Ancient Egyptian education, as described in this article, was restricted to male members of the upper class; it entailed mastery of the writing system and acquaintance with a stock of religious and literary texts. Parallel to learning those texts came inculcation with moral and cultural values. Education, therefore, was a privilege in Egyptian society provided to those intended for supervisory roles in administration, building projects, temple cults, and other professional capacities. (Excluded, thereby, were females, as well as slaves, either Egyptian or foreign.) During the New Kingdom, children of neighboring rulers were sent to an institution at the Egyptian court called kʒp, where they were educated along with youths of the middle and higher echelons of Egyptian society. Egyptian education, at least in that period, became an international affair and acquired an overt political dimension.

Education was an indispensable prerequisite for starting a career as a scribe in administration or as a priest in a temple cult. During the Old Kingdom, the social elite who ran those institutions comprised an estimated 1 percent of the population, the literate sector of society. By late New Kingdom times, literacy may have expanded to about 5 percent, but it dropped after that. The principles underlying the selection or exclusion of new members are not easy to discern, but the system seems to have been largely self-regenerating, except in a few periods such as the twelfth dynasty. Next to nothing is known about education among the illiterate majority, but knowledge seems to have been transmitted among craftsmen from father to son.

Terminology.

The general term for “education” throughout pharaonic time was sbʒyt, the basic meaning of which is “teaching” with a derived connotation of “punishment”; educators apparently used a stick on recalcitrant students. The standard term for “instruction” and “teaching” in both its written and oral forms was also sbʒyt. Most of the Wisdom Texts contain the word sbʒyt in their titles, and in New Kingdom and Demotic instructions we encounter such derivations as sbʒy.t-šʿ.t (“instruction in letter form”) and sbʒy.t-mtrt (“instruction [based on the teacher's own] experience”). In the Late period, Demotic uses mtrt (“testimony”) as well. The distinction between sbʒyt and mtrt may have resembled that between “theory of education” and “practice of education.”

Methods.

Students had to learn to write whole words, not single signs. In pre-Demotic times, they started with cursive hieroglyphs and went on to Hieratic; the latter is even more cursive than the former and may roughly be compared to modern cursive. In Greco-Roman times, Hieratic was still a necessary qualification of temple priests, although by the sixth century BCE, Demotic had replaced that type of script for business purposes. There is no evidence that scribes in training studied monumental hieroglyphs; these were the domain of painters and stonemasons, who nevertheless also acquired a certain degree of literacy.

Writing and copying texts often implied memorizing them, or, as a rather idealistic Ramessid instruction commands, “Apply yourself to writing by day, while you read by night” (Papyrus Sallier I, recto 3,6). The apprentice scribe was expected to know the classics of literature by heart, and also a vast number of religious texts, although his repertory of religious texts may have depended on his specific job in the administration, outside the temple cult. Rote learning was done by singing the texts aloud, since silent reading was unknown in ancient Egypt until Roman times.

Beginners were generally assumed to have been given flakes of limestone or potsherds (ostraca) for writing exercises, and they were allowed to use papyrus as soon as they had acquired mastery of the Hieratic script. This assumption is borne out by the fact that handwriting on ostraca tends to be clumsier than that on papyri. The economic factor may have been decisive: papyrus was expensive, whereas ostraca were readily available.

Subjects.

Among the subjects of general knowledge covered by the curriculum of scribal apprentices, at least from the New Kingdom onward, were the following: epistolary formulas and letter-writing; grammar, orthography, and rhetoric; foreign languages; onomastics; geography; and mathematics and geometry. These are discussed in detail below.

Epistolary formulas and letter-writing.

A letter normally consisted of three sections: the initial address, its content, and the final address, sometimes including a farewell to the addressee. The introduction contained certain polite formulas commending the recipient to the care of a god or gods. A composition from the early Middle Kingdom served as a model for letter-writing. The Instructions of Khety quotes the very end of that text. From the Middle to the New Kingdom, it was copied in cursive hieroglyphs written in vertical columns; it starts with an elaborate introduction composed of formulas that betray their place of composition as the Memphis region. The Satirical Letter of Papyrus Anastasi I emphasizes the importance in a standard letter of certain stylistic features.

Grammar, orthography, and rhetoric.

Schoolboy exercises display orthographic mistakes that can only be accounted for by the assumption that the apprentices were taught to write single words and even whole sentences, but not single signs. The Egyptian term for “hieroglyphs” (mdw-nṯr) may be taken as corroborative evidence for this feature of education, since it literally means “god's words,” not “god's signs,” even though there was the separate term tit for “sign, image, picture, representation.”

There is strong evidence that students were taught grammatical paradigms in a standardized way. This practice betrays a certain awareness of basic linguistic elements. An example from the Ramessid era:

  • I being …;
  • he being …;
  • you (masc.) being …;
  • we being …;
  • they being … (twice);
  • you (fem.) being … (Ostraca Petrie 28)

Many more of these exercises survive from Demotic schools. Judging from the variety of lexical as well as syntactic paradigms, it seems a reasonable guess that there existed a sort of precursor to modern language tools. (Greek influence may also have contributed here.)

Rhetoric was held in high esteem and is a constant topic in instructional literature. How the “rules of proper speech” were taught remains unknown, but according to Ptahhotep, eloquence was not restricted to members of the elite. Even female slaves were sometimes credited with the gift of fine speech: “Good speech is more hidden than greenstone, yet may be found among maids at the grindstones.” In literary fiction at least, even the king may be stirred by the fine speech of an eloquent peasant.

The Egyptian language of pharaonic times developed through four phases—Old, Middle, and Late Egyptian, and finally Demotic. From the New Kingdom onward, scribes were well aware of their own language's history. Old texts were sometimes translated from an earlier variety into that of the copyist; we have samples of exercises rendering single sentences in both Middle and Late Egyptian. In the Late period, even long compositions of religious character were copied, transferring a sort of earlier, classical Egyptian into an advanced stage of Late Egyptian.

Foreign languages.

Expeditions, war, and trade implied contact with neighboring countries at all times. Such relations necessitated mastery of foreign languages, such as Nubian and Libyan. In the New Kingdom, an ever-increasing number of loan words, especially Semitic, can be seen rendered in the so-called syllabic orthography of the Egyptian script. Ramessid school texts make ample use of them; the Satirical Letter of Papyrus Anastasi I bears extensive witness to this. Not only were single words borrowed from the Levant; even whole compositions from Canaanite culture were translated into Egyptian. As the famous Amarna Letters show, the ancient site of Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna) must have housed a place where Akkadian was read and taught—a Near Eastern language indispensable for the maintenance of foreign relations.

Trade with the Aegean, and with Crete in particular, involved language barriers. A wooden tablet of the eighteenth dynasty entitled “To make [proper] names of Keftiu (i.e., Crete)” is evidence of the study of the language that was written in Linear A (Late Minoan I). The fact that this list of foreign names is accompanied by an excerpt of the Prophecy of Neferty, a much-copied classic of Middle Kingdom literature, suggests that it was used as a school exercise.

There are occasional allusions to foreigners being taught Egyptian (in the epilogue to the Instructions of Anii), but these do not imply the existence of school-like institutions for such instruction.

Onomastics.

In a technique similar to and perhaps inspired by Babylonian practice, Egyptian scribes showed a strong tendency toward organizing their knowledge in word lists. These lists, or onomastica, are arranged in subject sections—for example, Egyptian toponyms from south to north, classes of people, professions, titles, or animals. Specimens of these catalogs from the late New Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom confine themselves to naming the items belonging to a specific section, but the onomastica of Roman times had much to say about their entries, supplying real commentaries on them. These Late period onomastica derived from temple schools and were destined for priests; those of earlier times remained silent as to their place of composition.

From the first and second centuries CE, there are fragments of lists that organize their entries in alphabetic order. Lists of this kind may have been drawn on when a scribe was composing a literary text of marked didactic import, such as the Satirical Letter. Much of a typical Late period onomasticon's material was based on a Ramessidera school text: the geography and topography of Syria and Palestine, the parts of an Egyptian soldier's equipment, including a chariot, and so on. Other lists drawn up for school purposes contained indigenous or foreign proper names and those of past Egyptian kings.

Geography.

The onomastica may be taken as evidence that scribes were supposed to know at least the most important place names of Egypt and its neighbors, as well as their locations. Officials who were involved in foreign affairs, trade, or military campaigns also needed such additional knowledge.

Mathematics and geometry.

Bookkeeping was one of a scribe's primary occupations, so the four basic arithmetic operations formed another subject of his education. These calculations were supplemented by various problems of geometry, examples of which are found in mathematical manuscripts both in Hieratic and in Demotic. To what extent these manuscripts were objects of study in schools remains a matter of debate, but the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus of the late Middle Kingdom is a reasonable school candidate; its instructions directly address the potential user in the second person. Invented problems served as models for future calculations. Abstract formulas, like those used by the Greek mathematicians, are sometimes implicit in the texts, but they are never formulated explicitly.

Ethics and Moral Virtues.

The term sbʒy.t denotes not only “punishment” and “education” but also “instruction, teaching” in written form. These texts are directed from a father to his son or children, royal or otherwise; sbʒy.t instructions cover a wide range of subjects. Generally speaking, their topics may be summarized as follows (not all of these occur in every text):

  • • Conventions of behavior in different social situations and relationships
  • • Acting and speaking in solidarity toward one's subordinates
  • • Loyalty to the king
  • • Worship of the god or gods

These and further topics can be subsumed under a key term of ancient Egyptian culture: maat.

“Instructions” of this sort, mostly written and transmitted in school, were also copied as separate chapters, or from beginning to end, sometimes even including a colophon. Those so-called instructions in letter-form may have been studied by the student in private, outside the classroom. Their title does not denote a literary genre to which they were intended to belong, but rather implies a sort of transfer between master and pupil.

Most instructions were created as single, self-contained treatises. In the early twelfth dynasty, however, there seems to have existed a distinct set of three texts, which were taught in sequence and which thus form a complete curriculum: the Instructions of Khety, the Instructions of a Man for His Son, and the Loyalist Instruction. Arranging the texts in this order, we get a triptychon that starts with the introduction of the future scribe into the residence school (Instructions of Khety). The inculcation of loyalty and the teaching of maat in its two aspects of speaking and doing follow (Instructions of a Man for His Son). The last section of the Loyalist Instruction marks the end of the curriculum. The speaker, at that point, leaves the scene by mentioning his own funerary cult, which involves preparing his children to take up office in the administration. Several cross-references distributed through the text trio render their arrangement in the way proposed here very plausible.

Schools and Private Tuition.

The first literary attestations of schools, in the sense of an architectural complex exclusively serving the needs of education, date from the First Intermediate Period and the early twelfth dynasty (probably to be located in the residence of Itjtawy; see the Instructions of Khety). Even from the New Kingdom we have only scanty references to schools—for example, at or near the Deir el-Bahri temple complex, the Ramesseum, the Mut complex within the Karnak temple, and the village of Deir el-Medina. It is especially the last-named site that has supplied innumerable copies of literary texts reproduced in class. The location of the Ramesseum and Deir el-Medina schools, however, cannot be determined exactly, and recently their existence has even been doubted. The plentiful scribal and painter's exercises on ostraca found in the forecourt of one of Senenmut's tombs in Western Thebes (tomb 71) attest to education on the spot, during its excavation and decoration.

The Egyptian word for “school,” ʿt-sbʒyt (Coptic, ansebe), literally means “room of instruction.” It is still unknown whether students of different levels were taught simultaneously in a single class; the existence of several classes representing different levels of education is not supported by the evidence. Types of schools may have varied, both inside and outside the temple, but their curriculum certainly depended on the function that future scribes or priests were supposed to fulfill. The institution at Deir el-Medina was probably located outside the sacred precincts and outside the village proper as well; its curriculum did not include the education of priests.

Students were introduced to the basics of writing by professional scribes, some of whom even held the title “teacher” (sbʒ) or “overseer of teachers” (imy-r sbʒw). Despite these specific titles, teaching was not their main occupation.

Instruction in class lasted for about four years and was followed by individual teaching or on-the-job training. Apprentices were now credited the title “assistant” (ẖry-ʿ, literally “being under the hand/guidance of someone”) and sometimes also that of “scribe” (). During this stage of education, some students developed a rather familiar relationship with their masters, as documented by some Ramessid private monuments mentioning and depicting former teachers as if they belonged to the student's family. Cases are known where fathers and even grandfathers instructed their own sons. Deir el-Medina has also produced evidence of an otherwise unknown sort of individual training: during the twentieth dynasty, the scribe Amennakht, son of Ipuy, cared for the eldest son of his colleague Hori, while Hori in turn cared for the son of Amennakht; the reason for this educational exchange remains obscure.

Usually teaching was given by the master in the pupil's presence, but once again Deir el-Medina—which may not be representative—supplies evidence for another kind of contact. This was teaching by correspondence. As already mentioned, “instructions-by-letter” imply silent study outside school. In addition to this, a student could have been expected to make copies, presumably of literary texts, at home. After he had finished one or more chapters, these copies were sent to the master for correction.

There was no compulsory school attendance for all children, and we cannot say if its place was sometimes taken by private tuition alone. During the Old Kingdom, this system seems to have prevailed, if indeed it was not the only form of instruction. It was comparable to the much later Roman model of individual education (of a famulus or “son” by an experienced official). This system constitutes the background of Ptahhotep's famous teaching. Since most of the administration in the Old Kingdom was situated in Memphis, it is a reasonable guess that children of provincial governors were sent there to be educated.

No definite proof of examinations in any form are yet known. Some stylistic features in the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus point in this direction, however, as when the teacher says, “Do it this way!” or “Let me know its volume!” and so on. If the student had finished his exercise correctly, he was rewarded by the teacher's comment: “You have found it correctly!” It should be stressed that Egyptian students and apprentices were not spoiled by praise; on the contrary, the relevant texts teem with reproaches and admonitions.

Access to Knowledge and Education.

In principle, any male Egyptian was allowed to receive as much education as he needed to accomplish his job properly. Women were excluded from scribal education, although from internal evidence in Deir el-Medina documents, it can be deduced that a few women must have been literate or at least semiliterate. They could have achieved this only by autodidactic means. Pictorial evidence for female scribes, showing women in collocation with scribal equipment in eighteenth dynasty tombs, does not stand up to close examination. The scenes follow a specific iconographic convention, and scribal tools always refer to the ladies' husbands, who are sitting next to them.

Bibliography

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Hans-W. Fischer-Elfert