus is not lost; it is still being produced and can be purchased at souvenir shops in Egypt and museum shops elswhere. The papyrus plant must be fresh. It is cut low down, just above water level; the lower part of the stem makes the best writing material. It is cut into lengths, and the outer rind removed. The inner pith can then be cut or separated into strips one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch thick. The strips are placed on some absorbent material, parallel to one another and slightly overlapping; another lot of strips goes on top, also overlapping, and at right angles to the bottom layer. The papyrus maker then pounds the whole business with a wooden mallet. It takes an hour or more of steady pounding, in case any reader is considering the experiment. The material can be put in a press later, but the initial pounding is essential. The result is a sheet of thin “paper” whose surface can be burnished with a stone. The juices of the papyrus weld the strips together without the need of any other adhesive, but glue was used to fasten separate sheets together into the rolls the Egyptians used instead of books.

Though papyrus was comparatively cheap, it was not cheap enough to be used for the first bumbling efforts of little schoolboys, and anyone who has supplied a first-grader with notebooks can understand why Egyptian parents refused to buy papyrus for their beginners. Hence the ostraca, an ample supply of which was available in any town, free for the taking. The sweating children had to learn at least two types of writing, the pretty picture hieroglyphs and the cursive hieratic script. (Later a third form of writing, demotic, came into use.) Considering that there are hundreds of different hieroglyphic signs, the task of the budding scribe was not easy, but at least he wrote essentially the same language in all three scripts.

Once the boys had learned the signs and had acquired some vocabulary, they wrote texts from the teacher’s dictation, and then the teacher corrected them. Some of the texts were fun—stories and tales—but others were less entertaining. Like most human beings, the Egyptian schoolteachers were unable to resist inculcating a moral when they had the chance. The most popular moral was the superiority of the scribal profession over all others. One text points out the spiritual advantages:

A man is perished, his corpse is dust, all his contemporaries have gone to dust; but it is writing which causes him to be remembered in the mouth of him who utters [the prayers for the dead]. More beneficial is writing than the house of a builder, or tombs in the West. It is better than an established castle, or a stela in the temple.

The text goes on, in a similarly lofty tone, to mention the names of great scribes of the past, whose tombs have been forgotten and whose houses have crumbled into dust, but whose names are remembered because of their writings. It must be emphasized that the Egyptians did not want to have their names remembered for sentimental reasons; the survival of the name, even in someone’s memory, implied the survival of the personality after death.

Other texts with a related theme are less exalted. They describe, with ghoulish relish, the horrors of other occupations. The metal-worker has fingers like a crocodile’s hide and stinks worse than fish roe. The craftsman is so tired at night that he can hardly move, and the barber is still shaving when night falls. The contractor is dirtier than a pig from carrying mud, and the weaver has to sit in his shop all day, breathing stale air, with his knees jammed up against his belly. And so it goes, through embalmers, cobblers, bird-catchers, and every conceivable activity. But the scribe! He never goes hungry; he reaches the halls of the magistrates. Most important of all, “there is no profession free of a boss, except for that of the scribe—he is the boss!”

The boys copied all sorts of things—hoary advice from antique sages, stories, long tedious lists of nouns, poems, business letters. They did not always copy them correctly, and since some of our only copies of important literary texts come from these schoolboy exercises, we have good reason to deplore the students’ lack of skill. Egyptian is not the easiest language in the world to read, particularly when it is being elegant and literary; if we have to correct the grammar and spelling of the ancient schoolboys as well, we do not have an easy time of it.


The hieroglyphic Egyptian script is the most beautiful system of writing ever devised. I’ll stick to that, without even a “probably.” Each small sign, bird, animal, plant, could be and often was a work of art in itself. One might say, as some scholars have, that Egyptian art in general was a kind of writing—that every image has a symbolic (that word again) or specific meaning which carries a message as explicit as a written text. They can say this if they want to. I am going to confine myself in this discussion to the practical aspects of Egyptian writing.


Types of hieroglyphic scripts

Incidentally, the correct noun form for the little images is “hieroglyphs.” Popular writers occasionally call them “hieroglyphics,” and this small error scratches at the sensitivities of Egyptologists like a fingernail on a blackboard. The hieroglyphic (adjective) script is, of course, quite distinct from the Egyptian language. A particular script may be used to write a number of languages, and a given language may be written in more than one script. The hieroglyphs were never used to write any language other than Egyptian, but Egyptian was written in several scripts.

When I first began my study of Egyptian I was, like many students, primarily fascinated by the hieroglyphic script. This was back in the days before copying machines, and it was sometimes necessary for the advanced student to copy texts by hand, since some of the material he wanted (or was ordered) to translate occurred only in books which were out of print or hideously expensive. The little birds and flowers and people were such fun to copy that there was a deplorable tendency to spend one’s study hours reproducing yards of small pictures instead of memorizing tedious grammatical rules.

Nowadays there are hieroglyphic fonts available for computers (and a tedious task it is to use them, especially for the computer illiterate). These fonts, and those used by various academic presses, are quite lovely; they come close to reproducing the pictures as the Egyptians carved them, and they are finely detailed. The student soon learns that he cannot duplicate the dainty, detailed typographical versions of hieroglyphs. Even if he has the necessary artistic skill he has not the time. He must learn to write, not draw.

Usually one of his professors steps in at this point and suggests a convention of simplification which reduces the individual pictures to just enough detail for easy identification. The convention gets a bit tricky with certain types of signs; there are several dozen different birds used in hieroglyphic writing, all with different meanings, and all very much alike except for the curve of a tail or the appearance of crests and tufts at strategic spots. One interesting fact which emerges from the simplification techniques is that the hieroglyphic handwriting of two different people is as distinctive as their English hands. We students could usually tell who had copied a particular text even when it was not signed.

Once the student has conquered his initial preoccupation with the pretty pictures and learned to write a few hundred signs, he comes up against a rather awful fact—namely, that he is learning not only a script, but a language. This comes home to him, if it has not already done so, when he begins to use the standard textbook, Sir Alan Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar. This book, which has over six hundred pages, is now in its third edition. Although arranged like a typical grammar, with exercises and vocabulary after each lesson, it is also a standard reference work.

The student sails along bravely through the beginning chapters of the monumental Grammar. Egyptian lacks declension endings and has only two genders, which facts make the noun and adjective in Egyptian fairly simple. But then the student gets to the second semester and hits the Egyptian verb, and the casualties begin. I do not intend to discuss the Egyptian verb. The proper study of the phenomenon requires a lifetime. Suffice it to say there are a lot of different verb forms in the language, written almost identically and differing widely in meaning.


Bird hieroglyphs in a modern handwritten convention

However, let us assume that the student has survived the first year of Egyptian. What he has learned—not too well—is only one form of the language, and not the earliest form. The “classical” dialect of Egyptian is what we call Middle Egyptian, although its use was not restricted to the Middle Kingdom, and it is this which the student tackles first. During the earlier Old Kingdom another form of the language was written, and Old Egyptian was not exactly identical with the dialect which we have in the Pyramid Texts. In the late Eighteenth Dynasty the form known as Late Egyptian begins to be used for written texts. Probably it had been a spoken language earlier than that time; it is not unusual for the written language to be slow in reflecting the changes which have taken place in spoken idiom.

So far, we have been talking about various forms of the Egyptian language, all of which are written in hieroglyphic script. They were written in another script as well—the “shorthand” form known as hieratic. The hieroglyphs looked handsome on the walls of tombs and temples, but they were as unwieldy for a busy Egyptian scribe as they are for us. Just as we simplify the hieroglyphic pictures in order to write them more quickly, the ancient scribes began to use cursive forms. Over the years—and the process began very early, almost as soon as writing itself appeared—the forms became more and more cursive, until eventually the hieratic signs bore only a distant resemblance to their hieroglyphic ancestors. The hieratic was written with a brush, on papyrus or potsherds, but even this script was too tedious for the overworked scribes of the later bureaucracy. About 700 B.C. they developed another script, called demotic. Hieratic writing is child’s play compared to demotic; at its worst demotic consists of row upon row of agitated commas, each of which represents a totally different sign. It is perfectly dreadful stuff to read. Take a look at the right-hand column of the box and picture yourself trying to decipher a page of that—not on clean white paper, but on yellowed, faded, crumbling, rotten papyrus.


Examples of hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic signs

Stoop-shouldered and myopic, suffering from headaches and pains in the lumbar region, our hypothetical modern student has now, we may assume, mastered all the forms of the Egyptian language and script mentioned so far. But he is not finished. The last form of Egyptian, Coptic, was not written in hieroglyphs or demotic or hieratic, but in the Greek alphabet, eked out with a few signs derived from demotic to express sounds which did not occur in Greek. Coptic was replaced by Arabic as the national language of Egypt after the Moslem Conquest, but it survived in the liturgy of the Coptic (Egyptian Christian) church. There are no longer men in Egypt who speak the tongue of Thutmose III, but there were small Coptic-speaking groups in remote regions of the country as late as the 1930s.

Coptic employs the Greek script, but it is an Egyptian language, although there are numerous Greek words added to the vocabulary. The literature is not too exciting to an Egyptologist, who usually closes his book at the Persian Conquest; the monks who wrote the texts were concerned with abstruse theological doctrines, not history. But it is one of the subjects in which a candidate for the doctorate is supposed to show proficiency—laughable word—along with demotic, hieratic, Middle and Late and Old Egyptian, archaeology, art, history, and the archaeology and history and languages of related areas which he has also studied.

Since it used the Greek alphabet, Coptic reproduced the vowels. Thus, we know how this form of the language was pronounced, which is not true of any other form of Egyptian. Hieroglyphic writing expresses only the consonants, and since hieratic and demotic are derived from hieroglyphs, the same is true of them. Therefore, when Egyptologists transliterate Egyptian into English script, they write a word with only the consonants: “nfr” or “bn.” When students read the texts aloud in class they follow a convention which inserts an “e” between consonants to facilitate articulation: “nefer,” “ben.” Some of the so-called semiconsonants are vocalized as vowels: the reed leaf as a long “i,” the chick as “oo” or “w,” and the akh bird as “a.” But if you listen to someone reading Egyptian aloud, following this convention, you will not be hearing Egyptian “as she was spoke” in 750 B.C. The convention is allowed only because the true vocalization is still in doubt. Indeed, it is wonderful that we have attained a state of doubt, rather than one of pure ignorance, in view of the fact that we have only the consonants. We have the Coptic, yes; but it was not written down until almost three thousand years after the first texts in Old Egyptian were composed. A language can change quite a lot in three thousand years. Another useful but limited clue comes from the examples of Egyptian words written in other ancient languages; the names of the kings and queens mentioned in the Amarna letters are rendered in cuneiform script, whose syllabic signs consisted of a consonant plus a vowel.

When we come to the problem of rendering Egyptian names in English, we run into another field of controversy. Among themselves Egyptologists transliterate, reproducing only the consonants which are given by the hieroglyphic signs. But you cannot call Thutmose the Great “Djhwty-ms” and expect anybody but an Egyptologist to recognize him. The name “Thutmose” is one of the more deplorable conventions. The element “Thut” comes from “Thoth,” the Greek word for the god of wisdom, whose Egyptian name was Djhuty. “Mose” means “born” in Egyptian. So we have a bastardized form, half-Greek and half-Egyptian, which is unaesthetic and inaccurate, but so well known that it is inexpedient to attempt to change it. I have taken the easy way out in this book by using the versions which come most readily to me, even when more learned persons disagree. The word for the little servant statues which the Egyptians put in their tombs has been read as “ushebti,” “shawabti,” and “shabti.” I learned the first rendering, so that’s the one I use. I have tried to avoid such “dated” forms as Ikhnaton, which is what James Henry Breasted called the Great Heretic; the initial sound was probably pronounced “akh” rather than “ikh.” (The “kh” is a guttural, like German or Scotch “ch.”) But when it comes to Amon versus Amen versus Amun, the reader can take his choice. (Whichever one he uses, he will probably be scolded by some Egyptologist.)

The said reader being intelligent and well educated, I will not insult him by mentioning that hieroglyphs are not an alphabetic script. The first steps in the process of writing were probably based on whole words. The picture of a bee meant “bee,” and the picture of an arrowhead meant “arrowhead.” But the utility of writing could be readily expanded by the application of what we call the rebus principle. The word for “brother” had the same consonants as the word for “arrowhead”—“s” and “n.” The Egyptians could then use an arrowhead to write the word “brother.” But there was an ambiguity in writing which did not occur in speech. The two words may have been pronounced differently, but since the vowels were not written, they looked exactly alike in script. The Egyptian solution to this problem was typically ingenious and typically complex. When they wanted to write “brother,” they added a second sign to the arrowhead—a seated man, which designated the class “human.” By the use of the class signs, or determinatives, the Egyptians could distinguish many words which, in their consonants, were otherwise identical.

The consonantal signs, as opposed to the determinatives, represented sounds—one or two or more consonants. A single consonantal sign might represent an entire word, or it might be combined with other signs to make up a word. Let’s look at a few examples.

The sign which is transliterated “nfr” and pronounced “nefer” depicts the heart and windpipe of an animal, but for some reason it means “good,” or “beautiful.” Nefer is a triliteral sign, expressing three consonants all by itself, without any help from anybody (a). But when the Egyptians wrote the word “beautiful,” they usually added the signs for “f” and “r” (b). The word was not read “neferefer” but “nefer” the additional signs merely firmed up the reading. However, the nefer sign could be used alone, in a compound word such as “nefer-hat” (c), “diadem.” The second sign in this group is the forequarters of a lion, and it means, as you might expect, “front.” Now when “nefer” was used as a noun, a determinative was added to the sign—a papyrus roll tied with a bow, which indicated the class of abstractions (d). “Neferet” could also be a woman’s name—the additional “t” is the feminine ending—and in this case the determinative for the class “woman” is added (e). Logically enough, this determinative is the tiny figure of a seated woman. As this example shows, the hieroglyphs were not the mysterious, esoteric signs that earlier scholars believed them to be. At times they are almost too concrete for refined tastes. The determinative for the verb “to give birth” (f) is self-explanatory.


Various uses of the hieroglyphic signs

Incidentally, the plural in Egyptian is indicated by three strokes or by a threefold repetition of the word sign, and it adds a “w” to the reading of the singular. “Neferew,” “beauties,” is written with three windpipes (g)—a particularly unfelicitous choice, I admit. Some years ago a novel on ancient Egypt contained a heroine with the melodious name “nefer-nefer-nefer.” After reading the preceding paragraphs, you can see that no Egyptian lady, even a courtesan, would have had such a name, and you can also understand the misinterpretation which led the author into his little error.

You have no doubt noted another point worth pursuing, though I slid over it very slyly. If “nefer” can be written with separate signs for “f” and “r,” did the Egyptians have an alphabet after all?

Curiously enough, they had the makings of one. There are about two dozen signs which represent single sounds. With a certain amount of ingenuity, these could have been used to write the entire Egyptian vocabulary. You can use them to inscribe your name, or any other English word, in hieroglyphs, if you ever feel an urgent need to do so. The Egyptians never took the seemingly simple but tremendous step of eliminating all but single-sound signs. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. Yet the birds and bees of the ancient Egyptian script may have a more direct relationship to our own alphabet than we realize.

Back in the first decade of the twentieth century, the ubiquitous Flinders Petrie was working in the wilds of the Sinai Peninsula, disregarding its hellish climate with his usual equanimity. There were plenty of Egyptian inscriptions to copy, for the Egyptians had mined the beautiful blue-green turquoise of Sinai since earliest times. But among the material Petrie found were tablets carved in a curious script, some of whose signs were clearly derived from hieroglyphs, while others were of unknown origin. Petrie copied the texts, although he could not read them, in the same spirit which had led him to preserve his tattered scraps of linen. A decade later, the material came to the attention of Professors T. E. Peet and Alan H. Gardiner, who were working over the entire body of Sinai inscriptions. Gardiner took up the copies of the strange unknown script reluctantly, for he had little hope of eliciting anything useful from them. The first sign he noticed was an ox-head, and he remembered an old theory that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet had been based on the acrophonic principle. Let not the reader be dismayed by this word; he has been acquainted with the principle from a tender age, unless he is young enough to have been subjected to a “progressive” education; the old first-grade readers used acrophony in their “A is for apple, B is for ball” routines. In regard to the Hebrew alphabet, the original simple picture sign came to stand for the initial letter of the word depicted, and the name of the letter was the same as the object. “Aleph,” which in Hebrew corresponds to our “A” as the first letter of the alphabet, meant “ox-head.”

Could the strange script be an alphabetic one, Gardiner asked himself, with the ox-head standing for “aleph”? The examples from Sinai have been dated to the Eighteenth Dynasty, which seems too early for such a development; yet there were Semitic-speaking people in Egypt and in Sinai at that time. When Gardiner looked further he found other correspondences. His moment of triumph came when he was able to read the word “Baalat” by using the Semitic meanings he had assigned to various signs. This is the name of the feminine counterpart of the Baal of the Old Testament and would logically appear on tablets dedicated by Semitic workers to a goddess whose Egyptian form was Hathor, goddess of love and beauty—and Hathor was the protective divinity of this mining community, where she was known as “Lady of the Turquoise.”

The process by which these unsung geniuses derived a system of alphabetic writing might have been as follows: they knew the shapes of the hieroglyphic signs, which covered the rocky cliffs where they worked, although they could not give them their Egyptian names. So they took the water sign, which is Egyptian for “n,” and read it as their word for water—“mem,” or something of the sort. Application of the acrophonic principle gave them the meaning “m” for the sign. Using Egyptian signs, and their own words for the objects they represented, the Semitic miners worked out a genuinely alphabetic script which spread to Phoenicia and heaven knows where else, and eventually became the ancestor of our own alphabet.

“Baalat” was Gardiner’s high point; other attempts to apply the principle to additional groups of signs did not work so well.

However, in the past few years John and Deborah Darnell, a pair of Egyptologists working in the desert areas west of Thebes, have turned up new inscriptions that indicate the beginning of an alphabetic system several hundred years earlier than the Sinai inscriptions. The graffiti, relatively crude and short, were presumably left on the limestone cliffs of the Wadi el Hol by men who patrolled the tracks leading to and from Thebes, and like the Sinai inscriptions they are thought to be the work of Semitic-speaking people—possibly mercenaries from Asia, who developed a crude but easy-to-use system of writing from the pictograms of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Clever chaps, these Semites! (It should be added that Semitic is a linguistic, not a racial, term. Arabic and Hebrew, among others, are Semitic languages.)

The Egyptian schoolboys had no easy-to-use system. They had to memorize hundreds of different signs. Since there are no textbooks, we assume that most of the instruction was oral. How far this instruction went we cannot know. Egyptian grammar has been analyzed according to modern rules, derived, in part, from the model of Latin grammar, so our Egyptian textbooks take up nouns and verbs and adjectives and tell the student what forms of a verb express futurity, participial action, and so on; but this is a modern convention that would have made little sense to an Egyptian scribe.

It is unlikely that Egyptian schoolchildren were treated to lectures on grammar and syntax. They learned the correct forms as children learn to speak their native tongue correctly—by example and practice. I have always suspected, without being able to prove it, that Egyptian scribes may have been aware of the functions of such things as determinatives, and that they might have had a few simple verbal rules for their use. For example, the word “sesh,” written with the hieroglyph of the scribe’s palette, could be a verb, “write,” or a noun, “scribe.” (It could mean other things too, but let’s not confuse the issue.) If the word in question was supposed to be “write,” the determinative indicating the class of abstractions was added to the palette sign. If it was “writer, scribe,” the man determinative was used instead. In its most obvious form, the determinative principle is one a harassed schoolboy might have worked out for himself. Suppose he encounters the word “scribe” in dictation for the first time. He knows how to spell the verb “write,” and with other examples in mind, and the cold eye of the teacher upon him, he might extrapolate and write “scribe” as “write,” minus the abstract determinative and plus the man determinative. He was stimulated to do his best by a principle succinctly expressed by the Egyptians: “A boy’s ears are on his back, and he listens best when he is beaten.”

Reading and writing were the main subjects, but some scribes had to acquire other specializations. Arithmetic must have been a basic course, for whether he ended up as an army scribe calculating rations, or a temple scribe in charge of the god’s property, or a court scribe concerned with architecture and construction work, the scribe usually had to be able to do simple arithmetic. The subject was certainly taught, but how, and by whom, we don’t know.

Another specialty which became important after the beginning of the New Kingdom was foreign languages. Even if we had no evidence we would suspect that at a wealthy cosmopolitan court there would have to be some men who knew enough foreign tongues to deal with traders, envoys, and messengers from other countries. The Amarna tablets, found at that site, show that Egyptian kings of this period carried on constant correspondence with their representatives in the conquered cities of Syria-Palestine, and also with brother kings in the great empires of Mitanni, Hatti, and Babylonia. The “Foreign Ministry” scribes did not need to learn all the languages of these areas, for the diplomatic lingua franca of the period was Akkadian, just as Latin was an international language in the Middle Ages. There must have been a group of scribes at the royal court who could read Akkadian and press the little wedge-shaped characters onto the clay tablets on which they were commonly written.

The boys would absorb some history (or the Egyptian equivalent) and some literature, rhetoric, and ethics through the texts they copied. We will probably never know what other subjects, if any, were imparted straight from the mouth of the teacher into the heads of the boys. They had a formidable task just with reading and writing; the happiest moment of the day must have been lunchtime, when their mothers appeared with their bread and beer. But when they graduated from the schoolroom they had, in their knowledge of the “writings,” the key to advancement. It could lead to high office or, more commonly, to a comfortable, respectable post in the entourage of king, god, or noble.


On the veranda of his house, a youngish man named Mersu relaxed after the noonday meal. It was a day in July or August, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 B.C. The sun beat down on the dusty earth of the courtyard; from the women’s quarters at the rear of the house came the shrill voice of Mersu’s wife, trying to collect the children for their afternoon rest. The noise did not disturb Mersu; he was used to it. He was just about to close his eyes and drift off into slumber when the sight of a man—a newcomer—passing through the gates brought him upright in his chair. The man was a messenger; in one hand he carried a roll of papyrus. Mersu clasped both hands over his belly; there it was again, that odd little pain that had bothered him lately, especially after eating. Then he stood up to receive the letter from his father.

Mersu’s father, Hekanakhte, was ka-priest of a vizier named Ipi, who lived and died during the First Intermediate Period. When this great man was buried in his tomb near Thebes, he left estates in that area whose produce was to be spent on the upkeep of his tomb and the ceremonies necessary to keep his spirit alive and well nourished. Hekanakhte was the man in charge of the funerary arrangements on behalf of the vizier; his own salary came out of the produce of the estates. He lived in a little village called Nebsyt, a few miles from Thebes and the tomb he tended. His sizable family included his five sons—Mersu the eldest, Senebnut and Sihathor, both grown men, and the younger boys Anubis and Snefru. The older sons were married, and their families lived with Hekanakhte. In addition, there were various unattached women: Hekanakhte’s old mother, a poor relation called Hetepet, and a woman who may have been a widowed daughter. An important member of the group, though not a member of the family, was Hekanakhte’s assistant, Heti. It was a big family and, as one might suspect, not always a harmonious one.

From time to time Hekanakhte had to leave home in order to visit the other properties for which he was responsible. He stayed away on these trips for many months, leaving Mersu in charge of things; but though he was gone he was not forgotten. He bombarded Mersu with letters, and Mersu, who was trying to manage his father’s obstreperous house hold as well as carry out his priestly duties, used to take these lengthy epistles up to an empty tomb near the bigger tomb of Ipi, where he could ponder their words of wisdom in peace. When the empty tomb was ready to be occupied, the workers swept the accumulated debris, including the letters—which Mersu evidently discarded after reading them—into a hole in the floor and covered them up. There they stayed until they were discovered by archaeologists in 1922. They form one of the most fascinating pictures of family life from any ancient culture. One of the people intrigued by them was Agatha Christie, who used the characters, though not under the same names, as the basis for her story of murder in ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End.

I always picture Hekanakhte as a skinny little old man, somewhat flabby around the middle, but active as a cricket. In my mental image he has no hair on top of his head, only a fringe of gray over his ears. When he remembers to do so he slaps a dusty black wig on his head. He carries a long staff, which he uses like a vaulter’s pole to turn his shuffling walk into a series of quick hops. His face is wrinkled and his nose is beaky, but his black eyes are bright and alert, peering suspiciously out at the world from under lowering brows.

The letter Mersu received that summer afternoon asked him to send his father five bushels of wheat and as much barley as he could scrape together, plus any food that was not needed for the family. The inundation was about to begin, and Hekanakhte’s letter includes the following ominous remarks: “As for any flooding on our land, it is you who are cultivating it, and I shall hold you responsible. Be very active in cultivating, and be very careful. Guard the produce of my grain! Guard everything of mine; for I shall hold you responsible for it. And if my land floods—too bad for you!”

Several other letters followed this one, but Mersu did not save any until the next summer, during which time Hekanakhte remained away. Conditions in Egypt were bad; the inundation had been low, and crop failures had caused near-famine in many areas. Hekanakhte’s letter says that he has managed to find some food and plans to send it to the family. Evidently it was not an abundant supply, for the old man meticulously lists the shares due each member of the family. “Now you must not be angry about this,” he insists. “See, the whole house hold, as well as the children, are dependent on me, and everything is mine.” Then he quotes a pair of hoary proverbs—“The hungry must hunger” and “Half life is better than dying altogether”—and proceeds, working himself up into quite a passion: “Why, here they have begun to eat men and women! There are none anywhere else to whom such food is given. You must give this food to my people only while they are working. Mind this! Make the most of my land, strive to the uttermost, dig the ground with your noses. See, if you are industrious, men will praise God for you. Lucky that I can support you! And if any one of the men or women spurn the food, let him come here to me, and stay with me, and live as I live! Not,” he concludes self-pityingly, “that there is anyone who will come here to me.”

Between lectures on general behavior, Hekanakhte gave explicit directions for the management of the property in Thebes—what field to sow with what seed, the names of men to whom land was to be rented, and so on. Hekanakhte was worried for fear someone would get more than his due, and he warned his harassed son that if anyone was overpaid, the excess would be deducted from Mersu’s own share. It seems that Mersu had everything to lose and nothing to win; when there were losses he had to make them good, but Hekanakhte never offered to reward him for gains made by his good management. One of the letters found in the cache had never been opened until the modern excavators broke its seal; it was full of helpful hints on business, and one cannot resist the suspicion that Mersu, driven to distraction, dropped it unread into the handy hole in the floor and went on to do his work in his own way.

One surprising factor about life at this period is the amount of letter-writing which must have been carried on. We have only Hekanakhte’s letters to Mersu, but from what he says it is evident that he was getting letters, not only from Mersu, but from other relatives, all complaining, tattling on one another, and going behind Mersu’s back to report their animosities to the absent father of the family. Hekanakhte threw himself into all the quarrels with relish. The poor relation Hetepet was evidently unpopular; in one letter Hekanakhte says irritably, “I have already told you, do not keep a woman friend of Hetepet’s away from her. Take great care of her, although of course you don’t want her with you.” The two youngest boys were also a trial to their elder brother. Anubis wrote to the old father complaining that Mersu had taken some of his things, and Hekanakhte shot right back with “Give back to him any article of Anubis’s that you have, and what ever is missing, pay him back for it. Don’t make me write to you about it again! I have already written to you twice about it!” The youngest boy, Snefru, was his father’s spoiled darling, and Hekanakhte constantly nagged Mersu to be sure the brat was kept happy. “I have been told that [Snefru] is unhappy. Take great care of him, and give him food, and salute him from [me] a thousand times, a million times! Take great care of him and send him off to me directly after you have cultivated.” But Snefru refused his father’s invitation, and the following year Hekanakhte wrote feebly, “And if Snefru wants to look after the bulls, then put him to looking after them. He doesn’t want to be running up and down cultivating with you, nor does he wish to come here with me. Indeed, whatever he wants, you must let him enjoy it.”

One would think that Hekanakhte had troubles enough with his quarrelsome brood of children and dependents, but he did not know when to leave well enough alone. He never mentions a wife, so presumably he was a widower. In a burst of elderly vigor he decided to take a concubine or second wife (the word used indicates a status above that of a mistress), and this damsel destroyed what little peace was left in the house. She had not been there long before Hekanakhte was writing: “What am I supporting you for, you five boys, and what can my concubine do to you? As to doing any harm to my concubine, take warning! You aren’t associated with me as my partner! If you would shut up, it would be a very good thing,” he concludes vulgarly.

The concubine, Iutenheb, managed to irritate everybody. Hekanakhte ordered his son to fire one maid who had threatened or offended the girl; he warned Mersu against the third son, Sihathor, too. There was also trouble with a tenant named Ip. In despair the old man finally instructed Mersu to send the charming bone of contention to him; this letter is full of sententious complaints like “How can I ever live with you in one establishment, if you will not respect a concubine for my sake?”

It is no wonder that Miss Christie, the expert on murder, saw violent potentialities in the Hekanakhte house hold. But perhaps they were no worse than they are in a lot of families, particularly those which are complicated by poor relations, grandmothers, and the equivalent of a stepmother living with grown sons. (Just what was Sihathor doing to the concubine, one wonders?) It is certainly an amusing and nearly unique picture of daily life—the daily activities, quarrels, and resentments of an average “white kilt” family of the second millennium B.C. We do not get such periscopes into the past very often, and it is amazing how effective this one is, and what a clear picture we are given of the personalities involved. Hekanakhte is more than a personality; he is a “character” in the full slang sense of the word, with his fussy “now mind this” and “pay attention to what I say” larding every letter and his constant prickling reminders that the whole family is dependent on him. Some of the relationships I have described have been questioned; it has been suggested that Mersu was a younger brother, not a son, of Hekanakhte, but that doesn’t alter my image of him as prematurely balding and suffering from an incipient ulcer. Let us hope that when the crotchety old man died he left the property to the man who had been charged with its maintenance, and that Mersu was able to get his contentious relatives in order.


One of the significant aspects of Egyptian life which is brought out by the Hekanakhte letters is the combination in one man of functions which we would consider incompatible, or at least divergent. Hekanakhte’s “job” was that of ka-priest to the deceased vizier, which meant that he was supposed to make the offerings to the dead man’s soul at such times as the mortuary contract stated. We would define this as a priestly function. However, Hekanakhte’s letters show that he spent a lot of time administering the lands left by the vizier to supply his tomb offerings. He was more of a bailiff than a priest.

The higher the position in the bureaucracy, the greater the variety of the official’s responsibilities. There was considerable division of labor in the Egyptian economy, and craftsmen were real specialists in their own lines. We know of sandal-makers, bakers, carpenters, bird-catchers, beekeepers, janitors, mat-makers, incense molders, goldsmiths and coppersmiths, fishermen, and dozens of others. But when we get to the upper echelons of high officials, we find that they could turn their hands to just about anything.

The career of Senenmut, Hatshepsut’s favorite, is a good example. He was a prophet of Montu (priesthood); chief steward of Amon and overseer of the god’s store houses, orchards, and other property (temple administration); chief steward of the king (civil administration); overseer of works (construction, engineering, architecture); tutor of the queen’s daughter and steward of her estates, prince and count, sole companion, wearer of the royal seal; and at one point in his active life he may also have been a soldier. It is true that many of these offices could have been rewards for a particular talent for administration. The president of a big modern corporation may have under him artists, machinists, truck drivers, engineers, and so on; in the Egyptian sense he could be described as overseer of truck drivers, chief artist, and supervisor of engineers. Perhaps some of the talents which we ascribe to these Egyptian jacks-of-all-trades may have been supervisory only. Even so, it is evident that some of our modern categories are not applicable. The president of the corporation would not preach sermons from the pulpit on alternate Sundays, nor be sent as a field officer to lead an army on a campaign, as one Fourth Dynasty official was.

An Egyptian official would have been baffled by the suggestion that he render unto Caesar those things which were Caesar’s and unto God those things which were His. Caesar was God—or at least god—and there was no functional difference between church and state. At some periods a single man might hold both the vizierate and the high priesthood of Amon, the supreme civil and sacerdotal positions. This concept explains, to some extent, the apparent overlapping of functions which we find in so many official careers.

However, we must also take into account the attitude of the ancients toward aptitude and talent and professional training. Parents did not worry about selecting a career for their boy which would employ his highest abilities or suit his fancy. Undoubtedly there were men of genius who followed their proper bent, and boys of ambition and talent who raised themselves out of obscure backgrounds to the rank of “prince and count.” Except for the scribal schools, however, training must have been by the apprentice system, and a boy’s best teacher was his father, who could not only teach him the tricks of the trade but could bequeath to him the tools and the goodwill which he had acquired. Even the high administrative offices, though theoretically bestowed by the king, tended to run in certain families. When the king’s faithful old vizier died, his logical successor was the son who had so long profited from his father’s wisdom and experience.

At the top of the ladder, of course, was the king. Actually, he was not really on the ladder; he sat suspended in air several feet above it. The notion of the divinity of the king has been questioned, but not seriously shaken; by dogma he certainly was a god, and if his subjects, singly or en masse, ever regarded him as less than sacred such a viewpoint never got into an official publication. He owned the land and its people; he bestowed all offices, heard all complaints, led all armies, and was high priest of every god. Obviously there was a gap between dogma and practice; the king could not be in a hundred places at once. His religious functions were delegated, and his executive activities were supported by the vizier and by a whole cabinet of officials.

The vizier was the highest of all officials, the deputy of the king in all the affairs of state. In the Old Kingdom the office was usually held by a prince of the royal blood, as were other important positions. Later, commoners could aspire to the job.

The vizier’s responsibilities were awesome. He was in charge of just about everything. Though many of his duties were delegated, the office apparently got too complicated for a single occupant, and by the Eighteenth Dynasty there were two viziers, one for Upper and one for Lower Egypt. This was Egypt’s imperial age, and as one might expect, the bureaucracy expanded with the empire. It isn’t always easy for us to understand the table of organization, since the Egyptians didn’t use the same categories we do. The Ministry of Works, for example, involved viziers, treasurers, and priests. However, from the inscriptions of the period it is possible to get a general idea of how the system worked.

Under each vizier was an Overseer of the Treasury, who kept track of taxes and tribute. The Overseers of the Granaries and of Cattle worked closely with the Treasurer, since much of the national wealth consisted of produce rather than cash. The king’s personal officials included the Steward, who administered the vast royal estates, the Chamberlain, in charge of the domestic details of the palace, and the First Herald, who supervised the palace guard and did a lot of other things we wouldn’t consider consistent with that semimilitary post. The army had its own organization, as did the temples, but these categories were not mutually exclusive; a man might hold the supreme priestly office at the same time he occupied a high administrative position. The highest office was not always the one that wielded the greatest power; Senenmut, Steward of Amon under Hatshepsut, was certainly one of her most influential officials, though he was technically subordinate to several other men. This phenomenon is not entirely unknown in modern times.

There were literally dozens of other titles—Fanbearer on the Right of the King, Overseer of the Harem, Pages and Scribes of this and that, Overseers, Accountants, and Herdsmen. The title of Judge is known, but justice was apparently one of those categories which the Egyptians didn’t consider a separate department, as we do. The king was supreme judge, of course; the vizier was instructed, when he assumed office, that the administration of justice was in his hands, but actual courts of law, that of the vizier as well as local courts, varied in composition from case to case and were presided over by priests and soldiers as well as by different officials.

There are no written law codes as such from ancient Egypt. However, the judge, whoever he might be, was expected to follow certain standards—conformity with maat, the divine order, which, as various references make clear, implied justice and impartiality. In theory even the humblest citizen could demand his rights from high officials.

The so-called “Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” (all such titles are modern) embodies this ideal. It’s one of the most intriguing texts from ancient Egypt and must have been extremely popular, since several copies have survived. It starts as a simple narrative. The peasant, Khun-Anup, heads for Egypt from his home in the Wadi Natrun, in order to barter grain and other commodities. As he nears the house of a minor official named Nemtynakht, the official covets his goods and concocts a scheme whereby he can get possession of them. The path at that point is narrow, with a field of barley on one side and water on the other side; Nemtynakht spreads a sheet across the path and warns the peasant not to let his donkeys step on it. “Okay,” says the peasant. (I translate freely.) “I’ll just go around.” The only way he can go is along the very edge of the barley field. Nemtynakht complains again, and while they are arguing one of the donkeys takes a mouthful of barley. That gives the corrupt official his chance; he confiscates the peasant’s property, donkeys and all, in compensation for a “wisp” of barley, and beats the victim until he flees, weeping. The peasant then appeals to the High Steward, Nemtynakht’s boss. His protest, which is given in full, is so beautifully expressed that the steward tells the king about it, and the intrigued monarch orders Khun-Anup detained, so that he will go on making elegant speeches. “Have a scribe write down everything he says and have it brought to me.”

There are nine petitions in all, and they are indeed eloquent, embodying sophisticated literary techniques that would certainly be remarkable if they came from the mouth of an illiterate peasant. At the end the peasant prevails and is given all the property of the crooked official.

The story is fiction, of course, and the peasant’s eventual triumph is due not so much to the rights and wrongs of the case as to the fact that he is an orator of superb caliber. Still, his venturing to approach the High Steward in the first place, and his stubborn persistence, are indicative of an ideal of fair play. One nice little touch is that at the beginning of the poor fellow’s ordeal the king orders that food be given to him every day, adding, “Provide for his wife and children too. A peasant like that doesn’t come here until his house is almost empty.”

Peasants were at the bottom of the heap, the base of the social pyramid—so, the text implies, if one of them can sue for justice, anybody can!

Slavery, as a widely practiced institution, cannot be definitely proved in Egypt before the Eighteenth Dynasty, but it certainly existed then. Slaves were prisoners of war or criminals, working out their sentences by toiling in the mines or on public works. Not on the pyramids of Giza, though. The men who built these astonishing structures and others like them were Egyptians and free men. Recent excavations at Giza have found not only the nice little tombs they built for themselves in their spare time, but the kitchens and bakeries that supplied them with the food that was part of their pay. The privilege of building a tomb in that favored location was certainly a valued perk, and though the bones of the workmen show the results of hard physical labor, they also show that medical services were available.

In later periods most slaves were owned by the state—which included the temples—but private persons, some of them pretty low in the social scale themselves, might also have a slave or two. Although these unfortunates could be bought and sold or rented out like any other piece of property, they were in some ways better off than the ordinary peasant. They were entitled to food and lodging, clothes and ointment, and those who worked in great house holds might rise to positions of considerable importance. We know that some were emancipated, and others even married into the families of their owners.

The poor farmer on his little plot of land might well envy the well-dressed, plump slaves of the great noble. Technically he was a free man, but in actual fact he was not much more than a serf. He was harassed by numerous obligations to the state and to his immediate superiors, and he spent most of his waking hours at work in his fields—when he was not hauling stones for pyramids and other buildings or “chastising” various enemies of Egypt. We know very little about them, these men and women who made up the great majority of “the Egyptians.” It seems unfair that we should have less information on the long generations of “common folk” than on any of the better-known pharaohs. Yet not one of the mighty rulers of Egypt—not even Akhenaton—seems quite as real as a fussbudget named Hekanakhte, who was only an insignificant ka-priest of an unimportant vizier named Ipi.

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