Egypt Literature Part 2

The list of surviving works shows the remarkable activity of this period, which is the classic one of Egyptian literature. But it cannot be abstracted from the lively scientific movement: medical, mathematical and veterinary books show an Egypt alive and curious, and it may happen to find elements of minor literature in a magic formula or in a medical diagnosis.

From the XVIII dynasty to the Greek and Roman times

The XVIII dynasty is a period of not great originality for literature, as for the figurative arts. There are many historical epigraphs, which on the walls of temples or on large stelae commemorate the exploits of the pharaohs and their merits towards the gods: but we are far from poetic originality. Even the religious texts of this period are icy priestly lucubrations; some hymns are saved, and above all some sepulchral texts. The dead end is overcome with the political-religious revolution of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV). From this period there remains a very remarkable hymn to the new god Aten, sentimentally sung as a providential creator in his creatures rather than as theological ultimate cause. Apart from the poetic value of the text, it is remarkable for the language: Tell al-Amarna’s anti-academicism adopts the vernacular,

The change of the expressive medium is cause and effect at the same time of a renewal of the literary tradition: and the flowering of the nineteenth dynasty, which rejects the classicist experience of the previous age, redeems the long period of stasis that the Egyptian literary culture has gone through.. Official poetry is widely represented: there is a collection of hymns to Ammon who has just triumphed over the rival god Aten; there are above all the poems that celebrate the triumphs of the king. Prototype is the poem, called by Pentaur, from the name of the scribe who transcribed a papyrus copy that has come down to us, in which the battle of Qadesh and the heroism of the young Ramesses II are narrated. The courtly inspiration is flanked by a romantic search for inspiration in everyday life and in fairytale fantasy. A flourishing of erotic lyricism in the nineteenth dynasty probably has this origin: they are small songs, elegant, sometimes tinged with elements of malicious humor, and much less sensual than oriental erotic poetry in general; the form in which these songs have come down to us is certainly learned, but the popular origin is recognized above all in some elements of description and in the situations typical of everyday life. Some stories are more bluntly popular. Of many we now have no more than fragments, but two have come down to us almost entirely: the first tells the adventures of a prince, the second the story of two brothers, divine figures expired in characters of the novel, narrated with vivacity and a remarkable unscrupulousness. Alongside these, there are remains of historical tales, which tell the legendary exploits of the kings of the 18th dynasty: the liberation from the Hyksos or the conquest of Jaffa by a general of Thutmosis III.

Next to this fresh and spontaneous literature, there is a whole rich flowering of more strictly scholastic literature. Very popular are the models of perfect administrative epistolary style, which were proposed to young people destined to become officials. Besides the truly paradigmatic letters, there are collections of more literary interest. Thus a series of letters to a student takes up the theme of Khety’s teaching and advises against the various professions, recommending only that of the scribe. Of the military life, which is more often targeted, there are tasty jokes. And other letters of urban and poisonous controversy remain, in which a scribe tests the culture of a colleague. More clearly inspired by the medieval tradition of the Teachings, even in its outward form, it is the work of a certain Ani, who gives advice to his son. These are works with a teaching and authoritative tone, and certainly do not represent the liveliest part of the literature of the New Kingdom, even if they have a major importance for the history of culture and taste. The series of hieroglyphic literary works that have reached us can be said to have ended with the Adventures of Wenamon, which describes the vicissitudes of a traveler sent to Syria to buy the timber destined to rebuild Amone ‘s boat.

Classical Egyptian literature has a direct lineage in demotic, that is written in the popular language that appeared around 700 BC. They are historical works and are above all short stories. A long narration of the chivalrous adventures of King Petubasti has come down to us in various specimens. A series of short stories instead has as hero Setem Khaemwese, a son of Ramesses II who passes for a skilled magician and whose strangest adventures are told. There is also no lack of wisdom literature in this environment.

Little remains of the literature of the Greek and Roman period. The literature written in Coptic, finally, is already of the period and of a Christian topic and comes from the strictly indigenous tradition (➔ Copts).

Modern literature

In modern times, only with the formation of the national state does it make sense to speak of Egyptian writers, if not precisely of an Egyptian literature with peculiar traits. However, at least two authors active in the nineteenth century deserve mention: al-Giabartī (d.1825), author of a work of historical-social content, useful for a recognition of the Egyptian situation in the moment of the encounter with the West (the expedition Napoleonic in Egypt is from 1796); and al-Kashshāb (d. 1815), also a witness of that atmosphere, a poet strongly indebted to the stylistic canons of classical poetry.

But it is in the twentieth century that authors of great importance emerge as proof of the cultural pre-eminence of Egypt within the Arab world. Among them: A. Shawqī, with an impeccable style imbued with classicism, M. Ḥāfiẓ Ibrāhīm, known for his social and political commitment; K. Muṭrān, of Lebanese origin, but active in Egypt; al-Manfalūtī, pioneer of non-fiction literature; MH Haikal, man of letters and politician; T. al-Ḥakīm, playwright; Ṭaha Ḥusain, eminent representative of modern publishing; the brothers Maḥmūd and Moḥammed Taimūr, among the founders of Egyptian fiction; and especially N. Maḥfūẓ, whose charismatic figure spanned the entire 20th century. And precisely the awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988 to Maḥfūẓ (who died in 2006) has favored a wider opening on the part of the Western world towards Arabic literature in general and Egyptian literature in particular. We remember here the writers Ǧ. al-Ġiṭānī, Ṣ. Ibrāhīm, M. al-Busātī, I. Arslān, B. Ṭāhir, known as ‘the generation of the 1960s’, which, at the beginning of the 21st century, in addition to being a constant literary reference point in Egypt and abroad, they spoke out for the malaise of intellectuals, squeezed between the repressive tendencies of a still undemocratic state and the violent attacks of an increasingly aggressive Islamism. With this in mind Ṣ. Ibrāhīm (whose novel is remembered Warda, 2002) rejected the award of the literary prize awarded to him in 2003 by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture for the novel Šaraf (1997).

Egypt Literature 2