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Egypt: Tour Egypt Monthly: Ancient Words, the Egyptian Scribe


Ancient Words

By Catherine C. Harris


In modern times, we take for granted the privilege of knowing how to read, write, and express ourselves with words. The art of writing is a creative gift that is often overlooked in our world of technological breakthroughs. Today we have computers with word counters, spell checkers, rhyming dictionaries, and endless resources of information, that has produced a world full of instant novelists, book writers and poets. In ancient Egyptian times, however, only the scribes and a few select people knew how to read and write. The task of recording history, expressing everyday and extraordinary happenings was the responsibility of the scribe in ancient Egypt.

Having the title of scribe was an honorable position for one to hold in Egyptian culture. Future scribes were the only people in ancient Egypt who received a formal education. For all other stations in life, the people would participate in apprenticeship situations. In order to become an "official" scribe, your father had to be a scribe, and his father had to be a scribe, and so on. Therefore, one was born into a position of potential scribe much in the same way as one becomes royalty by being born into a royal family. Scribes had a significant amount of respect in the ancient Egyptian world. People viewed the scribes as being spiritual because they had the ability to do something most people didn't understand. They had vision and insight, what we call inspiration and creativity. Writers and historians today respect the gifts of creativity the scribes left for us to see, and we can appreciate the time it took to create something that would last the tests of time.

Being a scribe was an extremely difficult job because in total, there were hundreds of different hieroglyphs to remember. Hieratic is what Egyptian scribes were taught, a series of brush strokes to express thoughts and reach eternity. Some hieroglyphs were contained within an oval and were read from top to bottom with some images modifying the ones above. The amount of information that a scribe carried in his mind was enormous. The scribes used a kind of paper called papyrus, which was made from reeds otherwise known as the papyrus plant. Papyrus, the writing surface named after the plant from which it is made, was manufactured as early as the first Egyptian dynasty, circa 3100 BC. The emergence of writing and the concomitant use of papyrus seem to be a necessary outcome of the imperial bureaucracy. The Egyptians invariably used Papyrus until the 9th-11th centuries, that is, for 4000 years.

While in school, student scribes didn't have the convenience of papyrus, as this paper was reserved for mature, practicing scribes. Instead, broken pieces of pottery were used for educational purposes. Children destined to be scribes were sent to formal school at the age of nine and left the school at the age of twelve to begin work. The days were long and the work was difficult. The teachers were very strict, but the end result was a brilliant writer. At Deir el-Medina, the only school of which there is evidence, the initial training seems to have been copying passages from a cursive hieroglyphic text called the "Book of Kemyt." From there the scribe progressed to classic works of literature and, after moving to a job, to contemporary miscellanies of model letters, satirical compositions, poems and panegyrics, which may have been set as daily exercises by pupil-masters.

The sheer volume of information that the scribes left for us is staggering when you consider the crude methods used to record. Margaret, a writer from Arizona, had this to say about the scribes, "The scribes recorded so many details that we use machines to record today. They wrote a great deal about life and that aspect has helped us, more than anything, to know them and their world. We know details that we would have never known if they hadn't taken the time to record them. Their attention to detail has allowed us to understand the intimate details of their lives, the rituals and religious practices, and the art of mummification. Scribes were the clerks and secretaries of ancient Egypt, without them the society's customs and traditions would have been lost forever."

A seated scribe holding a papyrus roll was one of the most popular subjects in their art, and even the highest officials chose to be depicted this way. Scribes were highly valued and respected, as a manifestation of the god of writing Thoth. The early Egyptians recognized that writing was the foundation of ordered life and government. Ideas, discoveries, wisdom and experience no longer died with the individual, but could be transmitted through endless generations, right down to us, in the form of writing. We still read the fine literature, religious and scientific texts of these early scribes.

In ancient Egypt mythology, Thoth was the god of the moon, god of wisdom, the measurer of time, and the inventor of writing and numbers. He is credited with devising the standard 365-day year. Thoth was depicted as a man with the head of an Ibis bird, and carried a pen and scrolls upon which he recorded all things. He was shown as attendant in almost all the major scenes involving the gods, but especially at the judgement of the deceased. Thoth served as messenger to the gods, serving in Osirian myths as the chief advisor and minister of Osiris. Thoth was the inventor of hieroglyphs, which the Egyptians called, medju-netjer, "words of the gods."

Ahmas was another known scribe. He was born in Egypt around 1680 BC and died around 1620 BC. He is known for writing, "Accurate reckoning, the entrance into the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets." Ahmas wrote the Rhind Papyrus, named after the Scottish discoverer. Ahmas claimed no ownership to the creation of the content on the papyrus. He declared that the material was from an earlier work of around 2000 BC and he was "only" a scribe.

Scribes have inspired pieces of artwork for thousand of years, withstanding the test of time, as intended. The very act of making the image of a scribe immortal speaks volumes about the respect they received in ancient Egypt. Wendi L. Cali, a writer in Las Vegas, Nevada, received as a gift, a statue of an Egyptian scribe, still wearing dust from Cairo. Late one night, while looking at the unique and foreign object, Cali wrote the following poem, inspired by an ancient Egyptian scribe.

"The Scribe"


There he sits so peacefully
On my desk just looking at me
At this, the turning point of the night -
Legs folded, back straight, aware, upright.
I long to know what his words say
Opened across his lap that way
Through images created by colors divine
Floating from his thoughts to mine.
Write the story... the story tells
Of herbal solutions and mystic spells.
The positive energy transferred through love
Is the power which the scribe writes of.
From the Valley of the Kings and Queens
His message is clearly received, it seems -
Transcending the universe in space and time
To share his wisdom of love sublime.
With thanks I admire his posture and form.
Wrapped in these thoughts I'm cozy and warm.
I thank the universe and powers that be
For bringing this message home to me.

Without the work the scribes left behind, we would find no meaning in the Rosetta Stone. The inscriptions within the temples and tombs of Egypt would be absent. Legends of the gods and goddesses would have been lost in time, and we would know very little about the ancient Egyptian way of doing things. What we know and understand about the Egyptians we owe to the diligent scribes of the ancient world.

The scribes of ancient Egypt did an admirable job of bringing their world into the future. We have benefited from their insight, wisdom, words, and art. Modern day scribes carry on the tradition of recording history and creating dreams with words. If you are planning a trip to Egypt, take special note of the inscriptions you will see on the historical temples and tombs and the museum pieces. The words of scribes long ago will reach through the space of time to speak to you with clarity and dignity.

Love on the Nile By Mark Antoine

Climbing Mount Sinai ByJoyce Carta

The Ancient Egyptian Concept of the Soul By Caroline Seawright

The Nile By Marie Parsons

Just What the Doctor Ordered in Ancient Egypt By Ilene Springer

Package Tours Vs. Independent Tours: Which is Best for You? By Jimmy Dunn

Camels, and Trekking in Today's Sinai By Angela Wierstra

Ancient Words: Scribes of Egypt Revisited By Catherine C. Harris

Editor's CommentaryBy Jimmy Dunn

Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes

Book ReviewsVarious Editors

Hotel Reviews By Jimmy Dunn & Juergen Stryjak

Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman

Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich

The Month in Review By John Applegate

Egyptian Exhibitions By Staff

Egyptian View-Point By Adel Murad

Nightlife Various Editors

Restaurant Reviews Various Editors

Shopping Around By Juergen Stryjak

Web Reviews By Siri Bezdicek

Prior Issues

April 1st, 2001

March 1st, 2001

February 1st, 2001

January 1st, 2001

December 1st, 2000

October 1st, 2000

September 1st, 2000

August 1st, 2000

July 1st, 2000

June 1st, 2000

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