Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Write like an Ancient Egyptian

Nesmahar Sayed watches as Egyptian schoolchildren rewrite the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

Al-Ahram Weekly

In an attempt to teach young children hieroglyphics and introduce them to Jean-François Champollion, the Egyptologist who deciphered them, the French Institute for Oriental Studies (IFAO) in Cairo recently organised an exhibition displaying a chapter of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The chapter was rewritten by pupils from three primary schools in Egypt, who worked together with their teachers and an Egyptologist from the institute to write out texts they had chosen.

“The preparations for this event started last October when some 150 students from three French schools in Egypt, five teachers and three Egyptologists from the IFAO met together to produce one chapter of the Book of the Dead,” said research director Nicolas Michel.

He said that the idea had been to teach the students, aged nine and ten years old, the basics of writing the hieroglyphic alphabet and to introduce them to Champollion as well. “The students were keen to learn about this history, and their class teachers followed the work with them,” Michel said.

The students’ work included copying papyri, writing their names using the hieroglyphic alphabet, and engraving the ancient Egyptian life-key and Horus eye on soap bars.

On display in the main hall of the IFAO is a painting of the jury scene, one of the chapters of the Book of the Dead that was copied by the children. Hassan Selim, a professor of Egyptology at Ain Shams University and a researcher at the IFAO, described the painting as reflecting modern Cairo as well as the pharaohs and ancient Egyptian gods by the River Nile.

The painting shows ancient Egyptian gods playing music and modern air force planes flying over the Pyramids. Selim said the children had been affected by contemporary events since the 25 January Revolution.

The project was part of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the publication of Champollion’s book L’Egypte sous les Pharaons (Egypt under the Pharaohs), published in Paris in 1814. An original edition of the book was on display at the event.

“This book was published before Champollion was able to discover the key to the hieroglyphic language. It was a beginning to his attempt to understand hieroglyphics,” Michel said.

The book deals with topics such as the religion, language, history and geography of ancient Egypt before the Persian invasion in the 6th century BCE.

Egyptologist Arnette Marie-Lys Arnette told the Weekly that the Book of the Dead had been chosen for several reasons.

It is a very important religious text, she said, and working on it was an opportunity to explain Egyptian funerary concepts to the children. It contains texts and images, so the children can copy the hieroglyphics and have fun at the same time. One of the three Egyptologists working on the project, Florence Albert, is a specialist on the text, she said.

Arnette said that this was the first time she had worked on such a scale with school students, helping them to learn and practice writing hieroglyphics. Many of them wrote their names, and all were enthusiastic and willing to participate in the project, she said.

Michel said the project aimed at creating teamwork among the students and a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. The schools involved had selected the chapters they wanted to work on based on a Ptolemaic copy of the Book of the Dead provided by the IFAO.

Arnette said that Chapter 125 was included because it showed one of the main themes of the Book of the Dead, the judgement of the dead in the presence of the god Osiris. The heart of the deceased, seat of emotions and thoughts, is shown being weighed, the divine jury then deciding whether the dead will live forever in heaven or be devoured by a monster and be condemned to eternal nonexistence.

“The results of the project were amazing,” Arnette said, adding that the children had carved hieroglyphs in soap so they could discover different carving techniques and understand their difficulty and written texts on potsherds so they could understand the writing tools used in ancient Egypt.

Each class wrote and drew its own Book of the Dead, and all of them were very different from one other. Some of them were very close to the ancient copy, whereas others were funny and more up-to-date, she said.

“All the material has been returned to the teachers, so they can organise new exhibitions in their schools. Then the Books of the Dead produced will be framed and kept in the schools. The written potsherds, called ostraca, and the carved soap will be returned to the pupils, so they can keep reminders of the event,” Arnette concluded.

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