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egyptian ancient texts language

Ancient Egyptian authors produced literature for a 2,500-year period, making it one of the longest continuous literary traditions in world history. Ancient Egyptian literature began as hieroglyphic autobiographical accounts on the tomb walls of kings and nobles, and developed on papyrus, wooden tablets, and limestone chips over the centuries into several recognizable genres, including poetry, historical accounts, teachings, and stories. Despite its rich tradition, however, ancient Egyptian literature has not received the scholarly attention given to other ancient writings, such as those in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. While scholars have been able to develop accurate translations and methods for uncovering the underlying meaning of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew texts since the fifteenth century, the study of Egyptian texts is a relatively new field, begun in the nineteenth century. And while the literature of ancient Greece and Rome as well as Hebrew texts like the Old Testament of the Bible are considered landmarks of world literature, ancient Egyptian literature is still an obscure branch of world literary tradition with virtually no readership beyond the Egyptologist community.


The reason scholarship of ancient Egyptian literature has lagged so far behind that of other ancient writings stems from the difficulties of translating the language. From the late fifth century C.E. until 1822, the ancient Egyptian language was lost, largely due to changes in the language brought about by the conquering of Egypt by foreign nations: first the Greeks in 332 B.C.E. , and then the Arabs in 642 C.E. Though Coptic, the last developmental stage of ancient Egyptian, continued to be spoken as the language of prayer for Egyptian Christians, the official government language in Egypt was Greek after Alexander the Great conquered the country in the fourth century B.C.E. Three centuries later, Egypt underwent another dramatic language shift when the conquering Arabs introduced the Arabic language and the Islamic religion to the nation. Now twice removed from their ancient tongue, Egyptians were no longer able to decipher ancient texts; these writings remained unknown for centuries until the first modern Egyptologist, J.-F. Champollion cracked the code of hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone in 1822. This translation did not remove all the barriers to the study of literature, however, as ancient Egyptian literature comprises texts written in five dialects and six different scripts. More translations would have to follow, slowly building on the Rosetta-Stone translation.


The problem of translation was not the only barrier to the study of ancient Egyptian literature, however. The surviving texts of what may be truly classified as literature include only about fifty examples, most in fragmented condition. The absence of inscribed dates and authors’ names makes it difficult for scholars to pin down dates of composition, particularly when the surviving work is actually a copy of a text written in a much earlier period. The difficulty is compounded when, as is often the case, the setting of a text is historical. Many Twelfth-dynasty (1938–1759 B.C.E. ) authors, for example, set their texts in the Fourth Dynasty (2625–2500 B.C.E. ), which confused many late nineteenth-century scholars into believing that certain Middle Kingdom texts represented works from the Old Kingdom. Though these texts can now be sorted into approximate time periods, the absolute order in which they were written has not yet been established.


The lack of a complete body of works poses additional problems to scholarly interpretation of ancient Egyptian literature. Few texts are complete; some lack beginnings, others the middle, still others the end of the text. These fragments only provide clues to major themes, and the absence of a “big picture” can skew modern perspective. The problem of interpretation looms larger when scholars look beyond individual texts and attempt to draw conclusions on the basis of the larger body of surviving works. For example, there are dozens of copies of The Story of Sinuhe preserved while there is only one copy of The Shipwrecked Sailor , perhaps because Sinuhe was a model copied by students. If scholars could be certain that this ratio accurately reflected the body of Egyptian literature as a whole as opposed to that which survived, they could draw the conclusion that Sinuhe was much more important than Shipwrecked Sailor in Egyptian culture. It is not clear, however, whether the survival of a greater number of Sinuhe texts is an accident of preservation or whether there were more copies around to survive. A similar problem exists with apparent gaps in literary production. In the New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.E. ), for example, there are many important narratives dating to the Nineteenth Dynasty (1292–1190 B.C.E. ) and no narratives dating to the equally important Eighteenth Dynasty (1539–1292 B.C.E. ). Should scholars conclude that narratives were unimportant in the Eighteenth Dynasty or that by the accidents of discovery, the texts written then have not survived or not yet been discovered? Such problems have no immediate solution.


Subject matter is one key to understanding the types of ancient Egyptian literature. Autobiography is the oldest subject, beginning in the Old Kingdom. Autobiographies are recorded in tombs and include prayers for offerings along with events from the deceased tomb-owner’s life. In general, they include many stereotyped statements that demonstrate that the author had lived his life according to Egyptian principles of justice. Advice was the next most popular subject for Egyptian authors. Modern scholars have called these texts “wisdom,” though they mostly deal with practical tips on careers and interacting with superiors. Wisdom could also include information about the nature of the moral life. Another subject was the gap between moral values and reality. This literature, called pessimistic, emerged at the end of the First Intermediate Period (2130–2008 B.C.E. ), after a time of political chaos. The pessimistic literature represents the values of the ruling class and laments their loss of power during the period of political decentralization. Morality, indeed, is associated with the restoration of an Egyptian central government. Narratives emerged in both poetry and prose in the Middle Kingdom and were even more popular in the Nineteenth Dynasty and in the Late Period. Middle Kingdom narratives include the epic poem that deals with the adventures of a man named Sinuhe and the experience of a shipwrecked sailor, narrated in prose. New Kingdom and Late Period narratives seem more concerned with the gods’ activities, though authors composed them in the contemporary speech of the people rather than the classical language. Modern knowledge of ancient love poetry is confined to the Nineteenth Dynasty, though this too seems an accident of discovery. The love poems are especially appealing because their interests and concerns seem so contemporary: a young girl yearns for a glimpse of her boyfriend while he spends time with his friends, or a boy plots to surprise his girlfriend while she lingers at the river.


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