Where did people learn to write in ancient Egypt? The answer may surprise you.
Thanks to advances in archaeology and technology, we know a lot more about ancient Egyptian life than we did a few decades ago. As a result, we can trace the history of literacy and the education of the masses back to the early 20th century BCE.
The earliest evidence of written records goes back to the 26th century BCE. This is when people started using papyrus, a type of paper made from reeds, to write on. It wasn’t until the 25th century BCE that people started using more than one row of symbols (known as hieroglyphs) to write and communicate large volumes of information. In 1922, Edwin Martin, an emeritus professor of Egyptology at University College London, estimated that there were 80,000 hieroglyphs in use across Egypt at that time.
Thankfully, not all the records unearthed were related to religious matters. Some were simply administrative or else were kept on temple property, while others were sold to museums and collections for research purposes. Thanks to these finds, we know that young boys in Egypt were educated in writing in much the same way that young boys are educated in mathematics today. They started by learning to count and recount, then proceeded to add, subtract, multiply, and divide using boards, cones, and knotted cords as early number systems. Later on, they added more sophisticated procedures such as square and cube root using wooden or stone pebbles.
The Rise of the Middle Class
It was between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE that written language started emerging as a practical and necessary skill for anyone who wanted to be taken seriously in society. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century made possible the publication of whole books, including works on medicine, science, and literature. This encouraged people to learn to read and write, since it became much easier to find one’s place in a book than in a dusty old scroll. It was also around this time that private tutors and schools became popular, particularly for children of the upper classes who wanted to learn how to speak Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, the three commonly taught languages of the day. It was also around this time that people started seeing literacy as a sign of social and educational status. In Egypt, for example, the literate class was known as the bourgeoisie, and they started demanding the same rights and privileges as the ancient aristocratic rulers.
Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate
The first printed book in Egypt was titled The Little Coffee Drinker, a children’s story that was published in Arabic in 1550. That was more than 400 years before the invention of the printing press, and it shows how widespread and established the practice of reading and writing had become by that point.
However, the printing press was not the only invention that contributed to the spread of literacy in Egypt in the 16th century. Coffee was also widely consumed, and it was in this context that the English scholar E.A.W. Budge suggested that the custom of making small bags or ‘pellets’ of coffee for travellers had encouraged people to learn how to roast and grind coffee. This had in turn led to the development of a whole new cuisine, which he dubbed ‘Chocolate Egyptology’. It was originally made using sugar and cocoa, but it subsequently evolved into a type of pastry using palm oil, almonds, and apricots. In addition to coffee and chocolate, tea had also become popular in Egypt, particularly amongst the upper classes, and they had started to see drinking tea as a status symbol. This had led to the development of a whole new set of vocabulary, which distinguished the literati from the common folk. For example, the people of Egypt would say “napoleon-kini” to describe a very slender woman, or “papyrus-kini” for someone who was well-educated and wrote on papyrus.
The Spread of Education
With the establishment of a modern education system in the 19th century, schools started to appear in all the major cities, and they were sometimes even found in the most remote areas of Egypt. This had two main effects. First, it broadened access to education, since not only the upper classes could afford to send their children to school, but even the urban poor could find the means to educate their children at home. Second, it changed the face of education in Egypt forever, since previous generations had only known apprenticeship and tutelage. Now, children would grow up with an expectation of learning, and this would deeply influence their behaviour and attitudes towards education in the future. In some ways, it was this that made Egypt an early pioneer in the field of educational psychology, since scholars started seeing how previous attitudes and habits were being shaped by early modern schooling.
A Societal Impact
The invention of the printing press had a significant societal impact, not just because it made books available to a wider audience, but because it had the effect of democratising knowledge. This wasn’t just limited to books, either. Radio and television allowed people to learn about things that they would never have encountered in their daily lives, and this had an effect on how people understood the world around them. Even sports became more than just a leisure activity for the upper classes, since newspapers started to cover sporting events, and this had the effect of making them more acceptable and accessible to the general population. All of this meant that people started to see knowledge as something that everyone had a right to, not something that was exclusive to the educated few. This was reflected in legal and constitutional writings, where people started demanding the right to education, as well as the right to assemble and associate with each other.
It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that modern Egypt became fully aware of the effect that literacy and education had had on their society. This is when people started to ask questions about the nature of literacy and whether or not it was worth preserving. For example, the Egyptian Writer’s Association was founded in 1945, and it started petitioning against school closures, arguing that they were detrimental to social cohesion. In the late 1940s, a group of intellectuals, academics, and artists founded the Egyptian Book Society to preserve the heritage of literature and the written word. They saw literacy not as a sign of educational privilege, but as a basic human right, which should not be considered as something to be ashamed of.