The American Research Center in Eygpt

LECTURE: The Birth of Ancient Egyptian Literature

LECTURE: The Birth of Ancient Egyptian Literature

LECTURE: The Birth of Ancient Egyptian Literature

James P. Allen

Charles Edwin Wilbour Professor of Egyptology, Brown University 

While the definition of “literature” is both subjective and debated, there is a central core of ancient Egyptian texts that is universally recognized as literary, included in every anthology of Egyptian literature in translation: works such as “The Story of Sinuhe,” “The Instructions of Ptahhotep,” and “The Debate between a Man and His Soul.” Although Egyptian literary compositions are as old as the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom, the works of the central core do not appear until the Middle Kingdom, some four hundred years later. What sets such works apart from other literary compositions? And why do they not appear before the second great period of ancient Egyptian history? This lecture will examine both questions and propose answers that have their roots in a fundamental shift in Egyptian psychology at the end of the Old Kingdom.


Professor Allen received his PhD from the University of Chicago and served for three years as a member of the Oriental Institute’s Epigraphic Survey. He has also been Cairo Director of the American Research Center in Egypt and was a curator in the Department of Egyptian Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art before taking up his present position at Brown in 2007. He has devoted his career mainly to studying the ancient Egyptian language and the texts written in it. Among his publications are “The Debate between a Man and His Soul: a Masterpiece of Ancient Egyptian Literature” and “Middle Egyptian Literature: Eight Literary Works of the Middle Kingdom.” He has most recently completed the first volume of a projected six-volume study of “The Grammar of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts.”

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