Higher Status for Egyptian Women

Egyptian women generally enjoyed a higher status and greater independence than women elsewhere in the ancient world. Ramses II declared, “The foot of an Egyptian woman may walk where it pleases her and no one may deny her.” Under Egyptian law, women could inherit property, enter business deals, buy and sell goods, go to court, and obtain a divorce.

Although there were often clear distinctions between the occupations of women and men, women's work was not confined to the home. Women manufactured perfume and textiles, managed farming estates, and served as doctors. Women could also enter the priesthood, especially in the service of goddesses. Despite their many rights and employment opportunities, few women learned to read and write. Even if they did, they were excluded from becoming scribes or holding government jobs.

Egyptian Learning Advances

Ancient Egyptians left a vast record of their achievements. Stone temples and monuments along with all paintings and written records reveal much about Egyptian life and religious beliefs. They also show Egyptian knowledge and advances in many fields such as medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. The Egyptians were a practical people. When they had a problem, they used trial and error to find a solution.

Written Records

Like people in other early civilizations, the ancient Egyptians developed a form of picture writing called hieroglyphics (hy ur oh GLIF iks). In this system of writing, hieroglyphs, or symbols and pictures, represent objects, concepts, or sounds. The Egyptians used hieroglyphs to keep important records. Early on, priests and scribes carved hieroglyphs onto stone. Inscriptions on temples and other monuments preserved records of Egyptian culture for thousands of years.

Egyptian scribes also developed hieratic (hy ur AT ik) writing, a simpler script for everyday use. Much later, a third system of writing, demotic, replaced hieratic script.

Scribes

In ancient Egypt, scribes played a central role keeping the records that reveal so much about Egyptian society. Records describe religious ceremonies and give information about taxes or gifts made to the pharaoh or temples. Scribes served as government and temple officials. Some acquired skills in mathematics, medicine, and engineering. With skill and luck, a scribe from a poor family might become rich and powerful.

Photo of hieroglyphs carved into stone, arranged in rows. Images include birds, cups, insects, plants, snakes.

Since hieroglyphs, seen here, took a lot of time and care to write, Egyptian scribes also developed the cursive hieratic and demotic scripts for quicker use.

Most likely, scribes were behind the Egyptian invention of a paper-like writing material made from papyrus (puh PY rus), a plant that grows along the Nile. (Paper would not be invented until about A.D. 100, in China.) Writing cursive scripts with reed pens and ink on the smooth surface of papyrus strips was much easier than chiseling words onto stone. Scribes used demotic script for many records, but when writing official histories, they continued to carve hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone Unlocks Egyptian Writing

After the New Kingdom declined, Egyptians lost the skills of reading ancient hieroglyphs. Not until the early 1800s did a French scholar, Jean Champollion (zhahn shahm poh LYOHN), unravel the then mysterious writings on Egypt's great monuments.

Champollion managed to decipher, or figure out the meaning of, texts written on the Rosetta Stone. This flat, black stone has the same text carved in hieroglyphics, demotic script, and Greek. By comparing the three versions, Champollion worked out the meanings of many hieroglyphic symbols.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments