29

This video says scribes read letters to the king as the king was not literate. Can anyone comment on this

  • 11
  • 7
    In ancient and medieval times it was common for someone to read aloud to a group of other persons. So possibly some official had the job of reading letters aloud to the Pharaoh and his advisers even if the Pharaoh and some of his advisers could have read the letter by themselves. That way everyone would hear the message at once instead of passing the latter around. – MAGolding Sep 4 '18 at 20:06
  • 1
    +1 for a good question. – only_pro Sep 5 '18 at 18:47
64

First, a few general observations:

  1. The time period covered here is more than 3,000 years and we know very little about many of the Pharaohs. Also, there were different scripts which evolved over time and one has to consider that a pharaoh may well not know the language used by scribes for international diplomatic communication. This would appear to be the case with letters that the speaker refers to in the video (at approx. 12 mins 35 secs - more on this below).

  2. Rulers and high-status people often had scribes write what they dictated in ancient times (and people still dictate today). This does not mean that they could not read or write themselves. Cicero, for example, was highly literate but sometimes dictated rather than write himself.

  3. Some people prefer to hear things rather than read them. For others, it's the other way round.

  4. Defining ‘literate’ is problematic. Some people could read well enough but write very little. That said,

It has been estimated that in ancient Egypt the literate population was between 1% and 5% — quite a high number, in an age when writing was a fairly recent invention — and a large number of commoners were at least semi-literate. Proof remains in the form of graffiti inscribed at rock quarries where men worked and in the villages where they lived. From the 26th Dynasty on, literacy increased among the population. Boys were educated by priests in the temple schools. Students had to master about 700 hieroglyphs; by the end of the Pharaonic Era, nearly 5000 different symbols were in use.

Source: Ana Ruiz, The Spirit of Ancient Egypt

It is evident, though, that Pharaohs were literate well before the 26th dynasty (664 to 525 BC). Given that the Pharaoh was the 'High Priest of Every Temple' and 'would officiate at religious ceremonies', it seems likely that, even from early times, Pharaohs were literate. According to Toby Wilkinson in The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, during the New Kingdom in the period 1541 to 1322 BC,

reading and writing were central elements in the Nursery curriculum, under the guidance of the Scribe in the House of the Royal Children. By repeated copying of examples, he taught his pupils to write in cursive script with pen and ink on papyrus.

Not only that, the children had to learn Babylonian cuneiform "the diplomatic lingua franca of the age". However, not every Pharaoh may have been to school. Pharaohs who were probably not the sons of Pharaohs - such as Userkare (Old Kingdom, 6th Dynasty) and Merneferre Ay (Middle Kingdom, 13th Dynasty) - may even have been of humble origins - we just don't know. Horemheb (18th Dynasty) was probably a commoner but may have been well-educated nonethless as he was entrusted with foreign diplomatic missions.

There is also evidence that earlier Pharaohs were literate, but how far back is hard to say. Consider also that,

The most famous of all ancient Egyptian scripts is hieroglyphic. However, throughout three thousand years of ancient Egyptian civilisation, at least three other scripts – Hieratic, Demotic, and later on, Coptic – were used for different purposes.

Hieratic script dates back to the pre-dynastic period. Citing Filip Taterka, Egyptologist and doctoral student at the Institute of Prehistory in Adam Mickiewicz University, the article Unravelling the literacy of the Egyptian Pharaohs says:

evidence suggests that Egyptian royal children were taught hieratic, a simplified, cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs, while classical hieroglyphs were probably reserved for children who would enter the priesthood, and for the future heir to the throne.

The researcher found numerous references to the Pharaoh’s skills in writing in the texts of the Pyramids, and archaeological evidence, such as writing implements showing traces of use found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, further support the belief that royal rulers were literate.

Demotic script was even simpler than hieratic and appeared in "the middle of the first millennium BC". We know that priests mastered the complex hieroglyphic script so it is quite possible that a Pharaoh could have been literate in hieratic or demotic script, but would have needed a priest or scribe if a document was written in hieroglyphs.


Concerning the statement "the king can't read" in the video, the speaker is probably referring to a series of letters exchanged between King Tushratta of Mitanni (late 14th century BC) and the Pharaoh. These were written mostly in Akkadian which was the language of ancient Mesopotamia and it is quite possible that Egyptians Pharaohs were not able to read this foreign language, even though it was the language of diplomacy at the time.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.