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An Ancient Egyptian Reader

Around 1800 BC in the reign of the great king Amenemhat III, a man lived at Thebes whose position in the state bureaucracy was high enough for him to build a tomb on the west bank of the Nile—probably the sort of man who could also dedicate a small but tasteful statue of himself in the local temple. Like others of his position and education, he was proud of his knowledge of literature, and he copied out on a reused roll of papyrus in his own professional hand, the highly regarded Tale of Sinuhe, which had been composed at the royal court in the north in his grandfather's time. He also made his own copy, with some enthusiasm and haste, of another fine work, The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant; this copy lacked the end of the poem, but he later managed to acquire part of a roll that included the final stanzas. He also possessed a roll with the poetic Dialogue of a Man and his Soul, perhaps copied by a friend who had been trained by the same master-scribe as himself; this manuscript had to be patched with a sheet from a discarded roll that contained another old, but less well-liked, Tale. When he died, his collection of four manuscripts seems to have been buried with him, and it survived to be discovered in unrecorded circumstances and subsequently auctioned in London in 1843.

We know almost nothing about this man, not even his name, his rank, or the exact location of his tomb. The preceding speculative account of his existence is based entirely on the surviving papyri.1 Now P. Berlin 3022–5. My imaginative reconstruction draws on various features of the group of papyri; see R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant (Oxford, 1991), p. ix–xxx. For the Tale on the reused roll see pp. 287–8. The most certain thing that we know about him, apart from his handwriting, is that he was a person of high literary taste, for his manuscripts contain three masterpieces that are among the supreme achievements of his culture. These manuscripts remained unread, however, for over three-and-a-half millennia, and during this period all knowledge of their poetry vanished as completely as his name.

Notes:

1 Now P. Berlin 3022–5. My imaginative reconstruction draws on various features of the group of papyri; see R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant (Oxford, 1991), p. ix–xxx. For the Tale on the reused roll see pp. 287–8.

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