Hi, everyone. Here’s a quick historical tale from my short fiction collection. I used to volunteer at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, teaching the history of scribes, writing, and the Rosetta Stone; that was the inspiration for this story. I chose this tale because it’s the 11th anniversary of me giving my first tour of the museum’s rock tomb.
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The Scribe of Rashid
Sadji put down the tiny chisel and hammer to wipe his brow. It was hot and humid; he wore only a pleated linen breach clout. He needed a moment to rest; it was long and difficult work creating a dedication stele. Only the most talented scribes were given this honor. Carving the newest decree from Memphis, as directed the sacred pharaoh Ptolemy (fifth of that name) was a gift from Thoth himself.
The work of Egyptian scribes seemed endless. Sadji collected taxes, read the law, wrote letters and legal papers for his neighbors in Rashid and even resolved disputes at times. He was the best educated man in the Nile delta town, learning to read and write in the scribe schools starting the year of his fifth flood.
Scribe school was brutal. The masters said that boys’ ears were found on their backs and that the only way to make them hear was to beat them. Sadji had his fair share of beatings, that was certain. He was driven by fear of punishment to constantly improve his skills.
Sadji practiced writing on broken pots, scraps of fabric, stones … anything he could find. Papyrus writing paper was too precious for rehearsal and could only be used for final documents. Writing had to be clear, perfectly sized and correct; otherwise, the masters might think his hearing needed more improvement and lay about him with the flail.
Sadji learned to mix pigments as well. Cobalt for the blue. Cinnabar for the red. Lead for the black. He learned how to make and care for brushes, and had a collection of cases and palettes.
Eventually, Sadji was chosen from among his fellow students to learn the sacred picture-writing: hieroglyphs. Only the most advanced students were chosen for this honor. It was a gift to deliver messages to and from the gods. Thoth, the baboon-headed god of the scribes, had surely smiled upon Sadji. He could now write not only the three versions of his native language but also in Greek.
Sadji had hoped to be assigned to the Prince’s School, to teach Pharaoh’s sons to read and write. Instead, he was sent to the city of Rashid, where he now dwelt.
He was no longer young: an old man of nearly thirty floods. Like most men of his craft, his head was permanently bowed forward. Years of bending over the work in his lap to write, or mixing pigments on a soapstone palette, had put a curve in his spine.
Yet, Sadji considered himself blessed. He had only one wife, Aishe, but she was beautiful and fertile. She had given him a son, Khnum, who was two floods this year, and two daughters, Amri and Jana. Aishe directed the servants kindly and Sadji’s house was orderly. He hoped to have another son in this fourth Xandicus year; Aishe had already moved to the birthing room. Sadji prayed to Bes for a safe confinement and delivery.
And of course, there was the stele. In three languages — Greek, everyday Egyptian and the sacred hieroglyphs — it announced the divine cult of Ptolemy V, gave a tax exemption to the resident priesthood, and stated where the river was dammed in order to help farmers. With its three languages, the important Decree of Memphis could be read by anyone who understood but one type of writing. Those who had no reading at all could find someone to tell them what it said.
Sadji was the best of the scribes, which was why he would create the stele. This work had to be perfect, and he knew that Thoth would guide his hand so that men might forever know of Pharaoh’s generosity.
He picked up his tools again and reviewed the text. This would be his finest work.