Ancient Egypt and the dawn of literature: Revisiting the oldest book in the world

Among the many treasures recovered by archaeologists and antiquarian collectors from Egypt are papyrus copies of a remarkable text written more than 4,000 years ago: The Teaching of Ptahhatp. Bill Manley investigates this often-overlooked survival from ancient Egypt and one vizier’s contributions to the dawn of literature.


Which book came first? The Teaching of Ptahhatp was published as ‘the oldest book in the world’ as long ago as 1858, about a decade after the most important papyrus scroll containing the text was acquired by an antiquarian in Egypt. Presumably the work could have become as world-renowned as the paintings of Altamira, the pyramids of Giza, or Stonehenge, but instead it gained a reputation as gobbledygook and essentially disappeared from public sight. Nevertheless, the survival of this book sheds light on a key moment for human history: the appearance of literature. It remains a celebration of how the written word has been transforming lives since history began – an event as momentous as the invention of writing, the printing press, or the internet. Prefacing his own 1906 translation, Battiscombe Gunn (later professor at the University of Oxford) emphasised that The Teaching of Ptahhatp marks ‘the extreme horizon of all that ocean of paper and ink that has become to us as an atmosphere, a fifth element, an essential of life’.

The beginning of The Teaching of Ptahhatp  in Papyrus Prisse. Acquired by the antiquarian Émile Prisse d’Avennes in the mid-19th century, reputedly at Luxor, this Late Middle Kingdom papyrus preserves the entirety of ‘the oldest book in the world’. It measures 15cm high. Photo: © Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

In fact, The Teaching of Ptahhatp is also the oldest philosophy book in the world, written many, many centuries before the dawn of Western philosophy. Neither religious in character nor mythological in form, it is committed to a love of learning and answering that perennial puzzle, the meaning of life, which it explores through 37 concise, practical insights into the human condition and seven conclusions we can reasonably deduce from them. Hence it is the oldest text committed to knowledge founded on the twin pillars of evidence and the awareness of the human mind: ‘No, genuine understanding’, the author writes, ‘is there before your eyes’. Ultimately, Ptahhatp concludes, everything that happens has meaning precisely because everything has come into being through an intention, whether earthly or divine.

Preserved on papyrus

In a practical sense, what do we mean by the phrase ‘the oldest book in the world’? First of all, a bundle of sheets bound along a spine is formally a codex, an approach popularised by the Bible, so we should not expect to find anything that resembles a bound book much earlier than the first Christians. On the other hand, during pharaonic times in Egypt, the ideal, portable format for compiling books was a scroll made from papyrus – flexible, erasable sheets manufactured from an indigenous plant, which could be cut to size and glued together easily. The National Library in Paris has the only complete manuscript of The Teaching of Ptahhatp, copied during the late 18th or early 17th century BC, at the end of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. This scroll has been known as Papyrus Prisse since it was procured by the antiquarian Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807-1879), reputedly at Luxor, the site of ancient Thebes. It is about 15cm high, like a modern paperback novel, but 23 feet 7 inches long (more than 7m), and has 19 pages in excellent condition. That said, the beginning of the scroll is missing and the first two pages, as we have them, give the end of another, otherwise unknown book, The Teaching of Kagemni, before a complete version of The Teaching of Ptahhatp takes up the remainder.

View of the West Bank at Luxor with the hill-slopes of Dra’ Abu el-Naga’ at far right. Prisse is said to have purchased the papyrus from a local man. Photo: Bill Manley

A second copy of The Teaching of Ptahhatp of about the same date is the badly damaged scroll known as Papyrus London 1, which the British Museum purchased on the antiquities market in 1868. Its elegant writing runs in columns, which had not been typical practice since the 3rd millennium BC, so this could be an even older copy, though it may just as easily be a facsimile of an older scroll or simply intended to appear old – some financial accounts on the back use lines in the later fashion. A century or two later, a scribe copied the beginning of the book on to a wooden writing board, which was found by Howard Carter (who would later discover Tutankhamun’s tomb) in debris from another Luxor tomb. Chauncey Murch, a missionary based in Luxor, purchased an even later copy, Papyrus London 2, which may date as late as the 12th century BC and, at about A4 size, is the most impressive copy.

So, although Papyrus Prisse contains the only complete copy of The Teaching of Ptahhatp, the others taken together provide alternative readings of the whole text, and there are differences between manuscripts, in specific words and even the order of the teachings. There is, however, a much more important observation: all the copies are sufficiently similar to confirm that The Teaching of Ptahhatp is an authentic book, not the wistful attribution of random sayings to a name. Other copies of the beginning of The Teaching exist too, dated at least 600 years after the earliest copies; and, though they add little to text criticism, they confirm the book’s ongoing relevance for generations of Egyptians.

Presenting Ptahhatp

The first appearance of literature in Egypt is a very specific phenomenon, and the survival of The Teaching of Ptahhatp is characteristic: not one literary (as opposed to clerical) book survives that was undoubtedly copied earlier than Papyrus Prisse, and every copy from this early date (some fragments notwithstanding) came to light at Luxor during the 19th century, having been purchased in uncertain circumstances or discovered in tombs. The only other literary books we have in multiple copies from this initial phase are two stories: The Eloquent Peasant and The Tale of Sinuhe. Formally, Ptahhatp’s is the most influential example of a genre titled ‘teaching’ by the Egyptians themselves. The genre originated in the earliest funerary inscriptions, from the mid-3rd millennium BC, which comment on the judgment of human conduct and rely on truth as the basis for justice. Accordingly, ‘teaching’ insists on testable facts as the rational foundation for understanding. Particularly in its emphasis on the relationship of meaning to human life, we can recognise ‘teaching’ as genuine philosophy.

The preparation of papyrus – with one man bringing cut papyrus stems from the marshes, and an official stripping off the rind – was illustrated on the Eighteenth Dynasty Tomb of Puyemra, West Thebes (seen here in a 1914-1916 tempera facsimile by Hugh Hopgood). Photo: © Watson Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

‘Teaching’ is also distinguished as a genre because the books have named authors, and a celebration of writing from the 13th century BC names the finest: ‘Has there been one here like Hordedef? Is there another like Imhotep? No one has come to us to compare to Neferty nor Khety, the finest of them. Need I tell you the names of Ptahemdhuty or Khakheperrasonb? Is there another like Ptahhatp or Kairsu even?’

Here we see Ptahhatp celebrated among the very best by his own countrymen; and, according to every copy of the book, he was the first vizier (or prime minister) of King Izezi (c.2410-2375 BC). Of course, no copies have survived from such an early date, but copies only tell us when a book already existed: books by the likes of Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, and so on are barely known to us, if at all, in copies written before the 2nd millennium (AD not BC). By comparison, The Teaching of Ptahhatp is exceptionally well attested in ancient times, and we can be sure the aged vizier was not just a name on a page.

A Greek edition of Paul’s Epistles on papyrus, dating from the 3rd century AD and measuring 19cm high, takes the familiar format of a modern book: the codex, with numbered pages folded and bound along the spine. Photo: © Chester Beatty, Dublin

Izezi’s reign was part of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, which spanned almost the entire 3rd millennium BC and generated eight centuries of stability, prosperity, and cultural self-belief. In the great royal cemetery at Saqqara, by the ancient city of Memphis on the outskirts of modern Cairo, Ptahhatp’s tomb – some 20m2 and made of huge limestone blocks – still stands at one corner of the famous Step Pyramid complex. Its discoverer, Auguste Mariette (1821-1881), praised ‘the perfection of the reliefs which decorate the main room’, fitting for the public spaces of such tombs, where offerings were made to the immortal spirit of the deceased.

More to the point, Izezi’s reign stands as a watershed in the relationship between humanity and the written word: the ‘Big Bang’ of writing. This was the moment when inscribed biographies became typical in Egyptian tombs, and their common themes are service to king and community and honesty in dealing with others. They also manifest the authority of those who could manipulate the technology of writing. For example, letters copied in the tomb of another vizier mention Izezi himself in the document office, where ‘his person too would write with his own fingers’. Likewise, in a letter copied in yet another vizier’s tomb, the king enthusiastically declares that ‘What my person has wanted more than anything at any time is to see this writing of yours’. The Teaching of Ptahhatp too is founded on service, commitment, and the value of a good name in preference to possessions or celebrity.

Old age and obscurity

Whereas the crumbling remains of pharaonic Egypt are still today among the wonders of television, ancient thinking is easily dismissed. Ptahhatp and his contemporaries did so much more than build pyramids – they practised town-planning; organised agriculture on a municipal scale; summarised and costed their activities in accounts; and developed written traditions of government, law, medicine, and mathematics – yet Gunn noted the irony that ‘great age hallows all things, even the most mean, investing them with a certain sanctity’ but as for pharaonic books ‘for the most part, they have cried in the wilderness of neglect hitherto’. Evidently it is one thing to visit a ruinous pyramid, but reading an ancient book entails different expectations of what we may gain. How so?

The 33rd and 34th Teachings of Ptahhatp  in Papyrus London 1, dating from the Late Middle Kingdom. This papyrus is written in an archaic style with vertical columns and measures 13.5cm high.
The Prologue and 1st Teaching in the  30cm-high Papyrus London 2 (Eighteenth Dynasty),  the most impressive copy of The Teaching of Ptahhatp. Photos: Trustees of the British Museum, London

First, ‘the oldest book in the world’ came to light just when scholars were beginning to interpret human history in evolutionary terms, which effectively put a cap on the relevance of ancient wisdom. As C S Lewis noted in The Screwtape Letters, ‘when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true’. The book’s obscurity was another reason: The Teaching of Ptahhatp is a notorious challenge, described by Gustave Jéquier (1868-1946), its first modern editor, as ‘the most difficult Egyptian literary text to translate’, and by Sir Alan Gardiner (1879-1963), the greatest scholar of the ancient Egyptian language, as ‘quite unintelligible’. No doubt it is a tough read, but in our own culture are we not liable to blame a challenging book with unusual words for being a bit too clever for us? An ancient book, though? Surely, we can pin the difficulties on the old timer’s intellectual shortcomings?

Life-size statue of Vizier Ptahhatp I in plastered wood, presumably from a chamber in his tomb-chapel in Saqqara and dating from the reign of Izezi in the Fifth Dynasty. Ptahhatp sports a fashionable wig and goatee.Photo: Magica/Alamy Stock Photo

As it happens, the scribes who copied this book over the centuries took unusual care to indicate grammatical changes not systematically apparent in ancient Egyptian writing. To take an example, vowels usually went unwritten, so words appear in skeleton form analogous to a txt msg or the conventional use of Arabic script. The number one topic for Ptahhatp, however, is the value of ‘listening’ (with your ears rather than your opinions), so the text carefully distinguishes the present participle sdmw ‘one who listens’ from the past participle sdmy ‘one who has listened’, using distinct endings to mark what were essentially distinct vocalisations that would not ordinarily be recorded. Presumably the scribes were aware that The Teaching of Ptahhatp has to be read unusually closely.

The partially reconstructed entrance to the Saqqara tomb of Ptahhatp, dating from the early reign of Izezi in the Fifth Dynasty, c.2400 BC. Photo: Bill Manley

Interestingly, if The Teaching of Ptahhatp has gained any traction in modern culture, it has done so because one teaching has been traditionally seen as a condemnation of homosexuality. Conveniently, therefore, the received impression has been sufficient to dismiss the whole book as belonging to an age when culture was out of step with our own attitudes, albeit in different ways at different times – Gunn’s 1906 edition deleted the teaching altogether. But, in reality, Ptahhatp’s prohibition has nothing to do with homosexuality and actually condemns paedophilia, literally sex with a ‘woman child’. This reading is confirmed by the subsequent comment: ‘You should not have sex with a child. With the immature you know what is condemned.’ In fact, according to Ptahhatp, no self-destructive desire, not jealousy nor lust, can be gratified, least of all sexually.

Auguste Mariette’s copy of a ‘false door’ stela in the tomb-chapel of Ptahhatp. The original stela is 2.38m high. Image: Gaston Maspero, Les Mastabas de l’Ancien Empire, 1885

Being with others

The topic of listening points us to the real complication: The Teaching of Ptahhatp is founded in the spiritual nature of the human condition, and matters of metaphysics and spirituality do not usually sit well with modern philosophical traditions. As far as Ptahhatp is concerned, however, human language itself speaks to the fact that we are part of an inherently meaningful world and naturally belong with others – and, just as ‘those who rely on you need to say what is on their mind even more than they need to get something done about it’, then ‘what wants to listen is the spirit’. As physical creatures we are of the moment, but each moment is shared and, however much we gain materially, we cannot grow spiritually without sharing. Meaningful relationships endure because they are rooted in truth, and truth is what is timeless. Accordingly, Ptahhatp has particular scorn for gossip and greed because ‘only bread meant for sharing provokes resentment’, and for intellectual theft and pretence because ‘whoever makes themself out to be more important than their actual achievements is the one who gets embarrassed’. Wisely or not, we make our own choices and can only ever be secure with what we have honestly earned among others, so ‘do not misrepresent your success, which has happened for you out of God’s gifts.’

The royal necropolis of Saqqara, where Ptahhatp was buried, here overlooked by the pyramid of Unas. Unas, the last pharaoh of the  Fifth Dynasty, succeeded Ptahhatp’s pharaoh, Izezi. Photo: Bill Manley

In reality, of course, every day we encounter people seeking to distance themselves from others, those whom Ptahhatp characterises as ‘someone looking for an argument’ – online, on television, at work, at home. So The Teaching begins by insisting that argument does not establish facts, only the unequal relationship of those arguing: a clever person will defeat your arguments; one who can match your arguments allows no possibility of achieving anything with words; while someone you can master only allows you to indulge your ego and ‘humiliating the hapless is painful’. You are not required to give in, but do ‘let your self-restraint match what the other is worth’. Whatever they may do, you can choose to smile, avoid confrontation, and rejoice in your own fairness, fidelity, and conscientious effort. After all, your alternatives are choices too – but grimmer ones. You uncover truth only by paying close attention to what happens, so rely on your mental faculties and demand no proof other than efficacy.

The famous Step Pyramid of the Third Dynasty pharaoh Djoser in the royal necropolis  of Saqqara. Ptahhatp was later buried in a tomb  at a corner of this funerary complex. Photo: Bill Manley

Of course, Ptahhatp is asking us to focus on the facts of life, not what happens when we die, but the surviving copies have undoubtedly come to us out of the tomb because his book promises a path whereby death need not be the end: our meaningful, spiritual relationships do not pass away. Today, however, we need only glance at the rolling television news about gossip, celebrity, and the dark arts of pretending to be somebody we are not – and that is only the politicians! – to wonder whether we have really left the Stone Age behind.

Bill Manley’s The Oldest Book in the World: philosophy in the Age of the Pyramids has recently been published in hardback by Thames & Hudson (ISBN 978-0500252321, £25).