There must have been a first ever writer, back when writing was still the dynamic new technology. Which leads us to the beginning of history and the earliest written accounts of lives lived here before us. Arguably, the very earliest biography decorates the tomb chapel of an Egyptian named Metjen, whose prospects in life were transformed by his ability to write and whose testimonial in death relies entirely on the written word.
His tomb is near modern Cairo, immediately north of the celebrated Step Pyramid of king Netjerkhet Djoser. The chapel itself – displayed in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin since it was stripped out in 1843 – is no more than a narrow, T-shaped stone passage with a designated spot for offering to Metjen’s spirit and a window for viewing his granite statue in a tiny recess. To form the roof, limestone blocks have been shaped as cedar logs, while the walls are decorated all over with exquisite scenes and hieroglyphic inscriptions, barely visible in the sepulchral gloom. They record Metjen’s endowments for Nimaathep (Netjerkhet Djoser’s mother) and his service for Snofru in the next dynasty of kings. Accordingly, Metjen must have been alive to watch the Step Pyramid being built some 4,700 years ago, and might have lived long enough to see the ground getting prepared for the Great Pyramid at Giza.
So, here’s the thing. We love television programmes speculating about these people and the pyramids – whether they required extraterrestrial intervention, that kind of racism. In truth, the impressions we form from ruined monuments only skate the surface of Egypt’s earliest history: in our own generation, projects creating cities out of forested mountains in China or the deserts and seas of Arabia, seem derivative and insubstantial by comparison to the world’s first great state-project, which generated more than eight centuries of political stability, economic prosperity and unprecedented cultural self-belief, and conversely dealt a devastating and so far irreversible blow to the fauna and flora of the River Nile, leading to the local extinction of many species. These were not tentative, unthinking evolutionary steps by our primitive ancestors but the mark of a self-assured, imaginative nation making a conscious decision to transform the world around.
Metjen’s career illustrates the most massive and enduring aspect of this project. While some of his fellows were indeed piling up pyramids or developing the urban sprawl of Memphis, Metjen became the go-to man for hydraulic engineering – managing the Delta marshes where the Nile meets the Mediterranean Sea to ‘open them up’ for agriculture and settlement despite overwhelming annual floods. Early in his career he worked the lakes along the route of what is now the Suez Canal and soon was given responsibility for managing the hydraulic infrastructures of whole communities liable to flooding – at Dep, Buto, Sais, Mendes, Letopolis and his hometown of Xois (modern Sakha). He had a spell developing deserts for settlement along a major royal canal and another reclaiming wetland from the vast Lake Qarun.
All of this despite an unpromising start, when Metjen’s father left him ‘no wheat or barley nor anything tangible for an estate, though there were people and animals’. In other words, his father left him only responsibilities, except that he had been a superintendent of writing, so Metjen had one gift – he was steeped in this extraordinary new technology. And so it was ‘that he would be put in charge of writing in the provisions office as keeper of its business’.
This was his entry into local public life, though his rise to the top came about because of his exceptional prowess as an oarsman during the river festivals, which were the heart of early Egyptian communities. Subsequently he would be promoted as ‘keeper of all the king’s flax’ and ‘staff-bearer’, the classic symbol of an ancient Egyptian royal official, and a remarkable rags-to-riches career was underway. As the hieroglyphs end on one side of the entrance passage, a new town named after Metjen ‘was founded right in front of what his father Anpumankh gave him’ – Metjen has turned the pittance he inherited into an abundance.
Indeed, the facing wall notes that twelve communities were founded in his name, that ‘two hundred arouras [five hectares] of fields were brought to him as a thank you from various kings’ and that ‘fifty arouras of fields were given to him for his mother, Netnebes’. Even his mortuary foundation is a paradise ‘two hundred cubits long and two hundred cubits wide [over 8,000 m2], stone-built and fully equipped, with perfect trees planted beside a very large lake, and figs and grapes too’. Other, larger endowments are recorded, and the inscriptions take pains to confirm that legal documents exist – among his literate Egyptian peers, of course – to give the detailed breakdowns.
Metjen’s story is summarised in a single scene from his offering chapel: we see him leading an expedition into the desert, complete with dogs, a tent, a cooking pot, a bathrobe and toilet equipment. In life, he knew this treacherous journey well, but here, in the tomb, he is obliged to make one last trek into the far west. As someone who has made marshes and deserts alike bloom for kings and their subjects, who has turned an empty inheritance into a dozen new communities bearing his name, this final crossing seems bound to succeed. As someone who had served, with exceptional effectiveness, the king laid to rest nearby in the Step Pyramid, Metjen must surely be wanted in the kingdom of the next life but, equally, remembered in the land he literally helped form. Today, however, as someone who turned the gift of literacy into an exemplary public life, Metjen’s biography stands as the first, magnificent celebration of a transformative, new technology – writing.
The Oldest Book in the World by Bill Manley will be published by Thames & Hudson in 2023. Bill is a member of the Committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland.