From The Ancient Kemetic Roots of Library and Information Science
By Itibari M. Zulu
A Library: A Literature
An obvious axiom in any discussion of libraries is that one must first have a literature in order to have a library. In this regard, Kemet was rich: (1) the Egyptian language is the oldest written (via hieroglyphics) language in existence (McWhirter, 1982, 166); (2) evidence of a literature is present in the library of Akhenaton (Amenhotep/Amenophis, IV) which contains numerous clay tablets/books in cuneiform writing representing diplomatic correspondence between Amenhotep III, Akhenaton’s father, and nation‑states subject to Egypt (Metzger, 1980, 211); (3) the Palermo Stone, a book of annals of Kemet mentioning Seshait (Seshat/Sesheta) as the goddess of libraries, writing, and letters (Richardson, 1914, 58‑60); and (4) the text of the Precepts of Ptah‑hotep, one of the first (c. 4000 B.C.) philosophical compositions (composed 2,000 years before the Ten Commandments of Moses and 2,500 years before the Proverbs of Solomon), engraved in stone (Nichols, 1964, 33‑34).
Hence literature in ancient Kemet was common and varied in its form. Sometimes it was on papyrus and at other times it was carved/engraved in stone (c. 2700 B.C.) on the walls of temples (library‑universities), pyramids, and other monuments (Nichols, 1964, 32). Fortunately, works written in stone have survived, to provide unequivocal evidence of an extensive Kemetic tradition.7
This survival gives credence to the expressions “written in stone” and “the handwriting is on the wall”; the former meaning that a situation will not or may not change, and the later meaning a person must be aware that something negative may happen to him/her, or that a negative or positive is obvious, and a person must proceed with caution. The origins of these expressions are not known. However, we can turn to the wise directives of the twenty‑sixth confession of the Kemetic forty‑two Negative Confessions that require the deceased to recite when in the Hall of Judgement. It states: “Hail Seshet‑kheru, who comest forth Urit, I have not made myself deaf unto the words of right and truth,” (Budge, 1959, 159), and a verse in the Book of Daniel (Chapter five, Verse five) in The Bible which states: “Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace.” (Barker, 1985, 1307)
Moreover, wisdom was the essence of Kemetic literature, as it placed people at the center of life, in harmony with God, and the ancient Kemetic concern for a transformation (life, death, rebirth) of the soul, found in:
(1) the famous Book of the Coming Forth by Day (commonly called the Book of the Dead), a book of magical formulae and instructions intended to direct the soul of the departed (James, 1954, 134);
(2) the Book of What Is in the Duat, a composition on magic and chemistry;
(3) the Book of Gates, a work on the spiritual world;
(4) the Book of Caverns, a book concerning psychology;
(5) the Litany of Re, a metaphysical description/praise of the sun;
(6) the Book of Aker, a spiritual exaltation of the king;
(7) the Book of Day and the Book of Night, a work focused on cosmology and astronomy; and,
(8) the Book of the Divine Cow, a mythological litany which allowed the ancient Kemetics (Egyptians) to organize their temple‑library‑university and subsequently develop the early antecedents of librarianship.
Egyptian Librarianship: A History
Egypt was the land of temples and libraries…. (James, 1954, 46). Contrary to a misconception which still prevails, the Africans were familiar with literature and art for many years before their contact with the Western world (Jackson, 1970, 20).
Egyptian librarianship has a 6,000 year continuous history. During the early periods of human civilization, the ancient Egyptian temples contained the first organized library collections. The collections were both private and public collections, housed in temples, schools, royal palaces, and other important places (Amen, 1975, 574). The libraries were maintained by librarian‑priests who attended a professional library and religious school. Evidence of this has been found at Wa‑Set/Wo‑Se’ (Thebes) in the tombs of librarian priests, Neb‑Nufre and Nufre‑Heteb, a father and son team. The first indication of librarianship was as an inheritance‑based profession (Ibid).
The chief library builder of ancient Kemet, and thus the most famous, was the previously mentioned Rameses II (c. 1304‑1237 B.C.), who can be called the dean of the library sciences. He built the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, the Abu Simbel rock temple‑library (regraded as one of the wonders of the world), the Abydos temple library, a temple‑library at Luxor, and notwithstanding, he established the sacred Ramesseum funerary temple‑library at Wa‑Set/Wo‑Se’ (Thebes) (c. 1250 B.C.), and inscribed the first library motto, “Medicine for the Soul” over its entrance.
Since its non‑indigenous discovery, this motto has become the subject of a variety of translations, interpretations, and renditions, e.g.: (1) the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus of Sicily refers to it as “Medicine for the Soul,”; (2) Edward Edwards (1865, 1969) said Diodorus translated the motto as “The Soul’s Dispensary,”; (3) Putman (1967) reports it as “A Place of Healing for the Soul,”; (4) Myers (1964) refers to it as “The Dispensary (or Hospital) of the Soul,” or “The Soul’s Dispensary,”; while (5) Nichols (1964) used the eyewitness report of Hecataeus of Miletus (a Greek geographer and historian) to confirm the motto as “Healing of the Soul”.
This assortment of viewpoints attests to a general agreement that Kemet was the home of the first library motto, and an early leader in linking knowledge, and its acquisition, to the health of the individual and society, which facilitated an interdisciplinary organization of an estimated 20,000 now extinct rolls/books at Wa‑Set/Wo‑Se’ on agriculture, astronomy, history, irrigation, literature, and other topics by Rameses II c. 325 A.D. These texts were divided into two levels (high and low) and six divisions consisting of: grammar, mathematics, astronomy, law, medicine, and priestly love (Nichols, 1964, 23, 28).
The libraries of ancient Kemet were referred to by a number of names, e.g.: (1) “…the library building at Edfu (was) known as the House of Papyrus (Thompson, 1940, 3); (2) the House of the Tablet; (3) the House of Sealed Writings, and other names. However, they all usually held “…the sacerdotal books employed in the temple services,” (Nichols, 1964, 18), government archives, wall engravings/inscriptions, tombs, papyrus rolls/sheets (the temple university‑library was a papyrus manufacturing center). In a sense, the pyramids themselves were libraries, because papyrus sheets/rolls were found in almost all of their tombs.
In addition to the above, the temple libraries of Kemet were elaborately decorated. The inner halls had “…representations of Thoth (Djehuti/ Tehuti), the Kemetic god of the arts, speech, hieroglyphics, science, and wisdom; and Safkhet‑Aabut (a.k.a. Sesheta, Seshat, Seshait), the goddess of literature and the library,” who was called “The Lady of the House of Books,” the “Lady of Letters,” the “Presidentess of the Hall of Books,” “The Great One,” and “The Lady of Libraries” (Edwards, 1969, 5; Mercatante, 1978, 140); an exquisite tribute to the feminine essence of library science and ecclesiastical interior design.
Every sanctuary possessed its library and school, “the House of the Tablet” or “the House of the Seal,” in which the temple archives and liturgical texts were preserved…. (Thompson, 1940, 1).
The libraries of Kemet were not only places of archives, sacred words, papyrus manufacturing, and the like, they were also centers of learning, that combined the functions of their libraries and temples into universities.8 Hence Kemet became a land of temples, libraries, and universities. As a result, the “temple‑library‑university” became the key center of ancient Kemetic intellectual and spiritual activity.
Evidence of this library‑temple university relationship has been explored in recent literature on Kemet by Asa Hilliard, who reports that at Wa‑Set/Wo‑Se’ (Thebes/Luxor) “…two gigantic temples (Southern Ipet; Ipet Isut, the largest temple of ancient times) …contained the most highly developed education systems on record from ancient times.” (Hilliard, 1985, 156) Ivan Van Sertima tells us that the ancient Kemetic temple university system had a “…huge library divided into five major departments: astronomy and astrology; geography; geology; philosophy and theology; law and communication…”, with an elite faculty of priest‑professors called “teachers of Mysteries” who, “…at one time, catered to an estimated 80,000 (Ipet Isut University) students at all grade levels.” (Van Sertima, 1985, 19)
Moreover, the temple‑university library arrangement of ancient Kemet was common. “Every important temple in ancient Egypt was equipped with (an) …extensive library of books,” (Hurry, 1978, 112), and “…every temple had its library and school.” (Schullian, 1990, 310)
The First Library
Since the Kemetic library was the “…home of the ancient writing material, papyrus,” science and letters, and an extensive literature, with an “…excellent system of archives and public records with a sizeable staff,” one can reasonably conclude that it was also the home of the first library, and thus the prototype for all libraries (Hessel, 1955, 1).
Acknowledgment of this primacy has been scarce within the literature. However, a few brave scholars have affirmatively stated:
(1) We must look to the temples of ancient Egypt for the first libraries (Thompson, 1940, 1);
(2) The establishment of the first library of consequence has been attributed to Rameses II of Egypt (r. 1304‑1237) (Dunlap, 1991, 558);
(3) One of the earliest societies to develop collections which may be called, in our sense, libraries was Egypt (Metzger, 1980, 210); and,
(4) When Abraham visited Kemet c. 1950‑1900 B.C., libraries housing public records, religious texts, medical texts, and annuals had been flourishing for over a thousand years (Richardson, 1914, 57-58).
The above declarations concerning Kemet as the home of the first library may spark some to ask about the contributions other civilizations have made to library and information science. To this end, we acknowledge the library of King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, which contained more than 30,000 tablets (c. 625 BC), and the contribution of Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria, China, and other early civilizations to library history.
We recognize that it would be dishonest of us to enthusiastically report the glory of libraries in ancient Kemet, and at the same time discount/ignore the library history of Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria, and other civilizations; especially when we know that the civilizations of Kemet, Sumeria, Babylonia, and Assyria flourished simultaneously (Mukherjee, 1966, 76). However, “…there are records of even earlier libraries (found in Egypt) at Heliopolis, Menes (Memphis), and (Wa‑Set/Wo‑Se’) Thebes, that were literary centers from three to six thousand years ago, and (that) many ancient Egyptian inscriptions refer to (them in) their libraries,” (Myers, 1964, 199), before the advent of the simultaneous phenomenon. Thus Kemet is identified as the home of the first library.
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