The Seated Scribe

9 Feb

As i walked into the general reading room I almost burst into a fit of laughter. During the almost 45 minutes that took me to fill out the request cards (there are two types, one to ask for books within the site and another one for books that are in another building), hand them in (apparently, “signature” does not mean you have to actually sign, but to write down some number), and re-fill out the cards (it was the blue one, not the green one! And Ana, please write down the correct date, you ordered the books for April!); I went through every mood known to mankind, especially the desire to run for the hills as at a certain point, the frustration was too much too take. Finally, humor prevailed thanks to a very nice assistant who couldn’t help but to laugh at how much I kept screwing up, if she only knew she’s gonna see my face everyday…

Of course, my chain of unfortunate events doesn’t end there; once I opened the door to a very silent reading room, I had to restrain myself from laughing since I had no idea where my assigned desk was. Finally, I found it and my books arrived.

Ironically enough, this is what I first come across with on my research about the Old Kingdom in Ancient Egypt.

Look, open your papyrus rolls and become a son educated with these books that have been fruitful from the beginnings, the way my father taught me with texts that were already useful before him, and thus I avoid making mistakes. I understood that this favored me and my growth, thanks to my wisdom and shrewdness (…) therefore, become a child risen among the books, since whichever position at the royal house, thee shall never sink into misery.” (Book of Kenit, XIth dynasty)

 Let’s begin then.

 The Scribe: I won’t assume that you, my fellow reader, know what we are talking about here; hence, here’s a description of our object of study.

 Some recent studies estimate that the average percentage of people capable of reading and writing in the Old Kingdom was approximately of a one or two percent of the male population. In their hands was the administration and control of the country’s resources as the Pharaoh’s representatives. Writing was, in fact, “a matter of State”, meaning, it was born and developed according to the State’s needs. It must be understood that in those times, the dominant culture within the population was the oral, which explains the use of alternative materials used as support for successfully transmitting those ideological messages that the royalty wanted to address to wider society sectors.

The work as a civil servant was inseparably tied to that as a scribe, and the advantages that this career entailed –self assuredness, social prestige and closeness to the King- made this an especially desired job, whose maximum aspiration was to be vizier who was the one responsible of all the public servants.

 Being writing taught within the royalty circles and used as a transmission vehicle for nobility’s ideological values, its learning was inexorably accompanied by the assimilation of such values. Hence the pride in being a scribe, as their statues and literary texts reflect:

 “I know the secret behind the hieroglyphs (the divine word) and the composition of ceremonial rituals. (As for) The repertoire of magic formulas, I master it without any difficulty, I am, in fact, an excellent specialist in his trade who excels in his knowledge (…)” (Stone plaque, Louvre, XI dynasty)

 Such pride in being a scribe! However, their pride also derived from, as it has been stipulated, abiding and making others abide by the Pharaoh’s Word, the maat; everything else that he did in his life was only a mere decoration of some general principles. The same thing happens with human representations in the Old Kingdom, in which it is impossible to talk about portraits since there weren’t any particular, individual representations, but rather generic qualities associated with a social group.

 These illustrations are the ones we find in funerary chambers of such characters, and note that specifically during the Old Kingdom, sculptural works were destined exclusively for this use, so they remained hidden from the living’s eyes (even more reason to make them all alike :p) ; as they were body substitutes that were to be magically willing to “contribute” to making “the body last as long as the rock in the mountain”; which was a common Egyptian precept:

 “I will make you love writing more than your own mother. I will demonstrate its beauty, which is bigger than any other trade’s. Look, there is no other trade in which you don’t receive orders except this, in which case it is you who order. Knowing how to write will be of more use to you and the work you do in it will last through eternity, like the mountains” (From the Jeti teachings)

 All of whom read these words are capable of production and reproduction of the written word. What would be of our world without it? We don’t know, but we could find out if we let the people who are apparently determined to lunge us into the ignorance that the omission of writing entails. People determined to belittle teaching and those who bestow it. How sad is a world where the scribe is no longer admired and where one doesn’t work for a lasting future anymore. Let’s change that.

It could be argumented that in those ancient times, whereas writing was admired, it was also only reserved for the elite, therefore, the majority lived in ignorance, and that was, in effect, the State was consolidated. Well, this was true and it still intends to be. Even so, why not look on the bright side of this so-called elitism? Without these privileged people there wouldn’t be any admiration, hence ‘art’, we wouldn’t have “The Sitting Scribe”, but above all, without all this we wouldn’t have aspiration.

 Writing, like scribes, has given us so much. This is my conclusion so far: without knowing about the technical/aesthetic aspects of the piece, we stand before someone who could appreciate the beauty and wisdom behind the written word and the one who transmits it. This is to say a lot. And I admire him for that. Because it indeed lasts an eternity, like the mountains, and his words resound today in who is writing more than ever.


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