Why did Ancient Egypt need writing?

There were many ancient civilizations who did not develop a system of writing – indeed, there were many civilizations who existed much later then the Egyptians who did not develop writing, so why did Egypt?


The Nile

Central to the history of ancient Egypt is the river Nile. There is no question that the Nile was one of the most important, if not the most important factor in allowing Egyptian civilization to develop. The annual flooding of its banks with rich silts (inundation) which provided the ancient Egyptians with such bountiful harvests made farming relatively simple, and allowed the ancient Egyptians to concentrate their energies in other areas, such as technology, art and culture.

A farm on the river Nile

A farm on the river Nile

Egyptologists today are also convinced that Nile was one of the main reasons that Egypt had to develop a system of writing.

Each year, monsoons in Ethiopia bring torrential rains that wash rich topsoil into the Nile. In July, the Nile overflows its banks and deposits this soil on both sides of the river. Crops were then plated and, given almost ideal growing conditions they produced considerable surpluses. It was the surplus grains which led to the system of writing.  The Egyptians used grain itself as a form of money, the amounts produced therefore needed to be tracked in order to facilitate the collection of taxes – That’s where writing came in. The Egyptians needed writing to keep track of the taxes that were due and the taxes that were collected.


The Pharaoh

Egypt was the world first nation state led by a powerful king (the Pharaoh) – this brought many benefits and ensured that the civilization would last for thousands of years. In Egypt, the pharaoh was viewed as a god. He had absolute power and owned all the land. With such centralized power, the pharaoh was capable of

Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh

Hatshepsut, the first female Pharaoh

marshaling all the manpower of Egypt for his purposes.

For example, just before the inundation of the Nile, the pharaoh could organize farmers to begin digging irrigation canals so that more crops could be grown. Then, the pharaoh could collect even more taxes, which required writing.

Pharaoh also needed to publicise his victories and communicate key messages to the people – both in order to maintain control and to help to foster a sense of national pride. Happy citizens who felt protected by the state were more productive!  A system of writing meant that messages could be communicated without the need for storytellers or “town crier” type individuals.



A carving of Maya, thought to be king Tutankhamens treasurer.

A carving of Maya, thought to be king Tutankhamens treasurer.

While Egypt certainly benefited from being a homogeneous nation, running a state (just like today) required a small army of bureaucrats to organise, manage and oversee projects and activities. In order to do this effectively, ancient Egypt needed writing.

Since the Egyptians were able to produce much more food than they needed, they were able to support a large number of people who did not directly contribute to the economy. You no longer need to call out the farmers when invaders are coming because you have a trained and equipped army that can easily defeat them, nor do you need to rely on people to organise themselves since you can appoint overseers to coordinate action.

The bureaucracy had surpluses that had to be recorded, taxes to be collected, and armies to keep track of, and all this required writing.




The Army

Having a large standing army was one of the privileges of having a fully formed nation state – soldiers did not directly contribute to the economy, but could be

Model of soldiers from the tomb of  Mesehti,  the provincial governor in the 11th Dynasty Asyut

Model of soldiers from the tomb of Mesehti, the provincial governor in the 11th Dynasty Asyut

supported by the surpluses produced by the Nile flood.

Instead, the army was needed to fend off invasion and coerce neighboring tribes into paying a tribute (tax) to the pharaoh. Organising such a force was complicated however –  because scribes had to keep track of thousands of soldiers in different divisions, ensure the availability of supplies needed for campaigns and record individuals service, once again, they needed writing.