Education in Ancient Egypt
By Marie Parsons
Just as in modern times, children in ancient Egypt imitated adult behavior. The vast difference lies in the fact that in Egypt, more often than not, the children were learning their eventual trade or occupation by that very imitation. As they grew older, children took on more of the tasks on the farms, the workshops, the vineyards, and acquired practical skills and knowledge from their elders.
Along with the skills also came moral attitudes and views of life. Parents instilled their ideas about the world, about folk rituals, their religious outlook, their viewpoints on correct behavior toward others, and toward the deities.
Some of these ethical principles can be found in the so-called Books of Instruction, or Wisdom Literature. The advice given in these texts may have been addressed by elders of the royal, noble and scribal classes to younger men of those same classes, but surely their concepts were familiar to all levels of Egyptian society. Truth-telling and fair-dealing were offered as social desirable and more advantageous than lying and injustice. Justice, wisdom, obedience, humanity and restraint were offered as components of the well-ordered life.
These texts also served as teaching texts for the schools of scribes.
Formal vocational training also existed along with scribal and at-home teaching. An official took on his son as an assistant, so that the son would have "on the job" training and the succession become almost automatic.
Young men did not usually choose their own careers, instead, they very often followed in the family trade or profession, even up to the highest offices in the land, with the blessing of the king, of course. Towards the end of the Middle Kingdom, for example, there was a virtually dynastic line of viziers, and in the Ramesside period of the 20th Dynasty, the offices of the high priests of Amun were passed on from father to son. By the end of the New Kingdom, officials began openly claiming their right to take over their fathers jobs, and this led to the sale of offices.
There were exceptions to the profession by heredity, as for example when a man had no son to follow after him. But adoption was often used to ensure property inheritance and funerary provisioning, as well as succession in the profession.
The king was the only one who did not personally tutor his children. Senenmut, the vizier and royal architect for Hatshepsut, and a man named Idu at Abusir, were such royal tutors. The princes and princesses learned literature, mathematics, writing, and grammar.
Girls from less lofty families learned how to manage a household, and how to sing, dance and play musical instruments. These last would be important if the girl took on temple service as a singer or musician.
The children of farmers and fishermen had even less formal education. They learned how to sow, glean, and harvest, tending poultry and cattle, make nets and catch and prepare fish. Children were often included in scenes of harvesting, fishing, or caring for cattle.
Craftsmen must have taken on children to learn the skills needed for ceramic, faience, and metalworking, or of sculpture and painting, but of all the paintings that depict the craftsmen in their workshops, it is rare that children are shown. There is documentary evidence, however, about the schooling of sculptors and painters. The inscription of Irtisen initiated his eldest son into his art. An artist had to be familiar with the conventions of representation, proportion, posture, and symbolism. Sherds from Deir el-Medina and other places back to the 3rd Dynasty have survived which show evidence of a learning artist attempting to carve a human face and features, and the deities.
Artists, draftsmen, sculptors, all had to be literate. They had to convert texts written on papyri and ostraca into hieroglyphs on temple and tomb walls, and inscribe them on statues, requiring knowledge of both scripts. So craftsmen and scribes had to master reading and writing, in hieratic and in hieroglyphic. A 19th Dynasty textbook, now called Papyrus Anastasi I, was used for teaching the geography of Asia and arithmetic sums in a military context. Foreign languages were not taught as a rule, nor were religious texts and rituals. Physical education may only have been taught to princes, since references are made to the physically weaker scribe. Yet in the story of Truth and Falsehood, the boy was "sent to school and learnt to write well, He practiced all the arts of war and surpassed his older companions who were at school with him." These arts of war might include riding a horse, guiding a chariot, the use of weapons.
Students did their arithmetic silently, but they recited their texts aloud until they knew the texts by heart. Then they attempted to write it down, either from a teachers model or from memory. Students most often used pottery sherds or limestone fragments called ostraca to practice their writing skills, though they did on occasion use and re-use papyrus sheets that had already been used before them.
There is evidence that at least on one occasion, a girl had been taught reading and writing. A 20th Dynasty letter from a man to his son says, "You shall see that daughter of Khonsumose and let her make a letter and send it to me." More evidence from Deir el-Medina indicates female literacy. Several letters on ostraca were addressed to, or sent by, women. Since the content of some of these letters regarded feminine matters, it is unlikely the sender or recipient sought out a scribe to read or write the letter. Tomb paintings of women occasionally show scribal artifacts under their chairs: the palette, the scribal kit and a papyrus roll.
There was no set length for schooling One high priest named Bekehnkhonsu recalls that he started school at age five and attended for 11 years, the last few of which he was in charge of the Kings breeding stable. At age 16 he was then appointed a wab priest. Four years later he began to progress up the temple hierarchy until after 39 years he was appointed High Priest, retaining that office for another 27 years.
Another high official named Ikhernofret states that he became a courtier when he was twenty-six, after being educated as a foster-child of the king.
During the Old Kingdom, there is no evidence that any formal schools existed, except perhaps at court. Princes taught younger princes, and favored youths were tutored with the kings own children.
In the Middle Kingdom the first indication of a house of instruction appears, on the tomb of Kheti, a nomarch at Asyut. He urges every scribe and every scholar who has been to school to behave properly when passing his monument ad to speak an offering formula for the deceased. The writer of the so-called Satire of the Trades in the 12th Dynasty brought his son to the school for scribes at "the Residence" of the King near el-Lisht. The author, named Khety, gives himself no rank. Perhaps he was a common man who found a place for his son at this elite school.
During the New Kingdom there were at least two schools in Thebes, one in the Mut Temple, the other at the back of the Ramesseum. There may have been a third near the Valley of Deir el-Medina, where the children of workmen were taught.
- Life of the Ancient Egyptians by Eugen Strouhal
- Growing up in Ancinet Egypt by Rosaline M. and Jac. J. Janssen
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.