The Italian word graffiti (sing. graffito) is used today for a great variety of inscriptions or pictures that were scratched, hammered, picked, painted (or sprayed) on a hard surface, such as stone. One factor for such expression is that, in many cases, it was not intended for eternity—it was just a certain momentary idea or inspiration. That basic intention changed in the course of time and, perhaps, ancient Egyptian elite culture was the first to leave graffiti for eternity, to perpetuate individual achievements and names, and to communicate with future generations. Predynastic examples include Egyptian “royal” names, with the falcon of the god Horus mounted on the façade of a palace; they are found as far south as Gebel Sheikh Suleiman at the Second Cataract of the Nile. The name of King Wadji (“snake”) of the first dynasty was found at Wadi Abbad, but it is very doubtful that the king himself was present on the spot. Longer hieroglyphic inscriptions are not found before the third dynasty at Wadi Maghara in the Sinai, with the names of the pharaohs Sekhemkhet and Zanakht.

In prehistoric times, humans hammered or picked out pictures with a hard pebble—for example, of the game they were hunting. Upper Paleolithic people in Europe and the Aborigines in Australia created paints for their pictures, in bright colors. In Egypt, countless hammered, scratched, and ink-drawn graffiti were left by people moving through the deserts, from the time of prehistoric hunter-gatherers until today. A good collection was recorded by Hans Winckler in his Rock-Drawings of Southern Upper Egypt (London, 1938–1939). The deserts were never inaccessible empty spots but were busily trodden by both small groups and huge caravans, at least in certain eras. Prehistoric rock pictures are found beneath graffiti in hieroglyphic, Hieratic, Demotic, Greek, Coptic, Latin, Arabic, English, and French—often accompanied by pictures. Countless suitable rock surfaces were used, usually at ancient, traditional resting places, at panorama points or hills, and on remarkable single rocks—forming a living and unbroken tradition. How many graffiti were destroyed in the course of time, and how many still await discovery can hardly be imagined. Only a minority of these pictures and inscriptions are pharaonic Egyptian. Even fewer are dated or datable by chance. The youngest dated hieroglyphic graffito is from 394 CE; the youngest Demotic graffito is from 452 CE, both from the temple at Philae. About three hundred graffiti and rock inscriptions have been published from Old Kingdom times, more than three hundred from the Middle Kingdom, and another three hundred from the New Kingdom (without hundreds known from the region of the First Cataract).

Hieroglyphic and Hieratic inscriptions far from the Nile Valley are some of the most informative texts that were left by Egyptian civilization. Nonetheless, similarly informative Nile Valley graffiti can be found in quarry regions or at ancient resting places. They show a great variety in writing—in hieroglyphic, Hieratic, and Demotic—providing fascinating style, content, and quality. Some contain only a crudely scratched name: the scribble of a nearly illiterate donkey boy, perhaps. Some are twenty lines long or more, and some are accompanied by carefully incised reliefs that were authorized by a vizier, high-steward, chief treasurer, or even by the pharaoh. Many do not differ in quality and content from inscriptions on stelae, in temples, or in tombs—the only difference being the surface or venue. Some display an offering formula for the benefit of the author (who is often represented in an accompanying picture), with an appeal to future visitors to recite it aloud; not only was this a proof of his presence but also the medium for the immortalization of his name and person.

Some examples: graffiti of a twelfth dynasty official on the rocks near the Nubian fortress of Kumma have an identical appeal: “As to everyone who shall pass by this stela (the texts are in fact graffiti), and who may reach his home [Egypt] in good condition, his wife being in joy, and who may embrace his kindred, may he say [the offering formula].…” Some graffiti like the following from Hatnub offer promises: “As for every traveler who may raise his arm [in prayer] for this picture (the graffito is modeled after a stela): he shall reach his home in safety after he has accomplished that for which he came here!” Others close with the threat of harsh sanctions: “Who will damage this picture: the gods of the nome will punish him!”

A special type of text, long in use by ancient Egyptians, is visitors' graffiti. They were left—as they are today—by people who visited a building, tomb, pyramid, or other interesting or holy place, just to tell future visitors, “I was here!” This is also the intent of many graffiti in the mining areas. Some give just the name and an often standardized remark on the quality of the building visited: “The scribe X came to see the building of.… He found it like heaven in its interior.” Other remarks have a votive character and appeal to the gods, such as those on pavements and the roofs of temples, and are often accompanied by a scratched sketch of the feet of the devotee. The main period for visitors' graffiti in both hieroglyphic and Hieratic script was the New Kingdom, especially the Ramessid period, when elite visitors went to see their ancient monuments in a spirit of admiration. (Not considered here are the innumerable graffiti left by foreign mercenaries, such as Cariens, Cypriots, Phoenicians, and Aramaeans or by Greek, Roman, and more recent tourists.)

Beyond the Nile Valley, graffiti (and comparable texts on stelae) are clustered in those regions that were of economic interest to the Egyptians. Some sites developed a special tradition of texts with high literary quality, the so-called Expedition Texts, or reports on an enterprise's successful accomplishment: in the Sinai, and at Hatnub, Wadi Hammamat, and Wadi el-Hudi. Other sites of equal or greater economic importance lack these: for example, no graffiti (except some laconic stelae) are known from Gebel Zeit (galena mines) or Timna (copper mines).

The Egyptians came to the Sinai for copper, malachite, and turquoise. At Serabit el-Khadim, a sanctuary to Hathor, “the Mistress of Turquoise,” was developed and enlarged until the Ramessid era. Published inscriptions from this site include about twenty-six inscriptions from the Old Kingdom, about one hundred six inscriptions from the Middle Kingdom, and eighty-five from the New Kingdom. The Old Kingdom inscriptions were scratched or hammered on the rock surface and often contain only a date and the titles and names of the expedition's staff. A local tradition is the icon of the king smiting his enemies, sometimes helped by a deity (Thoth, Sopdu, or Hathor). The Middle Kingdom inscriptions are mostly composed on single-, double-, or even four-sided stelae erected in Hathor's temple at Serabit el-Khadim. Many were authorized by supervisors of the thirty or so expeditions organized in the reign of Amenemhet III. They display the winged sun disk in a lunette, a date, names of the king, and a short self-praising sequence of epithets and titles of the official responsible for the stela, augmented by a statement that he came there on the king's order, a report on the successful enterprise, an appeal to future visitors, and a list of the staff and their provisions. The expedition's success is attributed to the gods of the earth, acting for the benefit of the pharaoh: they only give him what already belongs to him. A standard formula is, “His [the king's] father Geb gave it [the minerals] to him, Tatenen offers what is in him,” or “The mountains are offering to him what is in them, they bring to light what was hidden in them.” This view is similarly expressed in inscriptions from Wadi el-Hudi and Wadi Gawasis. Accordingly, many texts contain praise of the king and his power.

Inscriptions dated to the third dynasty are found only in Sinai, and there are not many inscriptions from the fourth and fifth dynasties at well-known sites. The sixth dynasty, however, is an important time for inscriptions naming the staff of officials on expedition in the Sinai, Wadi Hammamat, and numerous other places—sometimes very remote—in the Eastern and Western deserts. A large group of inscriptions was found in the Eastern Desert in the region of Wadi Dungash and Wadi Muweilha, which was once reached by leaving the Nile Valley near Kom Ombo or opposite Edfu and passing through Wadi Abbad and Wadi Barramiya. A scribe of the time of Pepy II boasts of digging a well for the troops' water supply with the formula, “I gave water to the thirsty and food to the hungry.” Typically enough, the purpose of the enterprise is not mentioned, but it might have been a search for minerals, such as copper and gold.

The quarrying and mining region of the Wadi Hammamat was reached by leaving the Nile Valley at Coptos—and there the greatest amount of graffiti is on display: more than four hundred hieroglyphic and Hieratic, forty Demotic, and one hundred Greek graffiti from Ptolemaic and Roman times have been published to date. There are about ninety-five graffiti from the time of Djedefre until the end of the Old Kingdom. In contrast to the Old Kingdom rock inscriptions from Sinai, only few texts were authorized by kings; this practice changed in the eleventh dynasty, from which the most spectacular texts were recorded: two “wonder stories” that happened during the reign of Montuhotep III, during an expedition led by his vizier, Amenemhet (who probably later became pharaoh). The lucky finding of a well, and the marvelous event of a gazelle giving birth on a stone then found suitable for the king's sarcophagus, were interpreted as manifestations of the power of the god Min on behalf of the king. Another inscription, authorized by the royal steward Henenu in the time of Montuhotep II, records an expedition of three thousand men leaving from Coptos to the Red Sea coast, where they constructed ships heading for the “gods' land,” perhaps the country called Punt. Among the approximately sixty texts from the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom are many dated or datable to the reigns of Senwosret I and Amenemhet III. In the reign of Senwosret I, the highest number of participants on an expedition is recorded: seventeen thousand men. All had to be provisioned for thirty days with their due portions of bread, beer, and meat, according to their rank, by very effective logistics: the expedition's head got two hundred loaves and five beers each day, while the modest forced laborer got only ten loaves and one-third portion of beer. The troops were accompanied by twenty brewers, twenty millers, and twenty bakers. The outcome of all their efforts was stones for one hundred fifty statues and sixty sphinxes. Not until the reign of Ramesses IV did another expedition of comparable size go there; the texts speak of more than eighty-three hundred men. The hardships of the enterprise are readily conceivable, and the text duly records the death of nine hundred men.

In the alabaster (calcite) quarries of Hatnub, the oldest inscriptions are from the time of Khufu. Later, Hatnub is known for a group of famous texts of the eleventh and twelfth dynasty families of governors of the Hare nome, who were buried at Bersheh. Inscriptions found in the Wadi el-Hudi have been dated as far back as the eleventh dynasty, but the search for amethyst ceased there after about fifteen expeditions (and more than eighty texts) in the thirteenth dynasty (Sobekhotpe IV). A few preserved royal inscriptions in the limestone quarries of Tura, south of Cairo, date to the Middle and New Kingdom; they use a standardized formula commemorating the reopening of the quarry (Amenemhet III, Ahmose, Amenophis II, Amenophis III).

During the Middle Kingdom, immortalization by rock inscription became very popular, at least among the elite and officials on tour. The twelfth dynasty was also the main period for graffiti in the Nile Valley. Hundreds of graffiti can still be seen in the region of the huge granite monoliths around Elephantine Island in the Nile and the First Cataract. A favored spot for graffiti since the Old Kingdom was the island of Sehel, where the goddess Anuket was worshiped. Many consist simply of an offering formula and long lists of names of the author's relatives, often accompanied by sketched figures of the named people.

During the military expeditions led by Amenemhet I and Senwosret I to conquer the Sudan, about seventy inscriptions were cut into the rocks of Gebel el-Girgawi near Korosko. They commemorate participation in those expeditions by high officials and modest rank-and-file soldiers. Some were modeled after tomb inscriptions, such as the above-mentioned graffiti from Hatnub, ending with a threat formula. One example reads: “I am a man of the troops, who attacks the fighter, and who loves life and hates death. For him who shall erase this graffito, death shall be found for him.” Many later graffiti were found in the surroundings of the Nubian fortresses, left by garrison members and priests. A special features from the times of Amenemhet III, Amenemhet IV, and Queen Sobekneferu are the incised levels of the Nile's inundation heights at Semna and Kumma.

The mouth of the Wadi es-Shatt er-Rigale north of Gebel es-Silsila offered a suitable resting place for people coming by ship from Thebes, Edfu, or Elephantine. They used the time to immortalize themselves on the spot, and even kings left their marks on the rocks. Well known is the huge tableau of Nebhepetre Montuhotep I with his mother Iakh (“moon”) and his father Antef (“son of the sun [Re]”), accompanied by the chancelor Khety. Another typical resting place used for graffiti was atop the high cliffs at Deir el-Bahri in Western Thebes. Priests of the temples below sat there awaiting the solemn processions of Amun, spending their time scratching their names and offering formulas for their own benefit on the rock: “Giving praise to Amun, and kissing the earth for the lord of the gods, at his festival days in summer, when he dawns, at the day of the procession to the valley of Nebhepetre, by the priest of Amun Nefer-abed.” A comparable spot for graffiti is the “Vulture Rock” in the desert of the delta of Wadi Hellal east of Elkab, where priests immortalized their names, long genealogies, and their participation in the feasts of the goddess of the valley.

Of more economic and strategic importance was a system of ancient roads that began at Western Thebes, passed the so-called Mountain of Thoth, with its mountain temple of Montuhotep I, and leading across the desert heights to shorten the Qena bend of the Nile to Hiw (Diospolis Parva) near present-day Nag Hammadi. This road significantly reduced the traveling time between Thebes or Armant and Abydos or Thinis. Control of movements on these roads was very important in the First and Second Intermediate Periods, so among hundreds of other inscriptions, there are remarkable inscriptions of Second Intermediate Period kings at a significant resting place, Wadi el-Hol, at the midpoint of the “Farshut road”; at another site is an inscription by the eighth to ninth dynasty nomarch of the Coptite nome, Tjauti.

Very few graffiti are known from the Libyan or the Western Desert, owing to different geophysical conditions. There are caravan routes that have been used since ancient times to the oases of Bahrija and Kharga and farther south, via Dungul into Sudan and Darfur; in the Dakhla Oasis, a proper settlement administered by the Egyptians developed in the sixth dynasty. There are some hints that, at least during the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians surveyed the Western Desert, perhaps in search of minerals: in 1917, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) southwest of the village of Mut, going from Dakhla Oasis to Gebel Uweinat, a large cache of Old Kingdom water pots was discovered (at Abu Ballas or “Pottery Hill.”). Somewhere in that area, a steward named Mery left a graffito; he came there “in search of the oasis people,” in the twenty-third year of the reign of an unknown twelfth dynasty pharaoh. Most of the travelers on the caravan routes, however, seem not to have thought their experiences worth recording.

Finally, one must mention builders' and setting marks, team marks, and control notes that were left on building stones or in tombs for technical and administrative reasons. Setting marks, painted in ink in burial chambers, often consist of single signs in a special builder's code, meaning for example “south, top,” or they display the numbering of blocks, perhaps with a simple nfr-sign. Generally they were removed after reassembling the precut chamber, and so they are found only in unfinished tombs. Team marks were special signs, mostly single hieroglyphs chiseled out or painted in red ink on blocks, that were often used in connection with noting the home town of the laborers. Core blocks from the pyramid of Senwosret I carry notes, painted in red ink during transportation, such as “Year 12, second month of winter, day X. Brought from the quarry by [the gang of] the third district of Heliopolis.”

The modern recording and publication of a pharaonic site or monument should include all visitors' graffiti, both ancient and modern.


  • Arnold, Felix. The Control Notes and Team Marks: The South Cemeteries of Lisht. New York, 1990. With introduction and further literature on the topic.
  • Bernand, André. De Koptos à Kosseir. London, 1972. Includes publication of the graffiti in Greek script from Wadi Hammamat.
  • Blumenthal, Elke. “Expeditionsberichte”; “Expeditionsinschriften.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 2:59–62. Wiesbaden, 1987.
  • Černỳ, Jaroslav. Graffiti hiéroglyphiques et hiératiques de la necropole thébaine. DFIFAO, 9. Cairo, 1956.
  • Černỳ, Jaroslav, and A. A. Sadek. Graffiti de la montagne thébaine. Cairo, 1969–1972.
  • Černỳ, Jaroslav, A. H. Gardiner, and T. E. Peet. The Inscriptions of Sinai. London, 1952–1955.
  • Darnell, Deborah, and John Darnell. “Exploring the ‘Narrow Doors’ of the Theban Desert.” Egyptian Archaeology 10 (1997), 24–26. Report on the survey of the Theban desert roads and its sensational results.
  • Desroches-Noblecourt, Christiane. “La quête des graffiti.” In Textes et langages de l'Égypte pharaonique. Bibliothèque d'Étude 64.2 (1972–1974), 151–183. Includes full bibliography.
  • Dunham, Dows. Second Cataract Forts, vol. 1: Semna, Kumma. Boston, 1960.
  • Dunham, Dows. Second Cataract Forts, vol. 2: Uronarti, Shalfak, Mirgissa. Boston, 1967.
  • Goyon, Georges. “Les inscriptions des carrières et des mines.” In Textes et langages de l'Égypte pharaonique. Bibliothèque d'Étude 64.2 (1972–1974), 193–205. Includes most of the relevant editions of inscriptions.
  • Goyon, Georges. Nouvelles Inscriptions rupestres du Wadi Hammamat. Paris, 1957.
  • Griffith, Francis Ll. Catalogue of the Demotic Graffiti of the Dodecaschoenus. Oxford, 1937.
  • Hintze, Fritz, et al. Felsinschriften aus dem sudanesischen Nubien. Berlin, 1989. Graffiti from Faras, Serra, Abusir, Mirgissa, Shelfak, Uronarti, Kumma, Semma, and more.
  • Lopez, Jésus. “Felsinschriften.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, edited by Wolfgang Helck and Wolfhart Westendorf, vol. 2, cols. 159–161. Wiesbaden, 1987.
  • Marciniak, Marek. Les inscriptions hiératiques du temple de Thoutmosis III. Deir el-Bahari, Vol. 1. Warsaw, 1974. Publication of New Kingdom graffiti from a Deir el-Bahri temple, with an introduction on graffiti.
  • Rothe, Russel D., G. Rapp, Jr., and W. Miller. “New Hieroglyphic Evidence for Pharaonic Activity in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 33 (1996), 77–104. Publication of forty-three graffiti from the region southeast of Edfu.
  • Sadek, Ashraf I. The Amethyst Mining Inscriptions from Wadi el-Hudi. 2 vols. Warminster, 1980–1985.
  • Seyfried, Karl-Joachim. Beiträge zu den Expeditionen des MittlerenReiches in die Ost-Wüste. Hildesheimer ägyptologische Beiträge, 15. Hildesheim, 1981. Collection and interpretation of texts at Wadi el-Hudi, Sinai, and Wadi Hammamat, with special weight on the number and organization of expeditions, and the formulaic corpus of the texts.
  • Thissen, Heinz-Josef. “Graffiti.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3:880–882. Wiesbaden, 1977.
  • Thissen, Heinz-Josef. “Demotische Graffiti des Paneion im Wadi Hammamat.” Enchoria 9 (1979), 63–92.
  • Winlock, Herbert E. “Graffiti of the Priesthood of the Eleventh Dynasty Temples at Thebes.” American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 58 (1941), 146-.
  • Zába, Zbigniew. The Rock Inscriptions of Lower Nubia. Czechoslovak Concession. Prague, 1974. Publication of the graffiti at Gebel el-Girgawi (Korosko).

Detlef Franke