Writing in hieroglyphs took a long time because each document was really a very complicated painting. For speed, Egyptians sometimes used a faster, “hieratic,” script with simpler symbols.
The people who used the new writing held important jobs and were called scribes. The hieroglyph for “scribe” was a drawing of a paint palette with red and black paint, a water pot, and a brush.
All Egyptian children went to school when they were four years old. At twelve most left school. The boys began to learn their fathers’ trades, while girls helped their mothers in the house.
The sons of officials who were to become scribes went on studying for several years. Some girls stayed on and became scribes, but in the Old Kingdom people often mocked the writings of women.
Many careers were open to the scribes. They might work for the Army or the Treasury. They could go into medicine, the priesthood, or architecture.
Teachers encouraged their students to work hard. The life of a scribe is better than most, one old document says. The scribe is his own boss, whereas “the metal smith works in the heat of the furnace. He stinks like rotten fish eggs.”
The scholars learn proverbs and stories by heart and copy texts onto specially prepared pieces of pottery and limestone slates.
They learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, and older pupils study geography and history. Teachers emphasize memorization.
Questioning and lack of respect are punished, sometimes by beating.
Sometimes the pupils whisper and daydream and long for noon, when their mothers will bring them a meal of bread and barley wine.
The Coptic script takes its name from the Egyptian Christians, the “Copts”. This has helped scholars immeasurably in reconstructing the history of the Egyptians.