Did Ancient Egyptians go to school?

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Egyptian Schools

Egyptian scribe
An Egyptian scribe, from the Louvre

There were schools in ancient Egypt, but hardly anyone went to them. Even though Egyptian girls in general were equal to boys under the law and could inherit land, girls weren't allowed to go to school at all. Whatever they learned, they had to learn at home from their mother or father or from a private tutor (usually a slave) who lived in their house. Very few girls could read or write, and only the richest ones.

hieroglyphs black with red marks
A model letter writing exercise; the teacher
has corrected spelling mistakes in red
(Middle Kingdom,ca. 1850 BC, now in
Metropolitan Museum, NYC)

Most boys didn't go to school either, but a few boys from richer families went to a special school to train boys to be scribes. A scribe was someone who could read and write, and because not very many people could read or write hieroglyphics (which was much harder than alphabet writing), scribes always found good jobs keeping people's records for them.

greek writing on a plaster wall
A quote from the Odyssey on a school
wall in Upper Egypt

Professional scribes worked like modern lawyers or accountants, helping richer men keep track of their businesses and contracts. Many of them worked for the government figuring out budgets and taxes. So they also had to be good at math. If you were going to be a scribe, you started school at four and went to school until you were about fifteen.

mudbrick building with one big room
The school room with the decorated walls

Ancient Egyptian schools looked a lot like modern schools, with benches for the children and a big chair for the teacher. The walls of this mud-brick classroom from the Hellenistic period were plastered and decorated with quotes from the Odyssey about behaving and working hard.

model of men butchering a cow
Men working in a butcher shop (ca. 2300 BC),
now in the Oriental Institute, Chicago

Of course kids learned many things, even though most of them were unschooled. Girls learned how to take care of babies, and how to spin, and how to weed the fields, and how to take care of goats and cows, and how to harvest and grind grain.

model of woman grinding grain
Woman grinding grain (Old Kingdom, ca. 2400 BC)
Now in Florence, Italy

Boys learned how to plow and plant fields, and how to irrigate, and how to make tools. Some boys learned how to be butchers or shoemakers or weavers or fishermen or many other jobs like that.

Learn by doing: hieroglyphics
More about hieroglyphics
Egyptian universities

Bibliography and further reading about Egyptian schools:

Egyptian universities
Egyptian hieroglyphics
More about ancient Egypt
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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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