Egyptian literature

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Copy of the Westcar Papyrus on display in the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin

Egyptian literature traces its beginnings to ancient Egypt and is some of the earliest known literature. Indeed, the Egyptians were the first culture to develop literature as we know it today, that is, the book.[1]

Ancient Egyptian literature[edit]

Plates vi & vii of the Edwin Smith papyrus at the Rare Book Room, New York Academy of Medicine

The ancient Egyptians wrote works on papyrus as well as walls, tombs, pyramids, obelisks and more. Perhaps the best known example of ancient Jehiel literature is the Story of Sinuhe;[2] other well known works include the Westcar Papyrus and the Ebers papyrus, as well as the famous Book of the Dead. While most literature in ancient Egypt was so-called "Wisdom literature" (that is, literature meant for instruction rather than entertainment), there also existed myths, stories and biographies solely for entertainment purposes. The autobiography has been called the oldest form of Egyptian literature.[3]

The Nile had a strong influence on the writings of the ancient Egyptians,[4] as did Greco-Roman poets who came to Alexandria to be supported by the many patrons of the arts who lived there, and to make use of the resources of the Library of Alexandria.[5] Many great thinkers from around the ancient world came to the city, including Callimachus of Libya and Theocritus of Syracuse. Not all of the great writers of the period came from outside of Egypt, however; one notable Egyptian poet was Apollonius of Rhodes.

Christian Egyptian literature[edit]

Alexandria became an important center in early Christianity during roughly the 1st to 4th century CE. Coptic works were an important contribution to Christian literature of the period and the Nag Hammadi library helped preserve a number of books that would otherwise have been lost.

Islamic Egyptian literature[edit]

By the eighth century Egypt had been conquered by the Muslim Arabs. Literature, and especially libraries, thrived under the new Egypt brought about by the Muslim conquerors.[6] Several important changes occurred during this time which affected Egyptian writers. Papyrus was replaced by cloth paper, and calligraphy was introduced as a writing system. Also, the focus of writing shifted almost entirely to Islam. The earliest novel written in Egypt was Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus, the earliest example of a science fiction and theological novel.[7] The concept of a "brief statement praising a literary product", now known as a blurb, also dates back to medieval Egyptian literature from the 14th century, and was known as taqriz in medieval Arabic literature.[8]

Many tales of the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) can be traced to medieval Egyptian storytelling traditions. These tales were probably in circulation before they were collected and codified into a single collection. Medieval Egyptian folklore was one of three distinct layers of storytelling which were incorporated into the Nights by the 15th century, the other two being ancient Indian and Persian folklore, and stories from Abbasid-era Baghdad.[9]

Writing first appeared in association with kingship on labels and tags for items found in royal tombs It was primarily an occupation of the scribes, who worked out of the Per Ankh institution or the House of Life. The latter comprised offices, libraries (called House of Books), laboratories and observatories. Some of the best-known pieces of ancient Egyptian literature, such as the Pyramid and Coffin Texts, were spoken from the New Kingdom onward and is represented in Ramesside administrative documents, love poetry and tales, as well as in Demotic and Coptic texts. During this period, the tradition of writing had evolved into the tomb autobiography, such as those of Harkhufand Weni. The genre known as Sebayt (Instructions) was developed to communicate teachings and guidance from famous nobles; thelpuwer papyrus, a poem of lamentations describing natural disasters and social upheaval, is a famous example.

The Story of Sinuhe, written in Middle Egyptian, might be the classic of Egyptian literature. Also written at this time was the Westcar Papyrus, a set of stories told to Khufu by his sons relating the marvels performed by priests. The Instruction of Amenemope is considered a masterpiece of near-eastern literature. Towards the end of the New Kingdom, the vernacular language was more often employed to write popular pieces like the Story of Wenamun and the Instruction of Any. The former tells the story of a noble who is robbed on his way to buy cedar from Lebanon and of his struggle to return to Egypt. From about 700 BC, narrative stories and instructions, such as the popular Instructions of Onchsheshonqy, as well as personal and business documents were written in the demotic script and phase of Egyptian. Many stories written in demotic during the Graeco-Roman period were set in previous historical eras, when Egypt was an independent nation ruled by great pharaohs such as Ramesses II.

Modern Egyptian literature[edit]

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Arab world experienced al-Nahda, a Renaissance-esque movement which touched nearly all areas of life, including literature.[10] One of the most important figures from this time was Naguib Mahfouz, the first Egyptian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1914 Muhammad Husayn Haykal wrote Zaynab, considered the first modern Egyptian as well as Islamic novel.

Notable Egyptian writers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Edwards, Amelia, THE LITERATURE AND RELIGION OF ANCIENT EGYPT., retrieved 2007-09-30 
  2. ^ Lichtheim, Miriam (1975), Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol 1, London, England: University of California Press, p. 11, ISBN 0-520-02899-6 
  3. ^ Ancient Egyptian Stories, Biographies, and Myths, retrieved 2007-09-30 
  4. ^ The Nile in Ancient Egyptian Literature, retrieved 2007-09-30 
  5. ^ Greco-Roman Poets, retrieved 2007-09-30 
  6. ^ Groups of books and book production in Islamic Egypt, retrieved 2007-09-30 
  7. ^ Dr. Abu Shadi Al-Roubi (1982), "Ibn al-Nafis as a philosopher", Symposium on Ibn al-Nafis, Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine: Islamic Medical Organization, Kuwait (cf. Ibnul-Nafees As a Philosopher, Encyclopedia of Islamic World).
  8. ^ Rosenthal, Franz (1981), ""Blurbs" (taqrîz) from Fourteenth-Century Egypt", Oriens (Oriens, Vol. 27) 27: 177–196, doi:10.2307/1580566, JSTOR 1580566 
  9. ^ Zipes, Jack David; Burton, Richard Francis (1991). The Arabian Nights: The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand and One Nights pg 585. Signet Classic
  10. ^ MSN Encarta entry on Egypt, Encarta, archived from the original on 2009-11-01, retrieved 2007-09-30