Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University

The Egyptian Scribe and the Publications Department.

The Archaeological Publications Department of the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University has chosen the Egyptian scribe as our motif. Some background information is found below.

Scribes and Writing

The invention of writing around 3000 BC defines the beginning of Egyptian history more than any other single change. Similarly, literacy set the chief cultures of the ancient Near East apart from their contemporaries, opening up new possibilities in social organization and in the transmission, and occasionally criticism, of growing bodies of received knowledge. But the script was complex, and literacy was confined to a small elite. Not until the spread of alphabetic scripts was anything like the full potential of writing for society exploited. It seems that there was no separate, illiterate class of nobility, as a landed aristocracy might be. All high-ranking people had scribal careers in officialdom, army or priesthood; kings too were literate. Among administrative titles the highest do not allude to writing, but we know from representations that such people were scribes; they had surpassed the level of achievement at which writing was the main occupation, not bypassed it. In all spheres writing formed the basis of official organization.

A scribe was trained in his first job by another scribe, and the children of important people could enter office very young – perhaps about the age of 12. After his training, or in its later stages, the scribe would rise gradually through the administrative hierarchy. Basic literacy was probably acquired before he started a job. At Deir el-Medina, the only school for which we have 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. A surprising number of these have been preserved, which suggests that they may ultimately have been put in their owners' tombs.

There are two noteworthy features of this training. First, it was mainly in cursive writing, which was from the beginning the commonest form. Further instruction was probably needed for proficiency in the monumental hieroglyphic script, which was therefore comprehensible to rather fewer people; in the Late Period the two forms diverged sharply. Second, although the Egyptians dissolved their language into a syllabary and had an "alphabetical" order into which lists were sometimes arranged, learning was by copying sentences or words, not by starting from individual signs. Writing was perceived in groups of signs, and there was little stimulus to minute analysis of the script.

Apart from administration, letters etc., the cursive script was used for non-essential purposes, the most interesting of which, from our point of view, was transmitting works of literature. Literary texts are preserved both from schools and from other sources. They include narrative fiction, instruction and "philosophical" texts, cult and religious hymns, love poetry, royal inscriptions and miscellaneous texts used secondarily as literature, and various genres we would not consider literary: medical and mathematical texts, rituals, and some mortuary books. The chief center of production was the "house of life," a scriptorium attached to temples, which evidently made copies of the entire range of traditional writings, not only of belles-lettres. The tradition continued almost without a break into the 3rd century AD, although few texts survived the transition from hieratic to demotic. Some literary works became generally familiar and were alluded to in later texts, playing on a lettered culture common to writer and reader.

The Scribe Amenophis

Amenophis-son-of-Hapu Sit-amun's steward, Amenophis-son-of-Hapu was one of the most important officials during several reigns. As there were other high officials of his day named Amenophis, his name often had his father's added to it to avoid confusion. Our Amenophis came from the town Athribis in the Delta, and was probably born in the last years of Tuthmosis III, the great warrior-king of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Amenophis-son-of-Hapu held a number of offices. One of the principal ones was Scribe of Recruits: here he was responsible for organizing the labor required for the Pharaoh's projects, both civilian and military. He supplied the manpower for such diverse undertakings as protecting the mouths of the Nile from raids by Mediterranean pirates, and erecting the colossal statues that flanked the entrances to temples built at Thebes, Memphis, and elsewhere. He also served as Overseer of All the Works of the King, in which job he may have been responsible for building the vast temple of Amenophis III at Luxor and the king's mortuary temple at Western Thebes. Few remains of the mortuary temple survive, but the colossi that once stood in front of its gateway still dominate the Theban plain. Originally each of these seated statues represented Amenophis III, with his mother Mut-em-wiya, his wife Tiye, and one of his daughters standing beside his legs. They were hewn from single blocks of very hard quartzite stone about seventy feet high, and required great skill to carve and erect. Many years later in Classical times these statues were still famous, though most men had forgotten whom they represented. By then the northern statue, the so-called Colossus of Memnon sometimes gave out a mournful note at sunrise; it was thought to be the Homeric hero Memnon greeting his mother the Dawn. An earthquake in the reign of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus damaged the statue and silenced it. In addition to the fame he won for his engineering feats, Amenophis-son-of-Hapu was revered for his teachings as a learned man and philosopher. After his death his reputation grew steadily: some of his sayings were translated into Greek in Classical times, in the fourth century B.C. he was believed to be a divinity worshipped as Amenothes, a god of healing.

About Our Scribe Image

The scribe image used by the Publications Department is a drawing of the scribe Amenophis. This drawing was based off a statue of Amenophis located in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and was color airbrushed in 2005 by Darrell J. Rohl. For a large-sized image of the scribe Amenophis, click here.